Actions

Work Header

reverse

Chapter Text

[pyrrhic / ‘pir-ik/ , achieved at excessive cost, a victory in which the victor’s losses are as great as those defeated. From Pyrrhus, the name of the Epirote king who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC but suffered heavy losses.]

 

Fire and ash and screaming, a wave of malevolent chakra grasping and tearing and—

Naruto surges forward, Kurama rising to the surface, and black-twisted violet explodes before them, shattering the ground and tearing a vast crater in front of the approaching army.

“Go!” Naruto shouts, halfway distorted with Kurama's own growl, and they’ve been working in harmony for so long that Kurama can't tell whether it’s truly both of them acting with one mind or they're just familiar enough with each other that it doesn’t matter.

Behind them, an earthen wall sinks back down, and Kurama can hear Sakura shouting orders to retreat and regroup. He doesn’t spare a glance around to see how many shinobi in the scouting party survived the first attack, though; all of his attention is on the twisted forms staggering upright around the edges of the bijūdama’s devastation.

Got enough chakra for another one of those? Naruto asks, dropping into a ready crouch. Clones shimmer into existence around him, a mere handful—even Naruto's energy reserves aren’t boundless, and they’ve pushed the limits far too many times in the past five years.

Kurama scoffs, half in wounded pride and half in answering challenge. Hell yeah. Let’s fry these bastards. They interrupted my nap.

Naruto laughs at him, wild and reckless, and channels his chakra. Kurama feels the blond’s inner world bleed and shift, and opens his eyes in the bloody twilight of the physical world, earth firm beneath his paws.

“Come on then, old man,” Naruto mocks lightly. “You need all the beauty rest you can get.”

Kurama huffs, offended. “’Least I can't hide a baby in the bags under my eyes, unlike some people,” he retorts, but crouches down, calling up his own power and exhaling it in a twister of fire. In the tornado’s wake he lunges, not giving the enemy any time to recover, and Naruto charges with him, Sage chakra flaring like a loosed tempest. A breath, a blaze of power bright enough to blind, and their mingled attack detonates like a sun exploding, sweeping out across the mountaintop and leaving nothing but ashes behind.

The shaky edge of inexorable fatigue isn’t something Kurama was ever familiar with before a few years ago, but by now he knows it well. It sinks its claws into him, pulls him down and makes him stagger as he comes to a halt. Beside him, Naruto is a little better—they’ve learned not to leave the others without at least one defender strong enough to halt Kaguya—but he still reaches up to lean against Kurama's leg, chest heaving as he pants for breath.

“Thanks, Kurama,” he manages, patting orange fur lightly. “Go back to your nap. I’ll wake you up if anything happens.”

There's no arguing with the brat, especially when Kurama feels like he’s very close to falling right over. He doesn’t, because then Naruto would just laugh himself sick, and as much as everyone needs a laugh or two at times like these, Kurama's not going to let it be at his expense. He grumbles, pretty much just for show, but lets his physical form fade away.

When he opens his eyes again, he’s in a darkened clearing, a campfire flickering in the center, and even though there's no wise Sage, no familiar bijuu gathered around him, it feels enough like home that Kurama can close his eyes again without worry, curling up against the trunk of a vast oak and settling himself comfortably. A slow breath, easing down from the tension of battle, and then there's a touch to his side, a gentle murmur that’s less words than it is safety, contentment, trust.

I'm here, don’t worry, Naruto's chakra-sense whispers around him, and Kurama breathes out and lets himself slide into darkness.

 

 

A creeping sense of change brings with it the first stirrings of awareness. Slowly, Kurama rises from the depths of an exhausted sleep, reluctantly opening his eyes and shifting his tails away from where they cover his face. He expects the strange double vision that is his overlapping sense of Naruto's world outside and his own surroundings of forest and firelight.

What he gets instead is darkness.

There is no noise. There is no light. There's not even the faintest hint of anything around him, and for the first time in a very long while Kurama feels a trickle of apprehension worm up his spine. He rises to his feet, but doesn’t quite dare a step into the nothingness surrounding him.

“Naruto?” he tries instead. “Naruto, what the hell?”

No answer. Somehow Kurama can't bring himself to feel surprised.

He calls for his chakra and crimson cuts through the darkness, sweeping around him and then rising in a tightening spiral as he reaches for the outside world. There's no sense of hatred near them, no malice, nothing but the deep undercurrent of grief that he’s grown accustomed to over the last year. He stretches, reaches, chakra rising like a cloak, and—

A feeling very much like having a door slammed right in his face.

Kurama recoils with a yelp, somewhere between alarmed and affronted. The little brat just blocked him, shut him out completely, the way he hasn’t in a good twenty years. Knowing Naruto, that either means the brat is dying or nothing’s wrong and he’s just being stupid and secretive.

Honestly, Kurama isn’t sure which he’d rather it was.

Because he’s nothing if not stubborn, Kurama braces himself, digs his claws into the ground, and tries again. This time the lash of power is closer to a windstorm than a testing gust, and he can feel something shake in the distance, as though it’s about to give.

Instead of a closing door, this time he gets a swat with a newspaper.

“Stop it, Kurama!” Naruto snaps, shimmering into existence between his front feet. “I'm trying to concentrate!”

“That’s why it’s called concentration, brat; stop letting yourself get distracted,” he retorts automatically, before his eyes narrow sharply. Something’s different with the man; something’s changed, even though it can't have been more than a few hours since Kurama saw him last.

If he didn’t know better, Kurama might even call the look hiding behind Naruto's normal enthusiasm…well. Desolation is just about the only word that comes to mind.

“Wait a minute,” he growls. “Just what is it you're trying to do? Did Kaguya—?”

Naruto dismisses that with a wave of one hand. “Everything’s fine, so stop worrying. It’ll just be another minute or two. But keep your chakra to yourself, got it?”

Without so much as another word, he vanishes again, and Kurama snarls impotently, glaring at the spot where he’d been standing. “Little brat,” he huffs, but does as asked, pulling his chakra back in around him. His surroundings are a bit lighter, if still featureless—a frightening thought, if Naruto can't even spare the trickle of chakra to make his headspace look the way it normally does—but beyond it, Kurama can sense the very faintest touch of other.

Sakura, he decides after a moment of carefully study. That’s her, but amplified to the brilliance of a star gone nova, which can only mean she’s using her Strength of a Hundred Seal. The power is calm, though, so it’s clearly not a fight, and there’d be no reason to make Kurama sit out if it was. But still—Sakura has been saving that power for years, hoarding it for some desperate situation they won't escape any other way. People have died so that the survivors can maintain this last, desperate ace.

Between that and Naruto's sudden, complete lack of extra power right now, it’s more than just suspicious.

Still, Kurama trusts Naruto more than he ever has another soul. He’d even doubt the Sage of Six Paths before he would Naruto. If Naruto says to wait, he’ll wait, even if it makes him twitchy with nervous tension. Only an idiot wouldn’t be nervous, with Sakura and Naruto so clearly working on something together.

Just one missing now, Kurama thinks a little grimly, sinking down on his haunches and wrapping his tails around himself. Just one, but he’s not coming back any time soon. Kurama has no fondness for any Uchiha, but even he can mourn what Sasuke's loss means for Naruto personally. Even he can feel the sheer depth of pain that Naruto hides behind a smile. It is, he thinks, probably very similar to what drove Obito mad the first time, though Naruto doesn’t have a Sharingan to push him further down the road to insanity.

Sasuke isn’t the only loss, of course, isn’t the only death to push Naruto closer and closer to the edge of despair, even if he’ll never allow himself to go over. Too many, these last five years, all of them Naruto's precious people, all of them lost as Kaguya stretches her malevolent influence across the Elemental Countries. Like a tide she’s swept away all before her, and now only a scattered handful of shinobi are left, trying to halt the flood.

Kurama is stubborn to the point of being pigheaded, but even he sometimes can't understand just why they all keep fighting.

Except…it’s Naruto. It’s Naruto rallying them, pushing them on, keeping their spirits up and their thoughts on victory. And in the face of that, who would ever be able to give up halfway through?

The tight tension-sharp ache of nervousness drives him back to his feet, sends him pacing ten long strides forward, then back again, senses trained on the outside world. He can't quite make anything out, can't see or feel the way he normally would, but there's enough chakra building that even shut away and more than half blinded he can't miss it. Naruto and Sakura are doing something, and that alone would be enough to make him twitchy. Between Sakura's seal invoked and all of Naruto's power—

Kurama wonders a little viciously if this is it, if this is the blow that will end the war. It would be just Naruto's style, coming with no warning and entirely out of left field, overwhelming even Kaguya in her insanity and leaving everyone gaping at their sudden victory.

But—

Why leave Kurama out of it, if that’s the case? Naruto isn’t so much as touching the bijuu’s chakra right now, even though they’ve long since combined their reserves. In fact, the extent to which he’s not touching Kurama's chakra means that Sakura, with her more comprehensive grasp of chakra control, likely has some hand in helping him separate the two.

Even now, with the world crumbling away beneath their feet, Kurama is still one of the most powerful forces in existence. The other bijuu are gone, recaptured and eaten alive to satisfy Kaguya’s madness, and Kurama is the last one left. Both his Yin and Yang halves have been reunited, and he’s proven time and again that he’s more than able to withstand the goddess long enough to let their companions get to safety. There's absolutely no reason, if this is a victory blow, to leave him out of things. In fact, doing so reaches a level of stupidity he’d thought Naruto had left behind with his twelve-year-old self.

If it’s not a final shot at destroying Kaguya, though, what could it possibly—

The world blurs.

Kurama yelps without meaning to, claws scrambling madly for purchase as everything around twists, shifts, and contorts, as if he’s caught in some sort of darkened kaleidoscope. There's a gut-wrenching pull, like a vacuum opening up right in front of him and dragging him in, and for the life of him Kurama can't even begin to resist. Even as he goes sliding forward, the edges of his self blurring and shifting, he shapes his chakra into a vast lifeline and grabs desperately for his jinchuuriki.

This time there's no door, no swat to the nose. Things shudder and shake as Naruto reaches back, catching the metaphorical hand in one of his own, but—

Something’s wrong.

Naruto burns like a volcano at the very worst of times, no matter what. He’s strong and vivid and so very much present that sometimes it’s hard for Kurama to see anything else at all. Right now, however, it’s…different. Horrifyingly, Kurama is reminded of Obito's final death, a strong figure crumbling away to ash without so much as a glancing touch.

“Naruto,” he manages, and then again, sharper: “Naruto! What is this? Stop it!”

For one brief moment, all he can see is Naruto, standing in front of him—not tiny, the way Kurama usually sees him, but exactly eye-level. He’s smiling, but there's heartbreak behind it as he stretches out a hand. Still smiling, always smiling, and the look in his eyes is love and apology and that impossible, boundless faith that first shocked Kurama out of his seething hatred and made him think.

“Sorry, Kurama,” he says, and his voice is warm. “But this was the only way, and you wouldn’t have agreed if you’d known.”

“Agreed to what?” Kurama cries, struggling against the pull still dragging him backwards. “Naruto, what did you do?”

“We’re going to fix things,” he says, blue eyes burning, and his fingers brush Kurama's cheek. There's no sense of fur, no fox’s snout, and Kurama goes still, too shocked to fight. He slides back another foot before he can regain control of himself. Naruto takes a step to match him, and reaches out to grab Kurama by the shoulder. The drag of darkness eases, and on instinct Kurama reaches up, curling his fingers around Naruto's wrist in return.

A human hand, he notices with bewilderment. Long fingers with familiar scars, dark brown skin a sharp contrast to Naruto's deep tan. Claws, still, but far smaller, more like sharpened fingernails than his normal talons.

“What?” he whispers, dazed and panicky all at once. “Naruto—”

“Sorry,” Naruto repeats, and like everything he says, he truly means it. “Sorry, Kurama, but we couldn’t think of another way. Kaguya’s winning. We can't let her.”

“We can beat her,” Kurama tries, because he’s heard Naruto say it enough times that it’s rote by now. “We can. She’s mad, and we’re protecting everyone, so there's no way—”

Naruto's hand on his shoulder tightens, and for a moment grief bleeds into the blue of his eyes. “But we haven’t,” he says, and his voice doesn’t quite break, but somehow Kurama would feel better if it did. Never, ever has Naruto allowed himself to grieve, not for his personal loss. Kurama's never really had anyone to lose, beyond the Sage and this man in front of him, but he doubts that such a thing is healthy. “Kurama, there's no one left to save.”

Kurama goes still the pieces falling together with a horrible shiver of foreboding. Oh. Oh. Naruto's expression earlier, the look in his eyes now, the way his smile is faltering around the edges and held by nothing but dogged will—

“The camp,” Kurama says, just above a whisper. “They're—?”

The last of the shinobi, the last few people left alive. The camp he and Naruto had left when they received Sakura's distress call, knowing that her small team of scouts wouldn’t be able to hold Kaguya’s forces back for more than a few minutes at best. They’d run to reach her in time, leaving the people they’d gathered hidden safely away in a deep cave with plenty of exits. Because Sakura's messenger had told them how many they had faced, on the mountaintop. Told them how many, and Kaguya only has so many twisted undead soldiers scavenged from the corpses of those dear. Only a few hundred, and with all of them accounted for—

“She must have made more,” Naruto says, and his smile fades away, replaced with exhausted resignation. “There weren’t—no one made it out. And three of Sakura's scouts died, so…”

He doesn’t finish, but he doesn’t need to. Nine shinobi remaining, plus Sakura and Naruto. Eleven left, out of the thousands that once populated the world.

It’s clear enough that with this final blow, Kaguya has won.

“And this?” Kurama asks. “What is this supposed to be, then?”

The devastations is wiped clean from Naruto's expression, replaced with the implacable determination Kurama is so familiar with. Blue eyes turn to steel, and his smile is the one that makes Kurama impossibly, unwaveringly certain that there's no way things could end without some sort of victory.

“This?” Naruto laughs, so very much the trickster that it makes Kurama smile too. “This is you saving the world, Kurama!”

A seal blooms beneath their feet, like a flower’s petals unfurling in the dawn. Lines both familiar and foreign, massive in their complexity, traced with power that makes the very air vibrate. Bits and pieces Kurama can recognize—the basis is the Hiraishin, he thinks, but it’s been expanded, amplified. The Hiraishin puts all of its emphasis on movement across space, even though there's a component to deal with time, while this—

Space has been written out, and time is the only thing left.

“No,” he says, knee-jerk reaction to Naruto's insanity. “Are you crazy? This won't work! No human could survive—”

Oh no.

Naruto just smiles at him, even as Kurama redoubles his struggles, unfamiliar human hand locking around Naruto's wrist as he tries to wrench himself forward. “Sorry,” he says again. “I'm sorry, Kurama.”

“You're going to be!” Kurama snarls, throwing himself forward with all the force he can muster. His free hand locks in Naruto's shirtfront, but the fabric tears, and he cries out in dismay. “No! Don’t do this, please. Naruto, we’ll find another way! The seal—with enough adjustments—”

Naruto shakes his head. “Sakura and I have been working on this for a long time,” he says. “We wanted to send all of the bijuu back, because there’s no way to survive the trip unless you’re a construct made completely of chakra. Human minds can't handle the strain. But now you're the only bijuu, and—and Sasuke's gone, so we don’t even have as much power as we were planning on.” Grief rises again, but Kurama can see him push it down and keep smiling. “You’re our last chance, Kurama—everyone’s last chance. So you’ll do it, right? You’ll go back and save all of us?”

It’s blackmail, pure and simple, playing on the emotions that Naruto gave Kurama to begin with. He pauses, staring into Naruto's eyes, and can't see anything except faith and conviction and a burning, searing hope the likes of which he hasn’t encountered in far too long.

“Naruto—” he says, and can't manage another word.

“You can do it, Kurama,” Naruto tells him, stepping closer. He doesn’t hesitate, but throws his arms around Kurama and hugs him, impossibly tight. It feels different than the casual or fond hugs Naruto has given him before, more like he’s being fully wrapped in comfort and reassurance and love, and Kurama returns the gesture without thinking, burying his face in bright blond hair. Against his ear, he can hear Naruto whisper, “You’ve always been a hero, Kurama. Now everyone will be able to see it. I’ll miss you, but you need to do this.”

“Like you're giving me a choice,” Kurama manages, and his voice breaks. He pulls back just enough to meet Naruto's eyes, and says, “You were my first friend, Naruto. I couldn’t give a damn about most of the world, but—for you. I’ll save you. You have my word, you manipulative little brat.”

For a moment, Naruto looks about to argue. Then he huffs and reaches up, rapping his knuckles against the side of Kurama's head. “I wouldn’t be me without my precious people,” he reminds Kurama, “so you’d better save them too, bastard fox, got it?”

Kurama laughs before he can help it, and Naruto grins back, and they both pretend that their faces are dry instead of wet with tears. A pause, and then Naruto lunges forward again, wrapping Kurama up in another tight hug that steals the breath from his lungs and leaves his heart aching. Then he loosens his grip, steps back, and Kurama forces himself to untwist his claws from orange fabric and let him go.

“Bye, Kurama,” Naruto manages, raising one hand in a halfhearted wave. “Kick some ass for me, okay?” A hint of a smirk, and he adds, “And look in a mirror as soon as you can, got it?”

Kurama doesn’t even want to know. He just shakes his head, turning to stare at the twisting darkness behind him, and answers, careful not to let his voice shake, “See you soon, kid.”

He gets a laugh for that, warm and startled, and he’s smiling when he lets himself be dragged headfirst towards an impossibly long fall.

And then—

Behind him, there's a flicker of power, a vast surge of cruel chakra, and a scream. Kurama jerks around, lunges back before he can stop himself, and the world blurs into the sharpness of reality. He sees Kaguya, looming and deadly, Sakura collapsed and lifeless before her, Naruto pale and shaking but standing firm. He raises his hands, but all of his power is wrapped up with Kurama, being sucked away into the seal painted across his skin, and there's nothing left.

Black chakra rods stab through flesh, bright blood splattering across the grass, and Kurama screams, grief and fury and red-edged rage overwhelming him to block out the pain.

One last glimpse of a familiar body falling, empty-eyed, and then everything is lost to darkness.

Chapter Text

[harbinger / ‘härbənjər / , a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another. Middle English; from the Old French herbergere, via Old Saxon heriberga ‘shelter for an army, lodging’ i.e. the person who traveled ahead to find lodging for an army.]

 

He crashes to earth in a surge of dust and shattered stone, appearing out of the darkness with a thunder-crack of impact and a burst of chakra like a detonation. Half an instant of light is his only warning, and Kurama throws up his own chakra automatically, cushioning his fall as much as possible. It still burns, hurts like skin scraped raw as he hits the snowy ground hard enough to leave a crater behind.

For a long moment, the only sound is the gentle rain of stone clattering down around him, and the slow, groaning creak of a tree overbalancing and then falling with a crash. Kurama stays where he is for another moment, shocked by the sudden reassertion of reality, and then slowly pushes himself up.

He’s shaking, he realizes distantly. Trembling, puny human form shivering with what he distractedly thinks might be shock. He can't pay attention to that, though, because the only thing before his eyes is crimson spilling over green, a head of blond hair bouncing carelessly against the dirt as Kaguya just—dropped Naruto.

Dropped him like garbage. Like trash.

Maybe his shaking isn’t all shock, actually.

Kurama takes a breath and lets it out, and it gusts in a cloud of white around him. It’s only then that he recognizes the cold for what it is—sharp, far sharper than he’s ever felt before, especially against the wetness on his chest. He presses one hand over it and feels a twinge, but doesn’t look down, already knowing what he’ll see.

Blood. Blood on an orange shirt, a cluster of small holes stabbed through the fabric, because this is Naruto's body, Naruto's form, and—

Human minds can't handle the strain, Naruto had said. His skull had bounced off hard-packed earth with a sound like a ripe fruit carelessly dropped, bounced once before Kurama had lost his senses to the darkness, but he knows there wasn’t enough chakra left for Naruto to let him manifest. Not a scrap to spare, so Naruto had locked Kurama into his own body and used that as a vessel, propelling them back in time even as he died.

If there was any chance of him surviving the wounds Kaguya inflected, he spent it all to send Kurama here.

Grief tears at Kurama's chest, aches like an open wound. He presses one clawed, earth-brown hand over it, rakes his nails over smooth skin instead of fur, and snarls. It sits wrong in his throat, not nearly deep enough, without the edge of power he should be able to give it. It’s a human sound, for all that he can still feel every inch of a bijuu’s chakra wrapped up inside of him.

“Damn you,” he whispers, tipping forward. His hands strike torn earth, and long nails dig furrows there as he tries to wrestle himself back under control. Another flash of that smile, that last laugh ringing in his ears and he screams again, anguished and furious. His breath clouds white, like smoke, like ash—like the ash that will be all that’s left when Kurama finishes grinding Kaguya into nothingness for what she did.

He bows his head, hair falling around his face—red, as red as blood, instead of the blond he hoped to see. Not even that much of Naruto left to him, and he snarls again, slamming a fist into the ground because he can't drive it into Naruto's damned self-sacrificing face. “Damn you!” he shouts, and it echoes eerily over the snow-covered mountaintop, ringing with grief. “Damn you! Not like this!”

Any way but this: Kurama alone, lost, decades out of time without anyone to rely on, trapped in the body of the human he loved above all others, with a promise to save everyone on his shoulders and a goddess stretching out her mad, grasping hands, ready to devour the world. Kurama is the most powerful of the bijuu, ancient and aged and impossibly strong, but he can't be any more than that. He’s never been a hero, no matter what Naruto might have wanted to think. Never a hero, never good without Naruto to push him forward, urge him on. And he’s fought for years at Naruto's side, helped him and saved lives and protected as many as he possibly could, but it was because of Naruto.

A sudden though, and it sends threads of horror twisting down Kurama's spine: what if Naruto isn’t even alive yet? What if he’s so far back that Naruto hasn’t been born, and he’ll have to spend years, maybe even decades waiting for that spark of light to come into being, waiting for his first friend to be anything close to what he once was?

What if Naruto is never what he once was?

What if changing Naruto so completely is the only way to save him?

Kurama isn’t a fool; people are shaped by their experiences, by every little thing in their pasts. The Naruto who grew up with parents and friends, the son of the Yondaime Hokage, would be nothing like the Naruto Kurama knew. Change one event, and that Naruto ceases to exist.

It’s entirely selfish, but Kurama doesn’t want that to happen. He wants his Naruto, the boy with the bright blue eyes who laughs in the face of death, who never gives up and never gives in and will do anything, anything for those he loves. Any other version of Naruto will be different, wrong, and Kurama thinks that he’ll hate that person, that pretender, because his version was the greatest possible, and there's no other that can match him.

The anger is a simmer now, locked away and buried. He breathes out, long and slow, and then gets his feet under himself and rises carefully. Being bipedal is something familiar, but the balance is different now, off. He has to stand upright instead of bent forward, and his range of sight is strange, narrowed. The cold wind raises goosebumps on his skin and prickles over his cheeks, making him uncomfortable when before he wouldn’t even have noticed, and he wraps his arms around himself for the bare bit of warmth it provides.

The bloodstains on his shirt—on Naruto's shirt—are already freezing, but he tries not to think about it.

Physically, he thinks he hasn’t moved far from where he was in the future. This is still Earth Country, in the mountains near the border. At the edge of his range of vision, if he squints through the snow that’s starting to fall, he can make out the looming shape of the peak where Sakura was attacked. But that was the height of summer, with all the snow melted, and this feels like true winter, fierce and biting.

There's no use calling out, because no one will answer; they chose this place to hide because it was always empty. Not even the Iwa nin like to come here, if Kurama really has traveled far enough back that Iwagakure exists once more. Instead, he scales the edge of the crater, pauses to get his bearings, and then heads southeast.

Three steps in and a flare of familiar chakra halts him in his tracks.

Kurama whips around towards the west, eyes scanning the sheer drop-off a few yards ahead of him and then dropping to study the forest of rocky outcroppings below. A moment, and then it comes again, superheated chakra melting the surrounding snow in a surge of vapor before the steam is whirled away by the wind.

The flood of renewed rage takes Kurama by surprise.

Corrosive red chakra flares. He’s moving before the decision is even consciously reached, clawed feet digging into snow as he leaps forward in five long bounds, launching himself off the edge of the mountain and skidding down the side. The cold burns his bare skin, but Kurama's thoughts are filled with bloody red fury, and he dodges stands of snowy pines without pause, heading for where terror and power are mingling. The air is already getting warmer, and under his feet the snow shifts to slush, then bare earth.

One final leap and Kurama alights on an outcropping of boulders, as warm as if they’ve been baking in the sun, and looks down.

Between the close-set arms of the mountain, a man in red and black armor is facing down a man in a familiar black cloak decorated with clouds. Kokuō’s chakra is roiling, angry and frightened even as his jinchuuriki channels it into creating more steam, but Kurama barely pauses to notice his fellow bijuu. Lips pulling back from blunted human teeth, he snarls fiercely and leaps from his perch, landing squarely between the Akatsuki member and the Iwa shinobi.

One glance and he remembers the man, remembers that he nearly killed Naruto once before, and Kurama growls, “Kakuzu.”

Pupilless green eyes flicker over him, then away, dismissive and bored. “I don’t know you, so you’ve got no bounty,” the man says indifferently. “Get lost. I'm busy.”

Kurama laughs, rough enough that it tears at his throat, hurts, but he ignores the stinging ache. “Where’s your partner?” he jeers, and sees Kokuō’s jinchuuriki twitch nervously. “Hiding in the bushes? You Akatsuki dogs wouldn’t know how to fight honorably if your lives depended on it, would you?”

That gets him another glance, sharper this time, and Kakuzu shifts his attention fully to Kurama. His eyes narrow warily, and he demands, “How do you know that name?”

Giving the man a smirk that’s more malice than anything, Kurama takes a step closer, then starts circling, and is vindictively satisfied when Kakuzu turns to follow him, ignoring Kokuō. “What, Akatsuki? How about Pein, or Nagato? Maybe you’d be interested in how I know it’s Uchiha Madara pulling your strings. Hmm, bet you didn’t know that.”

Judging by the faint widening of those wary eyes, Kakuzu didn’t. Well, Kurama hardly plans to let him escape and make use of that knowledge. His heart is thudding in his ears, making it hard to think beyond getting his claws into Kakuzu and just tearing, but it’s enough to know that no matter how “immortal” Akatsuki’s treasurer is, he won't be leaving this place alive.

Kakuzu might be good at planning, good at tricking his opponents, might use his age to his advantage, but Kurama is older still, and angry.

One of Kaguya’s puppets is standing in front of him, and if he can't take his revenge on the goddess right now, her pawn will at least make for a convenient distraction.

“Where’s your partner?” he asks again. “I might as well leave my little brother to deal with him while I put you down like the mad dog you are.”

Kakuzu shifts, settling into a stance Kurama saw through Naruto's eyes a long time ago. “Dead,” he says carelessly. “The fool gambled away three of my bounties, so I killed him.”

Not Hidan, then. That’s a decent mark for judging how far in the past he is, and Kurama lets his smirk deepen a little. “Well then, I guess there's no helping it. Kokuō will just have to sit this one out.”

Two confused looks, for that, but the chakra around the jinchuuriki flickers, and Kurama lets his own unfurl in answer, rising like a tide around him. It burns in the grey darkness like a shroud of red, and Kurama laughs cruelly when Kakuzu takes a quick step back.

“I could,” he says lazily, circling Kakuzu like the bounty hunter is prey, “just kill you once, really thoroughly, and be done with it. But I think that sounds boring, don’t you?”

He shouldn’t play with his food. Naruto's chided him more than once for talking too much when he gets his enemy’s attention on him—and, ha, pots and kettles there—but Kurama doesn’t care. He’s a fox, first and foremost—if he wants to toy with an opponent before he kills them, he’s catlike enough to justify it. Foxes are closer to feline than canine, after all, even if they're far superior to both.

Still, it seems Kakuzu’s patience, at least, is at its end. He twists his fingers into the snake seal, making his skin darken and harden, and then moves forward in a fast lunge. Kurama digs his toes into the bare earth and dodges, sliding under the first strike and coming up with a hard kick. Usually he’d use a tail, slam the bounty hunter into the side of the mountain and then roast him, but this form is weaker. His claws scrape but don’t penetrate, and his kick barely slows Kakuzu down. With a curse, Kurama leaps back, then up, flipping over in midair and coming down on Kakuzu’s back. He rakes his fingers across the man’s cloak, tearing the fabric, and grabs for a mask only to have Kakuzu hurl him off with a furious cry.

Kurama's laughing again when he disentangles himself from the cedar he landed in and drops to the ground. “Touchy, touchy,” he mocks, and the rage is a bright-edged, knife-sharp bubble in his gut. “What, I'm not allowed to play with those?”

Kakuzu growls, then steps back. He shrugs off his tattered cloak and turns, and Kurama watches with barely-contained anticipation as the four masks rip themselves free of his body. He drops into a crouch, scraping his claws over stone, and lets his chakra build. It’s probably stupid, throwing himself headlong at Kakuzu like this, but—

But Naruto is dead, and Kurama feels rather like he’ll never care about anything again.

The masks move towards him, somewhere between a lumber and a stalk, and Kurama tenses, evaluating his options. The Fire and Wind masks are the most dangerous, since they can attack together, so he needs to take one of them out first. Or…

Well. Both would work.

With a low, rumbling laugh, Kurama throws himself forward, right at the Wind mask. The creature falters, thin wings flaring, but before it can so much as start its attack Kurama lashes out with one clawed hand. From this close, the shockwave is devastating, tearing through the construct as if it’s made of rice paper, and Kurama leaps right through the shards as they fall, aiming for Kakuzu.

With a curse, the bounty hunter darts back, even as the thick grey threads of his Earth Grudge Fear slide out of his body and stab forward. “It's only fitting that I take your heart to replace the one you've destroyed!” he snarls. “Die!”

“Hah!” Kurama slips to the side, then whirls before Kakuzu can catch him and breathes out a gout of flame. The threads twitch away, and Kurama uses the opening to go low, rolling underneath them and coming up with his claws bared, aiming for a gut wound.

His nails catch on stony skin and scrape without leaving a mark. Kurama growls, even as Kakuzu strikes at his throat, and slides around the blow. With this little warning, summoning another shockwave is difficult, but he tries regardless, swiping downward right as Kakuzu turns to face him. It’s comparatively weak, and Kakuzu manages to bring his threads up in time to block, but it still hurtles him back into the stone outcropping with a cry that’s mixed anger and pain.

A sudden shriek of steam exploding makes Kurama spin, distracted, and he has to duck as the shards of the Fire mask go flying. Kokuō’s jinchuuriki doesn’t look at him, but keeps moving, whirling towards the Lightning mask with another steam-enhanced kick. Kurama snorts at the showy move, but mirrors the jinchuuriki and aims for the Earth mask. This time, he has enough warning to summon the precise ratios of positive black chakra and negative white chakra, then set it spinning in his hand.

It’s easy. So easy. How many times has he seen and felt Naruto do this, over the years? How many times did they combine attacks, Rasengan and bijūdama tearing through enemy ranks?

(How painful is it, to think that it will never happen again?)

The bijūdama detonates the moment it strikes, and even without the size it would have in Kurama's old form it’s still enough to tear straight through the Earth mask and then continue on, clipping Kakuzu before he can fully avoid it and tearing through the trees and stone behind him. The bounty hunter curses, then lashes out, and Kurama doesn’t even try to dodge. He slashes down again, nothing more than claws this time, and Kurama laughs as they cut through the strange, rubbery flesh of Kakuzu’s reaching threads. No more Earth Spear to harden his skin—Kakuzu can use it without the Earth mask, but hardly enough to count. Hardly at all, when he’s facing a bijuu and a determined jinchuuriki.

The smell of ozone is his only warning.

It sears and burns and hurts, and Kurama screams, tumbling to the side. He lands hard on his front, shoulder one hot-bright mass of pain, and hears the jinchuuriki call out but can't answer. There's another cry, the sound of the Lightning mask shattering, and then the man advancing on Kakuzu, but Kurama can't focus on anything but the pain. It’s already fading, starting to heal, but he can't remember ever feeling pain like that before. Not through Naruto, not on his own—it’s only very, very rarely that something has managed to hurt him, and the sheer unexpectedness of the pain is almost as staggering as the hurt itself.

Even as the skin knits itself back up beneath his fingers, the raw ache easing, Kurama slumps forward. It was a glancing blow—the mask’s False Darkness just managed to clip him, not strike him fully, but Kurama has a new respect for Naruto taking Sasuke's Chidori through the heart and surviving.

Weighted footsteps, heavy and loud, make him look up. The armored man is approaching, steam fading from the device on his back, and he crouches down beside Kurama. “He got away. Are you all right?” he asks carefully.

“Fine,” Kurama huffs, dropping his hand to show the new, unmarred skin as he sinks back on his heels. It would be best to go after Kakuzu now, before he can get any hearts to replace those they destroyed, but Kurama can sense the bounty hunter moving rapidly towards the east, already at the edge of his range and about to disappear. Between that and the faint tremors of singed nerves, Kurama doubts he’ll be able to catch the man before he can vanish.

Damn it, he thinks, claws slicing through the fabric of his pants as he curls his hands into fists. Damn it all to hell. That was my chance.

A lost chance, now, and worse yet Akatsuki will know that someone has learned their secrets. Kurama wants to think that Kakuzu won't tell them, but that’s stupidly optimistic. Far more likely he’ll keep a few bits of information to himself, but tell them the rest, and that means they’ll be prepared for someone hunting them. Fuck.

He shouldn’t have jumped into the fight. It was stupid and reckless and dumb, and…

Naruto would have done it. To save Kokuō, Naruto would have sacrificed the advantage of surprise in a heartbeat, and not mourned the loss. Here and now, Kurama supposes he can't do any less.

With a sigh, he rakes one hand through his hair, pushing it out of his face, and then rolls his eyes. “Tell your bijuu to stop thrashing,” he orders sharply. “He’s gonna give me a headache.”

The man stiffens, but doesn’t flinch away despite the wary look he gives Kurama. “You know a lot of things you shouldn’t,” he allows after a moment. “Who are you?”

Kurama's never actually given his name to anyone but Naruto. He hesitates for a long moment, debating it, and then gives in with a soft sigh. Humans share their names freely. He’s human now, at least in appearances, so he might as well get used to the custom. “Kurama,” he answers, and then snorts as Kokuō shifts in agitation. “Yeah, yeah, you dolphin-headed freak, it’s me. Stop thrashing like a landed carp, it’s unbecoming of a bijuu.”

The jinchuuriki is eyeing him like he’s the freak in this equation. “You’re…familiar with the Gobi, then?”

Kurama shrugs, carefully looking away. He wipes his bloody hand on a patch of grass, then shoves his hair out of his face again with a flicker of annoyance and answers, “We’ve met. Who’re you?”

There's a pause as the jinchuuriki apparently processes this, and then he inclines his head. “I'm Han, formerly of Iwagakure. Thank you for your help. I'm not sure I could have survived him alone.”

Kurama pauses, reluctantly looking up at the tall man, and then sighs. He closes his eyes and rubs at his brow in irritation, because it’s complete madness, sheer stupidity, but he keeps looking up into pale brown eyes and resenting them for not being blue. Resenting Han’s polite, careful speech because it’s not a cheerful and exuberant flood, interspersed with a bright believe it. This isn’t his jinchuuriki, could never be, and petty as it is he’s more than willing to hate the man for it.

Naruto's loss hurts more sharply than his physical wound, and Kurama already knows it won't heal half as easily.

Judging by the way it hurts right now, it might never heal at all.

“Akatsuki lead to my best friend’s death,” he says, and the words feel raw in his throat, burn like acid on his tongue as he speaks them. “If you know any of the other jinchuuriki, pass the word on. They're being hunted, and the bastards won't stop until they’ve captured every last jinchuuriki and ripped the bijuu right out of them.”

Han stills, studying Kurama for a moment, and then nods. “I’ll tell Roushi,” he offers quietly. “I believe he’s met several of the others, so he can let them know. Thank you, Kurama.”

“It’s not like we managed to kill the bastard anyway,” Kurama dismisses, rising to his feet. Several nerves spasm painfully, making his arm jerk as he grits his teeth, but the feeling subsides a moment later. “You’d have figured it out without me.”

Except…he wouldn’t have. Kokuō was one of the first bijuu captured, if not the first. In intervening when he did, it’s likely Kurama has already changed history, changed the past.

It’s too distant, too small a change to have effected Naruto already, but suddenly the only thought in Kurama's head is to go and find the boy and see for himself, to make sure. He can't—he won't let his Naruto be destroyed, not by his own actions and not by anyone else’s. He’ll die first, and burn the world down with him.

Decided, Kurama straightens. Konoha is several days’ travel southeast, so he might as well start now. “Good luck,” he says, offering Han and Kokuō a careless wave as he turns towards the forest of stone spires.

“Wait!” Han calls, and when Kurama looks back with an impatient frown, the man is drawing out a sealing scroll. “An extra uniform,” he explains, catching Kurama's slightly wary glance. “I carry spares, and you don’t seem to have any supplies. It’s a long walk to anywhere like that.”

Kurama gives the man’s armor a skeptical glance. “Thanks, but I'm not a fan of clanking when I walk,” he says dryly.

Han blinks at him for a moment, clearly startled, and then chuckles. “Oh, no,” he offers reassuringly, unsealing a small pack and flipping the top open. A moment later, he tosses a few folded pieces of cloth to Kurama, who catches them automatically. “Take them with my thanks,” he murmurs.

Pride makes Kurama want to argue. The chill of the wind and the sting of the snow under his bare feet convinces him otherwise. “Thanks,” he says gruffly, tucking them under his arms. “Don’t—don’t get caught.”

Han inclines his head formally. “Your…little brother will be safe,” he promises, the words clearly leaving a strange taste in his mouth, and Kurama laughs roughly.

“He’d better,” he says, then turns away again. “And, Kokuō—if there's anything redeemable about him, don’t let it go to waste. A good jinchuuriki’s hard to find, and hard to keep.”

Without waiting for a response, he takes three long, bounding steps and leaps up, alighting on the branch of a pine. It quivers and shakes, not as sturdy as the Fire Country trees Kurama—through Naruto—is used to, but he keeps his balance on the swaying bough long enough to leap to the next, and then the one beyond that. In moments, he’s moving southward quickly, aiming for the closest break in the stone forest.

Going to Konoha is stupid, especially when he should be chasing Kakuzu. It’s Naruto levels of stupid, shoving blindly through all logic and reason just because someone precious is far away, just because they might be in need of him. But Kurama couldn’t care any less if he tried. All he wants is his jinchuuriki back, his best friend returned to him. And if he can't have that, then he just wants to see Naruto, to prove to himself that the boy is alive, existing.

The blood on his shirt is frozen, cold against his skin. Even so, Kurama presses his hand over it, this macabre reminder of Naruto's last sacrifice, and forces his numbed limbs to move faster.

All he wants is Naruto, and Kaguya herself isn’t going to stop him from getting to the boy.

Chapter Text

[succor / ˈsəkər/ , assistance and support in times of hardship and distress. Middle English via Old French from medieval Latin succursus, from Latin succurrere ‘run to the help of,’ from sub- ‘from below’ + currere ‘run.’.]

 

Traveling as a human is stupid.

Likely Kurama should already be used to the tedium of having to walk everywhere when a single stride covers a yard, if that, but the thing about spending a good chunk of his existence in another’s body is that it means he could tune out whenever things weren’t interesting. A lot of his time was spent sleeping. Or, before Naruto got to him, seething. Plotting and planning, recovering, drowsing, remembering the Sage’s final words—things like that.

None of it has prepared him for the fact that he now moves at the equivalent of a slug-crawl when compared to a bijuu’s usual strides.

It’s disconcerting, too, to see actual people everywhere. Well, not everywhere, because it’s clearly winter, and most people are smart enough to stay indoors when faced with Earth Country’s snow and Fire Country’s biting cold, but there are still more of them than Kurama is used to. Kaguya never cared about collateral damage, and civilians were wiped out quickly. She couldn’t use them the way she could shinobi corpses—no chakra systems, or systems that were severely underdeveloped, Sakura had theorized once—but she hadn’t wanted to chance those capable of molding her chakra being born somewhere along the line.

It’s strange enough to see movement on the roads that Kurama gives plenty of odd looks, in addition to those being directed at him. Those he ignores for the most part; it’s easy enough to put down to the fact that Han is a huge man, easily the largest of the jinchuuriki, and Kurama feels rather like he’s swimming in the borrowed uniform. It probably looks like he mugged a giant for his clothes or something. It’s annoying, but so is practically everything about this situation.

He thinks of Naruto again, of what Naruto would say or do in this position. He’d probably be laughing, bright and amused, walking along with his arms crossed behind his head and no plan to speak of, but every assurance that things would work out. Kurama can almost see Naruto out of the corner of his eye, walking beside him, and has to shake his head sharply to banish the vision.

His Naruto is dead. The little boy he’s going to see isn’t anything close to his Naruto yet, and while Kurama will make every effort to be sure he becomes that person eventually, there are no guarantees.

To honor his Naruto's last wishes, there's every chance Kurama will have to destroy all likelihood of the man coming to be. Because he’s here to stop Kaguya, and to do that he needs to cut off all her ways of coming back. Zetsu needs to die, to disappear, and that means Kurama will likely have to take the rest of Akatsuki out as well.

It’s not exactly a hardship, given their aims and what they did the first time around. A threat to the jinchuuriki is a threat to Naruto, and Kurama's hardly about to let that stand.

Anger simmers just below the surface of his aggravation, a touch of rage twisted up with the iron control Kurama learned over decades of imprisonment. There's no jailor this time, no redheaded woman clinging to his chains, no blond boy determined never to hurt anyone with Kurama's power, but still. Kurama looks human. He’s not the vast harbinger of disaster anymore—that’s the creature still sealed and seething in Naruto's soul. Kurama as he is now can't afford to let his anger out, not until he’s fully used to being human.

Kakuzu defeated him. If Han hadn’t been fighting as well, it’s possible Kurama would have died there in the snow, rendering Naruto's sacrifice absolutely meaningless. He doesn’t know this body’s healing capabilities, and doesn’t want to test them. The wounds from Kaguya’s chakra control rods vanished, but how much of that was Naruto's body and how much was it the seal? Does Kurama's chakra make any difference, even, when Naruto's system is so used to having both it and an Uzumaki's resilience?

The Uzumaki part is gone now. There's no trace of Naruto's chakra remaining, and Kurama has looked, searched every last cell of this new-familiar body looking for even a hint of the former occupant. It might as well be an empty vessel, though, a jar with every last ounce of its contents emptied out, wiped clean and left for Kurama alone.

Damn the brat for being so good at seals, anyway. Why, why couldn’t he have turned that to finding a way for both of them to come back? Why couldn’t their positions have been reversed? Kurama knows the limits of him empathy, his abilities, and Naruto had none. Naruto would have saved everyone, brought every last enemy crashing down to stand alone in victory. With or without Kurama, he’s always been a hero.

Kurama is a natural disaster trapped in physical form and little else.

He remembers, again, the scene just before Naruto hurled them back in time: blood and darkness and matte-black metal, Sakura's body crumpled like a dropped doll. Remembers Naruto falling, the dull, flat sound as his body hit the earth, too late to stop the seal from working even as the light slid out of his eyes. Tries not to think about the mad rush of chakra, the snap of reality twisting and breaking around him as whatever specks of Naruto were left inside him burned away, the human soul too fragile for such a shift.

What does it mean for Kurama, that he survived intact?

Kurama knows he’s not a demon, no matter what the fools living now would term him; he knows little of evil—little of good, either, of course, because he’s a creature of malice and hatred, but what he is comes from the humans themselves. He is what the Sage made him, and if the humans want to call him evil, so be it. He’s simply a reflection of their darkness, but Naruto has shown him time and again that being so doesn’t mean he can't reflect their light as well. This world might mean little to him, all its souls passing by like ants, but Naruto was never like that. And for Naruto, he’ll save them.

That it means he’ll be able to take his revenge as well is simply a nice bonus, for all that Kurama relishes that fact.

The temperature is dropping rapidly as night falls, and Kurama grimaces, casting a glance up at the deep grey clouds sliding across the horizon. Snow is rare in Fire Country, as long as one stays out of the mountains, but with Kurama's truly magnificent luck it seems he’s just in time for a storm. He has no money, so finding an inn is out of the question, and as generous as Han was providing him with un-ripped clothes, they're hardly thick enough to keep him warm in a blizzard. Given that he’s passing through farmland right now, there aren’t even any nice caves to hole up in. It’s either sleep in the bushes at the edge of the road or break into someone’s house, and Kurama doesn’t want to deal with all the possible problems that could come with the latter.

Still, there are lights ahead of him, a small, tight cluster of them, and Kurama decides he might as well check the inn regardless, if there is one. As much as it irks his pride, the innkeeper may be willing to take pity on him, or let him do manual labor to make up for a night’s stay. A little indignity is worth not freezing to death, Kurama decides reluctantly.

Besides, his feet are still bare. He’s starting to lose the feeling in his toes, and as inexperienced as he is in listening to a human body’s warning signs, he knows that can't be a good one.

At least moving is coming more easily now, Kurama thinks a touch sourly as he makes it to the outskirts of the tiny town. Getting into a fight was good for that at least, even if Kakuzu did almost fry him in the end. It’s not like it’s the first time he’s been in control of Naruto's body, either, but…the emptiness is unnerving. For more than a hundred years, Kurama has shared a form with a human, kept to the back of their thoughts whenever he couldn’t fight his way to the front, and being without the submerging hum is like gravity suddenly shifting so that things fall sideways rather than down. It knocks him off balance, and he finds himself so aware of the lack of noise that it’s very close to maddening.

Naruto was always doing, even when he wasn’t in control. Always thinking, always feeling, and now there's just—nothing.

The inn isn’t hard to find, at least, and Kurama forces himself from his thoughts, lifting his eyes to study the sign. There's no notice that those who can't pay will be thrown out, so Kurama supposes that’s a step in the right direction, though he doesn’t have much hope of the owner being accommodating. Maybe he’s been jaded by his own experiences, and Naruto's as a child, but he’s seen a whole lot of the worst humanity has to offer, and most of the good has been inspired by Naruto alone.

In all likelihood, it’s simply the world they live in. Hard to keep a positive outlook when you're little more than a mercenary for hire. Even Naruto could be pragmatic about it, to a degree; shinobi are shinobi, and people buying their services keeps the villages running. There's only so much room for ideology, and while Naruto managed to walk that line in the years he was Hokage, Kurama can't imagine many other people would be able to.

Sighing softly, Kurama rakes a hand through his hair to get it out of his face, then approaches the inn. The interior is brightly lit, and as he pushes open the door he can see a small bar and dining area off to the side. The smell of food makes his stomach rumble disconcertingly, and Kurama grimaces, pressing a hand over it. These reactions are…weird. He’s still not used to having them, no matter how long he’s spent as someone’s ghostly passenger; having them happen to him firsthand is a lot different than distantly knowing they're occurring.

His entrance gets him a few sharp, wary looks, but otherwise nothing, and that’s weird too. Kurama is still used to those who don’t know him through Naruto running screaming at the sight of him, and for all that he’s now a normal human size—slightly below average, even, thanks to the brat never quite managing to outgrow his shrimp phase—the lack of reaction to his presence just feels strange.

Shaking it off, Kurama glances around to get his bearings, then heads for the small desk at the bottom of the stairs. The older woman working there glances up as he approaches, looks back down, and then does a double-take. One brow arches skeptically, but she puts her pen down and asks politely, “Can I help you?”

Kurama hates this. The damned brat would be so much better at everything, he thinks, and it stings enough to make him twitch. Taking a breath, he forces himself not to growl the way he wants to and instead answers, “Yeah. Any chance you’d be willing to trade a night’s stay and a meal for some work?”

The wariness changes to a considering expression, and the woman looks him over. “We have firewood that needs cutting and moving,” she says after a moment. “My son would do it, but he was injured by bandits on the southern road.”

Kurama tries not to grimace. From Nine-Tailed Demon Fox, Scourge of Humanity’s Darkest Places, to woodcutter. Gyūki would laugh himself sick. Not to mention Shukaku would actually die laughing. “How ‘bout I take care of those bandits instead?” he suggests, smiling. Not his fault if the expression has a few too many teeth in it.

That gets him another look, even sharper this time. “You're a shinobi?” the woman asks, clearly searching for a hitai-ate.

It makes things both easier and harder that Kurama doesn’t have Naruto's, either the old one with Konoha's symbol or the Alliance one shinobi started defaulting to once Kaguya wiped out the first few villages. Either would raise questions, but they would answer them, too. As it is, both of them were lost years ago, so Kurama simply nods and says, “Unaffiliated.”

“I probably should have guessed, the way you look,” the innkeeper says shrewdly. “If I have your word you’ll hunt them down tomorrow, you can stay. Room 5 is empty, and it comes with dinner.”

It takes effort not to bristle a little at the remark, and it reminds Kurama of Naruto's parting comment that he should look in a mirror, which between the ache of grief and the bite of irritation just puts him in a foul mood all around. “Fine. Good,” he manages. “I’ll go after them as soon as I wake up.”

A fight sounds like a good idea anyway, and he’d likely have gone after them whether she agreed to the trade or not. Bandits generally set up camp, so Kurama could have slept there after he killed them. Still, a warm meal beats scavenged scraps or stolen rations, and this way he’s assured of a soft bed. There have been too few of those, the last five years. For the sake of all of Naruto's complaining about the lack, if nothing else, Kurama will take advantage.

“We have a deal,” she agrees, and passes over a key. “Again, Room 5. I’ll have one of the girls bring your dinner, if you want to find a seat.”

Awkwardly, Kurama nods his thanks, then turns to look for an open table. There's one in the corner, tucked back against the wall, and he heads for it with some relief, instinct telling him to find somewhere dark and stay there. He’s hurting, even if his physical wounds are already gone, and there's enough of a real fox in him to want to hide until the pain is gone, even if the more rational part of his brain knows it won't work.

He remembers Naruto's grief, after Kaguya killed Sasuke. It ebbed, sometimes, but it never fully eased, and even though Naruto was a best friend rather than a lover to Kurama, he doesn’t expect his own pain to be any different.

Some things heal with time. Loss scabs over, but never seems to go away.

 

 

The nightmares come as a surprise.

Kurama gasps awake some time before dawn, sweat-soaked and shaking again, this time with the image of Naruto's slack, empty face before him, twisted with the corrupted grey lines that always marked Kaguya’s controlled corpses. There's nothing else, no danger, no threat, but that alone is enough to make Kurama hunch forward, fisting his hands in his hair and ignoring the prickle of claws too close to his scalp. He takes a breath, lets it out in a rough, shaky cry, and clamps his eyes shut, fighting to hang on to that last smile Naruto gave him rather than that horrible creation of his subconscious.

It’s not real. He knows that, logically, because what he saw was this body falling, and since Kurama is wearing it right now there's no way Kaguya in that time could have animated it like some macabre puppet.

But Kurama heard it, the sound of Naruto's body striking the ground, dropped, discarded, meaningless without the real Naruto inside it. And now Kurama will have to live with the reminder every day, every time his heart beats, every time he moves. Because this is Naruto's body, but Kurama's stolen it, taken it over. Maybe he wanted this once, but not for twenty years at least. He’s the pretender here, the fake, and he hates himself as he never, ever has before. Always, always his loathing has turned outwards, been directed at others, but now—

Now he might as well have killed Naruto himself. For all that this wasn’t his choice, he might as well have cut the jinchuuriki’s throat with his own hand.

A sound tears out of him, rough and choking and as sharp as knives, and Kurama's body shakes with the force of it. Another, and then again, and there are tears on his cheeks and Kurama can't understand how, but he’s crying. Crying for the loss of the first person since the Sage to bring light to his world, crying for the loss of his best friend, his partner, the one creature in all of creation who looked upon his soul and loved him regardless.

Naruto is gone, and Kurama is all that’s left.

It hurts. The world feels empty and gaping and so terribly open, as if it’s about to fall away beneath his feet and leave him spinning out into nothingness. The anger filled him up, before, the anger and the petty bits of irritation, but in the spill of cold moonlight falling through the window, all of that has been burned away. Grief rises in its place, too much for his tiny human body to contain, and Kurama feels like it should wash him away, drown him completely. But instead it builds and builds and there's no release, no deliverance. Just—grief. Just sorrow.

Just loss, and the burning, twisting knowledge seared right into the heart of him that nothing will ever be the same again.

For so long, they fought. For survival, for revenge, for protection of those left. There was always a thread of hope, though, that someday, somehow, they would get their world back. Naruto had so very much to do with that, pushed them all forward towards that vision of peace and home and family when they won. Only with that last, final strike did they lose it, and even then Naruto still clung to his hope that Kurama would make it back, would fix things and let everyone be happy.

But here and now, Kurama has none of that. His world will never, ever be what it was, and from now until this body crumbles away, he’s going to have to live with this unfamiliar grief, these human emotions, and remember every second of every day just what it is he lost.

“Damn you,” he whispers around the edges of a sob, pressing his forehead against his raised knees and wrapping his arms around his head. “Damn you!”

But it doesn’t have the edge of anger to it that it did just hours before. There's only the ache, and even though Kurama knows himself well enough to realize the fury isn’t gone forever, he hates this. Hates this weakness, hates the fact that he can't ride the hard edges the way he always did his malice and anger. Hates that he wishes he could have been the one to make the sacrifice instead of Naruto, because he shouldn’t. For anyone else he wouldn’t even dream of it, but a world without Naruto isn’t one he wants to live in.

There's nothing romantic about the sentiment. Nothing of lust or desire or anything like that. But Naruto was his, was the first human to earn his name, to earn the free use of his power, to earn his trust and his friendship and his love. Naruto was the one person in existence for whom he would have done absolutely anything, and to be without that is like severing half his soul and trying to move on without it.

“Enough,” he tells himself, tells this small, weak body, but it doesn’t work. If anything the tears come faster, hot and uncontrollable, and Kurama lashes out in frustration and pain, slashing futilely at the air. “Enough!” he cries, but it breaks partway through, and he can't bring himself to say it again.

Surely he can't cry forever. Surely there's an end to this somewhere.

It’s still hours until dawn, but Kurama can't stay here any longer, inactive, mired in unfamiliar emotion. He felt, as a bijuu, but…not like this. Not to these intensities, not with such pain. It’s new and he loathes it, the shakiness of his limbs and the hollow emptiness in his chest, the dry sting of his eyes and the raw rasp of his throat. So vulnerable, with so many weaknesses, so many places where even a hard touch can kill.

But he doesn’t hate humans blindly, not anymore. Maybe Naruto is the best of them, but through him Kurama has come to know others—lost now, maybe, but he called them friends once, would have fought to his last breath to protect them. Their weaknesses give them strengths he’s never quite been able to understand, and he wonders if, like this, he’ll someday learn.

Restlessness and the ache of the unfamiliar silence drives him up and out, still pulling the sash of his borrowed robe closed. The inn is deserted but echoing with snores, and the buzz of the noise against his ears makes Kurama grimace. Shinobi don’t snore, as a rule, and he’s not used to the sound. It’s enough that he’s surprised he remained asleep as long as he did, and he’s quite happy to get away from it now as he moves quickly down the hall.

The innkeeper from the night before is just turning on the lights as he enters the main room, and she gives him a look of faint surprise. “You're up early, shinobi,” she says, even as she turns away. “Meaning to get an early start?”

“Best to hit them while they're still half-asleep,” Kurama says gruffly, eager to leave. The presence of other humans itches at him, like fur rubbed the wrong way. He doesn’t want to look at them and remember the reason he’s here, the reason Naruto is dead. Because Naruto died for them, even if they’ll never know it. And maybe that’s actually part of the reason—they don’t know, can't know, will never be able to look at any version of Naruto and understand the lengths to which he’d go to save them. Kurama resents them for it, because he won't allow himself to envy them their ignorance.

Naruto is worth more than that.

For a long moment, the woman makes no acknowledgement. Then, slowly, she turns, and studies him with an unreadable expression. “You have no weapon,” she points out.

Kurama shrugs, half-lifting one hand so the pointed tips of his nails catch the light. “Don’t need them,” he counters, and takes a step towards the door. “The southern road, you said?”

This time, the woman lets him go and doesn’t call him back. “Yes,” she agrees, and then, when Kurama is almost out the door, “Good luck.”

He doesn’t answer, pulling the door shut behind him. There's a thick layer of snow on the ground, a chill wind sending ice crystals dancing up through the air, and Kurama wishes futilely for paws and fur to withstand the cold. Still, he made a promise, and he’ll keep it, so he grits his teeth and steps forward, ignoring the snow’s bite. A breath, careful and steadying and slow, and he opens his senses as he starts south, seeking any feelings of malice or hatred.

There are some here and there, scattered bits from dreams or one or two people, but nothing beyond the ordinary. The malice it takes to prey on fellow humans is something deeper, more sinister, so Kurama keeps walking, passing out of the town and into a small wood. The shadows cast by the three-quarter moon are long and dark, but not oppressive to a bijuu’s eyes, and he moves easily, silently through the darkness. Stealth, at least, comes easily after five years of hit-and-run fighting against a goddess, and Kurama is confident that he won't be seen unless he wants to be.

Naruto would like this, he thinks, and the faint bitterness of the painful thought is undercut with the stirrings of anger once more. Helping people, trading services, defeating enemies—it should be Naruto here, not Kurama. Not Kurama, who keeps his word because that was Naruto's way, who does good because any less would leave Naruto disappointed in him. Not Kurama, who is reeling from this first true loss of someone close to him.

His fellow bijuu were…regrets, because he couldn’t save them, but the anger always overwhelmed the sorrow. Not so now, like this, because the absence of Naruto hurts worse than anything else he can imagine.

But he can drown it out, he thinks. He hopes. Fighting Kakuzu left no room for anything else, only action and reaction and bubbling, bright-edged fury at this little reminder of Kaguya.

Fury is better than grief. Anger is better than sorrow. Kurama can endure the former; he has no experience surviving the latter.

He takes a breath and lets it out in a white gust, then closes his eyes, coming to a halt. Up ahead is a knot of malevolence and petty cruelty, exactly what Kurama once spent centuries hunting. At the edge of his hearing, there are people stirring and talking, sharp bits of an argument, and Kurama smiles thinly.

“Found you,” he murmurs, and ghosts forward, keeping crouched low to the ground. Firelight flickers through the trees, muted and shielded, but it’s enough to see by. Kurama presses himself into the shadows of a gnarled oak and makes to slip around it to get a good look at the camp, but—

Someone’s already there.

Kurama blinks, caught entirely off guard, and the shinobi in the painted mask blinks back.

Chapter Text

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, fuck it.

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

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

Good enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It almost makes up for his stupidity against Kakuzu yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alive.

Thank fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl looks equally doubtful. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well. It’s something, at least.

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

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

Chapter Text

[propinquity / ‘prə ‘ piNGkwətē / , the state of being close to someone or something; proximity. Late Middle English; from the Old French propinquité, via Latin propinquus ‘near’ from prope ‘near to’.]

 

Traveling as a human is still stupid and boring, but at least this time Kurama has something to occupy his attention.

“How’s it this red? Did you paint it?”

Seated on Kurama's shoulder, one of his arms hooked over her legs to hold her in place, Naho pats at his hair, combing through the strands like she’s looking for the real color hidden underneath. Kurama rolls his eyes a little where she can't see it, but answer as patiently as he’s able, “No. It’s just like that.”

He does wonder, a little morbidly, why he doesn’t simply look like Naruto, even though he’s grateful for it. Just knowing this is Naruto’ body is bad enough. It would be an even worse hell, having to see his lost jinchuuriki staring back at him every time he looked in a mirror. Granted, he hasn’t even done that much yet, regardless of it being Naruto's last suggestion, and despite the having the opportunity at the inn.

It will feel final, Kurama thinks sadly. As grateful as he is, looking in a mirror will show him without a doubt that he’s the sole occupant of this form, that there's little to nothing of Naruto left to it. The basic shape, maybe, and the blood Kurama has claimed with his assumed last name, but…everything else will be Kurama, and if the color of his skin and his hair is anything to go by, he’ll look very little like his lost friend.

Hound is watching them out of the corner of his eye, porcelain mask still concealing his face but body language wary. The fact that he’s walking next to them again is an improvement, though; he’d taken to the trees again the moment Naho woke up from her nap and started wanting to interact again. Kurama ignores the man as best he can, although he’s uncomfortably aware that this is indeed one of Naruto's precious people, more or less. Maybe not quite, maybe not yet, but…the framework is there. Surely Naruto would want him to help, despite Kurama only having the vaguest idea how.

After all, this isn’t Naruto's beloved perverted teacher, porn book fixed firmly in front of his face, ready with a disarming, deceptive smile the moment anyone tries to take him seriously. This is ANBU's Hound, alert but silent, with a weight of old, half-faded bleakness around him that sets Kurama's teeth on edge.

He doesn’t remember all that much of Hound’s history beyond the parts where it intersected with Naruto's. A bit about ANBU, a passing recollection that the brat’s other sensei, Yamato, once served under him, mention made of Itachi once doing the same. There's little else he can use to judge where he is in the time period, and it would definitely be suspicious to randomly ask how long ago the Kyuubi attack happened—especially, Kurama thinks dourly, if it hasn’t happened yet.

Kakuzu’s appearance was a clue, and at least means he’s back sometime before Naruto's first Chuunin Exams. Hidan was a new member of Akatsuki when they started seriously hunting the bijuu, and if he isn’t there the organization is probably still gathering power. Maybe finding Han was a coincidence, or maybe they were starting with what they considered the weakest, least protected jinchuuriki, since Han’s known more for his steam-enhanced taijutsu than any flashy ninjutsu, and most of the others are wary or locked away. Still not a concrete marker where the timeline is concerned, and Kurama's getting frustrated guessing. If—

“Hey, hey!” Naho chirps, yanking just a little too hard on Kurama's hair and making him swallow a yelp. “Are you a daddy too, Kurama?”

What the hell? Kurama eyes the girl on his shoulder incredulously, but in the face of her wide-eyed enthusiasm can't quite muster the cutting retort he’d otherwise use. With a sigh, he rolls his eyes and says flatly, “No.”

Her expression crumples a little, and with a wild surge of terror at the thought of more tears, Kurama blurts out, “But I have siblings.”

Naho’s expression brightens like he flipped a switch—more than quickly enough to send a trickle of suspicion sneaking through Kurama's mind, though it’s rapidly forgotten when she says, “You do? Oh! How many? I've always wanted a little sister.”

Kurama hesitates, considering, but…what the hell. It’s not like the bijuu are widely known by their true names, rather than their tails. Still, probably best to avoid mention of Shukaku—the damned tanuki has a bad habit of introducing himself, or boasting about himself by name in the middle of his rampages, and though it’s unlikely Hound will make the connection, Kurama would rather not risk being ripped out of this body and sealed into another.

If that would even work. He’s a little curious, but definitely not enough to test it.

“Well, I’d give you mine,” Kurama answers dryly, “but I don’t have a sister. I've got eight brothers instead.” He’s wondered about that before, too, because as far as he knows gender is a voluntary choice for the bijuu, but most of them use masculine pronouns or male names. Chōmei is really the only one he’d peg as female, or maybe neither, but given how the Nanabi talks he’s not going to make that call until he asks. For now, he’ll stick with the default.

“Eight?” Naho sounds awed.

Kurama gives her a quick smile, ducking a little to keep her from whacking her head on a branch. The forests have been getting thicker as they move towards Konoha, and they’ve been walking through trees for at least two hours now. “Yeah. I'm the oldest.” By, like, twelve seconds, but it counts, and Shukaku can just go suck on a lemon. “They're all really silly, even though they're powerful. Matatabi likes to run up and down mountains for fun, and Saiken’s always blowing bubbles.” Well, his jinchuuriki is, but Kurama knows the Rokubi; Saiken is just as fond of them as his host. Besides, a little embellishment never hurt anyone, and it’s not as if Naho is ever going to meet the other bijuu.

Naho giggles, finally abandoning Kurama's hair to reach up and snatch at pretty leaves. “I bet you live in a biiiig house,” she says, stretching her arms out wide. “You’d need eight bedrooms, and a big kitchen, and a big table, and…” She trails off, face scrunching a little as she clearly tries to think of everything.

Kurama can't fight a faint, mostly sad smile, though he doesn’t let her see it. The last time he saw all of his fellow bijuu in one place, they were preparing to defeat Kaguya for the first time. After that, by the time they realized she’d managed to leave traces of herself scattered around the world and then come back through them, Chōmei and Isobu had both been devoured. Kokuō had gone into hiding, though it hadn’t helped him in the long run, and all the rest had tried to stand together and fight, but had been lured out and overwhelmed instead. The only ones Kurama ever saw after that were Shukaku and Gyūki, mostly because their jinchuuriki joined Naruto in spearheading the resistance. The Ichibi and Hachibi had also joined them, if briefly, but…

Kaguya had gotten to them in the end. She got to everyone in the end.

“Do they live in Konoha, too?” Naho asks, bending down to peer at his face, and Kurama tries to wipe away all the melancholy that’s gathered.

“No,” he manages after a second of struggle. “They live far, far away. I don’t think I'm going to be able to see them again for a while.”

Hound casts him a sharp look that shades toward considering, and Kurama ignores it. He doesn’t want to think about what he’s giving away, or what assumptions the ANBU might be making. It’s none of his business. Besides, if he thinks too much about it, the lump in his throat—stupid, stupid, because it’s not like he was ever close to the other bijuu, or friends with them, or, or anything even though the ones he knew are as dead as creatures of chakra can be—that lump will choke off his breath, and that’s definitely an ignoble way to die.

There's a pause, and then small arms wrap around the top of his head as Naho hugs the only part of him that’s within easy reach. “I'm sorry, Kurama,” she says, and she sounds sad. For him. Even though she was the one who just got kidnapped by bandits and held hostage for who knows how long. “I'm sure they miss you lots and lots. You're a really good big brother.”

He’s not. He wouldn’t even count himself a good friend, but she can hardly know that. “Thanks, princess,” he murmurs, and pats her knee gently. “I'm sure you’ll be a great sister if you ever get the chance.”

She smiles at that, entirely pleased, and starts chattering about dolls and dress-up and all the things she could do with a sister, and for the sake of his own sanity Kurama tunes most of it out, though he tries to make interested noises at the appropriate times. Hound, he notices sourly, is edging away again, as if he’s about to make for the branches and hide, but Kurama is on to him, the coward.

The knowledge of how bad he seems to be with kids is tempered by the memory of Naruto's genin team, and Kurama has to stifle a snicker. If ever a man deserved to get saddled with Uzumaki Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke, and Haruno Sakura all at the same time, it’s him. And Kurama means that in every conceivable way.

(It’s slightly possible he still carries a grudge for that Thousand Years of Pain incident, but Kurama is definitely not telling.)

 

 

Kakashi has been ANBU for six years already. He’s seen plenty of killers and even more desperate souls. There have been traitors and heroes and normal people struggling under the weight of their burdens, and with an effort he’s learned to read them all. The past leaves a mark, and Kakashi knows that better than anyone.

It takes a certain kind of past, too, to make someone like himself, to create a man who can be a murderer in one instant and a friend in the next, with barely a heartbeat in between. There has to be darkness, pain—the kind of pain that you can turn on other people as easily as you can turn it on yourself, that you can swing like a sword even as you bleed crimson. An edge of viciousness, a touch of self-loathing, traces of this is all I'm good for so I might as well as you watch the light fade from your victim’s eyes.

Burdens like that can be tempered, turned into a weapon to do what’s right, but it’s so terribly easy for them to fester. And when you lance the sore, the only thing it weeps is death.

Or maybe that’s just him projecting.

Still, he saw Kurama tear out a man’s throat with his bare hands, then coo nonsense at a little girl with gore all over his skin. Kakashi is a shinobi, has been one all this life, but that was…an impressive shift in priorities.

Though perhaps it wasn’t. After all, the men were dead before Kurama allowed himself to be anything but a killer, and Kakashi knows that mindset intimately. Were he not on a mission, he might have done the same. The work was finished, the girl was rescued, and it was all right to go back to being human instead of a weapon. Box up the monster, wipe off the blood, paste on a smile and no one will ever know anything’s happened.

Kurama isn’t dressed like a shinobi, but that switch alone tells Kakashi that he is one, without a doubt.

There's a squeal, a cheerful shriek, and it takes effort for Kakashi not to grab for his tantō. The other man casts him a glance that’s probably meant to be amused, but doesn’t quite manage it thanks to the lines that pull tight around his eyes—lines that say he knows exactly why Kakashi reacted as he did, and would join him if he had an ounce less pride. Even so, he tosses the little girl up in the air again, then catches her and says, “Doing okay, Naho?”

“Yep!” the girl laughs. “Do it again, Kurama!”

Technically, he shouldn’t be here. Kakashi should have killed him the moment they came face-to-face, or at the very least knocked him out. He should have put the girl to sleep, then taken her and headed for Konoha as fast as he could, because this is a mission. There's no allowance for delays, especially when they take the form of mysterious strangers appearing out of nowhere. For all Kakashi knows, Kurama could be one of the bandits, or an enemy operative sent to capture the girl.

But—

That first glimpse of him at the edge of the camp, wide startled eyes and then clear exasperation, didn’t seem like the reaction of an enemy. Add to that the fact that he didn’t understand basic shinobi signs, but caught the handful of Konoha ANBU code Kakashi threw in as a test, and then his strange ability to call up waves of force without so much as a hand sign, and it makes for a confusing picture.

Kakashi hasn’t forgotten Tenzō. Hasn’t forgotten Root, and Danzo's desire for shinobi with unique bloodlines. And if that wasn’t some sort of kekkei genkai, Kakashi will eat his left sandal. After all, not only did he activate it without hand signs, but the redhead has claws. Small ones that look like fingernails, but even so. Kakashi saw them rip straight through unprotected flesh, and he’s not about to underestimate them. Even though Kurama isn’t carrying so much as a kunai, he’s got the chakra reserves and agility to justify it.

The little girl is talking again, but Kakashi doesn’t bother to listen; after all, that’s one of the reasons he allowed Kurama to come along. Let the redhead deal with the child. Even if he turns out to be an enemy, Kakashi is confident that he can handle the man, and even if he can't, he’s certain he’ll be able to hold him off long enough to grab the girl and get away. Besides, listening to her chatter reminds Kakashi of Naruto, and the fact that it’s been weeks since he was in the village long enough to take even a passing glance at his sensei’s son. He doesn’t mind the missions, but…he misses being on Naruto's guard.

“Are you a shinobi like Sir ANBU?” the girl asks, loudly enough to catch his attention, and he gives the pair a sideways glance. Naho has migrated to Kurama's hip again, looking very pleased and very curious, and the other man has his eyes fixed forward, apparently pretending that he hasn’t got a four-year-old clinging to him like he’s her new favorite stuffed toy. Kakashi hides an amused snort, though judging by the faintly sour glance Kurama sends him he didn’t hide it well enough.

“Not really,” Kurama answers, and reaches up to tap his bare forehead. “No hitai-ate, because I'm not working for any of the villages. That’s how you can tell if a shinobi is your friend or not, princess.”

Unallied, then. It’s strange, because even given just the handful of skills Kakashi has seen, Kurama would make a skilled jounin anywhere he wished to go. Some villages, especially the smaller ones, are always looking for fresh blood, and there's a certain level of prestige to the job. Yet more scraps of uncertainty to join all the others, and Kakashi frowns, casting another glance at his unexpected companion.

He remembers Kurama’s reaction when the girl admitted to being scared, remembers the grief that showed for half a heartbeat before he shoved it away. Grief like that—Kakashi understands it all too well. Desolation, sorrow, aimless fury—my world ended, that expression says. I understand your fear. My world ended and I'm the only one left.

Though maybe that’s him projecting, too.

“Like the leaf!” the girl chirps, drawing an exaggerated swirl in the air. “The shinobi that came to get me had leaves on their headbands.”

Kurama blinks at her, brows lifting faintly in surprise, and then glances up at Kakashi questioningly. Kakashi ignores the look; if Kurama is an enemy, he’ll already know the girl’s circumstances. If he isn’t, there's no need to tell him.

Mouth tightening with clear aggravation, Kurama drops his eyes back to his passenger and manages a faint smile. Kakashi wonders if the girl can see how awkward it is, if that’s the reason she’s asking distracting questions and rambling. It wouldn’t be a surprise, given her mother’s identity. Geisha are brilliant at that kind of thing.

“Yeah,” Kurama allows, boosting her up a little higher on his side. (Kakashi estimates just how long he’s been carrying her without a break and adds above-average strength to the growing list of his abilities.) “A leaf means Konohagakure. They're the ones your dad hired, so you can trust them. There are a lot of good people in Konoha.”

That’s a very broad statement for an unaffiliated shinobi to make. Kakashi lifts a curious brow, half-wishing he could ditch the mask, pull out his Icha Icha, and use that to cover his sideways glances. ANBU masks are hell on the peripheral vision, and he’s definitely wary of this stranger. Wary and interested, because bits keep showing through, between his skills and his knowledge and his name, and surely any cover story worth using wouldn’t leave quite that many questions behind.

From there, the logical belief would be that it’s not a cover, but Kakashi has been a shinobi too long to simply let himself believe that.

The name alone is…jarring. Kakashi isn’t certain that his heart has entirely recovered yet from hearing it fall so unexpectedly from the man’s lips. This man especially, he thinks, casting Kurama another sideways glance. Because, the blood red hair aside, Kakashi would mistake him for a Kumo native—he has the same dark skin, although the deep red eyes are more usual. It’s not like villages have never intermarried, but…

There aren’t supposed to be many Uzumaki left to intermarry with. Uzushiogakure is twenty-five years destroyed now, and thanks to scavengers has been almost completely stripped of all traces of what it was. The ruins are mostly rubble and bones, and the village’s few remaining people are scattered. Uzushio was always a small village, hardly a fraction of Konoha's size, and the Uzumaki clan made up the bulk of its shinobi. When the village fell, so did they. Maybe one or two survived, lost in other countries, but to meet one is entirely unexpected.

Too convenient, as well, given who Kakashi is and who trained him. Given that, had things turned out differently, he might as well be an older brother to the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. Given who lives in the village they're headed for.

Kurama's indignation when he suggested knocking the girl out was genuine. Kakashi could see it on his face, read it in his eyes as clear as day. The redhead isn’t practiced hiding his emotions, or he just doesn’t care to; like with Kushina, everything he feels is reflected on his face, and Kakashi is skilled enough at reading people to know that it isn’t faked. It’s too awkward, too quick a reaction. The truth behind it is painfully obvious. And…maybe it isn’t a front, but it’s certainly an odd coincidence.

Kakashi has long since stopped believing in coincidences.

So. Kurama’s knowledge of Konoha's specific ANBU code, his presence here on Kakashi's mission, his odd ability—those all say Root. Or Danzo, at the very least.

On the other hand, his hair, his emotional nature, and his chakra reserves say stray Uzumaki. To be honest, that fits better than the Root theory; Danzo takes care to stamp every bit of sentimentality out of his operatives, and Kurama's reaction to the girl has been nothing but sentimentality.

It’s…possible that Kurama is exactly who he says he is, even if it’s not exactly likely—after all, he looks at least ten years older than Kakashi, or maybe a little more. That would put him at around Minato's age, and ten when Uzushio fell. Given the friendship between Uzushio and Konoha it’s conceivable that he learned ANBU signs there. It would also fit the claim that he’s not exactly a shinobi—the loss of his village meaning he was never promoted—and his claim that Konoha is full of good people.

Surely only an ally would say something like that.

And…

They live far, far away. I don’t think I'm going to be able to see them again for a while.

Kakashi knows loss when he hears it, and that was clear. A whole family, nine brothers, dead or so thoroughly scattered that there's little hope of reuniting—that certainly sounds like the aftermath of Uzushio's destruction.

Of course, this is all speculation. Kakashi could be wildly off the mark and leading himself further astray with every conclusion. It makes sense, though, and while it doesn’t quite quell Kakashi's suspicion…

Well. It gives him an excuse for dragging the man along with him that the Sandaime will buy, beyond “But—small crying child, ew!”

Sixty-forty odds, Kakashi thinks, somewhere between morbid and reluctantly amused, that Sarutobi accepts it without booting him out the window. If, of course, Kurama doesn’t turn out to actually be an enemy and try to slit his throat sometime in the night.

“You said Konoha was about a day and a half?” Kurama asks suddenly, making Kakashi glance over. The girl is sacked out on his shoulder again, drooling a little, with one small hand fisted in black cloth. Ostensibly Kakashi should find the image cute; as it is, he’s just glad she isn’t drooling on him.

“About,” he confirms after a moment. They’ve been walking the entire day, but given the child it’s an easy, practically boring pace. On his own, Kakashi could have been in the village hours ago.

Kurama huffs a little, mutters something that sounds close to “Like pulling goddamned teeth,” and then raises his voice to add, “You good to keep walking?”

Kakashi calculates the distance. If they don’t make camp—which, honestly, sits better with him than leaving himself vulnerable to an unknown shinobi for hours at a stretch—they can make it back to Konoha by midnight or a little after. Inconvenient timing, but Kakashi doesn’t think the Sandaime will be too put out to be dragged out of bed then. He was the one to assign Kakashi this mission, and make it an A-rank despite the lack of real danger. Though, Kakashi supposes, that’s more or less required when Fire Country’s Daimyo asks you to take care of something personally.

“Sure,” he agrees easily, then stiffens as an unpleasant thought occurs to him and casts Kurama a wary sideways glance.

Apparently able to read his trepidation clearly despite the mask, Kurama blows out a short, aggrieved sigh, rolls his eyes, and says with exasperation, “Get that look off your face, Hound. I'm good to carry her, so you can stop looking like you're about to wet your pants at the thought of us trading.”

“Maa,” Kakashi protests, a little of the ANBU composure he tries to keep finally slipping in the face of this grave offense. “I'm concerned about her comfort. She looks so much happier with you, that’s all.”

“I'm sure,” Kurama says dryly, entirely skeptical, but doesn’t attempt to call him on it. Instead, he simply shifts Naho a little higher on his shoulder and picks up his pace. There's another faint mutter, more incomprehensible than the last one, and Kakashi glances at him curiously despite the fact that Kurama doesn’t seem inclined to clarify.

“…You like children, then,” Kakashi finally offers, a poor attempt to break the silence but all he can really think of.

It earns him another soft snort, and Kurama looks away. “No,” he says flatly. “They all turn into snot-nosed whiners eventually. But…she’s been through a lot. Figure I can put up with her clinging to me for a bit, if that can make it better.”

Kind, Kakashi thinks without meaning to, turning his own gaze to the path ahead. That’s…probably a mark in the not-Root column, then. He remembers Kushina’s kindness was much the same way, given offhand and with much indignation when anyone called her on it, but always there nevertheless.

Maybe Kurama really is an Uzumaki. Maybe he really is who he says.

Kakashi thinks of Naruto, lonely outcast in a village that should love him, and feels a faint tremor of foreboding slip down his spine. If that’s Kurama's aim, if getting close to Naruto is his goal, if he wants that just to have influence over the Kyuubi jinchuuriki—

Kakashi will gut him without hesitation or regret. Naruto might never know who Kakashi is, might never understand what they could have been, but he’s Minato and Kushina’s son. He’s family.

Kakashi will be dead and buried before he ever abandons his family again.

Chapter Text

[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.

Obito.

Rin.

Minato.

Kushina.

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.

Chapter Text

[impetus / ˈimpədəs/ , the force or energy with which a body moves. From Latin, ‘assault, force,’ from impetere ‘assail,’ from in- ‘toward’ + petere ‘seek.’]

 

Maybe it’s the familiarity of Konoha, the well-remembered hum of chakra from hundreds of shinobi all gathered together and more or less at peace, but Kurama sleeps far more deeply and for far longer than he intends to. When he finally opens his eyes, there's sunlight slanting through the window, and the bustle of people is clear even from beyond the glass.

Dreams are a fading tremor in his composure, bits of grief and horror already sliding away, and Kurama lets out a heavy breath, pushing his hair out of his face with one slightly shaky hand as he sits up. He’s spent a good portion of his last hundred years of existence sleeping so far—being locked up in a human’s body is anything but riveting—but if this keeps happening, he thinks he might swear off on it all together. At least when he’s awake, he can distract himself. His unconscious mind isn’t so forgiving.

Hard on the heels of that thought comes another, and this one is thankfully far more heartening. Naruto is somewhere out in Konoha, a child with sun-bright hair and sky-blue eyes and a smile warmer than anything. Honestly, Kurama doesn’t even need to be the target of that smile; all he wants is to know that it’s real, it exists. Maybe it can never quite be his again, but—

He doesn’t want to consider that. His determination is holding, steady in the face of his Naruto's last smile, his last request, but…too much and he might falter. Too many reminders and he thinks he’ll just…break.

How can humans be so weak when he knows they can also be incredibly strong?

But…Kurama can't help a faint smile as he buries his face in his upraised knees. They can be strong. So strong. It was Naruto who taught him that, powering through every obstacle set before him with determination and willpower alone. Despite Naruto's parentage, despite his birth, he still had to pull himself up from nothing, from a mire of discrimination and hatred, and where anyone else would have been overwhelmed with darkness, Naruto emerged entirely untouched. With a true understanding of the darker sides of humanity, a unique sensitivity to others’ troubles, but…untainted.

Kurama himself is so dark that he all but drips malice, because that’s who and what he is. Naruto was the one to show him that he could be more. And he will be. In this he’ll play the hero like Naruto wanted, though he suspects it will be closer to Itachi's version than Naruto's own. He’s not cut out to be a center-stage hero, not really. Pride and arrogance and power can only carry him so far, and while Kurama has those in spades, he’s lacking the other crucial bits. Like compassion, and selflessness, and the ability to love so freely.

He loves Naruto. Loved the Sage. No one else has ever quite managed to make the cut.

But he does love Naruto. And today—today he’ll finally see proof that the boy is still alive.

That thought brings a lightness with it, a surge of determined happiness that Kurama hasn’t felt in a very, very long time. It propels him out of bed without hesitation, even when the sunlight would otherwise tempt him to simply bask in it for a few hours. He isn’t hoping for much—a glimpse, a glance, maybe the chance to catch sight of Naruto's smile if he’s really lucky—but…anything will be better than the nothingness that haunts him right now. Better than the lack that’s eating away at his gut like a particularly vicious acid.

Naruto was his first friend. The Sage was a father, but…Naruto won himself a place in Kurama's regard, wanted to, worked for it and didn’t give up until Kurama had acknowledged him. For so long Kurama was the creature that everyone feared, a monster and a natural disaster and a mindless beast to chain up and lock away, but…Naruto learned. Learned and realized and set him free, and maybe a large part of Kurama's love can be linked to gratitude, but he doesn’t care. He loves Naruto, and so he’ll save him.

His stomach is growling again, but Kurama ignores it, slipping out of the inn and into the throng of people. The sun is high above him, more than halfway across the sky, and the realization that he slept for so long is a little unnerving. Almost twelve hours, if he had to guess, and while it’s hardly a sleep of years the way he sometimes rested as a bijuu, it’s a long time. Time he could have spent near Naruto.

The crowd is pushy, heading every direction, so Kurama keeps to the edges and picks his way around carts and little knots of stationary civilians. Several shinobi in the midst of things eye him carefully as they pass, but Kurama ignores them, letting his senses stretch. There's an overwhelming hum of chakra to Konoha, one he’d honestly forgotten. He can't remember the last time he felt so many shinobi in one place—years, three of them at least, he thinks, and it’s disconcerting now.

Still, Naruto's chakra is unique, bright and strong no matter how old he happens to be, and intimately familiar. Kurama reaches out, spreads his senses over the village even as he walks, and concentrates.

There. There, like the sudden flicker of a bonfire lit, flames climbing towards the sky and stray sparks leaping heavenward, and Kurama's jinchuuriki finally comes into focus.

Young. He’s young, so young, the blaze of his chakra undiluted and barely touched, but Kurama comes to a halt at the edge of the street and closes his eyes regardless. Because just feeling it, just sensing it, is like emerging from darkness and turning his face to the summer sun. Because that’s Naruto, so vivid and alive, and the mere touch of his chakra drives away the memory of a familiar body falling.

One touch, and all Kurama can think is alive.

Damn it all, but you're alive. You're here.

His eyes are hot again, and there's a curious itchy ache in his chest, right near his heart. Kurama wraps his arms around himself, fingers and sharp nails digging into his elbows as he grips them, but the little bit of pain means nothing.

Naruto is alive. He’s halfway across the village, surrounded by equally familiar chakra signals, and though he’s young, he’s not that young. Six years old, Kurama would guess, if his memory isn’t failing him. Just starting the Academy, just learning to use his chakra—

The Academy.

Suddenly, Kurama wants to curse.

There aren’t any children on the street. Kurama hadn’t really marked it before, because he’s so unused to there being any people on the street, but…he can't see or hear a single child above a certain age. The cluster of chakra signals around Naruto is tightly packed, closely grouped, and that can mean only one thing.

Damn it. He’d forgotten that Naruto has classes. And, despite his frequent skipping, Naruto did actually—does actually end up in class more often than not. After all, Iruka is a terror, and one of the few people Naruto respects enough to obey.

With a low groan, Kurama drags a hand though his hair and leans back against the corner of the building behind him, sighing irritably when red strands simply tumble back over his eyes. This…is not part of his plan. It’s only about an hour after noon, and that means he still has at least two hours to wait until Naruto is released. He could just head to the Academy and try to peer through the windows to see his jinchuuriki, but he’s fairly certain the Hokage would take that the wrong way. Not to mention he’d feeling like a fucking creeper loitering around the school to catch a glimpse of a six-year-old boy.

So. He’s got several hours to kill, even though the urge to see Naruto is like an itch beneath his skin. Hours left in a village that holds only ghosts brought back to life through Naruto's sacrifice, with nothing to do and a restlessness growing inside him that would, in other circumstances, lead to him uprooting trees and breaking boulders just to burn off some frustration.

Actually, that’s not such a bad idea.

Well. It kind of is—he’s trying to keep a low profile, and wrecking one of Konoha's training grounds isn’t the best way to go about it­—but Kurama's finding it hard to care at the moment. Decided, he turns—

And nearly crashes into the man standing right behind him.

Kurama leaps back with a yelp, pulse suddenly rabbiting in his veins and his heart in his throat. His shoulder slams painfully into the corner of the building, and the sudden lack of anything solid behind him almost puts him on his ass. At the last moment, though, he manages to get his feet under him, and staggers to a stop.

“Don’t fucking do that!” he snarls. “You moss-haired bastard, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

One grey eye blinks innocently at him, almost hidden by the orange book held open in front of the man’s face. “Maa, maa, I don’t know what you're talking about,” Hound protests, sounding faintly wounded. He’s dressed like a normal jounin again, clearly off ANBU duty, but his appearance here can't be a coincidence.

“That lichen creeping into your brain, too?” Kurama huffs, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at the other man. “If you keep sneaking up on me, Hou—”

“Hatake,” he cuts in smoothly. “Hatake Kakashi.”

Right. ANBU and their secret identities. Kurama can't help rolling his eyes; if they really want to keep their identities from other people, they should probably start wearing hoods or crap like that. Especially when their hairstyles are as unsubtle as Kakashi's. “Hatake,” he allows grumpily. “Keep sneaking up on me and I won't be responsible for whatever holes get punched in you.”

“Sorry, have we met before?” Kakashi asks guilelessly.

Kurama stares flatly at him for a long moment, then growls, turns on his heel, and plunges back into the crowd. He doesn’t have much hope of losing the jounin, but, well. Points for trying, right? And if he keeps standing there, he’ll likely attempt to put a fist through the man’s face. As entertaining as that would be, it definitely wouldn’t keep him in the Hokage's good graces, questionable as those are right now.

Before he can even consider the possibility of his escape being successful, a shoulder brushes his, and easy as you please, Kakashi falls into step beside him. The book is gone, but he’s got his hands tucked into his pockets and his eye is crinkled, as if he’s smiling lazily. He casts a sideways glance at Kurama, either not noticing or not caring that he’s being pointedly ignored, and says, “You know, some people might consider that rude. I gave you my name. Aren’t you going to give me yours in return?”

Kurama gives him another growl, but, knowing how stubborn the bastard can be, manages to unclench his jaw enough to get out, “Uzumaki Kurama.”

A passing shinobi who’s vaguely familiar—an Inuzuka, given the pair of nin-dogs trailing after her—gives him a sharp look, but Kurama doubts she heard him over the sound of the crowd. Her dogs are giving him suspicious looks, too, and he bares his teeth at them. The dogs recoil and the woman bristles, but before she can approach a hand closes around Kurama's elbow.

“It’s the blood,” Kakashi says, almost cheerfully. “If you don’t want everyone with a good noise jumping away from you, you might want to change.”

Kurama blinks at him, caught off guard, and then remembers the not-quite-neat way he’d dispatched several of the bandits. Han’s robe is probably splattered with blood, but he hasn’t cared enough to notice. Fur doesn’t have these kinds of problems, after all—lick it and it’s clean, or brush it if it’s really bad, and then you're good. Clothes seem…inconvenient, what with how -washing them takes so much time and effort.

Well, that’s one way to kill time, Kurama supposes.

“There a river?” he asks gruffly. “I can—”

“Maybe you should just buy another set,” Kakashi proposes, cheerfully steamrolling over his question as he steers Kurama down a side-street. “And possibly shoes.”

Despite how cold his feet have been getting, Kurama gives Kakashi a skeptical look. He’s about as much a part of nature as any tree, and he does just fine as he is. He can't see that strapping flimsy bits of wood and fabric to his feet will improve much. In return, Kakashi just gives him another smile.

With an aggravated sigh, Kurama gives in for the moment. He supposes it will be nice not to drown in his clothes, and given the number of shinobi with sensitive noses in Konoha—foremost among which is his current escort—it’s probably best not to waltz around smelling like dried blood unless he’s trying to make a statement.

Kakashi seems to notice the sudden lack of protest, because he lets go of Kurama's arm to simply walk next to him again. “I was under the impression that moss was green,” he says, directing them towards a small shop.

Kurama blinks, caught off guard. “What?” he demands, baffled. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You compared my hair to moss,” Kakashi reminds him, and despite the statement his tone is still upbeat. “Moss is green.”

“Ever seen an old oak?” Kurama counters waspishly. “That silvery moss that hangs down? That’s what your hair looks like.” As soon as they're through the door, he pulls away from the other man and heads for the nearest stack of folded uniforms. Most of them are Konoha's standard deep blue, but for all that Kurama's an ally, he’s not a Konoha shinobi. He bypasses the blue, reaching instead for plain shades of brown. Better for blending in than black, after all, especially if he’s heading northeast. The forests thin out through Lightning Country, and there are a lot of mountains between him and the Mountains’ Graveyard. Dirt-color can only help.

In the end, he gets several of each, because knowing his opponents he’s practically guaranteed to lose whatever he wears into a fight. Between that and a haori made of heavier cloth, it uses up a good chunk of the ryō he has left, and Kurama frowns down at the much thinner envelope. Damn. Humans and their inconvenient currency. This would be a lot easier if he could just take what he needed.

But Naruto would smack him over the head for thinking like that, Kurama knows, and he pockets the remainder with a sigh. At least with warmer clothes, he won't have to worry about getting lodging, and he’s perfectly happy hunting his own food if he needs to. The more he can avoid humans on his mission, the better. After all, who knows what the Akatsuki’s response will be when Kakuzu reports in. Maybe they’ll turn to hunting him instead.

It takes effort not to bare his teeth in a dangerous grin. Honestly, Kurama wouldn’t be entirely opposed. That would make his job a lot easier.

Ignoring the way Kakashi is positioned pointedly beside the shoe rack, Kurama mutters a quick thank you to the man behind the counter and heads for the door, bag slung over his shoulder. He’ll have to find some ink and scrolls to seal it all away—there's no way he’s going to burden himself down with a pack, not when he knows from experience how easy it is for such things to get left behind.

A quick check of the sun proves that barely an hour has passed, and Kurama restrains a frustrated snarl, reaching out automatically. Naruto's chakra is still blazing, but there's an edge to it that Kurama knows to be frustration, and he’s moving. Sparring, probably, Kurama thinks, pausing on the street corner and closing his eyes. He can't tell who Naruto is fighting against, since the chakra signatures are so tightly packed, but frustration means it’s someone better. It also means that Kurama wants nothing more than to swoop in and kick the little brat’s ass on Naruto's behalf, although he knows that Naruto wouldn’t take kindly to it. Still. Still, it would mean seeing Naruto, speaking to Naruto, and that’s more than enough to make the thought tempting.

He wants to go to Naruto right now. Wants more than anything to just sweep in, snatch him up, and carry him away. But that would be too much interference. Kurama knows how this works. Each action is tiny, meaningless little bits of happenstance, like pebbles sliding down the side of a mountain range. But pebbles turn to stones, stones turn to rocks, rocks turn to boulders, and a single careless step can start an avalanche that will change the face of the entire range. He can't risk that, not when Naruto is the one at stake.

“You look like you're packing for somewhere cold,” Kakashi points out, jolting Kurama from his thoughts as the jounin meanders up beside him. “Planning a trip?”

The man does have the ability to be subtle; Kurama's even seen him use it. That, however, was decidedly not subtle at all, and he gives Kakashi another doubtful glance. When he just gets a crinkle-eyed smile again, he grunts and looks away. The temptation to knock the man on his ass is nearly overwhelming; he’s not entirely sure how Naruto ever resisted, especially given he spent a solid year training with him. Kurama would have committed homicide within the first week.

“Not like I’ll always be able to find a town with a convenient bandit problem,” he counters. “Might as well be prepared to sleep outside most of the time.”

Kakashi hums, Icha Icha book making a reappearance as he causally flips it open and buries his face in the pages. “I’m surprised a shinobi got caught without money or extra clothes,” he says idly. “Bad luck.”

“Bad planning, more like,” Kurama mutters before he can force himself to shut up. Catching the sharp look Kakashi gives him, though it’s almost entirely hidden, he sighs and clarifies, “I got angry and jumped into a fight. Bastard nearly fried me, and I woke up with nothing.” It’s true, if a little out of order.

That doesn’t make the sharpness go away, but the book comes up a little higher to hide Kakashi's expression fully. “Must have been strong.”

Strong enough to give Kakashi himself pause, the first time around, but Kurama can hardly say that. It leaves a sour taste in his mouth anyway, remembering the fight with Kakuzu. Kurama's spent the last five years fighting Kaguya herself; one of her little mindless minions should be nothing. But, in a new body with new limits, still completely off balance from Naruto's murder and his own trip through time, he’d been stupid. Stupid and reckless and nearly cost them all their victory. Nearly wasted Naruto's sacrifice, and the very idea of it makes Kurama feel faintly sick.

The stupid and reckless parts probably aren’t going to change—Kurama's prone to the latter, and with Naruto in mind he keeps resorting to the former—but he won't let the chance that Naruto died to create be squandered so easily. Next time he faces the Akatsuki members, he’s not going to let them win.

“Yeah,” he agrees gruffly. “Decently strong. But it won't save the bastard next time I see him.”

Kakashi's gaze lingers on him, thoughtful and considering, but Kurama ignores it. He starts walking again, letting his feet carry him forward blindly without any destination in mind, and pays no heed to Kakashi following him. The problem of the Akatsuki is still at the forefront of his mind, despite Kakashi's interruption yesterday, and he needs to come up with a way to get them out of their base so he can go crush the Gedō Mazō into really ugly gravel. It’s not like he can duck in, shout “Jinchuuriki over there!” and have them stampede out. It will, unfortunately, take planning and cunning and subtlety, and while Kurama's decent at all of those, he doesn’t want to be. He’d much rather just wade in and start tearing out throats.

Still, if Hidan isn’t there yet—and likely won't be for a while, given that he can't be more than thirteen right now—that means he won't have to deal with the zealot. And there aren’t that many missing-nin on the Akatsuki’s level, so if he moves quickly enough, he won't have to deal with Kakuzu’s newest partner, either. Pein and Konan, Kisame, Kakuzu, Sasori, Zetsu, and possibly Obito—that’s who he’s up against. Orochimaru too, he remembers with a faint grimace, because…

Well. That’s an interesting thought.

Itachi isn’t a part of Akatsuki yet, the same way Deidara and Hidan aren’t. And while Kurama has less than zero fondness for most Uchiha—with the possible exception of Sasuke, and even there Kurama would claim some sort of Stockholm Syndrome or bleed-through of Naruto's feelings before he’d admit to any sort of genuine affection—if he can spin it so that the Uchiha Massacre never happens, it will remove an extremely powerful member from the Akatsuki, and Kurama's very much in favor of that. Itachi might have always been on their side, but without the Massacre—

Without the Massacre, Sasuke might never have the same relationship with Naruto.

Fuck, Kurama thinks, scowling down at the ground. There's no way to win this, is there?

But…maybe it can work. Maybe. Even without Sasuke as a blindly-driven avenger and stuck-up little shit, surely it will still work. Naruto will still be Naruto, even if he doesn’t have his rivalry with Sasuke.

(Kurama's pretty fucking terrible at lying to himself, he’s coming to realize.)

Huffing out an aggravated breath, Kurama halts and looks around, faintly surprised to find that it’s darker than he had expected, the shadows longer. He’s moved out of the village proper, too, and the road is hard-packed earth under his feet. The Academy building looms in front of him, the last few students and parents just departing. A few give him smiles, a few give him wary looks, but Kurama doesn’t even notice.

His gaze is caught on a small figure with bright blond hair, seated on a swing off to the side.

Naruto, he thinks, and just that sears through every nerve ending like Kakuzu’s lightning, but a thousand times more pleasant. Full of hope, relief, joy, gratitude, because that’s Naruto sitting right there, barely a hundred feet from him. Naruto's chakra, bonfire bright, Naruto with…

Naruto with his shoulders hunched, his head bowed. Naruto, who all but reeks of grief and loneliness and pain, with the faintest thread of anger and resentment buried almost too deep for Kurama to sense. There's no smile on his face, just blank unhappiness, and it feels so wrong that it makes Kurama's skin crawl.

He’d forgotten this, he thinks, a little horrified, but mostly stunned. He’d forgotten, overlooked, dismissed what he knew of Naruto's childhood. Because he hadn’t wanted to see it, hadn’t wanted to remember that Naruto, for all his cheer and determination, wasn’t always happy. Those smiles that Kurama loves so much, the real, meaningful ones—those only started happening regularly when Naruto gained his precious people. Right now, Naruto doesn’t even really have Iruka—the man is still hovering at the edges, not quite a friend yet. There's only the Hokage whenever he can spare a moment. None of the other children will acknowledge Naruto, not with their parents’ prejudice, and…

Naruto has nothing to smile about. He doesn’t even have a reason to pretend he’s happy, because no one will look past the mask. And that—

That aches. It hurts almost as much as Naruto's death, because this is a slow death, for all that Naruto will recover. It’s just…a decay. A sickness leeching Naruto of joy, and that’s so wrong that Kurama can't stand it.

In an instant, everything shifts.

Fuck not changing anything. Fuck not letting Naruto change. Fuck keeping things as they were—obviously that didn’t work the first time around, so why should Kurama keep clinging to it? Let this be the stone that starts the avalanche; Kurama couldn’t care less.

His Naruto is dead, sacrificed to save those he loved, and Kurama will never get him back. It was stupid and blind and base foolishness to believe he would. But the very core of his Naruto, Naruto's heart and soul and unbreakable will, still exists. It’s thirty paces in front of Kurama, grieving and lonely, and Kurama won't let that continue.

It was one thing to let Naruto suffer through an unhappy childhood when Kurama couldn’t do anything to help, and wouldn’t have wanted to even if he could have. It’s another entirely to stand by and watch while Naruto is in pain, and there's nothing at all in Kurama that’s capable of doing that.

He wouldn’t get his Naruto back even if he kept the timeline exactly as it was. He can see that now. But surely he owes it to the boy, to the man, to give him even a small bit of joy. Surely, if he can bring even the smallest spark of light to Naruto's life right now, changing the past will be worth it.

He takes a step forward, hardly even noticing Kakashi's stiffening posture beside him. One step and another, another, another, until he’s standing right in front of the swing. Slowly, the blond head lifts, and Kurama is gutted by the sight of blue eyes, a dozen shades darker than they should be. Dark with unhappiness, with sadness, and Kurama hates it.

Taking a breath, he drops to one knee in front of the boy and says quietly, “What’s your name, kid?”

Naruto blinks at him for a moment before his eyes widen faintly, and he leans back. There's wariness in his gaze, even as he offers a bright and entirely fake smile and answers, “I'm Uzumaki Naruto, the next Hokage!”

It’s so utterly, achingly familiar that Kurama can't help but smile, and that smile just widens when Naruto's own face lights up. How few genuine smiles must he get, that Kurama's unpracticed one makes him so happy? Chuckling softly, he reaches out and lightly ruffles Naruto's spiky hair. It feels impossibly soft against his fingers, and in a heartbeat Kurama's eyes are hot again. Something wet slips down his cheek, but he ignores it and laughs, soft and rough.

“Another Uzumaki, huh? I thought so,” he tells Naruto. “You’ve got your mom’s chakra. I can feel it.”

Shock suffuses Naruto's face, wondering and disbelieving in equal measure. His mouth opens, works, but nothing comes out. He closes it, swallows, and tries again, and this time manages to squeak, “You—you knew my mom?”

Unable to resist for even one more second, Kurama reaches out, wraps his arms around Naruto, and drags him right off the swing. Pulls him into his lap, against his chest, and curls around him as much as he can, burying his face in blond hair and trying not to break down completely. “Yeah,” he whispers to the boy, shocked stiff in his arms. “I knew her when she was a little girl. She was—I'm your uncle. I'm Uzumaki Kurama. We’re—we’re family, and I promise, Naruto, I'm never going to leave you alone again.”

Slowly, carefully, so very tentatively, small arms lift and slide around his neck. When nothing happens, when Kurama’s only reactions is to clutch him tighter, Naruto returns the hug, and it’s as awkward as if he’s never done it before. That’s fine, Kurama thinks. He’ll have plenty of time to show him in the future.

Five seconds. Five seconds of Naruto's arms tightening around him, five seconds for Kurama to feel as if finally, finally, he’s come home. Five seconds for hope of a better future to blossom, painful and fragile, in his chest.

Then a strong hang snatches the back of his shirt and tears him away.

Chapter Text

[degringolade / deɪˌɡræŋ.ɡoʊˈlɑːd/ , a rapid decline or deterioration, as in strength, position, or condition. From French dégringoler “to tumble down”, from Middle French desgringueler, from Middle Dutch crinkelen “to make curl” (related to English crinkle and crank).]

 

In all honesty, Kurama should have expected it. He knows where he stands, knows how shinobi villages work, knows that there's no way the Hokage would be all right with a complete stranger getting so close to Konoha's only jinchuuriki.

Even so, the second Kurama feels Naruto ripped from his arms, every reasonable bit of his brain simply shuts down. He flies through the air with the force of the wrench, landing several yards away on all fours, and fury burns through him. There's only anger, only the white-hot pulse of desperation like a sun going nova in his soul.

They're taking him away from me, he thinks, and nothing else.

In a blur, he moves. Kakashi is no longer anything but an impediment, an enemy, standing between Kurama and Naruto. He barely notices the kunai in the jounin’s hand, barely feels the crackle of chakra exploding out to meet his own. Anger is a fiery shroud pulled across his eyes, a mask that leaves only targets. Baring his teeth, he slashes down, and Kakashi only just manages to knock him aside with a sharp kick.

“How DARE you?!” Kurama roars, even as he lands and staggers a step. Whirling, he takes a menacing stride towards the man, crouched and ready with a wide-eyed Naruto behind him. “What the fuck do you think you're doing? He’s my family!”

Blue eyes flicker from Kakashi back to Kurama, wary but worried. Kurama stares at him, desperation knotting up his guts, and takes another step.

“Stay back,” Kakashi warns sharply. “You have no proof of anything. The Hokage isn’t about to allow a complete stranger—”

Restraint snapping, Kurama snarls and throws himself forward, claws slashing downward and just skimming cloth as Kakashi leaps to the side. He’s fast, and it’s frustrating. Kurama lunges again, this time with a hard kick, but it doesn’t connect. A dodge, another, and Kakashi leaps back again, but this time Kurama doesn’t follow. It’s a distraction, a diversion, and he won't fall for it. Instead, he lunges for Naruto, planning to snatch him up and run, but there's a blur. Kakashi appears directly in front of him, fist already swinging, and Kurama yelps as he goes reeling back from a haymaker to the jaw.

“Stranger?” he echoes contemptuously when he gets his feet under him, and there's a cut on the inside of his cheek leaking blood. He spits it out, looking up to glare at the Copy-Nin. “That little boy is the most precious thing to me in the entire world. If you try to keep me from him, Hatake, I’ll have no problem burning this entire filthy village to the ground.”

Exaggeration, if only because Naruto loves this place so much, but Kurama isn’t about to tell him that. Like this, balanced on the edge of overwhelming fury, his chakra surging and building like a volcano, Kurama honestly isn’t sure what he would do to keep Naruto with him.

There's no possible way he can leave Naruto. He won't.

“Bisuke,” Kakashi says, low and sharp. “Alert the Hokage. Go.”

From further back down the road, there's a flash of tan and blue, and a dog with a Konoha hitai-ate around its neck bolts out of cover and away. Kurama curses, because that means he has minutes at best before the Hokage arrives, before the Hokage takes Naruto away, and desperation wars with fury as he glances between Kakashi and Naruto.

It doesn’t help that Naruto stares back at him, confused but not running, and there's an edge of hope to blue eyes that makes Kurama ache right down to his bones.

“Move,” Kurama warns, because this is one of Naruto's precious people, or will be, and he can't do any less. It won't stop him from acting, if he’s forced, but he can spare the breath for a warning. “Hatake, move, and I won't kill you now. Just—he’s Kushina’s son. He’s family. Please.”

Kakashi's expression doesn’t waver. He shifts, flipping the kunai around in his grip and centering his weight, and then reaches up. The slanted hitai-ate is pushed straight again, revealing spinning red and black, and a growl bubbles up in the back of Kurama's throat. Skin crawling faintly, he steps back, but that Sharingan eye follows him. The thought of it recording his every movement, dissecting his chakra, memorizing all of his tells, hiding the potential to completely strip him of his will—Kurama hates it. Hates that eye and what it stands for, hates the man who originally owned it and all the grief he caused.

Taking Obito down is definitely going to be a pleasure.

“Last chance, Hatake,” he growls, and glances past the man again to look at Naruto, trying to tell him silently that everything’s all right.

There's a blur of speed and motion, and Kurama only just manages to wrench his attention back to Kakashi in time to leap aside, ducking under a slicing overhand swing of that kunai. He kicks out in return, aiming the ball of his foot directly at Kakashi's gut, but isn’t surprised when it misses. Kakashi twists around it, free hand slashing out, and Kurama knocks it aside, drops to avoid another slash from the weapon, and then leaps straight up. He gathers up chakra even as he twists in the air, landing lightly in front of Naruto, and then slashes out towards his opponent, aiming downwards as carefully as he can.

The shockwave ripples outward, striking the ground and tearing a deep trench as it flings earth and stone into the air, but Kakashi is too fast to catch like that. He throws himself up and over, and though it makes Kurama snarl he gives ground, retreating from Naruto and leading Kakashi away from the boy.

“You should surrender,” Kakashi says coolly, even as his fingers flicker through the signs for a water jutsu. “Naruto is a citizen of Konohagakure. I'm not about to let you threaten him.”

The dragon of water is exactly what Kurama expects of Kakashi—powerful, flashy, and nothing more than a distraction to cover the real attack. He snarls, fury twisting through him, and doesn’t bother with signs as he grabs for his chakra and opens his mouth. A twister of fire streams out to meet the attack, and both jutsus explode as they collide. With a hissing shriek, steam fills the air, whirling out to cover both of them, but Kurama's ears are just as good as Kakashi's nose. He can hear the faintest scuff of a foot on the grass as the jounin charges, and twists away from a stabbing lunge.

“Surrender?” he taunts, ducking the following kick and slipping out of the path of a lash of fire. “Never! Naruto is the only reason I'm still alive, you bastard, and if you want me to give up on him you’ll have to see me dead and buried first!”

Earth explodes up underneath him, and Kurama swears viciously, just barely managing to get his feet under him enough to leap over the grasping hands that reach for him. A hard slash downward and a brief shockwave dispels the clone, but the distraction is enough for Kakashi to close in. The kunai stabs forward, aimed at the center of mass, and Kurama is too close to dodge it fully. He tries regardless, wrenches back and twists hard, but he’s only just landed and not quite steady on his feet. The short blade tears deep into the meat of his right bicep, scrapes bone, and is yanked away. Kurama traps a scream behind his teeth, only a muffled cry of pain escaping, but it throws him off balance enough that Kakashi's next kick connects hard with his gut and sends him reeling back.

He doesn’t want to kill Kakashi—he can't even image how the future will go without him there—but this is Naruto at stake. If he loses, they're going to lock him up, hide him away, and he’ll never see Naruto again even if he manages to escape. The agony of that thought claws at him, and he imagines the future stretching out before him, completely devoid of his jinchuuriki’s presence. Imagines Kaguya rising unhindered, Naruto dead as a sacrifice to her madness, with him unable to change anything.

It can't be allowed. It can't be tolerated, and if Kurama has to put Kakashi in the hospital to buy enough time to get both himself and Naruto away, he’ll do it.

With a snarl that’s equal parts rage, pain, and desperation, Kurama lets himself fall to gain distance, then rolls to his feet as Kakashi follows. The steam is dissipating quickly, bringing their battlefield back into view, and Kurama can feel more chakra signatures approaching. The Hokage's backup, no doubt, and it makes him hiss in aggravation. His arm aches with a fiery pain, and Kurama can hardly move it, but for all the skin he’s wearing, he’s not a human. He’s not even really a shinobi, and he certainly doesn’t have their limits. He needs to end this quickly, and for that he can't show restraint.

Finding the correct balance of negative and positive chakra is as simple as breathing, and just as familiar. Kurama summons the orbs into the air around him, small pinpoints of glittering light, and doesn’t bother compressing them down into their usual form. A flick of his hand and the miniature bijūdama whirl out like foxfire, leaving bright afterimages behind, and streak towards Kakashi with deadly intent.

Mismatched eyes widen, and Kakashi throws himself back, just managing to avoid the first one as it strikes the ground and detonates like an exploding tag multiplied tenfold. The earth shakes as the rest follow, filling the air with chips of stone and debris, but Kurama doesn’t wait. He lunges after the jounin, mouth filling with raw chakra, and exhales another surge of flame that roars across the ground like a burning tide. Kunai and shuriken blur out of the haze, but Kurama takes a twisting leap over them, bounces off the ground, and drives a kick into Kakashi's side as hard as he can. The jounin goes flying, slamming into the tree where Naruto had been sitting, and with a victorious cry Kurama lunges after him, claws out.

Before he can reach the man, Kakashi plants his feet and brings his hand up. Chakra surges like a geyser, then steadies, and the sound of a thousand birds fills the smoky air.

Apparently Kakashi's done holding back as well.

This time when Kurama summons his bijūdama, he doesn’t hesitate. The balanced chakra swirls and compresses, spinning madly in his palm, and Kurama brings his hand lashing forward, ready to release it and end this fight. With a sudden burst of speed, Kakashi mirrors him, Raikiri bright and deadly in one hand.

Then a small voice cries, “No!” and before Kurama can even blink there's a tiny, fragile body planted squarely between them, arms outstretched as if to hold them back.

Sheer, mind-numbing terror gives Kurama the deceptive speed of his bijuu form, able to match even Naruto in Sage Mode. With a cry that tears at his throat, he flicks the bijūdama away and changes his lunge into a grab, dragging Naruto around behind him even as he turns to give Kakashi his back. Half a second too late, Kakashi comprehends what’s happening and makes a desperate attempt to pull away, but for all his genius and reflexes, there’s no time, no possibility of aborting the strike or doing anything more than diverting it slightly.

On his own, Kurama could dodge it. He’s fast enough, adrenaline humming and heart pounding, but—

But Naruto is right there, and Kurama can't grab him quickly enough. He can't move, because if he does Naruto will be right in Kakashi's path, and not for anything will Kurama let harm come to this boy.

Kurama has a fraction of a heartbeat to brace himself before lightning tears through his chest, Kakashi's kunai punching a hole right through him. The smell of charred meat rises, and agony greys Kurama's vision, but even as he staggers, coughing up blood, he doesn’t allow himself to falter. He’s already healing, can feel bone and muscle knitting together, and forces himself to move. Kakashi is sluggish with horror, both eyes wide and shocked, and Kurama mercilessly takes advantage. One fist snaps out, striking Kakashi's jaw squarely, and the Copy-Nin goes flying back again, spine slamming into the tree’s trunk and skull bouncing off the wood with a loud crack.

In the same movement, Kurama twists, ignoring the spots of darkness that dance across his eyes, and snatches Naruto up in his arms. The little boy yelps, clearly startled, but Kurama can't comfort him yet. Before Kakashi can recover he turns and flees, each step jolting his wound, but Naruto clutched tightly to him. Behind them there's a shout, but the world is already starting to blur past with their speed, and Kurama isn’t about to stop.

They reach the wall in a moment, and Kurama clears it with a long bound, lands, and immediately hurls himself into the surrounding forest. His Naruto once knew every inch of these woods, and that Kurama has managed to remember clearly. Even with Konoha nin in pursuit, even injured, Kurama knows he can outrun and outmaneuver them here.

There's blood soaking his new shirt, sticky and clammy against his skin, and his breath rasps in his throat, each one hurting like there's a knife in his lungs. Small hands clutch at his collar, his hair, even as a face presses into the curve of his neck, and Kurama grips Naruto to him with his uninjured arm, holds him tight to his uninjured side, and runs as fast as he can force himself to.

It’s only when they're miles from Konoha, in the dimness of a deeply shadowed grove, that Kurama finally allows himself to stagger to a stop. His muscles are trembling, though he can't tell if it’s from adrenaline or exertion. Either way, he drops to his knees with a groan of relief, carefully easing Naruto to the ground in front of him. Vaguely he realizes that his head is spinning, but he can't focus on that. Instead, he looks at the boy in front of him, who has tear-tracks on his cheeks and wide eyes.

“Are you okay?” he demands, as gently as he’s able. “Naruto, are you okay? Did we hurt you?”

Blue eyes turn up to him, and Kurama can read both confusion and wonder in them. Naruto pauses, then smiles, and it makes Kurama's breath catch painfully, makes his heart trip over itself as it beats.

“I'm fine!” he insists. “Don’t worry about me!”

That’s it. That’s Naruto's smile, his real one. And regardless of whether this Naruto knows him or not, he’s giving it to Kurama anyway.

With a choked sob, Kurama drags Naruto forward into a hug, pulling the boy tight against his chest and burying his face in blond hair. “Naruto,” he whispers. “Naruto, Naruto. Oh, thank the Sage. I was so scared.”

There's a hesitation, and then arms twine around his neck, gripping tightly. “I'm okay,” Naruto repeats. “Sorry, Oji-san. I just wanted you guys to stop fighting. I'm sorry I scared you.”

“I wouldn’t have hurt him,” Kurama promises, and it’s only slightly untrue. “I just—I didn’t want them to take you away from me. I finally found you, Naruto, I can't give you up again.”

Small hands—so small, so breakable when Kurama is used to his old juggernaut of a jinchuuriki—tug lightly on his hair, and Kurama reluctantly pulls back to look Naruto in the eyes. There's a mulish set to his features, and once he’s sure he has Kurama's attention, Naruto declares fiercely, “I was worried about you! You're really my uncle, right?”

Of course. He doesn’t know Kakashi yet—at best, the jounin is a stranger on the street. Given Kurama's declaration of shared blood, it makes sense for an orphan boy who’s never known his family to be drawn to that.

Even so, despite all the logical explanations, Kurama feels warmth flood through him like sunlight, and he smiles. Reaching up, he smooths a hand over Naruto's flyaway hair, even worse from the wind of their flight, and then leans in to press a kiss to his forehead. “Thank you, Naruto,” he says quietly. “I'm sorry I grabbed you and ran like that. I wasn’t thinking.”

Another bad decision, and even more than facing Kakuzu unprepared this one was unspeakably stupid. He just made himself a fugitive from Konoha, one every shinobi in the village will be eager to capture. After all, the jinchuuriki are powerful weapons, and Kurama just made off with one.

Beyond that, he was moving entirely on desperation and instinct. There was little reason behind the fight, and with the terrified fury finally ebbing, Kurama can see that. But…

But how could he have chosen differently? They were going to take Naruto away from him. Kakashi tried, and Kurama wasn’t willing to suffer a separation like that, even in the name of his goals. Because Naruto was sad, hurting, and the loneliness in him echoed Kurama's. There was no way Kurama could have stayed there, watched Kakashi pull Naruto away, and not reacted badly.

It feels overwhelming now, the scope of this change. Naruto is meant to be in Konoha, learning and growing—suffering, because Kurama will never again allow himself to forget that much—making friends and connections. And now Kurama has taken him away from that, away from the safety of the village when he may shortly end up with the entire Akatsuki organization on his tail. Taken him into danger, into a situation where Kurama has no food, no home, and a rapidly decreasing amount of money.

His eyes burn. There was no good decision there, no way to win. Maybe, if he’d managed to restrain himself in the beginning, things might have been fine, but there was absolutely no chance of Kurama not reacting to Naruto's loneliness. He’d carve his own heart out before he left Naruto to that pain.

“Sorry,” he whispers, his voice ragged, and presses his cheek to Naruto's palm. “Thank you. Yes, I'm your uncle. I'm your family.”

Naruto beams, leaning forward and hugging him, for the first time of his own volition. “Occhan!” he says enthusiastically. “Can I call you that?”

Despite himself, Kurama laughs. Laughs even as tears slip down his cheeks, because this is Naruto, because Naruto already likes him, and he answers, “Anything you want, Naruto. Anything.”

He’s never spoken truer words.

Even with Konoha after them, even on the run and entirely unprepared for it, Kurama has Naruto again. And for that, to keep Naruto beside him for the rest of time, Kurama will do absolutely anything and not regret it for a moment.

 

 

Kakashi's fairly sure he has a concussion—there's a certain dizzying sort of pain that he’s far too familiar with, and his vision keeps greying out around the edges when he moves too fast. That’s a large part of the reason he’s only just extricating himself from a dent in the tree trunk when the Hokage sweeps in, face set in grim lines and an ANBU contingent around him.

“Kakashi?” he asks sharply, and the tightly-contained lash of his chakra is enough to make even Kakashi shiver.

“Hokage-sama,” he answers as steadily as he’s able, even as one of the ANBU slips forward to press a green-glowing hand against his skull. The ache recedes, and he breathes out a silent sigh of relief. “Uzumaki is gone, and he took Naruto. I attempted to stop him, but…failed.”

The word leaves a bitter taste on his tongue. Failed, the same way he failed to save Obito, save Rin. The same way he failed to keep his promise to Minato and make sure his son stayed safe. He was…not quite relaxed around Kurama, but his guard slipped. Seeing him with Naho, seeing him in the street last night—he’d thought he understood the Uzumaki, thought he had seen enough to judge.

Apparently he failed at that, too.

Politely constrained fury darkens the Sandaime’s eyes, even as he folds his hands behind his back. “I see,” he says after a long moment. “Were you able to discover his motivations, by any chance?”

Kakashi has never seen wonder of the type that was on Kurama's face when Naruto first came into view. He remembers, too, the way gruff, aloof Kurama openly wept when he finally spoke to the boy. There's no way to fake that kind of emotion, and even though Kakashi knows intellectually that he should be suspicious, of that at least he can't be. It’s been a long time since he’s seen such genuine feeling, and it’s unmistakable.

“He claimed to be Naruto's uncle,” he finally offers. “I…don’t think he planned to see Naruto, or even knew he was here. He said—he recognized Naruto because of his chakra’s similarities to Kushina’s. And he didn’t get violent until I attempted to separate him from Naruto.”

Sarutobi doesn’t ask if he believes it—Kakashi would say outright if he didn’t. Instead, he sighs softly, rubbing a hand over his brow. “And the fight?”

“He’s dangerous,” Kakashi answers promptly, though Sarutobi can likely guess as much just looking at the destruction around them. “He doesn’t need hand signs to use very strong Katon jutsus, and he has—” Kakashi winces, stumbling over what he wants to say, but at the Hokage's sharp glance reluctantly finishes, “It’s…it looks like Minato's Rasengan, only black and purple rather than imbued with wind chakra. And he can adjust the size, as well as summon multiple spheres.” Another hesitation, and then Kakashi adds, “He was trying very hard not to kill me. And when Naruto stepped between us, he chose to take my Raikiri to the back rather than put Naruto in danger.”

Grimness slides into thoughtful consideration, and the Hokage nods carefully. “I would believe that Kurama has been otherwise very much alone. Perhaps seeing a relative was enough to unbalance him.” He tips his head faintly, glancing up at Kakashi. “I don’t recall Kushina ever mentioning a brother, but we were not overly close. Did you ever hear anything?”

Kakashi shrugs, hiding a wince when the massive bruise developing up and down his spine twinges. “Her father disappeared when she was a toddler,” he offers. “Up and left. Given Uzushio's location, it’s possible he ended up in Lightning Country and had another kid. Kurama said that he had eight brothers, not a sister, but that could be because they were half-siblings rather than full. Or he’s just distantly related, but didn’t want to confuse Naruto.”

“It might even be possible that Kurama made his way to Uzushio before it fell, and started his career as a shinobi there,” Sarutobi agrees. “It would explain his knowledge of ANBU code and the fact that he and Kushina apparently met. Perhaps she never knew, and the village was lost before he could tell her.” He sighs, folds his hands in front of him, and shakes his head faintly. “But enough guesswork. Until we have more information, Uzumaki Kurama is a dangerous enemy holding one of our most valuable assets hostage. Kakashi, I'm assigning you the track and capture mission. Take Itachi, Shisui, and Tenzō, find Naruto, and bring him back. If it’s possible, take Kurama prisoner. If not, you are authorized to use lethal force. I want Naruto brought home at any cost.”

“Yes, sir,” Kakashi answers simply, dipping into a quick bow, and the Hokage inclines his head and sweeps away.

Straightening slowly, Kakashi drags in a shaky breath, holds it for a count of three, and then releases it. The mission settles into his mind, and Kakashi forces himself to push aside all thoughts of Kurama with Naho, Kurama's face when Kakashi called him a comrade, Kurama's expression of sheer, aching joy as he wrapped Naruto in a hug.

Box up the monster, wipe off the blood, paste on a smile and no one will ever know anything’s happened.

Do it in reverse, and the monster is suddenly all that’s left.

All that remains is the mission, and that part Kakashi isn’t going to let himself fail. Not this time. Not again.

Chapter Text

[bellicose / ˈbeləˌkōs/ , demonstrating aggression and willingness to fight. Late Middle English from Latin bellicosus, from bellicus ‘warlike,’ from bellum ‘war.’.]

 

Despite what recent actions might make one assume, Kurama's not an idiot.  He’s very, very much not an idiot, and actually considers himself quite clever. He might even go so far as to say very intelligent, should he be asked. The blame for his most recent lapses can be laid firmly at Naruto's door, and Kurama doesn’t plan to allow himself many more.

Given all of this, Kurama is fully aware that he can't take a six-year-old jinchuuriki Akatsuki-hunting with him.

Even beyond the danger, there's the simple logistics of it—Kurama has no food, no clothes beyond those he’s wearing, no one in all the world to turn to. There's only him, only Naruto, all his bridges back to Konoha most thoroughly burned by now. He only has himself to rely on, because Naruto's only six and can't yet help him, can hardly even use chakra right now and most certainly can't be expected to take care of himself while Kurama hunts down those who want to kill him.

The smart thing to do would be to take him back to Konoha, or even just leave the boy where he is—there's no chance that the Hokage hasn’t sent out pursuers, after all—and let him grow up in peace while Kurama finishes his mission. Then, maybe, he can bargain his way back into the village and be a part of Naruto's life.

This is another one of those stupid decisions Kurama's going to make.

He can't let Naruto go, not if there's a chance he’ll never get to see him again. And he can't, not now that he’s set himself up as family. Naruto is his, and he’s Naruto's. Konoha hasn’t managed to get its collective head out of its collective ass yet, so the kid stays with him. Period. Kurama's not about to let him grow up in misery when there's anything at all he can do to prevent it.

Still. That stupidity doesn’t extend to dragging a practically defenseless six-year-old to the Mountains’ Graveyard with him, right into the waiting arms of seven people who’d kill him the moment they got the chance. He’s not about to let Konoha have him, either, so just about his only choice is to find somewhere safe to stash Naruto for the time being. Somewhere he can be happy, and if Kurama had thought about it he’d have grabbed Sasuke and Sakura on his way out too. After all, kidnapping a clan head’s son and the daughter of two well-respected chuunin could hardly make things worse than they already are, having made off with a pint-sized jinchuuriki, and Kurama is aware of just how much those two will come to mean to Naruto. He’s determined that that, at least, isn’t going to change, no matter what he has to do to ensure it.

One brat instead of three is a hell of a lot easier to haul around, though, for which Kurama is definitely grateful.

With a sigh, he tugs the heavy haori up a little, covering Naruto more completely. It’s not nearly as cold as the Earth Country border, but there's still a bone-deep bite to the air once you stop moving. Kurama's feeling it right now; he dropped the bag with his new clothes back in Konoha—all but the haori, and he’s now blessing whatever foresight made him pull it on. Him being cold is fine, but he’s not about to make Naruto suffer through the same thing.

Kurama's fairly certain there's a bit of a buffer between them and any hunters; he’s fast, after all, and when he left he was fleeing blindly, a fox’s instinct to get away from the enemy driving him in a zigzagging line. There's at least enough time to let Naruto sleep for a bit, since the kid seemed bone-tired. Not that Kurama blames him—it’s not every day you get kidnapped by family that appears out of nowhere.

With a low, heavy breath, he sinks to the ground next to Naruto, stretching his legs out in front of him and trying to ease some of the tension from his shoulders. Han’s heavily abused shirt now has a charred, ragged-edged hole punched through it, as well as a new saturation of blood soaking it, but Kurama manages to pull and tuck the oversized edges enough that it’s mostly invisible. Now the only thing left to focus on is the future.

This, at least, should be familiar. Kurama has spent the better part of the last century plotting and planning, curled up in a human soul and waiting for the future to bring his freedom. But there was an edge of certainty to that, a knowledge that nothing would change even if he failed. Right now, if he fails, he’ll lose Naruto, and that’s not acceptable.

Still, Naruto smiled at him. Naruto likes him, and even if the boy doesn’t love him yet, Kurama knows his jinchuuriki. He’s precious to Naruto just for having claimed a connection, and love will follow shortly. Naruto's big heart has always been his best feature.

It will hurt to separate from the boy, even temporarily, and the mere thought of it is like needles digging under Kurama's skin, prying up whatever composure he’s managed by the roots. Better to separate for a short time, though, than have Naruto stolen from him forever, either by Akatsuki or Konoha. And this way Kurama will know that Naruto is safe, well out of any enemy’s grasp.

Which just leaves the problem of where to put him.

With a groan, Kurama rakes his fingers through his hair, slumping forward over his bent knees and trying to think. He doesn’t know anyone in this world, so far out of his own time. There's no one to turn to, no one to rely on. The only people he’s met are Kakashi, Sarutobi, and…

Han and Kokuō.

Kurama's first instinct is to seize on the idea and run with it, but…it’s not that great, actually. After all, Kakuzu was hunting Kokuō, or came across him by chance, and either way, that means the bijuu is now firmly in Akatsuki’s crosshairs. Kurama is inclined to trust Han, especially since Kokuō was actually working with him to drive Kakuzu off, and he knows that Kokuō is shy and quiet but steady, but leaving Naruto with them would be almost the same as dragging him along to the Mountains’ Graveyard.

Still, the idea sparks another, and Kurama immediately thinks of one of his Naruto's best friends, tall and slender and as red-haired as any Uzumaki, for all that he doesn’t know of any blood connections. Gaara is, admittedly, the same age as Naruto right now, but…well, maybe Kurama can beat some sense into Shukaku. The damned tanuki has been calling himself Gaara's mother, it’s about time he lived up to that claim. And Naruto adored Gaara in his time, loved him like a brother and one of his first real friends. Kurama's not about to steal that from the kid, even if it means massive changes to the timeline.

Well, the first time around didn’t work out so well. Might as well upend everything for a second try, right?

So. It will take a bit of doing, and probably some skull-denting, but for all that Shukaku is a pissy, prissy bastard, he’s still Kurama's brother. And Kurama knows that Shukaku mourned when Gaara died, in his own bloody way. He’d grown reckless afterwards, plunging into fights he should have kept back from, and that was how Kaguya caught him. A bad reaction to Gaara's death, Kurama thinks, and after these last few days dealing with Naruto's death he won't be convinced otherwise—

A short distance away, the bushes rustle.

Kurama's head snaps up automatically, his ears straining. There's no sense of human chakra, though, only natural, and he frowns, rising to his feet. The rustling continues, more like thrashing now, quiet and desperate, and with one last, quick glance at Naruto, who’s sleeping calmly, Kurama slips soundlessly towards the source of the noise. Around a tree, down a short hill, the undergrowth is waving. It’s a bramble, long thorns clear even in the darkening twilight gloom, and Kurama can just make out a flash of scarlet fur between the branches.

Well, that’s all right, then.

“Hey,” Kurama says softly, crouching down beside the quivering bramble. “Looks like you’ve gotten yourself into a bit of a mess, kid. Mind if I help you out there?”

There's a pause, careful and considering, and the small red fox twists to look at him, slit-pupiled amber eyes sharp and wary. Kurama raises an expectant brow, but doesn’t otherwise move, and after a long moment the fox gives a yip of nearly desperate agreement. With a soft snort, Kurama pushes his hands through the tightly-woven branches, wincing as sharp thorns dig long furrows in his skin, but doesn’t hesitate. There are more thorns dug deep into the fox’s thick undercoat, knitted into the fur so thoroughly that even Kurama, with the advantage of opposable thumbs, has a hard time working them out.

“Still working on that second tail, huh?” Kurama asks over the sound of the fox’s small grumbles of discomfort, trying to distract it. “You should head to Mount Inari if you want it to go quicker. I've heard there's better hunting there, too.”

The fox barks at him reprovingly, apparently offended by the idea of taking such a shortcut, and Kurama rolls his eyes in response. “Yeah, yeah, what do I know, right? I'm just the Kyuubi no Kitsune, haven’t got a clue about any of this fox stuff.” He snaps the last branch, carefully working it out of the fox’s fur, and then withdraws his hands. There's blood covering the backs of them, all the way up past his wrists, but the scratches are shallow and already healing. “There you go. Try it now.”

In a blur of scarlet, the fox wriggles out of the bush and into the open, shaking itself briskly. It turns, regarding Kurama carefully, and then slips over to him. A long tongue flicks out, taking a quick lick of the blood on his fingers before it barks again.

“You're welcome,” Kurama answers, because he knows a thank you when he hears one. “Be a little more careful next time, all right?”

The fox yips, turning to present its back in clear offer, and Kurama can't help giving a soft huff of laughter. “You're sure?” he asks pointedly. “I don’t know, kid, you might not survive having a human touch you. Well, more or less a human. But why risk it?”

This time the fox doesn’t answer, just gives him an impatient look, and Kurama shakes his head but obediently reaches out, smoothing his hand over thick fur. “Wish you had that second tail,” he says a little wistfully. “I could really use someone to vent to right now. But…I'm glad I could help. Don’t let anyone catch you getting into trouble, okay?”

It gives a guttural chatter, clearly amused with the order, and then turns and vanishes with a flick of its white-tipped tail. Kurama watches it go before he pushes back to his feet. There's still no sense of approaching chakra, so he doesn’t rush as he heads up to the small campsite, though he doesn’t dawdle, either. Naruto is still asleep, and though Kurama would like to let him sleep right through the night, he doesn’t dare. Kakashi will probably be the one sent out after them, and he’s a tracker. Kurama needs to put even more distance between them if he’s going to have a hope of throwing him off the scent long enough to make it to Suna.

It feels good to have a goal, though. Naruto was never much of one for plans, and honestly Kurama can't say that he is, either, but this whole thing is so slapdash and desperate that it feels like finally grounding himself, to settle on a path.

“Come on, Naruto,” he murmurs softly, sliding his hands underneath the boy’s shoulders and knees. “You don’t have to get up right now, just let me pick you up. We need to get going.”

“Occhan?” Naruto asks sleepily but he doesn’t resist when Kurama settles him against his shoulder again. One arm loops around his neck, making Kurama's breath catch at the simple sweetness of it, and a moment later a head of messy yellow hair is tucked underneath his chin. “Can we get ramen for dinner?”

Fuck. Food is going to be a problem. Kurama hasn’t eaten since the inn, and his stomach feels uncomfortably hollowed out. Tanzaku-Gai is too close to Konoha for them to risk doubling back, so Kurama is just going to have to hope he can catch something, or find a house. He still has money, so maybe a farmer will be will to part with his lunch.

“I’ll try, kid,” he says helplessly. “Sorry. We won't make it to Suna for another couple of days, but I’ll—I’ll try to find a town somewhere and get you ramen.”

There's a pause as Naruto seems to come a little more awake, and he tips his head to look up at Kurama through one sky-blue eye. “Suna?” he asks interestedly. Then he hesitates, and asks, “We aren’t gonna go back to Konoha?”

“I—if I take you back, they won't let me see you again,” Kurama says, and oh Sage, phrased like that it sounds so fucking selfish. “Do you—?” He steels himself, takes a breath, and forces himself to think of Naruto, not his own needs. Even as he does so, though, he curls a hand in Naruto's bright hair, strokes over the small back, and aches. “Do you want to go back? If you think you’ll be happier there, I can take you.”

Naruto pulls back to look at him fully, and he looks far too serious for a six-year-old. In mimicry of Kurama's own movements, he reaches out and twists his fingers into blood-red hair, holding tightly. “Will you come with me?” he asks solemnly.

Kurama feels a little like he wants to cry again. “I can't,” he says, and that’s helpless too. “I—I promised my best friend I’d do something for him, and I have to finish it. If I go back to Konoha, they’ll treat me like an enemy and lock me up, and I promised.”

Naruto, as ever, understands the value of a promise. He looks torn for a moment before the stubbornness sets in again, and he offers, “If I tell Hokage-jiji that you're not a bad guy, will you come back? He’ll believe me, I know it!”

The implication is all too clear. There's a fist around Kurama's heart, tight and getting tighter, but it isn’t hard to realize what he has to do. No, the hard part is actually forcing himself to follow through.

“Sorry,” he whispers, arms tightening involuntarily. “Sorry, Naruto, I’ll take you back. Maybe—maybe the Sandaime will listen. You’ll probably be better off there.”

Fuck, but it aches. How had he ever thought he could steal a glance at Naruto and then go on his way without a care? Not even half a day with Naruto returned to him, and already Kurama feels like he’s losing him all over again just contemplating letting him go. It’s a little like dying, knowing that Naruto would rather be in Konoha than with him, even though Kurama is fully aware that Naruto has no reason to stay.

Another moment of silence, and then Naruto says, “But don’t you want to go back, Occhan?” with confusion clear in his voice.

What?

“What?” Kurama asks, pulling back to look at the boy.

Naruto is frowning at him. “But you look so sad,” he says, touching Kurama's cheek gently. “Occhan, aren’t you sad about leaving the village? Isn’t that why you wanna go back?”

There's a flicker of nearly-extinguished hope in Kurama's chest. “No,” he answers quickly. “No, Naruto, you're my home, not the village. I don’t care about them as long as you're happy. I want you to stay with me, I swear. That’s all I want.”

“Then I’ll stay,” Naruto says cheerfully, as though it’s as simple as that. “Hokage-jiji will be sad, but we can send him a letter and ask if he’ll tell everyone you're not a bad guy, and I can become an awesome ninja and when we go back they’ll have to make me Hokage. Then I’ll make it a law that you're allowed to stay and no one will care!”

Whether he’s six, sixteen, or thirty-six, Naruto's logic always sounds exactly the same. Kurama laughs before he can help it, and leans in to kiss Naruto squarely on the forehead. A moment later the giddy joy is too much, and he spins Naruto around in his arms, still laughing. Naruto laughs too, bright and delighted, and it’s so very much everything that Kurama has missed.

“Thanks,” he says. “Thanks, Naruto. Come on, let’s go find you some—

Chakra. A flare of it, a tight little knot filled not so much with malevolence as it is determination, though there's a thread of undeniable hatred in there too. Familiar chakra, and Kurama curses, spinning on his heel. He leaps upward, into the branches of the tree above them, and sets Naruto at the highest sturdy branch he can get to.

“Stay here, and be as quiet as you can,” he warns. “Let’s see how good you are at ninja stealth, okay?”

Naruto's eyes are a little bit wide, but he nods agreeably all the same, making a motion like he’s zipping his mouth shut. Kurama gives him a relieved smile, ruffles his hair, and then uses the tip of one claw to scratch a seal onto the trunk below him. It pulses once, then fades to a pale glow that will hopefully be missed, and Kurama throws himself back towards the ground. His extends his senses, but Naruto is completely hidden, from the sound of his breathing to the feel of his chakra, and though Kurama wishes he had the time to be more thorough, that will have to do. If he can distract the trackers, it will be enough.

It has to be.

Even as he veers east and breaks into a run, he casts his attention back, trying to judge the size of the group. It’s hard, because only Kakashi is truly angry—all the others are some flavor of determined, and emotions like that slide from Kurama's grasp before he can really touch them. Still, they're almost close enough for him to sense normally, and he’s fairly certain there are four of them.

He’s even more certain that three of the four are all too familiar.

Kakashi, of course, is easy to mark, and Kurama hadn’t really expected anything else. Obviously the jounin was going to pursue him—that’s simple logic. But right behind him is a familiar trickle of power that registers like the biting-sharp scent of new sap rising to Kurama's nose, and that’s a bad sign. Naruto's second sensei, the baby Mokuton user, which would be bad enough on its own, but one step behind him is the mirrors-and-smoke feel of one particular brat whose presence really means Kurama is screwed. And as if that’s not enough, there's the itch of another, unfamiliar Uchiha right behind Itachi.

Really. Mokuton and not one but two (and a half) Sharingan all at once—if Kurama had to design his worst day ever, it would probably go something like this.

This would all be so much easier if he could just turn into a twenty-story fox and sit on them.

The group is moving quickly, obviously having spotted his chakra, and Kurama gives a low growl of frustration and redoubles his pace, leaping fallen trees and ducking low branches as he races towards the rushing rumble of a river in the distance. He’s too late to throw them off his scent by crossing it, but with any luck (not that Kurama honestly expects to have much) he can knock them into it with a hurricane or something.

Whatever. He’s still working on a plan, but it’ll come to him.

He’s out of time, though. Just as he breaks through the last stretch of trees and into the open ground before the river, a wall of wood shoots up in front of him and forces Kurama to leap aside before he brains himself. Even as he lands, fire roars towards him, vast enough to swallow him whole. There's no time to dodge, no chance to avoid it, and so Kurama doesn’t try. He plants his feet and lets his chakra surge, because fire is his element. There's always the chance that it can hurt him, but like this? Prepared and braced, with sufficient warning?

Kurama is a god of fire and wind, of devastation, and even being trapped in a fragile mortal body can't take that away from him entirely.

He steals the flames before they can even touch him, wraps himself in their light and heat and laughs as his hunters leap from the trees to confront him. The fire roars, leaping and crackling, and Kurama lets it swirl away, lets his chakra devour and consume it like fuel. Their eyes are wary and startled, and Kurama grins, bloody-bright and showing teeth.

“Come for a rematch, Hatake?” he mocks. “How cute. And you even brought friends this time. But face me again and I warn you, I'm not going to hold back.”

“I could swear I won last time,” Kakashi says mildly, and it’s almost impressive how well he manages to hide the anger seething inside of him. “Where’s Naruto, Uzumaki? If that’s even your name.”

“I didn’t lie to you,” Kurama snaps, bristling. “Naruto is mine, my blood, mine to care for! I won't let him grow up an outcast just because you're terrified if the Kyuubi! I love him more than anything in the world, and I'm not about to let him suffer!”

Kakashi's shoulders draw into a slightly tenser line. “So you do know,” he says softly.

Kurama snorts. “That he’s a jinchuuriki? I know better than anyone. 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.”

Kakashi must give some sort of signal he doesn’t see, because half a heartbeat later the ground explodes underneath him, spears of wood and grasping roots trying to knot around his limbs. Kurama swears viciously, leaping clear and whirling to slash one hand downward. Waves of force smash into the reaching branches, shattering them into sawdust, and Kurama flips in the air, coming down right in front of Itachi and lashing out with a scything kick. The Uchiha ducks, darting away, but Kurama doesn’t attempt to follow. He vaults a trio of kunai, touches down in front of the unfamiliar Uchiha, and rises with an uppercut leading. The boy is too surprised to dodge and goes flying, and Kurama slips around another ball of flames and casts his own right back.

Four against one isn’t something he’d have had trouble with in his bijuu form, but as a human? The odds suck balls.

Thankfully, Kurama knows a way to fix that.

Balancing and compressing chakra for a bijūdama is simple. This—this is beyond that. It’s like breathing, or blinking, entirely involuntary and unthinking. Fingers up, chakra flaring, and a shadow clone mirrors Kurama as he leaps back towards the river.

It’s tempting to go for Naruto's usual overkill and summon a thousand of the things, but Kurama doesn’t quite dare. He’s not sure how his chakra will react with the clones, given that he’s a bijuu, and beyond that he’s a manifestation of anger and malice—he doesn’t want evil, mindless little versions of the Kyuubi running around. While that would definitely distract his hunters, it probably wouldn’t be good in the long run.

The clone splits off, heading for Itachi, and Kurama wishes it luck as he spins to avoid Kakashi's kunai. The blade just manages to skim his hair before Kurama lunges forward, knocking Kakashi's arm wide with an elbow and then driving a knee into his side. Even as Kakashi chokes and staggers, more roots burst from the ground, reaching for Kurama's limbs. He snarls and tears his way free, then throws himself towards the Mokuton user, who has his hands raised in a seal and an expression of grim concentration on his face. When he sees Kurama coming, dark eyes narrow further, and the hand-seal shifts. Another wooden wall bursts up, this time curving into a dome around him. Kurama's claws tear gouges in it, nowhere deep enough to even begin doing real damage, but he doesn’t have time to try again. Kakashi is on his heels, kunai out and slashing.

“Damn you!” Kurama hisses, sliding under the blow. He comes up with a weak shockwave, still not aiming to kill, and feels a rush of pure frustration when Kakashi disappears into the ground, swallowed up by his own earth jutsu. At the same moment, a thick beam of wood shoots right at his gut, catching him hard in the stomach. Kurama loses all of his breath in an explosive rush as he’s lifted right off his feet, ribs creaking threateningly, and goes flying back into the trunk of a tree.

Beneath him, the earth erupts, and Kakashi grabs his ankle, yanking down. Kurama automatically kicks him in the face, earning a loud yelp, and then lunges for the Mokuton user again. The man spins away from his claws, leg lashing out, but Kurama ducks the high kick and slams bodily into him, one hand fisting in his uniform. A snarl, a surge of effort, and Kurama hurls the man directly into the unfamiliar Uchiha, right as the boy is calling up a fireball.

“Tenzō!” Kakashi shouts, and a moment later a dragon of fire slams into the ground where Kurama had been standing. Kurama whirls past it, bringing his claws to bear, and almost succeeds in slicing Kakashi across the face. The Copy-Nin dodges at the last second, managing to avoid all but a shallow scrap across his chin, and Kurama lashes out with a snarl.

“Naruto is mine!” he roars. “Stop trying to take him away!”

Wind screams past him, sharp-edged like blades and fueled by rage and chakra in equal measure. It knocks Kakashi right off his feet, dispels Kurama's clone in a puff of smoke, and sends the two Uchiha staggering. It’s a small opening, but it’s an opening nevertheless, and if Kurama can move fast enough, maybe set a fire behind him, he’ll have enough time to get to Naruto and then hightail it for the Suna border.

He turns to run, but before he can take more than a single step branches like steel cables catch him. They twist around his limbs, his torso, catch him in their choking grasp and drag him down to his knees even as he screams in rage, claws slashing ineffectually at thin air before they're immobilized.

“Shisui,” Kakashi orders, a whip-crack of sound in the hurricane’s wake as he staggers to his feet.

“Captain,” the Uchiha acknowledges, stepping into Kurama's line of vision. His dark eyes spin to red, shifting into a kaleidoscope of ebony and crimson, and Kurama knows all too well what that means. He snarls a denial, struggles redoubling as creepers lock his head into place, but he’s well and truly trapped. The only thing he can see is that hated dojutsu, already striping away his will in a surge of bone-deep horror.

Just those eyes, red and black and rising to swallow him in a tide of fear and loathing.

Kurama meets them helplessly, hatefully, and can only think, Sage, not again.  

Chapter Text

[nepenthe / nə ‘ penTHē/ , a drug described in Homer’s Odyssey as banishing grief or trouble from a person’s mind; anything that brings welcome forgetfulness. From Latin nēpenthes ‎“herb for soothing”, from Greek nēpenth, ‎“sorrowless”.]

 

If there's one thing Kurama hates above all others, it’s helplessness. It’s having his will stolen and twisted and having another’s will forced on him. Madara did it twice, Kaguya tried it, Obito managed it. That would be the reason for his loathing of the Sharingan, because he fears it. He fears it more than anything, that a single moment of eye contact can strip away everything that makes him Kurama and turn him into a mindless weapon.

“If you do this,” he hisses, “I’ll rip you apart and eat your corpses, you fucking bastards.”

At the edge of his line of vision, Kakashi shifts. “You won't,” he says flatly, and at the same moment Shisui's chakra crests. Kurama tries to look away, slam his eyes shut, but he already knows it’s too late, can feel himself falling—

There's a sharp pop, a puff of smoke, and something small and white drops out of midair to land right on Shisui's head. He yelps, leaping back, and three fluffy tails swing down to slap him in the face. Another cry and he lashes out, sweeping a kunai over his head, but the creature leaps clear with a neat flip, bounces off Itachi's face as he heads for his clansman and sends him reeling, and lands lightly on the ground.

“Which one?” it shouts, darting around the Uchihas’ attempts to grab it, and that’s definitely a female voice. “Which one is it?”

From the bushes there's a sharp, eerie screech, and a small scarlet shape bursts out and bolts across the battleground. It slams bodily into Kakashi's leg even as he tries to dodge, and sharp white teeth flash. Kakashi yelps in pain and overbalances, and the little red fox abandons its victim to throw itself at Kurama. It grabs a vine in its teeth and wrenches hard, but Kurama sees movement and shouts a warning as more roots sprout.

Smoke whirls, chakra flares, and the white vixen disappears. In her place is a girl who looks no older than fourteen, with long white hair and three tails peeking from under her red kimono. She claps her hands together, and orbs of multicolored fire whirl into being around her. A flick of her fingers sends them spinning out, aiming for the Konoha shinobi, and in the confusion that follows she leaps forward, alighting next to Kurama and the red fox.

“Kyuubi-sama?” she asks, already ripping at the roots binding him. “What on earth did you do to get yourself trapped in that body?”

“Long story,” Kurama says gruffly, but relief leaves him shaky and almost breathless as he helps to free himself. He catches a flash of lightning from the corner of his eye and swears, lunging forward and scooping the kitsune and fox both up into his arms as he jumps clear. It impacts behind him, scorching the Mokuton user’s trap and leaving a deep crater, but Kakashi doesn’t pause, driving forward with a kunai leading.

Really, Kurama is getting tired of this. He snarls, boosting the fox up onto his shoulders and tucking the vixen under his arm like a sack of rice as he strikes, and this time he doesn’t hold back. The shockwave tears across the earth, flattening trees and cracking rock, forcing Kakashi to tumble away. In his place Tenzō tries to lunge forward, but the vixen makes a sound of triumph and brings her hands together again. There's another pop, and a leaf goes tumbling off her head as she shifts again, flowing out of Kurama's grip like smoke. This time it’s back to a fox, but large—much, much larger than the tiny form she appeared with. As big as a pony, she plants her feet, opens her mouth, and spits a bolt of lightning right at the jounin.

There's no time to see the result. Kurama spins, catching the hilt of the tantō descending at his skull, and snarls at the Uchiha who tried to take his will. He slams a foot towards the boy’s gut, but the blow doesn’t land. There's a faint shimmer, a flicker of speed that’s almost too much for even Kurama to follow, and he has to knock the red fox clear, then throw himself forward and down into a roll to avoid the blade aimed at his back. He twists back to his feet just in time for a kick to knock his legs out from under him again, and he snarls. As Itachi strikes out at him, Sharingan bright with power, Kurama summons fire in a wave, and forces the boy to dodge it.

Staggering upright, Kurama locks eyes with Kakashi, who’s approaching at a run. He bares his teeth, brings his claws up, and ignores the red fox when it claws its way back up to his shoulders and curls defensively around his neck.

“Why?” Kurama demands. “Why all of this? Naruto doesn’t even know you! You’ve never been there for him before!”

Kakashi's poker face is too good to tell if the barb landed, but he slows, circling Kurama warily. “That’s not what this is about,” he says. “Naruto belongs in Konoha. You have no right to take him away.”

“I have every right!” Kurama snarls. “You bastard, I know who trained you! Naruto might as well be family to you, but he doesn’t so much as know your name. Justify that!”

Kurama is used to anger, hate. They’ve been his companions as long as he can remember, and he knows all too well how to use them. He grabs for them now, for power, for balance. Positive and negative chakra spin at his fingertips, condensing down into five marble-sized balls of purple-black light, and Kurama lets them go. They whirl out, and Kakashi's eyes widen. He shouts a warning, throwing himself back towards the river, but Kurama can't see if he makes it. When the bijūdama impact, it shakes the very earth and fills the battleground with choking smoke.

“Okay up there?” Kurama asks, putting a hand up to touch his passenger, and the small fox yips quietly. A moment later the smoke parts and a shining white shape slips through. The vixen bounds over to them, then drops into a crouch.

“Get on, Kyuubi-sama,” she orders. “I cast a few illusions, but it won't distract them for long.”

Kurama doesn’t hesitate to vault onto her back, twisting his fingers into her long ruff as she leaps forward, long legs eating up the ground as she races into the forest. “Naruto,” he manages, and when the red fox’s claws scrape at his neck he pulls the creature down into his lap. “I have to get back to Naruto, he’s alone—”

“I’ll take you to him,” the vixen promises, pausing in a small dip. “Which way?”

The red fox barks, scrambling off her back, and races up the hill. Kurama glances around and is startled to recognize it as the same spot where he helped the fox earlier. He slips off the vixen’s back as well, touching her shoulder in gratitude.

“Here,” he says. “I—thank you. You saved me.”

“Occhan?” a voice calls, and Kurama spins, instantly sidetracked.

“Naruto!” he shouts back, and a small body bursts out of the bushes and slams into him. Kurama lets out a breath of pure relief and wraps his arms around the boy, clutching him close. “Naruto. You're okay?”

“Fine,” Naruto says, and looks up. His eyes catch on the white vixen and go wide with wonder. “Occhan, what is that?”

“Oi, don’t you mean who?” the vixen protests, and the red fox bolts back under her paws with a yipping laugh.

Kurama laughs as well, too shaky and glad to do much else. “Thank you,” he tells her again, lifting Naruto into his arms. “I don’t know how to repay you.” Then he crouches down, holding out a hand to the red fox, and adds with a smile, “And thank you as well. That was very, very clever and tricky of you. I bet you’ll be earning that second tail in no time.”

The fox gives a rumbling purr and twists under his hand like a cat, then licks his fingers and slips away, vanishing back into the undergrowth.

“He wanted to repay you,” the vixen says, a smile in her voice as she crouches beside him. “And when he told me the greatest of our kind was nearby, I had to see for myself.”

“Not what you expected, huh?” Kurama asks wryly, rising to his feet again. “Thank you for the help, but I should go. Those four won't be distracted for long.”

The vixen snorts softly. “Don’t be a fool,” she says, tone arch. “I can take you anywhere you want to go, Kyuubi-sama, and do it much faster than that silly human body.”

This is true. Kurama hesitates, but he doesn’t really have any other choices. With Konoha's best tracker on his tail, his options are shrinking by the second. Casting a glance at Naruto, he arches a brow, and asks, “Up for it, kid?”

Naruto looks awed. “We’re gonna ride a fox?” he demands, and beams widely. “Yeah!”

With a laugh, the vixen turns to present her back. “All right, then. Glad to have your approval, kit. Where to, Kyuubi-sama?”

“Call me Kurama,” Kurama offers, settling himself behind her shoulders with Naruto in front of him. “You're likely to give someone a heart attack otherwise. And I was headed for Suna.”

That gets him another laugh, wicked and tricky, as she rises to her full height. “I'm Fuji,” she offers. “And Suna it is. Can we stop for oden on the way?”

“Ramen!” is Naruto's input. “Can we get ramen too, Occhan?”

Kurama chuckles, kisses sun-bright hair, and answers, “Yeah. Meal’s on me. Thanks, Fuji.”

White ears flick back, then up, and the vixen leaps forward into a run, all sleek muscle and inhuman speed. “I've always wanted to meet you, Kurama-sama,” she calls back, “so believe me, the honor is mine.”

Kurama wonders a little wryly how to tell her that she’s more or less met two of him in the space of a few minutes, but decides to save that conversation for a later date.

 

 

“I have this nagging suspicion that that didn’t go anywhere close to how we planned it,” Shisui says as he fights his way free of Tenzō’s desperately erected shield, because he’s a sarcastic asshole who thinks he’s funny.

“Someone hit him for me,” a mud-coated Tenzō requests, dragging himself out of the river’s shallows, which a very clever genjutsu made him think was solid ground. “And make it hurt, please.”

Obligingly, Itachi reaches out and smacks the back of his best friend’s head. Shisui yelps and ducks away, looking wounded, and protests, “Hey, easy! You didn’t have twenty pounds of fox just land on your skull!”

Itachi, who has four muddy paw-prints smeared across his face, narrows his eyes and glares.

“Technically not your skull,” Shisui reminds him, grinning.

For all their sakes, Kakashi sweeps his feet out from under him and dumps the elder Uchiha on his ass. Given Shisui's speed and reflexes, it’s likely that he allows it to happen, but either way it’s still vaguely satisfying. Turning his attention away, Kakashi looks over his dirty, slightly battered team and resists the urge to sigh. The riverbank around them is a complete disaster, more a collection of craters than anything, and the dust and smoke in the air is only just now clearing.

“All right?” he asks Tenzō, who took the brunt of the attack while shielding the rest of them.

Tenzō nods agreeably, in the process of wringing out his flak jacket. “Marvelous. Thank you for asking, senpai.” Something that may or may not be a small fish flops out of a pocket and falls to the ground, and he gives Kakashi a pointed smile and chucks it back into the river.

Really. Kakashi is surrounded by comedians.

To be honest, though, he isn’t feeling all that enthusiastic himself. Given that his one-on-one fight against Kurama ended with the Uzumaki taking a Raikiri to the chest, he’d expected a four-on-one fight to go a little more smoothly, or at least not disastrously. Tenzō, Shisui, and Itachi are all ANBU, after all, and the four of them are fairly well-versed in working as a team. They should have been able to overwhelm Kurama easily, but—

Naruto doesn’t even know you! You’ve never been there for him before!

It is maybe just slightly possible that Kurama's words affected him rather more than he would care to admit.

The problem, Kakashi thinks, is Kurama's certainty. He is so utterly convinced that Naruto is better off with him, and Kakashi has been on Naruto's guard enough to know just what the boy’s life is like. There's always the possibility that, if Kurama really is telling the truth about who he is, Naruto really is better off elsewhere.

It doesn’t matter, Kakashi tells himself. This is a mission from the Sandaime Hokage. This is his duty. Naruto belongs in Konoha, in Minato's village, and not in the clutches of a completely unknown man who clearly knows far too much about jinchuuriki. He could be planning to use Naruto as a weapon, or to brainwash him, or just to hurt him, and that’s not a risk Kakashi can take.

It doesn’t matter, he tells himself, and tries to believe it.

“Uzumaki seemed oddly wary of your Mokuton,” Itachi says to Tenzō, startling Kakashi out of his thoughts. When he glances over, the boy offers a small shrug. “He went out of his way to avoid Tenzō and keep him at a distance. I thought it was interesting.”

That’s true, and Kakashi had hardly noticed.  

There's a brief pause as they all consider this, and then Shisui hums thoughtfully, stretching his legs out in front of him and wrapping an arm around his knees. “Are we sure,” he asks carefully, “that all the other jinchuuriki are accounted for?”

Kakashi lets that rather awful thought sink in for a moment and grimaces. They're really, really not. Jinchuuriki are weapons, after all—villages don’t tend to announce when they acquire them, and they're always jealously guarded. Iwa has more than one, Konoha suspects that Kumo does as well, and Suna has admitted to having the Ichibi, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess.

“Uzushio never had a bijuu, though,” he points out, crouching down beside Shisui. Kurama is gaining a lead, but he’s barefoot, tired, and cold, still recovering from Kakashi's Raikiri, with a six-year-old who can't move nearly as fast; Kakashi is confident they can make up the distance. “Suna might have only told us because they had to, but Uzushio was an ally. They wouldn’t have lied.”

Tenzō huffs softly. “Are we so sure that this man was telling the truth?” he counters. “He could be anyone. Nothing guarantees that he’s really an Uzumaki.”

“He wasn’t lying.”

In faint surprise, Kakashi glances over at Itachi. The eleven-year-old meets his stare evenly, tipping one shoulder in a faint shrug, but says nothing else.

“‘Tachi?” Shisui prompts looking curious as well, and his cousin glances at him for a second before nodding in agreement.

“When he spoke of family, he wasn’t lying,” Itachi clarifies. “He was angry, but there were no micro-expressions indicating falsehood. As far as Kurama believed, he was telling the truth. Naruto really is his family.”

Tenzō sighs faintly, but doesn’t argue with the Sharingan’s ability to pick up on such things. “Then he is an Uzumaki,” he concludes. “Which brings us back to whether or not he’s a jinchuuriki.”

“I think we can safely assume he is,” Kakashi says slowly, remembering Kurama's words about teaching Naruto to use the strength of a bijuu, and how they could never understand a jinchuuriki as well as he could. “Those abilities of his have to come from somewhere. Given his looks, maybe he’s one of Kumo’s jinchuuriki gone rogue? It would explain some things, and they’d hardly broadcast losing one of the tailed beasts.”

It makes more sense than Kakashi would like it to. An Uzumaki man, the father of Konoha's second jinchuuriki but with no real ties to either Konoha or Uzushio, would be a valuable commodity in Kumo. If Kurama had escaped, made his way back to Uzushio before it fell, it would also make sense for him not to have told anyone what he was.

It’s a lot of speculation, but the pieces are adding up.

“You mean we’re going to have to fight a damned jinchuuriki?” Shisui demands, sounding distinctly unhappy. “Fuck me.”

“We already have,” Itachi reminds him, at the same moment as Tenzō answers, “Not even if you paid me.”

There's a moment of silence as the three team members stare at each other. Kakashi puts his head in his hands and regrets every single one of his life choices with even more fervor than normal.

“I was referring to the fight we just finished,” Itachi says carefully, ignoring the crimson spreading across his cheeks as he pointedly looks away.

Tenzō snorts out a soft laugh, rising to his feet and shrugging on his soggy flak jacket. “Well, I was referring to screwing Shisui,” he clarifies helpfully.

“That’s fine, everyone knows you're hung up on the captain anyways,” Shisui shoots back, and really, Kakashi would like to be anywhere else at the moment. “Always going senpai, senpai—I'm embarrassed for you, Tenzō.”

Technically, the expression Tenzō offers him is a smile, but it’s weird and darkly creepy and makes even Itachi wince faintly. “I've decided. You can sleep outside when we stop for the night.”

“What?! Come on, Tenzō—”

“Which we haven’t yet,” Kakashi cuts in, relieved to have found a place to end this conversation. “Get up, and let’s get moving. Uzumaki can't be too far ahead, and I want him caught as soon as possible.”

Of course, because everyone in this squad was handpicked to test his patience, that’s not the end of things. Still, Shisui and Tenzō have long since found just what volume they can bicker at without giving themselves away, and it’s low enough that Kakashi can pretend not to hear as he takes the lead.

Surprisingly, Itachi falls into step with him as he scouts the edges of the trees. There's a precise sort of blankness to his face, and his voice is tightly quiet as he asks, “Are we going to kill Uzumaki?”

Kakashi pauses, glancing up at the boy. He doesn’t say anything, but the faint lift of one brow is enough to make Itachi look away again. “Doing anything for family—I think I can understand it,” he explains, picking each word with care. “And…Naruto is my brother’s age, and if we do have to…”

He doesn’t have to say that losing the very first person to claim family ties to him, especially in a violent, gruesome way, will scar Naruto for life, maybe even start a seed of resentment against the village rooting in his heart, but he knows he doesn’t need to. Kakashi has had all these thoughts already, and they twist themselves up in knots in his brain every time he tries to push them away.

Taking a breath, Kakashi says quietly, carefully, “I would…prefer not to. But the Hokage's orders are clear. If Shisui can manage to use his Kotoamatsukami, we’ll have no trouble, but I don’t think Kurama will come quietly otherwise.”

That’s another thing he doesn’t want to think of, the expression on Kurama's face when Shisui caught his gaze. It was more than fear at being beaten, because that was terror, stark and bone-deep. But Shisui's Mangekyo isn’t well-known, especially outside Konoha, so it wasn’t of that. Some people fear the Sharingan in general, but…that much?

It’s a piece that doesn’t fit, a curiosity, a mystery.

Kakashi has never liked mysteries.

 

 

Twelve solid hours from Konoha, on the border where Wire Country meets River Country, the forests thin practically to nothingness, and there are several small villages—more a couple of buildings grouped around the road than actual towns—interspersed with farmland. Fuji, who seems to have a sense for oden that’s equal to Naruto's ramen intuition, carries them right to the edge of one such village before letting them down. It’s mid-morning, with several people visible in the distance, but their strange little group hasn’t been noticed yet. Probably for the best, Kurama thinks a little wryly, helping Naruto slide to the ground.

“Okay, Naruto?” he asks, crouching down beside the little boy, who’s still blinking sleep from his eyes.

The cheerful grin he gets in response is so familiar that it aches. “Can we get ramen now, Occhan?” he asks enthusiastically, latching on to Kurama's open hand.

Kurama can't help but chuckle, giving the small hand a gentle squeeze. “Sure, kit,” he answers, and maybe he never would have called his Naruto that—he always defaulted to ‘brat’, because that’s what Naruto forever was—but here and now, it fits. This Naruto is like a fox kit, wide eyes and bright smiles with a trickster’s grin hidden beneath, small and cute but with a predilection for mischief.

Just seeing him lets the hurt in Kurama's chest scab over, quiets the roiling grief that he’s been fighting for days now.

“I never get real ramen for breakfast!” Naruto cheers enthusiastically, dragging at Kurama's arm to urge him towards the village. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

Fuji laughs, bounding after them. She snatches a stray leaf off the ground, tosses it up, and lets it fall to land right on top of her head. As it does, there's a puff of smoke, and a moment later she latches on to Kurama's free hand in her white-haired little girl form. “Oden!” she agrees with equal enthusiasm. “This is one of the best noodle stalls I've ever been to! It’s so good!”

With a snort, Kurama bids the remaining ryō he has farewell. Not like he’ll ever find something better to spend it on than making Naruto happy, though. “Yeah, yeah,” he huffs, trying to sound grumpy even though he’s smiling. “I could use a meal, too. No more than ten bowls apiece, though, got it? I'm not made of money here.”

Naruto's eyes get very, very wide. “Really?” he demands, staring up at Kurama as though he had just handed Naruto the Hokage's hat, no strings attached. “I can have ten? Hokage-jiji only ever lets me get two.”

“I'm not your Hokage-jiji,” Kurama reminds him. “If you want ramen, we’ll get you ramen. Besides, it’ll make up for not having dinner last night, right? Eat all you want.”

Naruto beams. “Thanks, Occhan!” He hesitates faintly, but then asks, “Did you really know my mom? What was her name?”

The reminder that Naruto knows absolutely nothing about his past, doesn’t know his father or mother or anything about his clan, is enough to make Kurama set his jaw and force him to shove down a fiery lash of pure anger. “Yeah,” he says when he finally manages to get his temper under control. “I knew her, probably better than anyone else. Her name was Kushina, and she loved ramen just as much as you do.”

And really, damn the Hokage. Damn Kakashi, Uchiha Mikoto, Nara Shikaku—everyone and anyone who ever knew Minato or Kushina, who ever counted them as a friend. If they had a single decent bone in their bodies, they’d have done something to make Naruto's life less of the hell it has been for the past six years.

The boy is silent as Fuji pulls them both into the noodle stand and gives the cook their orders—ramen for Naruto, kitsune oden for herself and Kurama—and he’s looking down, so Kurama can't read his expression. He tries not to worry as he boosts the boy up to sit on a stool, but he can't help it. There's nothing in the world he wants less than to make Naruto sad.

But when Naruto finally looks up, he’s…smiling. Just a little, small and grateful, but it warms Kurama's chest. “She…did? Just as much?”

“Just as much,” Kurama returns, and can't resist ruffling the kid’s hair again. “You’ve got your mom’s temperament to go along with her chakra. She was a lot like you are—even wanted to be Hokage.”

The light that fills Naruto's face is pure joy, and he laughs, leaning across the gap between their stools and wrapping his arms around Kurama's elbow. “Yeah,” he says, all determination and enthusiasm. “I'm gonna fulfill my mom’s dream, too! I'm gonna be Hokage for both of us!”

Kurama debates telling him that his father actually managed to gain the hat, but decides not to just yet. Honestly, Kurama never liked Minato all that much—probably because the bastard was the one to seal him just when he’d gotten free, but likely also because he had to listen to a smitten teenage girl rambling about Minato's amazing everything for years on end—and Naruto is more like Kushina anyway. She’s the better one to focus on.

“I'm sure she’d be incredibly proud,” he tells Naruto, giving the cook an absent wave of thanks as their bowls are set in front of them. “She always wanted a strong son, and I know she loved you more than anything.”

Naruto contemplates this as he empties his bowl, and Kurama leaves him to it, picking apart his aburaage before he eats it. The food settles his empty stomach, and Kurama hadn’t realized quite how hungry he was until he finds himself staring at uncovered porcelain. He orders more for all of them, since Fuji is almost done with her oden as well, and is just about to ask Naruto whether he likes his when the boy suddenly says, “I always thought my parents must have been really bad people, because everybody hates me and calls me a monster all the time.”

It takes effort not to let his claws dig gouges into the counter. Kurama takes a slow, careful breath, all too aware of the cook’s attention on them as he works, and answers sharply, “Never believe them, Naruto. Everyone in Konoha is a fucking moron if they can't see just how amazing you are. I will never regret taking you away from them, even if they kill me for it. You deserve to be happy, kit, and I know someday you’ll prove all of them wrong. I've never met anyone less like a monster.”

Naruto's face screws up like he’s about to cry, and he rubs furiously at his eyes. “They weren’t bad guys?” he asks, almost desperately.

No,” Kurama answers to hesitation, reaching out to pull the boy into his lap. “Your mom was a jounin who laughed all the time and liked to play pranks. They called her one of the most beautiful kunoichi in the village, and she could makes chains of golden chakra to fight with. Your dad was a jounin too, and a genius, even if your mom always beat him with a sword. They both loved Konoha, and gave their lives so that you had a chance at surviving. They loved you, Naruto, and so do I.”

Naruto leans into the hug desperately, arms tight around Kurama's neck, and Kurama presses his cheek against Naruto's hair, pretending he can't hear the choking sobs against his shoulder. Last time, when Naruto learned about his parents, he’d already made a place and a name for himself. He knew he wasn’t a monster, knew just why the villagers had always hated him. But right now he has none of that certainty, none of the assurance that he’s more than the whispers. Only his own determination, and for all that Naruto's will has always been incredible, he’s a six-year-old without a single friend. If Kurama can ease that sorrow, of course he’s going to.

“You really do, Occhan?” Naruto asks thickly. “You love me?”

Kurama smiles and kisses the top of his head. “More than anything,” he confirms. “And nothing will ever change that, I promise.”

With a smile that all but banishes the tears on his cheeks, Naruto sniffles and gives Kurama one last hug before he slides back to his stool. “I love you too, Occhan,” he says firmly. “Can you tell me more about my mom and dad?”

“On the road,” Kurama agrees readily. “Eat your ramen, Naruto. We’ve got a ways to go before we reach Suna. Besides, Fuji looks hungry. If you're not careful, she might steal it for herself.”

“Definitely,” Fuji chimes in from Kurama's other side, slurping up the last of her noodles. “Ramen’s not as good as oden, but I like it anyway.”

Naruto gapes at her, looking almost horrified. “Ramen’s the best!” he protests. “Oden’s okay, but—but ramen!”

“But kitsune oden has aburaage,” Fuji counters, just as horrified. “Nothing’s better than aburaage!”

Kurama laughs, drops a hand on each of their heads, and lightly shoves them back towards their meals. “Shut up, brats,” he says, and can't quite hide the fond humor in his tone. “Just—shut up and eat.”

Fuji pulls one lower eyelid down and sticks her tongue out at him, and Naruto cries, “You're a mean, grumpy old man, Occhan!” but they're both grinning, too, and Kurama can't help but count it as a win.

Chapter Text

[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.)

Chapter Text

[vicissitude / və ‘ sisə , t(y)ood/ , a change of circumstance in life or fortune. From Latin vicissitudo ‎“alteration”, or from Latin vicissim “by turns”, from Latin vic- ‎“turn, change”.]

 

Despite being probably the weakest of the five great shinobi villages, Sunagakure makes a damn impressive sight, that’s for sure.

“Woah.” Naruto sounds awe-struck, too. “Kurama-nii, why’d they build their village like that?”

Kurama's not entirely certain when he became the resident history professor, but since there’s no one else to answer except Fuji, who treats villages as being convenient concentrations of oden but otherwise just cute little human peculiarities, he sighs and answers, “Because it’s a good defense, kit. The cliffs can keep out an invading army, and they’ve got terraces on the outside so that Suna shinobi can stand there and attack without being in too much danger. See that narrow crack in the cliff? That’s the only way for most people to get in, so the Suna shinobi know exactly who’s in their village all the time. Like Konoha's walls and gates.”

“But you can get around the gates really easily,” Naruto points out, seemingly confused by this lapse of logic, and of course he would know that at six and a bit of change. Kurama was mostly asleep for Naruto's adventures outside the walls, but he remembers enough.

“Yeah,” he agrees, amused. “And we’re gonna do the same here. If that bastard and his Freak Squad manage to track us here, I don’t want them finding you just by asking at the gate.”

“Freak Squad? Who’re they?” Naruto leans back to look up at him, blue eyes curious. “Are those the shinobi Hokage-jiji sent after you? From the forest?”

Fuji huffs, shaking out her tails, and then leaps nimbly down the side of the sand dune, towards the start of the rocky ground edging Suna’s cliffs. “Don’t worry about it, Naru-chan,” she says cheerfully. “My illusions will cover our tracks for a while, and Kurama-sama is too fast and smart for anyone to catch.”

She seems to be forgetting just how it is they met, but Kurama isn’t about to remind her. That bit of humiliation will molder unrecalled until the end of time, if he has any say in it. “Right,” he agrees instead. Squinting up at the setting sun, he adds, “Fuji, can you head around the west side and then let us down? We can go over the cliffs where the sun will be in the guards’ eyes. Keeps us from having to wait for nightfall.”

“I hope you don’t think you're getting rid of me that easily, Kurama-sama,” she huffs, even as she drifts left, leaping large cracks in the ground and veering around outcroppings of stone. “This is the most fun I've had in decades, so I'm definitely coming with you.”

“Yay!” Naruto cheers, leaning forward to bury his face in her white fur. “Can you be my Fuji-nee?”

“I don’t see why not,” the vixen says loftily, though Kurama can read both pleasure and embarrassment in the twitch of her tails and the flick of her ears. “If you really have the Kyuubi inside of you, that makes us almost kin anyway. All foxes look up to the Kyuubi, after all—having nine tails makes you practically a god.”

Personally, Kurama doesn’t quite see the appeal in being a pack mule and running for miles on end, but he supposes that it’s probably a bit more exciting than hunting mice and birds all day. “You’ll have to stay small,” he warns her, though he reaches out to give her shoulder a gentle stroke in thanks. “And nearby, if possible. If things go south, I want to be able to leave in a hurry.”

“I'm sure whatever you plan to do will turn out perfectly, Kurama-sama,” Fuji says stubbornly. “And even if it doesn’t, I’ll help however I can.”

“Me too!” Naruto chimes in. He lets go of Fuji to make the seal for the shadow clones and grins like a conquering hero. “I can be an army!”

This is…not exactly what Kurama intended, teaching him that, but it’s Naruto. The matter was bound to come up eventually, and Kurama already knows exactly how much good it will do to argue with him—namely, none at all.

“Let’s save that for a last resort, huh?” he counters, painfully amused, and wraps an arm around the little boy’s waist to keep him from overbalancing. “Fuji, here’s good.”

The vixen skids to a stop and crouches to let them slide off. As soon as their feet are steady, she shakes herself, then lets go of her transformation. A much more normal-sized fox bounces out of the smoke, and Kurama leans down so she can leap up onto his shoulders. She curls around his neck, peeking out from under the fringe of his hair, and yips cheerfully, “Ready to go, Kurama-sama!”

Kurama chuckles, then scoops Naruto up and slings the boy over his back. “Arms and legs around me if you can, kit,” he orders. “We’re going to have to go fast for a bit.”

There are six terraces leading up, each one a good two meters wide. The setting sun is behind him, eye-searing red and gold spreading out across the horizon, and Kurama can't sense any overt hostility from the path up. The only chakra signatures he can feel are heading away along the curve of the cliff face, and he really hopes it stays that way.

Surely, surely he’s due to have something go right by now. He’s in Naruto's body; surely his luck can't be all bad.

Small arms curl around his neck, careful of Fuji, legs wrapping around his waist, and Kurama can't fight a smile as he reaches up to touch Naruto's hands in silent reassurance. Well. Definitely not all bad, though parts could use improving.

“Ready?” he asks, and gets two sounds of confirmation. Taking a breath, he channels just a trickle of chakra, not enough to be noticed but enough to give him some power, and leaps, bouncing up the first three terraces. No one shouts, there are no alarms, not even any traps, and Kurama lets himself breathe out. He dodges left, tracing his way a little further west, and then clears the next two levels in quick succession.

Still nothing. It would almost be ridiculous, except the tempo of Kurama's heartbeat says it really isn’t. He pauses again, checking for chakra, but as luck would have it there's what feels like a civilian district below. There are a few scattered chakra signatures, but it seems like this is one of Suna’s poorer areas. Shinobi aren’t generally ones to be poor—if they're that bad at their jobs, they tend to just be dead—so those who do live here are scattered, the exception rather than the rule.

It’s a stroke of fortune that Kurama is more than willing to take.

With all the speed he can muster, he leaps forward, clearing the last terrace and hurling himself right over the lip of the cliff. There's another road carved out of the rock about halfway down, and Kurama throws himself across it in a blur, one hand on Naruto's back, his other hanging on to Fuji, and then flips over the side and down into thick shadows. In the alley someone startles, dropping something, but Kurama doesn’t stick around to see if they’ll raise an alarm; he bolts into the deep gloom of the surrounding buildings, with the wall looming overhead, and lets the darkness swallow him.

“Everybody okay back there?” he asks as soon as they're a safe distance from curious ears, tucked back behind what smells like a restaurant. Kurama eyes the handful of neatly stacked bins sitting outside the back door for a moment, then drops to one knee and lets Naruto slide down.

“Can we do that again?” Naruto sounds breathless, and he’s grinning widely when he grabs Kurama's hand. “Kurama-nii, that was so cool!”

Despite himself, Kurama chuckles, and reaches out to ruffle the messy blond hair. “Glad you approve, kit. Fuji, you good playing a fur ruff?”

From where her head is resting daintily on her paws, draped across his shoulders, Fuji makes a vaguely offended sound, and her three tails tickle his arm as they flick. “I'm very happy where I am, Kurama-sama,” she says disdainfully. “Though the view would be better if you were taller.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Kurama grumbles, and tries his best to scowl at Naruto when the kid breaks into giggles. “Hey, knock it off. We’re related, remember? This is probably as tall as you’re going to get, too.”

Naruto grins up at him, grabbing for his hand. “I like you like this, Kurama-nii,” he says magnanimously. “You don’t need to be taller.”

It does Kurama's self-esteem as a fearsome former bijuu no favors, but he melts a little under that. “Thanks, kit,” he says, and his voice is gruff because he won't allow himself to become choked up, not right now. “Want to walk, or should I carry you?”

“I’ll walk!” Naruto bounces with barely-contained enthusiasm. “Where’re we going now Kurama-nii?”

Kurama pauses, stretching out his senses as subtly as he can, and concentrates. Shukaku’s energy is everywhere, scattered thick across the village and through the sandstone of the buildings, because he’s always been a greedy, grasping bastard. Still, the original is easy enough to find—Gaara is angry at something, and buildings are suffering for it. Shukaku is too close to the surface for Kurama's comfort, lashing against the seals holding him, and while they're not about to break, they're…fragile. Far too much so for Kurama's peace of mind.

Still, Kurama supposes, it’s a good enough opportunity. He needs to slap a few modifiers onto Shukaku’s seal to filter out whatever crazy he can—the stuff caused by being improperly bound for so long, at least. Shukaku’s natural crazy he unfortunately can't fix.

“Sorry, change of plans. We need to move fast again,” he says, boosting Naruto up onto his back once more and taking off at a run as soon as the boy’s got a secure grip. “That kid I mentioned needs some help, so we’re going to do that first.”

Across the village, something explodes. Dust fills the air in a wide cloud, erupting upward, and very distantly Kurama can pick out the smell of blood on the hot wind. So Gaara's already started going nuts; that’s fine. Naruto will bring him out of it soon enough, and it’s probably a recent change, so he’s not mired in it yet. The only issue here is dealing with Shukaku, and Kurama doesn’t think he’ll have too much of a problem with that.

It’s easy to tell when they're getting close, because everyone is running the opposite direction, even the shinobi. Kurama wants to scoff and call them all cowards, but just sets his teeth and sticks to the edges of the retreating crowd, trying not to be noticed. A few people cast him glances, but most are too occupied with getting to safety to make note of someone moving at shinobi speeds in the shadows.

Up ahead, the streets empty out completely, and Shukaku’s murderous chakra gets heavier. Kurama pauses, glancing around, and then leaps up the side of a flat-topped apartment building. “Stay here,” he tells Naruto. “Fuji, keep an eye on him. I have to go beat some sense into the idiot’s thick head, and I don’t want either of you getting caught in the crossfire.”

The vixen yips softly, hopping down and going to wind around Naruto's legs. Before Kurama can move, though, Naruto catches his hand again, and asks warily, “You're gonna come back, right, Kurama-nii?”

“‘Course I am, kit,” Kurama promises, leaning down to press a kiss to his bright hair. “You're the most important thing in the world to me. I will always come back to you.”

That gets him a smile as bright as the sun. “Good luck, Kurama-nii! I know you can win!”

Kurama chuckles, rising to his feet. Shukaku roars, clearly about to break free entirely, and it makes him turn, leaping down into the epicenter of the destruction. He takes a breath and lets go, his chakra rising in a corrosive, blood-red surge to meet the Ichibi’s, and then shouts, “Oi, Shukaku! What’s got your panties in a bunch this time, you tetchy little bastard?”

Within the dust and rubble, something stills, then stirs. Kurama flicks a hand out, and wind whips past him, just enough to dispel the cover. What was once probably a nice square is now little more than a wreckage of shattered stones and debris, clothes and other things scattered through it. In the center, the area around him seething with animated sand, stands Gaara, no more than Naruto's age, with dead eyes and sand coating his body. Even as Kurama watches, more slides over him, and it’s easy to recognize the beginnings of his transformation into a human-sized version of Shukaku.

“You,” Gaara says, and it’s layered with Shukaku’s deeper voice. “Don’t call my name like you know me, you puny little human. I am—”

“Yeah, yeah. The great and terrible Ichibi, possessing the fewest tails of any of the tailed beasts but somehow still so high and mighty.” Kurama scoffs, crossing his arms over his chest and narrowing his eyes. “Look at you. Do you really think this is what the Sage meant our power for, you idiot? You're corrupting a child, and you're even doing that badly. For all the times he gives in, how many times does he resist you? How many time has little Gaara here shown just how much stronger than you he is?”

Shukaku howls with rage, lashing out, but Kurama sees it coming and hurls himself to the side, then shoves chakra towards his feet and flips up and over, landing on Shukaku’s far side even as Shukaku spins towards the spot Kurama used to be. With a snarl of victory, Kurama lunges forward, chakra gathering in his palm, and slaps a hand against Shukaku’s sand. Fire blooms beneath his touch, roaring out, and the heavy coating of earth crackles as it hardens. Shukaku screams, whipping around, but Kurama's already gone, landing lightly behind his shoulder.

“I’ll kill you!” Shukaku screams. “Your blood will soak my sand, because no one can surpass my—aargh!”

Another wave of fire falls away, and Kurama smirks. He drops into a crouch, flexing his clawed hands against the sandy earth, and taunts, “How about a test, then, little brother? My speed and fire against your sand and automatic defense. The winner gets that little boy you're torturing. Sound fair?” Seeing that the tanuki is about to start screaming again, he adds with all the casualness he can manage, “Oh, wait, never mind. You always were too scared to bet against me, Shukaku. I guess a few centuries hasn’t changed anything, huh?”

There's a long moment of silence, and then Shukaku hisses like a teakettle releasing steam. “Kurama,” he growls. “I heard the humans locked you away as well. You managed to consume that little creature’s soul entirely and take their body? I'm impressed.”

The memory of his Naruto falling, empty-eyed and devoid of life, hits Kurama so hard and suddenly that for a moment he can't even breathe. His entire chest seizes as pain lances through him, and he snarls automatically. His chakra redoubles, lashing furiously against Shukaku’s, and Kurama throws himself forward. Edged with power, his long nails score deep into hardened sand, and he blurs away before Shukaku can even turn to catch him. Another hit, scoring deep into one of the tanuki’s arms, another to the back of his head, another, another, another—

The perfect balance of chakra, caught in the palm of his hand and spinning like a hurricane. Negative and positive, dark and light, caught up together in a violet-edged snarl of power and intent, but weaker than ever before, not nearly enough to kill. “It was a gift!” Kurama screams above Shukaku’s roar of frustration. “A sacrifice, for me! I can't help you understand right now, you self-obsessed bastard, but someday I will make you!”

He doesn’t let the bijūdama go, but leaps forward, aiming straight for Shukaku’s chest. It won't hurt Gaara, not at half-power like this, but—

An impact like a detonation, and it’s like being caught in the heart of a sandstorm. Sand explodes outward, stinging and biting, and Kurama throws up an arm to shield his face. There's a ripple of chakra as the pressure vanishes entirely, Shukaku retreating with a last wounded roar as a small form becomes visible through the cloud.

Red hair glows in the light of sunset as Gaara wavers, and Kurama automatically steps forward to catch him. The small, fragile body tumbles into his arms, and Kurama lifts him, murmuring mindlessly soothing nonsense as he tucks the kid’s head under his chin. Chakra pools in his free hand, and he presses it to the back of Gaara's neck, etching the seal into his skin as gently as he’s able. Gaara makes a soft sound of surprise and faint pain, and Kurama strokes his hair, whispering, “Sorry, sorry, is that better? Can you hear him anymore?”

There's a long, careful pause, and then Gaara looks up. Wide aquamarine eyes stare at him for a second, and then Gaara breathes, “Mother?”

“He ain’t your mother, kid,” Kurama says dryly. “It’s a good thing, believe me.” He reaches up, touching the kanji that’s only just started to scar over on Gaara's forehead, and adds, “Your real mother loved you. She poured all of her love into your sand right before she died—why do you think your automatic defense is so strong?”

Gaara's breath catches and he drops his eyes. “You shouldn’t… Don’t touch me,” he says, trying for anger, but it wobbles as it comes out. “I’ll—I’ll kill—”

“You won't.” Kurama hesitates, then ruffles his hair. “Besides, I can handle Shukaku, kid. Leave my stupid little brother to me. You’ve got more important things to worry about. Like friends.”

“I have no friends,” Gaara says, and that at least comes out sharp, with an edge of fury that means the pain still hasn’t healed. “No one loves me, and I don’t want them to. I’ll live only for myself. Mother understands—”

“Not your mother,” Kurama repeats, rolling his eyes. “Damned tanuki, always making things harder than they have to be.” When the six-year-old starts to jerk in his arms, sand hissing threateningly around them, he just shifts the boy to his hip, then leaps up to the top of a collapsed wall, and from there jumps back to the rooftop where he left Naruto.

“Kurama-nii!” Naruto shouts the instant they touch down. He rushes forward, throwing himself at Kurama as the redhead crouches down, and accidentally catches Gaara in the enthusiastic hug as well. “Kurama-nii, that was amazing! You’ve gotta be the best shinobi ever! Can you teach me to be as awesome as you? Can you? Please?”

“No one’s as awesome as me, kit,” Kurama laughs, setting Gaara down and raising a brow when he skitters backwards, away from Naruto's bright grin. “But I think you might manage to get close someday. With a lot of training and a bit of luck.” He waves a hand between the two boys. “Naruto, Gaara. Gaara, Naruto. You're both jinchuuriki.”

Naruto's entire expression lights up, and he reaches forward to catch Gaara's hand. Gaara flinches, the scattered sand around their feet whirling closer, but Naruto just beams. “Let’s be friends!” he proposes. “I've never had a friend besides Hokage-jiji before, but I've always wanted one!”

For a long minute, Gaara looks like he can't decide whether to kill them all, turn and run, or throw himself at Naruto and not let go. He stares at the blond for a moment, then shifts his gaze to Kurama, who gives him a small, crooked smile.

“You’ll be fine, Gaara,” he says softly. “I tweaked the seal holding Shukaku back. It’ll take a lot more than just you getting angry or scared for him to escape now, so you don’t have to worry about hurting anyone.”

Blue-green eyes go very wide, and Gaara looks down at where Naruto is still clutching his hand. “I—I always wanted a friend, too,” he admits, just barely above a whisper. “You’ll be my friend?”

“Yeah!” Naruto agrees, all but vibrating with excitement. He turns, bouncing in place, and crows, “Kurama-nii! Kurama-nii, look! I got my first friend!”

Kurama laughs, reaching out to ruffle two spiky heads. “Yeah, kit, I can see that.” And…it’s a trace of a good memory, of Gaara and Naruto standing side by side, Kage and shinobi and still best friends, and he just—it’s good. So good. With a soft laugh that nearly catches in his throat, Kurama leans forward and pulls the two pint-sized terrors into his arms, hugging them both tightly. They go stiff and startled, but Naruto hugs back the moment he recovers. Gaara is a little slower, but carefully, tentatively, his arms curl around Kurama's shoulder and hang on.

“Why were you so angry, Gaara?” Naruto asks curiously, pulling back, and Gaara tenses again. He doesn’t move, just buries his face in Kurama's shoulder a little more firmly.

“My father tried to have me killed,” he says. “He sent an assassin after me, and he didn’t hurt me but I was just so mad and—and—”

“It hurt,” Kurama finishes for him. He rubs Gaara's back lightly, thinking of the seal he just placed on the kid. The Armor of Sand should be enough to keep him safe, even with Shukaku pushed down, but…what if it’s not? The Kazekage is a bastard, and what if he sends other assassins? It’s…not the best situation.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Naruto asks, blue eyes intent. “Gaara, we’re going to cool places! Kurama-nii already took us to River Country and all across Wind Country, and I'm sure it’s okay for you to come. Right, Kurama-nii?”

Kurama supposes trusting Shukaku to look after two little kids was always a bit of a long shot to begin with. Besides, what’s to lose? Leaving Gaara behind will just upset Naruto, and if the kid dies because of something Kurama did to him—well. He’s never loved Gaara the way that he loved Naruto, but the redhead was always…tolerable. A friend, even when he was no longer a jinchuuriki. And Shukaku was fond of him. That’s reason enough to take care of this emotionally fragile, miniaturized version.

“Sure,” he agrees, and doesn’t let himself sigh. “Fuji, you good to carry one more?”

From where she’s been perched on a low stone wall, watching the reunion, Fuji huffs. “Of course, Kurama-sama,” she says. “It’s not like he’s all that heavy.”

Kurama sinks back on his heels, checking Gaara's face. “Do you want to come with us, kid?” he asks gently. “You don’t have to, and I don’t want to force you into anything. We’re traveling, trying to find somewhere safe, so it’s a bit…hectic.”

For a long moment, Gaara stares at him. Then that assessing gaze shifts to Naruto and holds on entreating blue, and Gaara swallows. “Yes,” he says in a very small voice. “Yes. I want to go with you. You're…”

“Friends,” Kurama finishes for him, still gentle. “Okay, let’s get you home so you can grab your stuff while I find us some supplies.”

“Maybe you can even get shoes, Kurama-nii!” Naruto offers cheerfully.

Kurama scoffs. “Those things are fucking uncomfortable. I’ll keep my feet on the ground like they're meant to be, thanks. Come on. Gaara, you got a preference? I can carry you on my back or normally. I think Fuji still has dibs on my shoulders.”

That gets him another wide-eyed look. “You're…going to carry me?” he asks.

Oh, damn Suna to the fiery pits of the deepest level of hell. Damn Konoha too, while he’s at it. Little kids shouldn’t act like they’ve been offered the world on a platter for something so normal. It takes effort, but Kurama stomps on his rage and opens his arms. “Yeah,” he says. “C’mere, squirt. Naruto, make like a monkey, would you?”

Naruto cheers and throws himself onto Kurama's back, scrambling up and wrapping his legs around him. An instant later, Fuji flows into place like a particularly furry scarf, and Kurama raises a brow at the only holdout. Gaara looks between him and his outstretched arms, then offers a very faint, wary smile and steps forward. He grabs Kurama's shoulders as Kurama lifts him, clinging tightly, and Kurama shifts to resettle the weight.

“All right, which way?” he asks.

Gaara points to a street several blocks from the Kazekage’s building. “The one without lights on,” he says, and then tucks his face into the curve of Kurama's throat. Kurama chuckles and strokes his hair, then ruffles Naruto's and leaps lightly across the narrow street, heading for the indicated house. He’ll let the kid grab what he wants, maybe ask him to lend Naruto some clothes, and see what he can scrounge from the kitchen for supplies. By then it should be dark enough for them to make it over the cliffs unseen.

Maybe Suna was a bit of a dead end, but at least it got the Freak Squad off their tails. And besides, now that Kurama takes a moment to consider it, Matatabi has always been a hell of a lot more motherly than Shukaku, and is generally pretty reasonable too. Maybe Kurama doesn’t know exactly where Matatabi and the Nibi’s host are right now, but surely they can't be that hard to find.

On his back, Naruto laughs, bright and happy, and out of the corner of his eye, Kurama can just barely see Gaara smiling back, still tentative but already gaining confidence. Kurama smiles too, entirely despite himself.

Whatever. It’ll all work out.

Chapter Text

[simulacrum / , simyə ‘ lākrəm / , an image or representation of someone or something; an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute. From Latin simulare “copy, represent”, from similis “like”.]

 

In an unforeseen stroke of good luck, a sandstorm sweeps across northeastern Wind Country shortly before midnight, completely erasing all signs of their presence. Kurama feels the wind change in enough time for them to find shelter, so they bunk down for the night in a deep cave carved into a cliff, likely just for that purpose, whose mouth points away from the source of the storm. It’s dry and roomy enough for a fairly small man, a smaller fox, and two tiny six-year-olds, even after Kurama starts a fire to ward off the worst of the night’s chill.

It’s little surprise that Gaara immediately goes to sit several meters from the mouth of the cave, just out of range of the wind, with wide eyes fixed on the storm outside. Little surprise, too, that Naruto drifts over to sit with him as soon as he’s eaten, and over the roar of the sand Kurama can just hear Gaara recounting facts about sandstorms in a tone that is, for him, of acute excitement. Slumped back against the rough wall, Kurama chuckles, not quite able to tear his eyes away from the red and gold heads bent together in the flickering firelight.

Fur shifts under his fingers as Fuji leaves the scraps of her meal and flows into his lap, curling up tightly and dropping her head on his knee. Kurama rubs lightly behind her ear and she gives a brief, gargling purr to encourage him to continue. Amber eyes fall shut, and she stretches lightly before settling down once more.

“All of this is for the boy, isn’t it?” she asks, too softly for Gaara or Naruto to overhear.

Kurama sighs softly, tipping his head back against the stone and closing his own eyes. “It is,” he agrees. “Everything.”

There's a brief pause, and then she murmurs, “I was surprised that there were two nine-tailed kitsune, but…that’s not quite true, is it, Kurama-sama?”

Since there's no real reason to deny it, Kurama just shrugs, giving the tip of one pointed ear a light tug. “I told you it was complicated. There's only supposed to be one, but I'm an extra.”

Fuji hums an acknowledgement, clearly turning this over in her mind. “I think…I'm glad that I met you first, rather than the other,” she says slowly. “While you were fighting the Ichibi, Naru-chan got worried, and I felt Kyuubi-sama stir for a moment. He was…very angry. Very hateful. You're—better.”

“Not too long ago, I finally found a reason to change,” Kurama says, opening his eyes again to look at Naruto. The boy is laughing, and even Gaara is smiling faintly. It makes Kurama chuckle softly. “The other Kyuubi will find a reason, too. Just need to give him the opportunity. The man who left me this body showed me that no matter how long you’ve held on to hate and anger, there's a better way.” He glances down at the little fox in his lap, and gives her ear another light tug. “Is there someone looking for you right now, Fuji? Are you going to get in trouble for running off like you did?”

She huffs disgustedly, slapping a paw over her face in what is either longsuffering dismay or embarrassment, and moans, “My brother is probably looking, or he will soon. He doesn’t like me going off on my own, and he’s got five tails so he thinks he knows everything.” One eye slits open, and her expression turns wholly smug. “He won't believe that I got to meet the Kyuubi. He’s going to be so jealous he’ll turn green all over.”

Kurama laughs, smoothing a hand down her back and over her tails. “Well, you're the only reason we’ve managed to make it this far without a lot more trouble, so I’m more than happy to have you stick around, but if you need to go back that’s fine too. I don’t want you getting in any more trouble for my sake.”

Fuji snaps her teeth sharply, clearly showing her opinion of that idea. “I said that you couldn’t get rid of me that easily, Kurama-sama,” she reminds him. “I’ll stay for as long as I think you need me, and even if I do leave then, you can always summon me. You're a nine-tailed fox, no matter what form you're stuck in, and you don’t have many allies. Of course I'm going to help.”

Naruto's the one who so easily wins people’s loyalty. Kurama breathes out a shaky breath, unused to such simple and unwavering support, and scoops Fuji up in his arms, burying his face in long white fur. “Thanks,” he manages, and it comes out muffled. “Thanks, Fuji. If you ever need anything…”

Sharp ears prick up, and Fuji wiggles excitedly as he settles her back in his lap. “A star ball! Like those pretty purple ones you use, Kurama-sama! Do you think you could make me a star ball out of one of those?”

It’s probably unwise to give a bijūdama, even miniaturized and held behind seals in glass, to the kitsune equivalent of a thirteen-year-old. Still, Kurama wasn’t exaggerating when he said she’s the only reason they’ve managed to come this far. Without her, he’d likely be trapped like a dragonfly in amber, whisked back to Konoha's T & I Division with Naruto forever out of reach. And Kurama is fairly decent at seals, given his time within Mito and then Kushina; he can probably work something out. Holding that much power might even give Fuji another tail, which seems like a decent enough trade-off for her help.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he promises, and she gives a happy yip.

“Do you have an idea where to go next, Kurama-sama?” she asks, settling back down with her head on her paws, one sharp eye on the boys. “Should we cut back into the place with all the rivers, or keep traveling in the desert?”

Kurama considers, absently stroking her fur. They headed almost directly north from Suna, hoping to throw off any trackers. Gaara had insisted it would be several days before he was missed, even with Shukaku’s little scene, so Kurama isn’t too worried about pursuit from that direction. The clones he, Fuji, and Naruto created have enough chakra to draw the Freak Squad a few days off course, either deep into southern River Country or doubling back into Fire Country near Ame’s border depending on which one they followed, so there's also little risk of them catching the scent again.

Without the threat of immediate pursuit, Kurama's life is a whole lot easier. He’s not entirely certain where Matatabi is, beyond knowing that the Nibi’s host is from Kumo, but somewhere in Lightning Country seems like a safe bet. If he remembers correctly, the girl is someone Killer B looked up to as a strong kunoichi, despite her being younger, so she’s probably training. Which means she could be anywhere around Kumo, or elsewhere if she’s the hardcore type. Kurama's range for sensing the other bijuu is pretty decent, but he’ll still have to be fairly close to pinpoint her. Unless…

“We’ll cross over near the middle of Wind Country’s border with Ame,” he says slowly, picturing the maps he saw so often through Naruto's eyes. “Then we can head north through Grass and cut east across Waterfall, which should keep us far enough away from Konoha. We’ll have to go the long way, cut though Sound, Hot Springs, and Frost Country before we get to Lightning Country, but I don’t want to risk any Konoha nin picking up our trail. Up for it?”

“Sounds like fun,” is Fuji’s verdict. “I've only ever seen the area around Mount Inari, and some of the place full of rivers, but my brother says they're all different.”

Kurama saw far too much of the countries for comfort, once the shinobi villages started falling and Kaguya advanced. The survivors couldn’t stay in one place for more than a handful of days without Kaguya’s troops finding them, so right up until the end they spent most of their time on the run. Different groups went different directions, since it was too dangerous for everyone to travel together, but Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke were the main leaders, and moved between the groups constantly. Just remembering those years is enough to bring Kurama's hackles up, for the feeling of being hunted to overwhelm him. During that time he got used to being prey, rather than the predator, and the knowledge still manages to set his teeth on edge. He hates it.

Breathing out slowly, he forces himself to focus on the present, rather than a future that he won't allow to come into being. “Yeah,” he agrees roughly. “They are. Ame’s always wet, Grass is pretty much completely flat and generally green, Frost is cold, Lightning is full of mountains. They're pretty enough, but I prefer the forests.”

“Trees are good.” Fuji flicks her tails, ears twitching, and then glances up at him. “Are we looking for another one of your brothers?”

“Might be a sister,” Kurama says judiciously. Matatabi’s always gotten along best with female hosts, after all, and has always struck Kurama as pretty feminine, in a reserved-old-lady kind of way. “But yeah, hopefully the Nibi is somewhere near Kumo. Matatabi isn’t blindly crazy like Shukaku, and generally gets along with whatever host Kumo provides. I don’t think the current host is too bad, but we’ll see. Worst comes to worst, Saiken’s probably still in Kiri. They haven’t got a great track record when it comes to jinchuuriki, but since the slug’s host will skip out eventually, he’s probably not going to turn over a bunch of kids to the Mizukage.”

Amber eyes flicker back to him, then narrow faintly. “And you don’t trust me to watch them, Kurama-sama?”

Kurama snorts. “I’d trust you with them in a heartbeat, Fuji, but they're six, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to keep my promise. Might be a week, might be a month. Kids need care, and just in case I get hurt or captured, I want them somewhere that isn’t the middle of the wilderness. Besides, you’re a kid, too. I'm not going to dump that on you.”

Fuji sniffs, clearly a little miffed, but doesn’t protest. “All right,” she agrees, if rather reluctantly. “If you say so, Kurama-sama.”

“I do.” Kurama taps her on the nose with a smile. “I'm going to try and see if I can't get in contact with Matatabi. Keep an eye on the brats, okay? And wake me up if you sense anything at all.”

The vixen yips her agreement, sliding out of his lap and bounding over to the two kids. She throws herself across their legs, making Gaara startle and Naruto laugh delightedly. Kurama can't quite hear what she says, but it’s clearly a demand for pats, since both boys start stroking her fur. Gaara looks astonished, Naruto awed, but they're both happy, and Kurama allows himself a small smile as he settles back against the wall, resting his hands on his knees.

As a bijuu fully aligned with his jinchuuriki, accessing the shared mental world of the tailed beasts used to be as simple as willing it to happen. Kurama isn’t entirely sure that, as he is now, he’ll be able to touch it, but it’s his best bet of finding Matatabi, especially if Nibi and host are, like Killer B and Gyūki, able to cooperate. He closes his eyes and takes a breath, centering himself and picturing a world he hasn’t reached for in a very long time. Featureless brown stone beneath him, light filtering in from nowhere and everywhere, with darkness pressing at the edges. A moment of will, of want, and the air changes, the thick dust of the sandstorm vanishing into clean, sharp-edged newness, traced with the green of growing things.

Well. That’s different.

Slowly, not wanting to jar himself out of the trance, Kurama opens his eyes and is immediately met by green and brown. There's a campfire, a clearing so well-remembered it makes his heart ache, with ancient trees capable of dwarfing even his bijuu form leaning in around the edges. One step removed from this reality, he can feel Shukaku, pointedly ignoring him, and another presence that’s so familiar it feels like looking in a mirror. The Kyuubi is asleep, though, deeply asleep in a way that speaks of seals and plots and biding his time, and Kurama very carefully doesn’t poke at him. That’s a conversation for another day.

Several mental steps further on, he gets an impression of rapid wingbeats, bright laughter, and the thrill of flight—Chōmei, without a doubt. There's a feel of quick coolness to his right, but muted, and close to it the ephemeral glimpse of a bubble drifting skyward, Isobu and Saiken easy to recognize. To Kurama's left is fire and steam, peaceful and at rest, side by side with the heat of molten rock and a touch of rage. Kokuō and Son Goku, Kurama thinks, and moves on. He reaches out, searching, and—

There. The bite of cold fire, traced with a ghostly edge of death undone, and Kurama touches the border of his sibling’s mind, a gentle nudge to bring Matatabi’s attention to him. The cat stirs, curious but sleepy, and reaches back, and Kurama greets Matatabi with the impression of a rush of wind and fire. The Nibi will be expecting hate and fury all twisted up and tangled with Kurama's usual elements, but right now, at peace, with Naruto so close by, Kurama can't summon them. Moreover, he doesn’t want to.

Light shimmers, ghostly blue shot through with black, and the two-tailed cat steps out of the darkness of the trees, odd-colored eyes sweeping over the clearing.

“This is new,” Matatabi says, studying him curiously. “Since when were you artistic, Kurama? Or nostalgic—or human, for that matter? I might be your sister, but I’ll admit, I barely recognize you right now.”

Well, that answers that question. Kurama gives Matatabi a smile, trying to ignore the differences in their sizes like this—it’s vastly annoying to be so much smaller than even the Nibi. “A lot has happened, Matatabi, and I don’t always feel like I have to hate anymore. Got a minute? I’d like to talk.”

She sinks down onto her belly next to the fire, wrapping her two tails around herself, and tilts her head, eyes going distant. “Yes, I can talk. The kitten is asleep right now. Just don’t make me angry; she’s had a hard day, and I don’t want to disturb her.”

“I’ll try my best,” Kurama agrees, a little wry, because he’s never been the best at keeping his own temper, let alone helping someone else keep theirs. “You like this one, then?”

Matatabi smiles, just a little. “Well, there have been worse,” she says lightly, and Kurama closes his eyes against a pang of hurt, remembering saying almost the exact same thing about his old host many times. Naruto had always laughed, teasing him about being a grumpy old man, but his eyes had been warm. Kurama knows he understood what the fox only rarely voiced—Naruto's always been good like that.

Right now, with six-year-old Naruto beside him, happy and smiling, the pain is muted and distant, easily pushed down. But the loss is still there, no matter how much Kurama tries to focus on other things, and he suspects it always will be. He saw Naruto die, after all. That’s not something he can ever fully recover from.

“Good,” he says roughly, and it’s impossibly hard to get the word out. “Good. I'm…glad for you, Matatabi.”

When he opens his eyes again, Matatabi is watching him, concern clear on her face. “Kurama,” she says gently, “are you all right? That body—I know you can appear however you want here, but…”

Kurama swallows, shoving down the instinctive urge to snap. He doesn’t deal well with feeling vulnerable, but there's not really another word that can apply right now. “It’s a long story,” he says halfheartedly, and gets a pointedly expectant look from the cat. Rolling his eyes, he sighs and mutters grumpily, “Fine, witch. I'm from a future where everyone is dead, but my jinchuuriki sacrificed himself to send me back in time, so I got landed with this body. Now I've got two pint-sized jinchuuriki to look after, including my asshole-ish past self and that crazy bastard Shukaku, a promise to save the world that I have to keep, and a bunch of Sharingan-users on my tail, with a Mokuton user thrown in just for fun. Can you help me or not?”

There's a long, long pause as Matatabi digests that, perfectly still. Then she snorts and gives a coughing laugh. “Only you, Kurama,” she says, shaking her head. “I see you're just as prickly as ever, hatred or no. It’s quite the story, and…unnervingly plausible, given your current condition.”

“I am not prickly!” Kurama snaps, bristling, then realizes he just made her point for her and huffs in offense, crossing his arms and glaring. Matatabi just laughs at him again, sitting up.

“What do you need from me?” she asks. “Unfortunately, my help is limited by Yugito’s abilities at the moment, but I’ll do what I can.”

Kurama breathes out a sigh that’s pure relief and rakes a hand through his hair. “Thanks, Matatabi,” he says sincerely. “You're a lifesaver. I’ve got two six-year-olds with me that I can't take into battle or leave on their own, and I need someone to watch them for a month or so. Think you and your host can handle it?”

Matatabi hesitates, eyes narrowing a little, and her tails flick with minor agitation. “…Maybe,” she concludes after a moment. “I’ll speak with her about it. Head our direction regardless; you’ll be harder to catch when you're moving, and you need whatever advantage you can get right now.”

“Yeah,” Kurama sighs, raking a hand through his hair and wincing when he isn’t quite careful enough with his claws. “But I couldn’t leave either of the kids where they were. Most humans are never going to understand jinchuuriki, and they're bastards to them no matter their age. Hurting kids like that—it makes me angry, Matatabi. I'm good at angry, but this is a kind I don’t want to feel.”

When he looks up, there's an odd expression on Matatabi’s face, somewhere between pleased and calculating, but it vanishes before he can read it further. She dips her head, glancing over her shoulder into the darkness she emerged from, and then rises to her feet. “We’re in the mountains directly west of the village,” she says. “But if we move, I’ll find you and let you know. Fair winds and fast travels, Kurama. I look forward to seeing you in person again after so long.”

“Same to you, Matatabi,” Kurama answers, unable to fight a faint smile. “And thanks. I owe you one.”

“We’ll see.” With that helpfully cryptic comment, Matatabi bounds back into the shadows, and her presence vanishes like a rush of wind dispersing, fading back into a shimmer of sensation and nothing more.

Kurama scowls after her, not able to ignore the insistent jab of suspicion that he just got tricked. A kitsune’s sense for that kind of thing is usually pretty strong, and right now his is saying that he just got set up for something big.

“Damn it. You're a fucking witch, Matatabi, and when I find out what you're planning, I'm going to skin you,” Kurama threatens, but the cat doesn’t even deign to listen to him. She’s already dropped back to sleep, and all Kurama can get from her is a faint flicker of smug satisfaction.

 

 

“Oh gods, I am never going to be dry ever again,” Shisui complains, throwing himself onto a wide branch the moment Kakashi calls a halt. He grimaces at their (admittedly very wet) surroundings as he digs a ration bar out of his hip pouch. That gets a scowl too, because Shisui is only subtle when he wants to be, before he tears off the wrapper and takes an unhappy bite.

Honestly, Kakashi isn’t feeling much more enthusiastic. They're still in River Country, but this close to Ame’s border it rains more often than not, and what is thick forest further south has become a massive, choking jungle that they have to fight their way through. Every piece of clothing Kakashi is wearing is soggy, and his feet started squishing in his sandals about half an hour after they broke camp this morning. It could be worse, but it sure as hell could be a lot better, too.

With a faint grimace of his own, Kakashi takes a seat and leans back against the bole of the tree, fishing his rations out and starting in on them, despite the completely unappetizing taste and texture. Tenzō once gloomily compared both to moldy cardboard, and Kakashi can't entirely say that he’s wrong.

“The tracks are still clear,” he says, in a halfhearted attempt to keep their spirits up. “And they're starting to waver. Kurama can't keep this pace for long. We just have to outlast him and we’ll run him to ground.”

Shisui keeps his eyes on his hands, breaking small pieces of the ration bar off as he eats them. At Kakashi's words, he makes a quiet sound of assent, but his expression is contemplative. After several moments, he glances up, and asks quietly, “Are we all just ignoring the fact that it was foxes who saved Uzumaki?”

Well, they were. But for all that Shisui likes to act the fool, he’s very much not, and Kakashi should have expected him to bring up the matter eventually. Even more than Itachi, Shisui is brilliant at connecting pieces and getting to the heart of things.

With a soft sigh, Kakashi puts his food down and meets the Uchiha’s gaze. “The Yondaime’s seal won't break. It isn’t breaking,” he says simply. “If it was something big enough that it required his life in payment, Minato-sensei would have made sure that no one else ever had to pay the same price.”

Shisui considers this for a moment before he nods. “I’ll believe that. But in that case, Uzumaki having fox summons is pretty interesting.”

“Except that they weren’t summons,” Kakashi counters, because he’s thought about this a lot as well. “A summoning jutsu takes either blood or contact with the ground, even when done with a tattoo. Kurama's hands were bound, so he couldn’t have summoned them. The white fox appeared above your head, and the red one in the bushes—a summoning can't do that, either. Besides, Kurama was just as surprised to see them as we were. He wasn’t expecting a rescue.”

“I've never heard of a summons coming to find someone without being called,” Shisui agrees. “That was definitely odd. But then, Uzumaki's weird as it is, right? I mean, all those things he can do can be written off as a jinchuuriki’s abilities, but…just him in general. He doesn’t wear shoes or use weapons, he’s got the shortest fuse I've seen outside of Mikoto on her monthlies, and his hair looks like he took a rusty knife to it in the dark—which is a shame, because if he tried a little harder he could be pretty hot.”

It’s all true, if faintly amusing laid out like that. Shinobi tend to be peculiar by nature—it’s a coping mechanism, Kakashi is well aware of that—and Kurama seems no different. All the idiosyncrasies can be dismissed as a whole, but taken piece by piece…

“I think,” Kakashi says slowly, “that he feels like he’s completely alone in the world. He doesn’t care what he looks like, or what he acts like, because failing might kill him, but it might not, and that’s enough of a chance for him to risk it. He’s…caught up in everything, and can't see that the path he’s on might have alternatives, because he feels there's no other way to move forward. Taking Naruto—it was an impulse, but now that he’s done it he’s not going to give the boy up, because he can't. This is—this is how he’s grieving, and we’re all caught in the crossfire.”

Shisui's black eyes are far too sharp and clever as he studies Kakashi, crossing his legs under him on the branch. “That’s a long time to grieve,” he says mildly, and Kakashi is abruptly unsure just who they're talking about. “But…from what you said about your fight with him in the village, and then the one we had in the forest—he seemed a little more in control the second time. He didn’t completely lose it, even if he was angry. Maybe he’s getting better, now that he’s seen he’s not alone.” He meets Kakashi's stare, and adds, still mild as milk, “You know, some people don’t let go, even when the world tells them they should. It doesn’t mean they're broken; it just means they hold on a bit harder than most.”

This is edging dangerously close to being a talk about feelings, and Kakashi can already feel the hives threatening. He eyes Shisui sidelong as he swallows the last of his bar, and remarks warily, “I hope you're not implying that we should leave our village’s jinchuuriki with an unknown and hostile shinobi just because it might be a good form of therapy for him, Shisui.”

Shisui rolls his eyes, flicking a handful of crumbs into the surrounding forest. “You know exactly what I'm implying, Captain,” he retorts. “I won't play dumb if you won't. We have to catch Uzumaki, but that doesn’t also mean that nothing can change. I've been with you on Naruto's guard, and I've seen how you look at him. This might be a good excuse to connect with him, don’t you think?”

“You mean after having to kill or forcibly subdue the first person who’s ever been kind to him beyond the Hokage?” Kakashi drawls, unimpressed. “Yes, that’s a great first impression to build a relationship on.”

Sighing, Shisui holds his hands up in clear surrender. “Whatever, I'm just a lowly ANBU recruit and fifteen, what the hell do I know?” His eyes flicker red, and when he raises his head the black tomoe in his eyes have shifted into four-point pinwheels, spinning lazily. It’s a deliberate and entirely unsubtle point, because he knows very well that Kakashi also has a Mangekyo Sharingan, and is therefore aware of exactly what has to happen to get one. Shisui understands loss, and though Kakashi has never asked for details of just how he got his eyes, he doesn’t need to. Rin's death is a memory that won't ever fade.

Still, if Shisui isn’t verbally pointing it out, Kakashi feels no need to acknowledge he ever made a point at all. He pastes on a smile just to annoy the teenager and lets the conversation drop like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, Shisui is made of stronger stuff than most, and just snorts. He crumples the wrapper up and stuffs it into his pouch, then rises to his feet to stretch.

Deciding he’s also more than ready to get moving, Kakashi pulls himself up and turns to keep following Kurama's trail, half a second before the sky opens up again. It feels like getting a bucket of lukewarm water repeatedly emptied over his head, and Kakashi sighs in aggravation, shoving his sodden hair out of his eyes. Beside him, Shisui is cursing under his breath in a way that is both impressively creative and a clear precursor to violence, and if they don’t catch up with Kurama soon Kakashi isn’t entirely sure he won't join the kid in his rampage. This has not been his most successful mission ever.

And—

A flicker, like chakra wavering and then steadying again. Kakashi's head snaps up as he spins left, and he orders, “Shisui!”

Sharingan eyes still bright with power, Shisui disappears in a burst of speed, hurling himself through the trees. Kakashi can only catch a faint afterimage, but he doesn’t need more; Kurama's presence is both close and clear, and he heads for it at his fastest run, tearing straight through vines and branches. Subtlety won't do them any good right now, not against someone as powerful as Kurama, who’s doubtless aware that they're coming.

But when he bursts out of the jungle and staggers to a halt on the edge of the cliff, Shisui is just standing in front of the redhead, not moving. Kakashi leaps up to his side, already reaching for his chakra, but Kurama isn’t making any move to attack. He’s just watching them, Naruto clinging to his shoulders and the little white fox curled around his neck, and his crimson eyes are mocking.

“Uzumaki,” Shisui says warily, “is this you giving up?”

Kurama smirks, just barely showing a flash of one sharp canine. “Not hardly,” he chuckles, and waves a hand. Perched on his hip, Naruto gives them a wide, bright grin and—

Vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Fucking damn it, Kakashi thinks, with all the venom he can muster. He takes a shaky breath to get himself under control, all too aware of Kurama's sharp eyes on him, and then says with tightly-contained rage, “I take it the real you is somewhere in southern River Country, then.”

The redhead laughs at them, even as the fox disappears as well. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” he taunts. Then his gaze hardens, and he steps forward, right into Kakashi's space. “Tell me,” he says, voice low, “Why are you following? I'm his family, his blood. I love him. I’ll swear it on anything you want me to. So why can't I raise my nephew, rather than a village that hates him?” He shifts his attention to Shisui, and his eyes narrow faintly, lip curling again. “You should understand, Uchiha. Family and love is everything, right?”

“The village is more important,” Shisui counters sharply, and the resolve is clear on his angular face. “Naruto is a jinchuuriki, and maybe I can't understand everything that means, but it makes him valuable. Every country in the world will want him, and do anything to get him. Surely even you can see that he’d be better off in Konoha. If you come peacefully, I'm sure we can work something out. You don’t have to be separated from him.” A faint, wry smile crosses his face. “I wouldn’t ask you to abandon your family, and I don’t think the Sandaime would, either.”

Surprise flickers across Kurama's features, oddly similar to Kushina's face. Kakashi can see the relation in the shape of their eyes, the slant of their jaws, even the color of their hair. Long lashes clumped by rain sweep down as he looks away, towards the east, and then reaches up to rake a hand through his soaked hair. If he’s trying to get it out of his face, he fails; the choppy chin-length strands immediately tumble back into his eyes, though he doesn’t seem to notice.

“You don’t trust me,” he says after a moment, and it’s edged with a frustrated growl. “Whatever, I've never given you a reason to. But once I'm in Konoha, you're not going to let me out, and I refuse to be trapped anywhere, ever again. I've got things to do and people to save, and I'm not about to let you lock me up and steal my purpose. So either fuck off and quit chasing me, or come back with a better offer.” He makes a hand-sign that is definitely not a jutsu and just as definitely offensive, then disappears with a pop and a whirl of smoke, leaving them standing on an empty cliff.

Fuck me,” Shisui groans, pressing his hands over his face.

Kakashi looks out at the vast expanse of River Country they just crossed, which they will very soon have to cross again, and sighs, rubbing at his temples. “I think he just did,” he says wryly. “Both of us, even.”

Well. It’s the truth, but at least it makes his partner laugh.

Chapter Text

[dolorifuge / də‘ lorə, fyüj / , a thing that banishes or mitigates grief, a thing that drives away pain. From Latin dolor ‎“anguish, misery”, and Latin -fuge “expelling or dispelling either a specified thing or in a specified way”, derived from fūgare, “to expel, put to flight.]

 

There's a small, weathered inn several hours from Ame’s border, tucked in between the rocky flatlands and a few marshy stands of trees. Stopping isn’t the best idea—that would be avoiding all signs of humanity, sticking to the woods, and hauling ass across the Elemental Countries to get to Kumo. However, there's been no sign of pursuit from either Suna or Konoha, the sandstorm did an incredible job of covering their tracks, and Fuji is getting tired in a way that a few stolen hours of sleep won't help. On top of that, Naruto and Gaara are both starting to look a little grimy, and Kurama knows that he’s no better than the boys.

Some faint flicker of caution has Kurama cutting off a square of his own blanket before they can enter the building, and tying it over Naruto's bright hair. Then he sits back on his heels and regards the two boys closely. He can probably get away with claiming relation to Gaara, despite the difference in their skin colors, and since Naruto is about the same age, it’s easy enough to write him off as either another relative or a friend.

“Stick close, okay?” he reminds them, offering his hands. Fuji is curled around his neck again, eyes heavy and tails drooping, and Kurama knows that the second she hits the futon she’s going to be out for the night, even though the sun is still up. “Gaara, think you can call me Kurama-nii while we’re in here?”

Aquamarine eyes go wide. Gaara bites his lip and looks down, then sneaks a glance at Naruto without answering.

Apparently understanding the implied question, Naruto beams. “It’s all right, Gaara!” he says reassuringly. “He can be your Kurama-nii too!”

In for a kunai, in for the whole damn weapons store, apparently. Kurama stifles a sigh and waves his hands impatiently. “Yeah, yeah. Come on, brats, I want a bath more than I want to breathe right now. Here’s hoping they need a bunch of wood chopped.”

“Are you gonna be a woodcutter and a shinobi, Kurama-nii?” Naruto asks interestedly, taking his hand without hesitation. Gaara steals another glance at him before he carefully does the same, and Kurama offers both of them a smile as he rises to his feet.

“Why not?” he huffs, squeezing their fingers gently. “It’ll be worth it to stay the night.” And if any of the other bijuu try to make something of it, he’ll pound their faces in, so who cares?

The bottom floor of the inn is completely empty when they step in, only the innkeeper—as grim and weathered as her inn—seated behind the main desk. Sharp eyes immediately snap up, flickering across Kurama's tattered clothes and down to his bare feet, and then narrow sharply.

“Fifty ryō for you for one night, and twenty apiece for the boys,” she says flatly. “Money upfront.”

Never has Kurama realized more clearly just how far the Elemental Nations came under Naruto's generation. Right now, Ame is still only seven years come from the Third Shinobi War, and while it didn’t offer nearly the devastation of the Second, it was still a war. There's no room for kindness here, not yet. Not with that in their pasts.

“Will you trade for work?” Kurama asks, trying not to sound too gruff. “I can chop wood, or take care of—”

“Money upfront,” the woman repeats, unbending. “I can't afford any charity cases. If you don’t have the funds, move on.”

All too aware of Naruto and Gaara, tense and silent and half-hidden behind him even as they grip his fingers tightly, Kurama tries again. “Look, I'm sorry, but just one night. There's a storm coming. Anything you want done, I’ll do it.”

The innkeeper glances at Naruto and Gaara for a long moment, but her lips press into a tight line and she shakes her head. “I have no need of work. If that’s all you have to say—”

“Put it on my bill,” an unexpected voice orders, deep and sharp, and Kurama startles, jerking around.

There's a man in the doorway of the inn, just stripping off his haori. Short, a good head shorter than Kurama, with dark red hair and a beard that comes to a point. He’s lacking the armor and crown-like headpiece Kurama last saw him with, but he’s still familiar. More to the point, so is the hot, heavy chakra thrumming through him, tasting of molten rock and vast, potent pride, thick enough to choke on.

Brown eyes flicker across Kurama's face, then down to the little boys pressed close to him, and Son Goku’s jinchuuriki offers a small, crooked smile. Glancing past them, he looks back at the innkeeper and says again, “I’ll pay. Add their room to my bill. I wouldn’t wish a storm like that on anyone, let alone two kids.”

It takes effort for Kurama to swallow his own pride, because of all his siblings Son has always been one of the hardest to deal with. Still, the man is right; outside there's a wind picking up, and the clouds have been getting darker and lower all day. This is for Naruto's comfort, his safety, and because of that Kurama manages to incline his head to the redheaded man. “Thanks,” he says, and it comes out rough. “I…owe you one.”

Unlike with Matatabi, there’s no cryptic, unnerving sidestep. The man simply nods, waving Kurama forward as he goes to snag the keys from the innkeeper. “Kurama. You just missed Han,” he says. “He left a few hours ago to find Killer Bee on Turtle Island.”

“Killer Bee?” Naruto whispers very loudly from behind Kurama's leg, tugging on his pants. “Kurama-nii, Kurama-nii, who’s that?”

Son’s host studies the boy for a moment, then crouches down so he’s closer to eye level, though he doesn’t approach. “Be happy you don’t know,” he says a little dryly. “But he’s like us. Has a bijuu trapped inside him. For a given value of trapped, I guess.”

Naruto and Gaara exchange wide-eyed looks, and Naruto blurts, “You're a jinchuuriki too?”

The older man nods, looking faintly awkward. “That I am. I'm Rōshi, and I've got the Yonbi living in my head. What about you two?”

Gaara slides back a little, tucking himself further behind Kurama, and Naruto glances at him, expression shifting from interest to wariness. “Kurama-nii?” he whisper-shouts again, and really, Kurama has to teach him subtlety, if it’s at all possible.

Knowing Naruto, it’s probably not.

A quick glance at the desk shows the innkeeper has retreated elsewhere, so Kurama nods, ruffling blond hair and then crimson. “It’s fine. Rōshi is a friend. Tell him whatever you want.”

“I've got the Kyuubi in me,” Naruto says immediately. “And Gaara's got the Shukaku.”

Rōshi blinks, taken aback, and glances at Gaara, then up at Kurama in what is clearly a request for translation.

“The Ichibi,” Kurama clarifies, reluctantly amused. He looks down at the six-year-old redhead, who looks solemnly back at him and then tentatively raises his arms. Kurama chuckles and scoops the boy up, propping him on his hip, and Gaara drops his head onto Kurama's shoulder, half-hiding his face.

“Me too, Kurama-nii!” Naruto insists, reaching up as well. With a snort, Kurama snags him by the back of his shirt, hauling him into his arms even as he tries not to unbalance Fuji.

“If you want to talk, can we do it after I get these two into a bath?” he asks Rōshi. “It’s getting hard to tell dirt from skin—for all of us, I think.”

Rōshi’s lips quirk, and he straightens. “This way,” he says, heading down the hall to the right. “Your room’s only a few doors down from the bath, and right next to mine. I think she’s trying to make sure the dangerous-looking people stick to one area.”

From the looks the woman was giving them, Kurama would believe it. He snorts softly, then says, “Fuji, hop down and find a bed. If you fall asleep there you’re going to slip off and crack your skull.”

“I will not,” the fox answers, making Rōshi jump slightly as she lifts her head. Kurama can't quite see her face from this angle, but he knows with absolute certainty that she’s smirking. “Besides, Kurama-sama, it’s not as though a fall from this puny height would hurt in the least.”

“Fuck off, Fuji. Go sleep,” Kurama snaps, bristling, and she huffs, flicks her tails smugly, and leaps to the ground.

One amber-eyed glare at Rōshi has him hurrying to unlock the closest door for her, and Fuji offers him a prim, “Thank you, sir,” as she trots inside.

Brows raised, Rōshi glances from the disappearing tail-tips to Kurama, who rolls his eyes and crouches down, setting the boys on their feet. “Bathroom’s there,” he says firmly, pointing to another door standing ajar. “You two can manage a bath by yourselves?”

“We can,” Gaara says quickly, grabbing for Naruto's hand.

“Yeah!” Naruto agrees brightly. “Sakura-chan says she an’ her friend take baths together sometimes ‘cause they're friends, so we can do it too! Gaara's a better friend than mean Ino.”

The name is a twinge—one more of Naruto's precious people, who died to buy them time to get a group of children to safety. Sakura had been heartbroken afterwards, inconsolable, and little hurt Naruto more than loss and grief.

Still, the childish words make Kurama smile, and he gently tweaks Naruto's nose. “Yeah, you're pretty good friends all right,” he confirms. “Go on, scram. Wash everything.”

Naruto gives him a beaming grin that promises chaos, then bolts, towing Gaara along behind him. The bathroom door slams closed as they vanish, and Kurama rises back to his feet, shaking his head. Somehow, he suspects that this won't end with the bathroom in anywhere close to pristine condition, but, well. After their reception he can't say he’s all that inclined to be accommodating.

Once the sound of running water and muffled voices is loud enough to prove that the boys are thoroughly preoccupied, Rōshi jerks his head, gesturing Kurama into the door a few feet down the hall. “We can talk in mine,” he says, and heads for it without waiting for an answer. Kurama snorts, mutters an insult as to Son’s intelligence, and follows.

“Han passed on the message?” he asks as soon as they're seated around the low table.

“Hm?” Rōshi looks up from his bags, bottle of sake in one hand and an ochoko and a teacup in the other. “You mean that someone besides our villages is hunting us? Yeah. That weird bastard with the masks on his back—is he the standard, or are there others to worry about?”

“You know that stuff isn’t going to get either one of us drunk, right?” Kurama asks critically, eyeing the bottle as Rōshi pours them each a measure of alcohol.

The jinchuuriki rolls his eyes. “You sound just like Han,” he complains. “We’re not drinking to get drunk, we’re drinking for the taste, so shut up and enjoy it.”

“Whatever,” Kurama huffs, but accepts the cup Rōshi pushes towards him and takes a wary sip. It doesn’t burn too badly going down, clearly of better quality that what Kiba used to force on Naruto, but the flavor doesn’t do all that much for Kurama, either. He drinks it, since Rōshi is doing the same, but it wouldn’t be his first choice if he were alone. “Akatsuki’s a mixed bag, but they're all nuts. The main one to watch out for is a guy in a mask—he’s got a Sharingan eye that can control the bijuu, and it works on jinchuuriki too. One of ‘em has the Rinnegan eyes, as well. Konoha's favorite traitor, Orochimaru, one of Suna’s rejects, a girl who’s way too fond of paper, and Hoshigaki Kisame, the walking shark—given that that’s the basic lineup, you're best avoiding them at all costs, even if it means going back to Iwa.”

Rōshi snorts derisively. “I'm not going back,” he says stubbornly. “Han and I split up so it would be harder to track us. He’ll cut through Fire Country, and I’ll head after him once he’s got a decent lead. Bee’s still got ties to his village—he can get word out to the others who aren’t missing-nin.” A thoughtful expression flickers over his face, and he asks, “That why you grabbed the kids? Because they're vulnerable?”

Kurama scoffs, looking away. “Not quite. Until someone in one of those shitholes learns how to take decent goddamn care of a six-year-old, they're sticking with me. Naruto's family, anyway. I'm not leaving him.”

With a quiet hum, Rōshi drains his teacup and pours himself more sake. “The Yonbi’s been screeching at me since he heard about you,” he says, almost casually. “As soon as Han said your name, and that you called the Gobi ‘brother’, he started having a conniption. Care to tell me what that’s about?”

“Not really,” Kurama answers warily. One dark red brow arches disbelievingly, and he sighs, scrubbing a hand through his knotted hair. “It’s…complicated,” he finally manages. “And I'm not getting into it right now. But I'm…related. Kokuō and Son both guessed, but Son’s an arrogant, uppity bastard and I'm not surprised that he’s throwing a tantrum about it.”

Rōshi’s chakra flares wildly and he jerks, flickers of heat making the air around him swim like a heat mirage. Kurama just smirks, taking another sip, and points out, “Bet you could get him to stop screaming if you called him by name.”

Eyes narrowing, Rōshi gives him a glare. “I'm not—”

“That soft, yeah, yeah,” Kurama huffs. “It’s not about being soft, idiot. It’s about respect. Son’s the source of most of your power. Without him, you’d be crippled at best, or probably just dead. Pay him back and use his damned name.”

“I will not!” Rōshi growls. He sits back on his heels and glares. “You act like it’s some kind of honor, like I wanted this! Yes, he gives me power, but what do I get in return? I'm ostracized, hunted—”

“And you,” Kurama drawls pointedly, giving him a smug, sharp-edged smirk, “are acting like you're the only one with no choice in the matter. Son Goku sure as hell didn’t ask to end up trapped in your soul, and you never asked for him to be there. Get along just for that, if nothing else, and count your blessings. Son’s an egotistical son of a bitch, but at least he’s not blanket crazy. Shukaku’s been trapped and twisted by his seals for so long that there’s not much left of what he used to be. Before I tweaked the seal, Gaara couldn’t even sleep for fear of him taking control and slaughtering all of Suna.”

There's a long, tense moment of silence, and then Rōshi nods, just once. He looks away, tapping one finger against his cup, and clears his throat. “Where are you taking them?”

Accepting the change of subject, because he’s not a complete asshole—and also because he’s made his point—Kurama shrugs. “There's something I need to destroy at the Akatsuki base northwest of Kumo, and I'm not about to take two baby jinchuuriki with me. Matatabi might be able to babysit, though, so I’ll work my way around. Unless you…?”

Rōshi leans back, raising his hands as though to fend Kurama off. “No! No, I'm terrible with kids, and besides, I want to stick close to Han. He’s an idiot about a lot of things. Like women. If they send that paper-girl after him he’ll be blushing too hard to fight back.”

They must make quite a pair when they're traveling together, Kurama thinks with amusement, because Han is easily seven feet tall, while Rōshi doesn’t even top out at five. He snorts a little at the image, even though he’s slightly disappointed that they're really going to have to haul themselves all the way to Kumo regardless. Still, he doesn’t want to deal with Bee, not when Matatabi is an option, so it’s not entirely the disappointment it could be.

“Don’t try to fight Akatsuki if you do run into them,” is what he says, though. “Just run. They’ve been training for years just to hunt the jinchuuriki, and no matter how strong you are, you're not going to stand a chance.”

Rōshi stares at him for a long moment, sharp eyes studying Kurama's expression. Kurama looks back, letting him see just how serious he is. Akatsuki is powerful; hell, Kurama can't think of another group that could have managed even half of what they did in his timeline. Obito is a mad bastard, but he’s a terrifyingly clever one.

And then Rōshi says very softly, “Who’d you lose to them?”

Kurama's breath catches sharply in his throat and he wrenches his gaze away, staring down at his cup because it’s the only safe thing he can think to focus on. Already his body is tensing, shoulders coming up and heart starting to pound, but he forces himself back under control, fighting away the surge of runrunrunrun that’s coursing through his veins.

“A friend,” he manages after a long moment, and the words come out just a bare decibel above a growl. “My best friend.”

There's a pause as Rōshi regards him; Kurama can practically feel the man’s gaze boring into the top of his head. Then Rōshi sighs quietly, reaching for the sake. He fills his cup to the very top, downs it in three long swallows, and says, “All right. I’ll run, and I’ll make sure whoever I meet knows to do the same. Bee might take some convincing, but if he mentions it to his brother A will be more than happy to make sure he does it.”

The promise is enough that Kurama nods. He pushes his own cup aside and rises to his feet. “I should check on Fuji,” he mutters. “You sticking around for the night?”

Rōshi inclines his head, and his expression is grimly sad as he watches Kurama retreat towards the door. “I’ll leave at dawn. I don’t want Han getting too far ahead of me.”

“Night, then,” Kurama manages, then closes the door and stalks towards his own room. There's still laughter and voices coming from the bathroom, so he doesn’t pause, just steps into the darkened room and immediately heads for the window. Rain is lashing at the glass, a hard, steady drumming, but Kurama throws it open regardless, leaning out to let the icy drops pelt his skin.

Best friend, he thinks, and it’s somewhere between bitter and broken. He sees it again, Naruto falling with only emptiness in his blue eyes, blood staining his shirt even as the seal on his skin blazed with light. Sees again that final smile, feels that final hug, his nose in sun-bright hair and strong arms wrapped around him.

You’ve always been a hero, Kurama. Now everyone will be able to see it.

Naruto had whispered it to him, steady and certain, entirely unwavering. He’d had faith in Kurama, more than anyone, and was the first to ever see him as a friend. Kurama stares at his hand, remembers tanned fingers entwined with his darker ones, the firm grip Naruto kept on his wrist as they faced each other. He can't quite stop the shattered, shaken sound that tears itself from his throat, can't fight the way his eyes are burning, and he hunches forward over the sill, leaning out into the rain.

Damn it all to hell and back. He just—he misses his Naruto so much.

It’s not as though the six-year-old version is a poor substitute. He’s not, because he’s Naruto, and that’s all that matters. But there's no way for him to be what Kurama's Naruto was, no way for him to understand Kurama as fully as the man who pulled an angry, hateful bijuu up out of the darkness and gave him a reason to care.

(He pretends that the wetness streaking his cheeks is just the rain, but it’s painfully hot, and the raindrops are cold. How pathetic, that he can't even lie to himself.)

The door opens, startling him enough that he spins, claws coming up. Before he can do anything, though, Naruto makes a loud sound of distress and cries, “Kurama-nii! Are you hurt? Are you okay?”

On instinct, Kurama catches the small body that slams into his legs, grunting as he’s knocked back a step. Thin, short arms wrap around his thighs as the boy presses close, and—Kurama looks down at the top of his blond head, remembers that last, warm hug just before his world ended, and chokes on the edges of a sob. He drops to his knees, grabbing Naruto and dragging the boy against him, hugging him as tightly as he dares.

“I miss him,” he whispers. “I miss him so much, Naruto, and I'm so tired of being sad. You're here, I found you, so I shouldn’t feel like this anymore, but I just—I can't stop it.”

“It’s okay, Kurama-nii,” Naruto says softly, worried but stubborn. “Even if you're sad, it’s okay. Me an’ Gaara are here, and we love you, an’ you're our big brother. I'm really happy you're here, Kurama-nii, no matter what, so being sad is always okay. We love you anyway.”

It’s such a Naruto way to comfort him that Kurama laughs, wet and rough and muffled against Naruto's small shoulder. He squeezes the boy just a little bit tighter, careful with his claws, and breathes, “Thank you. Thank you, Naruto. I promise, I won't leave you. I'm never going to leave you, no matter what happens.”

Naruto doesn’t say anything, just wraps his arms around Kurama and holds on, but really, that’s all Kurama needs. He buries his face in blond hair, breathing through the waves of grief that try to drag him down, and swears on everything that’s ever been sacred that he’ll never let go.

Chapter Text

[anamnesis / a- , nam- ‘ nē-səs/ , the recollection or remembrance of the past; reminiscence. Via New Latin from Greek anamimnēskein ‎“to recall”, from mimnēskein “to call to mind”.]

 

Kurama steps out of the shower with a sigh, catching his towel from the hook on the wall and dragging it over his head. He feels wrung out, hollowed, but…maybe it’s not entirely in a bad way.

The memory of his Naruto is foremost in his mind, but with Naruto the child so close by, asleep on the futon he’s sharing with Gaara and dreaming peacefully, it’s easier to recall the final smile Naruto gave him, Naruto's faith and fiery determination, rather than his death. He still hates Kaguya with everything in him, hates the goddess more than he’s ever hated anyone or anything in his long life, but Kurama could never hate Naruto.

Resenting his Naruto for sending him here, for trapping him in this body, for dying without even letting Kurama try to save him, has never sat all that comfortably with him, either.

Scrubbing the towel over his dripping hair, Kurama takes two steps across the small, entirely soaked bathroom—Naruto and Gaara apparently decided to have a splash fight, and Kurama would be annoyed, but he remembers his Naruto coaxing Gaara into doing the same, both of them twenty years old and Kages and still absolute brats. There are puddles underfoot, and the air is filled with steam, making it as humid as a jungle.

That thought draws his attention to the memories of his clone, who faced Kakashi and Shisui just before it disappeared. Perhaps it’s to be expected that those two caught up first, while the other clone is still leading Itachi and Tenzō on a spiraling chase through southern River Country. Kakashi is a terrifyingly good tracker, after all, and while Shisui is an unknown beyond the fact that he has a Sharingan, Kurama's happy to assume he’s a talented bastard as well. Sarutobi wasn’t pulling any punches when he picked this team.

He doesn’t for a moment believe Shisui's words about finding a solution if he returns to Konoha. However, it was easy to see in that moment that Shisui believed them, and for an Uchiha to have that much faith in his village, six years after the Kyuubi’s attack, means something.

Distantly, Kurama can recall the knowledge that Itachi had a friend who helped set him on his path, whose death gave him the Mangekyo and who was all but killed by Danzō. He never really tried to remember the name—what did he care about one long-dead Uchiha, after all?—but now…now he can't help but suspect that it was Shisui. Naruto always called that particular spark of devotion and implacable stubbornness the Will of Fire, and Kurama supposes that that’s what he saw in Shisui's eyes when he faced him.

If you come peacefully, I'm sure we can work something out. You don’t have to be separated from him. I wouldn’t ask you to abandon your family, and I don’t think the Sandaime would, either.

What are the odds that the Sandaime sent the two Uchiha who are practically responsible for the massacre after him? Kurama can't decide whether he’s amused or annoyed about it. If he weren’t quite as cynical, he might even put it down to fate. But part of some grand plan or not, it does give Kurama a chance he’s not likely to come across again.

He doesn’t have time to make another clone and send it after Shisui and Kakashi. Besides, they’d be even more suspicious, since they already saw the one they were chasing disappear. But…well. It’s simple enough to tug on his connection to the other clone and just…change its orders ever so slightly.

Kurama chuckles, low and amused, as he withdraws his chakra. He gets to help save one of Naruto's precious people a lot of grief and mess with an Uchiha at the same time. There are perks to everything, it seems. Adding in the fact that this is a particularly annoying Uchiha just makes it sweeter—Kurama still remembers all too well Naruto's brief fight with Itachi, and having to suffer the indignity of getting a crow stuffed down his throat. Manifestation of chakra or not, some things just shouldn’t happen, and getting assaulted with a bird is one of them.

Naruto would laugh at him, Kurama thinks suddenly, hands pausing on the towel. The thought is bittersweet, but strangely good. Naruto would laugh at him for all these petty little grudges, for all the tricks Kurama has played. He would love the fact that Kurama snatched Gaara right from under Suna’s nose, and that he’s used clones the way Naruto always did. That he’s planning all these little bits of unnecessary embarrassment for his pursuers, and making friends with the other jinchuuriki. It might not be quite what Naruto himself would have done, if he had managed to come back in time, but…Kurama can't help but feel that the man would definitely approve.

It feels like warmth unfurling inside of him. Like sunlight coaxing plants to bloom. Just a little spark of brightness unfolding in his chest, creeping out through his veins until Kurama can feel himself smiling. There's no jaded curve to it, nothing held back, just…happiness. A small dart of joy that grows larger with each passing day, with every smile this child Naruto gives him. With every hug, with every step taken, with every change Kurama makes to himself, to Naruto, to the world as a whole. Small changes, small bits, but they're snowballing forward, and that’s enough.

Kurama's world died once already. He will never, ever allow it to happen again.

Kurama takes a breath, slings the towel around his shoulders, and leans forward over the small sink to swipe a hand across the fogged surface of the mirror.

Bye, Kurama. Kick some ass for me, okay? And look in a mirror as soon as you can, got it?

Naruto had been smirking, when he said that. Sly and amused and full of mirth, and Kurama holds on to that image now. He takes a breath, squares his shoulders, and meets his own gaze in the silvered glass.

Dark red eyes, not sky-blue, but they're the same shape as Naruto's. A straight nose, stubborn jaw, high cheekbones—he looks like Kushina, almost, and without Minato's coloring to distract the eye the resemblance is easy to see. It’s Naruto's face with hardly any changes, and Kurama feels his chest ache with gratitude for that small fact. He reaches out, claws clicking against the glass, and traces the shape, almost able to see Naruto in it. There are no whisker marks, none of the laugh lines and crows’ feet that Naruto was sporting at the end, but…like overlapping images, Kurama can see the ghost of Naruto within his own face, and it’s far more of a comfort than he had thought it could be.

The hair is just ridiculous, though, and nothing will convince Kurama otherwise.

It makes him chuckle softly as he touches the choppy strands, because he remembers that fight. Naruto had been growing his hair out, through laziness in regards to cutting it more than anything else, and it had been a good foot past his shoulders when they’d been called to distract Kaguya’s forces so their companions could get away. One of her undead soldiers had grabbed his ponytail and refused to let go, giving all the rest of them a chance to dogpile him, and Naruto had screamed and flailed and been unable to get away until Sakura dove into the fray after him. She’d knocked the animated corpses back, then sawed Naruto's ponytail off with a kunai and a distinct lack of pity for his plight. Kurama had been laughing too hard to help incinerate the soldiers, and Naruto had sulked for days, not even allowing Sakura to neaten up the ragged cuts she had made.

Carding his fingers through the crimson strands, Kurama gives in and laughs at the memory, feeling warm down to his bones. He wraps the towel around his waist, then heads for the hall, stepping out into the chilly air. There's still a light on in Rōshi’s room, and he knocks briskly on the door. There's a pause, then faint footsteps, and a moment later Rōshi is blinking at him, one eyebrow lifting.

“If this is a proposition, or some way of paying off the room,” he says suspiciously, eyeing Kurama's lack of clothing, “I'm flattered, but I need to get an early start.”

Kurama scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Fuck you,” he huffs. “I just wanted to borrow a damned kunai.”

If anything, the eyebrow lifts higher, and the other comes up to join it. “You don’t have one of your own?” Rōshi asks, faintly incredulous.

Holding up one hand, Kurama wiggles his fingers, showing off the sharp points of his nails. “I've never needed them. But it’s kind of hard to cut hair with these.”

Rōshi snorts, turning away from the door and waving Kurama to follow him. “Yeah, it’s about time you did something about that,” he says, amused. “You look like someone set a mop on fire.”

Kurama would take offense, except that the haircut was hardly his idea. “My friend’s doing,” he explains. “He was an idiot.” It’s too hard to hide the thread of fondness in his tone, so Kurama doesn’t even try.

It gets him a sharp glance from the other redhead, but after a moment Rōshi’s expression shifts into a faint smile, and he turns his attention back to his pack with a soft snort. “Well, I'm sure he wouldn’t blame you for neatening that up, no matter how much you miss him. Here.” A whole weapons pouch comes flying at Kurama's face, and he catches it automatically. “My spare. You’re probably going to need it more than I do, though, so take it.”

A little surprised, Kurama weighs the pouch in his hand. Muscle memory from Mito, Kushina, and Naruto as well means that he knows how to use them, but he honestly hasn’t thought of using a weapon beyond his own body before. He’s never had to, after all. This…this might be an edge, though, if he needs to escape from the Freak Squad again.

“Thanks,” he says gruffly, looking down to fiddle with the tie holding it closed. “Another thing I owe you for.”

Rōshi snorts. “Let’s call it a thank you for the warning.” He dismisses the matter with a one-shouldered shrug. “Or for helping Han, if you want. He’s a fool, but he’s a friend too. I’d rather this Akatsuki didn’t kill him before I have the chance to do it.”

They're definitely friends. Kurama laughs before he can help it, all too familiar with the sentiment, and nods in agreement. “All right. Thanks anyway. I appreciate it.”

“You're looking out for all the jinchuuriki,” Rōshi reminds him. “Least we can do is make things a bit easier on you in return. I’d offer you a change of clothes as well, but I don’t think mine would fit you.”

Given that Rōshi is a good twenty centimeters shorter than him, for all that he’s a fair bit broader, Kurama doesn’t doubt it. “This is enough,” he says, waving that away. “Thanks. Let me know when you're leaving?”

Rōshi nods, smiling faintly. “I will. Good night, Kurama.”

“Good night, Rōshi,” Kurama returns, stepping back.

He has a hand on the door when Rōshi says quietly, “I nearly killed my best friend, the first time I lost my temper with her. That’s why I left Iwa. Maybe it’s not quite like seeing her die, but she was so scared of me afterwards that is was still the same as losing her completely. Not that I blame her, but…loss always hurts, and it always will. To make up for it, I learned to control my power.”

He doesn’t say this is your way of making up for it, but he doesn’t need to. They can both hear the words regardless.

Kurama's not sure it Rōshi thinks he’s a jinchuuriki as well, and assumes Kurama's friend got caught in Akatsuki’s crossfire, or if he’s just good enough at reading people to see the guilt that’s all wrapped up with Kurama's grief. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. Kurama clears his throat, eyes on the wood in front of him, and gives a jerky nod. “I'm going to tear Akatsuki apart until there's nothing left but ashes,” he says gruffly. “If you want to help, keep your head down, and warn the others to do the same.”

Rōshi makes a quiet sound that’s part amusement, part assent, and Kurama doesn’t wait for him to say anything else, stepping out into the hall and quietly closing the door behind him. He pauses, taking a breath, and then closes his hand a little more tightly around the pouch of kunai. They clink together under his grip, and he forces himself to move, padding back into the bathroom and dropping them on the counter. He pulls one out, studying the well-maintained edge for a moment, and then glances at his reflection in the mirror again.

It’s not exactly Naruto's face that stares back at him, but it’s similar enough that Kurama smiles a bit, and lifts the kunai. The first ragged edge of crimson hair falls away under the gentle press of the blade, fluttering down to the counter, and Kurama takes a breath.

This is the body Naruto left for him. This is the task Naruto wanted him to complete. He’s doing it in a way Naruto would have liked, in a way that would have made him laugh, and that’s enough. It makes Kurama smile, remembering Naruto's request, remembering the little blond boy sleeping just a few doors down, wrapped up with his new friend and entirely at peace, and he laughs a little to himself. Maybe it’s not enough to heal the hurt entirely, but the warmth inside him is almost enough to rival the ache, and that’s a damned good start.

With steady hands, Kurama slices through the next choppy edge of crimson hair, and it doesn’t feel like losing his connection to his past. It feels like a step forward, an advance, and Kurama thinks if he were here, his Naruto would be the one urging him on.

 

 

They break free of the jungle just as the sun starts to set, and Kakashi can honestly say he’s never been quite so glad to leave a place behind.

Kurama's trick itches at him, nags like a scabbing wound. He should have noticed, should have guessed. If he’d been thinking more clearly, if he’d been able to see through the anger and worry and grief caused by Naruto's kidnapping, maybe he would have taken a moment longer, looked underneath the underneath the way he always urges his teammates, and noticed the misdirection for what it was.

There's little doubt that the Kurama Tenzō and Itachi are chasing is a fake as well. The clone looked far too pleased with Kakashi's question for it to be anything else. Two clones to lead them astray, and they're well behind Kurama now, with little idea of where he’s headed.

Kakashi really wants to hurt something. Possibly himself, but definitely Kurama as well.

Since night is rapidly closing in, he comes to a halt with a heavy sigh, dropping down to sit on a sandy bit of ground. They're near the Wind Country border, since it’s slightly easier to navigate with the lack of vegetation, and Kakashi knows that Tenzō and Itachi will be returning this way as soon as they realize they're chasing a fake. Once they meet, Kakashi isn’t sure what they’ll do, since Kurama has several days’ head start on them now. That’s enough to put him almost anywhere in the western Elemental Countries. Hell, he could even be back in Konoha for all Kakashi knows, and it’s frustrating enough to make Kakashi want to put his fist through something solid.

“We’re stopping, then?” Shisui asks, sinking down next to him. He lets out a tired breath, dragging his fingers through his flyaway hair. “You're so kind, Captain.”

Kakashi doesn’t roll his eyes, but it’s a near thing. “Just for a few hours. We’ll keep going once the moon is up. I want to find the others as soon as possible.”

Shisui opens his mouth to answer—probably with something insubordinate and faintly mocking, knowing him—but then freezes. In the same instant, Kakashi leaps back to his feet, the sense of rapidly approaching chakra enough to put his hackles up. It’s no one familiar, definitely not another Konoha shinobi, but there's an edge of aggression to it that says this is hardly a friendly encounter. He reaches for his tantō automatically, aware of Shisui doing the same as the Uchiha flashes to his feet and spins to put their backs together.

A moment later, six shapes come blurring over the rise and surround them in a rush. Kakashi bristles, tempted to lift his hitai-ate so he can even the odds a little, but he restrains himself. The uniforms are familiar, as is the face of the man in front of him.

“Baki,” Kakashi says warily, eyeing the Kazekage’s main guard, and one of Suna’s top jounin. “You're a long way from home.”

Baki watches him in return, visible eye narrowed above the red tattoos on his cheek. “Hatake. I could say the same. What’s Konoha's best tracker doing in River Country?”

“Tracking,” Kakashi answers, cheerfully bland. He’s not about to tell a Suna shinobi that Konoha had its jinchuuriki swiped—Suna’s only an ally because they have no other choice—but this is a chance he can't afford to pass up. Suna keeps a close eye on the desert, and if Kurama headed west, they’ll likely know. “We’re looking for a shinobi who’s wanted for questioning in Konoha. Have you seen him? Red hair, short, kind of grumpy? I think he’s still barefoot, too.”

Because Kakashi's watching, he catches the faint widening of Baki’s eye, the flicker of surprise that crosses the jounin’s face before he can hide it. There's a long moment of silence and then Baki glances over at the woman beside him. A silent conversation passes between them, and Kakashi can feel Shisui tensing at his back, ready for an attack. He doesn’t think Baki will give that kind of order, though, and he’s starting to get a sneaking suspicion just what it is this squad is looking for.

“Dark skin?” Baki asks finally, glancing back to meet Kakashi's gaze squarely. “No hitai-ate or visible weapons, accompanied by a three-tailed white fox as tall at the shoulder as a man’s elbow?”

Well, the giant fox is a surprise, and not entirely a pleasant one. No wonder Kurama is so far ahead of them if he’s got that shape-shifting not-a-summons for transportation. Kakashi grimaces, releasing his hold on his tantō and shifting out of a ready stance. “Uzumaki Kurama,” he agrees unhappily. “He escaped Konoha a few days ago, and we’ve been looking for him since. He’s in Suna?”

“Not anymore,” Baki says dryly, waving his squad back. “Guards caught a glimpse of them escaping over the wall two days ago, but a sandstorm delayed us in giving chase. Uzumaki kidnapped the Kazekage’s youngest son on his way out, and we were dispatched to find him and recover the boy.”

There's a certain sinking sensation in Kakashi's stomach, and he trades wary glances with Shisui. They're well aware that Suna holds the Ichibi, even if they're not entirely certain who its container is. Given that jinchuuriki are usually chosen from among a Kage’s close family in order to ensure their loyalty, Kakashi thinks he can guess why Kurama snatched the boy. He’s not about to tell Baki about Naruto being taken as well, since the man will likely make the same connection Kakashi just did, but the situation is…worrying. The fact that Kurama is collecting jinchuuriki can't lead to anything good.

The Countries need jinchuuriki to keep the balance of power as it is. Remove them and every country is going to start pointing fingers and making accusations, and the world can't afford another all-out war, not so soon after the last.

“We ended up follow a clone through northern River Country,” Kakashi allows, “but we lost his trail there. The other half of my team went south, and we’re trying to catch up with them now.”

Baki accepts the information with a tip of his chin. “Scouts found tracks headed northeast out of the village, but couldn’t follow them before the storm broke. We’ve got teams searching up and down the border now, but I haven’t heard anything yet. Have you faced Uzumaki?”

Kakashi inclines his head. “He’s strong,” he says, then hesitates. After a moment of inner debate, he adds, “We suspect he’s a jinchuuriki.”

After all, if Suna does manage to find him before Kakashi's team can, they’ll need every advantage to actually capture him. And once they do, refusing to return Naruto, a citizen of Konoha, might as well be an act of war. Even though Naruto is a container, he’s too young to be an asset, and Konoha is stronger than Suna even without a jinchuuriki. They can afford a war to get Naruto back; Suna can't. Laying at least some of their cards on the table is worth the risk of sharing knowledge.

At that, Baki blanches, and several of his shinobi pale as well. Muttering a low curse, Baki rubs a hand over his face and nods sharply. “Thank you,” he says grimly. “We weren’t aware. I knew he was powerful, but…”

Kakashi gives him a crooked smile, understanding. It’s one thing to face off against a powerful shinobi. It’s another entirely to go head-to-head with a shinobi capable of calling on the vast power of a bijuu. There's a reason most jinchuuriki who leave their villages are pretty much never taken back; there's simply no one capable of it.

“Should we ask to join forces?” Shisui asks, voice low enough that only Kakashi's ears pick it up. He pauses, considering, and glances back at his partner. Shisui meets his gaze with a faint smile and a tip of one shoulder, and Kakashi turns the matter over in his mind. Their villages are technically allies, so he might as well make the offer. If nothing else, it would be good to have access to Suna’s resources, and if they do manage to find Kurama, returning the Kazekage’s son will only help strengthen ties.

“Can we offer our assistance?” he asks Baki. “Once we rejoin the rest of our squad, we can try to pick up the trail along the border. My nin-dogs know his scent; they might have more luck than us.”

If the offer surprises Baki, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he mulls it over for a moment, then nods sharply. “Accepted,” he says shortly. “We’ll be heading north from here, checking the border. You’ll be able to find us?”

“We will,” Kakashi confirms. “Good hunting, Baki.”

Baki laughs, rough and surprised. “Same to you, Hatake. See you in a few days.”

Kakashi offers him a wry salute, and Baki returns it, then waves his squad away. They head back over the rise, towards the north, and disappear into the darkening twilight. Once all trace of their chakra has disappeared, Kakashi finally lets the tension ease out of his shoulders and slumps with a muttered curse, pressing a hand over his face.

Kurama is collecting jinchuuriki. There is absolutely no way this is going to end well for any of the countries involved.

Behind him, Shisui blows out a heavy breath, sinking down to sit on his heels. “Wow,” he says admiringly. “We are so utterly screwed.”

Kakashi thinks about denying it, but given the circumstances, Shisui might actually be understating things. Honestly, Kakashi can't think of a better way to spark another world war than to go around stealing jinchuuriki. It’s already a sticking point for most of the countries that a lot of them become missing-nin. To have a stranger with uncertain aims and unknown ties start scooping them up is just asking for trouble.

“I’ll send a message to the Hokage,” he says at length. “He can decide whether to alert the other Kages or not. We need to find Tenzō and Itachi as soon as possible. Kurama already has a solid lead on us.”

“So no resting, then,” Shisui says with a tired sigh, but he rises to his feet and gives Kakashi a crooked smile. “Lead on, Captain. I've got your back.”

At least, Kakashi thinks a little wryly, he’s not going to have to deliver the message to Sarutobi in person. Call him a coward, but he’d rather be well out of range when the Sandaime hears about this.

Chapter Text

[penumbra / pə ‘ nəmbrə / , the partial or imperfect shadow outside the complete shadow of an opaque body; a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area. Via New Latin, equivalent to Latin paene ‎“almost” and umbra “shadow”.]

 

Itachi watches the waxing moon drift above the treeline, seated cross-legged on a boulder at the edge of their small camp. His feet hurt, and weariness pulls sharply at his mind, but he has first watch and won't allow himself to close his eyes.

Kakashi's nin-dog is the only reason they’ve managed to follow Kurama this far; he’s led them on a twisting, spiraling path that crosses over itself as often as it goes straight, and Itachi is practically dizzy from all the backtracking they’ve had to do. It’s aggravating, but they're hardly any distance from where they started, and because of that Itachi suspects that they're following a clone. Surely the real Kurama would be trying to put as much distance between them as possible.

Still, the small chance that they're on the trail of the real Kurama is enough to keep them moving; they can't afford to let him slip through their fingers if he’s not a copy. The Sandaime is trusting them to get Naruto back, and their village needs its jinchuuriki.

Strangling a faint sigh, Itachi closes his eyes, momentarily trusting his other senses to pick up an enemy’s approach. The only sounds are those typical of a forest at night, though, with the faint added snores of Kakashi's dog Bisuke. None of it is sufficient to distract Itachi from his thoughts, and he keeps finding himself drawn back to the image of Kurama in the grip of Tenzō’s vines, trapped and terrified.

It doesn’t sit right with Itachi, what they're doing. He knows very well that it’s for the good of the village, that there's no way Konoha can leave their jinchuuriki with an unknown, hostile shinobi. But…when Kurama spoke of family, there was only sincerity in his face. He loves Naruto, cares for him so deeply that it’s almost unnerving, and even though he knows he shouldn’t, Itachi respects that. Were their positions reversed, were Sasuke in Naruto's place and Itachi in Kurama's, he might even do the same. No child should grow up without a family, without someone to love them, and Naruto has. If Kurama is willing to make himself an enemy of one of the most powerful villages just to see the boy happy, well. Itachi has to admire him for it, no matter how close to treason the thought may be.

He’ll do his duty, just as he always does, but he hates it. Hates the resignation that edges the surrender, hates that he’s tearing a little boy from his only family, hates that there's nothing else he can do. That there's nothing else he will do, because his loyalty to Konoha comes first, and always will.

He thinks of Sasuke, because he can't help himself. Remembers the flicker of disappointment in dark eyes when Itachi told him he’d be missing yet another training session because of a mission. Small shoulders slumped and Sasuke looked away for a long moment, and it had burned like shame in Itachi's gut.

He’s the pride of the Uchiha Clan, the youngest ANBU member ever, beating even Hound’s fearsome record, but—but never, not once has anyone ever asked Itachi what he wants. There's no room for personal desires when he’s the clan head’s son, no space for selfishness when he’s the Uchihas’ hope for escaping the stigma of the rest of the village. People blame them for the Kyuubi attack, for not assisting when every other shinobi in Konoha put their lives on the line, and Itachi is their hope for showing everyone that the Uchiha are loyal, are devoted. Shisui too, to a lesser extent, but Itachi was being serious when he accused Shisui of playing the fool. Shisui's genius is easy to dismiss or overlook in the face of his playful manner; Itachi, with his seriousness and solemnity and lack of humor, is rarely seen as anything more than his genius.

Somewhere in the darkness, leaves rustle, and Itachi's eyes snap open. It’s too isolated to be a breeze, too deliberate to be anything but a taunt. He holds himself perfectly still, staring out into the forest, and Sharingan eyes just manage to catch a flicker of movement, shadow shifting against the trunk of a tree. Perfectly silent, Itachi slips from his seat, one hand finding the hilt of his tantō. For a moment he debates whether he should wake Tenzō, but…something inside of him whispers that it’s not the right choice.

Kurama never aimed to kill, when he fought them. He only ever wanted to escape.

Itachi doesn’t want this to turn into a fight. He doesn’t want to kill this man whose only crime is wanting to keep his family nearby. There is nothing in him that’s capable of punishing Kurama for something he himself would do, so he takes a breath, steels himself, and steps into the heavy shadows around their camp. Maybe, if he gives Kurama a chance, makes him an offer—

“Overconfidence like that is liable to get you killed, Uchiha,” a low voice growls, barely a handful of yards ahead of him.

Itachi comes to a halt, hands loose and relaxed at his sides, posture carefully nonthreatening. “Not by you,” he counters.

There's a long moment of silence, and then the shadows stir. Moonlight catches on crimson hair, just a flash of silvery color in the gloom, and Kurama steps around the trunk of a wide old tree, fingers dragging absently over the bark. He studies Itachi for a second before he snorts, one side of his mouth curling into something that’s not quite a smile, but not quite a sneer, either. “No,” he agrees. “Not tonight, at least.”

“Is Naruto safe?” Itachi asks, and he means it to come out as a sharp demand, but instead it’s just…expectant. As though he already knows the answer, and is only asking because he should. And maybe that’s actually the case, now that he considers it. After all, he knows with bone-deep certainty that Kurama won't hurt the boy in any way. He took Kakashi's Raikiri to the back just to prevent such a thing from happening.

“He is.” Kurama crosses his arms over his chest, sharp eyes narrowing. He takes a step, then another, and Itachi turns to keep him in sight as the redhead circles him like a predator. He may trust Kurama with those the man considers family, but that’s hardly the same as trusting him in general. “I'm not here to talk about Naruto, though. I'm here to talk about you, Uchiha Itachi.”

That’s…unexpected. Maybe he should have woken Tenzō after all.

“Why?” Itachi asks, keeping his voice even. “It will gain you nothing.”

The words get him a snort. “No Uchiha will ever give me anything more than grief,” Kurama scoffs. “Maybe pain and suffering, if it’s a good day. No, kid, I don’t want to have anything to do with your psychotic little family. And if this were just about me, I’d be more than happy to see every last one of you wiped off the map.”

The words are chilling, enough to make Itachi swallow, as much as he tries to keep his composure. He’s met more than enough people who dislike the Uchiha as a whole, but the venom in Kurama's voice speaks of something that’s more than prejudice; this is personal. “But it’s not just about you,” he ventures cautiously, extrapolating the man’s words. “There's…something else.”

“There always is,” Kurama agrees darkly, coming to a stop directly in front of Itachi. He doesn’t turn to face him, doesn’t meet his eyes, but lifts his gaze to the nearly-full moon and takes a clear breath. “Do you know why the Uchiha didn’t help when the Kyuubi no Kitsune attacked?”

Of all the many questions Itachi expected, that one didn’t even make the list. He blinks, caught entirely off guard, and shifts back ever so slightly. “I assume it was the Clan’s decision to keep our shinobi out of the beast’s path,” he says warily, because he’s thought of it before—asked his father once, even, but Fugaku had brushed him off with tight-lipped anger and told him not to ask again.

Kurama laughs, low and rough and without an ounce of amusement. “Fuck, you're blind. No, kid, that’s not what happened. Shimura Danzō convinced the Sandaime that the Uchiha’d do better protecting the civilians, and then he spread rumors that they controlled the Kyuubi and brought it down on the village. Made it all the easier for him to get you packed off to a secluded little corner of the village where he could keep his eye on you. ‘Cause the Uchiha are dangerous, but you're also powerful, and he wants that power for himself.”

A shiver traces its way down Itachi's spine, but he stands fast. “Given that Uchiha Madara was able to control the Kyuubi with his Mangekyo, it’s not…an unfounded accusation,” he manages, though the words stick in his throat.

With another rough chuckle, Kurama drops his gaze from the sky, and this time he holds Itachi's eyes without wavering. “Sage, you're fucked up,” he says, expression shifting into something that’s caught halfway between pity and disgust. “What would you do for your family, Uchiha Itachi? If you had to choose between killing your entire clan and keeping peace in the village, what would you pick?”

Somehow it doesn’t feel like Kurama is speaking in hypotheticals.

Unsettled and no longer able to hide it, Itachi takes a step back. “What?” he asks, and it catches hard in his throat.

Kurama stares at him, and the expression in his eyes is full of wildness, a feral sort of intensity that hollows out Itachi's chest and leaves him shaken. “Think about it,” the redhead says, and his tone is deceptively mild, like a river with the deadly current hidden deep below the calm surface. “Take a good long look at how you call yourself a pacifist before you answer. There's never only two paths, brat. Never only left or right to pick from. You're supposed to be a shinobi, aren’t you? That’s what looking underneath the underneath’s all about. If you can't even do that much, you're not a genius. You're just a murderer giving himself airs.”

With a loud pop and a whirl of smoke, the clone vanishes, leaving Itachi standing alone in the moonlight, unsteady, uncertain, and just a little bit scared. Not of Kurama, not of anything lurking in the darkness, but…

When Kurama asked his question, Itachi's first, automatic response wasn’t the one he had thought it would be.

It wasn’t one that he particularly likes, either.

 

 

They leave the inn just as the first hint of light is spreading across the eastern sky, Naruto and Gaara on Fuji’s back with Kurama and Rōshi walking alongside. The boys are sleepy enough that Kurama's keeping a close eye on them, wary of any sudden falls, but Fuji looks well-rested and is all but vibrating with energy.

When Kurama looks back at the horizon, Rōshi is watching him steadily, expression faintly concerned. Kurama arches a brow at him, and the man sighs a little and asks, “You’ll be okay?” He glances south, as if following Han’s path with his eyes, and his mouth tightens faintly. “I could…”

“We’ll be fine,” Kurama says dismissively. “Quit worrying. Besides, with Fuji we’ll move faster alone. You’ve got your own promise to keep.”

Rōshi doesn’t look entirely happy about it, but he inclines his head. “All right. Just—move fast. The rest of us aren’t being actively hunted right now, but you are. Eyes open. Two kids isn’t a lot of backup, even if they are jinchuuriki.”

As if Kurama would ever let Naruto get caught in the crossfire. He scoffs and looks away, because it’s an unpleasant thing to dwell on. He’s not entirely sure what he’ll do if the Freak Squad catches up again, or if some stroke of particularly bad luck has them crossing paths with another Akatsuki member, but he knows there's no way in hell he’ll put either of the boys at risk. Better for Fuji to take them and run than put have them put in danger. He’s not about to ask her to return to Mount Inari, not when she ran away and will likely get in trouble the moment she goes back, but if there are no other options, he’s selfish enough that he’ll request it.

“I could say the same to you,” he points out. “Kakuzu dropped the ball when he messed up capturing Kokuō. Akatsuki might decide to move up their timeline and really start tracking you down. If you're alone when they find you…”

“I’ll run,” Rōshi promises. “The—” He falters, then snorts. “Son Goku won't like it, but he can suck on an egg. I’m not about to give up my freedom for something like his pride.”

Well, that’s progress Kurama hadn’t expected. He chuckles, then braces a hand on Fuji’s back. “Good, Fuji?” he asks.

“Ready when you are, Kurama-sama,” she agrees cheerfully, crouching slightly. “I’d feel better if you were holding the kits in place. They're not entirely conscious yet.”

With a snort, Kurama vaults onto her back, leaning forward to brace Naruto and Gaara between his arms as he winds his fingers in her long fur. The fox straightens, flicking her tails, and he looks at Rōshi again, tipping his head in silent goodbye. “Keep your head down,” he warns again.

Rōshi huffs a brief laugh, raising a hand as he steps back. “The same to you, Kurama,” he says. “It was an honor to meet you. I’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

To his surprise, Kurama finds that the same applies to him. He…wouldn’t mind seeing Rōshi in the future. He’s never particularly thought that about any other human—not counting Naruto, who’s in a category of his own—and he realizes now that it’s not quite as offensive a thought as he might have expected.

Fuji saves him before he has to give voice to any of those thoughts, though. She flicks her tails and shakes herself slightly, and Kurama can feel lean muscles bunching. “See you, Rōshi,” is all he has time to say before she’s leaping forward, low and swift, long legs eating up the ground.

He could look behind them, watch Rōshi leave. Could check one last time on this human he’s managed to make a connection to, but he doesn’t. There's no time for sentiment, not right now. Maybe they’ll meet again in the future, but at the moment, Ame is opening up before them, bright and clean in the aftermath of the storm, and if they keep this pace they might even make it to Taki before sundown.

Knowing that, Kurama keeps his eyes on the horizon and doesn’t look back.

 

 

The first day Naruto doesn’t show up for class, Iruka is mildly frustrated. The boy puts no effort into anything except his pranks, and while it’s nice not to have to worry about thumbtacks on his chair or balloons filled with itching powder for one day, Iruka is a teacher. It’s his duty to give Naruto an education, and Naruto skipping class makes that very hard indeed.

The second day Naruto doesn’t show up for class, Iruka starts to get angry. And when the boy is gone the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, it just gets worse. Iruka likes Naruto, even though he’d accepted this job with the certainty that it would only ever hover on the borders of bearableness. Naruto was the demon fox, after all, Naruto was the reason his parents were dead, Naruto was the reason for his loneliness—

Except Naruto isn’t the demon fox. Naruto isn’t even remotely similar to the monster who killed his parents, and Iruka can't help the kinship he feels with Naruto, who’s so achingly, endlessly lonely. He’d planned—well. He’d planned to invite the boy for ramen sometime in the next few weeks, and was just getting his courage up. But now Naruto is skipping, probably working on some new trick, and Iruka hasn’t seen him in almost a week.

It’s easier to get angry than to worry, so immediately after he dismisses his class, Iruka gathers up all of his irritation and heads for the closest thing to a parental figure Naruto has.

“Come in,” the Sandaime calls when Iruka knocks lightly on the door, and Iruka can't help a faintly worried frown. He hasn’t heard Sarutobi sound that tired in a very long time, and even though he’s just a chuunin schoolteacher, Iruka is fairly close to the man, who was friends with his parents.

“Hokage-sama,” he says with concern, stepping into the office and closing the door carefully behind him. “Is everything all right?”

Sarutobi smiles wearily at him, turning away from the window with his hands folded behind his back. “Ah, Iruka. Yes, everything is fine, it’s simply been a long day. What can I do for you?”

For a moment Iruka debates making an excuse and slipping away rather than laying more on Sarutobi's plate, but…it’s Naruto. Naruto who has been absent for almost a week already, and Iruka isn’t about to let him get away with it any longer.

“I'm sorry to bother you, Hokage-sama,” he says apologetically, “but it’s about Naruto. He hasn’t been in class, and I was hoping you could have a word with him.”

Usually, when the subject of Naruto comes up in any fashion, Sarutobi smiles. He’s fond of the boy, that much is very clear, and it always eases something in Iruka's chest to see it. This time, however, the lines in Sarutobi's face only deepen, something like anger sliding through his dark eyes. Before he can say anything, though, there's a sharp rap on the office door, and Iruka startles, leaping out of the way. Sarutobi beckons him closer, even as he gives his permission for the visitor to enter, and Iruka slips off to the side, a little mystified by the fact that the Hokage wants him to stay even though he has a meeting.

The man who steps into the office looks just as tired as Sarutobi, and just as determined to hide it. Uchiha Fugaku inclines his head to the Hokage, lets his eyes flicker over Iruka, and then moves aside for the man behind him to enter as well. Nara Shikaku offers the same greetings, though he gives Iruka a faint smile, too.

“Fugaku, Shikaku,” Sarutobi says politely. “Take a seat, please.”

The two jounin trade glances, then do as they're told. Fugaku takes one more look at Iruka, who’s pressed himself up against the wall unobtrusively, and then turns back to the Sandaime. “Hokage-sama. Is this about my son?”

“It concerns the mission he and Shisui are currently on, yes,” Sarutobi confirms, settling into his own chair. “I am aware that I have yet to provide you with the appropriate paperwork, as Uchiha Clan Head, but this is an exceedingly delicate matter, and until now I haven’t wanted to trust anything in writing.”

Even for a shinobi village, that level of paranoia is very high, and Iruka can't fight a tense curl of unease in his gut. Judging by the faint narrowing of Fugaku’s eyes, he recognizes that fact as well.

“Which would be why I'm here.” Shikaku leans forward a little, resting his elbows in his knees and watching the Hokage with a lazy expression. “What’s happening that is so big you're worried about international repercussions?”

The unease deepens into outright worry, and Iruka subtly braces himself against the wall. He was just a student during the last war, nowhere near brilliant enough to graduate early, but…he remembers that it was like all too well. If this is something important enough to hide even from the Clan Heads, if this could be the start of another war—

“It concerns,” Sarutobi says carefully, “Uzumaki Naruto.”

Iruka takes a step forward before he can stop himself. “Naruto?” he demands, and winces when the two Clan Heads turn to stare at him. Swallowing, he curls his fingers into fists, straightens his shoulders, and asks more politely, “Is—is this why Naruto hasn’t been in class for the last week?”

If anything, Sarutobi just looks more tired. “It is. Eight days ago, ANBU Hound returned from a mission to retrieve the Daimyo’s illegitimate daughter with a shinobi who had assisted him. The man called himself Uzumaki Kurama, a wandering shinobi with no affiliations, and though Hound and I were suspicious, we were not as wary as we should have been. Despite the fact that I assigned Kakashi to shadow him, Kurama defeated Kakashi, took Naruto, and escaped the village. Kakashi, Tenzō, Shisui, and Itachi have been tracking him.”

Kidnapped. Naruto has been kidnapped. Feeling sick, Iruka steps back, shoulders thumping against the wall and head spinning faintly. Naruto is the prisoner of an unknown shinobi who managed to defeat one of the strongest jounin in the village. He’s been angry and frustrated and annoyed with the boy, and Naruto is in danger.

There's a long moment of silence, and then Fugaku looks up. “You are certain this is an appropriate response?” he asks carefully. “Given the shared name—”

Sarutobi simply shakes his head. “In any other situation, I might withhold judgement,” he admits. “However, Naruto is also Konoha's jinchuuriki, and beyond that, the news I received in Kakashi's most recent report is very worrying.” He shifts the papers on his desk, drawing out a fairly battered scroll, and lays it between them. “Kakashi and Shisui encountered a Suna squad on the border of River Country and Wind Country. They claimed that a shinobi matching Kurama's description had kidnapped the Kazekage’s youngest son, and Kakashi suspects that the boy is in fact the host of the Ichibi. In addition, given the abilities Kurama has displayed, the suspicion of Kurama also being a jinchuuriki has been raised.”

Shukaku looks a little pale under his tan, though his expression is still calculating. “So there's an unknown Uzumaki jinchuuriki running around the Elemental Nations and kidnapping his fellow jinchuuriki, starting with the most vulnerable ones. That’s definitely not a recipe for disaster. Do we know what bijuu he holds?”

“We haven’t even confirmed that he is a jinchuuriki,” Sarutobi admits. “There is evidence, but we could also be wrong. However, the abduction of two human containers cannot be a coincidence, and it puts Konoha in a delicate situation. Shikaku, you are my strategist, and Fugaku, you are a deft hand at politics, as well as Clan Head to Itachi and Shisui. Tensions are high between the countries, and I want nothing less than another war. Should we bring this up, Konoha will likely bear the brunt of the blame, given Kurama's clan and that we were the first hit, but if Kurama is truly targeting the jinchuuriki, the other nations should be warned.”

Faint surprise flickers over Fugaku’s face before it’s ruthlessly crushed, and he looks down to contemplate his laced fingers. “I am honored that you have placed two Uchiha on such an important mission,” he says slowly, picking each word with care. “And such trust in myself, as well. However my Clan may assist you, Hokage-sama, we will do so.”

“Troublesome,” Shikaku mutters, rubbing the bridge of his nose, and then nods. “The same, Hokage-sama. What do you need?”

“Your opinions on the courses of action we might take,” Sarutobi says immediately. “Any thoughts you have on the matter would be appreciated.”

This isn’t a conversation that Iruka feels he should be present for, but his feet won't move. He can't leave. This is about Naruto, and even if Iruka hasn’t managed to offer the boy his friendship yet, he feels responsible. Naruto doesn’t have parents or guardians, but as his teacher Iruka is the next best thing. As the Hokage's occasional assistant, it’s not inconceivable that he would be a part of such a discussion. Taking a breath, he folds his arms around himself and doesn’t move.

The two Clan Heads exchange long glances, and then Shikaku sinks back in his chair. “Even if Kurama hit Konoha first, his only clear affiliation is to Uzushio,” he says, considering. “Admitting he kidnapped the boy weakens us, but also evens the field. We’d be going out of our way to warn the other countries, and that gives us a leg up. With that, and everyone’s attention focused on protecting their jinchuuriki, Konoha shouldn’t have to worry about attacks.”

“This shinobi targeted the strongest village first,” Fugaku agrees, “and the weakest second. He clearly has no fear of reprisal. Perhaps the other nations will blame us for failing to stop him, but the threat he represents is too great to focus on accusations for long. He is disrupting a balance of power that has lasted since the Shodaime’s reign. Without the jinchuuriki, or with the jinchuuriki in the hands of an unknown power, the countries will be vulnerable. Even with just two in Kurama's hands, that makes him dangerous, especially if one is the Kyuubi.”

Talking about Naruto like he’s a weapon, an asset, makes Iruka's skin crawl. He pictures Naruto scared and upset, a prisoner because of his power, ripped away from everything he’s ever known, and wants to cry. Thinks of another little boy in the same position, and is practically ready to go hunt down this Uzumaki Kurama himself if he has to. “Kakashi will catch him,” he says almost desperately. “Right? He’s—he’s the best, and so are Itachi and Shisui and Tenzō. There's no way this man can get away from all four of them.”

Shikaku hums softly. “It will certainly make it harder,” he acknowledges. “Hatake’s a better tracker than even the Inuzuka. And if Kurama went from here to Suna, he’ll have to head back across either Ame or Fire Country to reach the next country with jinchuuriki. If he’s being rushed, he might make mistakes.”

“If he’s a jinchuuriki himself, it might not matter,” Fugaku counters. “Hokage-sama, we should warn both Iwa and Taki. They hold several tailed beasts between them, and Kurama is likely going to target them next.”

Sarutobi takes a breath, holds it, and then breathes out slowly. “I agree,” he murmurs. “I’ll draft a letter to the Tsuchikage and Taki’s headman tonight. Fugaku, your assistance with that would be much appreciated. Shikaku, ready several tracking teams—at least one Inuzuka in each squad, though I leave the other positions up to you.”

“I will provide a list of the Uchiha most capable at tracking,” Fugaku offers. “The Sharingan might not hold back a bijuu at our current levels, but locating their chakra should be simple enough.”

“Between the Sharingan, the Byakugan, and the Inuzuka and their nin dogs, we’ll have a definite advantage to offer the other nations.” Shikaku rises to his feet, looking thoughtful. “That will make the news easier to swallow. Hokage-sama.” With a polite nod, he turns and leaves, his usual amble replaced by what is nearly a stride.

“Hokage-sama,” Fugaku echoes, also standing. He hesitates for a moment, gaze flickering to Iruka, and then says coolly, “I can't imagine this will be a popular decision, including my clan, but I thank you for it all the same.”

Sarutobi smiles slightly, but though there's humor to it, there's also an edge of cunning that makes it very clear just why the man has made it past sixty, even when the average lifespan of an active shinobi is only forty. “The Uchiha are a valuable part of Konoha, and historically the village’s greatest allies,” he demurs. “Despite recent sentiments, my views have not changed. Perhaps it’s past time I make that clear.”

There's an entire conversation happening here that Iruka has no idea about, and he honestly doesn’t care to learn. Clan politics are simultaneously frightening, boring, and far too intricate for him. Still, it’s easy to see the faint flicker of…something on Fugaku’s face as he bows, then turns and sweeps away. The door falls shut behind him with a soft click, and Sarutobi sighs wearily, rubbing his hands over his face.

“Thank you, Iruka,” he says eventually. “Fugaku tends to hold his tongue better with an unfamiliar audience. I'm grateful for your presence.”

Iruka has never been gladder of the fact that he’s a simple teacher, rather than a politician or a powerful shinobi. “I'm happy to have been a help, Hokage-sama.” He hesitates, then asks a little desperately, “Do you—do you think Naruto is okay? Kurama won't hurt him, will he?”

“From what Kakashi has reported, Kurama is rather desperate not to,” Sarutobi assures him. “He is, as far as we can gather, Naruto's uncle, his mother’s half-brother. Kurama called him family, so I doubt he would intentionally harm the boy.”

It’s a relief, if only a little. Iruka curls his arms around himself again, thinking of Naruto's wicked smile, his laughter, his all-too-familiar loneliness. Now, with Naruto gone, Iruka desperately regrets not having made the offer to take him for ramen, regrets the fact that he’s held himself at a distance. Maybe—maybe if he’d done something differently, Kurama wouldn’t have had the opportunity to snatch Naruto. Maybe then Naruto would be safe and sound in Konoha, and all of this would be someone else’s problem.

He closes his eyes, takes a careful breath, and prays fervently that Naruto will come home safe.

Chapter Text

[avolate / av ‘ o ‘ lāt / , to fly away, especially in such a way as to escape; to exhale. From the conjugation (first person plural present active imperative) of Latin avolō ‎“to fly away”.]

 

“We need to double our pace,” Kakashi says practically the instant Tenzō and Itachi come to a halt beside them. “Kurama is hours ahead of us at the least; let’s close the gap.”

“I have never appreciated soldier pills so much in my life,” is Shisui's cheerful contribution as he slings an arm over Itachi's shoulders. Itachi gives him a weary look, but says nothing as he turns back to Kakashi and simply nods.

Tenzō hums and adds a judicious, “Well, it’s not as if Itachi and I covered a lot of ground when the clone was leading us in circles. Once we pick up the trail it shouldn’t be too hard to make up the distance.”

Every minute counts, so Kakashi waves them into motion, headed north. It’s a little after midnight, but the moon is almost full and shinobi eyes are trained for work in the dark. With any luck, Kurama has been stopping for the night, since he’s saddled with two kids, and that will give them the time they need to catch up to him.

“The Suna patrols might have found something by now,” he offers, because even for four ANBU this is going to be a grueling pace. Letting Kurama escape is out of the question, though, and they’ve already spent too much time chasing ghosts. They need to find Naruto, or Kakashi is never going to be able to look at himself in a mirror again. There should be some kind of limit to how many people he can fail, but if there is, he apparently hasn’t hit it yet.

That’s a rather terrifying thought.

With a flicker of speed, Shisui blurs into existence beside him, leaving the other two well behind him. Automatically, Kakashi shoots him a glare, but the teenager just rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, save my chakra for the marathon. But this is important. It’s about Itachi.”

Kakashi gives Shisui a long look, then casually twists his head a little to catch a glimpse of the other Uchiha. Itachi is at the back of the line, which isn’t precisely uncommon, but he’s also a shade paler than normal, and his eyes are blank where they're fixed on what's ahead of him.

“He’s…quiet,” Kakashi finally allows.

“He’s shaken,” Shisui corrects, mouth pulling into a tight, unhappy line. “I know my cousin, Captain. That’s not just him clamming up—something happened.”

According to Itachi, he confronted the Kurama clone, but before anything could happen it had vanished. Remembering the slightly gleeful way Kurama's other clone rubbed the misdirection in his and Shisui's faces, Kakashi is willing to believe that more happened than Itachi is entirely happy to reveal.

“Something Kurama said?” he offers.

Shisui huffs, because it’s hard to sigh when they're practically running flat-out. “Yeah, maybe. Just—we should keep an eye on him, Captain. He can get lost in his head if he thinks too much, and that’s not good for anyone. Itachi's head is kind of a scary place.”

Kakashi became ANBU at fourteen, and he knows just how broken he is. To become an ANBU at ten—there's absolutely no doubt that Itachi is suffering from at least a little bit of battle horror, no matter how good a shinobi he is, or how much of a genius he is. With that in mind, he inclines his head, and says quietly, “Warn Tenzō, too. This team is going back to Konoha in one piece or not at all. I'm not about to let anyone break on my watch.”

“I know, Captain.” Shisui gives him a small, grateful smile. “Why do you think I told you?” He salutes, then slows, dropping back to run at Tenzō’s side. Kakashi keeps a portion of his attention on the youngest member of their squad, but Itachi doesn’t even seem to notice the interplay, which is a bad sign.

No matter what his aims are, Kurama is a dangerous shinobi. If they go into an encounter with him distracted and divided, someone is going to get hurt, and Kakashi isn’t optimistic enough to think that it will be Kurama.

 

 

Fuji’s path takes them across the narrowest part of Ame, skirting the Hidden Village in its rocky valley and dodging a handful of shinobi patrols. Kurama isn’t certain whether Nagato is already the leader here or if it’s still Hanzō, but better safe than sorry.

Honestly, they would be equally screwed regardless of who it was, if Ame’s leader did catch them. One on one, Kurama is fairly certain he can take either of them, but Hanzō defeated all three of the Sannin, and Nagato-as-Pein doesn’t fight one-on-one. Better to just avoid all traces of civilization in that case. They have enough food left from raiding Gaara's cupboards in Suna to see them through a few more days of travel, and Kurama has nebulous plans to go hunting when they stop for the night.

He considers, briefly, sending more clones out to hide their path, but he doubts Kakashi will fall for the same trick twice. The next best option is to increase their speed, but Fuji's already running her paws raw for them, and Kurama isn’t about to ask her for more. If he could shift into his bijuu form, this would all be so easy—Kumo would feel like barely any distance at all—but there's little chance of that. And in all honesty, if shifting forms meant abandoning Naruto's body, Kurama isn’t entirely sure he would.

It’s a bitter, macabre reminder, but it’s still a piece of Naruto, even altered and changed to fit Kurama, and he’s not about to throw that away.

“Kurama-nii, Kurama-nii!”

The cheery voice and the small hand tugging on his sleeve draw Kurama out of his thoughts, and he looks down to find blue eyes staring up at him, Naruto's neck craned around in a way that looks painful.

“Yeah, kit?” he asks, a little surprised. Gaara and Naruto have spent the last three hours playing I Spy, more than happy to ignore Kurama's quietness.

“Look!” Naruto orders, pointing ahead of them. “It’s a sea!”

Kurama blinks, then glances in the direction of Naruto's gaze and can't fight a smile. “Not quite a sea,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s Kusa. It’s grass you're seeing, not water.”

He can see the similarity, though, especially since Naruto has never seen an actual ocean before. They're descending a hill with Grass Country spread out before them, and in the afternoon sun the dark grass shines blue-green. Wind ripples the stalks in long, low waves that run from the edge of the grassland all the way to the horizon. It’s a stark change from the rocky terrain of Ame or the forests of Konoha, and Kurama raises his head, breathing in the smell of sun-warmed wet earth and growing things. It’s still winter here, but like in Ame the bite of it is mellowed, turned to heavy rains rather than the cold of snow.

“I want to roll around in it,” Fuji says a little wistfully, bouncing across an outcropping of rock and landing deftly on a stable patch of stone. She holds there, ears pricked up and nose twitching, and then sighs mournfully. “I want to, but mud.”

Kurama can't help but laugh, because if he’s learned one thing traveling with the vixen, it’s that she’s just as fussy as a cat where her pretty white coat is concerned. “Yeah, that’d put a damper on things,” he agrees. “I bet the rivers are all snow-melt, too. Maybe later in the year you can come back.”

“But I want to roll in the grass now,” Fuji complains. Even so, she leaps down, launches herself off a small ledge, and lands as light as a feather on the edge of the grassland. “Straight across, Kurama-sama?”

Kurama checks the position of the sun, then shakes his head. “Northeast. Let’s miss the Fire Country border. I don’t know if they’ll have shinobi patrolling, but I assume so. Better to avoid them.”

“You could take ‘em, Kurama-nii!” Naruto says, cheerfully confident. “Me and Gaara would help you!”

“We would,” Gaara insists, solemn but determined. He casts a worried glance at Kurama, then at Naruto, and says more softly, “I can hurt people. It makes them stay away. I’ll do it if you want me to, Kurama-nii.”

There is definitely, absolutely nothing going soft and squishy in Kurama's chest. And if he finds it hard to swallow for a moment, that’s just allergies. Something has to be blooming somewhere, after all, and he’s simply reacting to it. Clearing his throat, he reaches up to ruffle Gaara's hair as gently as he’s able. “No, kid. Don’t do that for me. If you find something you’re willing to kill to protect, that’s fine. Do anything you can to hang on to it. But only if you want to, got it?”

For a long moment, wide aquamarine eyes hold his, and then Gaara fists one tiny hand in Naruto's shirt and says firmly, “I do. You're what I want to protect. And Naruto, too.”

“Me too!” Naruto insists, very, very serious, but still smiling brightly. “Kurama-nii, you're our precious person! Hokage-jiji says we always have to protect our precious people! It’s part of the Will of Fire!”

There's no way for Kurama to win this argument, and honestly, he’s not sure he wants to. With a soft chuckle, he tightens one arm around the boys, giving them a light hug. “All right, all right, I get it. My little warriors. Okay, Fuji, you good?”

The vixen huffs like the question is offensive. “Of course I am. It’s all flat, Kurama-sama—this isn’t exactly going to be hard.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Because he’s an equal opportunity jerk, Kurama leans forward and musses up the fur between her pointed ears. “Get going, brat. And make sure you tell me if you need a break, got it?”

“Of course I will, Kurama-sama,” Fuji answers, sounding distinctly like she’s humoring him. “Northeast it is. Everyone hang on.”

Beneath them, muscles bunch, and in a surge of lean strength Fuji leaps forward, long legs eating up the ground. Her head is low, ears perked attentively, and Kurama keeps his eyes on the horizon, scanning the grassland for any hint of human presence. The nice thing about Kusa being mostly flat is that they’ll see trouble coming from a long way off.

Rather than returning to I Spy—which, granted, would be incredibly boring given the surroundings—Gaara attempts to teach Naruto a word game, with debatable success. Naruto forgets about half the rules and makes up new ones as he feels like it, but Gaara doesn’t seem to mind. Kurama keeps an eye on them in case of fraying tempers and possible tantrums—always more dangerous with two baby jinchuuriki, even given Gaara's repaired seal and Naruto's strong one—but they both seem happy enough.

Since he doesn’t need to distract them, Kurama is free to turn his attention to what’s ahead of them—namely, whatever trick Matatabi thinks she’s going to play on him. Kurama will reluctantly admit that she’s rather cunning, even if she’s not a fox, and he’s wary of whatever it is she’s planning. He can't think what it could be, but…

But in all likelihood he’ll end up going along with it, since he needs her to watch the kids more than he cares about any sort of dignity. The witch probably knows it, too—he wouldn’t have even considered asking her otherwise, and she’s familiar enough with his pride to realize that.

What he can't figure out is what she wants, though. Not release from her host, since she apparently likes the woman, and Kurama can't imagine anything else that would appeal to a sentient construct of chakra. They're not exactly greedy creatures, any of them, and they have no use for human trappings. Practically any information Matatabi wants, she can get herself—the bijuu might need a partnership with their jinchuuriki to fully access their mental world, but they can still communicate through it without that, even if it takes a bit of effort. And beyond those options, Kurama is coming up blank as far as ideas go.

Well. He supposes he’ll figure it out soon enough, if they can manage to keep this pace. Lightning Country is about two and a half days from here, maybe three if anything slows them down, and then it’ll be another day to find Matatabi and her host. And then…

Kurama's fingers curl in Fuji's ruff, and it takes effort not to growl. Four days at the most and he’ll be able to start turning the tables on Akatsuki. Less than a week and he can start making headway on the mission Naruto sent him back to accomplish. It’s going to be sweet to destroy the Gedō Mazō, to take that much away from Kaguya. To start in on destroying her plans, reducing everything she’s set her hopes on to dust and ash. Kurama has no sympathy for the goddess; he’d happily carve her face to ribbons if she were standing in front of him, and then pull her heart still beating from her chest and feed it to her. She killed Naruto, destroyed everything precious to him. Naruto might have had mercy, felt understanding for the mad creature she’s become, but Kurama never, ever will.

The fury those thoughts invoke is a living thing. Kurama takes a deep breath and shakes it away, dragging his attention back to their surroundings. The only sign of their progress is the amount of grassland stretching out behind them and the slow creep of the sun overhead, and if Kurama doesn’t pay attention, it almost feels like they're not moving at all. He lets his mind go blank as Fuji runs, trying not to let himself dwell on dark thoughts, no matter how easy it is.

(Harder, he thinks with a faint smile, when red hair feathers over his cheeks, and brings to mind a familiar face in the mirror. It still hurts, Naruto's death, but it’s a lot more bearable now. Simpler for him to face, with the realization that Naruto would approve.)

A river parts the grass ahead of them, wide and slow-moving, with a handful of low shrubs to line the banks and a few scattered stands of trees. Kurama watches them approach, considering calling a break here so they can have an hour or so to eat. They're not likely to find a nicer spot, and it will give them an opportunity to refill their water bottles—

The sharp, ozone-hot crackle of electricity is his only warning.

Faster than he’s moved since Naruto stepped in front of Kakashi's Raikiri, Kurama throws himself forward over Fuji's head, already calling up his chakra. He’s not over skilled with Doton jutsus, always defaults to his affinities of wind and fire, but long practice with Kushina's favored Doton and Suiton feeds into muscle memory. A single hand-sign in the air, a hand on the earth as he touches down, and chakra flares. A wall of stone bursts from the ground to intercept the bolt of lightning even as Fuji skids sideways, only just managing not to slam into the barrier.

“Go!” Kurama snaps. “Fuji, take them and run!”

The vixen doesn’t bother arguing. Even as the stone falls away, she spins, bolting east at a pace that’s easily double her normal. Naruto shouts something desperate and fierce, but Kurama doesn’t have time to listen. He leaps forward with his claws bared, lashing out and down. The shockwave ripples out, slamming into the ground with enough force to make the attacker stagger, and Kurama takes ruthless advantage of the opening. He spins around another surge of lightning, then leaps. Power collects, spinning in a blur of black and purple, and Kurama slams the orb down hard. Chips of mask go flying, and he flips over and lands in a crouch, eyes fixed on the man before him.

“Kakuzu,” he growls, rising to his feet. “Didn’t I kick your ass once already?”

Akatsuki’s treasurer bares his teeth in parody of a smile. “And here I thought I had killed you. Imagine my surprise to find that Konoha just put a massive bounty on your head. Isn’t that convenient? Now I get to kill you for destroying my masks, and I even get paid for it.”

Kurama scoffs. He can't sense any of Kakuzu’s other masks, so the bounty hunter likely only had time to make one. That’s fine by him—he’s not about to draw this out with Naruto and Gaara nearby. “As if a weak-ass bitch like you could take me down,” he mocks. “Without those masks of yours, you're just as mortal as anyone else.” Baring his teeth in a dangerous grin, he cracks his knuckles, then flexes his fingers and readies his claws. “Oh, this is going to be fun.”

Pale green eyes narrow, and Kakuzu brings his hands up. “Fuck you,” he growls. “I’m going to slaughter you and use your heart to make a new construct. What do you think? Fire? Wind?”

“How about you just stop talking!” Kurama calls up his chakra in a blood-red surge, lashing out. The shockwave follows the path of his blow, but Kakuzu dodges, spinning to the left. His thick grey threads shoot forward, and Kurama has to leap back and away. He doesn’t let it slow him down, but shifts forward instantly, rolling underneath another thread and coming up with a high, twisting jump. This time he uses wind, sharp as blades and wide enough to cover their battleground completely, and Kakuzu shouts in anger as the Earth Grudge Fear threads fall away, cleanly cut. A moment later he’s right in front of Kurama, more threads gathering, and Kurama knows that if he stays where he is he’ll be overwhelmed.

Ducking back and away, Kurama slides around three threads as they stab forward, throws himself under another hard slash, and comes to his feet just behind Kakuzu’s shoulder. The bounty hunter spins, fingers twisting into the signs for a Doton jutsu, but Kurama hurls himself forward, slamming a hard kick into the man’s spine. Kakuzu goes flying forward, crashing heavily into the ground and rolling several times before he staggers back to his feet, expression pissed.

“I’ll kill you!” he hisses. “Your heart is mine!”

Kurama laughs mockingly, stepping back and moving in a wide circle. “Sorry, but you're not quite my type,” he retorts. “I don’t tend to go for the crazies.”

Kakuzu snarls wordlessly, lunging for him again. The thick threads of his kinjutsu echo his limbs as he strikes at Kurama's head, but Kurama has more than enough time to gather his feet under him and jump, twisting through the threads and landing in a crouch, then immediately lashing out with one foot to drive it into the side of Kakuzu’s knee. The missing-nin bellows in pain as he goes down, and Kurama wastes no time slamming another shockwave down on top of him.

Blood splatters and bone crunches, and Kurama laughs in vicious victory, dancing away from flailing limbs.

“You're a thousand years too early to hunt me, asshole,” he taunts. “You're better off trying your luck with a lesser god. What, did Akatsuki get sick of all your failures and send you out to die? I've heard that twice can be counted as a pattern. First Taki, and now—”

“Shut up!” Kakuzu stagger back upright again, fury clear on his face. “Leader wants to meet you, little bitch. He wants to know how you learned about us, and when he finds out he’s going to make you scream. If I don’t kill you now, he’ll do it eventually, but you're going to suffer first.”

Well, that’s not exactly good news. Kurama has to fight not to grimace, because he’s confident in his power, but Pein is not someone he wants to face without preparation. “So killing me now is out of the goodness of your heart? I'm touched.”

Kakuzu laughs at him. “I just want your bounty and your heart, asshole. I couldn’t care less how you die. But those two things—those are mine.”

Great. A possessive obsessed maniac with murder on the brain. Kurama meets the nicest people.

“Not happening,” he says flatly, flexing his fingers. “Run back home to your masters, mutt, and keep jumping through their hoops. You're starting to bore me.”

Eerie eyes narrow, and for a long moment Kakuzu studies him. “You're different,” he says suspiciously. “You’ve changed since last time. Got a new trick up your sleeve, bastard?”

Something shifts behind Kakuzu, and Kurama doesn’t fight the wide grin that bares sharp teeth. “Oh, you could say that.” He lunges forward, claws outstretched, and Kakuzu shifts, ready to meet him, threads rising.

But before he can, Kakuzu trips, expression turning startled, and instinctively lashes out at a tendril of sand curled tight around his ankle. In the same moment, an orange blur leaps out of the grass, and Naruto shrieks a war cry. It’s echoed by a dozen other throats as more copies pour out from behind the shrubs, leaping onto Kakuzu and dragging his limbs down with the force of sheer numbers. Kakuzu’s eyes go wide, but Kurama is already too close to stop, and he slams his palm into the bounty hunter’s abdomen. Power surges, positive and negative in careful balance, and Kakuzu screams. Clones pop one after the other as his Earth Grudge Fear strikes out, but blood is pouring from the gaping wound in his stomach and the movements are clumsy, convulsive. There's power in them, but it’s desperate, undirected.

Somewhere behind them is another shout, unfortunately familiar. Kurama curses, snatches the original Naruto off the ground where he was thrown, and leaps backwards out of range.

“Fuji!” he shouts, and her pale shape rises from the tall grass like a wraith, immediately bounding to his side. Gaara is beside her, clearly having dismounted so they could sneak back and surprise Kakuzu, and Kurama wastes no time grabbing him by the collar and tossing him onto the fox’s back. He leaps on as well, Naruto still tucked under one arm, and twists to bring one hand slashing down. Chakra flares, fire sparks, and with a shrieking howl wind screams across the prairie.

The handful of sparks become a sheet of flame, tall and broad and blisteringly hot, and Kurama doesn’t wait around for the Freak Squad to react. It gnaws viciously at him, leaving Kakuzu behind when victory is so close, but he can't risk capture. Not now, not with an end in sight.

This time, when he shouts at Fuji to run, she does him one better. Foxfire flares, curling incandescently around her paws, and she leaps straight up into the air. It catches like she has wings on her feet, and with a long, lithe bound she’s flying, soaring through the sky without anything to slow her headlong rush.

Kurama twists his fingers in white fur, prays that she’s strong enough to keep it going until they’ve put space between themselves and their pursuers, and doesn’t allow himself to look back as the section of burning grassland falls away behind them.  

Chapter Text

[effulgent / iˈfo͝oljənt , iˈfəl-/ , shining brightly, radiant; emanating joy or goodness. From Latin effulgent- ‎“shining brightly” from the verb effulgere, from ex- “out” + fulgere “to shine”.]

 

“Fuck,” Shisui growls, watching the white speck that is Kurama's not-a-summons—apparently able to fly, which Kakashi finds patently unfair—vanish against the horizon. “How the hell can it do that?”

“Not easily, I would suspect,” Kakashi says, and it takes more effort than it should to keep his voice even. “If this is the first time she’s done it, I assume it’s a last resort.” Which unfortunately doesn’t change the fact that Kurama, Naruto, and the Kazekage’s son are now well out of reach. Feeling distinctly irritated, he turns his attention to the shinobi Kurama was fighting, still hunched over on the other side of the river. “You—” he starts.

Before he can get so much as another word out, the man snarls, “Konoha dogs! You're responsible for my prey escaping!”

“I think I take offense,” Baki says, eye narrowing. “Who are you? Why are you after him?”

But the man just growls, then leaps forward and dives into the river, letting the deceptively swift current sweep him away. Kakashi and Tenzō both lunge to grab him, but a burst of wormlike grey threads stab straight at them, forcing them to jump away before they get close. A moment later the man is gone, all but out of sight, and Kakashi rolls back to his feet with anger curling fire-hot in his gut.

“I think,” he says with careful mildness, testing the words as he speaks them, “that I'm starting to lose my patience.”

Tenzō casts him a wary sideways look and deliberately edges out of the line of fire.

“We’ve come this far,” Itachi says quietly—practically the only thing he’s said since their teams met up along the border. Kakashi used to the Uchiha’s reticence, but this is strange even for him, and Shisui obviously thinks so as well, if his frequent worried glances are anything to go by.

“It’s not like we’re going to give up,” Shisui reminds his cousin, leaping lightly across the river. Scorched grass crunches under his feet, and he crouches down to inspect a shard of what looks like porcelain where it’s half-buried in the ground. “Almost looks like an ANBU mask,” he comments, holding it up for Kakashi's inspection as the older man joins him. “Can Shiba tell if it’s Kurama's or the other man’s?”

Kakashi glances over at his ninken just as Baki grabs the big dog, hauling him off the ground and jumping to their side of the stream. When he catches sight of Kakashi's raised brow, Baki just snorts and says, “I hate the smell of wet dog. Well? Anything?”

“Shiba?” Kakashi asks mildly, crouching down next to the white dog.

“It’s the swimmer’s, Boss,” Shiba says after a quick sniff, wrinkling his nose and giving a pointed sneeze. “He smells like something dead.”

“Separate and track them both?” Tenzō suggests, scanning the ground for any more pieces. He comes up with a handful, enough to show that it clearly was some sort of mask before it was destroyed.

Kakashi trades glances with Baki, then shakes his head. “No, separating didn’t work out so well for us last time. We’ll keep going. Kurama will have to land somewhere, especially if it’s a particularly draining technique, and their heading was clear. They're going towards Taki.”

“Home of another jinchuuriki,” Itachi points out. “Is there a way to warn them?”

Shisui snorts, rising to his feet and dusting off his fingers. “If we’re lucky, the Hokage's already sent messages to all the villages. We should concentrate on actually catching Kurama. We’ve already closed the gap. Even with this, he won't be too far ahead of us.”

Kakashi hopes the younger man is right. They can't afford to lose the trail now. “Are you good to keep going, Shiba?” he asks. “I can dismiss you and call one of the others.”

Shiba looks offended, his dark mohawk of hair bristling faintly. “I'm your best tracker, Boss!” he protests. “You're gonna kick me off the case now?”

“Ma, ma.” Kakashi raises his hands in surrender. “Just a suggestion. Let’s go, then. We’re losing ground.”

“Which we wouldn’t be,” Tenzō says pointedly, “if someone had kept their mouth shut and not screamed like a little girl.”

Shisui scoffs loudly. “Oh, because you tripping me and almost making me land on my face is my fault.”

“I did not trip you,” Tenzō counters, smiling. Kind of. Kakashi still isn’t entirely certain how he gets his face to do that, but whatever it is, it’s definitely creepy. “If I had, Shisui, you would know.”

“You're a lying liar who lies, and you totally did! There were roots! I saw them!”

“Yes, Shisui, plants have roots. Good observation. Very insightful. No wonder you're a jounin.”

“Oh, fuck you, plant boy, these roots moved.”

“You're mistaken.” Tenzō’s smile gets creepier, something Kakashi hadn’t really thought was possible. “I wouldn’t sabotage a mission just to torture you. We’re comrades.”

“And with friends like you, I'm safer among my enemies!”

“I hear paranoia is a symptom of psychosis. Maybe you should go back to the village mad get your head seen to. Being that empty all the time can't be good for it.”

Kakashi puts his head in his hands and sighs, trying in vain to shut out their voices. He wishes desperately for selective deafness—not the first time he’s done so when stuck on a team with those two, and he’s certain it won't be the last, either.

“Well,” Baki says dryly. “How long have they been married?”

That…that is a horrifying thought. Kakashi grimaces and asks (possibly rather plaintively), “Must you plant those images in my head?”

The Suna nin snorts, but obligingly changes the subject. “We should get going. My team is several hours behind us already, and we don’t have time to wait for them. We need to catch up as soon as possible.”

Kakashi definitely isn’t about to slow down enough for them to join up. His team can move at the necessary speeds, but dragging anyone else along would just hinder them. Baki, who insisted on joining them at the border, at least can keep up with their pace; anyone weaker would be entirely out of luck.

“Shiba,” he orders mildly, and the nin-dog immediately puts his nose to the ground and heads after Kurama's group at a loping run. Kakashi follows with Baki on his left. Tenzō and Shisui trail after them even as they argue, and an unnervingly silent Itachi brings up the rear.

 

 

There are trees passing beneath them by the time Fuji starts to falter, and Kurama doesn’t know or care if they're Fire Country or not. Naruto is clinging to his back, Gaara is clinging to his front, and both boys are pale and worried. The Freak Squad is behind them, but likely not for long, and Kurama can't help the twist of panic low in his gut.

He’s not prepared for this, doesn’t have a solid plan beyond run and don’t get caught. Fighting would be easy, but there's a new face in the party to go along with the two and a half Sharingan users and the baby Mokuton user. Kurama's odds of escaping without seriously hurting someone—and he doesn’t want to, has never wanted to, even at his angriest—are diminishing by the hour.

Desperate for a distraction from his increasingly dark thoughts, Kurama catches the first flicker of Fuji's foxfire just as they pass over the wide, lazy curve of a river. She wobbles and they drop several feet at once, making Gaara start and Naruto yelp. Kurama grabs them both, drags them more tightly against him and says, “Fuji?”

Another wobble, this time almost enough to unseat them, and the vixen only just manages to recover before they plummet into the water. “Sorry, Kurama-sama,” she manages on a breath. “I think—I think this is all I can do.”

The foxfire around her paws flickers, then vanishes like a candle flame snuffed out. There's a gut-lurching moment of freefall, a sharp pop, and Kurama suddenly has his arms full of baby jinchuuriki and tiny teenage fox summons. He has just enough time to think Shit, very vehemently, before they're plummeting, the surface of the river rising to meet them.

Kurama hits it feet-first, and the sudden shock of cold is enough to drive the air from his lungs like a fist to the stomach. Gaara flails desperately, and Naruto almost lets go, but Kurama hooks one arm around both of them, ducks flailing limbs, and kicks for the surface. Fuji is doing the same, but her motions are weak, exhausted, and Kurama grabs her as he passes. One more strong push and his head breaks the surface, and he sucks in a breath as he strikes out for the bank.

Thankfully the water is slow-moving, and the bank isn’t too steeply inclined. Kurama staggers through the shallows, grunting at the even colder bite of icy air, and up onto the grass. He flops down there, trying not to shiver too noticeably, and asks, “Everyone okay?”

Naruto's teeth are chattering, and Gaara's lips are blue. Fuji is unconscious, looking a third of her usual size with her fur completely soaked, and Kurama can't quite feel his fingers. The boys exchange glances, and then Naruto offers a brave smile. “We’re o-o-okay, Kurama-nii!”

It’s very obviously a lie. Kurama stares at them for a long moment, then curses and drags a hand through his sopping hair, which is leaking icy trails of water down his neck and shoulders. “Right,” he says grimly. Gaara sneezes, squeaky like a mouse with a cold, and then looks deeply offended to have made such a sound. Naruto laughs delightedly, but he’s shaking so hard that it comes out warped.

Sage fucking damn it, Kurama thinks wearily. They don’t have time for this. There's no knowing how far east they managed to get, or how fast the Freak Squad will manage to catch up. But—there's no way they can keep going like this, wet and freezing and on the verge of hypothermia. It’s winter, and night will be falling soon. They boys are already in a bad way; if Kurama doesn’t do something, they’ll freeze to death.

A little helplessly, Kurama casts a glance around them. There are trees a short distance away, not quite a forest, but decent for cover. They butt right up against the rise of a hill, its sides steep and wooded, and that at least is a good sigh. Maybe Kurama can pull together something like a shelter for the night, though it won't help with their trackers. Still, it’s at least the start of a plan, and if Kurama has to, he’ll fight Kakashi and his pet Uchiha. He’s not going back to Konoha, not when there's an end to all of this in sight.

“Come on,” he says, pushing to his feet. “Let’s go start a fire and get warm.” He scoops Fuji's limp form up in his arms, checking her breathing, and is relieved when he finds it deep and steady. She’s exhausted, on the verge of chakra exhaustion, but she’ll be fine with a little rest.

A small hand fists in the sopping hem of his haori, and Naruto presses close. “Is Fuji-nee okay?” he asks solemnly, and on Kurama's other side Gaara nods, serious eyes fixed on the little fox.

Kurama smiles at them, ruffling blond hair, then red. “Yeah, brats, she’s going to be just fine. All she needs is some sleep. Let’s go get warm, yeah?”

“Maybe we can share that person’s fire,” Naruto suggests cheerfully, pointing in the opposite direction of the hill, and Kurama stiffens, spinning around. There is indeed a fire in the distance, through another stand of trees. It’s a large one, without a lot of smoke, and Kurama's willing to bet that someone experienced built it. Maybe a shinobi. Probably an enemy, given the way his luck is going today.

Still, it’s a fire. It’s close enough that even if Kurama lights one of his own, whoever built it will see, so they might as well dive in head-first.

“Right,” he says on a sigh. “Let’s check. You're good to walk, kits?”

Gaara nods solemnly, then twists his fingers into Kurama's sleeve and says quietly, “I don’t think I like swimming, Kurama-nii. Do we have to do it again?”

Right. This is the moment when Kurama remembers that Gaara is from a desert and has likely never been dunked in water before outside of a bath, let alone an icy river somewhere near the Taki border in the middle of winter. This day is just off to a truly fantastic start.

“No,” he says as comfortingly as he’s able. “No, Gaara, we don’t have to go swimming anymore. Not until summer, and you might not mind it then.”

Naruto stays right next to his leg as he heads for the flicker of light in the distance. “I went swimming once,” he says cheerfully. “But it was on Sasuke's birthday when he threw me into the river, so it was pretty warm. The water felt good, and it didn’t hurt. Will we get to swim like that? I think you’d like it, Gaara! It was lots of fun!”

Gaara eyes him skeptically, but says nothing.

With a soft snort, Kurama nudges the boy to the side, around a large rock that’s just the right height to trip him. “Later, kit,” he reminds Naruto, then judges their distance from the fire ahead and adds, “Wait here. I’ll check it out. Stay quiet, okay?”

“Sure, Kurama-nii!” Naruto happily accepts Fuji, cradling her in his arms, and Gaara shifts closer to him, transferring his grip from Kurama's sleeve to Naruto's.

Kurama gives them each another hair-ruffle, murmurs, “I’ll be right back,” and—

A scream. A child’s scream, high and terrified. Kurama jerks around, eyes fixed on the source, the fire, and hesitates. Instinct says to go, to help, but instinct also says to stay with Naruto, with Gaara, because they're vulnerable, targets

“Go, Kurama-nii!” Naruto urges, and that’s enough. Kurama bolts, chakra already rising in a flickering surge of bloody-red, and he dodges around a stand of trees, leaps an outcropping of mossy stones, and lands squarely in the center of a small clearing, the fire crackling on his left.

In an instant, he takes in the situation—two shinobi dressed in dark colors, a green-haired girl held between them, overturned bags, blood on the woman’s face, the man favoring his leg, a wide bruise decorating the girl’s cheek.

And around them, sharp and strong, is the scent of fear. Around them is a surge of familiar chakra, bright and light like beating wings, with a shimmer that no other bijuu’s power has.

Chōmei, Kurama recognizes in a rush, and doesn’t hesitate. With a roar he throws himself forward, right at the pair of jounin, and sharp claws tear into the man’s throat. He goes down with a gurgling cry, even as Kurama spins. The woman has more time to react, and she hurls the girl to the side, then brings up a kunai and stabs forward. Kurama twists around the blow, dodges a hard kick, and flips over her head. She spins, trying to follow, and while the blow that should have taken out her spine misses, Kurama's claws slice through the arm of her uniform and then through skin, and blood splatters across the ground.

It doesn’t slow the woman. She hops back, bringing her hands together, and the earth shakes. Kurama leaps headlong over the pit that suddenly opens right in front of him, kicks off a spear of stone that tries to skewer him, and tackles the woman bodily. She goes down with a cry, but manages to get a foot in his gut and launch him off of her, and Kurama has to twist in the air. He comes down on one hand, flips back to his feet, and catches the kunai that comes flying at him. A bare instant later the woman follows, but Kurama ducks her second kunai, dodges a knife-hand blow to the back of the neck, and twists, driving his stolen kunai forward.

Fouled by his feet, trapped by her own attempt to hit him, the woman has nowhere to dodge, and the blade takes her in the heart.

There's a long moment of silence, broken only by the crackle of the fire, and then Kurama takes a breath and straightens, stepping away. The woman’s corpse drops, almost on top of her partner’s, and Kurama gives them a brief glance before he turns to the little girl. She’s probably no more than eight, small and skinny in a way that’s all too familiar, and the livid bruise on her cheek makes Kurama wish he had taken longer killing her attackers.

“Hey,” he says gently, watching her sit up and warily inch away from him. He crouches down, but doesn’t move closer, and asks, “You okay, kid?”

She takes a breath, eyes flickering to the two bodies, and then squares her shoulders and looks up stubbornly. “I'm okay. They didn’t hit me that hard.”

Kurama might believe her, but now that he has time to look he can see the second bruise spreading across her stomach, stark against the bare skin, and the ring of bruises around each of her wrists where hands gripped too tight. “They shouldn’t have hit you at all,” he says sharply, and it comes out low enough to be counted as a growl.

The girl jerks, orange-gold eyes snapping up to his face, and makes a wordless sound. “But—!” she protests, and then stops short, looking down again. “You don’t know me,” she points out, and it’s quiet, but there's an edge of fire to the words. “I could be dangerous, and you just killed them for no reason.”

Sage save him from damaged children and the fucked-up asshole bastards who made them that way. Kurama draws in a slow breath, fighting to keep his temper under control, and says quietly, “Even if I didn’t know you, it’s still not right for them to hit a kid, especially when there’s two of them and one of you, and you weigh maybe seventy pounds soaking wet. But you're wrong about one thing, kid; I do know you. I know what you are, and what’s inside you. It doesn’t make you a monster. It’s not a reason for people to hurt you.”

She stares at him for a long moment, wide-eyed and silent, and then something rustles. She jerks around, on her feet in an instant and already reaching for one of the dropped kunai, but Kurama holds up a hand to stop her. “Easy,” he murmurs. “They're with me, and you’ve got a lot in common.” Raising his voice, he adds, “Naruto, Gaara. It’s fine, you can come out now.”

Almost before he’s finished speaking, a blond head pops out of the bushes, and a moment later Naruto wriggles his way through, still carrying Fuji, with Gaara hanging on to him. “Aww,” he says, taking in the clearing. “I thought we could rescue you again, Kurama-nii.”

Kurama rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, brat. No need to play hero on my account. We’re all good here. Naruto, Gaara, I want you to meet someone.”

“Hi!” Naruto says immediately, beaming widely at the girl, who looks entirely pole-axed to see such an expression directed at her. “You’re really cute! I'm Naruto!”

“Gaara,” the redhead adds, almost inaudibly. He’s eyeing the new jinchuuriki warily, and his grip on Naruto's shirt is so tight that his knuckles have gone white. He studies her for a long moment, then glances up at Kurama and asks quietly, “Is she like us?”

Naruto's head snaps around, and he suddenly looks like he’s all but vibrating with enthusiasm.

With a soft chuckle, Kurama drops a hand on Gaara's head. “Yeah, squirt, she’s one too. She’s got Chōmei, the Nanabi.” Shifting his attention to the girl, who has gone pale, he tries for a reassuring smile. “I told you that you guys have a lot in common.”

The girl takes a shaky breath. “You're…like me?” she demands.

“Yeah!” Naruto grins, flashing a victory sign. “I'm Uzumaki Naruto, the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, an’ I'm gonna be the next Hokage, believe it!”

She giggles, then briefly looks surprised, as if she hadn’t meant to. “I'm…Fū,” she says. “Fū of Takigakure.” Turning to Kurama, she bows deeply, then looks up, and this time she’s wearing a smile. “Thank you for saving me. They were going to take me back to Taki and lock me up, because I keep running away.”

Kurama lightly touches the bruise on her face, unable to fight a frown. “Well, if that’s the kind of treatment you get there, I sure as hell don’t blame you. Got somewhere to go, kid?”

“I don’t need it,” Fū says stubbornly. “Everything will work out. I just have to keep moving and avoid people.”

That sounds unnervingly familiar. Kurama studies her for a moment, feeling the well-remembered buzz of Chōmei’s chakra against his skin. The beetle is wary, slightly agitated but keeping a distance for now, not trying to overwhelm Fū, and that earns the Nanabi some brownie points.

Still, even older than Naruto and Gaara, even with Chōmei as a fairly respectful passenger rather than an ass like Shukaku, even with Fū being nominally none of his concern and nothing to do with his current mission—

Even with all of that, Kurama can't leave a little girl alone in the woods. Not when people are after her, no matter how convinced she is of her own strength.

He’s turning into a goddamned sucker, Kurama thinks sourly. His Naruto would be laughing his ass off right now.

“It just so happens,” he says, and can't quite manage to make it offhand, “that we’ve got pretty much the same plan. But I've found it’s easier to get away when you're running to something. Want to tag along? I'm dragging these two to see another jinchuuriki, up near Kumo. Should throw Taki off your tail, if nothing else.”

For a long moment, Fū eyes him, then turns to regard Naruto and Gaara. They look like a sorry group, Kurama knows, bedraggled and wet and dirty, suffering from the bone-deep weariness of too many days with too few breaks. Kurama can see the refusal in her face, the stubborn insistence to go it alone. But then she hesitates. She glances back at Kurama, then at the bodies, and then at Gaara and Naruto. “I—why?” she demands, and that spark of fire Kurama heard once before is in her eyes. “I don’t care if you know what I am, you don’t know me!”

“But I’d like to,” Kurama tells her softly, and her breath catches. He reaches out automatically, settling a hand on her pale green hair. “Everyone needs a friend, kid. No one can ever make it entirely on their own. The kindest man I've ever met taught me that, and I'm not about to forget it. Everyone needs someone to lean on, even if you only ever use the help once. That’s still one time when you need someone to stand with you, and that’s what friends are for. I can't promise anything, but…we could be your friends. If you wanted.”

(Naruto. All he can think of in that moment is Naruto, his Naruto, the one who was everything to him. That man, that boy, that hero—he’d say something like this. And even if Kurama can only ever be a poor imitation, even if he can never live up to the man that Naruto became, that he always was, maybe it’s still enough to change a little girl’s life for the better.)

Fū chews on her lower lip, orange-gold eyes steady as she sizes him up. “You mean it,” she says, almost disbelieving. “You wanna be my friend?”

“Us too!” Naruto insists, bouncing on his toes and grinning. “Kurama-nii likes saving people and making friends, and so do we!”

“I don’t give half a damn about most people,” Kurama corrects with a roll of his eyes. “But you three are jinchuuriki. There aren’t a lot of people who can save you when you get in real trouble. I figure I might as well keep you out of it as best I can and save myself some work.”

“That’s why you saved me?” Fū asks curiously. “Because I'm a jinchuuriki?”

Kurama shrugs. “More or less. I would have taken care of those goons even if you weren’t, but I'm happier that you are. All the best people I've met have been jinchuuriki, and you're not doing much to break that streak, kid.”

The silence stretches for another long second, and then Fū tips up her chin and squares her shoulders. She meets Kurama's eyes evenly, and says, “Then I'm—I'm glad I'm a jinchuuriki, if that’s the reason you wanted to save me. And if you're going somewhere, I’ll come too!”

Joy—another brat to watch. Kurama heaves a disgruntled sigh, but—maybe he’s smiling. Just a little, and only possibly. Over Naruto's happy cheer, he says, “Great. Welcome to the team, hope you don’t mind hoofing it for a bit. We should head out in case those two weren’t alone.”

Fū makes a face. “I hate lighting fires in the caves,” she says, clearly dissatisfied with the thought. “It’s always so smoky and the bats get all upset.”

Kurama pauses. Blinks. “Caves?”

Fū blinks right back at him. “The caves,” she repeats. “They're for when Taki gets invaded, so we can get shinobi to the border faster. Most people just go above-ground, but they're the reason I always get away. My grandpa’s the Headman and showed them to me. Weren’t you gonna use them? It’s easier.”

The gods look after drunks, idiots, and wayward time-traveling bijuu, Kurama thinks, the rush of relief almost buckling his knees. “Kid,” he says fervently, “you are absolutely goddamned amazing. Caves just became my new favorite place. Naruto, Gaara, up.”

Naruto grabs his hand, Gaara still attached to his sleeve. “I like caves too,” he agrees easily. “Is there gonna be another dirt storm? That last one was fun!”

“Sandstorm,” Gaara corrects, and he’s still watching Fū a little warily, but he also doesn’t move away when she slips past him. “I…don’t think there will be.”

“There isn’t anything like that here,” Fū agrees, and isn’t the least bit shy about grabbing Kurama's free hand and latching on. She gives him a pointed tug. “Come on, this way. The mouth opens over here. I can't close it, ‘cause I don’t know any Doton jutsus yet, but we might be able to hide it.”

Kurama snorts. “I can hide it,” he volunteers. “Sealing it should keep them off our trail completely. You're a smart one, kid.”

Fū beams at him, twisting her fingers through his and gripping tightly. “No one’s ever said that about me before,” she confesses.

“Kurama-nii’s like that,” Naruto agrees sagely. “He’s always super nice, and he gives hugs, and he tell stories, and he let me have eight bowls of ramen when we stopped for noodles, and—”

“And he carries us, sometimes,” Gaara puts in quietly, duking his head a little. “It’s…nice.”

“Shut up,” Kurama huffs, feeling heat rising in his cheeks. “You're all brats, and I’d eat you if you had a little more meat on your bones. I'm just being nice so I can fatten you up, got it?”

Fū giggles and skips a step, swinging their hands. On his other side, Naruto presses close, all but tripping him up, and Gaara's small hand finds the hem of his haori again, tugging lightly. Kurama looks down at the three little larval-stage humans he seems to have adopted, thinks of the sheer magnitude of mocking this would earn him from his Naruto, and quietly despairs.

(But maybe, just maybe, he’s smiling again.)

Chapter Text

[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.

Chapter Text

[volens / vō , lənz/, a state of mind referring to voluntary acceptance of specific risks; being willing to accept a risk inherent in a course of action. From classical Latin volō ‎“I wish, I am willing”.]

 

Despite all of Kurama's plans, Matatabi is nowhere to be found.

It’s frustrating, but more than that, it’s worrying. Kurama wanders their shared mental world (even though he really doesn’t want to run into any more of his siblings), searching for any trace of cold fire and death undone. There's nothing, though—just emptiness where the cat’s presence should be.

Vaguely unsettled, Kurama leaps out over the water to settle on the little island Naruto once used, though he pointedly stays facing away from the Falls of Truth. There's no part of him that wants to meet his darker self, because he knows exactly who—and what—that creature will be. Cold, malicious, calculating, wanting nothing more than to see Naruto's blood painting his hands and the world set alight for his pleasure alone.

Even now, Kurama's not a pleasant person. For that matter, he’s hardly even a person. Naruto reached down into him, changed him, made him better, but there are still pieces Naruto could never get to. It’s not that Kurama regrets them, but…maybe he wonders, just a little, what he’d be like if he had been able to save Naruto, if Kaguya had never stretched out her mad, grasping hands and torn the entire world from them.

Still, he’s not here to dwell. There's no point thinking about it, because Kurama's already changed things here irrevocably, and there's no way he’s going to stop now. Steeling himself, he closes his eyes and stretches out his senses, trying to find Matatabi.

Nothing. Just…blankness, like something’s been torn out and left a hole behind.

“Fuck,” Kurama whispers, dragging his hands through his hair and fisting them on the red strands, yanking sharply. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, this is not good. Sage, Matatabi, where the hell are you?”

A simple lack of answer would mean that either Matatabi was pissed and ignoring him or busy. A lack of presence, well. Kurama really doesn’t want to think what that means. He has to, though, can't not, and the only image currently coming to mind is Gaara, the older Gaara, laid out in that cave like a damned human sacrifice, unmoving, unbreathing. And—what if this is his fault? What if Matatabi’s host—the host she likes, the host she’s fond of, and Sage, it’s making him think of his Naruto even more than he usually does—what if the girl was snatched by Akatsuki? Kakuzu was trying to collect Kokuō, after all. There's no way to say if they’ve decided to step up their timetable for gathering the bijuu.

If they have, the Nibi seems like a reasonable one to start with, given that the Ichibi’s host is currently sacked out and drooling on Naruto's shoulder.

“Fuck,” Kurama mutters again. If it is Akatsuki, if they’ve gotten to Matatabi, that’s possibly the worst situation possible, barring another escape by Kaguya. It means all the jinchuuriki and bijuu are in danger, even more than they were before.

This was always a possibility, after Kurama interrupted Kakuzu’s fight with Han. But Kurama honestly hadn’t thought it was likely. For being a psychotic bastard, Obito is terrifyingly controlled, and he’s better at long-term planning than almost anyone Kurama has met. As it stands now, Kurama can't imagine that he has anywhere even close to enough White Zetsu clones to stage another war, and he won't be able to stabilize them without Tenzō’s Mokuton anyway.

So why grab Matatabi, if that’s the case? Why put things in motion if there's no way to reach the goal yet? Unless Kurama is missing things, which is possible. He’s not a mad Uchiha with delusions of godhood and world peace through mass hypnotism. And, Sage, but Madara must be a smooth bastard to sell a plan as fucked-up as that, even to a traumatized kid with seals all over his heart and the vison of his only friend’s death on permanent technicolor repeat in his head.

Still, regardless of flaws in the possible plan and a distinct lack of being able to think like a crazy Uchiha bastard, Kurama has to assume that it was Akatsuki who took Matatabi. Which means it’s more than likely her host is dead and she’s stuck inside that damned statue. If it turns out that something else is the cause of her going missing, Kurama will be pleasantly surprised, but for the moment he has to believe it was the absolute worst case scenario. It’s safer for everyone that way.

So. That leaves him with a choice. Keep heading north, hoping that Matatabi isn’t actually sealed in the Gedō Mazō or that she appears in their shared world again, on the off chance that she’s actually fine, or change direction.

Which direction can he reasonably go, though? He’s got not one but three brats to look after, even if Fū seems mostly self-sufficient, and a sudden lack of any possible babysitters to take care of them while he goes and throws himself headlong at the Akatsuki. The Freak Squad is still on their tails, as is Kakuzu, though Kurama's less worried about him. With a bit of control, Kurama can take him out. The two and a half Sharingan users and the baby Mokuton user, though—they present a bigger problem.

And that, honestly, does not say a hell of a lot about Kurama's chances against all of Akatsuki, even in their current reduced numbers.

He has a plan, though—sneak in, destroy the Gedō Mazō, fuck up Kaguya’s plans to come back, and then sneak out again. He can pick the Akatsuki members off one at a time once there's no threat of them going through with the Eye of the Moon plan. Maybe even in pairs, if he has to. That won't take too much effort, especially when he has no compunctions about killing them, unlike the Freak Squad.

It’s a good plan, overall. Simple, straightforward, not to likely to make him get his ass kicked. Except…if Kakuzu has told them everything about him, about all the things he knows, it’s likely Obito will be skulking around the base, just on the off chance that Kurama ends up there. And that—that won't be good for anyone involved. Without the Juubi’s powers, Obito will be a hell of a lot simpler to take down, but he’s still an overpowered bastard with a particularly tricky Mangekyo and almost twenty years of plotting in the shadows. He won't be an easy opponent, even if Kurama's not trying to save him from himself the way Kakashi and Naruto were.

Growling softly, Kurama shoves himself to his feet and takes a long bound back to the shore of the pool. He hates this. Why can't people just follow the neat lines that were all laid out for them before Kurama got back here? He’s terrible at predicting what people are going to do, because appearances aside, he’s not human. He’s a bijuu, a construction of chakra and malice that was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Shinju’s form. No matter what Naruto was trying to do, shoving him into this damned body—

No. No, he doesn’t mean that, because he knows exactly what Naruto sacrificed to bring him back, and he will never take that for granted. He knows what the stakes are, what he’s risking every time he sets a foot wrong. The fate of the world on his shoulders and all that, and it’s an uneasy burden at the best of times for an ancient bijuu still reeling from the traumatic death of his first and only friend, still trying to pick his steps in a world where he’s not a monster of mortal nightmare.

End of the world aside, Naruto is depending on him. Both Narutos, his lost jinchuuriki and the little boy without a family, clinging to the first bit of kindness he’s been shown. Gaara and Fū need him too, as startling and unnerving as that thought is. He’s taken them on, taken responsibility for them, and he’s not about to leave them stranded in the middle of the wilderness. So no matter what, this is a problem he has to solve.

Fine, then. Options.

Option 1: head for Kumo anyway, because Bee might be a freak to outstrip the entire Freak Squad, but he’s still a decent human being, no matter how much Kurama sometimes wants to tear out his tongue and shove it down his throat. Pros are possibly finding out what happened to Matatabi and her kunoichi. Cons are having the whole trip possibly be for nothing if Bee’s off on one of his journeys, and the fact that A is a power-grabber of epic proportions. There won't be much of a chance of getting the kids away if A realizes who they are, and he’s too good a shinobi, with too many connections regardless of the state of his politics, for him to miss something like that.

Option 2: change course. Come up with somewhere else to stash the kids. Maybe one of his other siblings, though honestly that list is rapidly decreasing in length. Matatabi, Shukaku, the present Kyuubi, Chōmei, and Son are all out of the question. Isobu, because the Sanbi is squarely under Obito's thumb right now. Kokuō too, by virtue of being both out of reach and previously targeted. That leaves Gyūki, but Option 1’s not the best, and…well. Saiken, pretty much.

Shit, that’s a short list, Kurama thinks despairingly.

Still, it could be worse. Saiken’s weird and unnervingly cheerful all the time—and if Kurama didn’t know better he’d say the slug was permanently high—but in the brief time Naruto knew him, Utakata always seemed levelheaded and fairly sensible. Of course, he’s currently ten years younger than he was when Naruto met him, which puts him at…fifteen, maybe. Hopefully. Possibly sixteen, if Kurama's really lucky. And while shinobi—and especially jinchuuriki—aren’t exactly allowed to cling to childhood, that’s still pretty young. It also has the added disadvantage of leaving Utakata still a dubiously loyal member of Kirigakure, because as far as Kurama remembers the Rokubi’s host didn’t pack up and leave until he was eighteen. Which brings Kurama right back around to the fact that Kiri might as well be Obito's puppet state at the moment.

There is, possibly, an Option 3. Kurama can head them all in Kiri's direction, but also keep checking back in the bijuu’s shared mental world to see if Matatabi miraculously manages to answer. If not, he’ll be close enough to Kiri to track down Saiken. If she does, he won't have gotten too far from Lightning Country’s border, and changing course to Kumo won't be difficult. Of course, this means cutting right along the Fire Country border and then down through Hot Springs Country, which Konoha shinobi like to frequent, but it’s still better than staying in one place and waiting for Taki, Suna, Konoha, or the Akatsuki to catch up.

And damn it all, but Kurama really needs to stop pissing off whole shinobi villages and ridiculously powerful criminal organizations. This is getting annoying.

At the moment, Option 3 is just about the only viable course he can take. The kids need to get somewhere safe, and Kurama really needs to deal with Akatsuki, especially if they’ve already started grabbing jinchuuriki.

Apparently they're headed for Kiri, then.

With a sigh, Kurama slips out of the mental world, coming back to himself to find that there's a crick in his neck and a weight on his lap. He blinks, looking down, and can't fight a sudden smile at the sight of a blond head resting against his chest, a red head on his thigh, and a green head nestled against his shoulder. All three of the kids have relocated themselves and their blankets, apparently deciding that Kurama is the best pillow available, and they're all fast asleep on top of him.

A soft yipping laugh makes him look up, and his eyes land on Fuji, who’s watching him with a distinct fox-grin, tongue lolling and ears pricked up. “So cute,” she teases lightly. “Your kits are all so cuddly.”

Kurama might be annoyed, but…he’s pretty sure that these three have never in their lives gotten to be cuddly before. Maybe Fū, since she mentioned a mother earlier, but she also used past tense when referring to her. Safer to assume that even if she has been treated as a kid, it was a long time in the past.

“Fuck off,” he tells the vixen, though it’s hardly biting at all. “They're tired, that’s all.”

Fuji snorts softly, but lets the matter drop. “Good news from your sister?”

With a grimace, Kurama drags a hand through his hair. “My sister’s missing,” he says shortly. “Change of plans. We’re going to have to head towards Hot Springs Country, take a boat from the tip and make for Water Country. Something’s happening, and I don’t like it.”

Fuji's ears tip back, flattening against her skull, and she rises, coming to press up against his free leg. “I wish I had more tails,” she huffs, sounding faintly miserable. “Then I could fly us there in no time. I could try—”

“Not without killing yourself,” Kurama cuts her off. He scratches gently behind her ear, trying to comfort her. “Fuji, we’ve gotten us this far pretty much through your efforts alone. If you hadn’t jumped in when you did, and then stuck around, we wouldn’t have made it out of Fire Country.” Tapping her nose, he reminds her, “I still owe you that star ball, too.”

With a disgruntled huff, Fuji flops down alongside his leg, resting her chin on her paws. “I want to be older,” she complains. “If Momiji were around—”

From the shadows cast by the shifting firelight, there's a long, low growl, and something stirs. In an instant Kurama is on his feet, spilling children every which way, with a growl of his own rumbling through his chest, claws curled and ready even as his chakra rises like a flare. At his side, Fuji twists, flipping a leaf onto her head and instantly growing, rising to her feet the size of a small pony instead of a little fox.

“Right,” an unfamiliar voice rumbles, and out of the darkness stalks a much bigger fox, fur a deep silvery blue-grey instead of Fuji's snowy white, with five tails and blue eyes and teeth bared in an angry snarl. “Go ahead, Fuji. Finish that sentence.”

 

 

“I don’t like this at all,” Rōshi says grimly, surveying the interior of Bee’s house. It looks a little like a whirlwind hit, or maybe the aftermath of an attack, but since they're on Turtle Island, surrounded by one of the strongest barriers Kumo’s ever managed to come up with, Rōshi has to assume that it wasn’t foul play. Bee must have left in a hurry, though, and that’s definitely not a good sign where the state of things is concerned.

Han makes a soft sound of agreement, shuffling through a pile of scrolls on the main table. “The Raikage must have called him back very suddenly,” he confirms. “And if Bee actually went, if must have been for a reason that he thought was important, too.”

Since there's not much that can make Bee worried outside of failing to come up with new raps, the sinking feeling in Rōshi’s stomach just gets worse. He rubs a hand over his beard, all too aware of the tension of the bijuu inside of him, who is distinctly unhappy with all of this, and can't help but think of Kurama. The man is out there alone with just a fox summons and a pair of six-year-olds to help him, no matter how devoted they happen to be. He’s grieving and hunted and lacking money and weapons and even decent clothes, and no matter how urgent it felt to head off after Han, Rōshi is rather regretting his choice right about now. He should have stayed with Kurama, helped him get to Kumo. If he’s been captured by A—

“Stop fretting,” Han says with faint amusement, glancing up from his search. “You're about to give me ulcers.”

Just for that, Rōshi kicks him as hard as he can manage in the shin. It is, unfortunately, just about the only place Rōshi can reach without jumping, because Han is an oversized idiot who didn’t have the sense to realize he should have stopped growing once he passed six feet. Rōshi is willing to admit that he’s fairly short, especially for a man, but Han is just ridiculous.

It’s gratifying to see Han yelp and go stumbling backward, and Rōshi crosses his arms over his chest, satisfied with that reaction. “I’ll stop fretting when you decide to take this seriously,” he retorts sharply. “Bee is gone. If someone took him forcibly, the barrier would be down and the animals would be in an uproar, so we don’t have to worry about that. But if A called him back to Kumo and he went, it probably has something to do with Kurama. If there's any chance that we can help him, we should take it.”

Even with the armor that covers the bottom of Han’s face, Rōshi can tell he’s frowning. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” he says calmly, though his tone is faintly warning. “Rōshi, we know nothing about Kurama. He saved my life, but he could be anyone.”

Rōshi frowns right back at him. “I don’t care,” he says flatly. “Son and Kokuō both agree he’s related to them, and I don’t give a damn if he’s a jinchuuriki, a bijuu, or the fucking Sage of Six Paths reborn. You didn’t see him with those kids, Han. I remember what it’s like to be a child with a monster in your head and the whole world set to hate you. Do you? Because he rescued those boys, he saved them and he loves them, and that’s not someone I'm going to let die, even if I have to burn every Hidden Village to the ground to make sure of it.”

Han holds his gaze for a long moment before he looks away. “I remember,” he says softly, tucking his right hand into his haori. “It was…very lonely.”

Since Han is a good ten years older than Rōshi, they rarely crossed paths growing up, but Iwa isn’t a soft place. If Han’s childhood was anything like his—and all signs indicate that it was, even though it’s one of the subjects they both avoid—that’s the understatement of the century.

“There are nine of us,” Rōshi says, trying to keep his temper in check. “Nine of us against a whole world that would spit on us sooner than look at us. A helped Bee, but he couldn’t give a damn about the rest of us unless we swear ourselves to Kumo. Already Kurama's done more for us than anyone. He warned us about Akatsuki, saved you, helped me face Son, saved those kids—I don’t care who he is, Han. He’s one of us, he’s helping, even though no one else in all of existence cares about a handful of human containers beyond their potential as weapons. For that alone I’d save him.”

Another long stretch of silence, but Rōshi knows his friend and lets it linger unbroken. Han is thinking hard, weighing all the options—that’s what he does. Rōshi is the impulsive, headstrong one; Han plans and hesitates and tries to keep out of danger as best he can. It’s usually an amusing dichotomy, given their appearances, but right now Rōshi can't find it anything but grating.

Finally, Han sighs, shifting his weight back slightly. He pulls his kasa off, tucking the hat under his arm, and rubs a hand over his shorn hair. “I hope you have a plan,” he says a little wearily. “You're my best friend, Rōshi, but I have no intention of dying alongside you if you're going to throw yourself headfirst at all the major villages.”

Rōshi harrumphs in indignation. “I'm not an idiot,” he reminds the big man sourly, even though he doesn’t have more than the bare beginnings of a plan. “We need to find out where Kurama went, first of all. I know he was heading for Kumo, but I have no idea if he made it there or got attacked along the way.”

“The Raikage knows our faces,” Han points out. “And he knows what we are, thanks to Bee. We can't risk heading straight there.”

“Kurama mentioned that Konoha was after him,” Rōshi counters, even as the pieces fall together in his head. “And I'm absolutely certain that A hasn’t passed on what he knows about us to the village he considers his greatest enemy. There are sure to be patrols along Konoha's border. Pass ourselves off as bounty hunters after the price on Kurama's head and they’ll tell us what we need to know.”

“That…might work,” Han says carefully, and Rōshi magnanimously ignores the distinct note of doubt in his voice. “But Kumo also wouldn’t share news of his capture, if they do have him.”

That’s true. Rōshi considers the matter for a moment. “But Kurama's wandering around with Konoha's jinchuuriki, and Suna’s. A’s an arrogant bastard, but even he won't risk a war with Suna and Konoha by trying to keep their hosts.”

Han concedes this with a nod and another faint sigh. “All right. Let’s head south and find a border town. The odds of a Konoha patrol stopping to resupply are good, and it will be easier to find them there than track them through the wilderness.”

“I knew you’d see the light,” Rōshi says, entirely satisfied. “Let’s go. This place is a goddamned zoo without Bee here to keep the wildlife in check.”

“I'm surprised you want to leave, seeing how you fit right in. Height aside,” Han says dryly, and Rōshi promptly flips him off.

“Asshole,” he accuses, and storms out the door, entirely uncaring of the way it almost smacks Han in the face as the big man follows.

 

 

Hiruzen sits back in the shadows of the Mission Assignment office, pipe tapping absently against his lips, and watches Shikaku assign shinobi to their tracking teams. Some of Konoha's best are in the room, standing in groups or pairs or already in teams. Even Tsume, Fugaku, and Hiashi have turned up for the occasion, talking quietly near the doorway.

There are ten teams, thirty of the very best trackers Konoha can offer paired with ten of Suna’s best, and Hiruzen is grimly uncertain whether it will make any difference at all. He knows better than most just how dangerous a jinchuuriki can be, after all, and even beyond that, Uzumaki Kurama is an unknown. They can only speculate about his plans and motivations, and there's always the chance that they're incredibly wrong. Hiruzen is good at reading people, but his only encounter with Kurama lasted less than five minutes. Even he can't be expected to divine a man’s character in that amount of time.

Even so, it feels like a personal failing, not having seen that Kurama was dangerous, on edge. That he was the kind of man who could steal not one child, but two, and drag them off into the wilderness. Hiruzen hasn’t survived this long as a Kage without learning how to lay blame on those actually responsible, rather than keeping it all for himself, but this is Naruto. This is Minato's son, Hiruzen's honorary grandson. There's no applying logic when family is at risk.

“How many villages have accepted so far?” the man beside him asks in a low voice, dark eyes flickering over the assembled shinobi.

Hiruzen doesn’t look at the Yondaime Kazekage, because he doesn’t need to see the deep lines of worry and grim resignation that match his own etched into the other Kage’s face. The man had arrived this morning with a full contingent of shinobi armed for war, though thankfully not a war against Konoha. Despite the strained relations between their villages, they're still nominally allies, and the Kazekage had proposed adding some of his own trackers to the teams Hiruzen planned to send out. It’s a gesture that Hiruzen even now finds surprising, though perhaps he shouldn’t. The Kazekage is still a father, even if he’s one who was forced to choose between the life of his child and the safety of his village.

“Taki and Iwa,” he answers. “Though they don’t hold any bijuu themselves, Yu and Ame have given us permission to enter their lands, as has Rice Paddy Country and Wave Country. Tani as well, though we’re fairly certain Kurama is moving east, not west. I've yet to hear back from Kumo, though I hope A will be sensible, given that his brother is one of the jinchuuriki at risk.”

The Kazekage grunts in acknowledgement, looking far older than his actual years. He drags a hand over his spiky auburn hair, mouth pulling into a tight line. “No more word on which jinchuuriki this bastard has managed to grab?”

Hiruzen shakes his head, taking a long drag on his pipe and then breathing out a gusty cloud of smoke. “Iwa is hedging. I assume that means they either can't locate their jinchuuriki right now, or they haven’t been able to in a while. It wouldn’t be the first time hosts abandoned their village. Taki is under the impression that their container ran away, as she seems to do frequently, and that it has nothing to do with Kurama, but I find it rather hard to believe in such coincidental timing.”

That earns him a grimly amused snort. “No village wants to admit that they’ve misplaced a tailed beast. I agree with you, though. This bastard knew exactly what he was doing when he took my son. He never hesitated. And I find it suspicious that he’s taking the youngest jinchuuriki first. They're more malleable, more prone to believing whatever lies he’s spinning for them.”

Deliberately, Hiruzen doesn’t mention that those lies, whatever they might be, would be a lot less believable if the jinchuuriki were treated with basic human decency. After all, his house is very much made of glass in this matter, and he’s not about to start throwing stones. No matter how he’s tried to be close to Naruto, he’s Hokage. He barely has time for his son, his daughter, and his grandson, let alone any other family. For over forty years now Hiruzen has been putting the welfare of Konoha above the wellbeing of any one person in it, even when that one happens to be a boy he loves dearly.

Instead, he simply sighs, and casts his eyes to where a fiercely grinning Tsume is lounging next to a stiff and quietly offended Fugaku. The Inuzuka and Uchiha Clan Heads aren’t exactly the closest of friends, but since no one’s throwing punches, he’s going to assume things are going better than they usually do. Thankfully, Shibi is currently on the other side of the room, dealing with Shikaku; the Aburame Clan Head might look aloof and withdrawn, but he has a tendency to be very protective of Tsume, despite the fact that she most certainly doesn’t need it. It tends to be especially noticeable where Fugaku is concerned, because Fugaku has certain notions about kunoichi and propriety, and Tsume has made a sport of flaunting such things wherever possible.

Sometimes Hiruzen feels more like an exasperated schoolteacher than the leader of the most powerful Hidden Village. He wonders, with a faint quirk of his lips, if the Kazekage ever feels the same way.

He’s not really in the mood to be amused right now, though. Things are rapidly spiraling out of control, and he greatly dislikes the fact that Iwa can't seem to locate their jinchuuriki. It makes Hiruzen wonder if Konoha wasn’t actually Kurama's first stop. After all, Naruto and Gaara were both young enough that Kurama was more or less forced to come and collect them. The other jinchuuriki were more than capable of moving on their own, and if they had left Iwa already, there would be no one to notice. Hiruzen doesn’t even know their faces or anything about their abilities, and that’s a dangerous situation to be in if they're potentially hostile.

This whole matter is a headache and a half, even without the added joy of having to coordinate with all of the other villages. The mere thought of the politics that will be involved has Hiruzen contemplating whether there's any way at all he can trick Jiraiya into returning and taking the hat; heaven knows Hiruzen doesn’t want it.

“It’s going to be a hell of a long week,” the Kazekage says wearily, as if reading Hiruzen's mind. More likely is the fact that those kinds of thoughts are inescapable for men in their position.

“Then let’s do our best to make it as short a manhunt as possible,” Hiruzen agrees, and puts his pipe aside as he rises to his feet. That’s enough of a break, no matter how his battered old bones complain. There are matters to be attended to, messages to deliver, teams to dispatch. Hiruzen is old, but he’s not dead yet, and he’s lived through three very long wars. He’s bound and determined to see that there won't be a fourth.

Chapter Text

[assuage / ə , swāj/, to make an unpleasant feeling less intense; to relieve; to satisfy, as an appetite or hunger. Middle English, from old French assouagier, based on Latin ad- ‎“to” + suavis “sweet”.]

 

“Momiji!” Fuji yelps, scrambling around to plant herself in front of Kurama, even as small hands latch onto the back of Kurama's shirt. “Momiji, stop! I'm fine, I know you're angry I ran away but he’s—”

The silver fox growls warningly. “Don’t cover for the humans, they kidnapped you—”

“Off of Mount Inari?” Fuji demands, somewhere between incredulous, exasperated, and frantic. “Momiji, you’ve got nothing but fur between your ears! Kurama-sama is a nine-tailed fox! Of course I was going to go with him!”

There's a moment of absolute silence, and Momiji says suspiciously, “Nine-tailed…?”

Fuji huffs, sitting down with a thump and leveling a scathing glare at the fox that can only be her brother. “You think I’d stick with anyone else without a contract?” she asks witheringly, though there's still a thread of nervous tension in her body. “Kurama-sama needed help, and Elder Yuri is always talking about duties and how the nine-tailed fox was the one to give us chakra in the first place, so we should repay our debts to him, and he gave me oden, Momiji—”

With a long, drawn-out groan, Momiji deflates entirely, flopping down on his belly and crossing his paws over his snout to hide his eyes. “Hell, Fuji, I don’t know what I'm more surprised about, the fact that you actually listened to those lectures or that you conned our god into feeding you. You're such a brat.”

Seeing the way Fuji is puffing up, Kurama decides that it’s time to step in before this devolves into full-out sibling bickering. He gently detaches the hands from his haori, then steps forward, though he’s careful to keep all three kids behind him. “It wasn’t a con,” he says firmly. “Fuji saved me from getting brainwashed or mind-wiped, and I didn’t have any better way to repay her. I still don’t. She’s the only reason we’ve made it this far, and I'm in her debt.”

One paw shifts enough for Kurama to see Momiji’s black-masked face, and the silver fox stares at him for a long moment. He studies Kurama carefully, then sits up again, his five white-tipped tails curling around his feet. “You're really—?”

There's a simple way to answer, though Kurama's not sure how Naruto's passenger will react to the show. Still, he’s going to have to deal with his past self waking up at some point, and now isn’t the worst time for it to happen. Naruto could use a trump card, just in case something happens to Kurama, and once the Kyuubi has had some sense smacked into him, he’ll serve admirably.

With that in mind, Kurama takes a breath, thinks of Kaguya, and summons his chakra, letting it rise like a fiery tide around him. It tints the air scarlet, covers everything with a wash of power that lingers at the back of the throat like the metallic taste of blood. There's a sense of wind and fire to it, malice and rage and an ancient, suppressed fury that’s unmistakable.

“Yeah,” Kurama says, opening his eyes and meeting Momiji’s pale blue gaze. “I really am.”

“Kurama-nii?” Naruto asks curiously, and Kurama instantly chokes off his chakra, turning and dropping to one knee. There's the faintest flicker of foreign chakra in Naruto's system, not enough to speak of the Kyuubi awake, but…he’s stirring. The flare of power was like a nudge, bringing him from the depths of sleep to the beginning of an awakening.

“Sorry, kit. I know that was a lot of chakra,” Kurama says gently, smoothing a hand over his messy hair. He glances over his shoulder to where Momiji is still watching, sharp eyes flickering between Naruto and Kurama with something like confusion, and tips one shoulder in a half-shrug, a silent promise to explain later. It probably won't be as easy as explaining to Fuji was, but he owes it to both foxes. Fuji's been avoiding her family by helping him, after all.

“Are you really a nine-tailed fox, Kurama?” Fū asks interestedly, sliding forward to stare at Momiji with wide-eyed wonder.

“It’s…complicated,” Kurama says a little helplessly. He doesn’t particularly want to explain, but he will if he’s pushed. Not everything, because that’s too much for any kid to deal with, but there's enough he can give them that it will stand in for a full explanation. “Don’t worry about it, sweetheart.”

“I won't.” It’s Gaara, surprisingly, who says it. He shifts forward, fingers finding Kurama's sleeve and his wide, blue-green eyes solemn. With a glance at Naruto, and then another at Fū, he says, “You're not scary, Kurama-nii. Moth—Shukaku says the Kyuubi is mean and scary. You're not.”

Shukaku says, huh? Kurama tucks that thought away to hold over the Ichibi’s head later, and reaches over to ruffle wild red hair with a smile. “Thanks, squirt. You're not scary, either.”

From the way Gaara lights up at this, you’d think Kurama just gave him the world on a platter. It makes irritation at Suna flare, sharp and hot as a volcano on the edge of erupting, but Kurama shoves the anger back down and doesn’t let it show. The bastards don’t know what they're missing, treating Gaara like a monster. The kid is…not entirely terrible.

(Kurama can almost hear his Naruto laughing at him. Idiot.)

“Yeah!” the six-year-old Naruto chimes in, throwing himself forward and latching onto Kurama's arm. “You're still the same, Kurama-nii, so nothing’s changed!”

It’s—fine, Kurama thinks, swallowing past the lump in his throat. Whatever. It’s not like it would have been the end of the world if Naruto thought he was strange, or a monster, or was even just wary at the idea of nine-tailed fox that looked like a human. He doesn’t care, wouldn’t care either way, but—

He presses a kiss to Naruto's forehead and wraps an arm around him in return. “Thanks, kit,” he murmurs, and glances back to see that Momiji is still watching. The fox has lost the edge of angry suspicion, expression more curious than anything else. Fuji's eyes are on them, too, her ears perked up and face full of mirth. Kurama gives her a smile. “Thanks for everything, Fuji. I still owe you that star ball, so hit me up next time you're around—”

“What?!” Fuji yelps, bolting to her feet. “I'm not leaving, Kurama-sama, you still need me!”

Kurama blinks, caught off guard. He glances over at Momiji, whose expression has shifted to considering, and then reminds the vixen, “Fuji, you’re already going to be in trouble.”

“So?” she asks stubbornly, undeterred. “I'm going to be in trouble whether I go back now or later, so it might as well be later. And if Momiji thinks he can drag me back, I’ll—I’ll fight him!”

“You’d lose,” Momiji says dryly, rising to his feet and stepping past his sister. He body-checks her out of his way, making her snarl in aggravation, but ignores his sibling’s irritation and instead faces Kurama squarely. “You really need Fuji's help?” he asks, tone assessing and pale eyes thoughtful.

A little wary, Kurama nods. “We’re headed for Kiri, and there are people after us. I can make it on foot, but if there's any way to get there faster, it will save us a lot of grief. Besides, Fuji's smart, and she’s brave. She’s already gotten us out of more than one scrape that we probably wouldn’t have managed without her.”

“Well, then you’ll do even better with two foxes helping,” Momiji says with certainty. “I've got five tails, and I'm better with chakra than most of the summons twice my age. Flying is my specialty. Since you’ve been taking care of my brat of a sister, let me repay you by getting you to Kiri.”

That—that is absolutely the very last thing Kurama expected, and he blinks in surprise, rocking back on his heels. “I—really? But don’t you have to get back to Mount Inari? And—there are four of us.”

Even as he says it, though, relief is uncoiling inside of him, taking the place of the sick-tight knot of nervous tension that’s been present since Fū joined them. Fuji can carry three, after all, when two of those three are tiny and light, but any more than that is asking too much of her. To have a solution to that, to have a way to get to Water Country in a quarter of the time it would take walking—that solves so many problems that just for a second Kurama finds it hard to breathe from the release of tension. Sage, if Momiji is serious—

The reynard gives an eerie, yipping laugh, ears pricking. “Kurama-sama, you're a nine-tailed fox. Of course I’ll help. Fuji's a brat, but she’s right about that much. And if I'm here, the elders won't mind that Fuji is, too. I can feed her chakra, and we’ll fly the four of you to Kiri.”

Sage, but this might actually work out. Kurama breathes out, a little shaky with relief, and says with complete sincerity, “Thank you. Thank you, Momiji.”

With an answering laugh, Fuji leaps up, jumping over Momiji’s back, rolling happily, and then bouncing back to her feet. “You're the best, Momiji! I take back everything I said about you being a nasty, boring know-it-all!”

“Hey!” Momiji snaps, bristling. “When exactly were you saying that, brat?” He pounces on her, wrestling her to the ground, and in an instant they're a snarling, snapping ball of silver and white fur, bared teeth, and sibling indignation.

Well, Kurama thinks with a mix of exasperation and amusement, as Naruto cheers and Fū laughs and even Gaara smiles a little. At least the trip will never get boring.

 

 

As it turns out, Momiji wasn’t bragging when he mentioned his talent with chakra, though Kurama—well-acquainted with vulpine exaggeration and pride—had half-expected him to be doing just that. With Fuji riding the tail-end of his chakra, Fū and Gaara happily perched on her back, they manage to cross all of Rice Paddy Country and most of Hot Springs Country before the lack of reliable light drives them back to earth.

With the waning moon above them, Momiji touches down lightly, the foxfire around his paws flickering out of existence. Fuji's landing is slightly less graceful, but she’s practically vibrating with excitement as she crouches to let her passengers off.

“That was so much fun!” Fū enthuses, helping Gaara slide down and supporting the sleepy boy when he wavers. It’s almost midnight, and even though Fū seems just fine, the younger members of their ragtag band are almost unconscious. “Thank you, Fuji!”

“You're very welcome,” Fuji says, almost smug, and then shifts back to her regular small form and leaps up to curls around the girl’s neck.

Momiji snorts, muttering something about glory thieves and credit-stealers under his breath, but doesn’t move as Kurama dismounts, carrying Naruto. The bigger fox looks a little tired himself, but he follows gamely as Kurama starts laying out bedrolls for the boys. Fū has her own pack, and she pulls a tightly-rolled blanket out of it, seemingly content to curl up in that with Fuji sprawled out next to her.

“You gonna sleep, Kurama-nii?” Naruto asks blearily, tugging on Kurama's sleeve as Kurama settles him on the blanket.

“Not yet, kit,” Kurama says, gently scuffing a hand through blond hair. “I’ll keep watch for a bit. Go to sleep, okay? We’ve got another long day tomorrow.”

Naruto mumbles something vaguely agreeable, closing his eyes and burrowing under the covers. It’s cold, but Hot Springs Country is at least a bit warmer than most places this far north, thanks to being so close to the ocean, and since they're camping at the foot of a steeply sloping hill, there isn’t enough of a wind to make it frigid. Kurama could probably get away with starting a fire for added warmth, but he’ll take any excuse not to; the close call with both Kakuzu and the Freak Squad is still foremost in his mind.

Still, they're far enough away from any signs of life that Kurama feels safe enough leaving a clone to stand watch while he heads up the hill. To his surprise, Momiji follows, though he stays silent as they pick their way around outcroppings of bare stone and a few scattered stands of trees.

The moon is waning, a little less than half-full by now, and around it the stars are clear and bright. It’s a nice change from the heavy cloud-cover of Ame, or the intermittent clear skies of Waterfall, and at the crest of the hill Kurama pauses, turning his face up to the sky. At his side, Momiji does the same, standing close enough that Kurama can feel the warmth of his fur pressed up against his side. The easy quiet lingers for a long moment before the fox says, “They're very fond of you. The children and my sister both.”

Kurama huffs out a breath that’s a little too bitter to be a laugh, sinking down to sit cross-legged on the grass. “Those kids haven’t exactly had a lot of people they could be fond of,” he points out. “And Fuji's sweet. It’s hard not to like her, even when she isn’t saving my ass.”

Momiji chuckles, dropping to sprawl out and resting his angular head on Kurama's knee. “She’s okay,” is his assessment. “Are we up here for a reason, or just to look at the stars?”

Dragging a hand through his hair, Kurama shoots one more glance at the moon before settling back, resting his hands in his lap. “My sister’s missing. I really want to believe that she’s not dead, or sealed, and the only way to find out is to keep checking for her in our mental world. You’ll keep an eye out while I do?”

The silver fox makes a noise of assent. “Of course, Kurama-sama. I can't smell anyone nearby, though.”

“Neither can I,” Kurama agrees. “But just—stay sharp, okay?” Taking a breath, he closes his eyes and reaches out. They're near the border of Frost Country, just about the closest they can get to Kumo without leaving Hot Springs Country, and Kurama vaguely hopes that proximity will make some kind of difference. If nothing else, maybe one of the other bijuu will be able to remember the last time Matatabi was present. It’s safest to assume that she’s been captured by Akatsuki, stripped from her host and stuffed into that damned statue, but—

Kurama doesn’t want to acknowledge it. He wants to cling to the small chance that there's some other kind of explanation besides the worst case scenario. It’s distinctly possible that Naruto rubbed off on him more than he’d like to think.

The murky, almost metallic scent of stagnant water and damp stone fills his nose with a rush, and Kurama grimaces, already knowing what he’ll see even as he opens his eyes. Darkness surrounds him, lit only by guttering torches on the walls, and he’s standing in ankle-deep water. There are bars in front of him, all too familiar, but the door of the cage stands open, the seal torn right down the center. Beyond the bars, where there was once a blank stone wall—and, Sage, how many years did Kurama spend staring at it, until he knew every slight variation of color or texture by heart?—there are instead nine openings cut into the rock, each wide and tall enough for even Kurama in his bijuu form to pass through.

Well. That’s clear enough, isn’t it?

Kurama wades through the murky water, thankfully feeling only stone under his bare feet, and pauses for a moment in front of the doors, testing. Each one carries a familiar taste of chakra, from the mirror-image sense of rage and fire on the far left to Shukaku’s blood-wet sand on the far right. Isobu’s power is muted, buried, and Kurama doesn’t want to think about what that means for his sibling caught so firmly by Obito's damned eyes, but Saiken’s chakra is clean and clear, as bright and bubbly as ever. For a moment Kurama debates the sixth passage, thinks of trying to find Saiken and warning him that they're coming, but…

There. Like a murmur in a room full of loud voices, there's just a trace of familiar chakra. Cold but burning, as eerie as a ghost beneath the full moon, and Kurama jerks around, bolting for the second tunnel without a second thought. He slips on the slick stone, only just managing to stay upright, catches himself on the smooth wall and hurls himself around the corner, and—

There's a loud yelp in a voice besides his own, a confused flurry of motion, and a sharp jerk on the back of his haori. Kurama blinks his eyes open in the real world to find himself on the very edge of the hill where the ground drops away, poised to leap. Momiji is holding him back, teeth clamped on the hem of his haori and feet planted.

“Oh,” Kurama says dumbly, and then, when that familiar sense of chakra whirls past him like an errant breeze again, “Oh. Momiji, knock it off, I'm fine, but I have to go.”

Carefully, Momiji extracts his teeth from thick cloth and says dubiously, “You're going to leave three kids on their own? Out here?”

“I'm not leaving,” Kurama says in annoyance. “Don’t you feel that? The Nibi is down there!”

There's every chance that it’s a trap. Every chance that this is Akatsuki, or Kumo’s forces, or anyone else who could be using Matatabi to lure him out. But there's also a slim chance that it’s not, and Kurama owes it to his sister in all her aggravating, cunning glory to at least check.

Momiji pauses for a long moment, then huffs and crouches down. He shrinks dramatically as he does so, sliding from the size of a horse to the size of a regular fox, and then promptly hurls himself right into Kurama's arms. “I'm coming with you,” he insists. “If you get into trouble on my watch, Fuji will never let me hear the end of it.”

“Fine, but can we go now?” Kurama asks, annoyed, even as he shifts the reynard onto his shoulders. Clawed paws clutch at his shoulder, tightly enough that Kurama isn’t worried about Momiji falling, and he takes that as an answer. Three long bounds carry him over the edge of the hill and down, towards the thickly forested ground at its base. Kurama can't sense any malice within his range, not even the usual flickers of irritation that would accompany most humans trekking through the woods at midnight, and he can't take that as anything but a good sign. The Akatsuki members are almost permanently aggravated, after all, and even the more even-tempered ones have an undercurrent of rage to them. When he’s looking, there's no way that Kurama could miss them.

Matatabi’s chakra urges him onward, around the edge of the hill and deeper into the forest. There's enough undergrowth to make moving hard, but the branches above aren’t quite sturdy enough to carry his weight, so Kurama grits his teeth and pushes through, trying not to make too much noise.

“Matatabi, you smug witch,” he hisses, voice low enough that only jinchuuriki ears should pick it up. “Where the hell are you?”

From up ahead, where moonlight glitters off the surface of a small, rush-choked pond, there's a small sound that’s quickly bitten off. Kurama stiffens, going still as he listens, and Momiji’s ears brush his jaw as the fox lifts his head and does the same.

“That was pain,” Momiji murmurs.

It was, and unease twists through Kurama's stomach, making him grimace. It takes a lot to hurt a jinchuuriki, and even more to hurt a bijuu. If something has managed it…

He takes a breath and slips through the last of the brush, minding his steps to keep them soundless even in the thick undergrowth. The trees spread out around the edge of the pond, making a tiny clearing, and on the far side of it, something moves. Shadows shift as the figure slides between trunks, then pauses, and Kurama realizes that whatever happens next, he’s going to have to make the first move. Whoever that is over there, they're not planning to come out until Kurama shows himself.

It’s stupid. It’s incredibly stupid, but—

But this is Matatabi, the least objectionable of all of Kurama's siblings, and that’s definitely her chakra trickling out into the midnight air. Whether it means she’s escaped with her host, or by herself, or is being used as bait by someone, Kurama can't leave her if she needs his help.

Damn it. His Naruto has a lot to answer for, making him this soft.

“Matatabi?” Kurama asks, stepping out into the faint moonlight. “That you, you damn cat?”

There's a long, long pause, and then the figure in the darkness moves again. It slips forward, out of the shadows, and the starlight catches on pale blond hair matted with blood and drying mud, on a battered hitai-ate marked with Kumo’s symbol. Small hands lose their grip on the smooth bark of a tree as the figure tumbles forward, and Kurama leaps forward without even having to think, clearing the pond in a single bound and catching the young girl as she falls.

“Yugito,” he says, somewhere between astonished and unspeakably relieved. And…she’s young, so much younger than when he saw her as one of Obito's Rinnegan puppets, battered and scraped with her hair falling loose and tangled around her face, but it’s unmistakably her. Matatabi’s chakra covers her like a ragged cloak, dissipating as if it’s fog before a stiff breeze, but despite the exhaustion and the fact that Yugito is healing at almost a normal rate rather than like the jinchuuriki she is, Matatabi is still curled up inside her soul. Akatsuki hasn’t gotten ahold of either of them yet.

“Kurama?” Yugito rasps, barely audible. Dark eyes flicker from Kurama's face to the fox around his neck, and she sighs in wordless relief. “Matatabi said…you’d be shorter. Like Rōshi.”

“Matatabi’s a lying old witch,” Kurama huffs, hooking an arm around Yugito’s shoulders and helping her sit up. “What the hell are you doing so far from Kumo, kid?” Damn it, but she can't be much more than thirteen, and while that’s a far sight better than being six, it’s also not as old as Kurama had expected. Definitely not as old as he was hoping for when he planned to leave the kids with his lying little sneak of a sister.

“Mm.” Yugito makes an effort to focus, pushing herself a little more upright in his hold and promptly hissing in pain, pressing a hand to her ribs. “Matatabi told me to find you. We were attacked while we were training, and—and my teachers were killed. She took over, but we couldn’t win, so we ran. She said you were our best chance of surviving.”

Which would explain why Kurama couldn’t find Matatabi earlier, if she had exhausted her chakra and was trying to conserve it. But to make Matatabi use that much of her strength, it had to have been Akatsuki that went after her. Kurama fights down the growl that tries to bubble up in his chest and asks, “You remember who jumped you, kitten?”

The nickname gets him a startled glance, but Yugito doesn’t pause to think as she answers, “There were seven of them, six with the same eyes and a woman with blue hair. They said my power would help them save the world.”

“Rule it, more like,” Kurama mutters, raking a hand through his hair. Fuck. Pein and Konan, then, which means Akatsuki really has started collecting the bijuu. Not that they’ll have an easy time finding any but Saiken and Isobu, at this point. If Yugito was attacked, Bee is either on Turtle Island, safe behind the wards for at least a little while, or being kept close to the Raikage. Akatsuki won't risk attacking a village as strong as Kumo just yet; with so many gaps in their ranks they simply don’t have the power. A is a formidable opponent, and when he’s working with Bee, who’s fully allied with his bijuu, even the Six Paths of Pein won't stand much of a chance. Matatabi had mentioned something about Yugito training in the mountains, and given the proximity to Akatsuki’s base, that’s probably why they tried to grab her first.

Well. It’s a good thing Kurama still has Kiri as a back-up plan. It also has the added advantage of being just about the last place Obito will expect them to turn up, since it’s practically under his nose. And by the time he thinks to look there, Kurama will be in position to thoroughly distract him by smashing the Gedō Mazō.

Since there's only one thing to do now, Kurama shifts back onto his heels, then slides his free arm under Yugito’s knees and rises fully to his feet, picking her up as carefully as he’s able. “Come on,” he says gruffly. “We’ve got a camp on the other side of the hill. I'm not good at medical jutsus, but we’ve got some bandages and I can at least transfer some of my chakra to you. That should help Matatabi get back on her feet.”

Those small, tanned hands jerk up, curling into the edge of his haori, and Yugito looks down. The tips of her ears are slightly flushed, and Kurama can all but feel her embarrassment, edged with a slight hint of shame. “Thank you,” she forces out.

Kurama doesn’t look at her. “Nothing to be embarrassed about,” he huffs, heading back into the forest. “Matatabi and I are family. You're her family, more or less, so you might as well be mine, right? And this is what family does.”

The death-grip on his haori eases just a little, and the flush fades. Dark eyes study him carefully for a moment before Yugito nods sharply. There are lines of exhaustion in her face, cuts and scrapes everywhere, bruises like painful shadows on her bare arms and the curve of her jaw, but her poise is coming back. Some of the tightness eases from her shoulders, sliding away, and she gives in to her weariness enough to let her head rest against Kurama's shoulder. Momiji noses her hair, and she smiles, if only slightly.

“I don’t remember my family,” she admits softly.

“Doesn’t matter,” Kurama tells her. “Family’s what you make of it.”

This time, her smile is much easier to see. “I…I think I like that idea.”

Chapter Text

[temerarious / , teməˈrerēəs/, recklessly; rashly or presumptuously daring. Mid-16th century English, from Latin temerarius from temere “rashly” + -ous.]

 

For all of about three seconds, Kurama worries about Naruto's possible reactions to the newest addition to their little troupe. And, really, they need some kind of name or something, now that there are seven of them. The Bureau of Accidental Jinchuuriki Acquisitions, maybe—that sounds nice and formal and not at all like Kurama doesn’t have a single fucking clue what he’s doing here.

After those three seconds, though, Kurama screws his head back on straight, remembers that this is Naruto he’s talking about, and decides to operate on the assumption that Naruto will be goddamned overjoyed to find out there's another human container tagging along with them. While it doesn’t get him any closer to knowing what he’s doing, it’s at least a pretty decent start.

From where she’s curled into a tiny little ball under his haori, Yugito makes a quiet, contented noise and tugs the covering garment halfway up over her face.

Smothering a soft chuckle, Kurama carefully sets another scavenged log on the fire, trying not to let too many sparks jump free. The risk of discovery is worth the comfort right now, for him and Yugito both. She’s tired, a good bit more battered than he likes, and hasn’t strayed further than a few feet from his side since they got back to the camp, but Kurama can already feel her chakra reserves restoring themselves. Matatabi may be the second-weakest of the bijuu, but she’s still a bijuu. Just holding still is letting her start gathering nature chakra again, and with a day or two of rest, Kurama is confident that both Matatabi and Yugito will be back to full strength.

“Another girl.” Fuji keeps her voice low where she’s curled in his lap, but she sounds pleased nevertheless. “And she’s cute, too. Do we get to keep her, Kurama-sama?”

Kurama blows out an aggrieved breath, shoving wayward strands of hair back behind his ears. “Like I have a choice,” he grouses. “Matatabi’s a catty witch. She knew I wouldn’t be able to say no.”

Curled across Kurama's shoulders, head resting neatly on his black paws, Momiji opens one blue eye and scoffs softly. “Right,” he says, mild as milk. “That’s why you ended up with not one jinchuuriki child, but four. Because you were manipulated into dragging them along.”

“Shut the hell up, furball,” Kurama growls, though he also pitches his voice low. “There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Four times over,” Fuji adds innocently, and gives a fox-grin when Kurama glares at her. “Oh, stop it, Kurama-sama. You knew exactly what you were doing, taking them in.”

Well, Kurama's glad someone believes that, because he sure as hell doesn’t. This all started as a way to find somewhere safe for Naruto to hang out; the fact that it’s snowballed into a cross-continental chase that probably has him on every major village’s shit-list is still a little hard to wrap his head around at times. But, whatever. This is all Kakashi's fault. If he hadn’t made an ass of himself trying to pull Kurama away from Naruto, they’d all still be happy as clams in their rightful places.

Except… 

Except Gaara would still be miserable, treated like a monster. Fū would be trying to run away, only to be dragged back kicking and screaming. Yugito—

Kurama doesn’t want to think about what would have happened to Yugito.

“How fast do you think we can make it to Kiri?” he asks, turning his attention back to the fire as a log shifts and falls in a spray of sparks.

Momiji hums thoughtfully, swishing his tails. “It will be a little slower now that there's one more, not that she weighs much, but we should make it to the border of this country by a little after noon as long as we get a decent start tomorrow. If I remember correctly, there's a chain of islands off the coast. Our fastest route would be along their path, near where the ruined ninja village is.”

In that area, there can only be one village he means. Kurama saw Uzushiogakure a few times through Mito's eyes, though only on brief visits. By the time he’d been settled enough in his prison to stop raging constantly, Hashirama had been dead, and duty had tied Mito to Konoha. He’s never seen the ruins—his Naruto had no interest, even when he knew where his clan came from, and it had been too open to seek refuge from Kaguya there. Apparently he’s going to get his chance now, though.

“Uzushio,” he says, because Kushina and Mito's ancestral home deserves to be named at the very least. “Yeah, that should be a good waypoint. There's another island northeast of it, and then a long haul straight across the sea to Water Country. We should wait until morning to try that stretch—it’s a fair distance, and there's usually enough fog to make it treacherous.”

“I've never been that far east,” Momiji admits. “Just to the edges of the closer islands. Some of the other five-tailed foxes have gone all the way there, but I liked the north better than all the wet.”

Well, there goes hoping Momiji magically knows a way past Water Country’s borders—or, optimistically, the walls of Kiri itself. Still, the mere fact that they don’t have to rent a boat in Whirlpool Country and try to sneak in through a port makes Kurama's life about three hundred times easier. He’s not about to start getting picky.

“No worries. I've been there twice, even if they were official visits and I never got to see a lot of the village. Shouldn’t be too hard for me to locate Saiken, though—he’s always been pretty easygoing, might even be convinced to come out and meet us.” Kurama glances over at Naruto, then lets his gaze slide an inch right to settle on crimson hair, then green, and finally blonde. Utakata will be able to take care of them, with Saiken’s help. He took care of Hotaru pretty damn well after he became a missing-nin, after all, and Kurama has faith that being good with kids has at least a little to do with personality. The man’s the son of the Sandaime Mizukage, too; if he doesn’t know a good hiding spot for four prepubescent jinchuuriki near Kiri, no one will.

“Maybe you should sleep, Kurama-sama,” Fuji suggests gently, sliding out of his lap and shaking herself briskly. “I’ll keep watch for a while. You and Momiji should rest.”

“Thanks, Fuji,” Kurama says after a moment’s hesitation, because he really is tired. On top of that there's a whole new set of things to worry about, because their food is running out and the fact that it’s winter will make for slim hunting, if Kurama wants to go that route. The very last of the mission pay from Konoha might be able to buy the seven of them a meal, but Kurama will save that until he has no other choice. Something else might turn up tomorrow, though—their luck hasn’t been entirely terrible these last few days.

Maybe they can make it to Kiri in time. Kurama really fucking hopes so.

 

 

By the time they drag themselves into one of the tiny border towns between Fire Country and Rice Paddy Country, Kakashi is one hundred and seventy-five percent convinced that he must have been a genocidal axe murderer his past life. One who ate kittens for breakfast. And babies for lunch. And probably rounded out his dinner with the blood of virgins and the spleens of his enemies, because anything less would not leave Kakashi subjected to this.

“The Nidaime totally could have kicked the Shodaime’s ass! He just held back because they were brothers!” Shisui insists fervently.

Tenzō scoffs loudly. “I refuse to believe the extent of your idiocy. Senju Hashirama was called the God of Shinobi for a reason. There's no way he would have lost to Tobirama.”

Shisui makes a sound like he’s contemplating homicide. (Kakashi knows the feeling.) “Yeah, whatever. Tobirama invented more jutsus and seals than anyone in recorded history, before the founding of the villages or after. He totally would wipe the floor with a one-trick pony like Hashirama.”

At that, Tenzō squawks, flails, and nearly falls off the branch. “One-trick pony?! He’s the Shodaime! And besides, shouldn’t you be rooting for him? Tobirama hated the Uchiha!”

“Bad press,” Shisui dismisses with a lazy wave. “Did you know there were rumors about him and his aide, Uchiha Kagami? Clan gossip says Kagami is why Tobirama never married. I think that’s a pretty big check in the ‘doesn’t hate Uchihas’ column.”

“We are not discussing the Hokages’ hypothetical love lives,” Tenzō retorts a little tartly. “We’re—”

“Going to shut up now, because Itachi and I have been listening to this conversation for the last four hours,” Kakashi interrupts, just slightly desperate. And before that it was an in-depth discussion on which of Konoha’s jounin has the best ass. For the record, Kakashi's name came up fourteen times, and he feels a little violated. Porn is one thing; this is another entirely. At least his beloved Icha Icha doesn’t give assessments and assign marks based on curvature and perkiness.

Whoever he killed in his past lives to deserve this, Kakashi is truly, deeply sorry.

“Thank you, Captain,” Itachi says with utmost sincerity. He looks a little wild around the eyes himself, not that Kakashi blames him in the slightest.

Shisui makes a noise that sounds distinctly like “Losers,” and then says in a more normal tone, “The village is just around the next hill. Separate and approach from different angles?”

Kakashi weighs the options. If they separate, that’s double the chances of finding Kurama, but they’ll be at reduced strength if they do manage to stumble over him. On the other hand, sticking together gives them more power, but also makes them a hell of a lot more noticeable.

“Separate,” Itachi suggests quietly. “We can meet in the center of the village. I don’t think Uzumaki is here, and we’ll be able to pick up a trail faster if we’re apart.”

Assuming he even stopped here, Kakashi thinks a touch pessimistically. It’s just about the last place to resupply before entering Hot Springs Country, which is sparsely populated outside of its Hidden Village, so Kakashi has to presume he did. After all, Kakashi has seen Naruto eat; an appetite like that can't be easy to feed.

Kurama is rather memorable. If he passed through, they’ll find out soon enough. If he happens to still be here, whoever encounters him first can at least stall him long enough for the others to notice, so the risk isn’t as great as it could be.

“Separate,” Kakashi agrees. “Shisui, circle around and take the east; Tenzō, the south. Itachi, keep going and approach from the west. I’ll take the north.”

There's a blur of motion on three parts, and Kakashi heads left, keeping a sharp eye on the shadows in the woods. It’s early morning, and there's always the chance that Kurama decided to camp somewhere. If they could find him breaking camp, maybe talk to him—

What Kurama's doing is stupid. He’s got practically every village on his tail or braced for his arrival, is weighed down with at least two and possibly three kids, and he’s not able to move fast enough to keep ahead of Kakashi's team indefinitely. Maybe Kakashi can make him see reason. Maybe they can get through this without another war starting.

Kakashi doesn’t want to be responsible, even peripherally, for a fourth world war. That’s not a legacy he wants to attach to the Hatake name. His father’s memory deserves better.

The village is small and a little worn, a traveler’s rest-stop more than anything built for tourists or wealthy merchants. Shaking off his dark thoughts, Kakashi slips in through a narrow avenues lined with weathered houses and makes for the main street. There's one inn that he can see, sandwiched between a small grocery store and a weapons shop, with—

There's a flash of red hair, the cadence of a voice raised in aggravation, and Kakashi darts into the shadows and goes still, hardly daring to breathe.

“—can't believe you talked me into staying in that rat-trap,” the man says, voice muffled to the point where Kakashi can't tell if it’s Kurama or not. “We’d have been better off sleeping next to the river.”

“I like beds with actual mattresses,” another man defends calmly.

“So do I, but not when they're liable to give me the plague,” the first retorts, and surely there can't be that many short, grumpy redheads running around north of Fire Country. “Next time I get to pick—” He stops short, hesitates for a moment, and then growls, “I know you're there. Come out and face me.”

Damn it. There's not even time to pull a henge. Taking a breath, Kakashi slips out of the shaded overhang and steps into the street, coming face to face with—

Not Kurama, he thinks with a sinking feeling. Not unless Kurama's changed his facial structure, shrunk a few inches, and managed to grow an elaborate beard since they last saw him a few days ago. The redhead’s companion is also unfamiliar, a massive man taller than anyone Kakashi's met before, and dressed in intricate armor.

“Sorry,” Kakashi says with a cheerful wave. “Mistook you for someone else.”

The two men trade glances. Arching a brow, the redhead tips his chin at Kakashi, then gives his friend a meaningful stare. The big man hesitates, but nods, and the redhead turns back. “No worries,” he says, wary but polite. “You're from Konoha. Up on bounties?”

Bounty hunters, then. No wonder the shorter man’s instincts are so good; shinobi in that line of work tend to make a lot of enemies. “There should be a full accounting at the nearest bounty station,” Kakashi answers. “I've—”

“We’re looking for one in particular,” the short man interrupts, and Kakashi can feel his hackles start to rise. He’s fairly well-known, especially in Fire Country, and this close to the border his reputation is certain to precede him. For this man not to acknowledge that, he’s either stupid, unaware, or unconcerned. Stupid bounty hunters don’t live long, and the inattentive ones are too poor for fancy armor, so the last option is the most likely, and Kakashi doesn’t care for it. Not many people outclass him where sheer ability is concerned, and for this man to be so certain that he does is far from comforting. Especially given that Kakashi doesn’t know his face.

“Oh?” he asks, just managing to keep his voice mild. “Anyone I can help you find?”

“It’s a Konoha bounty,” the armored man puts in, giving his friend a pointed look that makes the redhead huff and cross his arms over his chest. “An unaffiliated shinobi, red hair, possibly from Kumo. Have you heard any news?”

There's only one person they can be talking about. Kakashi kind of wants to turn around and bang his head against the wall a few times, just from sheer aggravation. “My squad is in pursuit,” he says after a moment’s pause, and is a little startled by the sudden hostility in the redhead’s expression as dark eyes narrow sharply. “Have you found any leads? You’ll be compensated—”

“Rōshi, don’t—” the big man starts, sounding close to desperate.

Fiery red chakra erupts like a volcano, filling the street with a sudden and almost blinding surge of power that knocks Kakashi back on his heels. He doesn’t quite go reeling, but if he had an ounce less experience, he knows that chakra like that would leave him on his knees.

“Shut up, Han,” the redhead barks, even as the power condenses, folding around him like a white-hot cloak. It shimmers with a heat-haze, and Kakashi leaps out of the way on instinct.

There's a steaming crater in the place where his feet just stood, scorched and melted, and Kakashi curses to himself, darting back further out of range. Ridiculous chakra levels plus impossible ability equals only one thing.

“You're a jinchuuriki,” he says grimly, landing lightly and reaching up to push his hitai-ate out of his face. “From…Kiri?”

Rōshi snorts, pulling a long, curved kunai from his weapons pouch. “Not hardly. I parted ways with my village a long time ago. But if you're hunting Kurama, I’ll put an end to it right now. That man has more of my loyalty than Iwa ever did.”

Fuck, Kakashi thinks. Of all the people to run into right now. But if they’re looking for Kurama as well, that means this jinchuuriki at least hasn’t managed to join up with him yet. It also means that even the human containers Kurama hasn’t encountered are trying to aid him, though, and that’s bad news all around.

“Uzumaki Kurama is kidnapping children,” Kakashi says, with the vague hope that Rōshi will listen to reason. “He’s setting the Hidden Villages at each other’s throats. It can't continue, or—”

Roushi laughs, bitter and entirely unamused. “Or what? The villages will lose their greatest weapons? Face reality, Copy-Nin. They’ve already lost us. The minute they stopped treating us like humans, the instant they decided we weren’t even worth basic decency, that’s when the villages lost us. Kurama's a hero. He’s saving those kids from a lifetime of misery and an agonizing death. He’s saving all of us from that.”

Kakashi narrows his eyes faintly, confused by the words. An agonizing death? Jinchuuriki are the next best thing to indestructible. In fact, the only one who died from being a jinchuuriki that Kakashi can think of is Kushina, and there were extenuating circumstances there.

“Captain!” someone shouts, and Kakashi reacts automatically, twisting to the side and coming up with three kunai that he sends arcing towards Rōshi as a distraction. The jinchuuriki snorts, simply flicking a hand, and a wave of lava flies from his fingertips to catch the weapons.

It’s incredibly disconcerting to see molten metal rain to the ground, hissing as it lands.

In the same moment, though, the earth trembles, and a surge of roots and branches leap for the jinchuuriki and his companion. Rōshi curses, spinning to take the ones in front of him with a lava-enhanced kick, but that leaves the other man—Han, Rōshi called him—vulnerable. Kakashi sees the opening and moves, as fast as he’s able. Tantō in hand, he leaps to the side, then lunges, aiming to capture. From the corner of his eye he can see Itachi mirror him, having guessed his plan, and it’s a desperate one, but it will have to do. Any sort of leverage to end this fight quickly—

There's a hiss like escaping steam, a movement that’s far too swift for any man that big, wearing that much armor, and suddenly Kakashi's side is one massive ache as he goes flying into Itachi's path. His Sharingan had caught the movement, but too late. Kakashi was expecting big to mean slow, and that’s very clearly not the case.

A flicker of familiar chakra passes them, the glancing touch of a hand slowing their flight enough for Kakashi and Itachi to both twist and hit the side of a building feet-first instead of head-first. Shisui doesn’t wait, though, throwing himself at Rōshi even as his fingers come up in a well-remembered sign. The fireball that leaves his lips is huge and blinding, and under its cover Shisui goes for his ninja wire, hurling it in a curving loop meant to trap an enemy completely.

More molten metal splatters the ground, and Shisui spares just enough breath to protest, “Oh, come on,” before he has to concentrate on dodging the balls of lava Rōshi spits at him.

“As much as it pains me,” Itachi says, drawing his own tantō, “I think I must agree with Shisui.”

Kakashi's getting that feeling, too. He eyes the man who kicked him, a distinct and familiar sinking feeling in his gut as he meets pale brown eyes. “Let me guess,” he says dryly. “Also a jinchuuriki?”

Han inclines his head. “Kurama saved my life when we were complete strangers,” he answers. “If nothing else, I owe it to him to stop you here, and save him the trouble of doing it himself.”

Against Kurama alone, Kakashi would put decent odds on his team winning. They already managed once, after all, before the fox not-a-summons saved him. Against two older, obviously experienced jinchuuriki who are clearly devoted to the idea of helping Kurama, and just as clearly used to fighting together? Kakashi's fairly certain their odds of simple survival are slim, let alone their odds of victory.

As if to emphasize this thought, Tenzō attempts to drop from the roofs to take Rōshi by surprise and only just manages not to lose his entire head to another burst of lava.

Very quickly, while both men are distracted by Shisui and Tenzō’s admittedly impressive teamwork, Kakashi runs through his mental index of jutsus. Rōshi and his lava alone is enough of a problem, but Han’s steam is fire and water mixed. It’s nothing a Raikiri can cut through, and Kakashi just a handful of days ago saw Kurama take a full-power Raikiri to the chest and then promptly turn around and start a marathon run across the Elemental Countries. He’s not overly hopeful that it will do any better against this jinchuuriki. Copying their movements also won't do any good, since jinchuuriki abilities aren’t exactly something he can mimic.

Still, he’s hardly about to stand around and let them kill his entire team. Taking a breath, he sheathes his tantō, flicks Itachi an ANBU hand-sign, and then brings his hands together. The earth beneath him surges like water, and Kakashi sinks beneath it in a rush. There's no chance of aiming wrong, not with the bonfire of chakra so close to guide him, and Kakashi uses just a touch of strength to send himself shooting forward, hoping Itachi get the message. Then it’s too late for thinking of anything else, because the two jinchuuriki are right above him, and Kakashi rockets up, fingers shaping another sign even as he bursts out of the ground.

Instantly, four of Itachi's clones scatter into a cloud of ink-black crows, and Kakashi, positioned squarely between Rōshi and Han, brings his hands together with a ringing clap. Behind him, he can sense Shisui moving, faster than even the Sharingan can match, to grab a harried Tenzō and haul him bodily behind the cover of a wall. Then the jutsu activates, and the force of the wind exploding from Kakashi's hands sends both jinchuuriki flying.

There's no need for orders. Kakashi leaps for the rooftops, and a moment later Itachi bounds after him. In a flash of green chakra, Shisui appears next to them, snatches his cousin, and disappears. A heartbeat later he’s back again, hooking an arm around Kakashi's waist and hauling him forward so fast the world turns to a wrenching blur. They hit the ground hard and Shisui loses his grip, tumbling once before he manages to roll back to his feet. Kakashi manages to stay upright, though only barely, and catches himself on the trunk of a tree.

The village is so distant Kakashi can hardly see it now, though the massive plume of smoke rising above it makes the location obvious. Kakashi winces a little, because that was a lot of collateral damage for a very short fight. He’s fairly certain they're never going to be welcome in that town again.

“Oh fucking fuck,” Shisui breathes, slumping back against another tree and sliding down to sit at its base. “Did we just start a fight with not one, but two jinchuuriki?”

“Technically, I think Rōshi started it,” Kakashi points out, feeling the need to defend himself. It’s not like he knew they were jinchuuriki going into it, or he might have beaten a strategic retreat a little earlier. Or just—not stuck around. Then he thinks about what the Hokage is going to say once he learns that two more  jinchuuriki have deserted their villages and allied themselves with Kurama, and is distinctly grateful that there's a good extent of Fire Country between them.

“If we give him the chance he’ll probably finish it, too,” Tenzō points out, looking back in the direction of the village. He’s missing his left eyebrow, and half of his face is red in a way that speaks more of first degree burns than it does embarrassment at practically getting stomped by two jinchuuriki who weren’t even trying.

“Moving on would be a good idea, I think,” Itachi agrees. He glances up, to where a flock of crows is circling lazily, and adds, “They're not following us yet, but that doesn’t mean they won't.”

“Especially if they're looking for Kurama.” And Kakashi would very much like it if they didn’t catch up with him any time in the near future. Dealing with a couple of baby jinchuuriki is one thing, and Kakashi is mildly confident about their chances there, even if one of them happens to hold the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Three full-grown and ludicrously powerful jinchuuriki without a reason to hold back?

If he’s facing something like that, Kakashi wants a damned army backing him up.

 

 

Han is wearing his I'm-disappointed-in-you-but-somehow-not-surprised face. It’s one that Rōshi is intimately familiar with, so he’s more than happy to ignore it. Inside of him, Son is grumbling about the Copy-Nin’s escape denting his pride, but that’s par for the course now that they're actually talking. And, yes, Rōshi admits they probably could have taken the man and his team, but he’s not exactly a pinpoint fighter. The rest of the town would have ended up as collateral, and enough people already hate Rōshi just for existing. He’d rather keep the numbers down whenever possible.

At length, Han seems to resign himself to the fact that Rōshi is unaffected by his displeasure and sighs, folding his arms over his chest. “I thought you wanted to find Kurama's trail, not pick a fight.”

“We did!” Rōshi defends. “I can multitask, thank you.” When Han continues to be epically unimpressed, Rōshi huffs, rolls his eyes, and says, “Now we know that he hasn’t gotten caught yet, and that’s good enough for me. If Bee’s back in Kumo, odds are Kurama skipped over it rather than stopping, and if he’s looking for jinchuuriki, there's only one other place he can go.”

Han does not look comforted by this leap of logic. “Kiri isn’t exactly welcoming,” he points out.

“And Kurama's not exactly a model guest,” Rōshi counters. “Come on, we need to get to the coast.”

“We’re going to take a boat across the ocean to the Bloody Mist, which is currently controlled by a mad jinchuuriki and houses an unknown second jinchuuriki,” Han says dubiously, but he follows when Rōshi turns northeast and marches out of the village. “I can think of a lot of ways this could end badly, Rōshi.”

Rōshi waves an impatient hand, not entirely certain what the problem is. “Oh, give it a rest. We’ve got nine tails and four brains between us, how hard could this be? There's a little fishing village near the Frost Country border, and the headman there owes me a favor. We’ll commandeer a boat and sail straight across. Maybe we’ll even beat Kurama there.”

Either way, whether they have to skulk around Kirigakure and wait or get there after the other man, Rōshi will feel a hell of a lot better once he’s got eyes on Kurama. Rōshi’s awkwardness with kids aside, Kurama's between a rock and a hard place, and Rōshi’s more than willing to hunker down next to him and make a stand.

The jinchuuriki get few enough champions as it is, and whether Kurama's actions turn the world on its head or not, Rōshi’s in for the long haul. And, despite Han’s protests, Rōshi knows the big man will be right there next to him. Maybe they're not family by blood, but Rōshi likes to think they're something better. Real family never gives you a choice. The family you make for yourself is another matter entirely.

Chapter Text

[perspicacious / , perspəˈ kāSHəs/, having a ready insight into and understanding of things; discerning or shrewd. Early-17th century English, from Latin perspicax, perspicac- “seeing clearly” + -acious.]

 

Things have escalated to the point that Hiruzen now cringes reflexively every time Kakashi sends him a report. This time is no different, even if the report happens to come with one of Itachi's crows instead of one of Kakashi's ninken.

As soon as the bird has deposited its message and swooped back out the window, Hiruzen sits back in his chair, eyeing the scroll warily. Across the office, at a slightly battered additional desk dragged in for his use, the Kazekage looks up.

“Something wrong?” he asks suspiciously.

“More than likely? Yes,” Hiruzen sighs, raising a hand to rub at the forming headache even as he reaches for the message. Deciding it’s best to get things over with, he opens it quickly and unrolls it, studying the words.

Ah, yes. That’s a familiar headache—he’s taken to fondly referring to it as “Kurama”.

“Kakashi’s pursuit team encountered two more jinchuuriki,” he tells Rasa grimly. “Apparently loyal to Kurama's cause, as they were willing to start a fight in order to keep the team from following him.”

Rasa blows out a short, sharp breath and leans back in his chair, shoving a stack of paperwork aside and crossing his arms over his chest. “Two?” he asks. “Hmph. What do you want to bet that your team just found those jinchuuriki Iwa’s been unforthcoming about?”

“Unlike my former student,” Hiruzen says dryly, “I'm not in the habit of taking sucker bets. I believe you're right. Perhaps now Iwa will begin to take us more seriously. Ōnoki is a hardheaded fool, but even he can be made to see reason eventually.”

“It’s all the rocks they bounce their skulls off during training.” The Kazekage sounds reluctantly amused. “I've never met more stubborn shinobi than the ones from Iwa.”

You’ve never come across an Uzumaki, Hiruzen almost counters, but stops himself at the last moment. Given the circumstances, it’s probably not the most tactful thing he could say.

“That makes…four jinchuuriki, at least,” Rasa says thoughtfully, making Hiruzen glance up at him again. The Kazekage has his chair tipped back, his eyes on the wall but focused beyond it. “Five, if Uzumaki really is one. Six, if Taki’s jinchuuriki isn’t sulking in the woods somewhere like they seem to think she is. And if he’s even managed to convince the older ones to side with him, I’d expect he’s already converted Gaara and the other boy.”

Hiruzen wonders about that. It’s only a suspicion, but he finds it likely that Iwa’s two jinchuuriki are missing-nin, or the next best thing. He hasn’t heard even vague mention of them in years, which is rather telling. Iwa isn’t shy about otherwise flaunting its strength, and they were notably absent in the Third Shinobi War. Perhaps Ōnoki kept them back because Kushina rarely made an appearance on the battlefield—Hiruzen hadn’t wanted to provoke Iwa into mobilizing against her personally—but… Ōnoki isn’t a subtle man. If he’d had the power, he likely would have used it. So it stands to reason that this Han and Rōshi had already made themselves absent back then.

“Those who have suffered longest are often the easiest converts,” he reminds Rasa, rerolling Kakashi's scroll. “Especially if Kurama is offering them something they’ve wanted for a long time.”

With a suddenness that’s almost jerky, especially compared to his usual forthright grace, Rasa shoves to his feet, sending his chair sliding back to crash into the wall. He doesn’t even glance back as he stalks up to the window, where he pauses, bracing one hand on the glass as he looks out over Konoha's streets. “And just what is it he’s offered them, Hiruzen?” he demands. “What could he have offered that would have made five jinchuuriki turn their backs on the world that created them, that revered them?”

“Revered? I would rather say feared,” Hiruzen says evenly, leaning back in his seat and reaching for his pipe to give his hands something to do. “Rasa, I know very well the state of Suna’s relationship with its jinchuuriki.” Your relationship with your son, he doesn’t say, because that’s also a little too tactless to utter right now. “Do you really imagine that any other village is different? Perhaps it’s less overt elsewhere, but jinchuuriki are feared for their capabilities, for the fact that there are the closest things to gods this world has encountered trapped inside of them. Only Bee is different that I've seen, and he’s worked his entire life to be seen as nonthreatening.”

Because he’s looking for it, he can see the flicker of grief that crosses Rasa’s face, deep and painful and instantly shut away. For all his many faults, Rasa loved his wife, loves his village, and Hiruzen is absolutely certain that Rasa loves his youngest son as well. But he’s a Kage before he’s a father, something Hiruzen knows all too well, and the Ichibi’s seal is loose, cracking. It wasn’t meant to be this way, Hiruzen is sure, but it is. Gaara is a monster instead of a weapon, and as Kazekage Rasa can do little more than work to contain and control him, even if containing him means ending his life.

Rasa is paying for his choices, for his mistakes. A very small part of Hiruzen wonders if Minato would have faced the same choices, had he used a weaker seal and survived his battle with the Kyuubi.

“Is that all this is?” Rasa asks, low and intent. “Really? You think Uzumaki has done all of this because he’s a kind person, because he doesn’t want to see the other jinchuuriki suffering? I know you can be a fool, Hiruzen, but don’t be a naïve one. There has to be some other motivation.”

He’s correct, and Hiruzen inclines his head, allowing for the point. “Yes, but I've yet to see any concrete evidence of it. We haven’t even been able to predict his path.”

Rasa hums low in his throat, not looking away from the blue horizon. “Does he have ties? Bonds? Do you know anything about his past?”

It takes several moments of shuffling through the piles on his desk, but Hiruzen finally finds the scroll with Kakashi's first report, right after the recovery of the Daimyo’s daughter. With it is another report, this one from a team Hiruzen sent to track Kurama's movements before he reached Konoha. Because he knows every word of both, he passes them over to Rasa without hesitation. This isn’t a time or situation where any of them can afford to keep secrets.

“He came from the north,” Hiruzen says, sitting back again to light his pipe. “A squad tracked his movements to a town near the border, where he stayed for the night. The innkeeper was unforthcoming, but one of her regular patrons recognized his description. Before that, there's no record of him anywhere that we’ve been able to find. Then again, I can't really say I expected anything less.”

Rasa’s eyes flicker up from the scrolls for a moment, and he raises one brow slightly. “You think…” he starts, and then stops, frowning in consternation.

Sarutobi can read the rest of that question in his face. It’s not exactly a leap of logic, honestly, given what they know. “That he’s been in Uzushio since it fell? It’s a distinct possibility.”

“But Uzushio didn’t have a jinchuuriki,” Rasa counters, shifting that frown to Hiruzen. “If they had, they wouldn’t have been wiped out by Kiri.”

Hiruzen hums, and lets himself play devil’s advocate just for the twitch it puts in Rasa’s expression. “Kiri has a respectable population, and a decent force. They're also several times the size Uzushio was.”

With a scoff, Rasa drops the reports on the desk and crosses his arms over his chest. “Kiri also has an overabundance of bloodthirsty bastards who are more interested in killing each other than taking their warmongering to another country. If Uzushio had been hit by anything but a surprise attack, by anyone but the Sandaime Mizukage and the Seven Swordsmen, they’d have sent Kiri running. As it is, there was no jinchuuriki there. There was no saving Uzushio. Your logic is flawed.”

“Is it?” Hiruzen asks mildly. “These are our suppositions: Uzumaki Kurama is Uzumaki Kushina's younger half-brother by the same father, literally bred to be a jinchuuriki, likely by Kumo. One of nine brothers, if his stories are to be believed. I would assume he grew up hearing of his home, the wonders of Uzushio, and the first chance he got to escape, he ran there, early enough that he encountered his half-sister but never told her of his identity or the beast he carried within him. Kushina left to take on the Kyuubi, and barely a month later Uzushio fell. Perhaps Kurama was not in the village; perhaps he was. Either way, a young boy was left in the shattered remains of the only home he’d ever known, his family dead or out of reach. All he had was his home, broken as it was, and the bijuu inside of him.”

There's a long minute of silence. Rasa is staring at him, thoughts flickering quickly across his face, though he doesn’t voice them.

Hiruzen sighs softly, taking a drag on his pipe. “Kurama is grieving, even now,” he says. “It was as plain as day, when I met him. If the grief is still so fresh, twenty-five years after Uzushio's fall, he has to have kept its memory close to him somehow. All of Uzushio's remaining shinobi scattered afterwards, what few of them were left. But…what if Kurama didn’t?”

“That’s a long time to live alone,” Rasa agrees after another moment, voice faintly rough.

“Not alone.” Hiruzen gives him a humorless smile. “That’s the point, isn’t it? Twenty-five years listening to the bijuu in his head, believing that, had he had a little more power, a little more control, he could have saved his home—well. This is only speculation, of course.”

“Speculation that makes an unfortunate amount of sense.” Rasa leans against the edge of the desk, weariness briefly overcoming propriety, and rubs a hand over his eyes. Neither of them have gotten more than a few hours of sleep in the past few days, and the hours are starting to drag like lead weights. “He’s—saving them. At least in his own mind.”

“He went for the youngest first, from what we can tell,” Hiruzen agrees. “Forgive the implication, but any other child treated the same way as Gaara and Naruto would be considered the worst kind of abuse. So he took them. It’s likely he has a plan as to what he’ll do with them when he’s collected all eight of the others—he’s too smart not to—but we’ve no way of knowing what it is.”

“Revenge,” Rasa suggests, mouth pulling into an unhappy line. “For the ‘oppression’, or however he wants to phrase it.”

Maybe. Kurama certainly seemed prone to anger, but…if his temper is anything like Kushina's, it’s the type of anger that fades quickly. Though really, at this point Hiruzen will believe practically anything where Kurama is concerned. That one man, even a jinchuuriki, could cause so very many problems is…improbable.

Before he can say as much, though, there's a sharp, urgent rap—not on the door of the office, but on the window, and both Kage turn quickly. Hiruzen blinks in surprise, pulling his pipe away from his mouth at the sight of Hagane Kotetsu clinging to the sill, looking serious. The boy is a jokester, lighthearted and prone to laughter, but he takes authority seriously. For him to skip the main door in favor of the window, something must have happened.

“Kotetsu?” Hiruzen asks, throwing open the window and allowing the chuunin to eel his way through the narrow gap. “I thought you were on gate duty this morning.”

The boy, who frequently runs messages for him, belatedly bows to both men and then blurts, “The Raikage is at the gates, sir!”

Hiruzen stares at him for a long moment, then closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Of course he is,” he mutters, and then raises his voice again. “With shinobi?”

“A pair of bodyguards and his brother,” Kotetsu reports.

It only takes a second to calculate distances and times involved. There's little chance that A was able to get his message before he departed, unless he recently learned the Flying Thunder God technique, and Hiruzen hopes for all their sakes that he hasn’t. Therefore, this can't be about the warning Hiruzen sent about Kurama, but he can't think of a single other thing that would motivate A to come so deep into enemy territory with his brother, Kumo’s most well-known jinchuuriki.

“More things wrong, undoubtedly.” Rasa’s voice is wry. Hiruzen snorts. Maybe he and the Kazekage are only reluctant allies, bound by treaties and defeats and circumstance, but when he glances at the auburn-haired man their eyes meet in a moment of perfect shared understanding.

“Who did you leave at the gate, then?” he asks Kotetsu, tapping out his pipe with only a flicker of regret. “I assume you didn’t simply abandon your post?”

“Of course not, Hokage-sama!” Kotetsu looks offended by the very idea. “Genma was waiting for his team anyway, so he said he’d keep an eye on things.”

Hiruzen bolts to his feet fast enough that his bones protest and he accidentally knocks his chair over. “You left Genma?” he echoes disbelievingly, hurrying around the side of his desk. He doesn’t bother berating Kotetsu, but heads for the door with a more haste than he’s used since he first heard that Kakashi and Kurama were fighting over Naruto.

A moment later, Rasa appears on his left, keeping pace with him. “This Genma's a hothead?” he asks with faint amusement.

It would be easier for everyone if he were. Instead, Genma is the type of coolheaded that lets him think every action through, work out all the angles, and then still do things that are reckless enough to give Hiruzen even more grey hairs. Hiruzen blames Kushina's influence; Genma might have been Minato's bodyguard, but the boy practically worshipped Kushina as his patron goddess.

“No,” he answers as they hit the street, and just manages to catch a flash of his current bodyguard’s worried expression, despite how he’s trying to stay unseen. Raidou knows better than anyone why Genma shouldn’t be left alone around A. “I'm afraid Kumo nin were responsible for the deaths of his mother and older sister, the last of his family. I don’t doubt that A can survive almost anything, but Genma is…determined, when he needs to be.”

Rasa winces, clearly familiar with such grudges—understandable, given the state of Kumo’s relations with Suna. Then again, Kumo doesn’t really have peaceable relations with any of the other villages. A is a paranoid bastard at the best of times.

Thankfully, the gate is just around the next corner, and Hiruzen slows to a brisk walk, tugging his robes back into place. There's no sound of destruction from up ahead, though that means little—Genma is one of ANBU's best assassins for a reason, and it’s not because he’s flashy. Still, Hiruzen takes it as a good sign, and rounds the corner with the majority of his composure intact.

It’s…not quite as bad as he was expecting. Genma is lounging back against the side of the gatehouse, senbon between his teeth, expression lazy and amused. A is eyeing him suspiciously from just outside the gate, and the Raikage’s bodyguards are visibly tense. Hiruzen, who knows Genma well, can see the edge of threat in his posture, the way his fingers are lingering just a bit too close to the senbon dipped in his trademark and very nasty poison, the spark of fury well-hidden in hazel eyes. Still, he hasn’t made a move yet, and that’s a decent start.

“Kotetsu,” he says quietly, and the boy, who followed them from his office, obediently slips up beside him. “Go find Gai. Tell him Genma needs him.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Kotetsu says quickly, then bows and disappears in a whirl of leaves. Hiruzen allows a bit of tension to bleed from his shoulders; Chōza might have trained a team of absolute maniacs, but Gai, Ebisu, and Genma are admirably close, and Genma and Gai have a stronger bond than many shinobi. If anyone can help the tokujo calm down, it’s Konoha's Green Beast.

“Well, this is unexpected,” he says, allowing his voice to carry. Five sets of eyes immediately snap to him, and Hiruzen doesn’t allow himself to glare at the flicker of disappointment that crosses Genma's face. A is the priority right now, though Hiruzen will definitely be having a talk with his erstwhile bodyguard later. “A, to what does Konoha owe the pleasure of your presence?”

A’s eyes narrow, and he studies Hiruzen for a moment before shifting his gaze to Rasa. “It was both of you that did this?” he asks, not quite hostile enough to make it a threat, but more than enough to have Genma tugging the senbon from his mouth and straightening abruptly. The two kunoichi accompanying A shift forward automatically, hands reaching for their weapons, and Raidou slides out of the shadows to stand a pace behind Hiruzen, one hand on the hilt of his poisoned sword.

That’s quite enough of that, Hiruzen decides with a faint sigh. “Genma,” he says, gentle but firm. “I thought your team had left already.”

Genma doesn’t take his eyes off the Kumo nin, though he does step away and roll his shoulders, sliding back into the deceptively lazy slouch he favors when in front of a threat. “Sorry, Hokage-sama,” he answers. “One of Hana’s dogs had a limp, so she wanted to check him over before we left. I said it was fine. Hoheto took our new friend from Suna to get some extra medical supplies, since she said she’s a decent medic-nin.”

Genma also has the ability to say something in such a way that it could be either an insult or completely serious, and the listener is left wondering. Catching how Rasa is eyeing the tokujo, Hiruzen allows himself a brief, hard look at the assassin, who gives him a cheerfully innocent smile in return, and then says, “All right. You're assigned to the northeast, yes?” When Genma nods, he continues, “Change course and head for Uzushiogakure. Scour the ruins for signs of Kurama living there, and check with any inhabitants to see if he was there previously or recently returned. I’ll be sending the same orders to Kakashi's squad.”

Genma doesn’t ask questions, just inclines his head, then turns at the sound of Gai calling his name. Hiruzen waves him away before he can ask to be dismissed, and the tokujo bows, steps back, and gives A one last long, cool glance before he heads for his friend.

Hiruzen absolutely hates his job, some days. Most days.

“Both of us, indeed.” He answers A’s earlier statement with a polite smile. “I take it this isn’t a friendly visit, A?”

A glares at him, folding his brawny arms over his chest in a way that would be a threat to anyone not considered the third God of Shinobi. Hiruzen is faintly amused; he’s old, yes, but if this upstart boy half his age thinks to intimidate him, he’ll have to do far more than loom a little. It makes him wish he’d grabbed his pipe, because it’s hard to look less concerned than he does when he’s absently smoking it, and little gets his point across better.

After a moment of attempting to stare him down, A finally huffs and says sharply, “We already know you hold the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, but what other jinchuuriki are you hiding, Sarutobi?”

One brow rising, Hiruzen looks up at the big man, then glances at Rasa. The Kazekage looks back, equally startled, then inclines his head, ceding control of the conversation to him. Hiruzen stifles another sigh, and answers, “None, but may I ask what gave you the impression that we were?”

A gives him a distinctly dirty look and jerks a thumb at his brother, who looks bored and disinterested in the posturing. “Bee’s been talking with the Hachibi, and an unfamiliar bijuu recently showed up in the mind-space they all share. The Hachibi hasn’t caught a glimpse of him yet, but he says the host’s chakra is definitely Uzumaki, and you’ve got the only ones I know of. Since your new jinchuuriki just killed two of our best jounin and nabbed a little girl, I thought I’d give you the chance to hand her over before this devolves into a fourth war.”

Very, very alarmed now, Hiruzen takes a step back. “Another?” he demands, and feels Rasa catch his elbow when the ground wavers beneath his feet. Maybe his doctor wasn’t exaggerating when she warned him about straining his heart. “You're certain there's a tenth bijuu?”

Calculation flickers rapidly across A’s face, then slides into grimness. “It’s not one of yours,” he concludes, arms falling from his chest to brace on the wide belt he wears. He doesn’t look happy with the conclusion.

“We thought he was one of yours,” Rasa says, bitterly amused. “He certainly looked like a Kumo nin when he was kidnapping my son from the center of Suna.”

“And Uzumaki Kushina's son from our streets,” Hiruzen adds, lightly brushing off Rasa’s hand. He’s grateful to the newfound solidarity between their villages, but he’s hardly a helpless old man, regardless of shocks rendered. “We’ve come to believe there's a pattern.”

A clearly doesn’t need it spelled out for him. “Jinchuuriki,” he says grimly. “He’s stealing jinchuuriki, and you thought he was one of my shinobi?”

“Perhaps not directly affiliated,” Hiruzen allows, though his thoughts are still mostly occupied with the idea that there aren’t nine tailed beasts, but ten. This…has the potential to be very bad indeed. “Though we mostly have speculations regarding his past at this point. Something your father did, maybe? Uzumaki Kurama looks to at least share blood with a Kumo nin somewhere in his past.”

With a deep frown, A looks over at Bee, then blows out a heavy breath. “Maybe,” he allows grudgingly. “My father was a good man, and a strong Kage. That doesn’t mean he didn’t keep secrets.”

Kurama would be a hell of a secret to keep, Hiruzen thinks wryly. Though perhaps less of one if he fled to Uzushio as a child. Or maybe it wasn’t the Raikage’s project at all—if Orochimaru and Danzō’s actions have taught Hiruzen anything, it’s that a Kage can never entirely control their village, no matter how they wish to.

“We should speak somewhere more private,” Rasa says quietly, tilting his head back in the direction of the Administration Building. Hiruzen would be annoyed by the presumption, but the thought of Danzō reminds him that not all the ears potentially nearby are guaranteed to be loyal.

“A good idea,” he agrees, and inclines his head to A. “Welcome to Konoha, A.”

A flicker of reluctant amusement rises in A’s eyes before it’s tamped down, and he snorts as he steps through the gates.

“This place is kind of neat,” Bee says, following close behind, and Hiruzen is all too familiar with that kind of I-dare-you-to-stop-me cheer. He braces himself for anything. “Too bad the whole village smells like—urk!”

“Shut up!” A hisses at his brother, currently in a headlock as if he isn’t one of the most powerful shinobi alive—as if both of them aren’t. “I told you to stop rapping! One more word and it’s the Iron Claw for you!”

Why, Hiruzen wonders, a little despondently. Why must the best shinobi always have such colorful personalities? At least Hiruzen's fondness for tastefully erotic literature is both subtle and easily hidden. Unfortunately, he’s come to see that he’s a definite minority where his quirks are concerned.

 

 

Yugito isn’t entirely certain what she was expecting when Matatabi told her to find a wayward bijuu trapped in human form. More…inhumanity, perhaps. Anger, fury, destruction. A creature of rage and fire and inhuman hunger, tearing his way across the Elemental Countries without allowing anything to get in his way.

What she’s found instead is a man, tired and tense, with lines around his eyes that are from equal parts good humor and weariness. His hair is like a beacon, brilliantly red, and his eyes are three shades darker, warm like coals in the heart of a fire on a cold night. Between his ragged, unpatched clothing and his bare feet, he looks like the deceptively wise beggar from a story, giving lessons to the emperor, rather than a construct of chakra given life and intelligence.

“Up, up,” he urges as Yugito watches, crouched down next to one of the other small bodies she missed last night. “Come on, kit, it’s morning and we’ve got a long day ahead of us. If you don’t get up now I'm going to chuck you in the pond.”

There's a sleepy grumble, a wordless protest, but the little blond boy sits up, rubbing at his eyes. Kurama chuckles softly, ruffling his hair like Yugito has seen parents do to their children before, and drops a handful of granola bars into his lap. Then he moves on to the redhead curled up next to the blond, whose eyes are already open even if he doesn’t look entirely happy about it, and one dark hand combs gently through spiky crimson hair.

“All right, Gaara?” Kurama asks, and gets a nod as the boy sits up. More granola bars change hands, and Gaara immediately tears one open, nibbling at it tiredly.

He’s…gentle, Yugito thinks, pulling his haori a little more tightly around herself and staying silent. That’s something else she hadn’t expected at all. Gentle in a way she’s never really encountered before. Her teachers are brutal, and their methods are harsh. Kumo is a little friendlier to its jinchuuriki than any other country, she knows, but that doesn’t mean it’s nice, living there. Yugito has been training since she was two years old, and she’s never felt human. Bee is kind, and he’s fond of her, but he’s also permanently busy, either shadowing the Raikage or training on his own. And A—he believes that jinchuuriki have no right to anything, not even their own decisions. They're tools for the good of the village first and foremost.

Yugito has been raised to believe that, to know it and hold it dear, to use it to grow stronger. But…Matatabi is a constant presence inside of her, with a will of her own, and sometimes Yugito can't help but look at her and think, But this isn’t what I want. Won't I ever get a choice?

“Morning already, Kurama-nii?” the last body asks, shedding blankets as it sits up to reveal a girl only a little younger than Yugito, with pretty leaf-green hair and eyes like a sunset before a storm. Those eyes slip past Kurama, instantly alighting on Yugito, and her entire face lights up. “Oh! Are you another jinchuuriki?”

That gets her even more attention, the two little boys jerking out of their sleep-hazes to blink at her in surprise, and Yugito swallows down her nervousness, the faint flicker of what if they don’t like me what if I can't be one of them even here, then squares her shoulders and nods. “I'm Nii Yugito, and my bijuu is Matatabi, the Nibi. Pleased to meet you.”

“I'm Uzumaki Naruto!” the blond boy answers enthusiastically. “An’ I've got the Kyuubi in my head!”

“Fū, formerly of Takigakure,” the girl offers with a smile. “My bijuu is Chōmei, the Nanabi. I'm glad you're here! It’s so cool to meet the others.”

The redheaded boy glances between his two friends, aquamarine eyes wide and faintly cautious, and then looks at Kurama. When Kurama just rolls his eyes and scuffs a hand through his hair again, the boy flushes, ducks his head, and says quietly, “I'm Gaara no Sabaku. With Shukaku. The Ichibi.”

“Now that we all know everyone’s got a name, let me borrow your hairbrush for a second, Fū,” Kurama says, rising from his crouch. That tone is probably meant to sound annoyed, but there's amusement in his eyes, and warmth on his face. Yugito can't bring herself to even begin to feel offended.

“Are you actually gonna brush your hair?” Fū asks interestedly. “I can help!”

“It’s not for me, brat,” Kurama returns, exasperated. He takes the brush she passes him, then sits down in front of the dying fire and beckons Yugito closer. “C’mere, kitten. Let’s see what we can do to get you looking less like a murder scene.”

For a moment, Yugito thinks about protesting that she’s more than capable of doing it herself, that she’s always brushed her hair before and never had anyone to help her, but—

But she’s never had anyone offer to help, and surely it will be okay to accept that sort of kindness, just this once.

Silently, she slides over, settling in front of Kurama's crossed legs and turning her back to him. There's a pause, and then fingers slip through her hair, pulling it back over her shoulders. The feeling of it hanging free is unfamiliar; as long as she can remember Yugito has kept it tied back, out of her way. That’s simply how a shinobi wears it, and she’s never once been anything but a shinobi.

Out of the corner of her eye, Yugito can see clever fingers tipped with sharp claws picking determinedly at a knot, and…she doesn’t know how to feel about that. The simplest way to deal with all the mud and blood matted into her hair would be to cut it off, or just yank the brush through. That’s what she would do, what she had planned on in a vague way when she could push down the fear and desperation enough to focus on silly, inconsequential things like hair. But Kurama is taking the time to work each mat apart, to free each strand before he gently slides the brush through it, and that’s also unfamiliar. Alarmingly so.

Matatabi? she asks, because that’s who she always asks, and has ever since they first came to an understanding.

Deep within her mind, there's a soft chuckle, a warm touch like the brush of fur against her cheek. Don’t let the grumpiness fool you. Kurama has a soft heart under all the bluster. He used to hide it better, but I think he’s stopped trying now.

Yugito is…glad. She pulls the haori a little more closely around her, not for the warmth so much as the scent of fire and sky-clean wind caught in the fabric, and closes her eyes against the gentle tugs of the brush through her long hair.

“Do you want me to leave it lose, kitten?” Kurama asks, and Matatabi is the only one who’s ever called her that, but…she doesn’t mind it, coming from this man. “I can braid it if you want. Think I remember how to do that, at least.”

For a moment, Yugito debates letting it fall free, but…she’s still a shinobi, even if she’s currently abandoned her village. She could have run to Kumo, after all—it was far closer to the Valley of Clouds and Lightning than Kurama was—but Matatabi had spoken of others like her, children like her, and—she hadn’t been able to resist. A poor choice, probably, and likely the wrong one, her teachers would say.

Her teachers are dead, though, slaughtered without hesitation or mercy when the shinobi with the purple eyes came for her. Yugito wasn’t fond of them, could even say she hated them, but she hardly wanted them dead.

Matatabi said that people were hunting the jinchuuriki, hunting Kurama and the children he had saved from loneliness, unhappiness, abuse. And Yugito had looked towards Kumogakure, had hesitated even with that fearsome chakra seething behind her, and…turned away. Because there was a chance, if she went to Kurama, that he could save her. There was a chance that she could save him, or at the very least help him. Yugito isn’t fooling herself when she thinks she’s a talented kunoichi; after all, she’s never had a chance to be anything else.

Finding Kurama was her own decision, the first she’s ever really made. And if being a good shinobi will help him, she’ll keep doing it. But this time, instead of it being for someone else, it will be for her. Because she wants to. Because she chooses to.

She likes that idea, the same way she liked Kurama's words about family.

(She doesn’t know her family, not really. She’s A’s cousin, but it’s a distant relation at best, unacknowledged beyond making her eligible to be a jinchuuriki. Matatabi is more of a mother to her than the woman she’s seen pictures of but never met. And—the other children here call Kurama Kurama-nii, like he’s their brother. Yugito has seen how A and Bee are together, and she thinks she might want that, too.)

“Braid it,” she says, quiet but firm. “It gets in my way otherwise.”

Those claw-tipped fingers brush her cheek, gentle despite the danger inherent in their edges. “It’s pretty,” Kurama says as he gathers the strands up in his hands. “Like sunlight on sand.”

Yugito ducks down a little, hiding the flush on her cheeks in Kurama's haori. No one’s ever said that about her hair before. No one’s ever said that about her before.

Maybe it really was the wrong choice, finding Kurama instead of returning to Kumo. Still, Yugito finds that she doesn’t regret it at all.

Chapter Text

[eunoia / ū ‘ noīə /, literally meaning beautiful thinking. Also connotes the possession of a well-balanced mind, which exhibits goodwill and kindness. From Ancient Greek eúnoia “goodwill” from “well, good” + nóos “mind, spirit”.]

 

It’s possible Kurama may have been a little hasty in choosing to come to Uzushio.

Fuji rubs up against his ankles as he steps forward, grimly staring over the expanse of rubble and ruins that was once a thriving Hidden Village. Small, maybe, populated mainly by Uzumaki and the handful of nearby fisherman’s sons and daughters who dreamed of something bigger, but—

By all rights Kurama should have little attachment to this place. It was the home of two of his jailors, seen during visits the handful of times Mito was able to bring herself to leave Konoha. Kushina left before its destruction, if only barely, and afterwards she never wanted to go back.

Kurama's finding he’s not all too keen on the idea either.

It looks like Kusa, the first village to fall to Kaguya. Not exactly the same, maybe—Uzushio was built with costal stone heavy enough to withstand the sea, rising in terraces up into the hills, colorful and chaotic and very much a mirror of its inhabitants. Kusa was more barren, more serious, touched with a blatant edge of defiance in the face of Kaguya’s approach that they suffered for when they fell.

(They’d thought that, with shinobi having held her off once, they’d be able to do it again. They didn’t realize that even the boys who’d defeated her before weren’t enough to manage it a second time. Not without the miracles that had given them their victory the first time.)

Another brush of fur against the skin of his ankle, three tails flickering against his knee, and Fuji asks softly, “Kurama-sama?”

There are bones here, mixed in and among the stone and decaying wood. There weren’t bones in Kusa, because Kaguya took as many bodies as she could to animate like sick, decaying puppets, and burned the rest. Kurama steps forward, bare feet just slightly unsteady as the rubble shifts, and can't quite remember walking all the way out here. He’s alone when he looks up, all but for Fuji—the children are back closer to where they landed, Fū with her hands on Gaara's shoulders as she stands warily behind him, eyes searching the surrounding hills. Yugito is crouched down in front of Naruto, murmuring rapid words that don’t quite make it to Kurama's ears, and he wonders if she knows anything about the Uzumaki clan. It should be him explaining all of this to Naruto, except—

It looks like Kusa when Kaguya was through with it, tumbled houses and shattered walls and the bones of a civilization mixed with the rubble. Kurama picks his way past leg bones half-buried in the dirt, a shattered skull beneath the stones of fallen archway. It doesn’t look looted—hardly looks touched, for that matter. No one came to bury the dead, and Kurama is startled by how furious he feels at the thought. Whirlpool Country is a tiny place, but some people must have survived. Uzushiogakure was hardly the only village on the island, and that no one bothered, no one cared enough—

Fur brushes his cheeks as Fuji leaps onto his shoulders, slides around his neck. She licks his cheek, gently nips his ear, and Kurama startles. He misses his next step, stumbles, only just manages to get a hand up in time to steady Fuji as he goes down, landing hard on his knees.

Kaguya, he thinks, and it’s like times are blurring in his head, like now has suddenly become then and Uzushio has changed to Kusa, to Iwa, to Kumo, to Suna. There's not enough evidence to make his mind believe that he’s not seeing Kaguya’s handiwork, that Uzushio fell long before her plots reached their conclusion. And mixed in with the ruined village is Naruto, falling, dying, breaking, blood on a shirt and one last smile for Kurama on his lips. It hurts, aches so badly that for a moment Kurama can't even breathe.

Then footsteps clatter against skidding stone, hasty and incautious. A familiar voice cries “Kurama-nii!” and a bare second later a small body slams into his chest. Kurama startles, claws coming up in a sharp slash, but small, callused hands catch them gently, one on each side. Another body presses against his back, short arms attempting to wrap around his chest.

“Kurama-nii?” Naruto asks again, and—he’s not dead. He’s not the victim of Kaguya’s madness and greed. Not this time. He’s here and safe and alive, and Kurama chokes on a sound that’s very much like a sob. There are still hands holding his wrists, Fū and Yugito pressing in from the sides and already familiar with a shinobi’s instincts in the midst of pain, and Kurama doesn’t try to pull away. He slumps forward instead, shoulders rounding, dropping his head on top of Naruto's bright hair and pressing back into Gaara's determined hold.

“I'm here, kit,” he murmurs, and pretends he can't feel his eyes burning. “I—shit, I'm sorry, I'm here and I'm not going anywhere, promise.”

“You can go anywhere you want to,” Naruto tells him stubbornly. “But me and Gaara an’ Fū an’ Yugito are coming too!”

That startles a laugh out of him, rough and surprised. “What the hell did I do to land myself with all four of you?” he asks, but the complaint doesn’t even pretend at carrying bite, and Naruto just grins.

“You became our Kurama-nii,” he informs Kurama cheerfully. “An’ you don’t get to take it back ever.”

Throat tight, Kurama gently tugs his hands away from the girls, then hooks his fingers around their waists and drags them down into a hug, wrapping his arms around as much of the three of them as he can. “C’mere, squirt,” he orders, groping blindly behind him. “You're not getting out of this either.”

“I don’t want to get out of it,” Gaara tells him solemnly, letting himself be grabbed and dragged into the embrace, and he leans into Kurama's shoulder like it’s exactly where he wants to be.

Lower down, half-squished by a giggling Fū and a flushed Yugito, Naruto makes a sound of wordless complaint and wriggles upward, planting his feet on Kurama’s thighs and getting enough height to wrap his arms around Kurama's head. “Yeah!” he agrees. “I don’t want that either! You give the best hugs, Kurama-nii!”

If he does, it’s only because he remembers the one Naruto gave him right before the end, all warmth and certainty and kindness, as hot as sunlight after a long winter and shot through with the certainty that Kurama would save them all. He laughs again and it’s easier this time, freer, because while he’s still mourning his Naruto, it’s a hell of a lot harder with that sun-bright smile three inches from his face.

“Well, you four aren’t doing all that badly yourselves,” he answers, squeezing a little more tightly.

Fū huffs softly, resting her head on his free shoulder and reaching up to stroke Fuji's fur. “If we were better, we wouldn’t have let you get sad in the first place,” she counters. “I'm sorry, Kurama-nii.”

“We’ll pay better attention next time,” Yugito agrees, offering the younger girl a quick flash of a smile before she turns serious eyes on Kurama. “I'm sorry, too, Kurama. I—didn’t think, but you're an Uzumaki, too, kind of.”

“More or less,” Kurama agrees, because he might as well be, by virtue of the body he unintentionally hijacked. Besides, he knows his Naruto—nominally Clan Head since Kushina's death, since Nagato wasn’t exactly an appropriate candidate—well enough to be certain that the idiot would have eagerly jumped on the idea, and not let up until Kurama agreed. “And you guys have nothing to apologize for. I just—wasn’t expecting there to still be bodies here. It…threw me, for a second.”

“People say the ruins are haunted by those who died in the attack,” a matter-of-fact voice offers, and in a flash Kurama is on his feet, snarling, claws up and ready as he puts himself squarely in front of the children. Fuji yelps as she goes flying from his shoulders, but gamely turns her fall into a flip and lands as a fox the size of a pony, teeth bared and a growl rumbling in her chest. On Kurama's other side, Momiji flows past his leg, mirroring his sister with deadly silence, all five of his tails fanned out and very obvious.

Clearly slightly startled, the weathered-looking older woman before them takes a step back, raising her hands. “Peace,” she says. “I'm just a fisherwoman, not a ninja. There's a school of blue fish between two of the whirlpools, and I was looking for the best way to get to them when I heard you.”

Still wary, but willing to accept her story for the moment, Kurama inclines his head and lowers his hands, shifting back on his heels. “I thought the ghost stories came after the bodies were buried,” he says, glancing at the stark-white bones visible around them.

Her mouth quirks slightly, halfway between a smile and a grimace. “Usually,” she allows. “But usually the dead aren’t Uzumaki. Legend has it that it was the ghosts that rose even as the bodies fell who chased the Kiri nin out.”

It’s…a good story, and it’s clearly kept the looters away. Kurama takes another look, spotting flashes of steel from dropped weapons. A few feet away from them, there's another glint of metal, duller but still enough to catch his eye. Kurama steps over to it, leaving the foxes to guard Naruto and the rest, and crouches down. The bits of fabric clinging to it dissolve in his hand, fallen victim to the sea air and the years that have passed, but the hitai-ate is still a familiar weight in his palm.

He remembers his first night in this time, wishing he still had either of Naruto's old hitai-ate, Konoha or Alliance both equally well-remembered. And this—this isn’t anything Naruto would have claimed, but…Mito wore one, once upon a time. Kushina earned hers when she accepted her mission to become the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, even if she later earned another in Konoha. Maybe Kurama isn’t actually an Uzumaki, but he has the blood, the hair, the temper. He feared and admired both Mito and Kushina, and he wonders now, with the benefit of exposure to Naruto, whether he could have loved them too, just as fiercely as he does his third jinchuuriki. Probably. After all, Naruto was always so much like Kushina, and Mito was a force of nature to rival Kurama himself. He likes that kind of thing in a human.

He closes his hand around the hitai-ate, brushing his thumb over the familiar spiral, and checks the backing. It should take no work at all to replace the cloth, and…maybe he’ll wear it. Or just keep it, if that never appeals. There are worse mementos to hold on to, and worse ways to honor his first and second jinchuuriki. They led him to Naruto, after all, and he’ll always be grateful for that.

Straightening, he tucks the metal plate inside his shirt, snug against his skin, and turns to find the fisherwoman watching him, her expression considering. Dark eyes linger on his red hair, then slide down to study Naruto, ignoring the boy’s warily aggressive expression, and then Gaara with his crimson hair. She hums softly to herself, then says, “You're Uzumaki, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Kurama says, because it’s an easy enough exaggeration. “Uzumaki Kurama, and this is Naruto, Fū, Gaara, and Yugito.” Coloring-wise, he supposes they all could be related, with a bit of suspension of disbelief. Naruto looks like Kushina, like a lot of Uzumaki, and Gaara's hair is red enough to pass. Fū’s skin is only a little lighter than his own, and a little darker than Naruto's, and Yugito is blonde enough to be related to Naruto. It’s at least not completely inconceivable, and the woman suggested it herself. She’ll be all too happy to believe it, since it was her idea in the first place.

The woman nods, satisfied, and offers, “I'm Takeda Anzu, headwoman of the village of the eastern point of the island. You’ve been gone for a while, Uzumaki.”

“Kurama,” he corrects, because he may have claimed the name and the relation, but he’s not about to overuse it here of all places. Maybe souls don’t linger, but…they could. Kurama's had too many experiences with people waiting for loved ones between worlds; he’s not about to test the patience of an entire city full of the dead. “I was busy.”

Her gaze flickers to the children again, and she smiles a little. “I can see that.”

Before Kurama can even start to bristle, a small hand twists into the hem of his haori, and Naruto whispers fearfully, “Kurama-nii, Kurama-nii, there are ghosts here? We’re gonna get killed and eaten and haunted!”

Oh yeah. Naruto's ridiculous thing about ghosts. Kurama smothers a smile, reaching down to pick the boy up and hoist him onto his hip. “Yeah, yeah, you’ll be fine. I promised to protect you, didn’t I? That includes from ghosts just as much as living idiots.” He assesses their little group, trying to judge; Momiji and Fuji will need at least a few hours to recover from the flight here, and by that time it will be dark, so they might as well find somewhere to hunker down overnight. He really doesn’t want to come on Kiri in broad daylight. Even coming in under the cover of darkness will be tricky enough.

“My sons should have dinner ready shortly,” Anzu offers unexpectedly, making Kurama blink at her. She smiles, just a little, and despite the lines it puts in her sun-browned face it’s a kind expression. “I've always wondered if any Uzumaki survived, and whether they’d return if they did. Consider it my thanks for settling a long-standing bet with myself, if nothing else.”

Food sounds amazing, Kurama thinks, and tries not to remember when he last had a full hot meal. Before he arrived, Naruto and the rest of the survivors had been living on carefully rationed stores that they had no way to replace, always just enough to keep them alive but no more. This body is used to a lack of food, but that doesn’t mean Kurama has to like it.

“Thank you,” he says, trying not to wince as Naruto's stomach roars. “I don’t—I'm out of money—”

Anzu actually chuckles at that. “Feeding four growing brats, I’ll bet you are,” she answers with humor. “And this island is peaceful, so there won't be much call for shinobi work here. If you’d like, though, I can take you to the Daimyō’s house tomorrow—his older brother was married to Uzushio's headwoman, and I'm sure he’ll have some sort of solution. Uzushio earned our gratitude, pushing Kiri back like they did. If they hadn’t, we’d be an extension of the Bloody Mist, and only a fool wouldn’t know who to thank for the fact that we aren’t.”

Kurama's fingers curl into Naruto's shirt, and he breathes carefully to control the roiling of his chakra. Whatever Kiri was looking for that made them invade, made them slaughter an entire city, Kurama hopes they found it. And choked on it, preferably. “Thanks,” he says again, and wonders if it really is feasible. The daimyō are political powers, definitely, but for a country like Whirlpool, with a handful of people and a brisk trade in salted fish? The man won't exactly have a lot of sway. Still, if Kurama can convince him to keep it a secret—and the Uzumaki name might be enough to do so—it might work. It would be a far sight better than forging on blindly with no resources.

There's a tug on the hem of his shirt, and Kurama looks down to see Gaara staring up at him, eyes wide and not quite demanding enough to be entreating, but certainly hopeful. With a low and mostly theatrical groan, Kurama crouches down and scoops the boy up in his free arm, boosting him up onto his hip. “Anyone else?” he asks grumpily, eyeing the girls.

Yugito instantly flushes, shaking her head quickly, but Fū laughs with reckless abandon, ducks around behind Kurama, and leaps onto his back like a monkey. She hooks her knees around his sides, just above where he’s holding Gaara and Naruto, and leans over his shoulder, looping her arms around his neck. “Thanks, Kurama-nii!” she says brightly.

“I'm going to drown you,” Kurama grouches, though he doesn’t even try to sound like he means it. These kids have had enough people threaten to do them harm.

“No you're not,” Fuji says sweetly, sliding up next to him and leaning heavily into his side. “If you didn’t do it the first seventeen times you said it, you're not going to do it now.”

“I could!” Kurama protests, not liking where this conversation is going.

Momiji snorts, leaning into his other side to balance out his sister. “No you couldn’t,” he answers dryly.

“I’ll turn all of you into stew,” Kurama tells them. “All of you. It’ll be stringy, and tough, but it will be what all of you deserve.”

“I love you, Kurama-nii,” Naruto says cheerfully, and gives him a loud, slightly clumsy kiss on the cheek. Never one to be outdone, Gaara mimics him on the other side, and Fū, laughing brightly, leans in to do the same. “Gross,” Kurama mutters, but he waves his left elbow at Yugito until she slips her hand around his arm, and then turns to look at their unexpected host.

Anzu is still watching silently, but her face is creased in a warm, fond smile, and when she sees that she has Kurama's attention she tips her head towards the curve of the shore. “This way,” she says, and when she turns and starts walking Kurama falls into step with her.

“Don’t you need to check on your fish?” he asks after a moment.

The woman hums. “They're trapped by the whirlpools until the current shifts. I should have at least a week, unless a storm blows in before then. From the look of you, I assume you won't be staying anywhere near that long.”

She’s perceptive. Kurama isn’t certain whether it’s just from experience, or if he looks that worn-down and desperate. “No, we can't. One night should be fine, but—we’re popular for all the wrong reasons.”

Thankfully, Anzu accepts that with a tip of her head. “People’s reasons for wanting Uzushio gone were always more about wanting the Uzumaki Clan gone,” she says a little sadly. “I've traveled up and down the coast for years, but I've never seen another one. Not that I could recognize, at least. Not until you.”

“Kushina went to Konoha. There's at least that.” Kurama shifts Naruto a little, not looking at anything beyond the rolling blue-grey of the ocean. “I—Naruto. He’s her son.”

“And a fine job Konoha is doing taking care of him. The same way they took care of her,” Anzu answers tartly, and then, catching the surprise that Kurama can't quite hide, she sighs and deflates a little. “Forgive me. Uzushio and Konoha were allies—friends—going back to the time when there was just the Senju and the Uzumaki. But they didn’t come. My aunt was a shinobi, and she died on the walls before they fell. Konoha never came, even after the news of the village’s destruction reached them. I hold a grudge, and I don’t care to hide it.”

She must have been…fifteen, probably, or a little older when it happened, Kurama judges. Children take the loss of those close to them hard. Saying sorry won't do anything, won't help ease what's clearly still an ache, so Kurama simply nods. “Nothing to forgive,” he says, and his voice emerges rough. “I—thank you. For all of this. For not assuming we were enemies.”

“I'm not a shinobi,” she reminds him, but her eyes say she knows very well what he means. “Even if you were, all I could do was beat you with a fishing rod.”

It might as well be you're welcome and my pleasure, for all that it remains unvoiced.

 

 

“Leave those rags,” Anzu says briskly. “I'm going to burn them. They're not even fit for scrubbing floors.”

“Excuse me?” Kurama hisses, one hand on his shirt. He keeps his voice low, because Naruto, Gaara, and Fū are still asleep, sprawled out across the main room, but makes sure to inject as much indignation as he can into the words.

The expression Anzu favors him with is entirely unimpressed. “My late husband’s clothes will fit you,” she informs him. “Wear them instead of that. I'm surprised you haven’t caught something deadly and contagious off of it at this point.”

“I've been traveling,” Kurama protests. “And I spent most of my money on food and lodging. There wasn’t exactly a lot left for anything else.”

Thankfully, there's nothing even remotely similar to pity in Anzu’s expression, just understanding humor. “And now you don’t have to spend anything. Take the clothes. Kei certainly isn’t going to be wearing them anymore, and they're just gathering dust here. Wear these, and I’ll pack the rest.”

This isn’t an argument Kurama is going to win, so he swallows the pride that makes him want to protest, takes the pile of fabric she hands him, and says, “I…appreciate it.”

Anzu smiles slightly. “I raised two boys and a hellion daughter, Kurama. A little help always makes things easier. Change, and when you're ready I’ll take you to see the Daimyō.”

Out the door of the small, slightly crooked house, Kurama can see the sun just starting to break the horizon. He gives it an assessing glance, judging how much long they're going to have before the Freak Squad or Kakuzu turns up, and then starts pulling on the clean kimono shirt and loose pants. They're nothing fancy, worn but serviceable and lovingly mended in several places, but they're far warmer than the ragged remainders of Han’s old clothes, and fit a lot better.

“Don’t you need an appointment to see the Daimyō?” he asks as the fisherwoman turns away, ladling up a bowl of the same thick rice porridge she served him for breakfast. It’s the kind of stuff Naruto used to complain about Sasuke forcing him to eat the few times he actually got sick, but Kurama is never going to take it for granted again. Hot food of any kind is a blessing.

Anzu snorts. “The daimyō of other countries, maybe. But Takauji puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. He’s to be respected, certainly, but he doesn’t have enough people to make us stand on ceremony all the time. We’ve too much to do. I would recommend you leave the children here, though—we may have to wait if he’s busy.”

Kurama stiffens automatically, not liking that idea at all. Even so, before he can manage to open his mouth, Yugito offers, “Matatabi says she’ll watch us.”

Ignoring Anzu’s flicker of confusion, Kurama turns to the blonde, who accepts her bowl of porridge with a thankful murmur. “Oh, so now she can watch you brats,” he huffs, and if it’s slightly sour he thinks he’s entitled. “Useless witch of a cat.”

Yugito levels a rebuking look at him. “Matatabi says you're a grumpy old bastard with no sense of humor, but she likes the rest of us. She’ll keep watch.”

Well, that’s what Kurama was originally hoping for when he made tracks for Kumo, so he supposes he can't really complain. Much. Still, he levels a dark look at his sister, hoping she’ll see it through Yugito’s eyes, and growls, “She’d better. Stay safe, okay, kitten?”

Yugito blushes a little, ducking her head, but after a moment she looks up again and meets his eyes. “I’ll keep them safe,” she promises, and the determination turns her eyes to steel. “I swear I will.”

These broken children are definitely going to be the death of him. Kurama sighs, crouching down in front of her so he can meet her eyes squarely. “Keep yourself safe too,” he reminds her, reaching out to tug gently on her re-braided hair. “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to any one of you. I've lost enough people. You get in trouble, look for an opening and run. Find me. Got it?”

Mutely, Yugito nods, and Kurama gives her a smile, leaning in to kiss her forehead before he stands. “Ready to go?” he asks Anzu.

“Whenever you are,” she agrees, giving Yugito a smile of her own. “It’s about an hour walking, so we likely won't be back before noon.”

“Yeah, no. We’re not walking,” Kurama informs her flatly, the idea of leaving the kids for so long sticking in his craw, and sticks his head out the door. Fuji and Momiji are sprawled across the porch, ripping into a pile of fish with enthusiasm, and Kurama clears his throat to get their attention. When they both look up, he asks, “Think one of you can haul us over to the village where the daimyō lives?”

“I can,” Momiji offers immediately, rising to his feet. Fuji steals his half-eaten fish right out from between his paws, and he gives her an aggravated growl. “Annoying little sisters can stay and watch the skulk. Don’t get into trouble, okay?”

Fuji flips her tails at him, but her mouth is so full that she can't quite manage an answer.

“Well, this’ll certainly be a story to tell at the bar,” Anzu says with amusement. “Not that anyone will believe me.”

“Humans,” Momiji scoffs, and Kurama rolls his eyes, vaulting onto the reynard’s back.

“Right. Because they're all terrible, even when they give you all the food you can stuff your face with.” He raises a challenging brow at Anzu, who’s hovering warily a few feet back, and her expression firms. She swings on behind him, wrapping an arm around his waist, and as soon as she’s seated Momiji takes three long, bounding strides and launches himself into the air.

Chapter Text

[conciliabule / con ‘ ci ‘ lēə , byül /, a clandestine meeting, especially of conspirators or rebels against constituted authority in church or state. From Middle French via Late Latin conciliabulum “place of assembly” from Latin concilium “assembly, council”.]

 

Far from the vision of regal authority Kurama expects, Whirlpool Country’s daimyō is a small, thin, almost frumpy man, glasses sitting crookedly on his nose. When Anzu tells the lone guard why they're there, the lord immediately has them shown to his office, and the moment they walk in Kurama knows he’s never going to able to divorce his impression of the man from the image of accounting books stacked intimidatingly high.

“Takeda,” he says as the guard lets them in, and rises from his chair to nod politely at them both. “This is rare.” Then careful brown eyes flicker over Kurama, lingering on his hair, his eyes, and he smiles. “And an Uzumaki, even rarer. By way of Kumo?”

Kurama shrugs awkwardly, tucking his hands into the wide sleeves of his shirt. “Haven’t exactly had a place to call home in a while,” he mutters, and looks away when he sees Takauji’s gaze slip into something dangerously close to pity.

“He’s got people after him,” Anzu says bluntly. “And he’s out of money, with four Uzumaki kids to look after. I was hoping you’d have a solution.”

Kurama winces. He’s terrible with people, and even he wouldn’t have phrased it like that.

The daimyō simply favors her with a faintly aggrieved look, then glances back at Kurama. “That’s true? Should we expect trouble, then?”

Thinking of Kakashi and his pet Mokuton user, Kurama grimaces. “We’re leaving today,” he says instead of answering, and then, because there's a pinched look of concern growing on the man’s face, he adds, “They won't aim for collateral damage, if that’s what you're worried about. They just want me. Us.”

Takauji studies him for a long moment, then sinks back into his chair. “A lot of people want Uzumaki blood,” he says, waving them towards the unoccupied chairs across the desk. “And I mean that in every applicable way. Your clan is very powerful—Kurama, wasn’t it?—and people fear your capabilities almost as much as they want to possess them.” He hesitates, looking torn, and then admits, “As much as I wish it were otherwise, Whirlpool can't offer you the kind of sanctuary you need. We’re a small nation, and none of us are fighters. Not anymore.”

Anzu makes a noise of quiet offense. “Beg your pardon,” she says unhesitatingly, “but we’re all fighters here. We’re just not trained soldiers, or shinobi.”

“Headwoman Takeda.” It sounds like a familiar refrain. “Your fish are certainly biting today, aren’t they?”

With a grin that shows teeth, Anzu crosses her arms over her chest. “He’s Uzumaki,” she says pointedly. “I remember what we owe. Do you?”

Indignation flickers over narrow features, but before a brawl can break out—Anzu would definitely win it, Kurama thinks with amusement, even if the daimyō does look surprisingly scrappy—Kurama raises his hands and protests, “Please, I just—if I don’t have to trade work for lodging anymore, that’s enough for me. I'm not—it’s not for me, or I wouldn’t be asking. But the kids have already had it hard enough. I just want to keep them fed.”

That gets him a flash of surprise, and Takauji leans back, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Of course,” he says, as if it was never even open to debate. “My sister-in-law spent the majority of her time in Uzushio, since she was headwoman here, but a good portion of Uzushio's earnings from its last years of operations are in our vault. By right of inheritance, and as the new Uzumaki Clan Head, it legally falls to you.”

Clan Head? Kurama opens his mouth in a knee-jerk protest, ready to inform the daimyō that Kushina's son has more of a right to it than he does, when he remembers that I'm a time-traveling bijuu possessing the body of the last Clan Head and not actually an Uzumaki isn’t exactly an excuse they're going to accept without a lot of other explanations. He bites his tongue, forces himself to nod, and gets out, “Just until the kid is old enough. It’s—it’s not a position I want to hang on to.”

“How familiar,” Takauji says, and though the tone is dry it’s also fond. “My brother used to say that the Uzumaki could rule the world if they weren’t so easily distracted.”

Kurama contemplates protesting that, too, but…Mito. Nagato. Even Karin, who was damned scary and a little too much like Kushina in a fight for comfort. He doesn’t argue.

Apparently reading something of his thoughts on his face, Takauji chuckles. “Exactly,” he says, then levels a steady stare at Anzu and adds, “I have no intention of denying you either your history or your inheritance. Whirlpool is the birthplace of the Uzumaki Clan, and we will never refuse them. I just wanted you to understand that, although we would fight to the last man—”

Anzu clears her throat.

“—or woman,” the daimyō doesn’t even falter, “for the sake of protecting you, it would be futile in the long run, especially against shinobi. The days of Whirlpool’s Hidden Village are long over, and I have a feeling they’ll never come again.”

“I wasn’t expecting anything else,” Kurama admits, and he truly wasn’t. Whirlpool was always going to be a temporary stop for them. Uzushio is gone, and although restoring it would be satisfying, there's no one left to populate it, hardly enough Uzumaki left to count on one hand, let alone fill a village. No, Uzushio is gone, a casualty of fear and warmongering and Kiri's bloodlust, and Kurama knows it isn’t coming back. He has ties elsewhere, and they're not the kind he can escape. Not the kind he wants to escape. “And…still. Thank you.”

Takauji smiles at him. “I'm hardly a lord at all,” he says. “I've spent as much time on a fishing boat as every other person in this town, and I don’t have a lot of high-flung ideas about my own importance. Certainly not enough to keep you from what’s rightfully yours.” There’s a quiet knock on the door, and he rises to open it, admitting the guard from the gate. She’s carrying a small bag, stuffed full, and bows politely to Kurama before she offers it to him.

Money isn’t something Kurama has ever cared for, not until he needed it or risked letting Naruto and the others go hungry. Right now, though, he can feel relief unspooling in his chest, a twist of breathless gratitude directed at fate in general, and Anzu and the daimyō in particular, that leaves him almost dizzy. He takes the bag, bowing stiffly in return, and tries not to think of how much easier everything will be. They're still running, but…lodging in bad weather, hot food, good clothes—it’s all in reach now.

Hitting Kiri might just turn out to be a good idea after all. Sage knows this part is already turning out better than the majority of Kurama's previous decisions.

“I just had her pack what you can easily carry, but any time you need additional funds, send word. I'm sorry we can't do more,” Takauji says, and there's true regret in his voice.

Abruptly, ridiculously, Kurama wants to laugh. He remembers Sarutobi's coolly assessing gaze, the second innkeeper’s hostility. Han helped, Rōshi helped, but—they're jinchuuriki. They're in nearly the same boat. It’s different when the helps comes from just…people. Regular people, with no real stake in Kurama's future, or the kids’ futures. Normal people, helping because they can, because they think they should, and—

These are the people Naruto always wanted to save. The good, steady, solid ones, like Old Man Teuchi and Ayame and Iruka. Little things, but Kurama can see now that they're enough to make the world shift.

“You’ve done more,” Kurama says, intent, completely honest, “than everyone else I've met in a long time, combined. Thank you.”

Takauji holds his eyes, steady and strong, and nods. “Keep those children safe,” he says quietly. “They're the future. They deserve the best one possible.”

Kurama thinks of darkness, of Kaguya’s reanimated soldiers staggering across a devastated countryside. Thinks of eleven shinobi left alive, and no civilians, and the last desperate seed of hope in Naruto's eyes. “They’ll get it,” he answers, and the words are rough but he’s never meant anything more. “No matter what, I’ll see to it.”

“I can tell that you will.” The daimyō smiles, inclining his shoulders in a bow. “I wish you all the safety and good fortune in the world, Kurama. Safe travels, wherever the wind may take you.”

There was—an old blessing. Mito used to say it to the sailors who brought her to the island, on her rare visits before everything ended. Kurama dredges through his memory, trying to come up with the appropriate phrase. “Fair winds and following seas,” he says finally, and is fairly certain it’s correct. Mito usually added a phrase about may all of the fish be stupid and swim right into your nets, but he assumes that’s probably less appropriate to say to the daimyō.

Delight crosses Takauji’s face, but before he can answer, there's a frantic knock on the door, and it flies open without waiting for acknowledgement. A young girl in rough clothes stumbles in, dipping into a quick bow, and says, “Sir! A ship with Konoha shinobi just landed! A team with tracking dogs!”

Fuck.

Grim-faced, Takauji brushes down his robes, then says, “Momo, please inform the shinobi that I would like to speak with them, and then stall them as long as you can on the way here. Kurama, Asuka will show you out the back way. Your…fox?”

In answer, there's a scrabbling of claws on wood, and Momiji trots around the corner. “The air smells like dog now,” he complains, and slides over to press against Kurama's leg. “We’re going?”

“We’re going,” Kurama confirms, twisting his fingers into Momiji’s long ruff. Momiji doesn’t know what Kakashi and his group smell like, so Kurama doesn’t bother asking if it’s them. In all likelihood it is, though Kurama would sure as hell like to know how they caught up so fast. At least they landed here, and not on the other side of the island, where the kids are pretty much unprotected. Panic flickers, but Kurama stamps it down, turning to nod a farewell to the daimyō. “Thank you,” he repeats, because no matter how many times he says it, it won't be enough.

“Go, Kurama,” Anzu says, not leaving Takauji time to answer. She grabs his elbow and propels him towards the door, where the guard is waiting. “I’ll make my own way back. Collect your brats, and get to safety.”

“You—” Kurama pauses, feeling helpless and torn. “I can't just—”

“Leave me?” Anzu gives him a smile, sharp and fierce. “I'm an old woman, Kurama. Nothing scares me anymore. I told you before I've a grudge I have no intention of hiding, and a grandmother yelling at fools in the street might give you a head start.”

Of course she plans to stall the Konoha team by shouting at them. Maybe the Uzumaki weren’t crazy to start with, and it’s actually something the water here. “Be careful,” Kurama tells her, even though he already knows she’s not going to listen, and hopes that the Freak Squad is feeling patient today. “I—this is all because of you. That we can go on. Thanks. Really.”

She laughs at him and pinches his cheek. “Go, Uzumaki. We’ll meet again.”

They will, Kurama promises himself fiercely, nodding and turning to follow the guard. She leads him down a few short halls, then out into a dry garden, and through a weathered gate set into the high wall. Kurama slips through it, then immediately vaults onto Momiji’s back and nods his thanks to her.

“Good luck,” the guard offers with a sly smile. “Keep low at first or they’ll see you, but there’s a river gorge just south of the town that will be faster than flying around the hills, and blocks the line of sight.” Without waiting for a reply, she pulls the gate shut again, and Kurama can hear her steps hurrying away.

“Huh.” Momiji sounds thoughtful, even as foxfire flickers around his paws, lifting them into the air. “Maybe you're right. Humans can be pretty decent, can't they?”

“So I'm finding,” Kurama answers gruffly, and tries not to think what these people are risking, helping the way they are. Technically Whirlpool is its own nation, but in reality, it’s so small that any form of retribution from the other countries would be entirely devastating. And that’s not even accounting for the risks they're taking personally.

Kakashi won't kill a civilian, he tells himself, and manages to believe it. At least the image of Anzu bellowing at the Copy-Nin and companions gets a smirk from him. He’d probably pay actual money, now that he has it, just to see that.

“Think the kits are all right?” Momiji asks, ignoring the looks they're garnering as they sweep down a street and out of the town. The gorge rises on their left while the road cuts right around the foot of the tall hills, and Momiji ignores the worn track to climb higher, letting the stone walls block them from view.

They have to be. “I don’t see smoke,” Kurama points out, and though he was aiming for dryly amused it comes out terse, nervous tension twisting his stomach into knots. It’s one thing to have the Freak Squad close in when the kids are close by, in range. Right now they're alone, and while Yugito and Fū both have some training, and Naruto at least knows how to make shadow clones, but they don’t have a way to run if they're cornered. Fuji can't fly without help, and she won't get far running while weighed down with four bodies.

Rather than answering, Momiji redoubles his pace, soaring forward with enough speed that Kurama leans low against his neck to keep his eyes from stinging in the wind. The mouth of the gorge looms around them, then falls away behind them, and a moment later the outskirts of Anzu’s small village are rapidly approaching. Her house is on the far side, down a wide, quiet lane and settled on a cliff overlooking the sea, and the relief when it comes into view is so immense Kurama almost feels faint.

But there's a man in a flak jacket standing in the center of the street, looking up at the house.

A snarl of pure fury tears its way out of Kurama's throat, and Momiji dives like a comet, leaving a trail of foxfire behind him. They touch down hard, the reynard’s paws skidding sideways in a clatter of gravel, and Kurama leaps from his back to land in a crouch, claws bared.

The man doesn’t take so much as a step back. Meeting Kurama's eyes with a calm, steady stare, he tucks his hands into his pockets and says in a lazy drawl, “Hey.”

It’s the sight of his hitai-ate, worn like a bandana and tied on backwards so that the plate doesn’t show, that sparks a memory, and Kurama freezes. He casts a suspicious, hostile glance at the tokubetsu jounin, feels fur against his leg, and risks a glance back towards the house. Yugito is hovering in the doorway, eyes wide and face pale but otherwise unhurt, and Fū is crowded close behind her, equally unharmed. Kurama can't make out anything in the shadows beyond them, but he knows bone-deep that Yugito wouldn’t just be standing there if anything had happened to the boys. He nods to her, and she casts him a quick, brave smile in return, fingers tightening hard around the edge of the door.

Now that the panic is dying down, though, the confusion is setting in. He turns back to the tokujo, all too familiar, but this isn’t the man who died for Naruto, who stepped in the way of one of Kaguya’s blows as they were escaping Konoha the final time. He’s not that person yet, and while the memory is enough to make Kurama slightly more ready to listen, he’s not about to let his guard down.

“Yeah?” he asks warily. “What the fuck do you want?”

“To ask you a question,” Genma says readily, easily, and tips his head a little, studying Kurama with sharp hazel eyes. “You willing to answer me honestly?”

That’s really not what Kurama was expecting. He blinks, then steps back, lowering his hands. “Yeah,” he agrees, and means it.

Apparently reading that in his face, Genma smiles and clicks his senbon against his teeth. It looks like a cute little oral-fixation quirk, but Kurama's seen him spit it with enough force to knock a kunai out of the air. Genma isn’t exactly a threat, not really, and definitely not in a head-on fight, but he’s an assassin, one of the best. It won't be a head-on fight.

“You’ve been doing a lot of running,” he says mildly. “You’ve got the countries in an uproar, and everyone’s throwing around theories. What I want to know’s a little different.” He pauses, considering, and then asks, “Do you have any plans to bring Naruto back to Konoha?”

That’s…really, really not what Kurama was expecting. He stares dumbly at the man for a long beat, then answers with complete truthfulness, “I never wanted to take Naruto away from Konoha. It’s his village, and he belongs there. Of course we’ll come back.”

Instantly, the tension Kurama had hardly even noticed in Genma's posture eases. He grins, lazy and warm, and reaches up to pull the senbon from his mouth and flip it across his knuckles. “I thought so,” he says, satisfied, and waves to the kids in doorway with a friendly smile.

Konoha nin are all insane. Kurama eyes him dubiously, then asks, “That’s all?”

Genma shrugs. “I've got a pretty solid sense about people, and there was a lot of time to think on the way here. Met up with Kakashi a few minutes ago to give him a message from the Kage, and he mentioned that they went up against you, but you never tried to kill them.” A soft huff of laughter, and he sinks down on someone’s stairs, draping his arms over his knees. “The Hokage's got a lot of theories about you, Uzumaki, but I think most of them are missing the obvious. Kakashi, too. You love that kid. You wouldn’t have taken him away otherwise. They were going to separate you, and you’d do anything to keep that from happening.”

There's a knot in Kurama's throat, something tight and painful, and he turns automatically to look at the house again. Bright blond hair glows in the sunlight as Naruto eels through the gap between Yugito’s body and the door, and when he catches sight of the street he shouts, “Kurama-nii!” in gleeful joy and hurls himself forward.

Kurama doesn’t try to stop him, just drops to one knee and lets the kid throw himself at him, then scoops him up and rises to his feet. When he turns, Genma's smile has softened, and he looks…wistful.

“Kakashi's nearby?” Kurama asks gruffly, shifting Naruto to his hip—on the far side from Genma, because there’s trusting and then there's stupid, and he didn’t get that much from his Naruto—and then something Genma said registers. “Wait a second—Kage? As in plural?”

With a soft snort, Genma tips his chin in confirmation. “I told you you’ve got ‘em in an uproar.”

“There’s in an uproar and then there's in cahoots,” Kurama mutters. Fuck. As if it wasn’t bad enough when they all wanted to kill him separately. Now they’ve joined forces to do it. “And you didn’t answer my question. Kakashi?”

A flash of perfect innocence, hiding a grin that’s nearly sly. “Yeah, he’s here. Our boats crossed paths, so I walked over to meet up with him. He and his squad landed a little north of the ruins and went to check them out. I said I’d talk to the villagers here. You’ve probably got twenty, maybe thirty minutes before he notices I'm not on my way back.” Reaching into his vest, he pulls out a rolled scroll and tosses it over. “There. The search grid our tracking teams are using, though once I tell ‘em my copy’s missing they’ll probably change it up a bit.”

Treason is a serious charge for a shinobi, and there’s only one punishment. Kurama stares down at the scroll for a long moment, then looks back up to meet hazel eyes a little helplessly, even as he tucks it into his sash. “Why?” he asks. “Why the hell would you do this? I don’t even know you.”

Wistfulness slides sideways into sorrow, and Genma's smile turns crooked. “Yeah,” he agrees lightly, “you don’t. But if you're the kid’s uncle, you were Kushina's brother, and I loved her like an older sister. After Minato died…well. Kakashi wasn’t the only one who lost everything that night, and all of his bodyguards were encouraged to keep their distance from Naruto afterwards.”

Naruto is watching the man with a squinty-eyed look of assessment, which in a flash shifts into realization. “You!” he says with a tone like triumph. “You're the ANBU with the tiger mask! You gave me shoulder-rides that one time!”

Genma looks utterly delighted that he remembers, and grins. “Yeah, that was me. Pretty clever, managing to swipe Sarutobi-sama’s favorite books like that. Couldn’t let you get caught just because you couldn’t get to the roofs on your own.”

Naruto beams, because of course he does. “I'm awesome,” he agrees proudly. “I'm gonna be the next Hokage, believe it!”

Genma chuckles. “Good,” he approves. “I knew your parents, and they’d both be rooting for you, Naruto. Try your hardest, okay?”

“Okay.” Naruto wriggles a little. “Kurama-nii, are you coming back now? Fū was tellin’ ghost stories! They're super-scary.”

“In a minute,” Kurama tells him, ruffling spiky hair. “Go tell the rest of the brats to get their bags. We need to leave. Momiji, go with him.”

“Sure, Kurama-nii!” As soon as Kurama puts him on the ground, Naruto waves enthusiastically to Genma, calls, “See you later, Tiger-san!” and then races for the house, the five-tailed fox trotting at his side.

Genma watches him go, still wistful, and then sighs softly, shifting his attention back to Kurama. “You need to hurry,” he says seriously. “The Hokage, Raikage, and Kazekage are all after you, and as soon as the idiots in Taki get their heads out of their asses they’ll be chasing you, too. There are two other jinchuuriki looking for you as well—picked a fight with Kakashi when they were trying to keep him off your tail—but I don’t know where they are right now.”

There's no one it could be but Han and Rōshi, and while Kurama has a hard time picturing Han picking a fight with anyone at all, he can definitely imagine Rōshi doing it. With any luck—and after today, Kurama isn’t entirely convinced that his is all bad—they’ve already figured out that Kiri is just about the only other option he has.

“Thank you,” he says, holding Genma's gaze with an unexpected surge of gratitude. “I—this is…not what I expected.”

Genma just tips one shoulder in a shrug. “You're a lot like Kushina was,” he says simply. “I couldn’t save her, and I couldn’t save Minato. Couldn’t be there for their kid, either. You I can help, and if you're really planning on bringing Naruto back later, there's no reason for me to feel guilty about it.” He glances north, eyes narrowing, and then says abruptly, “Hit me. Hard. Better yet, knock me out and then get going.”

Kurama looks, too; familiar chakra, approaching at a fast clip, with three other chakra signatures he’s also growing familiar with close behind. “Freak Squad incoming,” he mutters, making Genma crack a laugh. “You're sure?” he asks seriously. “I’m strong.”

“It has to look good,” Genma counters, tossing his senbon into the dirt. “Do it.”

There's no time to waste with arguing. Kurama leaps forward, swinging with what he hopes isn’t too much strength, and tries not to remember the version of this man who was Commander of the Hokage Guard Platoon, fond and warm and fiercely protective of Naruto, right up until the moment he died for him.

There's a crack of skin on skin as the blow connects with the back of the tokujo’s head and Genma drops into Kurama's arms, face going slack. At the same moment there’s a shout, almost fierce enough to be a snarl, and Kakashi cries, “Genma!”

Crap.

For half a second, Kurama debates just grabbing the tokujo and leaving with him. That’s more trouble than any of them need, though, and he shakes himself, glancing a touch over the assassin’s pulse as he lets Genma fall the rest of the way to the ground. Strong, steady—he’s not in danger of anything more than a headache.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for Kurama.

He leaps back in a rush, dodging a flurry of kunai, and then throws himself to the ground as a fire jutsu crackles over his head. Roots erupt, grabbing for him, and Kurama curses and slashes through them as he rolls to his feet. A tantō sweeps down at his head, aiming to decapitate, but Kurama ducks in close, grabs Itachi by the throat, and tosses him right into the other Uchiha. The older boy aborts his next jutsu in a whirl of movement, catching Itachi and then spinning, and chakra flickers as he blurs out of sight.

In the same instant, a wooden wall bursts out of the ground, curving up and over Kurama's head like a dome. He leaps over it, aiming for Kakashi as the Copy-Nin prepares another charge, but before he can even clear the barrier the second Uchiha flickers into being in front of him. His hands come up, eyes spinning, and—

Kurama breathes out a blaze, as strong as a wildfire and too close to dodge, and the boy yelps. He goes tumbling to the side, barely managing to catch himself on his hands and knees, and Itachi whirls in to cover him, Sharingan like bloody pinwheels. Ducking away from a slash with a kunai, Kurama comes up with a roundhouse kick that Itachi dodges, fluid and fast, but not fast enough. Foot down, body braced, and Kurama turns hard, sliding under Kakashi's tantō and bringing one hand down.

The shockwave ripples out, tearing a crater into the street and hurling Itachi to the side. The wooden wall shatters even as it turns to reaching branches, and Kurama leaps high, comes down on the other side of the Mokuton user as he prepares another jutsu, and kicks his legs out from under him. Another jump carries him away as Kakashi lunges, and he lands lightly, knees bent, one hand on the ground. It turns into a handspring, high and quick, as Itachi makes for him again. There’s blood on the kid’s face, a head wound bleeding heavily, but he doesn’t even seem to notice. Ninja wire flashes in the sun, bright and deadly, curving around to tangle Kurama's limbs and cut into his skin.

Kurama catches it, lazy and taunting, his hand coated with the wind chakra that comes so easily to him. “Nice try, mini-murderer,” he taunts, grinning, then breathes out hard. Fire sparks, catches, blazes down the wire towards the Uchiha. At the same time, hearing the frantic chirping of a thousand birds behind him, he spins, that same hand coming up and catching Kakashi's wrist in an immovable grip.

There's a sudden stillness, a stalemate. Kurama stares challengingly into one grey eye, teeth slightly bared, breath coming just a little harder than normal. The claws of his left hand curl slightly, resting right over Kakashi's heart. “Want to keep going?” he asks, and gives Kakashi a vicious grin. “I'm just getting started.”

Fury crackles in that flat stare, trying too hard to be unaffected. “Where is he?” Kakashi asks, low and just edging into a growl. There's fury vibrating under his skin, something just this side of true hatred, and it prickles across Kurama's skin. He breathes it in, feels something as old as he is stir inside of him, set aside all the years of his friendship with Naruto. After all, Naruto never needed malice, never touched it.

Kakashi is well acquainted with it, even if he’s more used to turning it on himself than anyone else.

“Around,” Kurama answers flippantly, and when every muscle in Kakashi's body coils tension-tight in preparation for a lunge he curls his claws warningly, pressing right through the heavy fabric of Kakashi's flak jacket and scraping skin. “Don’t,” he warns, pitching his voice to carry to the other three as well. The second Uchiha—Shisui, he’s pretty certain he heard Itachi say—looks the particular flavor of determined recklessness that means he’s probably about to do something stupid.

From the edge of the street, there's a soft groan, a twitch. Kakashi jerks his gaze towards Genma's sprawled form, lightning chakra dispersing with a rush like static electricity in his distraction, and Kurama takes the opening. He spins, ducks under the blow Kakashi automatically throws at the motion, and comes up with another roundhouse kick to catch Kakashi in the ribs. The Copy-Nin goes flying, and Kurama bolts the opposite way, towards the edge of the cliff visible beyond the houses. A long, hard leap carries him out into open air, and with a surge of iridescent foxfire Momiji swoops in to catch him neatly.

“Fucking love you,” Kurama gets out, breathless from the landing, and curls his arms around Naruto and Gaara. Packs bump his leg, hastily lashed to the fox’s sides, and he touches his own, feeling the reassuring weight of it.

They're going to be fine.

With an eerie, yipping laugh, Momiji turns in a tight circle, then pushes up, rising like a stray cloud with Fuji on his right. From her back, Fū offers the startled faces of the Freak Squad a cheerful wave, and Yugito muffles a giggle behind one hand.

“Head back towards Kumo, and then once we’re out of sight turn east,” Kurama orders, keeping his voice low enough that only Momiji and the two little boys can hear him. “If you’re good to fly for a while, we should make Kiri before nightfall.”

“Your wish is my command, Kurama-sama,” Momiji agrees easily, then flicks his tails, twists into a lazy spiral, and starts to climb. Just as the air starts to thin noticeably, he banks right and picks up speed, Fuji determinedly keeping pace.

 

 

“Oh, ow,” Genma says as Kakashi helps him sit up. He presses one hand against his skull, eyes tightly closed, and winces. “Did I pick a fight with a mountain?”

“A jinchuuriki,” Kakashi corrects, allowing himself to relax just slightly at the sound of his friend’s good humor. Not that it means much; Genma will be lighthearted when the world’s ending around him, and nothing can convince Kakashi otherwise. But he’s not dead, the way Kakashi had thought when he first saw him fall, and that’s enough. “I think it’s the next best thing.”

“Apparently.” Genma wobbles slightly, and Kakashi curls an arm around his back, trying not to let his worry show. He’s felt how hard Kurama can hit, after all, and regardless of how skilled Genma is, he’s baseline human. Kakashi knows all too well how fragile that makes him.

“You should have called for backup,” he says, trying not to let it sound too reprimanding.

Genma flips a hand, very clearly waving that off. “Bad timing,” he explains. “Uzumaki got here just as I did. We surprised each other, I think.”

“Any helpful monologues about where he’s headed next?” Tenzō asks, crouching next to them with his own helping of worry on his face. Sometimes Kakashi forgets that Genma and Tenzō have both been ANBU as long as he has, technically. Longer if Root counts, in Tenzō’s case, and Kakashi is all too certain it does. They’ve served on the same teams a lot.

“Not much.” Genma shrugs, eyes still closed, and feels out the lump on the back of his head with a faint grimace. “Lots of stuff about us never taking Naruto, and giving the boy a good home with people who love him. Sounded pretty convinced he was right.”

That’s the problem with the most dangerous type of zealot, Kakashi knows. They're utterly convinced of their own truth—enough so, often, that they can convince other people as well. The memory of Kurama's fierce defense of Naruto both of the pervious times the cornered him is clear, and Kakashi…well. He’s not allowed to believe things like that. He has a mission, he has Minato's son to recover, and that’s all he needs to know.

“Let’s get you back to your team,” he says instead of answering. “Do you have a medic with you?”

“Inuzuka Hana,” Genma confirms with a fond smile. He has an amusing habit of taking younger shinobi under his wing, and it’s very clear to Kakashi that’s what’s happening here. “She’s one of the best I've worked with. That Suna kunoichi is supposed to be one, too, but I haven’t seen her in action yet.” He glances over Kakashi's team, at Tenzō’s burned face, Itachi's gushing head wound, and Shisui's blisters and faint limp. “Apparently I'm about to, though.”

Shisui makes a face at him, because obviously he’s a mature jounin ANBU member. “Oh, stuff it. At least I didn’t faint after getting whacked on the head.”

Tenzō would rise to the challenge and pick a fight. Genma just rolls his eyes, then winces when the expression aggravates what's definitely a concussion. “Help me up,” he orders Kakashi, thumping him gently on the bicep, and Kakashi obligingly hauls him to his feet. He keeps an arm around the tokujo’s waist, though. He has few enough friends as it is; there's no need to risk one of them tripping and falling headfirst over a cliff.

Itachi falls into step beside them as their sorry group heads for the road. There's a wadded-up piece of cloth held to his temple that looks suspiciously like a chunk of Shisui's sleeve. He doesn’t look at Kakashi, but asks quietly, “Where do we go now?”

It’s a tossup, really. Kurama didn’t exactly give them any clues to where he was planning to go in the fight, and the direction he headed was almost definitely a false trail to throw them off. From here, he could retreat to one of the many uninhabited islands in the surrounding sea, or just head back to the mainland.

“I don’t know,” Kakashi says grimly, keeping his eyes on the horizon, and wishes it didn’t feel quite so much like failure.

Chapter Text

[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?

Chapter Text

[imber / ihm ‘ bər /, rain, a storm, or a storm cloud (most frequently used in poetry). From early Latin imbris via Proto-Indo-European *nb rís “rain-cloud”.]

 

The stares itch at Kurama's skin, make him twitchy and tense and ready to throw a punch at the next person whose eyes linger a little too long. It helps nothing at all that Naruto and the other children are back at Zabuza’s amusingly quaint little house on the outer edge of the village, under Yugito and Haku's watchful eye, or that Kurama's only ally in this entire damned place is the blackmailing bastard walking on his left.

“Easy there, Red,” Zabuza offers, sounding irritatingly amused. “It isn’t you they're staring at.”

Lie, Kurama thinks with a huff. Though he’s willing to admit that Zabuza is the reason they're staring. “You’d think they’d never seen you with a girl before,” he mutters sourly, though he does a quick check to be sure the henge is holding. Sakura's form is easy to maintain, but this entire damned situation is too precarious for Kurama's liking.

Zabuza snorts. “Hardly. I'm a known malcontent, and the Mizukage’s called me out before for stirring up unrest. You're an unknown foreign nin without a hitai-ate—‘course they’d worry.”

And be justified doing it, Kurama thinks, and that’s sour too. He’s very glad the kids are as far out of danger as is possible right now, because he has a feeling they're about to open themselves up to a whole host more of the stuff.

“Great,” he complains, though he keeps his voice down, and tries not to eye one of the older jounin on the street corner like he’s sizing him up for a grave. “You couldn’t be subtle about trying to overthrow the main military power running your village? No fucking wonder you need my help.”

Zabuza’s eyes narrow, and he throws Kurama a scathing look. “Fuck off. Yagura’s had his chance to change. He doesn’t get another.”

This man’s sense of honor is a complete mystery, and Kurama can't be bothered with the headache that is trying to wrap his mind around it. It’s no wonder his Naruto looked up to the Kiri nin, but hell. Kurama would appreciate it if he’d grow a little consistency. First the graduation massacre, then taking in an orphan, a plot to overthrow the Mizukage, and dying so he could kill Gato and asking to lie beside the body of his dead apprentice as his last request. Either he’s a power-hungry psycho with infrequent attacks of conscience or he’s secretly a good man trying to survive in a bloodthirsty village where power rules.

Because Kurama's life is never easy, he has a sneaking suspicion that it’s the latter. It would be nice, just once, if the bad guy in any given situation could actually be a bad guy.

Well, besides Kaguya. She could have all the tragic backstory and remorse in the world and Kurama would still want to tear her heart out and make her eat it.

A flicker of familiar chakra draws Kurama from his thoughts, and he looks up just in time to see a very familiar woman fall into step on Zabuza’s other side. She casts him a curious look from under a heavy fall of auburn hair, then puts a deliberate sway in her steps and purrs, “Momochi, I don’t think you’ve ever introduced me to your pretty friend.”

Zabuza grimaces, clearly visible with his bandages pulled down to hang around his neck, and growls, “Leave me alone, Terumī.”

“I am not going to die alone!” Mei snaps, slapping him hard in the back of the head. Then she smiles, sweet and terrifying, and leans in to hiss, “Insult me again and I’ll kill you.”

She’s definitely the Terumī Mei Kurama remembers, and he has to chuckle, inclining his head to the one-time Mizukage. Her presence here—especially connected with Zabuza—is a surprise, though Kurama likely should have expected it. The desire to change Kiri that drove her to lead a revolution and become Mizukage couldn’t have been a sudden thing.

“Whatever,” Zabuza says grumpily, though he pointedly steps around to Kurama's other side, putting him between the two Kiri nin. “Everyone waiting?”

“Only because you're slow,” she retorts, then offers Kurama a smile. “Nice to meet you. I'm Terumī Mei. You must be new. Did Momochi pick you up in a gutter somewhere, too?”

“Oh, fuck you!” Zabuza spits, grabbing for a kunai. “I did not—”

Mei meets him with a kunai of her own, disarms him with a twist of her weapon, and smiles like it’s her birthday. “You didn’t what? Pick up your kid in a gutter? Adopt an orphan? Show the whole world your big, squishy center?”

The glare Zabuza fixes her with is hot enough to warp solid metal. “You're lucky you're a year older than I am,” he growls. “If you were my age, I would have taken pleasure in killing you during the Academy exam.”

With a soft snort, Mei crosses her arms over her chest and gives him her best unimpressed look. “You would have tried, Momochi. Be grateful I wasn’t, or you’d be a charred heap of bones and a bad attitude and nothing else.”

Kurama would probably get more done if he left right now and went to go knock Isobu out of his trance by himself. He sighs, lifting his face skyward, and wonders if this is how Sakura felt when Sasuke and Naruto were having one of their frequent spats. “Right. If you're the faces of the revolution, no wonder Kiri is screwed.”

“She hasn’t got a damned thing to do with it,” Zabuza says, faintly testy.

“Bullshit,” Mei counters sweetly. She glances at Kurama and offers a slightly resigned smile. “Yagura is dangerous. We might as well work together to take him down, even if our views differ, and then figure out who takes his seat once he’s gone.”

And…that makes sense, given what Kurama remembers happening in the previous timeline. Zabuza faced Yagura alone, probably in a bid to take the hat for himself, and was defeated. If no one could prove Mei was involved, she would have been watched, but not otherwise punished, which would leave her free to start another revolution a decade later.  

A distinct grunt makes Zabuza’s opinion on that idea clear, but he doesn’t answer. Instead, he grabs Kurama's shoulder and pushes him to the right, towards a round, weathered building almost completely covered by moss and twisted trees with trailing branches. “In here,” he orders. “Terumī, seal the door.”

“Because that’s not suspicious at all,” Kurama mutters, snatching Zabuza’s hand and peeling it off of him. “Paws to yourself, shark-face. I'm more than happy to break it if you leave it where it is.”

“Oh, feisty,” a new voice mocks, and Kurama glances away from the swordsman, eyes darting over to the two strangers on the far side the large room. One woman, one man, both with swords of their own carried openly. He doesn’t need to be a genius to figure this one out. Two more of Kiri's Seven Swordsmen being on the side of the revolution is a surprise, though—he hadn’t thought Zabuza were so widely supported among the powerful shinobi. Likely Zabuza took the fall while all the rest kept their names clear, he thinks, though he recalls Chōjūrō mentioning that several of this generation of the Seven Swordsmen died young and under mysterious circumstances. Also likely is that Obito had a hand in that—he wouldn’t want opposition to his puppet Mizukage.

“Shut it, Ameyuri,” Zabuza grunts. He jerks his head towards one of the couches, then orders, “Sit. This is everyone important.”

“I thought we weren’t going to bring anyone else in on this level,” the man says, crossing his arms over his chest. White hair, lanky build, purple eyes, Hiramekarei at his waist—Kurama is willing to bet good money that this is Suigetsu’s older brother, Mangetsu.

Mei raises her hands, dropping down onto one of the chairs in an elegant sprawl. “He was already on his way here with her when I caught up to him.”

The last, a small woman with dark red hair, crosses her arms over her chest and grins playfully. “Not that I object to another girl around here, but an explanation would be nice, Zabuza.”

This seems as good a time as any to drop the henge. Kurama raises a brow at Zabuza, who grimaces but nods, and then lets it slide away.

There's a second of startled silence as three pairs of eyes go wide, and then Ringo Ameyuri laughs, pushing to her feet. She circles Kurama, steps swift and light and nearly silent, and stops in front of him, leaning in to study his face with a grin. “Uzumaki Kurama. Now this is a surprise. Aren’t you a little short to be the scourge of the Hidden Villages, pushing us ever closer to another world war?”

“I—what?” Kurama asks, caught off guard and entirely bewildered. He blinks, casts her an assessing glance, and decides she doesn’t look crazy. Not any more than Zabuza or Mangetsu, at least. “Like hell I'm starting a war!”

That earns him another laugh, but before Ameyuri can answer, Mei snorts. “You're lucky you're from Uzushio,” she says dryly. “Anywhere else, even if you were a missing-nin, and Konoha, Kumo, Iwa, and Suna would already have razed your village to the ground. They don’t take kindly to people stealing their jinchuuriki, you know.”

“I didn’t steal them,” Kurama protests, glaring at her, and he didn’t. He didn’t even kidnap them, honestly—they came with him willingly. The closest word he can think of is… “I rescued them. If the villages are going to turn children into jinchuuriki they should treat them like goddamned children, not monsters. Not weapons.”

Mei looks at him, looks at Zabuza, and then raises one incredulous brow. “I can't decide if you're soul mates or mortal enemies in the making,” she says with amusement, then waves a hand, dismissing the sentiment. “Whatever. Momochi, are you thinking this is the solution to our Utakata problem, or our Yagura-is-going-to-destroy-us-in-a-fair-fight problem?”

“It can't be both?” Zabuza drops down in one of the chairs, stretching his legs out in front of him. “I'm not certain how all of this jinchuuriki shit works, but—Red, you can take Yagura, right?”

Probably. Kurama doubts that Obito is adding to Isobu’s power—is probably even taking away from it, because a weak bijuu is still a bijuu, and Yagura doesn’t exactly need a lot of help to be stronger than most of his shinobi. Beyond that, Isobu has three tails. Kurama will manage.

“I'm not going to let you kill him,” he says flatly, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring at the four Kiri nin. “Yagura’s about as much of a victim here as all of you.”

Mangetsu frowns, tilting his head a little, while Ameyuri and Zabuza exchange incredulous glances. Only Mei doesn’t look surprised. Her mouth tightens, eyes narrowing, and Kurama has seen that expression on Sasuke and Sakura's face enough times to recognize why-the-hell-did-I-have-to-be-right when he sees it.

“You knew.”

Mei doesn’t deny it, even though it nets her three startled and faintly betrayed glances from her coconspirators. “I had hoped I was wrong. Before he became Mizukage, Yagura was…different. Kinder. We both wanted to see Kiri move beyond its reputation as the Bloody Mist. Now he’s just adding to that. It could be that the power went to his head, but the Yagura I knew was always too…kind.”

This one right now isn’t kind at all, and Kurama's more than ready to lay that at Obito's door, too. He’s a vicious, petty bastard, and Kurama is absolutely certain that turning Kiri into one massive competitive bloodbath is his revenge for their shinobi killing Rin. Granted, Kiri didn’t need a lot of help to get there, but Obito definitely pushed them down the path. And, as much as Kurama wants to stay under the radar, especially where mad, dangerous Uchiha bastards are concerned, this…this could be a huge blow to him. Mentally, if nothing else, because Kiri is practically his twisted pet project right now.

Kurama remembers Naruto's fight with Obito the first time. When Obito got angry, when he got confused, Naruto was able to get through to him, to negate the madness. And there's nothing in the entire world that will get Obito angry and confused like Rin. So use her somehow, maybe make a connection to Madara being responsible for her death. That might just be enough. And if it’s not…

Well. Kurama will deal with that, if he has to, and pray to the Sage and whatever gods might be listening that Obito's eye won't work on him when he’s wearing Naruto's body.

“Where’s Utakata?” he asks abruptly, turning to Zabuza. “I’ll talk him and Saiken into helping you, so they can deal with the small fries. I’ll take care of Yagura.”

“What, now?” Mangetsu demands incredulously. “We’ve been preparing for years, you can't just—”

“Then you’ll be thoroughly prepared.” Kurama bares his teeth at the man, half smile and half threat. “I have fucking things to do, and I'm only helping because it helps the jinchuuriki and their bijuu. If you’ve got a problem with that, I’ll gladly pack up my brats and leave.”

“Stop,” Ameyuri says sharply, stepping between them and raising her hands. She glances at Mei, who nods, and then offers, “We’re flexible, so it could work. I’ll alert our forces among the jounin. Mangetsu, notify the chuunin. Dawn tomorrow?”

“Fine,” Zabuza grunts. He rises to his feet, rolls his neck to crack it, and says, “Terumī, you coming?”

“With a gracious invitation like that, how could I resist?” Mei flows to her feet, flicking a hand at Kurama. “Put that henge back on, if you can get it right a second time. We don’t want to attract more attention that we already do.”

Kurama snorts, but does as she says. Sakura's form is still easy to get right, and he flexes her fingers, remembering all the many times her hands saved Naruto or Sasuke or uncountable others. He’s not a healer, doesn’t think he could manage it even if he tried with a life on the line, and maybe that makes it more impressive than it is, but he’s going to stick with awe of her as a solid reaction.

It makes him miss Konoha, as he follows Zabuza and Mei outside into the misty greyness. Not the Konoha that he left just a week and a half ago, but Naruto's Konoha, with Sasuke and Sakura and Naruto walking side-by-side down the street. With familiar faces, old friends, the village itself battered and a little rough but whole. Maybe Konoha isn’t the best place, and maybe the people there have never made all the right decisions, but it’s the closest thing Kurama has ever known to a home.

He’ll figure it out. When all of this is done, he’ll see what it would take for them to go back.

A sudden, furious scream makes Kurama jerk his head up, weight shifting onto the balls of his feet and hands coming up, but there's nothing. He glances around them, then catches Mei's exasperated expression and raises a questioning brow. “Something up?” he asks, faintly suspicious.

Mei rolls her eyes. “Some asshole has been peeping on the women’s baths, but no one can catch him,” she says disgustedly. “I'm just waiting for him to try while Ameyuri’s in there. She’s got a temper, and she’ll laugh as she eviscerates him.”

Kurama pauses in the middle of the street, eyes narrowing as suspicion niggles its way through his brain. Still, it’s not likely. Perverts are hardly unique to Konoha, and besides, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t. There's not a chance. It couldn’t be.

Could it?

Before he can decide one way or another, Zabuza says, “There, up ahead. Follow that path towards the sea cliffs. Utakata does his katas by the rocks. Should be easy for you to find him.”

Now that he’s paying attention, Kurama can feel the bubbly brightness of Saiken’s chakra, a press of iridescence with an edge that burns like acid. He takes a breath, breathes it in, and feels a flicker in the slug’s chakra in return as Saiken notices him. Without pausing, he leaps past his companions, darting down the path between overgrown houses and then deeper into an actual forest. The track curves, edging around the trees, and when Kurama rounds the bend it’s to a whirl of sea-breeze and the smell of salt-choked water. The road runs straight along the low cliffs, the seaward side of it tumbling down in a cascade of massive rocks to meet the churning water, and a few hundred yards down there's a small figure standing on one of the boulders.

Kurama wastes no time. He covers the distance quickly, then leaps lightly up land on the rock across from the slim, dark-haired teenager. It’s not safe, not smart, but he lets his chakra rise in answer to Saiken’s, heavy-hot red and edged with the bite of a deadly wind. The boy’s amber eyes widen, but he doesn’t take a step back, instead pressing a hand to his chest and holding his ground. Meeting his gaze, Kurama lets the henge fall again, and says quietly, “The slug might already have told you, but my name’s Kurama.”

There's a brief, careful pause, and then the boy inclines his head. “He mentioned you,” he says, equally soft. “I'm Utakata. Is it true you're rescuing the jinchuuriki from the villages?”

“If they want to be rescued,” Kurama allows, studying the faint lines in Utakata's face, the paleness that speaks of exhaustion. “I have to say, I didn’t think you’d listen if the Rokubi was talking to you.”

That earns him a faint smile, but it’s enough to bring humor back into Utakata's face. “He comes to me sometimes while I'm meditating and trying to clear my head. Master Harusame says it’s because I don’t try hard enough to shut him out, but…” A shrug, swift and almost embarrassed. “He’s never tried to take control, and he likes my bubble jutsus a lot.”

They're exactly the sort of thing that Saiken would be enthusiastic about, that’s for sure. Kurama snorts softly, shifting back on his heels. “The old man’s just full of bad ideas. The slug’s a pushover, and I bet he’d give you all the power you could use if you just asked nicely for it.”

“I've gotten that impression.” Still smiling a little, Utakata drops to sit on the rocks, folding his legs under him. “He wants to speak to you. Is that all right?”

As much as Kurama wants to avoid the bijuu’s shared world, on the off chance that Bee is looking for him, he’s also a little too wary of Harusame coming along any minute and freaking out, then moving up his timetable for being an absolute moron and trying to rip the bijuu out of Utakata. “I’ll go meet him,” he offers instead, mirroring Utakata's pose and resting his hands on his knees. “And after that, I've got a couple of people I want you to meet.”

Interest wars with caution on Utakata's face. “The other jinchuuriki? Saiken said one of them was close to my age.”

Yugito will be overjoyed to have another fully-trained ninja around, Kurama thinks with amusement. “Yeah. They're nearby. It’ll do them good to have someone a little older around.”

“But they have you already.” Utakata hesitates, then says, so softly it’s barely a breath, “I—why are you helping them?”

And, of course, there's always a moment where the well-adjusted child slides away to show just how screwed up being a human sacrifice makes a kid. Kurama sighs a little, raking claws through his hair, and then answers bluntly, “Why not? Someone should. I can, so there's no reason it shouldn’t be me. Besides, one of you guys is family, and the rest might as well be. One person against a whole world won't do a whole hell of a lot, but nine jinchuuriki standing together? There's a reason the villages try to keep you secret and separate, kid. They haven’t got a chance in hell if the nine of you try to change things together. I'm just…showing you a way.”

Instead of answering, Utakata flicks him an unreadable look, then closes his eyes. Kurama rolls his—damaged child, Sage defend him—and does the same. One breath, another, and—

A forest, when he opens his eyes. Not the familiar one where the Sage created the nine of them, but…smaller. More recently familiar. It’s where Naruto first touched his powers, where Mizuki tried to kill Iruka and Naruto saved him. Kurama smiles a little to himself, looking over the scarred tree and the bare ground around it, because this was the first time since the night of Naruto's birth that he really stirred. Before that, he’d been too tired, too wounded by half of his chakra being stripped away, and he’d slept for twelve years. But that—that was the nudge that woke him, a faint pull as Naruto drew his chakra away, and he’d opened his eyes and stretched, reached

Another Uzumaki, he’d thought derisively. A boy this time, loud and dumb and lonely. Easily corrupted with enough power.

Kurama has never been so glad to be wrong.

“Kurama! You're tiny! What happened, did a human catch you? Matatabi and Chōmei and Shukaku won't tell me anything!”

“Saiken,” Kurama answers with amusement, rising to his feet and turning to look up at the slug. “I like your host. He seems pretty level-headed.”

Saiken burbles happily. “He’s cute, isn’t he? And he’s got such pretty jutsus, hardly needs my help at all. When his father sealed me into him, I thought it would be terrible, terrible, but I don’t think I mind as much as I thought I would.”

Kurama takes a moment to parse that, because even Naruto at his most energetic doesn’t talk quite that fast, but then he snorts and shakes his head, trying not to smile. He’s easily annoyed by his other siblings, even at their best, but Saiken is hard to get angry at, and even harder to stay angry at. He’s just—cheerful. Happy.

“Good,” he finally settles on. “I'm glad for you. Have you heard what’s going on?”

Eye-stalks swaying, Saiken shakes his head. “Matatabi is still tired, so I didn’t bother her, and Son is ignoring me. Gyūki doesn’t know what's happening, either, and the others won't let me catch up to them.”

Well, that’s likely to be expected. They're not friends, the nine of them, even if Kurama remembers them being that way in his time. “People are after us,” he explains. “They call themselves Akatsuki, and the Sage’s mother is controlling them so she can take back the world’s chakra. She needs us to awaken the Juubi, though, so she’s having her damned pawns collect us. I'm trying to get the younger ones somewhere safe so I can break the Juubi’s vessel and at least stall her a little.”

There's a long moment as Saiken digests this, and then he deflates a little with a sound like a sigh. “They’ll kill the hosts, getting us out of them,” he says mournfully. “The Sage was a good person, why can't his mother be as well? Do you want my help? Can Utakata and I take care of the children for you, or is it too dangerous here? Do you want us to take them somewhere hidden?”

And that’s one massive problem solved, just like that. Kurama breathes out a shaky breath of relief, pressing a hand over his face, and retracts every even mildly offensive thing he’s ever said about Saiken. The slug is a damned miracle. “Thank you. Thank you, Saiken. Yes, if you and Utakata would be willing to watch them somewhere safe, I would gladly leave them with you. But first I need to ask Utakata for his help with something else. Do you mind?”

Saiken burbles at him, somewhere between amused and fond. “Go, go, Kurama. You were always so active. I'm glad to see that hasn’t changed. Let me know if I can help. That’s what little brothers are for!”

“Best little brother in the world,” Kurama agrees with a smile, and steps back towards reality, opening his eyes to see Utakata watching him. There's wariness in his expression, though Kurama is fairly certain it’s not directed at him.

“Sorry,” he offers, a little gruffly. “Not pleasant stuff.”

Utakata hesitates, but shakes his head. “I’d rather know,” he says firmly. “What did you need my help with?”

Kurama glances back down the path, towards where Mei and Zabuza are doubtless still waiting, and sighs. “There’s a revolution about to kick off. The main players want to know if you’ll help them overthrow Yagura.”

Amber eyes flicker, then fall shut, and Utakata takes three even breaths. When he looks up again, there's no trace of emotion in his face beyond cool distance. “Yagura killed my father,” he says without inflection. “He was never a good one, but he was still the only parent I ever knew. The only reason I was allowed to live was because of Saiken.” Inhale, exhale, and— “Tell me what to do. If you're helping, I’ll help too.”

“How disappointing.”

The dull but sharp-edged voice startles Kurama back to his feet even as Utakata flinches, and he spins, cursing himself for being so distracted he let multiple people sneak up on him. Not just a handful, but at least twenty, all jounin, and at the front—

“Yagura,” Kurama growls, and darts a look to where a grim-faced Zabuza and a serene Mei are being held tightly by their fellow Kiri nin. “Let them go.”

Yagura gives him a derisive glance, but doesn’t answer. Instead he turns his attention on Utakata, who’s just rising, pale but steady. “You were allowed to survive because your worth to the village outweighed the potential problems that the Sandaime Mizukage’s son might cause, Utakata. I see now that that was a mistake that must be corrected. Will you come to face your punishment freely, traitor?”

Slowly, deliberately, Utakata slides a hand into one of his weapons pouches and draws out his pipe. “I've done nothing wrong,” he says firmly. “You can't punish me for talking to someone.”

It’s instinct that has Kurama stepping sideways, putting himself squarely between the kid and Yagura. “Pick on someone your own size, brat,” he says flatly, trying to gauge the distance between himself and the group. The pouch full of kunai that Rōshi gave him is thankfully at his waist, and he eyes the array of Kiri nin, assessing. There's no way he can take out all of them, but if he can drop the ones holding Mei and Zabuza—

Yagura regards them with empty, eerie eyes, and Kurama wonders with a shiver of fury and horror how no one else can see the void where something should be. “Konoha and Suna warned us that you might attempt to threaten us within our very walls. It won't work, Uzumaki Kurama. I suggest you surrender the jinchuuriki and turn yourself over to our justice.”

“I've got a better idea,” Kurama growls, baring his claws and sinking down to balance his weight on the balls of his feet. “How about you go fuck yourself instead?”

Yagura’s mouth tightens faintly, and there's the faintest spark of something in his gaze. “Very well. I’ll deal with you myself.” He pulls the long hook-ended staff from his back, sweeping it up and around, and Kurama braces himself, trying to figure out how the hell he’s going to manage this. One spark of personality isn’t enough, but if Kurama can get more

Fine. Great. Fantastic. He’ll make the crazy Obito-controlled jinchuuriki with complete control over his bijuu lose his temper. That might make him sloppy enough for Kurama to break the genjutsu. Either that or get him killed. Fifty-fifty chance.

Well, maybe forty-sixty.

“Isobu, you damned idiot,” Kurama growls, leaping down from the rock and landing lightly on the road. He lets his chakra flare, a heavy, corrosive miasma of red and black and concentrated malice, and sees several of the jounin sway under the force of it. “Wake the hell up already, or I'm gonna beat you bloody.”

There's no answer from the turtle, not that Kurama really expected one. Instead, Yagura’s staff comes swinging at his head, hard and fast, and Kurama has to drop and roll to avoid it. He comes to his feet right within Yagura’s guard, and takes pleasure in the surprise that flashes over the deceptively young face as he drives a fist right at it. “Wake up!”

Chakra ripples and flares, covering Yagura like a red-and-black cloak, and he catches Kurama's fist in one hand. “Stop saying that,” he hisses, low and deadly, and a tail whips around to slam into Kurama's side, knocking every last bit of air from his lungs and lifting him right off his feet. He hits the ground hard on his back, then throws himself out of the way of a lash of water shaped like a dragon. It explodes as it hits the ground, but the drops hang in the air, then whirl back towards Yagura as he twists. No hand-signs, no pause to craft a jutsu, just a wave of water hurtling at Kurama with deadly force, and Kurama doesn’t know if he can meet it in time.

Chapter Text

[metanoia / metə ‘ noiə /, a change of mind and a change of heart, resulting in a positive transformation in the way one lives their life. It connotes the beginning of healing. From Greek metanoein “change one’s mind”.]

 

Jiraiya hums thoughtfully, his new manuscript and his next report to Sarutobi both balanced on his lap. There's a risk doing it this way—more than once the Sandaime has gotten a sneak peek at the next Icha Icha book while Jiraiya's editor is left scratching his head over the coded assessment of Akatsuki’s most recent movements—but Jiraiya is an artist and can't deny the inspiration when it strikes. And that one nubile vixen in the bathhouse, with the black hair and the massive—

He giggles to himself, sniffling to ward off any imminent nosebleeds, and jots down a few more lines of his next masterpiece.

Technically, Kiri doesn’t have much to do with Konoha, Orochimaru, or Akatsuki, but Jiraiya has been catching weird rumors from this village for years, and when Orochimaru was sighted a few miles from the edge of the village, he figured it was finally time to check it out. One henge as an absentminded farmer later, he’s beginning to see that Kiri is just one massive mess, worse than Suna or Kumo have ever managed to be. The civilians are on edge, and the shinobi are worse—one wrong move is enough to get weapons drawn on both sides.

And there are sides, that much Jiraiya can say without hesitation. They're even obvious. No one is trying very hard to hide their discontent, and they're sticking to their own groups. It puts Jiraiya in definite mind of a powder keg with a bare inch left on the fuse; one spark, one breath of wind, and the entire thing is going to go up like fireworks.

Or like a bomb. That’s a distinct possibility, too.

Jiraiya has been here for three weeks now, entirely out of contact with Konoha because he can't risk revealing his chakra and getting noticed. Foreign shinobi are never exactly welcomed, not in any of the villages, but here in Kiri it’s particularly bad. They're avoided, whispered about, eyed with all the wariness of possible serial killers. Twice now Jiraiya has seen it, and it makes him glad he didn’t try to enter the village as himself. He probably wouldn’t have made it very far, being who he is.

Tapping his pen against the page on his knee, Jiraiya sighs softly and tugs at a strand of white hair that’s falling loose. He doesn’t quite know where to go from here; he hasn’t seen any evidence of Orochimaru’s presence, or any of Akatsuki’s supposed other members—not that he’d be able to pick them out of a lineup even if they were here, given that he only has a vague idea of who they are—and given the current tensions, he doesn’t want to get caught as a Konoha nin in the middle of what might as well be enemy territory. Still, the risk that Orochimaru is up to something in the village is a little too great for Jiraiya to accept; the Snake is dangerous, and Jiraiya knows that better than anyone.

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, Jiraiya thinks a little wryly, and rolls his report up to stow it in his weapons pouch. If that’s the case, he might as well just—

That’s about when the screaming starts.

Jiraiya's head snaps up, and the Icha Icha manuscript gets stuffed away as well, even as he jerks to his feet. That particular terrified cadence means civilian, and while civilians screaming in the middle of the Bloody Mist is hardly a new thing, the sheer number of screaming villagers means this isn’t just two shinobi deciding to brawl it out in the streets. Jiraiya steps back, closer to the twisted, gnarled trunk of the willow he’s been using as a hiding place, and it’s hard for a man with his size and coloring to fade into the shadows, far harder than it ever was for his teammates when he had teammates, but years of experience make it simpler. He thinks small, unobtrusive thoughts as he slips out, keeping close to the treeline, and checks the street.

There's chaos. The villagers are fleeing, running in the panicked way that means they're leaving monsters behind them, and Jiraiya knows that’s a bad sign. Civilians in shinobi villages can take most things in stride, and this kind of reaction means something massive and distinctly deadly is happening.

Moving in the opposite direction of the civilians, going at a dead run, is a kunoichi Jiraiya has seen several times in the past few days, though sadly never in the bathhouse. She leaps knots of villagers, a hand on one of the twin swords at her waist, and shouts, “Mangetsu!”

“Here!” a man calls back, darting out of the shadows between two round-capped buildings and joining her in the rapidly-emptying street.

The kunoichi lands next to him, looking somewhere between pissed and the flavor of playful that a cat would before a wounded mouse, and says, “We need to move. Yagura’s mobilizing forces and trying to root us out.”

“What, like, move?” Mangetsu demands. “We can't just go blindly, Ameyuri. What happened to dawn? Zabuza and Mei—”

Ameyuri shakes her head, mouth tightening, and draws her swords. That’s enough to spark the recognition in Jiraiya's brain—Ringo Ameyuri, the first kunoichi to make it into the Seven Swordsmen. And that means her companion is the newest Swordsman, Hōzuki Mangetsu, supposedly able to wield all of Kiri's famous blades. A dangerous pair, without a doubt, and given their topic of discussion…

“One of the jounin spotted the Yondaime headed towards the cliffs.” Her expression is grim. “We have to assume they’ve been taken or engaged already.”

Mangetsu’s expression flickers between worry, incredulity, and uncertainty. “With Kurama there? Weren’t they going to introduce him to Utakata?”

Jiraiya frowns. That’s a new name, even though he’s made himself familiar with the vast majority of Kiri's high-ranking shinobi in the past few weeks. He recognizes Utakata's name, of course—he’d be a failure as a spy if he missed Kiri's second jinchuuriki—but the first name isn’t one he knows. And, given the tone Mangetsu just used, that is a failing. The implied how could anyone beat them if Kurama is there makes Jiraiya a little queasy; if he missed a fighter that powerful, what else could he have missed?

Ameyuri just tips one shoulder in a careless shrug. “We don’t have time for this,” she says. “Yagura is distracted. This is our best chance of seizing the Administration Center and eliminating his supporters while they're without backup. Round up your chuunin and anyone who might be swayed to our side. I’ll find the jounin. Push for the village center, all right?”

“This is going to end badly,” is Mangetsu’s assessment, but he turns and hurries back into the maze of streets, and Ameyuri heads the opposite direction. A shinobi just rounding the corner sees her and shouts, but half a heartbeat later she’s on him in a spinning blur of lightning-edged swords, and when she darts away there's a corpse left lying in the dirt.

Jiraiya takes a slow breath, then lets it out. He doesn’t have all the pieces yet, but—this is definitely a revolution happening right now. Whether it’s going to be a successful one or not remains to be seen, but given that Jiraiya is a well-known foreign nin with direct ties to Konoha's Sandaime and a reputation as one of the strongest shinobi alive, he can't afford to keep too close an eye on things. Getting spotted would give Kiri an iron-clad reason to go to war with Konoha, regardless of which side wins, and Jiraiya isn’t about to take that chance. He takes a breath, shifts even further back into the shadowy edges of the fog, and decides to wait until there's a definite outcome to report.

This is probably going to be the most exciting news that’s passed Sarutobi's desk in a long time. Jiraiya just hopes he doesn’t give his old teacher a heart attack or something.

 

 

Yagura’s attack shifts, changes, becomes a vast mouth with teeth and hunger, and Kurama moves. He gathers himself and leaps, harder and faster than he’s moved since he left his own time behind, and comes down behind the jinchuuriki as Yagura’s attack hits only empty air. Half a second to call up his chakra and then Kurama slashes down. Force ripples around the blow, heavy like gravity, and even with one tail manifested Yagura can't turn fast enough to meet it. He goes flying, slamming into the rocks that line the seaward side of the road, and Kurama growls in victory and follows.

In the same moment, there's a sudden surge of heat, and the shinobi holding Mei scream. She dives down, rolls, and comes back to her feet, already pulling more lava into the air around her. In contrast, Zabuza is gone, faded back into the mist even as his captors fall with their throats slit, and Mei laughs. Her lava flows out like a deadly wave, aiming for more of Yagura’s shinobi, and a massive sword flashes down on the far side of the group, sending more of them scattering with fearful cries.

Satisfied that they're not about to die, Kurama turns his full attention back to his own fight, spinning sideways around another lash of water and then going high, more force gathering around his fingertips. Claws aren’t useful here, and getting close enough to use them will do more harm than good, but he can't risk a bijūdama, even small. At full strength Isobu could stop it, or at least avoid it, but Kurama doesn’t know that he is at full strength. What if Obito has bound him somehow, or is leeching from him? Naruto liked Yagura, for the brief moment they met in the bijuu’s shared mental world, and regretted not being able to save him. For that reason alone Kurama isn’t about to kill him.

Still, that leaves Kurama a little light on techniques. He slashes down again, but Yagura dodges, a sweep of his hook-ended staff calling up another whirl of seawater that he flings directly at Kurama's head. Kurama ducks under it, steps around the jab of the staff, and calls up a scything arc of razor-edged wind. It screams down like a storm, but Yagura turns even as his chakra shroud ripples and condenses, darkening to a red so deep it’s almost black. The Fuuton jutsu impacts, but doesn’t do more than glance off the sudden emergence of Yagura’s Version Two form, and Kurama curses.

“How’s it feel to be a damned puppet, Yagura?” he taunts, sidestepping another lance of water. A burst of fire dissipates the next before it can hit him, and he leaps back, luring the Mizukage further away from Mei and Zabuza. He doesn’t want to find out the hard way that Yagura is willing to take hostages. They're not his friends, not hardly, but—they're allies, and his Naruto would have given anything to protect them for that reason alone. Kurama might not be Naruto, not in any way that matters, but he can at least respect his jinchuuriki’s convictions. Especially when it will make his own fight easier.

“I am no one’s puppet,” Yagura answers icily, but he’s following, Isobu’s three tails sweeping out to crumble rock. In a blur of speed he darts around Kurama, aiming a blow at his back, but Kurama rolls underneath the tail and keeps retreating, aiming for a small area of open ground further down the path. He risks a brief glance back, checking on his allies, and—

Utakata is where Kurama left him, but he’s sitting cross-legged on the rocks again, eyes closed, hands on his knees. Saiken’s chakra ripples and curls around him like waves, and Kurama frowns, because that’s stupid. Why is the kid, already a jounin and supposedly a trained shinobi, leaving himself vulnerable like that? Especially with a good dozen of Yagura’s shinobi still trying to subdue Zabuza and Mei. It’s just—

Not something he can contemplate right now, Kurama realizes, as one of Yagura’s tails nearly takes his head off. He leaps over the second one, ducks the third, and spins back to his feet in a cocoon of fire that slides off Isobu’s chakra like water off oiled canvas.

“Not a puppet?” Kurama asks, and has to laugh, rough and derisive. “Says the puppet who can't even see his own strings. You're killing people, ruling over a sea of blood, and you don’t even know why. You're being used, Yagura. Akatsuki has one hand on your neck but you don’t even see it. Are you stupid, or just that arrogant, little boy?”

“I am not a child!” Yagura snarls, and this time the whip-like lash of water catches Kurama in the side, flinging him across the ground. He hits the rocks hard, feeling ribs crack, but doesn’t have time to assess. Yagura is already on him again, corrosive chakra boiling with fury, and Kurama dodges in time to escape all but a single long cut down his shoulder. He rolls back to his feet, ducks a second blow, and sends a wave of force back. It hits, but not hard enough, and Kurama curses as he retreats again.

“You sure look like one to me. I feel like I should go looking for your babysitter,” he taunts, and leaps high, twisting over the tail that slams into the ground where he was standing and coming down on Yagura’s left. Another shockwave makes Yagura spin, only to catch a face-full of fire with another razor-edged wind behind it, and the jinchuuriki roars. He shakes it off, like a bull enraged by a stinging fly, and that’s really not a metaphor to increase Kurama's confidence. He ducks in, trying for another punch even after the way his last attempt ended, and only manages a glancing scrape of knuckles across blistering chakra as Yagura whips his head to the side.

But something flickers in Yagura’s eyes as the barb strikes home, and the fury that covers him like a haze flickers, increases. Just for a moment there’s clarity on his face, even in the midst of his anger, and with a hiss he lashes out with all three tails and his staff at once.

“I am NOT a CHILD!”

Okay, that’s a definite button, Kurama thinks, and drops down, slamming a hand into the earth. It surges up, but Kurama knows a simple Doton jutsu won't even slow Yagura down, and dodges while the jinchuuriki’s sight is obscured. He slides behind a stand of boulders, needing the moment to figure out just how the hell he’s going to survive enough taunts to get through to the brat, and—

Yagura stumbles. His steps falter, the chakra shroud flickers, and for an instant all Kurama can feel is Saiken’s bubbly, acid-sharp power rising like waves around them.

Oh. Oh. Utakata is a damned genius. He must have gotten Saiken to pull him into the bijuu’s shared mental world, where they can attack the chains of the genjutsu holding Isobu directly. Given enough time, they might be able to bring the turtle back to himself.

Of course, that means Kurama has to distract Yagura in this world, so that there's no chance of him following and confronting the teenager. Kurama isn’t certain that Yagura can even access that plane, but better not to risk it. Utakata's only a kid, and although Kurama suspects that Saiken will do whatever he can to keep his jinchuuriki safe, they can't afford to take that chance.

With that in mind, Kurama slides out from behind the rocks while Yagura’s back is turned, then summons up another wave of force and lets it crash over their battleground. Without a chakra shroud to catch it, it knocks Yagura right off his feet, sending his tumbling. He catches himself before he can go over the edge of the cliff, but immediately rises, pulling a massive surge of water up from the ocean as he does. He spins on Kurama, teeth bared and eyes almost wild, and the water crashes down like a drowning wave.

There's no avoiding this one, no getting away, no time to retaliate; all Kurama can do is brace himself before the miniature tsunami drops down on his skull. There's a burst of pain, an explosion of darkness behind his eyes, and the reflexive breath Kurama takes is water without any air at all.

The darkness spreads, swallowing him whole, and for an endless moment it’s all Kurama knows.

 

 

“Hey,” a gentle voice says, as familiar as Kurama's own heartbeat. “Hey, bastard fox, that’s enough playing dead. Open your eyes. Beauty sleep’s not going to help that much ugliness, believe it!”

Kurama's breath stutters in his throat, even as his hand flies up, catching the fingers that glance over his cheek. They're tangible, callused and warm and so impossibly familiar, and he opens his eyes. Gold greets him, gold and blue and sun-tanned brown, with three pale whisker-marks like faded scars and a smile as bright as the sun.

Naruto,” he chokes, and then can't get so much as another sound out.

Naruto—his Naruto, well into his thirties and worn around the edges, but still so bright, still so brave and steady—smiles at him, eyes warm, and twists his hand in Kurama's grasp to close his fingers around Kurama's hand. “Hey, Kurama,” he says fondly, as though they're meeting after a few days apart, as if Naruto isn’t dead and Kurama isn’t stranded in a time period thirty years removed from his own.

Kurama sits up, unable to take his eyes off his jinchuuriki, and drags in a breath that shakes. “You're dead,” he manages. “I saw—Kaguya killed you and then—”

Faint sadness slides in behind Naruto's smile, edging it with regret, and he sits back on his heels. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I figured it would end like that. I'm sorry for making you sad, Kurama. That was never what I wanted.”

A sound gets caught in Kurama's throat, halfway between a laugh and a sob, and he doesn’t resist the impulse to throw himself forward, wrapping his arms around his jinchuuriki the way he’s only ever done once before. “You idiot, Naruto! That doesn’t matter, you died!”

“And you made it back in time,” Naruto counters, laughing a little as he rocks back to land hard on his ass, Kurama halfway sprawled in his lap. Without hesitation, he wraps Kurama up in a tight hug, holding him close, and says, “If you're using enough chakra to strain the seal, though, something’s happening. Are you okay?”

Entirely reluctant to so much as lift his head from Naruto's shoulder, Kurama grunts unhappily. “Fucking Obito.” Then he pauses, eyes narrowing, and growls, “You sealed my chakra?”

That makes Naruto laugh again, and he ruffles Kurama's hair. “Uh, kind of?” he admits sheepishly, and when Kurama snarls at him adds, “Just a little! It didn’t keep you from using it, it just meant that if you wanted to use all of it you had to reach for it, and you’d come here.” He smiles, expression bright and eyes happy. “I wanted to be with you, Kurama, even just as a chakra impression. I wanted to see you become the hero I know you are.”

Kurama can't help but laugh, finally forcing himself to pull back a little so that he’s kneeling in front of Naruto. “You're the only one,” he says, and it comes out far closer to fond than he intends. “Sage, Naruto, I missed you. I've missed you so much.”

Another sad smile and Naruto reaches out, curling his fingers around the back of Kurama's skull and pulling him in to rest their foreheads together. “Sorry, Kurama,” he says again. “I didn’t mean to leave you all alone.”

Taking a shaky breath, Kurama closes his eyes briefly, then opens them again, unwilling to miss even a second of this encounter. “I’ll survive,” he says roughly. “The other you—the younger you, he’s with me. He likes me.”

“Who wouldn’t?” Naruto laughs, and his fingers tighten just a little as his expression turns serious. “If you use your full power, everyone nearby will feel it,” he warns. “They’ll know you're something more than a regular shinobi.”

Since they already do, that’s hardly a loss. Kurama gives Naruto a crooked smile and says mockingly, “Worried about subtlety? Where’s Naruto, and who the hell are you?”

Naruto just laughs, grin stretching bright and happy across his face. “Okay, okay, bastard fox, no need to get snippy. I was just warning you.” Blue eyes fall closed for a moment, then open again, and he pulls Kurama forward into another hug. “Be careful, you big, mean jerk. I can't watch your back like I used to, so you’d better watch it twice as hard, okay?”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Kurama complains, even though his eyes feel hot and his throat is tight again as he curls his arms around Naruto's waist. “I—am I ever going to see you again?”

“Who knows?” Naruto asks cheerfully, and the white world around them brightens like a solar flare before Kurama can even open his mouth to curse at him for it. There's a sharp crack somewhere distant, the echo of a seal breaking, and chakra rushes in like a warm, buoyant wave, sweeping him up and carrying him away from that familiar presence.

Bye, Kurama. I love you, and I'm so proud of you, something whispers into his ear, and Kurama smiles even through the wash of grief, finally letting go.

“Bye, Naruto,” he breathes, and opens his eyes.

 

 

“Well, fuck,” Rōshi says, halfway up the cliff that will let them sneak into Kiri unnoticed—Han’s idea, of course. He stares upward, watching as a good portion of the sea is pulled right into the air as part of what is clearly a devastatingly large water jutsu. There's enough chakra on the path to make it seem like a small war is going on, and three of those chakra signatures are definitely bijuu, or at least jinchuuriki.

“Keep climbing,” Han tells him firmly, stripped of his armor to make the trek easier and very unhappy about it. “We can deal with it when we’re on solid ground.”

Well, at least they found Kurama, Rōshi thinks with as much optimism as he can muster, channeling a little more chakra into his hands and feet and redoubling his pace. He only hopes the crew of the boat they commandeered was able to get out of range before shinobi started sucking up the seawater. There's no time to even glance back to check, and Rōshi doesn’t bother trying, throwing himself up the steeply angled rock.

He’s already calling up Son’s chakra as he hits the lip the cliff, and he hurtles over with lava curling around him, slamming feet-first into a shinobi in Kiri's uniform. The man goes down, and the very pretty auburn-haired woman he was about to stab in the back whirls around in surprise. Rōshi doesn’t pause, slinging himself around her and smashing a ball of molten rock into the face of another man. The smell of scorched flesh fills the air, and Han, just vaulting over the edge of the cliff, gives him a must-you-always-resort-to-overkill look.

With the ease of practice, Rōshi ignores it, ducking a kunai aimed at his eye and kicking the attacking kunoichi in the stomach. Another surge of lava—not his own, to his great surprise—finishes her off, and he turns a startled look on the auburn-haired woman, who smiles viciously at him before hurling herself at a shinobi trying to lunge at the jinchuuriki seated off to the side. The kid doesn’t move, but the would-be attacker goes down screaming.

“Okay. Her I like,” Rōshi tells Han cheerfully.

Han gives him a long-suffering look, then drops the sack holding his armor and starts pulling it on. “Kurama,” he reminds Rōshi pointedly.

“Over there,” the only shinobi fighting on the woman’s side says, pausing next to them with the blade of his massive sword dripping blood. Rōshi had forgotten just what Kiri was like, as a culture. The lack of restraint is actually rather freeing, though, looking at it as a jinchuuriki who causes collateral damage more often than not. The man points down the rocky road, to where that water Rōshi watched rise is coming down, and he just manages to catch a glimpse of dark skin and red hair before the wave crashes over the two fighters.

“Kurama!” he shouts, heart in his throat, and leaps for the pair with Son rising inside of him. The ape roars with fury, deafening even if it isn’t truly audible, and Rōshi isn’t any more composed. The Suiton jutsu is pulling back, but that much pressure, that much weight, with killing chakra behind it and a jinchuuriki’s power augmenting it—

Something sparks. There's a flicker of red so dark it’s almost black, then another, and then like a wildfire catching an ancient, malicious power burns the water away, not even leaving steam behind. In the midst of that angry, hateful chakra, a figure stirs, and Kurama pushes to his feet. He staggers once, then steadies, shaking his head, and…laughs.

He laughs, and it’s wild and dangerous enough to stop Rōshi in his tracks.

“Goddamn,” Kurama says, twisting to stretch almost idly. He bares his teeth in a bloody grin, directed at the small figure standing tense and wary across from him, and chuckles lowly. “I’d forgotten what it feels like to really let loose. Care to help me remember, kid?”

The other jinchuuriki’s expression flickers, then firms. “I'm not a child,” he growls, and it has the sound of a familiar mantra.

Kurama hums thoughtfully, then shifts his weight forward onto the balls of his feet. “Great,” he says with easy, deadly amusement. “Then I don’t have to care when I beat your ass into the ground.”

Chakra ripples around him, hot like the heart of a fire with the cutting edge of a hurricane hidden behind the heat. Kurama doesn’t even seem to move, but in half the space of a blink he’s behind the Mizukage, and a kick slams into the jinchuuriki’s spine. Yagura stumbles forward even as his three tails whip backwards, aiming to crush, but Kurama catches them casually, easily, and laughs again.

“Cute,” he mocks. “But you're forgetting something, Yagura.” His grip tightens, and with a surge and a jerk he turns, throwing Yagura bodily away from him. The jinchuuriki crashes into the trees on the far side of the path, tearing through them as his chakra flares to lessen the impact.

Kurama steps after him, casual except for the predator lurking in his eyes. “I'm so far out of your league, kid, that you might as well just give up. You're never going to be able to touch me as you are now, tied to that madman. Get up. Fight for yourself. Fight like you actually mean it. Fight me, Yagura!”

Yagura scrambles to his feet, eyes wide and suddenly wary, and takes a step forward. He lashes out again, tails and chakra slamming forward, but Kurama dodges like they're hardly moving at all and punches Yagura squarely in the face. There's a sharp crack of breaking bone, and Yagura reels back with a cry, expression astonished above the wash of blood from a broken nose. And—Rōshi’s honestly pretty surprised, too, given that he hadn’t thought a simple punch could make it through a jinchuuriki’s chakra shroud.

Then again, it’s not a surprise that Kurama's something entirely new in the framework of their world. Rōshi realized that much a while ago.

Fire roars, a sudden snap-crack as the inferno strikes with all the force of a hammer, evaporating the weak shield of water Yagura desperately summons to block it. The younger man looks dazed, almost dizzy as he staggers back another few feet, trying to put space between himself and Kurama, and he shakes his head hard as if attempting to throw off a mental fog. “You—what?” he demands harshly, then visibly grits his teeth and opens his eyes. “You're a traitor,” he growls. “Nothing you say means anything! I’ll stop you here, and take those jinchuuriki you snatched to make Kiri strong!”

Rōshi winces. He’s only been around Kurama for less than a full day, and even he can tell that threatening the kids Kurama collected is a bad, bad idea.

And, on cue, Kurama bares his teeth, an inhuman snarl tearing out of his throat. “They're mine!” he roars, and chakra whirls around him like a hurricane and is then pulled in, condensing in one hand. Positive and negative shift, balancing precisely, and spin into a whirl of black-streaked violet. The moment it steadies, Kurama hurls himself forward, too fast to see, and slams into Yagura with the force of a storm. The orb of chakra in his hand impacts the Sanbi’s chakra shroud, and with a sound like splintering glass it gives way, shattering around Yagura. With a cry he staggers back, and Kurama spins, another kick hurtling Yagura back across the road. The Mizukage slams into a rock, skull snapping back with a crack, and then slumps in boneless unconsciousness.

Like a sudden tide, cool chakra curls around him, rising and then receding, and Rōshi feels Son shift in sudden recognition. Isobu, the ape says to him. I felt him before, but it was…muted. Different. I hadn’t realized it until now.

“Rōshi.” There's surprise in Kurama's voice as he steps out of the clearing his fight created, and Rōshi turns to find the other redhead looking at him with confusion. “What are you doing here?”

That, at least, is easy enough to answer. Rōshi jerks a thumb back towards his friend, who’s helping contain the last of the attacking Kiri shinobi, and says, “Han and I met up on Turtle Island, meant to pass a message to Bee, but he’d been called back to Kumo. We decided to find you, see if you needed our help. Seems like you’ve got it handled, though.”

Kurama smiles a little, oddly easy despite the painfully corrosive chakra that’s just starting to fade. “I'm okay now,” he agrees, and the words have a weight to them, meaning that Rōshi isn’t privy to. “Someone just reminded me what I'm fighting for.” He casts a glance at Yagura’s crumpled form, expression not quite sympathetic even if there's definitely understanding there. “A puppet wouldn’t understand that.”

A genjutsu, Rōshi realizes with a flicker of unease, remembering Kurama's warning about a masked man with an eye that could control jinchuuriki. People with strong enough wills can sometimes break genjutsus, given the right motivation, but if they can't manage by themselves, pain does a pretty good job of it, too. And being overwhelmed by Kurama's chakra, uncontained and roiling with hot-sharp determination buried rage, was probably more than painful enough to do the trick, even if that blow to the head didn’t.

Shaking his head in mixed disbelief and wonder—because really, mind-controlled bijuu and mysterious redheads rescuing them, what is his life now—Rōshi joins Kurama at the other jinchuuriki’s side, even as the dark-haired teenager and the swordsman head down the road to join them. “Think that freed him?” he asks judiciously, running an assessing eye over the man. Over the Mizukage, and damn it, but that buts a whole new spin on things, doesn’t it? Controlling a Kage is like conquering a village, after all, and in a place like Kiri, a sudden personality change might spark a few concerns, but not many people would be brave enough to actually voice them.

“I think so.” It’s the teenager who answers, hovering a few feet back but looking steady enough. “Saiken says the Sharingan’s hold has been broken.”

“The Sharingan?” the swordsman demands, hand tightening on the hilt of his weapon. “There was a fucking Uchiha controlling him? Red—”

“Rogue Uchiha,” Kurama corrects, rocking back on his heels. He glances over at the teenager. “Utakata, you good?”

Utakata nods. “Saiken took the brunt of the fight while I restrained Isobu. I’ll be fine with a little rest.”

“Good.” A shift from the body in front of them pulls Kurama's attention back, and he narrows his eyes, tension bleeding into his frame. Rōshi tenses too, Son close to the surface and ready to strike if he needs to, but he doesn’t move yet.

“Red?” the swordsman asks, faintly wary, just as Yagura’s eyes flicker open.

Chapter Text

[requital / ri ‘ kwī ‘ təl /, something given in return, compensation, or retaliation. From 16th Century English, from re- “back” + obsolete quite “quit”.]

 

 “Ow,” is the first thing Yagura says, immediately followed by, “That bastard with the eye! I'm going to wring his neck!”

“Okay,” Kurama concludes wryly, settling back on his heels. “He’s fine. Everybody back, quit hovering.”

Yagura pushes himself away from the rocks with a grimace, sitting up a little unsteadily and pressing a hand to the back of his skull. “Thank you,” he tells Kurama briskly. “I appreciate it more than you can know, getting me out from under that man’s thumb.”

Memories of Madara and bloody-red eyes make Kurama's smile slip sideways, turn it crooked and a little pained. Obito did it, too, the night of Naruto's birth. “Believe me, I understand. The Sharingan sucks ass. Glad you're back with us, though.”

That earns Kurama a quick look from several of the surrounding shinobi, Rōshi and Utakata foremost. “Kurama?” Rōshi asks sharply, expression pulling into a deep frown as he crosses his arms over his chest.

Kurama waves it away. It’s the past twice over now, and he’s not about to bring it up. The ease from seeing Naruto, from managing something like a goodbye untainted by death and falling bodies, is like a pool of calm at Kurama's center, curled up in the midst of the full force of his chakra. He hadn’t even realized it was absent until Naruto returned it, but it’s like reuniting his Yin and Yang halves all over again.

He’s whole, more than just physically now.

The sharp snap of heeled sandals on stone announces Mei's rapid approach, with the faint clank of Han following behind her. “Yagura,” she says sharply, and there's temper like a brewing storm in her voice. “You little worm, I should punch you for everything you’ve put us through these last few years!”

Zabuza takes one look at her face and slides around to stand on the far side of Kurama, well out of range.

Yagura simply glares back at her as he drags himself to his feet. He plants himself in front of Mei, who has over a foot on him in height and probably weighs as much as two of him. “Terumī. Don’t think I didn’t know about you coveting my seat, witch. You can't have it. I'm the Yondaime Mizukage!”

“Then you should actually do your job!” Mei props her hands on her hips and meets him stare for angry stare. “It’s all gone to hell while you were busy being brainwashed, so fix it.”

“I will!”

“Good!”

“Fine!”

Kurama isn’t quite sure what happens next, but there's a brief scuffle that somehow ends with Mei hugging Yagura as if her life depends on it, stooped low to get her arms around him, and Yagura enduring it with a roll of his eyes and a fairly awkward pat on the back. There's a faint glassiness to his eyes that gives him away, though, and his voice is slightly rough when he says, “Stop leaking on me, Terumī. I'm the Mizukage, it’s demeaning.”

“Shut up,” Mei tells him promptly. “This is probably the closest you're ever going to get to a woman, so pipe down and enjoy it, shrimp.”

Yagura makes a face and wiggles out of her hold with as much dignity as he can muster. Kurama assumes they're not supposed to see the way he brushes impatiently at his eyes. “If you even count, harpy,” he retorts. “Still trying to trap a husband, I see.”

Mei smacks him in the back of the head without hesitation. “I'm at a perfectly eligible marrying age!”

That’s certainly not a relationship Kurama saw coming. With a low, entirely amused snort, he rises to his feet as well, leaving them to their bickering as he steps back to Rōshi’s side. The jinchuuriki arches a brow at him, then says mildly, “That was an impressive lightshow. You know, I bet that Copy-Nin would be a lot more careful about chasing after you if you showed him something like that.”

Kurama blinks, making the connection, and can't fight a chuckle. “You ran into Hatake, I take it?”

From Kurama's other side, Han huffs softly. “Ran into? You mean picked a fight with.”

Rōshi looks unrepentant. “Figured the least we could do for you and those two brats was slow him down. Not sure if it worked, but since we didn’t pass any jounin-shaped craters on our way here, I’ll assume it did.”

The look on Kakashi's face when he realized he was facing off against not one but two jinchuuriki must have been fantastic, Kurama thinks a bit wistfully. Too bad he hadn’t known when he met the Freak Squad in Whirlpool Country; he’d have gleefully rubbed Kakashi's face in it if he had. “We’ve run into them twice, but we managed to get away both times. We’re all fine.”

“Of course you are.” Roushi sounds insulted by the mere implication that they might be otherwise. “It takes a hell of a lot more than a scrawny scarecrow of a jounin to take a jinchuuriki down.”

Han sighs. “Rōshi, I really don’t think you're in any position to be calling people scrawny.”

With a harrumph, Rōshi folds his arms across his chest. “I'm the furthest thing from scrawny, you walking haystack—”

“Red.”

“It’s Kurama,” Kurama says with some annoyance. “Even you can manage three syllables, shark-face.”

Zabuza just grins at him, Kubikiribōchō slung casually over his shoulder. “Let’s leave the lovebirds to it,” he says, jerking a thumb at Yagura and Mei, who are halfway down the path back to the village and still arguing. “They’ll clean up the mess that’s going on. I'm gonna find the kid.”

Since there's only one kid Zabuza could be referring to, and Kurama's kids are currently with him, Kurama nods in agreement, falling into step with the swordsman. Utakata slips up to walk on his other side, but doesn’t say anything even when Kurama glances at him, and he accepts that with a shrug. It’ll be good for Utakata to meet the rest of the brats, anyway, and he might feel a little safer around so many others like him.

“Not going to try and stab Yagura in the back and take the hat?” he asks Zabuza, faintly curious. The point of the revolution was to try and usurp the Mizukage’s position, after all.”

Zabuza simply snorts. “I think Mei would boil me alive,” he says without even a flicker of hostility, and a good amount of amusement. “She and Yagura have been friends since they were kids. ‘Sides, if our Mizukage’s not batshit insane anymore, I got what I wanted. That’s good enough.”

Kurama's psychopath theory is looking less and less likely with every passing minute. He bids it a rather wistful farewell, wondering if there are any villains out there without tragic backstories and understandable motivations. Seeing as Naruto couldn’t turn around without tripping over a sympathetic enemy, he supposes not.

“Whatever,” he dismisses. “Going to drop the damn blackmail now?”

That gets him a grin, full of sharp teeth and—

Oh.

Kurama recognizes that look, actually. He has very awkward memories of seeing it on Sasuke's face just before Naruto ended up flat on his back or pressed up against the nearest hard surface.

“I don’t know,” Zabuza says casually, though his grin isn’t going away. “You gonna let me buy you a drink without resorting to it?”

It takes effort to keep his steps steady. Obviously, Kurama's never had to deal with anything even close to this before. He used to be a construct of chakra, with all the lack of everything that implies. He’s seen it, of course, even halfway experienced it through the eyes of his hosts—and, Sage, Hashirama courting—no, attempting to court Mito was probably enough to scar him for life all by itself—but it’s never been even close to the realm of his wants.

I have no fucking clue, Kurama wants to say, but can't quite bring himself to. It’s—vulnerability, maybe, and even with the memory of his Naruto's unshadowed smile so close, Kurama's still not big on leaving holes like that in his defenses. He casts a sideways look at Zabuza, assessing just for the hell of it, and lets his eyes linger.

Attraction, at least, is something he’s definitely felt secondhand, since Uzumaki are absolutely not shy about their sexualities or sexual urges. He thinks he can feel a shadow of it in himself, looking at Zabuza’s angular face, the dark eyes watching him. More appreciation than anything, maybe, but it’s…interesting.

Kurama’s been human for almost three weeks now, after over a hundred years watching how humans work from the outside—or, more precisely, the inside—and he hasn’t had the chance to think about it before, but all the curious things that Naruto and Kushina and Mito did, he can understand them firsthand now. All he has to do is…poke around a little.

Foxes are curious by nature, and Kurama's no exception there.

“If you're trying to get me drunk,” he says gruffly, trying to hide the twin sparks of wariness and interest, “I’ll warn you now, you're going to need nine or ten bars’ worth of booze.”

Zabuza chuckles, low and pleased. “Your virtue’s safe with me, princess. I'm fine with it if you don’t want to put out on the first date.”

“Fuck you, shark-face,” Kurama shoots back, though the bickering does make him feel slightly steadier. “I just don’t know if you're worth it yet.”

“Please stop flirting, it’s kind of terrifying,” Rōshi puts in from where he’s trailing after them with Han, and Kurama casts a dirty look over his shoulder. The shorter redhead raises his hands defensively, but subsides with a smirk.

“Better than watching you drool over that lady’s lava release,” Han points out mildly, tipping his hat down to hide his smile. It would work better if he didn’t have at least a foot and a half on even Zabuza.

Rōshi bristles, turning and kicking Han hard in the shin. Over a flurry of verbal abuse, Utakata takes a step closer and says quietly, “We should ask Yagura to meet us after things have been settled in the village. I don’t think he’s encountered any of the other jinchuuriki besides me.”

The sharpness in his amber eyes says that isn’t the only reason, and Kurama can easily make the leap, even if the kid is avoiding mention of it in front of Zabuza. Yagura’s had the closest encounter with Obito in this time, and might be able to recall something that they can use. Since Kurama's more or less in the dark about the Uchiha’s actions right now, beyond him being that shadow leader of Akatsuki and not having decided to infiltrate his own organization as Tobi yet, it’s a good idea.

“You're a smart kid,” he says, and means it wholeheartedly. “Thanks for helping in the fight, too. That was damn clever of you.”

Utakata ducks his head a little, but there's a faint, pleased smile on his lips. “I didn’t want to get in your way, since we’ve never fought together before, but I thought I could help. I'm glad it worked.”

“Gave him plenty of time to pull that hat trick out of his ass,” Zabuza says, eyeing Kurama again. This time it’s less lustful and more as if he’s measuring Kurama for a coffin. “We should have that spar some time, Red.”

Kurama snorts derisively. “Yeah, no. I’d be picking you out of my teeth in ten seconds flat, sword-freak. If you even lasted that long. But I think Yugito is still up for kicking your ass, if you're hard-up for sparring partners.”

“Scared?” Zabuza taunts. “Can't beat an opponent unless they’ve been brainwashed for decades?”

“Fuck off. The only thing scary about you is that you seem to think the piranha teeth look is attractive.”

“I haven’t had any complaints. Want to try it and see for yourself, Red?”

“What did I just say about the flirting?” Rōshi complains, and ducks obligingly when Kurama takes a swing at him. Kurama's claws skim the tips of his hair and he huffs is disgruntled disappointment, pulling back.

“I don’t know,” he challenges. “Want to try saying it again? Louder, this time?”

“Rōshi hardly needs encouragement to be loud.” Han sidesteps another kick—aimed at his kneecaps this time—and raises his head, looking down the road to where it curves around a stand of trees. “Incoming, Kurama.”

Mobile watchtower, Kurama thinks in amusement, turning back to watch the path. His ears catch familiar footsteps, flying flat-out over the dirt, and a moment later Naruto barrels around the turn. For an instant Kurama is prepared for anything, from homesick tears to Obito in hot pursuit, but then he realizes Naruto is beaming and laughing, running with his arms outstretched. With a chuckle, he pushes past Zabuza, stepping to the front, and crouches down just in time for the little boy to slam bodily into him. He grunts and rocks back on his heels, but manages to redirect momentum as he rises, hauling Naruto up with him. He hugs him tightly, burying his face in familiar blond hair, and can't fight a smile of his own.

He’s said goodbye to his Naruto. This is the one that needs him now.

“Hey there, kit,” he murmurs. “Miss me?”

“Kurama-nii!” Naruto pulls back to give him a wide grin. “You're okay! There was a big explosion and lots of chakra and Yugito-nee got really worried for a bit but you're okay now!”

Kurama chuckles, scuffing a hand through his wild hair. “Not a scratch on me,” he confirms. “You were good for Yugito and Haku?”

“Of course!” Naruto says like it’s a forgone conclusion and not a vague hope Kurama had clung to. “Gaara an’ me helped Haku make lunch, and Fū washed the clothes and then Yugito-nee helped her hang them up.”

“That’s a lot you guys got done,” Kurama approves, tweaking the tip of his nose. He half-turns so that Naruto can see his companions. “Remember Rōshi, from the inn in Ame?”

Naruto waves cheerfully. “Hi! I remember! You're the guy with the pointy beard, like Hokage-jiji’s but bigger!”

Rōshi touches his beard a little self-consciously, but manages a smile in return. “Hello again, Naruto.”

Han snorts quietly, moving forward, and bends down to put himself at eye-level with Naruto. “Hello, Naruto,” he echoes. “I'm Han, jinchuuriki of Kokuō, the Gobi. Kurama saved my life, and I'm in his debt, so if you ever need anything, just ask it of me.”

Staring up at him with slightly wide eyes, Naruto nods, apparently overwhelmed by Han’s excessive height. Han chuckles a little, straightening and tipping his hat back. His eyes flicker past Kurama, back down the road, and Kurama turns automatically to see Gaara approaching at a much more reserved pace. He eyes the strangers warily as he nears, and skirts Zabuza as much as he can before he latches on to the edge of Kurama's shirt.

“You're not hurt, Kurama-nii?” he asks solemnly, staring up at him with wide aquamarine eyes.

“Not at all, squirt,” Kurama answers gently, dropping to one knee. He holds out his free arm, and without needing any more of an invitation, Gaara winds his arms around Kurama's neck and holds tightly as he’s picked up. Kurama settles them carefully, a six-year-old on each hip, and pointedly ignores the way Zabuza is smirking at him. “What are you two doing out here by yourselves? Did you sneak out while Yugito wasn’t looking?”

“Oh!” Naruto wriggles in sudden, utter excitement. “Kurama-nii, Kurama-nii, guess what? We caught a geezer!”

Kurama has a very bad feeling about this.

Gaara nods in agreement. “Fū said we could come and tell you,” he reports.

“She said only if you were around the corner,” Naruto complains. “But that’s stupid. You're right here and it’s fine.”

“It’s not stupid,” Kurama corrects automatically, starting down the path again without waiting for the others to catch up. If Naruto means what Kurama thinks he does…oh boy. “She just wants to keep you safe. Tell me about this geezer.”

“He’s a geezer,” is Naruto's helpful clarification. “He saw me an’ Fuji-nee playing on the porch an’ said I should come with him back to Konoha ‘cause it wasn’t safe out here. Then Yugito-nee came out and she grew big claws and tried to scare him off, but he made himself an even bigger pile of spikes and poked her! So we all jumped him and beat him up, ‘cause Yugito-nee is awesome and teaches me how to throw shuriken really well and anyone who hurts her is really mean!”

Gaara nods silently, affirming that this is definitely what happened, and buries his face in Kurama's collar. After a long moment, he says very quietly, “I protected them, Kurama-nii. I found something I wanted to protect and I didn’t let that man hurt it. Like I promised.”

Kurama remembers him saying that, just as they entered Kusa. It feels like so long ago, even if it was only a handful of days. The memory is clear, though—Gaara had made up his mind that he would do anything he needed to in order to keep those precious to him safe, and now he’s proved it.

“You really are my ferocious warriors, huh?” Kurama asks fondly, pushing open the gate in the low fence with his hip. It squeaks as it swings open, and he lets it fall shut behind him with a heavy thud.

“Yep!” Naruto agrees brightly, and waves when Fū appears around the corner of the house. “Hi, Fū! We found Kurama-nii!”

“I thought I told you to wait for him at the corner,” Fū says, looking faintly frazzled, though she offers Kurama a swift smile. “Welcome back, Kurama-nii. Did Naruto tell you?”

“About the geezer you caught? He started to.” Kurama bends down to set the boys on their feet, then steps past them, keeping himself between them and the chakra signature he can feel in the back yard. “Is Yugito all right?”

“I'm fine, Kurama-nii.” The girl slips around the edge of the porch, and when Fū shoots her a look adds, “Haku, Momiji, and Fuji are watching him. It should be okay to leave for a second.”

Despite the reassurance, Fū’s mouth turns down, and she heads back around the corner at a swift trot.

Kurama takes advantage of the pause to look Yugito over. There's a stained bandage sloppily wrapped around one bicep, and her face bears the rapidly-healing imprint of scratches that were probably closer to deep gouges before Matatabi started on them. Fury kindles like a fire in his gut, but he tamps it down, locks it away, and crouches in front of the girl.

“You're okay, kitten?” he asks, holding her gaze.

Yugito meets his eyes squarely, expression firm. “It’s just scratches, Kurama-nii. The bandage is only because Naruto thought it needed one.”

That definitely sounds like something a six-year-old Naruto would insist on. Unable to find any trace of lingering pain in her face, Kurama accepts Yugito’s words and pushes back to his feet. “All right. Let’s go see this asshole you managed to hook. If we decide to skin him you get first dibs.”

The squeaking gate swings open again, admitting Zabuza with his sword still slung over one shoulder, and he catches Kurama's gaze, tipping his chin at the woods that surround the house. Kurama nods in return, taking that to mean that Utakata, Rōshi, and Han are checking to make sure no one else is going to sneak up on them, and lets the swordsman catch up before he follows Yugito’s path towards the back of the building.

One step around the edge of the house and it honestly takes every ounce of Kurama's self-control not to burst into laughter.

Konoha's fabled spymaster, the feared and fearsome Toad Sannin Jiraiya, is sprawled out on his back in the center of the grass. From his toes to his navel he’s covered in a thick layer of ice, and from navel to chin he’s completely cocooned in hardened sand. There's enough of Chōmei’s glittery Scale Powder scattered around the area to make Kurama suspect Fū blinded him repeatedly, and a bruise around his eye that perfectly matches the shape of Naruto's fist is just starting to turn purple. Yugito’s shuriken and kunai are spread in tight clusters across the ground, and odds are good that Jiraiya's sporting scratches from her claws somewhere under the ice and sand.

At Kurama's side, Zabuza gives a low, impressed whistle and slides Kubikiribōchō down, planting it in the ground and leaning casually on it. “Well, Red, got to hand it to you, your kids don’t fuck around. Nice, Haku.”

Sitting on the porch, wary eyes still trained on the spymaster, Haku flushes happily.

Kurama gives in and chuckles, stroking Yugito’s hair gently as he shifts around her, and offering a proud smile when she glances at him. She smiles back, clearly pleased, and Kurama looks at the other three jinchuuriki in turn. “Good work,” he says, and doesn’t even try to keep the amusement out of his voice as he leans over the thoroughly trapped Jiraiya. “Hello, Toad Sage. Fancy meeting you here.”

“Funny,” Jiraiya says, narrowing his eyes. “I don’t remember seeing you around. How’d you trick Naruto into playing along with you kidnapping him?”

Abruptly losing his humor, Kurama scowls. “I'm Uzumaki Kurama,” he growls, and sees dark eyes go wide as the family name registers. “No tricks, asshole, I promise. But I figured if his godfather wasn’t going to step up and take a little fucking care of him, his uncle might as well.”

“Kushina didn’t have a brother,” Jiraiya says, low and threatening. “I would have known.”

Kurama snorts, stepping back. “Would you? Hell of a lot of rubble to dig through, just to get to Uzushio's genealogies.”

Jiraiya scoffs. “And the Kazekage’s kid? The granddaughter of Taki’s headman? Kumo’s second jinchuuriki? I suppose you're all magically related?”

He could deny the implied accusation, but Kurama's really, truly not in the mood to deal with a bastard who’d try to hurt a kid. Who did hurt a kid. Yugito might be a kickass kunoichi, but Jiraiya is roughly four times her age. He should fucking know better. “Yeah, no, them I kidnapped. And they're pretty damned happy about it, too.”

“We are,” Fū agrees, crouching down on Jiraiya's other side with a threateningly cheerful smile. She waves brightly when his eyes land on her. “Hi, geezer! Kurama-nii’s my actual favorite person in the whole world, so every time you're mean to him I'm going to kick you, okay? Somewhere painful.”

Jiraiya blanches, then nods quickly. A rustle in the bushes has his eyes snapping left, and warily tracking over Rōshi and Han as they wade out of the tangled undergrowth and draping branches, Utakata a silent shadow behind them.

“Clear,” Rōshi grunts, then crosses his arms over his chest and stares grimly down at the Toad Sage. “So, are we cutting pieces off? Feeding him to the foxes?”

“I could do with a bite,” Momiji says judiciously, uncurling himself from one of the porch beams and leaping lightly down to the deck. He pads over, sniffing delicately, and adds, “I mean, I usually like the younger, more tender stuff, but old, tough, and stringy will do in a pinch.”

“I—stringy?” Jiraiya's face goes through several contortions, as though he wants to protest but can't figure out whether it’s a bad idea or not.

Kurama snorts. “Sorry, Momiji, I think I've got a better idea. I’ll find you some fish to make up for it, okay?” When he looks down again, Jiraiya is watching him warily. With a smirk, Kurama raises his hands. “It’s not torture. We’re not actually animals. Well, some of us. How about a trade instead?”

And—it’s a bad idea. Then again, Kurama's had a lot of bad ideas over the last few weeks, but they’ve all turned out okay eventually. This one’s not all that different, and if it all goes well, it’ll fix a hell of a lot of what went wrong.

“A trade,” Jiraiya repeats dubiously. “If you think I'm just going to hand over Naruto—”

“You don’t have a damn thing to do with Naruto right now,” Kurama growls, and it rumbles in his chest, just a little too deep for human vocal cords. Jiraiya's eyes narrow, but Kurama doesn’t give him time to ask his question. “No. You're looking for Akatsuki. I know their names, their faces, their powers, and where they're hiding out. I know their leader, and who’s actually controlling them, and what their master plan is. All their dirty little secrets, their weaknesses, their motivations. And I’ll tell you. All I want in return is for you to call off Konoha. If I can stay with Naruto, I’ll bring him back to the village myself, but I stay with him or everything’s off.”

Shock is written plainly over Jiraiya's face, shock and a little bit of awe, mixed in with confusion and disbelief in equal measures. “You—why?” he demands.

Kurama gives him a bitter smile, and it doesn’t come quite as easily as it once did, as it did even yesterday, but it’s still simple enough to summon it up. All he has to think about is Kaguya, is Naruto, is blood on summer grass and the end of everything. “Because Akatsuki’s leader took everything from me. I survived. My best friend didn’t. And I want to destroy her for that.”

Jiraiya hesitates. He looks at Kurama narrowly, glances over to where Naruto is tucked safely behind a grim-faced Yugito. A long minute of silence, and then he finally says, “Swear you’ll take him back to Konoha. Swear to me.”

“I swear on the Sage of Six Paths, and on the name I was given,” Kurama says immediately. “That’s not an oath I'm willing to break.”

“It had better not be.” Jiraiya wriggles a little, and when his prison doesn’t so much as budge he gives up with a sigh. “I swear on Mount Myōboku, I’ll talk to Sarutobi. I can't do anything about the other villages, though, if you took their jinchuuriki. You're on your own with that one.”

Rōshi huffs loudly at that. “Right. Like any village in existence can tell nine jinchuuriki what to do when they're all together.”

With a hum of quiet agreement, Han props his shoulder against a sturdy sapling, leaning carefully. The tree bows under the combined weight of the big man and his even heavier armor. “I would very much like to see them try.”

“People are jerks,” is Fū’s verdict. “Me and Gaara and Naruto and Yugito are all sticking with Kurama-nii. Nobody can make us leave him. He’s our Kurama-nii.

With a quiet chuckle, Kurama ruffles her hair. “Yeah, yeah, sweetheart. Up. Haku, Gaara, care to let him go?”

From his perch on the steps, Haku turns to look at Zabuza, who shrugs carelessly. The boy inclines his head, then waves a hand, and the ice slides away.

“Gaara?” Kurama asks, turning to look for the little boy, and almost trips over him. The messy red head presses against his thigh, and shakes stubbornly. Kurama stares down at him for a moment, then sighs and crouches down, putting himself at eye-level. “Gaara. He’s not going to hurt us. But even if he does, I trust you. You're strong enough to stop him. You're strong enough to stop anyone who’s going to hurt what you love. I believe that. Don’t you?”

There's a long pause, and Gaara's hold on his pant-leg tightens. Then, slowly, he looks up, and says, “I can do it, if I have to.”

“I know you can.” Kurama leans forward and presses a light kiss to his forehead, right next to the kanji he carved into his own skin. “And we’ll help, too. All of us. You know that, right?”

This time the nod comes more quickly. There's a hiss of sand sliding back into the ground, and then Jiraiya sits up slowly, wary eyes flickering between the nine people and two foxes in the yard. He makes no move to rise, but looks past Kurama to Naruto and tries for a smile. “Hey, kiddo. Quite the punch you’ve got there.”

Naruto gives him a mulish glare and sticks his tongue out. Zabuza laughs with a definite mocking edge, leaning on his sword like a casual threat. Kurama just sighs, because no way in hell did he think this was going to be easy, but…well. He didn’t think that it would leave him the only reasonable adult on their side of the room.

“Fantastic,” he mutters, and almost thinks that he can hear his Naruto laughing. Of course the bastard would get a kick out of Kurama going head-to-head with his godfather.

The things I do for you, Kurama thinks, and only kind of means it.

Chapter Text

[probity / prō ‘ bə ‘ dē /, the quality of having strong moral principles; honesty, goodness, and decency. Late Middle English, from Latin probitas, from probus “good”.]

 

The kids are wary of him.

It’s to be expected, Jiraiya tells himself. They attacked, he defended, and the girl got hurt. The facts, the justification—they don’t change anything. He hurt the girl who might as well be Naruto's older sister, by the looks of things, and that’s not going to endear him to them any time soon.

He’ll admit it’s a little mind-bending, though, to see eight of the nine jinchuuriki—including the bloodthirsty and murderous Yondaime Mizukage, who is apparently no longer either bloodthirsty or murderous—scattered around the backyard of a small house in Kiri. Only Bee is missing, but his absence doesn’t seem to be putting much of a damper on things. Rōshi of the Lava Release, long since thought to have abandoned humanity completely, is laughing with the auburn-haired beauty from Kiri and ignoring the way Yagura is scowling at both of them, expression offended. A few paces away, Han, the Jinchuuriki of the Steam, has stripped off his armor and is letting the little green-haired girl perch on one of his broad shoulders as she chatters at him. Jiraiya honestly can't think of anything but a fairy alighting on a friendly giant, and it’s a disconcertingly cute image.

Taking a sip of the sake their swordsman host provided—rough, strong, and definitely not something to be underestimated—Jiraiya lets his gaze slide unobtrusively over the rest of the gathering. The girl he injured is working her way through a plate of fish, quiet but at ease, with both of the fox summons curled up at her feet. Utakata and Momochi’s apprentice are keeping Naruto entertained with a game of tree-climbing near the yard’s edges, and Jiraiya has to admit he’s fairly impressed with how much control Naruto is already showing, especially given that the kid just started attending the Academy this year. Then again, given the number of shadow clones he made when he was tackling Jiraiya to the ground, tree climbing is probably the least of what he can do.

He lingers there for a moment, watching the boy who doesn’t know him, the godson who’s never really met him, and…it hurts. Easy enough to put it out of mind when he’s miles from the village, submerged in women and alcohol and whispers that might catch the Sandaime’s attention. Easy to forget about Naruto completely when he’s on Orochimaru’s trail, gathering up the clues his wayward former friend has left behind like breadcrumbs.

Harder now, looking at the last living remnant of the man he loved like a son, like the hope for a better world, and realizing that in all the time he’s spent observing him on his rare stops in Konoha, he’s never heard the boy laugh like this before.

It’s just…unfair, he thinks a little grimly, swirling the liquor around his cup and watching it catch the light of the setting sun. Naruto should be laughing like that with Minato, with Kushina. They loved him so much, even before he was born, were so excited at the prospect of finally having a family. Two orphans, both with lonely childhoods and burdens they shouldn’t have had to bear, and what would they think of Jiraiya, knowing he abandoned his godson with the thin excuse that he had a duty to fulfil?

Nothing good, he’s sure.

Thoughts of Kushina leave him no escape from the puzzle that is the man who claims to be her brother, and Jiraiya glances at where the redhead is sitting on the porch steps, a cup of tea at his elbow and Zabuza beside him. The Kazekage’s son is perched on his lap, one small hand fisted in the front of Kurama's shirt, and seems perfectly content just to sit there while the adults talk. One of Kurama's arms is curled around him, absent in a way that speaks of perfect comfort with the situation, and there's no way it’s an act. Not a chance. Jiraiya's a damned good actor himself, and he can tell. Kurama really loves all of the kids he picked up, and that just makes him even more of a mystery.

As far as Jiraiya knows, Kushina was an only child. Then again, she never talked about her family much in general—disappeared dad, dead mother, no extended family left after Uzushio's fall—so…it’s possible. Likely, even, Jiraiya admits, covertly observing Kurama's face. Naruto got Minato's coloring and his mother’s bone structure; without the blond hair to distract the eye, Kurama's resemblance to him is almost eerie, as is his likeness to Kushina herself. In temperament, too, from what Jiraiya's seen—he’s surprised the man hasn’t punched him for hurting the blonde girl yet.

That had been one hell of a surprise, Jiraiya thinks wryly, stepping out of the woods in the ass-end of Kiri to find Naruto rolling around on the grass with a couple of foxes. Jiraiya had been escaping an increasingly bloody rebellion—he hadn’t stopped to consider any options beyond getting Naruto safely away from what had to be a kidnapping. The blonde girl hadn’t taken kindly to it, and she’d caught Jiraiya off guard. He’d reacted on instinct, covering himself in spikes, and heard her cry out. Right after, he’d been jumped by four little hellions out for blood, and while a lot of their win was down to shock and not wanting to injure his godson, Jiraiya's willing to give credit where it’s due. They're good, and in a few years they're all going to be terrifying.

He’s not going to insult the girl by offering another apology; last time he tried, she’d cut him off with a sharp, “I'm a shinobi”, and Jiraiya takes that to mean she’d rather accept the loss, move on, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Naruto, though. Naruto's holding a grudge, and Jiraiya doesn’t blame him. If some asshole had hurt Tsunade while they were on a team, he wouldn’t forget about it, either. That the blonde in question is his surrogate sister and not his hopeless crush only makes things worse.

He takes another look at Naruto, hanging upside down from a branch by his knees with a smiling Utakata looking up at him—clearly encouraging, clearly friendly—and sets his sake down to rub his hands over his face with a muttered curse. Hell, Sarutobi is going to pop a vein. The civilians of Konoha are self-righteous, self-centered, petty assholes, and the shinobi have forgotten, to a man, just who Naruto is and where he came from. So many of them knew Minato or Kushina or both, counted them as friends, and now…nothing. Not a thought spared for making Naruto's existence easier. Not a mitigating word to their children, not a kind gesture, not a friendly smile as they pass him in the streets. Damn it, but Naruto's closest friend in Konoha is the ramen cook.

In light of that, is it really surprising that Naruto has latched on to the first person to show him love with such fervor? He adores Kurama, just as the other children do—maybe even more, because there's a connection between them that’s deeper than with the other kids. Kurama looks for Naruto first, always, and Jiraiya doesn’t want to put stock in such a handily convenient backstory, but…it adds credence to Kurama's story. Between that and the unmistakable Uzumaki looks, there's not much room for Jiraiya to doubt any of it.

And then, just to further the mystery, there's the fact that Kurama says we when he’s referring to the jinchuuriki as a group, even though that makes ten jinchuuriki and there should only be nine. From what Jiraiya has managed to gather, he fought Yagura in his Version Two form, and not only beat him but didn’t even break a sweat doing it. There's been mention of a shattered genjutsu, Akatsuki as the culprit behind it, and…

That, of course, would be the other thing Jiraiya is avoiding thinking about. Akatsuki and its seven members, among whom are two of his former students who he’s long thought dead. Nagato, it would seem, is not the Child of Prophecy that Jiraiya thought, or if he was, he isn’t any longer. Twisted, changed, shattered beyond all recognition, to the point where he’s animated Yahiko’s corpse as one of his six Paths and is trying to conquer the world. And Konan, following as she always does, devoted to the memory of the man she loved and the dream they shared, even if it’s in pieces.

Compared to that, Orochimaru’s presence in the group is hardly a blow at all, though Jiraiya thinks he’s probably a terrible fit. Orochimaru was never one for teamwork, after all, even when they were a team. He’s also self-motivated, and all too self-aware. At some point, he’s going to put himself above the goals of the group, and from what Kurama has said, that’s not going to go over well. Even now, Jiraiya can't help but hope he escapes in one piece; a murderous bastard he may be, but he’s still Jiraiya's first and greatest friend.

Kurama has a plan to face Akatsuki, though he hasn’t said outright what it is yet. Since he’s an Uzumaki, Jiraiya assumes it’s going to be stupidly reckless, will probably contain at least one full-frontal assault, and will have very slim chances of everyone involved coming out of it with all of their limbs intact. He remembers some of Kushina's plans during the war, and maybe Minato was too besotted to notice that his girlfriend was utterly insane, but Jiraiya sure as hell wasn’t.

The quiet burble of sake being poured into his abandoned glass makes Jiraiya lift his head, and he blinks in faint confusion as Kurama settles on the grass beside his stump. The Kazekage’s son is over by Naruto, as is Taki’s jinchuuriki, who has scaled the tree and is cartwheeling along a narrow branch. Utakata looks a little like he wants to flail and demand she be careful, though he’s otherwise holding on to his composure, keeping beneath the redheaded kid as he steps cautiously out on the branch to join Naruto.

“You have more bad news for me?” Jiraiya asks a little suspiciously, though he can't help the wry note in his voice. It’s a hell of a shift in his world-view, after all. The enemy he’s been chasing might as well be one of his own creation; he’s responsible for Nagato’s ideals, after all, and his control over the Rinnegan. Without those, Akatsuki wouldn’t even exist right now.

Kurama snorts, setting the sake bottle out of the way and picking up his own cup—still full of tea, and if Jiraiya hadn’t seen Zabuza and Rōshi downing this same sake like water, he might be suspicious. As it is, he’s willing to work off the assumption that Kurama just doesn’t like to drink, for whatever reason. It’s the least he can do, if Kurama is really who he says he is. He’s failed Naruto enough; no need to drive him any further away by alienating his guardian with accusations of poisoning.

“You want more?” Kurama asks, gruffly amused as he stretches his legs out in front of him. “Sorry. I think I hit all the high points already.”

Jiraiya huffs a quiet laugh, surprised at the redhead’s humor, even though he likely shouldn’t be. If anyone understands the implications of the news about Akatsuki, it’s him.

Because Akatsuki’s leader took everything from me. I survived. My best friend didn’t. And I want to destroy her for that.

In the face of that, being able to laugh at a bad joke shows more strength than Jiraiya would have expected of him. And that doesn’t even account for his kindness with the children. Jiraiya has met his fair share of revenge-driven psychopaths; as much as Jiraiya wants to paint Kurama with the same brush, though, he just…doesn’t fit the bill.

“Think you’ll be able to convince Sarutobi?” Kurama asks suddenly. When Jiraiya glances down at him, his eyes are fixed on Naruto with the sort of steady devotion someone else might turn towards their life’s greatest work, or the center of their universe. “To let me stay with Naruto in the village, I mean.”

That phrasing, Jiraiya thinks, and that’s wry, too. He knows very well what will happen if Sarutobi says no: Kurama will take Naruto, take whichever of the brats wants to stay with him (all of them, older ones included, from what Jiraiya has seen), and happily remove himself from the world at large. He doesn’t need Konoha, and for all that Naruto wants to be Hokage—and isn’t that a kick in the teeth, hearing those words from a kid who looks like the perfect blending of both his parents and shares their dream—he doesn’t have any solid ties to Konoha that can't be worn away by time and distance. Remove Naruto from the village completely and he’ll eventually turn all of that fierce loyalty to Kurama and his fellow jinchuuriki instead.

For that reason alone Jiraiya thinks Sarutobi will say yes. He’s a kind old man, never one for conflicts when they can be avoided, but he’s also the God of Shinobi who led Konoha through two wars and has kept them the strongest of the Hidden Villages for almost forty years. He’s more than capable of smiling fondly and acting like a grandfather and still thinking of people in terms of assets to the village. That’s very largely the reason Jiraiya has never particularly wanted the hat; he couldn’t bring himself to think that way. Minato could, and he knows Tsunade can—analytical, careful, for the good of the greatest number, with morals and sentiments set aside, but Jiraiya is too much heart and not enough brain. He’d scare himself, if he tried to be like that.

(Orochimaru would have been the opposite, he thinks, more brain than heart. They always needed each other to balance out into one functional person, and despite everything Jiraiya still feels a flicker of warmth in his chest at the memory of his oldest friend, cautious and assessing but still following the path of dreams that the whole world said were impossible. He wonders now, with a small, wry smile, just how much of himself Orochimaru still devotes to those dreams. Too much? Or has it always been not enough?)

“Yeah,” he says, feeling Kurama's dark red eyes on him. Like Kushina's with the blue leeched out, leaving them deep crimson instead of bruise-purple. He takes a long gulp of sake to give himself a reason for the hoarse note in his voice, and adds, “I sent him a letter already, with one of my summons. Gamakichi will head back as soon as Sarutobi writes a reply.” And stops cursing long enough to give him directions, he thinks, but keeps that part to himself. The Sandaime might act like a mild-tempered geezer most of the time, but he’s got his buttons. Naruto is one of them. Orochimaru—and by extension Akatsuki—is another. For that matter, so is anything that could lead to war—it’s one of the reasons the Hyuuga Incident ended the way it did. This situation manages to hit all three in one go, which would be fairly impressive if the thing at risk of exploding wasn’t Sarutobi's head.

Kurama doesn’t show any visible signs of relief. He simply nods, taking another sip of his tea, and turns his gaze back to where the Taki jinchuuriki is showing Naruto how to do a handspring. Of course, because she’s a vicious little thing—Jiraiya's pretty sure he’s going to be seeing spots until he dies, given the way she kept blinding him when he surprised them, and if he never has a kid it’ll be because of that truly debilitating kick to the groin she pulled off while he was reeling helplessly—the handspring is less of a handspring and more a scything kick aimed at the face of an invisible opponent, with a neat little twist and a perfect landing afterward.

Judging by the fond smile on Kurama's face, he sees the attack for what it is, too, and thinks it’s cute. Somehow, Jiraiya's not surprised.

“What are their names?” he asks on a whim, because he’s never taken the time to notice names in his travels—it was enough to know faces, and to recognize that they were jinchuuriki, so their actual names escaped him in favor of titles and allegiances. He’s been listening all night, but Kurama has pet names for all of them, and all the rest are too busy laughing and shouting and being rambunctious little hellions for him to make anything out.

Kurama makes a sound that is definitely a snicker, and which Jiraiya is just as definitely going to ignore. “What, they didn’t stop to introduce themselves before they kicked your ass?” he mocks, grinning. It’s got a few too many teeth in it to be entirely harmless, but Jiraiya decides to take it in the spirit that it’s intended and flips the redhead off. Kurama laughs outright at that, and waves a hand at where the kids are now all doing scything kicks as they launch themselves into the air. If this sort of learning curve is a jinchuuriki thing, the Elemental Countries are screwed if they ever decide to go after Kurama. Forget what the man himself can do; four superpowered children who soak up knowledge like sponges will be more than enough to level any village feeling stupid enough to take a swing at their adopted mother.

“Sabaku no Gaara,” Kurama says fondly, and when the pint-sized redhead glances over at them suspiciously—at Jiraiya suspiciously—Kurama just waves a hand, silently assuring him it’s fine. ”His father slapped an incomplete seal on him when he sealed Shukaku, thought it would make him a better weapon.” His mouth twists in derision. “It backfired, and the Kazekage’s spent the last six years trying to kill him to minimize the collateral. Never mind that it’s his own fucking fault Shukaku’s even crazier than before, and that he had a back door right into Gaara's head.”

A tip of Kurama's head drags Jiraiya's slightly horrified attention away from the little boy’s faint, happy smile as he follows behind Naruto, and directs it towards the little blonde girl Jiraiya hurt. The Taki jinchuuriki has ahold of her hands, and is laughing as she pulls the older girl to her feet. “Nii Yugito, from Kumo. They took her away from her family when she was two years old so they could seal Matatabi into her, and never let her go back. She’s been training since she could walk, and those assholes treated her like a miniature weapon, not a kid. Calling them brutal is too fucking kind. She’s never been allowed to decide anything, because even if Kumo’s not as bad as some places, A still thinks jinchuuriki are weapons that owe their allegiance to the village that created them.” Clawed fingers tighten on porcelain, and Kurama smiles mirthlessly. “Sage forbid the villages do anything to actually earn that loyalty, though.”

Jiraiya has a sinking feeling that there's going to be a pattern to these stories.

One sharp red eye studies him, and Kurama snorts, then looks away. “I’ll assume you know about Yagura and Utakata, and that you’ve heard of Rōshi and Han before,” he says, and when Jiraiya nods he barrels on before the other man can speak. “Fū’s run away from Taki more times than she can count. They kept dragging her back, even though she’s treated like a monster instead of the Headman’s granddaughter, and didn’t give a damn why she wanted to get away from those bastards in the first place. When I caught up to her, two Taki jounin were trying to subdue her. They’d hit her, and grabbed her so hard she had bruises. She’s ten.”

It takes effort not to ask what Kurama had done to those shinobi while he was rescuing Fū. Jiraiya's fairly certain he already knows, and honestly can't say he would have done anything differently. He takes a breath, takes another swig of his drink, and then says quietly, “It’s a bad situation all around.”

Fury sparks behind crimson eyes, and Kurama growls. The sound vibrates in his chest, rumbles up through his throat, and the air around them suddenly feels twice as thick and heavy, hot like standing too close to a fire. Kurama shoves to his feet, all lethal, animalistic grace and deadly rage, and snarls, “All around?! Because it’s so goddamn hard for the fucking villages to treat jinchuuriki like human beings? Because Sage forbid they actually give a damn about the children that they sacrificed! You want to know how to make a monster, Toad Sage? You take a child and you tell them, every day that they're alive, that they don’t deserve to be treated well! You whisper about them, and you treat them like they're dangerous, and you tell them that they’ll have to earn what every single other child is born knowing. Tell them long enough that they're a monster and it’s your own fucking fault that they eventually snap!”

With a sharp-edged snarl, Kurama turns on his heel and marches over to where the kids are watching, wide-eyed. He throws himself to the ground in their midst, and instantly has Naruto draped over his shoulders. Gaara and Fū crawl into his lap, not even seeming to notice the corrosive red chakra blanketing him, and Yugito presses herself into his side. Utakata drifts over as well, settling himself within arm’s reach, and after a moment Yagura extracts himself from the auburn-haired woman’s hold and wanders over to lean against a nearby tree.

A soft chuckle comes from behind Jiraiya, but he doesn’t look up as Zabuza steals the abandoned sake bottle and adds another measure to his cup. “Impressive. Didn’t think anyone could make Red lose his temper like that, but it only took you six words. Good job.” The swordsman’s mouth is curled into a knife-edged smile, just showing the edge of filed teeth, but there's something that’s a step away from violence in his eyes as they fall on Kurama, on the way Rōshi too moves closer to sit on the grass beside him. Kurama tips his head and says something that makes the other redhead laugh and Yagura snort, and Zabuza’s expression shifts sideways into something that hovers between appreciation and blatant want.

Jiraiya's pretty damn good at recognizing the beginnings of an infatuation—he’s put it in every single book he’s written since The Tale of the Gutsy Ninja, after all—and maybe Zabuza’s not quite there yet, but he’s definitely heading in that direction. It would be amusing if it weren’t also slightly horrifying.

Still, he’s also right, and Jiraiya breathes out a sigh, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he agrees wryly. “I got that impression, thanks.”

Zabuza snorts, then holds up the sake, offering it to Han as the big man approaches.

“No, thank you,” Han says politely, leaning against the fence. It creaks dangerously, and he shifts his weight away from it with a faint wince. “A jinchuuriki’s metabolism is too fast for us to get drunk unless we have roughly a lake’s worth of alcohol to down in the space of a few minutes. I’d rather keep to something else, if I'm just drinking for taste.”

The lack of effect doesn’t seem to have hindered Rōshi at all, if the six bottles Jiraiya has watched him put away mean anything. It does explain Kurama's avoidance, though, if he really is a jinchuuriki the way Jiraiya suspects. That little speech didn’t do much to change his mind, either. Instead of asking, though, he just lifts his cup to Han in salute and drains it. “More for me, then.”

Han looks faintly long-suffering, as though he’s heard that exact line in response before. With a faint shake of his head, he turns pale brown eyes on Jiraiya, and says, “You should be careful what you imply about the jinchuuriki, Toad Sage. You're not in company that will make many allowances for ignorance.”

With anyone else, Jiraiya might bristle at the warning. As it is, he simply nods, accepting the rebuke. He can learn, even if it takes him a try or two. Or three.

It earns him a faint smile, more wryness than actual humor. Han turns his face away, to where Naruto and Fū are turning Kurama into a human jungle gym, and his smile gains depth and warmth. “I've often wondered,” he says, absent and more an afterthought than anything, “just how it is our villages see us. We’re their creations, after all, made by their hands without any thought to our wants, but even so they insist on seeing us as monsters straining at our chains, ready to break loose at any moment and destroy them. So they fear us, and treat us poorly, and our resentment grows. Then their fear increases, and the whispers become more vicious, and we hate them more. An endless spiral, but one that they started. One that they created, the same way they created us.”

“It’s the same with all shinobi,” Zabuza offers, and his grin is all razor-edged teeth. “Maybe more with jinchuuriki, but just look around. Civilians are terrified of us. Hell, we’re terrified of ourselves. We’re their monsters, so they try to kill us while we’re helpless. They try to weed us out, whittle our numbers down, and when we do it they call us monsters. Makes sense that shinobi’d have their own monsters to hate, doesn’t it?”

The Demon of the Hidden Mist, they call Zabuza. Jiraiya has heard other villages whisper about him, a monster, a cautionary tale. Killed his entire graduating class just because he could. But how much was because of that, and how much of it was to prove a point? There was never any logic behind Kiri's bloody graduation ritual—it was madness, from a logistical point of view. And it took the death of almost an entire generation before those in power realized that, and hurriedly swept it under the rug. Zabuza’s doing, and Jiraiya has never thought of him as anything but a bloodthirsty monster before this moment, which rather proves his point, doesn’t it?

Han hums thoughtfully, inclining his head to accept the point. “An interesting thought. We are all necessary monsters, it seems.”

Zabuza grunts, sounding bored with all of the philosophy, and rises to his feet. “Not that this isn’t fascinating, but if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a pretty firecracker to talk into a goodnight kiss.” Tipping his sake in salute, he heads for Kurama, who’s laughing at Naruto rolling around with the white fox summons.

With a deep chuckle, Han shakes his head. “I hope he realizes he’s just as likely to lose his head as get a kiss.”

“I think that’s part of the appeal for him,” Jiraiya counters wryly. He refills his cup again, deciding he needs the fortification if he’s going to make it through the rest of the night. There's only so many times he can get his world-view turned sideways in a single day before he starts longing for a good binging session, after all.

And he hasn’t even heard from Sarutobi yet. That’s likely to require a bottle all on its own to get through. He’s definitely not looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

[ingravesco / in ‘ gr ə ‘ v escō /, I become heavier; I become burdensome; I become worse; I worsen. Latin, third conjugation, defective.]

 

When the message from Jiraiya arrives, Hiruzen very nearly sets it aside in favor of the towering stack of reports from the tracking teams scattered across all the major countries and several of the minor ones. Jiraiya is well-removed from the entire situation, after all, with only sporadic updates to keep Hiruzen appraised of his wanderings in Orochimaru’s wake. Hiruzen hasn’t made an attempt to tell him of Naruto's abduction, mostly because he already has every able-bodied shinobi in three countries looking; the addition of one more, even as powerful as the Toad Sage, isn’t likely to make much of a difference.

Except, of course, for the fact that Jiraiya wouldn’t sent a report with a summons unless it was information worth knowing, and Gamakichi’s expression is far less put-upon that it usually is when he’s called to carry messages, which means Jiraiya was able to impress upon him the importance of this delivery. With that in mind, Hiruzen forces himself to straighten up from his previous hunch over sloppily-written reports, and takes the scroll from the toad with as dignified a “Thank you,” as he can manage while his back is screaming in protest.

“No problem,” Gamakichi says, and then hunkers down to wait.

Hiruzen's fingers freeze on the cord tying the scroll, and he feels his stomach sink. If Jiraiya is expecting a reply…

Oh no.

Taking a breath to steel himself, Hiruzen forces himself to ignore both A and Rasa, who have taken up residence in opposite corners of his office with their own piles of reports. They're staring at him, clearly aware that this is some kind of news, but Hiruzen doesn’t spare them another thought, quickly unrolling the scroll and scanning the words there.

It takes all of his considerable will not to hurl the report at the wall and dive for the sake. Gods damn it. Hiruzen is too old for this amount of bullshit.

Because he is a wise, experienced Hokage, he doesn’t bang his head on the desk the way he wants to. He carefully sets the report aside, snatches up his pipe, and lights it aggressively, trying very hard not to set himself on fire in the process. That’s just about all this day needs to cap it off.

And it’s only mid-morning. Damn it all.

“…Hiruzen?” Rasa asks cautiously, setting his pen aside.

Hiruzen sucks in a deep lungful of tarry smoke, tries not to think about how Biwako always yelled at him for smoking too much, and breathes it out. He does it again, then once more, and finally feels reasonably certain he’s not just going to start shouting. He breathes out, and then says as evenly as he’s able, “It seems Kurama is currently in Kiri, not Kumo.”

A crosses his arms over his chest, scowling. “Kiri? So we’ll send an apprehension team there and—”

Hiruzen holds up a hand to stop him, and is rather gratified when he actually pauses. “It would also seem,” he continues, “that Kiri has undergone a partial revolution. Kurama assisted, and has earned himself the goodwill of the Mizukage, who claims to have been freed from a very strong genjutsu. His shinobi are widely accepting of this claim, and of Kurama in general, as Yagura has granted him shelter. Along with all six of the jinchuuriki accompanying him.”

There's absolute, perfect silence as Rasa’s brows slide towards his hairline and A loses about three shades of color from his face. His brawny arms drop loosely to his sides and he stands abruptly, pushing away from the desk with a clatter. Without pausing, he turns on his heel, bellows, “Bee!” at the top of his lungs, and all but dives for the doorway.

Hiruzen trades glances with Rasa, then tucks his pipe between his teeth and rises as well, falling into step with the Kazekage as he hurries through the open door and down the stairs, trailing the sound of heavy footsteps and A’s furious calls for his brother.

The inn that has bravely volunteered to host the Kumo delegation is barely a block from the Administration Building, so they make good time. Even so, by the time they reach it, the kunoichi who was supposed to be watching Bee is almost in tears, and A is roaring like a gored bull, shaking a small brown notebook like it’s his brother’s neck.

“I’ll strangle him!” the Raikage snarls. “That little bastard left! He’s going to—to—” He flips to the last page in the book, growls, and mimics, “Hey, bro, gotta go, got more beasts to meet, and Gyuuki says it should be neat.”

Rasa coughs to hide what is definitely not a laugh, but Hiruzen feels himself go cold. He spins on his heel, calling, “Raidou, Iwashi!” In a blur, the two guards are in front of him, and Hiruzen snaps out, “Raidou, fetch Hiashi. Iwashi, find Tsume and Shibi. I have an emergency tracking mission for them, so tell them to report to me immediately. Then locate the highest-ranked ANBU squad on the duty roster and tell them to report as well. Go!”

There's a hurricane of leaves and wind, and both guards vanish, heading in opposite directions with impressive speed. Hiruzen just hopes it will enough.

With that in mind, he rounds on the Kumo kunoichi and demands, “How long ago did Bee leave?”

The woman swallows, quailing slightly under the force of his tightly-leashed chakra, but answers instantly, “It can't have been more than fifteen minutes ago. He said he was going to the bathroom, and since he’d shown no signs of wanting to leave, I assumed it was safe to let him out of my sight for that long.”

“Sarutobi?” A asks suspiciously.

Hiruzen rubs the bridge of his nose, trying not to let his headache overwhelm him. “You didn’t stay to listen to the remainder of my news,” he says, and keeps his tone mild through sheer force of will. Panicking won't do anyone any good right now. “My student Jiraiya has been tracking a mercenary organization with suspicious aims over the last six years. Kurama insists that it was this organization, Akatsuki, that attacked Nii Yugito in Kumo, and that she fled to Kurama on the advice of her bijuu. According to him, Akatsuki is currently based just east of Lightning Country, and they're hunting the bijuu for the purpose of conquering the world. Any jinchuuriki on their own is vulnerable.”

The rearranging of priorities in Rasa’s head is all but visible. He sinks into one of the room’s unoccupied chairs, looking a little dazed, and says, “That’s why he took them? The jinchuuriki? He was—he was protecting them? But if being in the middle of a shinobi village wasn’t protection enough…”

Even A looks grim at the implications. “The kids were vulnerable, since they're still learning. Uzumaki took them for that reason. Bee would have been fine if he stayed, and had a village to back him up, but on his own…I’m going to kill that little rat for up and bolting!”

There's a brisk knock on the door, an annoyed, “Oh, get on with it, Hyuuga,” and a loud thump. The door flies open, and Tsume all but strong-arms her genin teammate through, Shibi following close behind. Hiashi looks mildly annoyed, but also mostly resigned as he dips into a brief bow to the three Kage. “Hokage-sama, you—”

“Got a job for us old farts?” Tsume interrupts, and looks thrilled to do so. She’s always taken great pleasure in browbeating Hiashi, even if it’s just in a roundabout way. Pressed against her side, Kuromaru gives a woofing laugh, his single remaining ear folding back as he drops to sit, tongue lolling out in a fierce canine grin.

Hiashi shoots her a flat, longsuffering look, but instead of attempting to argue he simply looks back at Hiruzen expectantly. Shibi doesn’t even bother trying to interject; he simply shoulders his gourd a little more firmly, steps up beside his teammates, and waits patiently.

“The Raikage’s brother is missing,” Hiruzen says, and watches Tsume’s eyes narrow, considering. There's a shift in the shadows behind her, and he raises a hand in silent acknowledgement. “We have reason to believe he could become a target traveling on his own. You're to find his as quickly as possible. Eagle’s squad will follow as backup.”

The cloaked ANBU slips forward and offers Tsume a salute. She grins in return, then whistle sharply. “Kuromaru, you know what to do. Shibi?”

The nin-dog immediately puts his nose to the ground, sniffing around the edges of the room. From the gourd Shibi carries, a steady stream of kikaichū slide out, buzzing faintly, and the Aburame Clan Head hums. Stepping back and out of their way, Hiashi crosses his arms over his chest, expression grim as he watches his partners search for traces.

“Watch for powerful shinobi, moving quickly,” Hiruzen warns him softly, not about to let three of his Clan Heads get taken by surprise, even if there isn’t time for a full briefing. He wouldn’t send them, but they're undoubtedly the best tracking team Konoha has with Kakashi's squad out of the village. Even then, he might be hard-pressed to say which team was better. “The Akatsuki organization that is after Bee recruits only S-rank missing-nin. I trust your abilities, but do not be overconfident.”

“I shall strive to be the voice of reason, Hokage-sama,” Hiashi says, though in a tone that says he hasn’t much hope of succeeding. Catching the concern that flickers over Hiruzen's face, he cracks enough to allow a faint smile, a definite rarity since Hizashi’s death, and assures him, “We’ll return as quickly as we’re able to.”

At the same moment, Tsume cries victoriously, “Got it!” and heads for the door at a deceptively easy loping run, following Kuromaru. Shibi is on her left, and in a blur of motion Hiashi darts after them, falling into place at her right with his Byakugan activated. Behind them, four cloaked and masked ANBU slide out of view, and at a gesture from A his two guards also follow, moving quickly.

Hiruzen watches them go, feeling grimly resigned to the happenings of the next few hours. He hopes that the team will catch Bee, but he’s not sure what will happen if they don’t. At this point, Bee making it to Kiri and Kurama has somehow become one of the best case scenarios. If he doesn’t…

A drags a hand over his white hair, then sits down heavily on the bed. His eyes remain on the doorway, as though if he looks hard enough he’ll be able to watch the team find his brother, but he asks, “There any more to that letter?”

Hiruzen takes a long pull at his pipe, breathes out a perfect ring of smoke, and says, “According to Jiraiya, Kurama professes a desire to return to Konoha with Naruto. As far as Jiraiya can gather, the rest of the younger jinchuuriki intend to accompany him. Possibly the older ones as well.”

Rasa’s eyes narrow. “You’ll be courting war if you allow it,” he says, and when Hiruzen casts him a sharp look he raises his hands. “Not from Suna. We are allies. But Taki? Iwa? And Kumo doesn’t have the best history of maintaining diplomatic ties.”

The thinly veiled accusation makes A growl, rising back to his feet to tower over the two shorter Kage. “Are you implying something, Kazekage?”

“Do you treat fact as an allegation now, Raikage?” Rasa retorts. “You’ve made no friends in the other countries over the years. Surely this can't come as a surprise to you. After all you’ve done in the name of power-grabbing and manipulation—”

A barks out a mirthless laugh. “This coming from a man who sits there and makes nice with an ally while plotting behind his back? At least Kumo is strong, and not crumbling away like your pathetic little village!”

Rasa flushes with anger, rising to his feet as well. Dark rings appear around his eyes, and the air around him shimmers faintly as his Gold Dust answers the sudden agitated surge of his chakra. “Suna is an honorable ally! We’ve done nothing but offer our assistance in this matter, while a shinobi with clear ties to Kumo is the one—”

“He kidnapped one of our jinchuuriki! You can't turn this on me—”

“He took my son! Your jinchuuriki joined him of her own free will! This—this terrorist organization is operating right over your border, and we’re expected to accept that you know nothing about it?”

“Kumo has nothing to do with this Akatsuki shit! We’re not—”

“That underhanded? That desperate for power? Because your actions say otherwise—”

Hiruzen closes his eyes, takes a breath, and opens them. Almost seventy years of carefully honed chakra crashes over the room, as strong and steady and immovable as a veritable mountain, and he takes great pleasure in seeing both of the other Kage actually stagger under the unexpected force of it.

That’s enough,” he says, quiet but whip-crack sharp, and slowly straightens, regarding both of the younger men coolly. “You are not children, you are Kage. There are more important issues at hand than petty grudges and old rivalries. We have seven S-rank criminals who aim to overturn the world in the name of peace, and are going to use the bijuu to do it. We have at least six, and likely eight jinchuuriki who have formed an attachment to an unknown tenth jinchuuriki that likely overrules whatever loyalty they have or once had to their villages.”

Another breath, and A and Rasa are both staring at him, but at least they’ve stopped shouting. Hiruzen meets each of their gazes in turn, holding them with all the seriousness this damned disaster of a situation deserves. “At this moment Uzumaki Kurama might as well be the most powerful man in the world. He is more than capable of leveling entire nations on a whim. So we are going to listen to his demands, agree with whatever he wishes if it will bring him even slightly closer to the Hidden Villages rather than off haring through the wilderness, and whether he wishes to settle in Konoha or gods-forsaken Tea Country we will smile, accept it, and do our best to keep from throwing our villages headlong into a war we truly cannot afford right now.”

There's a long, long minute of silence. The markings around Rasa’s eyes fade, and he crosses his arms, takes a sharp breath through his nose, and inclines his head in silent agreement.

A stares at him for a moment longer, eyes narrowed, and then huffs and sits back down. “God of Shinobi,” he says, and it’s almost wry. Almost respectful. “Guess you didn’t pull that title out of a cereal box after all.”

Hiruzen doesn’t deign to grace that with a response. Were he ten years younger, though, A would learn the hard way just why so many shinobi used to fear him more than anyone since Tobirama himself. “This has gone on long enough, and exploded far beyond the boundaries of the individual villages. There's only one reasonable response.”

Rasa makes a face he should be very much too dignified for. “A Summit?” he asks, mostly resigned. “You know we’ll have to include the heads of most of the smaller villages as well, don’t you?”

Even A looks less than pleased at that. “Taki’s headman is a damned pain in the ass,” he complains.

Really, Hiruzen is surrounded by children. “Then you’d best prepare yourselves in whatever way will see you through the trial of this meeting,” he says, unbending. “If the world is in danger, the world at large should be aware of the situation, and help to find a solution. May I assume I have your backing in calling a Summit?”

There's another pause as Rasa and A trade glances, and then the Raikage nods. “Fine,” he says gruffly. “But if Hisen makes a nuisance of himself, I reserve the right to drop-kick him all the way back to Taki.”

All of Hiruzen's restraint goes towards not rolling his eyes. He taps his pipe against the edge of the table beside him, coaxing the embers back to life, and takes another pull at it. The burn of the tobacco isn’t quite enough to soothe his nerves, but it’s a start.

He wishes, just for a moment, and with equal parts desperation and futility, that Asuma was in the village. His son might never come to see eye-to-eye with him, but he has a level head, a dependable strength. Hiruzen is an old man, too old for these games of politics and his attempts to keep up with a younger generation of shinobi as the world moves inexorably forward. His daughter is distracted with Konohamaru, just barely two, and his wife is six years dead, killed by the Kyuubi in its rampage. Asuma was the one steady, predictable point in his universe, but even that is gone now. Hiruzen is proud of him, joining the Twelve Guardian Ninja, but he misses him as well.

“Come,” he says, and tries to keep the weariness out of his voice. “We have letters to draft and messages to send. They will not write themselves.”

And I have a reply to give Gamakichi, he thinks but doesn’t say aloud. The mere thought of the jinchuuriki relocating to Konoha is going to be enough to put every hackle at the Summit up, but Hiruzen sees no alternative. One jinchuuriki, dependent on a village, is easy enough to handle. Seven of them, possibly even nine, with loyalties only to each other and the man who rescued them?

Hiruzen can't think of a single way in all of existence to tell them something so much as resembling no and have it be anything other than laughable. 

 

 

Kakashi doesn’t make much of an attempt at subtlety as he leans against the edge of the harbormaster’s building, watching a cheerful crew unload the day’s haul of fish. Genma is in the midst of them, dragging nets with a will and an excess of good humor, even when they jeer at him for being so new to it. Always one to take such things in the spirit they're intended, Genma just laughs it off, letting them order him around and push him out of the way.

There's no sign of the concussion that kept him bedbound for two days, despite his protests, but Kakashi isn’t about to take chances. Genma's a tokujo, not a full jounin, and Kurama hits hard. Hana said there were no complications when she checked him over, but she’s still a chuunin, no matter how skilled, and young. Kakashi would rather trust his own eyes when it comes to things like this.

Waving off a round of offers to head to the closest bar with the crew, Genma leaps lightly onto the dock and tugs his salt-stiff shirt off, then pulls his hitai-ate out of his pants pocket and ties it on again. When he sees Kakashi waiting, he grins, even if it’s slightly wry, and heads towards him with a light step.

“You're going to give yourself wrinkles,” he says as soon as he’s close enough to be heard. “Hana cleared me and everything, Mom, I promise.”

Kakashi snorts, but falls into step with the other man as he heads back towards the inn they’ve been staying at. “Hana cleared you for light work, Shiranui. I was there. Somehow, I don’t think she’d include this.”

“What Hana doesn’t know won't hurt me,” Genma counters easily. “There wasn’t that much to do, anyway. They just liked having fresh meat to pick on.” Something catches his eye, and he turns to offer a friendly wave to an older woman, who gives Kakashi a truly evil look, but smiles fondly when her gaze shifts over to Genma.

It’s not that Kakashi is jealous of Genma's ability to win over the local populace; he’s not. It’s just…he’s maybe slightly used to being the cool, intriguing, unapproachable one, who most of the girls and a good portion of the boys go gooey-eyed over almost instantly. He’s not really used to this much burning hostility when he hasn’t done anything to earn it.

Apparently sensing his not-at-all-jealous-or-assessing stare, Genma glances over and gives him a lazy, carefree grin. “You're looking a little green there, Hatake. Do I have to tell Gai you got your feelings hurt because Whirlpool Country thought I was cooler than you?”

“I don’t have feelings,” Kakashi denies promptly, tugging his Icha Icha book from his pocket and flipping it open in front of his nose. “I especially don’t have them where Gai is concerned.”

Genma laughs, easy and free, and flips something at Kakashi's head. “Don’t be bitter, Kakashi. Just because your boyfriend sometimes crashes on my couch doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you too.”

Even as he raises a hand to snatch the thing out of the air, Kakashi eyes him warily, taking a step to the side so he won't have to face the possibility of catching any of Genma's obvious crazy. “I'm not dating Gai. That’s a vicious, horrifying, unfounded rumor, and I'm ashamed on your behalf that you’d listen to such obvious gossip, Genma.” He glances at what Genma threw at him, and blinks at the sight of an old kunai, edges worn dull by time, but with the markings of a faded seal on the grip. Arching a brow at his friend, he flips it over, grimacing a little when the wet rust smears on his gloves.

“Momo collects them,” Genma explains with a shrug. At Kakashi's uncomprehending stare, he rolls his eyes a little. “Cute little fisher-girl, about fourteen, with her hair up in two buns? Niece of the daimyō? Likes to wear red?”

Kakashi just shrugs, and okay, maybe this is why Genma's popular; Kakashi's been a little too busy brooding over their complete failure at catching Kurama before he disappeared to parts unknown to make any sort of connection with the villagers. Not that he thinks it would help, because they all seem to hate him, while Genma is their new darling.

Deciding that he definitely doesn’t care, Kakashi looks down at the old kunai—the old Uzushio kunai—again, brushing his thumb over the engraving. He’s not a master with seals, but he’s decent enough, and this looks like an amplification seal. He saw Kushina use them a lot during the war; a little bit of fire or lightning or other chakra nature goes in, and when the seal is triggered a whole hell of a lot comes out.

“Want it back?” he asks, even though he doesn’t particularly want to give it up, not when it might as well be a piece of Kushina. Not quite as greedily kept as a piece of Minato, maybe, but still precious all the same.

As if reading that on his face, Genma just shakes his head. “No thanks. Momo gave me a whole handful when she realized I was interested. Said they turn up all the time in some of the old training grounds.”

Silently, Kakashi tucks it away in his weapons pouch, deciding to polish and sharpen it later. Might as well not let a perfectly good kunai go to waste, he thinks, and ignores the fact that he’s going to carry it without ever even attempting to use it.  

A firm hand grips his elbow, steering him off the main street and towards a bend in the road, where a small stream curves in a lazy loop, a stand of trees on its bank. They're nothing like Fire Country trees, stunted and bent by the sea-wind, but they're enough for at least the illusion of privacy as long as no one’s shouting. Genma pushes him across the stream, then into the center of the grove before he lets go, and when Kakashi turns to give his best was-there-possibly-something-you-wanted expression, complete with shades of who-me and I'm-bulshitting-you-and-we-both-know-it-but-I-dare-you-to-call-me-on-it, Genma just crosses his arms and stares him down.

“Sit,” he orders, even and mild, and he should really look ridiculous standing there half-naked, his saltwater-drenched hair drying at odd angles underneath his bandana, and with the beginnings of a sunburn on his nose. Kakashi takes one look at him, remembers how the fearsome and almost universally feared Raidou turns into a perfectly obedient husband where Genma is concerned, and thinks he finally understands why. There's utterly immovable steel in Genma's hazel eyes, and the threat of the two dozen unique and incredibly nasty poisons in the senbon his hand is hovering just a little too close to for comfort.

Kakashi sits.

Genma gives him a winning smile, leaning lazily back against a crooked tree. “Awesome,” he approves. “Now you're gonna tell me just what's had you wandering around with your head up your ass for the past two days, because I love Tenzō to death, but he’s got you on too much of a pedestal to say anything, and Shisui and Itachi don’t know you well enough to notice. But I’ve noticed, because you're my friend, and Gai will be sad if you get yourself killed because you're too busy drowning in guilt to see an attack coming.”

Kakashi doesn’t quite wince, but it’s a close thing. Genma isn’t one of ANBU's best assassins for nothing; he’s terrifyingly observant, no matter how much of it he hides behind a lazy slouch and a crooked smile. “Is there something I should know about you and Gai?” he asks in what he already knows is a fruitless attempt to deflect. “Because I'm friends with Raidou, too, and if you're stepping out on him with Gai of all people—”

“There's nothing wrong with Gai,” Genma says mildly, and when Kakashi shoots him a look that speaks volumes, he rolls his eyes and concedes, “There's nothing serious wrong with Gai. He’s just…unique. And we’re not sleeping together, but if you're trying to change the subject, I've got some very interesting stories to share about this one vacation in Port City with Gai and Aoba—”

Kakashi gags a little at the thought, and quickly raises his hands in surrender. “No, no, I’ll talk. No wonder Ibiki likes you so much.”

Genma just grins, clearly taking it as a compliment. “So. I assume this is about Kurama?”

Unable to avoid the direct question, Kakashi blows out a breath and leans back, closing his eye. “Mm. There wasn’t a lot of time to think when we were tracking him, but now…I'm trying to fit the pieces together, but they're not falling into place the way they should.” He can feel Genma's steady gaze on him, not judging, not pushing, simply waiting, and somehow that makes it easier to say, “He had a lot of opportunities to kill us. He didn’t.”

Four ANBU against one unaffiliated shinobi shouldn’t be anything close to evenly matched, after all, but they were. From their last fight here in Whirlpool Kakashi can see just how much Kurama was holding back the previous time they faced each other. On top of that, there's Rōshi’s words about saving the jinchuuriki from death, and the fact that all four children, in the brief moment Kakashi saw them, looked all too happy to be snatched away from their lives.

Naruto he could understand, possibly. Kurama is family, after all, and Naruto is an orphan. But the others? There's no way they're related, and the two older ones, the girls, were definitely trained as shinobi. Odds are good they’d be able to pick up on it if Kurama was just manipulating them.

Add to that the fact that Kakashi's been turning Kurama's escape from Konoha over in his head, unable to let it rest, and… “It’s my fault this started. Kurama reached out to Naruto, and I…overreacted.” The guilt is heavy, like the memory of Obito, of Rin. Like the knowledge that he’s failed both Minato and Kushina a thousand times over, letting their son grow up without any care or warmth. But Kakashi just—can't. Can't care, can't let himself feel, can't be anything but Hound or he’s going to break. He came so close, in the aftermath, almost let Danzō convince him to kill Sarutobi just because Sarutobi wasn’t Minato, because he let Minato die, and—

He remembers his father, remembers the blood, the horror, the strong man he loved so much curled on the floor, so much smaller in death. So much weaker. The last think Kakashi ever said to him was in anger, in accusation, and isn’t it funny how much Obito's death mirrors that? Disdain, anger, accusation, and then—just. Gone. Dead. Pushed to it by Kakashi, who wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t smart enough, simply wasn’t enough in any way that mattered.

If something like that happens again, Kakashi isn’t going to be able to drag himself upright. He’s done it four times already, after his father, after Obito, after Rin, after Minato and Kushina. ANBU keeps him on his feet and moving, gives him a way to work, a way to atone even as it adds more blood to his crimson-stained hands. But—Kakashi knows he’s fragile. Like flawed glass, one hard strike will crack him into a thousand unrecognizable pieces, and this time there will be no reassembling them.

Kakashi is bad luck, a curse on all those he loves. If he loses Naruto, loses the last remnant of a life that was at the very least bearable, he’s going to self-destruct. And if it’s by his own doing, if it’s his fault

“Hey,” Genma says softly, and Kakashi slowly opens his eye to find the tokujo crouched right in front of him. His eyes are sympathetic, but not pitying, and Kakashi is wretchedly grateful. He already gets enough pity from everyone he knows. He doesn’t think he could bear more of it.

Callused fingers touch his face, and Genma cups his cheek, not overbearing, just…close. Present. Kakashi's breath hitches in his chest, and he hadn’t realized how hard it was to breathe before, but it’s easing now, leveling out. That dark, welling panic is receding, sliding away under the warmth and sharp-deadly herbal scent of Genma's skin.

The older man smiles at him, crooked and wry, and sinks back on his heels. “So?” he asks, and that’s mild too, but in the way of a river’s waters right before the falls, guiding him forward, urging him on without ever truly pushing. “Sometimes I think you hear it too much, but…you're a genius, Kakashi, smarter than the rest of our Academy class combined. So think like the brilliant shinobi you are, and look underneath the underneath. What can you see?”

Even now, work is the best distraction. Kakashi's brain latches on to the pieces he’s gathered and hoarded, every stray word from Kurama and those who have met him. He closes his eye again, adding them up, twisting and turning them, trying to see from new angles without his preconceptions getting in the way. And…

There's something else to all this. More than a man on the run, more than kidnapped jinchuuriki. Something is pushing Kurama, driving him forward—something that even Rōshi considered a threat. He said it outright, and Kakashi let it get lost in a haze of blind duty as he chased Kurama onwards.

Kurama's a hero. He’s saving those kids from a lifetime of misery and an agonizing death. He’s saving all of us from that.

What’s dangerous enough to threaten a fully trained, adult jinchuuriki who can take on a squad of ANBU without blinking?

Nothing good, Kakashi thinks grimly, and raise his head to look at Genma again. The man is watching him patiently, hazel eyes steady, and Kakashi offers him a wry smile. “I'm starting to think Raidou's claim that you're secretly an evil genius might have more credibility than I assumed.”

Genma laughs at that, pushing to his feet and offering Kakashi a hand up. Since it’s his fault Kakashi is sitting in the dirt in the first place, Kakashi takes it and allows Genma to pull him upright.

“Who, me?” the tokujo asks guilelessly, and then pauses, studying Kakashi closely. “Good?”

Not yet, Kakashi doesn’t answer, though he almost feels like he could. He just offers Genma a bland smile, and says, “I think I need to talk to my team.”

Chapter Text

[osculant / äskyə ˌ lənt/, pertaining to a close embrace or a long kiss; losely adhering or joined; embracing; intermediate in characteristics between two similar or related taxonomic groups. From Latin osculat- ‘kissed,’ from the verb osculari, from osculum ‘little mouth or kiss’.]

 

Their second night in Kiri settles in under a sudden downpour of warm rain, heavy enough to drench to the bone in seconds. Kurama stands by the wide window in the main room, watching the forest that surrounds the house tremble and shudder under the onslaught, even as leaves and branches reach upward for more. Moss collects water, then releases it in thick streams as it reaches saturation, and the air smells of green things and wet earth and gentle darkness.

The children are in bed, all exhausted from a day of training disguised as play. Yugito is good at making things seem fun, and Kurama's glad she was willing to help, or his patience might have run out a lot earlier than it did. Naruto has a predictably short attention span, and maybe it’s one of the things he was purposefully forgetting, or maybe it’s just that the first time he slept through most of Naruto's early childhood, but it’s a pain.

Still, Kurama thinks with a faint smirk. He can't wait to see some of the faces in Konoha when Naruto answers an attack not with Minato's Rasengan, but with Kushina's Chakra Chains.

It’s a strange relief, being here in Kiri, and one Kurama hadn’t expected. He’s been running since the moment he landed in this time, flat-out and as fast as he can, always with a goal just out of reach. And the overarching goals are still looming, waiting, but for the first time in almost a month Kurama has nowhere to go and nowhere he should be. He’s in between things, anticipating word from Konoha, Jiraiya's decision about Akatsuki. He could leave, head towards Moon Country and the Akatsuki base, but Jiraiya wants more information. Wants to help, which Kurama likely should have expected, but didn’t.

As it stands, training the kids—or more aptly training Naruto and Gaara, since Fū and Yugito only need practice and are otherwise appropriately terrifying—is the only thing Kurama needs to do, and the knowledge is at once freeing and…strange.

For the first time, he has a chance to think without the world crashing down on top of him. Space to consider, even if only vaguely, a future where he isn’t a fugitive on the run from every single one of the Kage. And…he thinks today might have been a decent marker of that. Not quiet, not peaceful, because Naruto and Fū are both hellions and Rōshi doesn’t help, and trying to teach small children incredibly destructive jutsus is just asking for collateral damage, but—it was good. Happy.

Kurama closes his eyes on the rainy world, and pictures Naruto. His Naruto, warm and kind and worn around the edges, but all the brighter for it. Smiling, because when wasn’t he, with his hand on Kurama's shoulder and an arm around his back, pulling him back to his feet. For Kurama, here and now, it’s easy to smile in the face of that. Maybe there's a flicker of grief to go along with the image, but even more there's contentment, joy. It’s amazing, the difference a decent goodbye and a few weeks to come to terms with things can make. He’s always going to miss Naruto, the man who was his first friend, but Naruto made him stronger, made him kinder. Made him better, and Kurama can accept that, embrace it, and move forward using what Naruto gave him.

“Now there's a pretty picture,” Zabuza says from behind him, and Kurama opens his eyes and turns, raising a brow at the smirking man. Zabuza shakes his head a little, stepping up beside him, and his eyes linger on Kurama's face. “Or should I say you're a pretty picture.”

Naruto always got annoyed and embarrassed in equal measure when Sasuke called him pretty, because he thought it was a word for a girl no matter how many times Sakura tried to beat the notion out of him. Kurama just snorts—he’s only male because he chose to be, because that’s what fits when he looks at himself, and in the face of that words like pretty aren’t enough to raise a stink over.

“How’s Haku's back?” he asks, not able to hide a grin.

Thankfully, Zabuza isn’t able to, either, or just doesn’t want to. “Well, he’s not going to volunteer as a target again any time soon, but for being dogpiled by almost a hundred clones, he’s fine. I think your blond brat is fixing to become his slave for a week in compensation, though.”

That sounds very much like something Naruto would do. Kurama chuckles, brushing his hair back from his face, and watches Zabuza’s eyes follow the motion. Interesting. He lets his hand linger, smoothing the red strands into place, and then slides it down, letting the wide sleeve of his shirt drop back to cover his skin.

It’s curious, how fascinating it is to invoke a reaction just with movement. Just with presence, and to be able to make Zabuza’s eyes darken, his pupils dilating, when Kurama turns his head and smirks at him. Kurama has seen it all, witnessed it with Mito and Kushina and Naruto, with those around them, but first-hand is different. This is his heart kicking up a notch, his breathing becoming a little deeper. This is a faint flush of heat beneath his skin, a prickling awareness and the undeniable knowledge of something shared when his eyes meet Zabuza’s.

Zabuza lets out a low sound, almost like a hiss, and steps forward. One roughly callused hand cups Kurama's cheek, thumb dragging across his cheekbone, and Kurama inhales sharply as the heat, the awareness redoubles. Zabuza smells like the rain on dry earth, edged with metal and the scent of old blood from Kubikiribōchō. Maybe a human would dislike it, but to Kurama is smells like power and fury and the prelude to a storm, and he can't help but lean closer, breathing it in with a low, rumbling growl.

“Fuck,” Zabuza says with utmost sincerity. “You're definitely going to kill me, firecracker.”

The nickname isn’t quite enough to kill what's between them, but Kurama still pulls back slightly, leveling a glare at Zabuza’s grin. “What?”

“Well, you didn’t like Red,” Zabuza defends himself, though his grin doesn’t abate in the slightest.

“And firecracker is supposed to be better?”

“Fireworks always were my favorite part of winter.” Zabuza laughs at the look on Kurama's face and leans in again, his free hand coming up with carefully telegraphed intent to settle on Kurama's waist, and Kurama lets him. Takes a step forward, leans in, because he’s not simply following Zabuza’s lead in this. He reaches up, touches short, soft black hair falling in messy spikes, and slides his hand around to cup the back of Zabuza’s head.

There's clear intent in Zabuza’s eyes as he ducks his head, shifting closer until they're almost entirely aligned, chests brushing when they breathe. “Does that sake I passed out last night count as buying you a drink?” he asks, low and amused. There's an edge of sharpened teeth in his smile, and if Kurama weren’t a predator himself he might not appreciate it as much as he does.

“Does it look like I care?” Kurama retorts, and it startles a laugh out of the other man, rough around the edges but with a thread of warmth in it as well.

“You're something else, Kurama,” Zabuza says, and for just a moment his eyes are serious as his fingers curl tighter on Kurama's hip. “Fuck, you let loose against Yagura and it was the sexiest thing I've ever seen. All that power, and a pretty, deadly redhead right in the middle of it, ready to kill.”

To the rest of the world, Zabuza’s taste is probably slightly questionable. Kurama just snorts. “You really want that spar, don’t you, shark-face?”

Zabuza grins unrepentantly. “Fuck yes. Can't promise it wouldn’t end with us fucking on the training ground, though.” He pauses for a second, eyes studying Kurama's face again, and then leans down across the handful of inches that separate them. Kurama remembers this, mostly from repeated exposure even if he wasn’t actually the one doing it, and doesn’t fumble as Zabuza presses their mouths together, soft and coaxing.

It’s easy to answer, to meet him evenly. Sharp teeth scrape his lip, followed by a soft tongue, and firm lips move over his, drawing Kurama forward. It’s a building touch of heat, a trickle of want that grows bigger, brighter with every pass. Remembering to breathe is hard, wanting to is even harder, and a few scattered breaths are all Kurama can manage as Zabuza’s hand shifts from his hip to glide up the line of his spine. He arches into the touch like a cat, a sound of appreciation slipping out without thought, and Zabuza makes a noise of amusement.

That’s enough of that, Kurama decides, and steps forward, nudging the other man back. Zabuza goes, but stubbornly doesn’t stop the kiss, not that Kurama is complaining. He opens his mouth, letting it deepen, and in the moment Zabuza is distracted gives him one hard push. Zabuza yelps, staggering back, and the backs of his knees hit the edge of the couch, making him fall. He sits down hard on the cushions, pulling Kurama down with him, and Kurama is laughing when he lands in the swordsman’s lap.

“Didn’t think you’d mind a change of location,” he says, grinning, and Zabuza grins back.

“Not in the least,” he promises, tracing his fingers up Kurama's bent legs from ankle to thigh, then curling his fingers over the muscle and squeezing lightly.

Kurama likes kissing, he decides judiciously, and leans in to take another one, even though Zabuza seems distracted by his legs. Zabuza gives it readily, open-mouthed and messy, and uses his grip to pull Kurama a little higher on his thighs. It’s easy to feel that he’s half-hard, which is just as interesting as the little hungry noises Zabuza keeps making into his mouth, and Kurama wants. It’s not a type he’s used to, not something he’s ever felt for himself before, but it’s still avarice with a hot, grasping edge, curiosity underpinned by something that’s very nearly I can wreck you without any of the bloody connotations Kurama is familiar with. Maybe it’s not quite selfless, but it’s meant to be shared, and he wants to. He wants to a lot.

“You up for a good time, Kurama?” Zabuza asks, and it’s low and rough like velvet scraping the wrong way over Kurama's skin, making him shiver.

“I think I could be convinced,” Kurama answers, and like this he’s the one who has to lean down, one hand on Zabuza’s shoulder to brace himself, the other sliding down Zabuza’s chest, tracing the contours of muscles he’s only ever seen close-up on Sasuke, which is not a thought he wants to be having right now. Better to focus on Zabuza under him, even if the man is unfortunately still wearing a shirt. Apparently this version, unlike the one Naruto faced on the bridge, does actually believe in them. Kurama wouldn’t have thought to protest this fact until just now, but it’s becoming apparent that it’s very much an injustice.

Zabuza breaks the kiss to murmur, “I've got a perfectly good bed about twenty feet away. You good to relocate?”

Kurama doesn’t see why he wouldn’t be. He pulls back a little, raising a brow at Zabuza, and the swordsman clearly sees the implied question. He chuckles, squeezing Kurama's thigh again and letting his hand drift higher, skimming over the inseam of his pants. “You don’t strike me as the one-night type, princess. Just making sure.”

“Fuck you,” Kurama answers, because that’s always a good response to go with. “I'm just—curious. You're interesting.”

“And so your answer is to get me in bed?” But Zabuza just sounds amused. When Kurama growls, he laughs, leaning up to kiss him again. That at least is mollifying, and Kurama allows it. “Hey, I feel the same. You're dangerous and sexy, might as well take advantage. So long as you know this isn’t going further. Wouldn’t want to step on your feelings, princess.”

“Fuck you, piranha-breath.” Kurama pulls back to bare his teeth at him. It’s definitely not a smile, though Zabuza’s eyes go dark and intent at the expression anyway.

“Not my thing,” Zabuza counters, and both hands come up to grip Kurama's hips, pulling him in. He arches up, rubbing them together, and Kurama can't fight the moan that bubbles up in his chest. “Rather finish like this, dirty up all that soft skin as we get each other off.”

Kurama fights to keep his eyes from closing against a renewed flood of want, and lets himself fall forward, catching himself on Zabuza’s shoulders and pressing his mouth to the pale skin of his throat in a line of greedy, open-mouthed kisses. “You said something about a bed?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Zabuza sucks in a breath, then hooks one arm under Kurama's thighs, grunts, “Hang on,” and shoves to his feet, taking Kurama with him.

Muscles used to swinging his massive sword bunch and shift, and Kurama wants to taste them. He’d rather not get dropped, though, so he hooks his arms around Zabuza’s neck, curls a leg around his waist, and asks mockingly, “What? No caveman grunting as you drag me back to your bed? I'm disappointed.”

“Not for long, you won't be,” Zabuza retorts, kicking the door to his bedroom closed behind him. Kurama, remembering a vast number of times when Naruto and Sasuke were interrupted mid-deed, manages to lean over and flick the lock before Zabuza crosses the room and dumps him gracelessly on the mattress.

“Smooth,” he complains as he bounces.

Zabuza huffs, even though his grin hasn’t faded, and strips off his shirt. “Quit whining and get your pants off.”

It’s so ridiculous that Kurama has to laugh. And when Zabuza drops down on top of him, he’s laughing too, which somehow makes everything that follows that much better.

 

 

“A pardon?” Shisui splutters, waving the Hokage's scroll in disbelief. “He up and steals jinchuuriki from every major village and they're giving him a pardon?”

In light of previously undiscovered information,” Kakashi reads, taking the scroll back, and he can't say he’s over pleased about it, either. For that matter, he kind of wants to break something. However, the message is signed by not just one Kage, but three, and there’s not much room to argue with that. He skims the rest of the message, carefully filing away the notice to be on the lookout for Killer Bee, and skips down to their amended orders. “We’re to head for Kiri to rendezvous with the Sannin Jiraiya, and give Kurama his invitation to return to Konoha. The Hokage mentions a hostile terrorist group and a high level of danger.”

“How unusual,” Tenzō comments, as dry as dust. “Danger? On an ANBU mission? I never signed up for this.”

Shisui laughs, then—of course—presses the back of his hand to his forehead and pretends to swoon. “Oh no, danger! Tenzō, save me, I'm overcome!”

Tenzō starts to catch him as he collapses dramatically, then pulls up short at the last moment and lets Shisui hit the floor like a sack of bricks as he turns to Kakashi and asks, faintly incredulous, “The Hokage does remember that we’ve been trying to capture Kurama, doesn’t he? Are we really the best ones to deliver a message?”

From where he’s lying in a heap, Shisui opens his eyes and glares at the Mokuton user. “Fucking hate you, you little bastard.”

With all the impressive maturity of his seventeen years, Tenzō rolls his eyes so hard they're in danger of falling out of his head, and points out, “I'm only an inch shorter than you are.”

“Yes, but you're very small and petty on the inside,” Shisui retorts, “and everyone knows that it’s what’s inside that counts.”

From where he’s perched on the windowsill, Itachi shakes his head a little, looking longsuffering, and cuts in before the bickering can devolve any further. “A merchant ship from an island off the coast of Water Country docked yesterday. They should be able to give us passage.” When Kakashi raises a brow at him, he smiles faintly. “People here don’t like them. They were complaining to Genma.”

Ah yes, village-tamer Genma. Kakashi still stubbornly refuses to wonder why the people of Whirlpool Country like Genma so much better than him. He doesn’t care. “Good. Tenzō, make arrangements. Itachi, notify Genma's squad. Shisui, see if you can restock supplies.”

“Why does he get to talk to the captain?” Shisui complains, because of course he does. “I'm a people person!”

Kakashi trades glances with Itachi, sharing a moment of perfect understanding in their aggravation. Itachi rubs the bridge of his nose, carefully picking through his words, and then says, “Shisui, you can be…intimidating.”

Tenzō coughs to hide a laugh. “I would have said that you're an overbearingly friendly assassin with a tendency to make people run screaming, but apparently your cousin is nicer than I am.”

“Like that’s a surprise,” Shisui retorts, climbing to his feet. “Just wait, jerk. I'm going to buy you nothing but oily food. Oil-packed fish, oil soup, oily water—”

Tenzō turns faintly green. “You are not, or I—I’ll dye all of your flak jackets pink.”

“Pink is a very fetching color. I think it goes well with my eyes.”

“Then I’ll tell your mother about that time in Tani, with the—”

Shisui blanches and throws his hands up in surrender. “No, no, no! We’re not telling anyone about that, you little snitch! You promised!”

The arch of one very unimpressed brow clearly conveys Tenzō’s opinion of that accusation. “We’re shinobi. Underhanded tactics are more than just acceptable, they're encouraged. If you don’t want me to have blackmail material, don’t do things that I can blackmail you with.”

Kakashi kind of wants to know what happened, but then again, he also really, really doesn’t. Deciding it’s time to step in, he pointedly clears his throat, and when three pairs of eyes snap to him automatically, he asks mildly, “Do I need to repeat myself? I could have sworn I gave you your orders already.”

Shisui vanishes in a whirl of wind, and Itachi promptly slides out the window, Tenzō following him in a blur of long brown hair and distinct chagrin. Kakashi wouldn’t say he’s relieved to see them go, but. Well. He’s a little relieved to see them go. They’ve been in close quarters for two weeks now, and while that has nothing on some ANBU missions, it’s still trying. Not Itachi, because Itachi is a good, sweet, polite child, for all that he’s also kind of scary and a little creepy. But Tenzō and Shisui, when combined, make Kakashi long for the institution of gags as corporal punishment.

He sighs and drags a hand through his hair, then glances back down at the Hokage's message. The section on Akatsuki stands out, and he reads it again, trying to gather as much as he can from Sarutobi's brief mention. A group in pursuit of the jinchuuriki, comprised of S-rank missing-nin, can't be a good thing. It’s almost enough to make Kakashi's head hurt, because Kurama just became an tentative ally, but now instead of having to worry about him snatching Naruto, there's another enemy out there, and they're not just one grumpy shinobi with a strange reluctance to kill Konoha nin.

In light of his pardon, though, that part is at least easier to understand. If Kurama wants to return to Konoha, as this would imply, he certainly wouldn’t do anything to make it harder. And—

This. This is the threat that worried Rōshi, that manages to be deadly even to jinchuuriki. This is Kurama's drive, what kept him running after Kakashi's actions drove him out of Konoha. Maybe, if Kakashi hadn’t reacted—overreacted—Kurama would have left Naruto, gone to warn the other jinchuuriki without taking them along with him. But Kakashi showed him that regular shinobi couldn’t be trusted, that there was no allowance in them for anything beyond threat. So Kurama had taken Naruto, under the belief that he could protect him better, and all of this can be laid at Kakashi's feet. His fault, like most things. He has to breathe through the guilt, the sudden roil in his stomach, and he hates that it makes such sense.

Bringing Kurama and Naruto back to Konoha—maybe that can fix part of it, but it won't help him atone for the rest of his actions.

Of course, if there's one thing Kakashi is practiced at, it’s atonement. He’ll just…have to try.

“Captain?” a quiet voice asks, and Kakashi looks up to find Itachi in the doorway, looking faintly wary. He musters up a smile, eye crinkling, and is glad his mask and hitai-ate cover the tells that would reveal it as a lie.

“Yes?”

Itachi pads forward, steps utterly silent, and then hesitates. He looks towards the window, out over the quiet night-dark streets, and says softly, “If I…wanted to leave ANBU, would you support my dismissal?”

Kakashi blinks in surprise, and takes another look at the eleven-year-old. He’s nervous, wary—Kakashi can see it in the tenseness of his posture, the tight line of his shoulders. And it’s no wonder, given the subject; Itachi is the pride of his clan, its genius heir. He’s the youngest ANBU captain and a prodigy in every way.

Except that of all the shinobi in Konoha, Kakashi knows intimately how Itachi must be feeling, pushed so hard from the time he was a small child, always expected to do better than everyone else by virtue of a genius that never extends quite far enough. There's too much for intelligence alone to cover in their positions, too many shades of emotion and motive and humanity for a talent at jutsus and an eye for tactics to account for.

Genius shinobi, Kakashi has come to realize, is just about the furthest thing from perfect human as is logically possible.

“Of course,” he says, meeting Itachi's wary gaze, and watches relief bloom in dark eyes. “If you want, I’ll recommend you be removed from ANBU and evaluated in-village after this mission.”

Itachi turns his face away, hiding his expression. “My father will protest.”

“Your father hasn’t been an active shinobi since the end of the Third Shinobi War,” Kakashi counters. “And the villages are at peace right now. There's no need for so many high-ranking shinobi in combat positions. And given your service record already, you’ve earned an in-village posting. I don’t think the Hokage will argue, or Shikaku, and they're the only ones whose votes matter.”

Itachi doesn’t argue, even though it’s clear he doesn’t quite believe it will work out so easily. Kakashi has his doubts as well, even if he won't voice them, but he also realizes that a recommendation to remove someone from the active duty roster, coming from him, will carry more weight with the Hokage than most. When Kakashi of all people says he sees danger of a burnout, Sarutobi tends to listen.

“Thank you,” the boy says instead, and Kakashi hums, accepting the gratitude without forcing himself to touch on messy emotions by responding verbally.

“You found Genma's squad?” he asks.

Clearly just as grateful for the change of subject, Itachi nods. “They're leaving now to meet up with the closest tracking teams in Wave, and then they’ll head back towards Konoha. Genma said to wish you good luck.”

That’s no surprise, given Genma's personality, but it still makes Kakashi smile a bit. He glances around their room, assesses the neatly packed bags, and decides to leave everything as it is. Depending on when the ship to Kiri departs, they might be pulling out in a hurry. “I’ll settle our bill with the innkeeper so we’re ready to leave. Clear the room?”

Apparently very familiar with Shisui's habit of leaving kunai in odd places, Itachi rolls his eyes a little and starts checking under futons and behind pillows. Kakashi snorts when he finds the first one, pinning the edge of a sheet to the floorboards, and starts trying to pry it up without further damaging the wood. He leaves the boy to it, picking up his wallet and heading out the door.

At least the frantic edge to their journey is gone, he thinks, sidestepping a couple coming up the stairs. That will make everything easier, hopefully. The hard part is going to be keeping Kurama from gutting them on sight, or just taking his jinchuuriki and running again.

Maybe they can arrange for a fruit basket. Or a card. Someone has to make a greeting card for this kind of situation, right? Something like I'm sorry for chasing you across seven countries and trying to brainwash you, let’s be friends now that I don’t think you're trying to take over the world with human weapons.

Yeah, no. That’s…not going to work. Kakashi rubs at his visible eye with something close to despair, and tries not to think of all the myriad ways this little jaunt could end very, very badly.

Chapter Text

[clemency / klemənsē/, to show forbearance, compassion, or forgiveness in judging or punishing; leniency; mercy. Late Middle English, from Latin clementia, from clemens, clement- ‘clement.’]

 

Kurama wakes up more slowly and more comfortably than he has since bolting from Konoha with Naruto in his arms. He’s sprawled out on the thick mattress, warm and well-rested, with a pleasant drowsy lassitude that’s seeped all the way down to his bones. A heavy arm is draped across his back, fingers curled lightly against his side, and he smiles a little to himself, shifting and stretching lazily. Sunlight is slanting in through the bedroom window, unusual for Kiri but gloriously warm, and if he listens he can hear Naruto and Fū laughing beyond the door.

He feels unexpectedly good. It’s not just the sex—though that was very interesting, and Kurama can see why Naruto and Sasuke did it so much. It’s also the release of tension, the lack of urge to pack up and run before the hunters get to him. Even if they do come, eight out nine jinchuuriki know him, know Naruto. Naruto has connections with others like him. There's little risk of him becoming that depressed, lonely, unhappy child again. Yugito, Rōshi, Han, Utakata, even Yagura—they’ll all prevent it. Just knowing that makes everything that came before worthwhile.

Without bothering to be subtle about it, Kurama picks up Zabuza’s arm and drops it to the side, then rolls over and swings his legs out of bed. Zabuza grumbles audibly, snagging a pillow and pulling it over his head in clear protest of getting up, and Kurama snorts. “Lazy layabout,” he challenges.

“’S not what you said last night,” the swordsman counters, unmoving. “Bring me coffee.”

“Fuck no. Get it yourself.” Kurama dodges the swat of his hand with a low laugh, stooping to find the clothes they’d tossed to the side. Since his pack is still in the room he’s been sharing with the kids, he pulls them on, drags a hand through his hair to get the worst of the tangles out, and slips out the door.

“Morning, Kurama-nii!” Naruto says brightly from where he’s sprawled on his stomach, drawing colorful pictures on what looks like seal paper. Fū is sitting next to him, clearly supervising. “Did you switch rooms?”

“Just for last night,” Kurama tells him, crouching down to ruffle his hair and offering Fū a smile. “Sleep well, kit?”

“Yeah! Yugito-nii told us a story about a princess with really long hair. Everybody kept climbing it, though, and I said I would punch them for it. She got mad at me, but Gaara liked it so she got better.”

For all of Yugito’s sensibility, she’s secretly very much a fan of fairy tales and princesses. Kurama chuckles, rising to his feet. “I'm sure she was just annoyed. Don’t worry about it.”

Naruto beams at him. “I'm not! She said tonight she’d tell us a more exciting story if we didn’t like princesses and stuff.”

Hopefully Yugito will remember that most of her audience is under ten, and therefore not quite up to hearing about bloody historical battles. “Sounds good,” is all Kurama says, though. He tugs lightly on a lock of Fū’s green hair, then heads for the bathroom to take a quick shower and get some fresh clothes.

Ten minutes later, when he wanders into the kitchen, it’s to find Yagura and Mei arguing at the table, talking right over the top of an aggravated Jiraiya, Han lurking near the doorway with his head ducked down to keep from hitting the ceiling, and Rōshi folding omelets. Utakata is filling bowls with rice, Fuji planted hopefully between his feet and Momiji lying on the floor two inches behind his heels.

“Begging’s terrible for your image,” Kurama tells the foxes, amused. “You don’t look like fearsome fox summons, you look like hungry rats.”

Fuji sniffs pointedly, not deigning to respond, but her brother lets out a yipping laugh and rises, shrinking as he goes. He leaps up, claws catching on Kurama's tunic, and Kurama boosts him the rest of the way onto his shoulder. The silver fox curls around his neck, draping his tails over Kurama's shoulder, and wrinkles his nose. “You smell like swordsman,” he complains.

“I showered,” Kurama retorts. He glances at Rōshi and Utakata, but Utakata just smiles and offers him a cup of tea.

“Why don’t you sit down?” the boy asks. “We’re almost done here.”

Hardly about to turn down hot food that’s been prepared for him, without having to hunt it himself, Kurama removes himself from the kitchen, heading for the table. Mei and Yagura are getting louder, but mostly just insulting each other now, so he can't tell what sparked the argument. He’s just about to ask Jiraiya, since from the look on his face he’s been present for the whole thing, when he rounds the corner of the table and pulls up short, staring at the creature sitting on the chair cushion.

A pug, short and squat, with a blue vest and a Konoha hitai-ate. Lazy eyes flicker to Kurama, then widen sharply, just as Kurama's narrow.

“Oh, hey!” Jiraiya says cheerfully, clearly happy for a distraction from the two bickering Kiri nin. “I actually found us some reliable backup for when we head for the Mountains’ Graveyard. I've known Hatake since he was a brat, and if he picked the squad—”

“Fuck you, no,” Kurama says promptly, and feels Momiji shift on his shoulder, the prick of sharp claws digging in in preparation. “Really, no. I'm not letting the damned Freak Squad within ten miles of Naruto. Try again.”

Jiraiya's face does something weird, though Kurama doesn’t care enough to identify that expression. “Freak Squad,” he repeats, sounding dubious.

Kurama crosses his arms over his chest, glaring at Pakkun. “Yes, the Freak Squad. They’ve been on my goddamned tail since I grabbed Naruto from Konoha, and they're a pain in the ass. I am not working with two and a half Uchiha and a baby Mokuton user.”

“My point exactly,” Yagura snaps, though it’s directed at Mei rather than Jiraiya. “Kiri just got out of an Uchiha’s grasp. I'm not inviting another one in.”

“You can't leave them camped outside the gate, you infantile brat!” Mei snaps back. “Kiri is already in a precarious enough position thanks to all the backlash against our bloodlines and you going insane for the last six years. Konoha is the strongest Hidden Village! You can't insult them like that!”

“There are currently nine jinchuuriki in Kiri, so reassess! We’re holding all the power at the moment, you old maid harpy!”

“And if you even threaten to use it the state of our international relations will never recover! Pissing off every other country at the same time is not a good idea, even for a prepubescent little jerkwad like you!”

So that’s what the argument was about.

“Can you stop shouting?” Kurama snaps, and it’s only partially accidental when his control wavers, the full force of his chakra crashing over them for just an instant. It shuts them both up immediately, though, so Kurama counts it as a win. He glowers at the two, then turns back to Pakkun, who doesn’t look nearly as impressed as he should. “You. What the hell does Kakashi think he’s doing coming here?”

Pakkun arches his brows in a gesture he must have picked up from his summoner. “Boss thinks he’s doing what the Hokage ordered him to. He’s got a message for you from the three Kages currently in Konoha. You're gonna want to read it.”

With a high-pitched snarl, Momiji launches himself from Kurama's shoulders, landing on the edge of the table and peering over to bare his pointy teeth at the pug. “Kurama-sama has better things to do than listen to you,” he snarls. “Or your bastard of a summoner.”

Rolling his eyes, Kurama sets his tea down and scoops the fox up, cradling him in his arms as a low, continuous growl rumbles through the reynard and his five tails bristle angrily. He turns his glare on Jiraiya, and snaps, “Kakashi attacked me when I tried to hug Naruto. I'm not inclined to give him a chance to drag the kid back to Konoha against his will.”

Jiraiya raises his hand in a placating gesture. “Look, if the Hokage sent him with a message, it’s important. And if we’re going to throw ourselves headlong at Akatsuki the way I know you're planning, we’re going to need all the backup we can get. Kakashi is one of Konoha’s best. Give him a chance.”

Kurama really doesn’t feel inclined to, since three of the last four times they’ve been within a hundred yards of each other they’ve come to blows. And the remaining time doesn’t even count, since Fuji was in the middle of getting them the hell away from their pursuers. But—

He’s forgotten, he supposes, that Kakashi has a claim on Naruto too. That he does now, and will in the future, and that he’s one of the precious people that his Naruto sent him back to save. Without Kakashi, the first time around, Naruto might never have been a shinobi—certainly wouldn’t have been the same kind of shinobi.

If he wants to take the logical angle, too, there's always the fact that as far as backup goes, he could do a hell of a lot worse than the Freak Squad, given Akatsuki’s current members. Itachi is more than capable of facing Orochimaru, Tenzō will probably do decently against Kisame, Shisui is a wildcard but probably strong in his own right, and Kakashi is just about the best person to face Obito, since they share an eye. Pein will, of course, be a pain in the ass, pun fully intended, but with Jiraiya around maybe they can manage to beat some sense into him. That leaves Sasori and Kakuzu, and Kurama feels fairly confident in his chances, even fighting both of them together. Now that his chakra is completely his own again, it won't be anything he can't handle.

“Fine,” he says shortly, and doesn’t look at Jiraiya. He keeps his eyes on Momiji as he scratches behind the reynard’s ears, earning a gravel-rough purr for his efforts. “But I'm meeting them at the gate, and if they even think about causing trouble, I'm kicking them out on their asses faster than you can say gone.”

“I’ll come with you,” Yagura agrees immediately, rising to his feet and snatching up his staff. “Mei, you can…sit on Momochi, I don’t care.”

“On that note,” Mei says with a lioness’s smile, rounding on Kurama. “You should be aware that I'm judging you for your taste, Uzumaki. Also, is he as good in bed as Ameyuri says he is?”

“I never fucking slept with Ameyuri,” Zabuza grunts, leaning around Kurama to steal his cooling tea. “If she says otherwise, she’s lying.”

Mei sighs dramatically. “I’ll get a straight answer one of these days, Momochi.”

“Not by asking Kurama you won't.” He smirks at Kurama, who raises an unimpressed eyebrow in return. “Something happening, firecracker?”

“Keep calling me that and the only thing that’s happening is you getting your face introduced to my foot,” Kurama retorts. “Copy-Nin Kakashi is at the gates. Yagura and I were going to go let him in.”

Interest sparks in Zabuza’s eyes, a hell of a lot more violent than the kind he showed last night. “Konoha's Copy-Nin? Always wanted to see how I’d do against that Sharingan of his. Want some company?”

“Not particularly,” Yagura says, eyeing him. “Are you going to pick a fight?”

“Me?” Zabuza gives him a bullshit grin, showing off his filed teeth. “Never. I’ll be an angel, Mizukage-sama.”

Yagura’s expression says he doesn’t buy it for a moment, but he still inclines his head. “Very well. Pakkun, was it? Which gate are they waiting at?”

“Eastern tip of the city, Mizukage-sama,” the pug says, more or less politely, and leaps down to follow them as they head for the door. Kurama lets the other two men slide past him, then detours into the main room.

“I'm going out for a sec, kit,” he says, crouching down next to Naruto again. “You good to stay here with everyone else?”

Naruto pauses, halfway through a drawing of what is probably meant to be Fū with butterfly wings, and looks up, expression shifting to faint worry. “You're gonna be okay, Kurama-nii?”

“Yeah.” Kurama smiles at him. “I just have to meet someone really quickly, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him, Kurama-nii!” Fū offers cheerfully. “Yugito said she was going to wake Gaara up, too, so we can all play together again, right, Naru-chan?”

“Right!” Naruto cheers. “If you come back before we’re done, you can be on my team, Kurama-nii!”

Kurama chuckles and leans in, kissing his forehead briefly before he rises to his feet. “Well, with a promise like that, I’ll have to, won't I?”

Both kids wave, and Kurama waves back, then heads for where Zabuza is leaning against the door.

“Shame the brats have you by the short and curlies,” the swordsman says idly, though his grin is anything but. “You might be more interesting if they didn’t.”

“Right,” Kurama says, completely unimpressed. “And the reason you're hovering here totally isn’t because Haku just walked into the kitchen. You tell him goodbye like a good mother bear?”

“Fuck you,” Zabuza spits, one hand snapping towards his sword. Kurama grins back, showing teeth, and—

“If you two are done posturing about which one is the better mother,” Yagura says, clearly annoyed, “we have a team of shinobi to meet.”

Zabuza gives him a short, sharp glare, then turns on his heel and stalks past. “Watch yourself,” he growls. “That hat still looks tempting.”

If anything, Yagura’s expression gets even less impressed as he turns to follow the swordsman. “I invite you to try, Momochi. You didn’t have a chance against me when I was brainwashed and only able to access a fraction of Isobu’s power; you haven’t a hope as I am now.”

Zabuza mutters something that might be “we’ll see about that”, but he hardly says it loud enough to count. The only reason Kurama catches it is because he has fox ears.

“He’s not overly smart, is he?” Momiji mutters, wriggling out of Kurama's arms and climbing up onto his shoulder again.

Kurama snorts. “Has a tendency to think with his damned sword, from what I've seen.”

That earns him happy chatter from the reynard. “Pun intended?”

“Pun definitely intended.” Grinning, Kurama picks up his pace a little, falling into step with Yagura as they head out of the forest and into the village proper. He glances down at the jinchuuriki for a moment, then asks cautiously, “There going to be problems with you letting all of us stay here?”

Yagura hums, inclining his head to a group of shinobi as they bow. “The best thing about being both a Kage and a jinchuuriki is that no one is certain which position supersedes the other,” he says, and there's a hint of humor in his voice and the curve of his lips. “In this case, I’ll let them assume it’s my ties as a jinchuuriki that are making me host you, and if they raise a fuss, I’ll throw a fit and wreck whatever room we’re in.”

Kurama supposes that a jinchuuriki losing their temper is something the rest of the world tries to avoid whenever possible, and thinking of the other Kage’s potential reaction makes him laugh. “That’s one method of getting your way,” he says. “I think I approve.”

“I'm glad.” Yagura is smiling, just a little. “Especially since Mei keeps telling me to be careful. She doesn’t understand. Only a jinchuuriki would.”

Kurama can't argue with that, not really. Even “monsters” like Zabuza can't quite understand the constant fear and hatred directed at a human container and the bijuu inside of them, or the abuse they suffer in the name of strengthening their village. For all that he endured, Naruto was actually one of the lucky ones.

It’s going to be different now, though. Kurama won't let any of them go back to the way things were, even if he has to wreck a village or two to see to it. And once they see just how willing he is to do that, he thinks the Kages will get the picture quickly enough. It can only be for their own benefit, after all.

 

 

Kakashi isn’t a man who feels fear in the face of anything but losing those dear to him. He can count the number of times something besides loss has truly scared him on one hand and have fingers left over. And this—

Well. This isn’t exactly adding to that, which probably proves a couple of Genma's more pointed accusations about elite jounin idiocy correct.

Still, even knowing what he does, it’s hard for Kakashi to look at the short, grumpy redhead stalking through Kiri's gates and feel anything but vague amusement, edged with a faint pang of nostalgia for when Kushina wore that particular look. It usually ended with Minato getting beaten over the head, sometimes with him just flat-out getting his ass kicked, and Kakashi always got a healthy amount of glee out of it. Here and now it doesn’t feel all that different, which is a little disconcerting, even with the addition of an even shorter boy carrying a hook-ended staff and the tall, looming figure of one of the Seven Swordsmen, blade slung over his shoulder.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Pakkun mutters, trotting up to him and sitting down at his feet. “Message delivered, Boss.”

“Thanks,” Kakashi says, giving him a crinkle-eyed smile, though he keeps Kurama in his peripheral vision just in case the redhead starts swinging. “That’s all I needed, Pakkun.”

The pug huffs, but vanishes in a puff of smoke, and Kakashi turns his attention to Kurama. Surprisingly, the man is hanging back, and the blond boy is approaching at a brisk pace. It’s only when Kakashi gets a good look at the stitch-like scar on his left cheek and his pale purple eyes that he recognizes the Mizukage, and forces himself to bow politely. Damn it, but if Kurama has Yagura as an ally, and Kiri is currently entertaining nine jinchuuriki including their Kage, it’s no wonder the others coughed up a pardon so quickly.

“Hatake Kakashi,” Yagura says, cool and assessing. “What business do you have in Kirigakure?”

Political posturing is Kakashi's least favorite thing ever. Still, he forces his tone to politeness and slowly withdraws the Hokage's message from his flak jacket pocket. “Mizukage-sama, the Hokage, Kazekage, and Raikage sent a request that you attend an upcoming Kage Summit that’s to be hosted in Konoha. I was also asked to rendezvous with the Sannin Jiraiya and give Uzumaki Kurama a pardon for all actions taken. The Hokage invites him to return to Konoha if he wishes to, along with any who might want to accompany him.”

Grey-blond brows rise sharply, and Yagura turns, casting a speaking look at Kurama. Kurama blinks back, uncrossing his arms from his chest, and takes a step forward. “Already?” he asks. “They pardoned me? No more chasing us across the damned country?”

Kakashi tips one shoulder in a shrug. “I’d assume that’s why they sent us to deliver the message,” he says mildly. “Proof of goodwill. Will you accept?”

Kurama shoots him a scathing look as he all but snatches the scroll from Kakashi's fingertips. A quick scan of the words makes him grin, showing that bare edge of sharp teeth, and then he rerolls it. “Perfect,” he says with some satisfaction. “Going to be an asshole again when I try to hug my nephew, Hatake?”

It takes effort not to wince, though Kakashi supposes he deserved that. Because of that, he meets Kurama's angry red gaze as evenly as he’s able, and says, “I misunderstood. I'm sorry.”

One blink, then another, and the anger abates, muffled behind surprise. Looking away, Kurama reaches up to touch the silver fox perched on his shoulder, and says gruffly, “Understandable. But next time you try to take Naruto from me, I’ll feed you your intestines, got it?”

Compared to the threat he made to eat them back when Kakashi's squad first captured him, that’s a marked improvement as far as levels of violence go, so Kakashi takes it as the peace offering it’s probably (maybe) intended to be. “Of course,” he says, and doesn’t waver in the face of Kurama's clear suspicion.

Yagura clears his throat, and when Kakashi turns to look at him, he says, “I'm going to have to ask that the Uchiha in your party keep their Sharingan deactivated while in Kiri. I assume yours is in a constant state of activation, since it’s not natural?”

Kakashi tries his best not to stiffen, and ignores the way Shisui, Tenzō, and Itachi are trading glances behind him. For a moment all he can see is Kiri nin closing in under a full moon, Rin with a ghastly smile and his hand through her chest, the first moment of his Mangekyo activating as she died. He clenches his hands into fists and forces himself not to look down; even if he sees blood on them, like he knows he will, there isn’t anything he can do about it right now. It’s hardly something new for him, either. He should be used to it by now.

“You’re correct,” he manages to get out, though the words feel like they're strangling him. “If those are your conditions for entering, Mizukage-sama, my team will follow them as long as there's no direct threat to their safety.”

“Agreed, then.” Yagura turns on his heel, waving one of the guards closer. “Secure rooms for the Konoha delegation, preferably close to where the Sannin Jiraiya is staying. Then locate Ao, and tell him to arrange a guard to accompany me to the Summit. I would prefer to have at least one of the Swordsmen with me.”

The kunoichi salutes, then vanishes in a whirl of mist, leaving her partner to eye Kakashi's squad warily as they approach. Kakashi does his best to look nonthreatening, short of pulling out his Icha Icha. He can just imagine the Hokage's reaction to him doing so in front of another Kage, and while Sarutobi is generally accommodating of his habits, that would be pushing things a little too far.

It’s a definite regret, though; Kakashi is practically suffering withdrawals right now.

A sharp, “Leave it, shark-face,” brings Kakashi's attention back to his surroundings, and he glances over to see Kurama has waylaid the swordsman and is giving him a narrow look. “I seem to recall you used the term ‘angel’ barely ten minutes ago. Ready to prove yourself a liar?”

The big man huffs. “You gonna step in instead, firecracker? You know exactly what I want.”

Then he leers. At Kurama.

Kakashi is very confused right now.

“You also said if we sparred we’d end up fucking on the training ground,” Kurama says flatly, and Tenzō makes a quiet sound like he’s dying. “It’s not happening, Zabuza. Curiosity satisfied.”

“I wasn’t good enough to tempt you into another time?” Zabuza grins at him. “Better let me try again and see if I can do better the second time around.”

“No flirting,” Yagura cuts in, sounding aggrieved. “The other night was bad enough. If I want violent soppiness, I’ll talk to Mei. Kurama, do you intend to go after Akatsuki before or after you return to Konoha?”

Distracted, Kurama turns away, leaving Kakashi to eye Zabuza a little disbelievingly. Because that’s Momochi Zabuza, Demon of the Hidden Mist, and Kurama can't have been in Kiri more than a handful of days. Just how fast does he move?

Still, it’s a question to ask later. He keeps most of his attention on Kurama as the redhead answers, “Before. The approach is easier from here. I’ll take a ship to Frost Country, then another to Moon Country, and head straight for the Mountains’ Graveyard. With any luck they won't see me coming.”

“Us,” Yagura corrects, and then, catching the expression that flickers over Kurama's face, adds, “Not me, I'm the Mizukage and have a village on the edge of civil war to rebuild. But that’s why the Toad Sage is bringing these four in, isn’t it? And somehow I don’t see Rōshi or Han allowing you to leave them behind.”

Kurama's expression turns mulish, and he stalks after Yagura as the Mizukage heads back into the village. “No fucking way am I taking jinchuuriki to face down Akatsuki. How stupid do you think I am? I'm not piranha-breath over there.”

“Hey,” Zabuza protests, though he sounds closer to amused than insulted.

Kurama waves a dismissive hand at him. “Oh, shut up. Your sword’s more reasonable than you are, and that’s a bad sign.”

“You weren’t complaining about my sword last night.”

“Keep bringing that up and you won't have one at all. Either of them.”

Kakashi resists the urge to look heavenward.

Allies. Yeah. This partnership is going to go splendidly. He’s so excited. So.

Gods, is it too early to retire? Maybe Itachi has the right idea.

Chapter Text

[deprehend / dəp ‘ rē ‘ hənd/, to catch; to take unware or by surprise; to seize, as a person commiting an unlawful act; to catch; to apprehend; to detect; to discover; to find out.. From Latin deprehendere, from de- + prehendere ‘to lay hold of, seize.’]

 

Kakashi can remember the Naruto from Konoha, the lonely little boy who tried too hard to be happy and only counted the Hokage as a friend. He can remember the Naruto from Whirlpool, grinning at him from the back of a flying fox.

What he can't remember is this: Naruto laughing freely, running across the wet grass with two other children, arms outstretched. Can't remember happiness, or such pure joy, or that free smile with no shadows in his eyes. Minato's eyes, in the sun—warm and blue and so full of life and wonder. Kushina, too, hidden away in the angle of his grin, the merry mischief on his face.

It feels like a blow to the chest, like a kunai driven into his gut. Kakashi comes to a sharp stop, one hand catching the edge of the gate to steady him, and can't do anything but stare.

Kurama pushes past him with a huff, but doesn’t pause. “I'm back, kit,” he calls. “Did you brats catch another geezer?”

“Just the same one,” Nii Yugito says, a cat-pleased smile on her face as she rounds the corner of the building and comes to a halt.

Hot on her heels, Naruto comes flying back into sight, looking fit to burst with glee. “Kurama-nii, Kurama-nii! Can you play with us now?”

Kakashi expects Kurama to wave him off, to offer a “the adults need to talk” excuse. Instead, Kurama crouches down, letting Naruto barrel right into him, and scoops the boy off his feet, tossing him over his shoulder like a sack of rice. “I guess I could,” he says, pretending reluctance, though Kakashi can see how he’s fighting a smile—and losing. “Ooph!” Something small and red collides with his leg, and he grabs the tiny creature by the back of its shirt and hauls it up, settling it on his hip. Another small child, Kakashi is horrified to see, and takes a prudent step back lest he be called on to babysit or—or hold one or something.

Kurama doesn’t even glance at him. “Hey, Gaara,” he says, warm and a good bit softer than the voice he used with Naruto. “Staying out of trouble?

The Kazekage’s brat—the one Baki called dangerous and unstable and prone to violent outbursts—gives Kurama a sweet, shy smile and curls his arms around the man’s neck, laying his head on Kurama's shoulder. “We played tag. It was fun,” he says, muffled and barely translatable.

“Yeah!” Naruto chimes in, happily hanging upside down. “Rōshi got distracted by Fū’s glittery stuff and a branch knocked him down, and then Han started laughing at him, and they decided to wrestle! Well, Rōshi decided to wrestle. Han was laughing so hard he didn’t seem to notice.”

So the two oldest jinchuuriki really did make it here, as the Kage thought. Kakashi would be surprised, except that’s just how his luck seems to go. All he can really hope for is that Rōshi won't want to continue their fight, or hold on to any grudges. He doesn’t have the mental fortitude to deal with more than one jinchuuriki at a time out for his blood, and Kurama is dangerous enough on his own.

“And the house is still standing? Color me astonished.” Kurama tickles Naruto's bare feet, making the boy giggle and squirm, and then hitches him up a little higher and heads for the backyard.

“Astonished? What color is that?” Naruto sounds confused, and he’s trying to crane his head around to look at his uncle. Either he hasn’t noticed Kakashi and his team yet or he just doesn’t care, and Kakashi isn’t sure which option stings more. He has no right to Naruto's attention, not really, but…he looks an awful lot like all the best parts of Minato and Kushina. So terrifyingly much like all the things Kakashi has allowed to slip from between his fingers and shatter on the ground.

“It’s just a silly saying, Naru-chan,” another voice chimes in, and a fourth child—this one with green hair—leaps lightly off the roof, lands, and immediately launches herself at Kurama's back, just managing not to completely squish Naruto. Kurama grunts theatrically, staggering forward, and Yugito grabs the arm that’s supporting Gaara like she’s going to keep him on his feet. Something wicked sparks in Kurama's grin, making Yugito’s eyes widen, and with an exaggerated cry he tips over. Kakashi can recognize a controlled fall when he sees one, but the kids hanging off of the redhead all shriek in gleeful terror as Kurama topples to the ground and rolls to pin all four of them with his weight.

“Kurama-nii!” the green-haired girl complains loudly, trying to wiggle out from under his right shoulder.

“No fair!” Naruto agrees, voice muffled by the curve of Kurama's back. “You're heavy!”

(Kakashi notes that of all of them, Gaara looks the least troubled. Then again, he’s tucked under Kurama's left arm, still in pretty much the same position with his arms around Kurama's neck, and it seems like he’d be more than happy to stay there.

Yeah, Kakashi is thinking Baki may have missed one or two things about the kid’s personality.)

“Are you calling me fat?” Kurama shoots back, letting a little more of his weight rest on them to a chorus of exaggerated groans. “Are you, brats?”

Closing the gate behind their group, Zabuza laughs. “I can say with certainty you're not,” he says, clearly amused, and takes a few faux-casual steps forward. “But if you want help pinning them down—”

Yugito squeaks and twists harder, apparently not a fan of this idea. As she staggers to her feet, she gives Zabuza a look that borders on actual evil, says to Kurama, “The geezer’s probably trying to yell for you, Kurama-nii. You should come rescue him again,” and stalks back around the side of the house.

Kurama rolls his eyes, accepting the hand Zabuza offers and letting the swordsman tug him to his feet. He sidesteps Zabuza’s cheerful grope of his ass, sweeps the other man’s feet out from under him, and scoops up the two six-year-olds as Zabuza yelps and goes down. “You know, anyone else would think you were joking,” he calls after Yugito as the green-haired girl scrambles onto his back again.

“Matatabi says you should know better by now,” the blonde calls back, and Kakashi can hear something like muffled swearing under the words.

“Yeah, yeah.” Kurama hitches Gaara up, boosts Naruto over his shoulder again, and follows, muttering about cats under his breath.

“…Well,” Shisui says at length, sliding up to stand at Kakashi's elbow. “I think we can strike off ‘manipulating them to earn their loyalty’ from the list of Kurama's misdeeds. I wouldn’t even let Sasuke climb all over me like that.”

“Sasuke would be more likely to go for a groin-shot,” Itachi reminds him pointedly. “And you would be more likely to pull his hair.” His eyes are…softer, though, somehow. Touched with something Kakashi can't quite place. He wonders if this spark has anything to do with Itachi's desire to leave ANBU, but doesn’t ask.

“Sasuke's a brat,” Shisui complains, and Kakashi can't believe he doesn’t choke on the hypocrisy of that statement.

Apparently, neither can Tenzō, because he coughs pointedly. When Shisui glares at him, he just gives a creepy, bland smile in return, and says, “What was that, Shisui? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of your childishness.”

Shisui sticks his tongue out at him and flips him off, and Tenzō beams back, giving him ghoul-eyes that send a shiver down even Kakashi's spine.

It is, Kakashi thinks, a rather neat summary of the entirety of their interactions.

“Children. Don’t make the captain send you to your rooms,” the elven-year-old in the group says mildly, and Kakashi kind of wants to put his face in his hands. His team, why.

Zabuza, of course, laughs at them as he pushes to his feet. “You siblings, or are you just fucking?” he asks, and snickers at the twin horrified looks that suddenly snap in his direction. “Hey, hey, I'm not judging. Some people get off on that. Like Mei and—”

“If you finish that sentence, I will tell Ameyuri that you implied kunoichi are naturally weaker. Or Mei,” Yagura says from behind them, as mild as a summer sky, and Zabuza instantly snaps his mouth shut. It makes Kakashi think of Anko's reaction to that statement, and he winces. If Mei or Ameyuri’s reaction is anything similar, he understands completely.

“Don’t say shit like that,” Zabuza growls, picking up his sword and slinging it over his shoulder again. “Terumī could be—”

Yagura rolls his eyes. “If she hasn’t left,” he says dismissively, “she’s probably wherever Rōshi is, throwing herself at the poor man.”

“I am not!” The main door flies open, and an auburn-haired woman in a blue dress stalks down the steps. “Keep your slander to yourself, shrimp. And Ao is here, if you can tear yourself away from your new hero long enough to meet with him.”

“I'm not hero-worshipping Kurama, you harpy!” Yagura retorts, eyes narrowing.

Mei looks like he just handed her a gift. “I never mentioned Kurama, did I?” she asks gleefully. “Funny that your mind should jump right to him, Yagura.”

“I hope you get left at the altar,” Yagura hisses, “and die all alone with ten cats.”

The kunoichi screeches in fury, lunging like she’s going to strangle him, and Kakashi rapidly decides it’s time to relocate. He ducks flailing limbs and double-times it after Kurama. Zabuza, who apparently has the same idea, keeps pace.

“Fucking swear I miss him being brainwashed,” the swordsman mutters, casting a wary eye behind them. “I could handle Terumī being sad and resigned about killing her best friend. This shit is what's terrible.”

Kakashi can't say he disagrees. Though, now that he thinks about it—and he would kindly like his brain to stop, actually—there are definitely parallels between Mei and Yagura’s interactions and Tenzō and Shisui’s, no matter how much he wishes he could un-see them. Still, friendship. They're good friends. He doesn’t care unless they get in an actual fight and seriously disrupt the team.

Kakashi's head may be firmly in the sand, but that’s okay. He likes it there.

Just around the corner, the muffled swearing Kakashi's been hearing resolves itself into less-muffled swearing, coming from a white-wrapped bundle that’s roughly the size and shape of the Toad Sage. Kurama is beside the wriggling prisoner, crouched down with the four kids around him and a dark-haired teenager next to him, and he looks amused. Kakashi doesn’t really want to know, but he drifts in that direction anyway, because the only other option is the porch.

Han and Rōshi are sitting on the porch. And they're watching him. Like hawks.

“—going to do, string him up somewhere?” Kurama is asking when he gets close enough to hear, and where Kakashi has heard most parental figures in this kind of situation sound aggrieved or annoyed, Kurama sounds faintly proud and very much like he’s swallowing laughter. “Zabuza’s not going to approve. Doesn’t fit his décor.”

“You mean Haku won't approve,” Yugito corrects, and there's a stubborn tilt to her chin.

“Do we have to let him go?” the green-haired girl—Taki’s jinchuuriki, Kakashi is sure, and he remembers the bite marks on the dead jounin they found with a healthy amount of respect for her scrappiness—chimes in. “He hurt Yugito!”

“And he tried to apologize for it.” Yugito says it like it’s the worst thing that could happen in the aftermath.

“Kitten, sweetheart, he probably thought it was the right thing—”

“I'm a kunoichi!” the blonde girl snaps, and then looks horrified that she did. She ducks her head, hands fisting at her sides, and adds in a much quieter tone, “Kurama-nii, I'm a kunoichi, and I almost lost a fair fight between us. I don’t want him to say sorry for that. But he keeps trying and he won't stop.”

With a faint sigh, Kurama hooks an arm around Yugito’s shoulders and pulls her into a hug. “I know, kitten,” he says, warm and faintly amused. “Have you tried telling him that?”

Yugito rolls her eyes at him, but shakes her head and steps back, and Kurama lets her go. She looks at the Taki girl, who is apparently her partner in crime in this matter, and gets a carefree smile that has an edge of teeth to it as an answer.

“Fine,” she allows. “We’ll let him out. Gaara-chan, can you stop coating the wraps with your sand?”

The little redheaded boy, still clinging to Kurama's shirt, nods seriously and turns his attention on the wriggling bundle. Almost-invisible particles slide off, pooling on the ground, and all at once the cloth tears. Jiraiya rips his way through the bindings with murder in his expression, but when his gaze settles on Kurama he pulls up short.

“Your little brats—” he starts.

Kurama ignores him completely. “Your control’s gotten a lot better,” he tells Gaara. “Good job.”

Gaara buries his face in Kurama's side, hiding his pleased flush, and mumbles something that might be a thank you. Kurama just chuckles and ruffles his hair, then looks at Naruto, who’s crouching next to him. “You helped too?” he asks.

“Yep!” Naruto says cheerfully. “Yugito-nee said I could be the distraction, so I made a big bunch of chains and made the geezer think they were gonna grab him, but then Fū hit him with her sparkly stuff and Yugito-nee wrapped him up! We’re the best team ever!”

“You definitely are,” Kurama agrees, tweaking his nose, but—

Kakashi can hardly hear him over the sound of his heartbeat.

Chakra chains? Like Kushina's Adamantine Chains? He’d known they were an Uzumaki Clan secret, and only possible for those with the largest reserves of chakra, but…he hadn’t quite made the connection, he supposes. Hadn’t looked at Kurama and thought Uzumaki and had it mean all the things he should. But now, standing with Naruto, knowing that jutsu well enough to teach it—

Kakashi looks at Kurama and for the first time, he really sees Kushina's brother. It’s there in his face, the curve of his cheek, the shape of his eyes, the angle of his grin. Naruto shares it too, now that he can compare them side by side. Here and now, he can say with absolute certainty that there's no way that they're unrelated.

Oh, he thinks, and doesn’t quite know where to go from there.

“Kurama!” Yagura calls, and the redhead glances up. Kakashi looks back towards the porch, where the Mizukage has joined Rōshi and Han, and—

“You!” the blue-haired man with an eyepatch cries, pointing at Shisui. “You!”

Kakashi raises a brow at his subordinate. Shisui looks absolutely blank for about seven seconds, and then his eyes widen. “The old guy! With the Byakugan!”

“I'm not old!” the jounin barks. “What do you think you're doing in Kiri? If you're going to control our Mizukage again—!”

Yagura raises a hand. “Ao,” he says simply, and the man stops short.

Pulling himself up, he turns and bows to the Yondaime. “My apologies, Mizukage-sama, but the last time I encountered him he laid a genjutsu on two of my team and would have killed us if we didn’t retreat. And knowing what we do about the man who controlled you, having an Uchiha here—”

Kakashi's brain jumps from that to the Hokage's mention in his letter of Yagura being freed from a genjutsu, and from there to his request that the Uchiha keep their Sharingan deactivated. And—

It makes a horrifying amount of sense, given what the Sharingan is supposed to be able to do to bijuu. But it also doesn’t, because the last time an Uchiha was declared a missing-nin was Madara.

“Ao, that’s enough,” Yagura says evenly. “Close your mouth. Kurama, can we discuss your plans for a moment?”

Kurama looks at the kids gathered around him and sighs. “Sure,” he calls back, then pushes to his feet. Gaara lets go of him with clear reluctance, immediately moving back to Naruto’s side, and the Taki girl pouts a little.

“I thought you were going to play with us,” she protests, though it’s halfhearted at best.

“In a few minutes,” Kurama promises. “Just need to hash out a few details. Kakashi, you’ll probably want to listen in. Your team, too.”

Kakashi can't help but wonder how much of that is true, and how much is to keep them away from Naruto and safely under Kurama's eye. He’s not going to protest, though, because Jiraiya is nodding and pulling himself to his feet.

“About time you got here,” the Toad Sage says. “I've been keeping these brats entertained for an hour now, and we’ve got more important things to deal with.”

“These brats have kicked your ass twice now,” Kurama retorts. He waits for Kakashi and his team to follow Jiraiya towards the house before bringing up the rear. “You’re just afraid they’ll bruise your ego to the point it can't recover.”

“My ego can recover from anything,” Jiraiya says with pride. “Speaking of which, that lovely redhead…”

“Is going to learn you're the one who’s been spying on the bathhouses if you make so much as a pass at her. I hear she reacts like Tsunade,” Kurama finishes for him, baring his teeth in what might be a grin. Then he pauses, glancing back at the silent teenager still standing with the other children.

The boy just smiles. “Go ahead,” he urges. “Saiken and I have agreed that it’s best we stay here with the younger jinchuuriki while you go after Akatsuki. I may as well stay with them now, too.”

“The fact that Saiken is sensible is a gift from the Sage,” Kurama says dryly. “You definitely got lucky there, Utakata.”

There's a pause as the boy’s eyes lose focus, and then he smiles and answers, “Saiken says you're his favorite, so he’s happy to help.”

“Well, he’s my favorite, too.” Kurama waves a hand as he turns back, narrowing his eyes faintly when he catches Kakashi watching. Kakashi promptly offers up his best bullshit smile and waves cheerfully.

“Coming, Kurama?” he asks brightly.

The redhead rolls his eyes, but as he makes to pass Kakashi, his steps falter. He takes a breath, looks away, and then says gruffly, “You overreacted. So did I. I just—couldn’t let you take him from me.”

Then, as if that’s all the emotionality he can stand for the day, he books it towards the porch. Kakashi stares after him, caught completely off-guard, and tries to reconcile the bitter, angry man he first met, always on a hair-trigger and grieving so clearly that it leeched into everything he did, with this man, who apologizes sincerely and laughs with the kids he’s picked up and is able to make jokes that aren’t barbed on both sides.

Oh, he thinks again, but can't manage anything else. Because the Kurama he met on his mission was a broken, shattered thing, shards just barely held together by willpower and stubbornness. To see him come so far in a few short weeks, to see him healed, and not just superficially—

It’s not that it means anything, really, because Kakashi is fine, and he’s told everyone who has ever asked exactly that. But it’s interesting, intellectually, to see someone who’s lost everything build something new in its place.

Kakashi takes a breath, wishes he hadn’t buried his Icha Icha at the bottom of his weapons pouch, or that he could somehow get to his ANBU mask, and follows Kurama inside.

 

 

This road trip isn’t turning out quite the way Bee expected.

With a roar of pure fury, the woman who was previously after him, but now only seems to want to help, throws herself at the blue-haired woman who has him wrapped up in paper that won't tear. The blue-haired woman dodges, ducks the massive black dog that comes flying in from the other side, and retreats in a hurry from a swarm of rattling insects that land on Bee’s paper cocoon and start draining the chakra from it.

“Got it, Shibi?” the Konoha kunoichi shouts, grinning like this is the most fun she’s ever had.

“Affirmative,” the hooded shinobi off to the side says. He doesn’t go after his partner as she launches herself into the surrounding forest, following the other kunoichi. Instead, he turns his attention to Bee, calling his insects back into the gourd on his back and reaching out to rip off the first layer of paper. From deeper into the woods, there's a dog’s deep snarl, a woman’s angry shout, and the heavy thunder of a tree falling. Shibi glances that way, but still doesn’t move.

“Thanks for the save, man,” Bee manages as soon as his mouth is uncovered. “Not cool to be caught when you're on the lam.”

The other shinobi is unmoved by the brilliance of his rap. “The Hokage and Raikage sent my team to retrieve you. It would be best if you returned to Konoha with us immediately.”

“No can do!” Bee protests. “Got a jinchuuriki reunion to get to, yahoo!”

“There is an organization of S-rank missing-nin after you,” another man, sliding out of the shadows. He has one arm clutched to his chest, clearly broken, and is walking with a limp. The hooded shinobi immediately abandons Bee, hurrying over to loop an arm around the long-haired man’s waist. The newcomer accepts it gratefully, leaning heavily on his partner, and asks, “Tsume?”

In the distance, another tree falls with a booming crash, and the hooded man says dryly, “Guess.”

The other shinobi snorts and looks up at Bee. His eyes are eerily pale, almost colorless, and Bee realizes with a start that he’s a Hyuuga. “You will come back with us,” the Hyuuga says, flat and certain. “I may hate your brother with every fiber of my being, but I won't fail a mission appointed by the Hokage himself.”

“You don’t gotta hate A, he might talk tough but he’s a sunshiney ray,” Bee tries, and yes, it’s a slight exaggeration, but that’s what artistic license is for.

The hooded shinobi winces, and the Hyuuga’s mouth thins into an angry line. “He is responsible for the death of my twin,” he snaps. “He had my daughter kidnapped and my brother killed, all for our eyes. I have every right to hate him. Shibi, we need to move. Eagle’s squad is down to two members.”

Of all the Hyuuga to send after him…Bee silently curses his brother’s luck—because it’s certainly not his—and reaches for his own partner. Gyūki answers readily, feeding him chakra until it falls over him like a shroud, and he twists his body, loosening up. “You go deal with the paper chick, me an’ Gyūki have six other asses to kick.”

The Hyuuga snarls something that really doesn’t suit a Clan Head, or at least not the ones Bee has met, but when he takes a step towards Bee the other Konoha shinobi pulls him back. “We can't run, Hiashi,” Shibi says firmly. “They will chase us, and we will lose what advantage we have.”

Hiashi takes a breath, closes his eyes, and then opens them again. “They all have exactly the same chakra signature,” he tells Bee. “I assume there's some way for them to share line of sight, given the way they move. Be careful. They killed three ANBU in a handful of minutes, and they seem entirely prepared to face a jinchuuriki.”

“Thanks to you, we got it now,” Bee says, offering him a salute. “We’ll beat ‘em up and take a bow.”

The Hyuuga nods, grits his teeth, and pulls himself upright. “We’ll come for you as soon as Tsume’s opponent is dealt with. Hold them off until then.” Without waiting for an answer, he steps away from Shibi, still limping faintly, and hurries into the trees. Shibi gives Bee one last nod before he follows swiftly.

There's movement in the darkness behind him, and Bee turns sharply to face the man standing beside the wide trunk. Orange hair, heavy piercings, ringed purple eyes—it’s the man who first attacked him out of nowhere.

“Got a name other than ‘fool’? Attacking Bee-sama’s just not cool!” Bee says accusingly.

The man doesn’t move beyond a faint tip of his head. “I'm going to create a new world,” he says, and his gaze doesn’t waver from Bee’s. “And for that, I need you. Or rather, the tailed beast inside of you.”

One man here means the other five have to be close by. Bee hopes they didn’t go after the Konoha team, but judging by the fact that the attacker is here and the ANBU team is nowhere to be found, the odds of them leaving bystanders alive isn’t good. And, given the way Yugito’s teachers were killed, almost like an afterthought… “You're the ones that attacked little Yugito,” Bee realizes. “That’s just not cool, yo.”

The man remains unmoved. “The Nibi escaped me, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll be taking you.”

There's a click, a hiss, and Bee spins just in time to see three rockets come flying from the trees, headed straight for him. He ducks to the side, leaps back and away, and they strike the ground where he was standing, exploding with a thunderous boom and filling the air with smoke and rubble. Bee lands further back, bracing himself, and feeds even more of Gyūki’s chakra into the cloak. He’s completely confident in his own powers, but six against one isn’t exactly good odds, even for a jinchuuriki.

The smoke whirls, shifts, and parts. The five strange shinobi step through, perfectly in sync, and Bee remembers Hiashi’s warning about shared sight. He steps back, then sets his feet and holds his ground. The pale, transparent chakra surrounding him bleeds red-black, covering him completely, and the first man—he smiles.

“Ah,” he says, and walks forward, taking his place with the other five. “Now that’s the power we seek.” A tip of his head, a flick of his hand, and he orders, “Go.”

They move as one, swift and eerily silent, and Bee only has time to bring up his fists before the first one is closing in.

Chapter Text

[succiduous / suc ` cid ´ ū ` ous /, falling, in the process of falling; ready to fall; tottering. From Latin succiduus, from succidere, “to fall under”.]

 

“Damn,” Tsume says breathlessly, slumped over against Kuromaru. The nin-dog is breathing heavily, sides heaving, and Tsume presses a hand against her own ribs, wincing a little at the thick tackiness of blood. Her uniform is in tatters from the origami weapons the other kunoichi used, but at least she’s standing, if only mostly under her own power.

The same can't be said for Hiashi, unfortunately. Between the broken arm and the ankle that’s probably fractured, he’s on the ground, looking grim even as he struggles to rise. Shibi isn’t in any hurry to help him, busy trussing up their opponent with as much ninja wire as the three of them have on them. Judging by the reproving looks he’s shooting both her and Hiashi, he doesn’t approve of them still being even close to on their feet.

Not that they have a choice, Tsume knows. The sound of the fight off to the left is still loud and frantic, a constant reminder that their mission isn’t even approaching finished yet.

Another choked sound of pain escapes her idiot teammate, and Tsume’s temper snaps. “Damn it, Hyuuga! Sit the hell down, fix your fucking ankle if you haven’t forgotten every bit of medical ninjutsu you used to know, and then try being a stubborn bastard!”

Hiashi glares at her, face unnaturally pale with pain, but sinks back down to the ground. “We’re running out of time,” he gets out through clenched teeth.

“Yeah, well, we’ll have more of it if you can actually stand,” Tsume fires back, then knots her fingers in Kuromaru’s thick fur and pushes herself upright. She watches narrowly as Hiashi mutters something unpleasant under his breath, but slides a green-glowing hand over his arm, and nods in satisfaction as the visible lines of pain in his face start to ease. The idiot might feel as if he’s wasting chakra better spent on his Byakugan, but he’s good enough at taijutsu even after years of lazing around as Clan Head that he’s more useful moving.

She takes a step, testing, and is pleased when it doesn’t wobble. First step in getting back into the fight is to actually get to the fight, and she’s got a decent chance now. “Shibi? Can we leave her?” Not that they really have a choice. The three of them are too battered to drag the enemy kunoichi along right now, so they’ll have to head out either way.

“Yes,” Shibi answers succinctly, one of the things she loves him for. “Between her closed tenketsu points, blood loss, and the kikaichū currently feeding off her, she will not get far even if she wakes.”

Tsume’s missed working as a team the last few years. She grins, fierce and wild, and knows her teeth are red with blood but also that these two men, of all those in the village, will never care. “Good. Stay with Hiashi in case there are more of them where she came from. I’ll go after the jinchuuriki.”

“Don’t be foolish!” Hiashi snaps, looking like he wants to jump to his feet and grab her. “Take Shibi with you, I’ll be fine. I can see—”

“Not if you're concentrating on something else,” Tsume cuts in sharply. “I'm the distraction, you're the main attack, so get back on your damn feet and focus on figuring out how to take those six bastards down!” Tactics aren’t her strong suit, but Hiashi lives and breathes subtlety, and no one but a Nara can beat Shibi when it comes to strategy. Between the two of them, they won't let her get killed, and someone has to stall the rest of the attackers long enough to come up with something. “I've got Kuromaru. We’ll make do until you're back on your feet. So stop arguing and start planning!”

“Very well,” Shibi says shortly, stepping away from the captured kunoichi and crouching at Hiashi’s side. He looks at the other man for a moment, and even with his eyes and most of his face hidden, Hiashi apparently understands his intention. There's a brief pause before the Hyuuga inclines his head, and a moment later his Byakugan activates.

Tsume opens her mouth to protest—because if he’s watching his surroundings instead of his already crappy healing, he’s definitely not going to be walking any time soon—and Hiashi cuts her off with a sharp sound. “Go, Tsume. I’ll watch for any patterns in their movements. This is not negotiable.”

That tone says it really, really isn’t. “Look at you, re-growing that spine. Thought those harpy elders of yours stole it,” Tsume says, viciously amused, and laughs when he glares at her. It’s been a hell of a long time since she saw him in his jounin uniform instead of his fancy robes, and longer since she saw that spark of life and fury in his eyes. Not since Hizashi died, she thinks, and even if they lose this fight she’ll be grateful for that at least.

Lifting a hand in absent farewell, she lets go of Kuromaru, dares her legs to buckle and her head to spin, and when she manages to stay on her feet decides that’s good enough. She takes off running, a touch of chakra letting her keep pace with Kuromaru as he bounds ahead, and they both aim for the ruckus that says Killer Bee’s still fighting.

A single leap out of the trees and into the battleground leaves them in the midst of utter chaos.

A towering gate like a face with teeth stands off to one side, guarded by a big man. Another, made of metal and undaunted by the partially transformed jinchuuriki in the center of the ring, fires a barrage of rockets, then spins out of the way of a stabbing tentacle. In his place, the man who spoke when the group first appears steps in, and the octopus-like tentacle crashes heavily to the ground. At the same moment, the only woman snaps out a summoning, and a massive lizard rises behind her, then disappears. Camouflage, Tsume realizes, because she can still smell the thing. But the jinchuuriki clearly can't, because he doesn’t seem to notice it sliding around behind him.

That’s enough of an opening, Tsume decides. She jerks a pair of kunai with flashbang tags from her weapons pouch and hurls herself forward, Kuromaru perfectly in step. With a roar, she hurls them, and the detonation shakes the battlefield. Light bursts, painfully searing, but Tsume keeps her eyes shut tight. She hasn’t needed her eyes to fight in years, not when her nose and ears are more than good enough.

In an instant she has the location of the man with the rockets, still blinded by the flash. A high leap, a surge of chakra in her own body and mirrored in the familiar form beside her, and Tsume launches into the Fang Passing Fang technique. She and Kuromaru slam into the redheaded man, tearing through metal and flesh before they leap away again to land off to the side. A twist, a flip over the lunge of the lone woman, and she lands on all fours, then spins and jumps. Kuromaru catches her, just as he always does, and she uses his wide back as a springboard to hurl herself headlong at the first man as the light fades.

She almost makes it. The tag goes dark, and Tsume opens her eyes to find the man with the Ame hitai-ate braced in front of her, hand outstretched.

It feels like falling off a mountain and landing flat on her back, like gravity has suddenly doubled or condensed. Tsume cries out as she slams into the ground, hard enough to knock every bit of air from her lungs as her voice cuts off with a hollow gasp. Her fingers claw at the dirt, trying to get enough leverage for her to rise, but she can't. The pressure is too much, too steady—

With a snarl like a furious bear, Kuromaru leaps for the bastard’s throat. The redhead dodges as if he’s got eyes in the back of his head, but the weight on Tsume’s chest vanishes. She doesn’t give them time to recover, but immediately rolls to all fours and launches herself at one of the other men. He dodges as well, slips out of the path of her attack and the three kunai she hurls when he turns his back, and a moment later jumps away from the lash of a tentacle.

“All these clowns got shared line of sight—throw another tag, an’ make it bright!” the jinchuuriki shouts, blocking what looks like a reflected jutsu with one power-cloaked arm.

Well, that’s simple enough to understand. Shared line of sight won't do much good if they can't see at all. With a vicious grin, Tsume grabs for another flash bomb, then shouts, “Kuromaru!”

Her partner leaps back from where he’s harrying the Ame shinobi at the same moment as the tag leaves her hand. There's a brush of fur, a rush of movement as one of the enemy lunges, but the burst of brilliance covers it. Tsume throws herself sideways, then forward, and under the cover of the light hears a familiar hum. She laughs even as she twists into another Fang Passing Fang, feeling Kuromaru mirror her, and this time she aims for the long-haired redhead who’s held himself back. He’s next to the corpse of the first one she killed, about to pick his fallen teammate up, but Tsume hits him before he can. There's no scream, even though she feels flesh tear beneath the force of the blow, blood splattering her clothes, and—

Something strikes her hard, that condensed gravity slamming her back into the trunk of a tree and then right through it, and she hits the ground so hard that blackness swims behind her eyes. Killer Bee shouts, but she doesn’t bother trying to make the words out, too busy trying to relearn how to breathe.

A shadow falls over her, and a deep, cold voice says, “Interference will not be tolerated.”

“Fuck you, asshole,” Tsume growls, glaring up at him as she tries to pull herself to her knees. Kuromaru is doing the same, but his foreleg keeps buckling under him, and Tsume doesn’t feel all that hot herself.

“Those will be your last words,” the man says, infuriatingly emotionless, and raises his hand. Tsume braces herself as best she can for another crushing wave, and—

A swarm of inky black drops over the Ame shinobi like a thick, moving veil. He tries to leap back, to move, but his movements have suddenly become slow, jerking. A hand finds Tsume’s elbow and hauls her to her feet, and she does her best not to simply collapse on Shibi’s shoulder.

“Could fucking kiss you, Shibi,” she manages, dizzy with relief.

Shibi flushes faintly under the cover of his hood, the way he always does, and she can't help but laugh as two more of the redheaded attackers go flying, swept off their feet by Bee. “There's a summons in the trees!” she shouts to him. “Watch your back!”

“Forty-five degrees to your left,” Hiashi warns, getting an arm under Kuromaru’s broad barrel and hauling the nin-dog to his feet as well. Tsume would coo—because look at that, the pretty jerk really does care, stick up his ass and all—but she’s too busy trying to catch her breath. “It’s reaching for you, move!”

Something shimmers, jerks, lists. The chameleon wavers into view, large black shapes attached to its curled body that are rapidly growing. Tsume hasn’t seen Shibi use his kidaichū since the Third War, had even thought he didn’t host them anymore given the dangers, but she’s never been so glad to see a handful of bugs in her life.

“Plan?” she demands, trying to take a step away from her human crutch. It’s a futile effort, because her knees immediately buckle, and her vision swims so suddenly that she almost crashes to the ground again. Hiashi catches her on one side, Shibi on the other, and they haul her back up to mostly upright, but unless either one of them is hiding an entire case of soldier pills, she’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“We’re working on it,” Hiashi snaps. “Had we not had to come rescue you from your own recklessness—”

The mouth-like door that’s been standing forgotten gapes open, and the woman hurls the bodies of her two fallen teammates in. “Fuck,” Tsume says, because she doesn’t need Hiashi’s eyes to see that that’s a bad thing. Before she can make it so much as a step, though, Hiashi and Shibi haul her back, leaping out of the way of a burst of smoke and chakra. A massive dog with multiple heads snarls, snapping its teeth after them, only to crash into a wall of stone Hiashi calls up with a shout.

The fact that he’s resorting to elemental techniques instead of his much-vaunted and ever-fussy Gentle Fist style tells Tsume just how screwed they really are.

“Shibi, we could really use a few more of those kidaichū right about now,” she snaps as the summons growls, shaking chips of stone out of its fur, and advances on them again.

“We’re lucky I had those four,” Shibi says bluntly. “Had I not been tending to them when the Hokage called, I wouldn’t have been carrying any.”

It’s Hiashi who curses at that, not her, though Tsume would definitely like to. She hears a creak of metal, smells a rush of smoke, and jerks her head around in time to see the mouth-gate gape open again. The two formerly dead shinobi step out of it, perfectly unharmed, and she snarls, “Oh, that’s just not fucking fair!”

Hiashi doesn’t look thrilled, either. “Some sort of resurrection technique? Splendid. And odds are they’ll defend that gate at all costs.”

Shibi hurls himself sideways, bowling both of them right off their feet, and directs their graceless tumble behind a large tree as a massive bird with a drill-like beak crashes down where they were just a moment ago. It stabs at them, ready to swallow them whole, but even as the beak descends Hiashi leaps to his feet and whirls out in front of them, his Eight Trigrams Revolving Heaven sending the creature crashing to the side.

A deep bellow of pain snaps Tsume’s attention back to the jinchuuriki they're supposed to be retrieving, and she staggers to her feet, even though she has to lean heavily on the tree to get there. “They're distracting us!” she spits. “Hiashi, Shibi, I’ll—”

“Because you playing distraction worked so well before,” Hiashi scoffs, but the lines of his face are deep with worry. “If we can't get to the main battlefield because of these summons, they’ll be free to concentrate their attacks on Killer Bee.”

“Eagle’s squad is dead,” Shibi says quietly. “And the Raikage’s guards. Retreat?”

It sticks in Tsume’s craw, even just the thought of surrendering like that. “No,” she says fiercely, and Kuromaru growls his agreement, staggering over to brace himself against her hip. She wavers for a moment, then steadies, and glances down at her partner. He stares back, single eye equally determined, and Tsume feels her lips pull back from her teeth in an expression that’s equal parts snarl and grin. “Fuck no. Konoha shinobi don’t run. Not while there's still a chance of winning.”

Shibi and Hiashi trade brief glances, and then Shibi nods. Hiashi inclines his head, calls up another Doton jutsu to intercept the bird summons’s next strike, and orders, “Go! We’ll cover you.”

Tsume laughs, swinging a leg over Kuromaru’s back and pulling herself astride the massive nin-dog. “Let’s go make friends, boy!” she cheers, grabbing another handful of flash bombs. She tosses them to Shibi even as his kikaichū rise to surround him, and orders, “Show ‘em who they should really be afraid of, bug boy!”

Shibi flushes again, and she can tell he’s rolling his eyes behind his sunglasses, but he simply nods. Tsume claps him on the shoulder, bites down on the handle of a kunai, and fans three more out in each hand. A heel against his flank has Kuromaru spinning, and he snarls as he bolts straight for the dog summons. There's a heavy limp in each stride, and it would be enough to throw off Tsume’s aim even if her vision wasn’t wavering, but this target is too big to miss. She bellows a war cry and hurls her kunai with all the force she can muster, then flashes through hand seals and sends a wave of fire after the blades. It’s wide-spread and weak, not enough to do more than set the leaves to smoking, but it still makes the summons jerk back to protect its eyes.

With a shout, Tsume grabs Kuromaru’s ruff, and the nin-dog leaps through the vanishing wall of flame, skidding sideways under the swipe of massive jaws. Behind them, Shibi bolts for the main battle, faster than she’s seen him move in a long time, and Tsume launches an exploding tag at the summons before it can notice or move to intercept. The explosion makes it stagger, even though it doesn’t fall, and Tsume growls in aggravation as Kuromaru spins around for another pass. She wishes, just for a moment, that she had a pack like Hana to harry the monster and distract it, but she shuts the thought away as soon as it occurs. If wishes were kunai, she wouldn’t ever need to visit the weapons store.

Humans are at a disadvantage against summons, unless they’ve got summons of their own, and those kinds of contracts don’t exactly grow on trees. They're a legacy, and one the Inuzuka have always turned up their noses at. They’ve already got their nin-dog partners, after all; what do they need with any others?

Tsume’s kind of starting to regret that attitude now.

She tries another jutsu, Katon again, as Kuromaru swerves under the beast’s belly. It tries to grab them, and Tsume slams the wall of fire directly into its face. It lurches, and Tsume leaps hard, channeling just about the last of her energy into one more Fang Passing Fang as Kuromaru does the same. They blow the damned thing right off its oversized paws, send it crashing back into the trees to topple them, and—

A chakra signature goes out.

“No!” Tsume snarls, whirling, and nearly collapses herself. Kuromaru catches her just in time, shaky but standing, and she uses him to brace herself as she claws upright again. “No, no, no, you fucking assholes—”

The massive snake-tailed chameleon, re-summoned and now entirely untouched by Shibi’s technique, rises above the trees, barbed tongue wrapped tightly around the limp form of the Raikage’s brother, his body pierced through with black chakra rods. His bijuu form has vanished, and his face is slack, eyes closed. Tsume can't even tell if he’s breathing.

“We have what we came for,” the redhead with the hitai-ate says, still utterly emotionless. It’s like he’s dead, Tsume thinks viciously, even as her strength gives out and she collapses to her knees. The wound in her side is bleeding less heavily than before, but she’s been a shinobi long enough to know that’s not a good sign. She’s lost too much blood, and her chakra reserves are already almost gone. Shouldn’t have gone all-out against the paper bitch, she thinks, head swimming, and her fist clenches in Kuromaru’s fur.

She didn’t have a choice. The woman would have killed her if she hadn’t.

Behind them, the dog summons vanishes in a whirl of smoke, and she hears hurried footsteps. Hiashi grabs her, hauling her up onto his back and locking an arm beneath her thighs. She traps a cry behind gritted teeth as pain lances through her, but a moment later Shibi is beside them, ashen-faced and staggering a little. They leap together, Kuromaru right behind them, and the trees blur before Tsume’s eyes. She grimaces, but slaps at her weapons pouch, pulling out her last handful of flash bombs.

“On three,” she says grimly.

“One,” Hiashi murmurs immediately, casting a glance over his shoulder.

“Two,” Shibi adds, and urges them left.

“Three!” Tsume snarls, and throws them with all the force she can muster. The bombs scatter in a wide arc, and detonate like a supernova. At the same moment, Hiashi changes direction, redoubling their pace, and leaps for the trees. A hurried Doton jutsu swallows their footsteps as they take to the branches, Kuromaru outpacing them from below. Tsume would worry, but he knows how not to leave a trail. And besides, there's darkness eating away at the edges of her vision, swallowing her sight, and pain like acid burning up her side.

“Hiashi,” she manages, pressing her forehead to his shoulder.

He lets out a low, harsh breath. “Another mile, Tsume,” he promises. “You're too pigheaded to give up before then.”

She laughs, even though it hurts. “Of course I am. Fuck. Why am I always the one who ends up bleeding?”

“You are a frontline fighter, while the majority of the time we are support,” Shibi says, as literal and practical as ever. “If you did not enjoy playing distraction quite so much…”

“Can't let you two have all the fun,” Tsume chuckles, then winces and presses a hand to her side. “Oh, ow, ow, ow.”

“Learn to dodge,” Hiashi says, and Tsume knows it’s supposed to sound unsympathetic, but he just manages worried.

“Mmph.” Tsume waves her blood-coated hand at him. “I did. She was aiming for my kidneys.”

“Learn to dodge better.”

“Oh, fuck you, pretty boy, at least I can take a hit!”

“It’s no wonder you ran you lover off, with a temper like yours—ow! Tsume, stop moving, you're injured.”

The flare of pain from kneeing him in the ribs is totally worth it.

 

 

Kurama is just opening his mouth to call Jiraiya an utter idiot for even thinking that subtlety will get them into the Akatsuki base when something inside of him lurches. He staggers, grabbing onto the edge of the table, and has less than a second to brace himself before there's a sensation like a vast hand grabbing his chakra. He’s dragged down into darkness, deep and drowning-thick, and for one terrible moment all he can think of is the Sharingan, control, the theft of everything that is him—

The fall slows, eases. Light sparks far below, and Kurama drifts down towards it, blind panic easing as he realizes that he recognizes this scene. A fire with trees around it, a clearing in a vast wood where he first came to be, and he lands lightly off to the side, crouching on the soft, bare earth for a moment to get his bearings. There's only one other presence here, incredibly familiar, and he straightens slowly, eyes on his younger brother.

“Gyūki,” he says evenly, crossing his arms over his chest. “That was a hell of a greeting. What the fuck do you want?”

The ushi-oni chuckles tiredly. “It really is you,” he says, something like amazement in his voice as he drags himself closer, looking down at Kurama with interested eyes. “I kept thinking I was making a mistake, but—you're in a human body. How did you manage that?”

Kurama bares his teeth at Gyūki, because the words still spark a twinge in his chest. “Not entirely by choice. Gyūki, what do you want?”

“No greetings for a sibling you haven’t seen in centuries?” Gyūki asks, but his eyes are serious. He hesitates for a moment, and then says, “I need your help.”

Fuck. Kurama has a bad feeling about this.

“If you want me to get you out of that idiot Kumo stuffed you into—” he starts, somewhere between aggressive and wary, because if this is about what he thinks it is, things have just headed downhill like an avalanche, and getting them back under control will be practically impossible.

Gyūki growls low in his throat. “Bee is my jinchuuriki,” he warns. “Watch your mouth, Kurama.” Another hesitation, and then he sighs, inclining his head. “But yes, this is about Bee.”

Bee is supposed to be safe in Kumo, but Kurama remembers all too well his penchant for running off on his own. Three guesses what happened, and the first two don’t count. “Akatsuki,” he growls, letting his arms fall to his sides and curling his hands into fists. His claws dig into his palms, but not enough for him to care. “Akatsuki grabbed him. Fuck.”

“You know about them.” Gyūki studies him for a moment. “Six redheads with purple eyes, each with a different ability.”

“The Six Paths of Pein,” Kurama confirms, and jerks around to pace a short strip between the fire and the trees. “Sage, he was supposed to stay in Kumo!”

“And you couldn’t tell me this?” Gyūki snaps. “He was coming to meet you and the others!”

Kurama can't think. There's too much, clouded with panic and edged with bitter fury. Akatsuki has Bee, which means that they're taking him somewhere to extract Gyūki. He’s the first bijuu they’ve managed to capture, so there's a possibility they need to take him back to the Gedō Mazō itself to extract and seal him. If that’s right…

There's a chance to save him. A small one, maybe, but it’s still a chance. Naruto loved Bee like a brother last time. He’s one of Naruto's precious people. There's no way Kurama can let him die.

He spins on his heel, raking his hair out of his face, and demands, “Can you tell what's happening to him right now?”

Gyūki grumbles at his tone, but turns his head for a moment as if listening. After a beat, he says, “They have him contained with chakra rods, but they're moving, if slowly.”

Right, because Pein is Nagato, and Nagato is paralyzed, reliant on his walker. That’s another advantage they have, and if Kurama can just get to the Gedō Mazō in time, everything might work out.

“Tell me if anything changes. Tell me immediately,” he orders, then hurls himself out of their mental world and into the midst of chaos.

Everyone is shouting. Yagura, Rōshi, and Han all seem to be on the same side, standing in front of Kurama, who’s on his knees. On the other side of the table, Jiraiya is shouting right back, and Kakashi is standing off to the side, watching the confrontation with careful assessment. When Kurama shifts, his gaze snaps over and down, watching as Kurama shoves to his feet.

It’s easy to decide to leave the others to their bickering. Kurama turns on his heel and stalks towards his room, snatching up his bag and the one set of clothes he’d managed to unpack. He stuffs them back in, then spins, and almost runs into Kakashi standing in the doorway.

Kakashi takes one look at his face and says, “Something’s gone wrong.”

It’s not a question, so Kurama doesn’t bother answering. “Get your team,” he says succinctly. “Our timetable just got a hell of a lot tighter. Akatsuki’s moving.”

Chapter Text

[absconditus / ab ` scôn ´ di ` tûs /, hidden; entirely concealed from sight. From Latin, perfect passive participle of abscondō.]

 

“Please tell me there's at least some semblance of a plan,” Kakashi says, and his voice is mild, but Kurama can hear the tension underlying it.

He offers a sharp snort, not looking up from packing away the pile of rations and protein bars Zabuza is mounding on the table between them. “Sure. Get to Moon Country, attack the base to distract everyone inside, then slip in, find the Gedō Mazō, and break it so it can't be used or repaired.”

“I like it,” Zabuza offers with a cheerfully malicious grin. “Get in a hit for me, okay, Red?”

“Back to that?” Kurama asks sourly, accepting another canteen and giving the swordsman a narrow look. When Zabuza’s grin doesn’t falter, simply gains more teeth, he rolls his eyes and adds, “If we can make it before Pein gets back, we won't have to face his Paths, or Konan. The main ones to worry about will be Kisame, Orochimaru, and Tobi, but we should be able to manage.”

From where he’s standing braced in the doorway, arms folded over his chest, Jiraiya makes a quiet sound. “You mean Nagato?”

Kurama huffs. “He’s Pein right now, old man. If you don’t keep that in mind he’s going to crush your skull.” Again, he almost says, but stops himself just in time. That one little word will open up way too many questions he doesn’t have the time or energy for right now.

Rōshi doesn’t appear to be paying attention to the conversation, eyes on Kurama's task as he refills packs and quickly sets them aside. “You’ve got enough for all of us in there, right?” he asks, tone daring Kurama to answer with anything but a confirmation.

Fuck. This isn’t a fight Kurama wants to have right now, though it looks like he’s not going to get much of a choice. He ties the last flap closed, then straightens, and ignores the way Zabuza’s expression brightens at the prospect of a scuffle. Asshole. “You and Han aren’t coming. None of the jinchuuriki are.”

“You're going,” Han counters, and when Kurama turns to glare at him he raises his hands in surrender. “An observation.”

Kurama growls, low and warning. “You can take your observation and stick it up your—”

Well! That got very hostile very fast,” Shisui says cheerfully, though his posture is deceptively easy and his dark eyes are flickering between the four jinchuuriki warily. “Personally, I kind of want the walking weapons of mass destruction with us if we’re going to be facing down seven S-rank missing nin? Just a thought. And no offense intended, I swear. Please don’t eat me.”

Tenzō rolls his eyes and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like, “Your mother always says your mouth is going to get you killed, idiot.”

Kakashi very clearly pretends not to hear either of them.

From where he’s leaning against the edge of the counter, Yagura snorts. “Kurama is right,” he says, and when Mei, standing at his elbow, opens her mouth to make a comment, he narrows his eyes at her and adds pointedly, “It’s logical. This Akatsuki has specialized in containing and extracting bijuu. The reason you're going is to rescue a jinchuuriki. Kurama's presence is required because he has the most knowledge of the members and their hideout, and he understands the mechanics behind the extraction process. The rest of us would be liabilities—if Akatsuki managed to detain us, we would become hostages at best, or more bodies in need of rescue.”

Thank you,” Kurama says pointedly, though Rōshi looks like he’s about to break something—possibly Yagura’s head. “Look, I'm fucking overjoyed that you want to stick your necks out for Bee, but this is not the time. They’ve already got Gyūki—”

“For you,” Rōshi snaps, folding his arms over his chest. Kurama blinks, caught off guard, and looks at the shorter man, who glares right back at him. “Damn it, Kurama, Bee’s decent enough, but he’s a Kumo nin first and foremost. He’s never tried to help the rest of us. You’ve never done anything else. If you're going somewhere dangerous, I'm coming.”

We’re coming,” Han corrects, and at the sight of whatever expression is taking over Kurama's face—it feels somewhere between incredulous, furious, and embarrassed—he smiles just a little. “Kurama. When Kakuzu almost caught me, I was by myself. Your presence saved me. If we go together, none of us will have to fight alone.”

“And I can keep the village safe,” Yagura adds, watching the other two jinchuuriki thoughtfully. “The children will have the Seven Swordsmen as their guards, and Utakata will remain with them at all times. Han and Rōshi’s absence won't put them in danger.”

His last convincing argument thoroughly countered, Kurama closes his mouth and scowls. This is—this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Naruto is the one who inspires loyalty, who pulls people in and gives them a reason to fight. Kurama is a beast of malice and wrath, trapped in a fragile mortal body with little idea how to actually be mortal, and—and this shouldn’t be happening. He’s trying to keep them out of danger; why can't they see that?

But one glance at Rōshi’s stubborn expression, and Han’s implacable one, and Kurama knows that this isn’t an argument he’s going to win. Damn it.

“Fine,” he says shortly, then rounds on Zabuza with his best glare. “You keep Naruto and the rest of them safe, or I’ll gut you slowly with a fishhook.”

Zabuza stares at him for a long moment, expression almost startlingly unreadable, and then snorts. He takes a step forward, catches Kurama's chin between his fingers, and tilts his head up for a long, careful kiss. Kurama leans into it, partially despite himself, but Zabuza doesn’t deepen it, and Kurama doesn’t try, either. Their only points of contact are their mouths and the very tips of Zabuza’s fingers against his skin, dry and callused. Zabuza’s tongue touches his, twines, and then retreats. He gentles it even further, easing back, drifting apart, and Kurama's breath catches short and hot in his throat as they pull apart entirely.

It feels like a goodbye.

“Watch yourself, Kurama,” Zabuza says seriously, and doesn’t add anything else to make light of things, to turn the phrase into a joke.

Kurama lets out a breath that shakes a little. He’s not good at farewells, he’s finding out. “You too, Zabuza.”

That gets him a smile, at least, sharp-edged but sincere. “Now that you know who’s in your posse, go tell those kids of yours that they're stuck with us for a bit. Me an’ Haku’ll keep an eye on them.”

A handful of days ago, Kurama wouldn’t have been able to take him at his word. He would have hesitated, doubted, tried to work around it until only jinchuuriki were involved. But if nothing else, Kurama thinks that Zabuza won't outright betray them. Won't betray him, and in the shinobi world that has to count for something.

Maybe it’s strange that of all the humans he’s met, he’s putting his trust in Zabuza, but Zabuza has his own code of honor, and it’s one Kurama can understand. That’s enough for now.

He doesn’t say thank you, because Zabuza isn’t the type to appreciate it. Instead, he just offers a gruff, silent nod and steps away, heading for the back door. The sound of the kids playing is clear, happy and bright, and Kurama lingers for a moment before he pushes outside, just listening. Naruto is loudest, followed by Fū, and he can make out Gaara's quiet giggle, as if he’s still wary of making too much noise.

Kurama never planned to snatch them all out of their lives, never intended for any of this to happen, but…he’s definitely glad he did. None of them deserved to stay where they were, and taking them away is just about the best thing Kurama could have done. Even if it wasn’t in his original plan, that was more like a guideline anyway, and besides. He thinks his Naruto would fully approve of what he’s done so far.

Unlike this Naruto now, who likely won't have much approval at all after Kurama tells him he’s leaving.

With that cheerful thought in mind, Kurama steels himself and pushes the door open, stepping out onto the porch and then hopping down onto the grass. A green-haired blur flies past him, followed by a blond blur, and he reaches out and snatches Naruto right off the ground. The little boy squeals gleefully, latching onto his shoulder, and demands, “Are you gonna play with us now, Kurama-nii?”

He’d promised to do that, hadn’t he? Kurama winces, guilt curling in his stomach. He remembers from the first time around just how many promises people have broken to Naruto, and he doesn’t want to be added to that list. But there's no choice at the moment. Bee doesn’t have a lot of time left, and every minute they delay is a minute closer to the Mountains’ Graveyard Pein gets with him.

“Sorry, kit,” he says regretfully, dropping to sit with his legs crossed. “Something’s come up.”

Naruto promptly wriggles down into his lap, and Gaara sits down beside his knee, looking up at him with wide, solemn aquamarine eyes. A shared look with Naruto, laughter dying away, and the little redhead asks, “Kurama-nii? Are we leaving again?”

Fū sits down across from them with a light thump, dragging Yugito along with her. Her smile is bright and happy, but her eyes are watchful, assessing more than wary. “We haven’t unpacked much,” she volunteers cheerfully. “Yugito and I will help pack everything, so we call all be ready in a minute or two!”

Kurama looks between them, gauging, and then down at Naruto. Blue eyes stare back at him, and he sighs and drops his head to rest his cheek on spiky hair. Fuck. He doesn’t want to leave them here. He sure as hell doesn’t want to take them, but—if only there was some kind of happy medium.

“Not this time, brats,” he says, and his voice comes out rougher than he intends. Gaara leans into him, and he can't fight a smile, reaching out to ruffle bright red hair. “Remember that mission I told you about? The one I have to do alone? That’s happening right now. The last jinchuuriki is in danger, and I need to go save him.”

“Like you saved us?” Naruto asks, and smiles. “You can do it, Kurama-nii! You're the best! You can save everyone!”

Just for an instant, Kurama can't move, drowning in blood and bodies falling and the empty thud of Naruto's corpse hitting the earth at Kaguya’s feet. His grip tightens on Naruto convulsively, and he has to breathe carefully to keep it from coming out as a sob. “Maybe this time,” he says, just barely able to get it out through the heaviness in his throat. “Not before, but—now, maybe.”

“You will,” Gaara tells him, absolutely unwavering in his faith. Then he pauses, starting to frown.

Before he can say anything, though, it’s Naruto who asks, “You're gonna come back, right, Kurama-nii? We don’t have to stay here forever, do we?”

Kurama glances down, and—hell. He’s wearing that smile again, the one from Konoha that doesn’t even come close to reaching his eyes no matter how bright it looks. With a huff he wraps his arms around Naruto, clutches him almost painfully tight to his chest, and for a moment all he can think of is being back in the woods right after he’d fled the village, Naruto on his lap and looking up at him, worried about him. Thinks about seeing his first real smile, rather than that fake, forced one. Even with everything that came after, that was the moment he started healing, he thinks. That was it.

“I don’t even want to leave in the first place,” he promises, looking up and catching orange-gold eyes, then aquamarine, then black. He holds each gaze in turn, trying to show them just how sincere he is. “I swear, I'm going to finish as fast as possible and then haul my ass back here so fast all of Kiri and Kumo will be able to see the dust clouds. So you guys will stay here and stay safe for me, right?”

“Utakata and I will protect them,” Yugito says seriously, twisting her fingers together in her lap. She casts half a glance behind her, where Utakata is standing just far enough away to give them the illusion of privacy, and he inclines his head in silent agreement.

“Is somebody going to help you, Kurama-nii?” Naruto demands, tugging on the front of his shirt. “Shinobi have partners and teams, right? Who’s gonna be your team?”

It’s so much a Naruto thing to worry about that Kurama can't help a smile. “Rōshi and Han are coming with me, and so is the geezer—”

In unison, all four of the brats pull a face. A suspiciously familiar face, given that Kurama is seeing it mirrored on four different bodies. He laughs, helpless not to, and viciously ruffles Naruto's hair, then Gaara's. Yugito goes scuttling back to get out of range, and Fū ducks to the side, only to be caught by the back of her shirt and dragged into a hair-scuffing of her own, with extra force for the attempted dodge. Laughing, she tries to wiggle away, and eventually Kurama takes pity and lets her go.

“Brats,” he tells them all, and pretends it isn’t entirely fond. “I’ll have the whole Freak Squad, too, so don’t worry about me. Just keep an eye on each other, okay?”

“Okay, Kurama-nii,” Fū agrees cheerfully, scraping her hair back into some semblance of order. There's a pause as all four of them trade glances, and Kurama narrows his eyes warily. Fū beams at him, bounces to her feet, and crows, “Jinchuuriki pile!” as she launches herself right at his face. At the same moment, Gaara latches onto his arm like a monkey, and Naruto slams all of his body weight into his chest. Kurama yelps, tottering dangerously, and—

With a war cry, Yugito tackles him from the side, and Kurama goes down, buried under squirming children.

“Munity!” he calls, trying in vain not to laugh. “You little rats, I'm going to string you up by your toes, get off—”

“Nope!” Naruto tells him gleefully, flopping out across his chest.

Kurama rolls his eyes, tries to work an arm loose from under either Gaara or Fū, and fails entirely. He lets his head thump back into the grass, putting on his best aggrieved expression, and demands, “What the hell did I ever do to deserve the four of you? Goddamn brats.”

“Something fantastic,” Fū tells him, grinning. “We’re your reward, Kurama-nii! Aren’t you happy?”

She’s expecting him to make a joke, grumble, brush it off. But Kurama just looks at them for a second, at Yugito on his legs and Naruto on his chest, Fū on his left arm and Gaara on his right, and just…can't do it.

(It’s his Naruto's fault. All that sappy sentiment must have rubbed off on him, and now Kurama's suffering for it.)

With a burst of effort, he manages to raise his arms, tips Yugito forward onto his chest, and wraps all four of them in a tight hug. “Yeah,” he says gruffly. “I am. Thanks to you guys.”

He pretends very firmly that he doesn’t hear any sniffles as he extracts himself and sits up, tumbling children off him to either side. They don’t try to grab him when he stands up, though it looks like Naruto at least wants to. Kurama hesitates, but he knows that if he lingers any longer he won't want to go at all, and he can't let Bee die. With a soft sigh, he shakes his head, leans down to kiss Naruto's forehead, and gives Gaara a one-armed hug. Fū gets her hair ruffled again, and he tugs gently on Yugito’s braid as he pushes to his feet, stepping away.

“Be good,” he tells, them, and then heads back for the house, his steps as steady and firm as he can make them.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Kakashi is loitering on the porch, watching the interactions and not doing much to hide it. He crinkles his e