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Heretic

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[heretic / ‘herə , tik/ , a person believing or practicing religious heresy; a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted. Middle English; from the Old French heretique, via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek hairetikos ‘able to choose’.]

 

She’s born feet-first and screaming, red-haired and red-faced and ready to run. She’s born the last of a dying clan, old majesty tumbling down around her, with the force of a hurricane caught up inside her.

Princess, her nursemaid calls her, the first time as a joke. Princess, one of her father’s friends repeats, because her father is the village headman and she his only daughter, and after that it’s far rarer that people don’t.

She looks forward, lets their voices fall away behind her as she runs. She has red hair and a whirlpool of power insider her, blisters on her fingers from too long spent playing with kunai, calluses on her feet because she can never bring herself to stop running.

Uzumaki Kushina is no princess, no matter what the rest of Uzushio thinks.

The soil in Uzushio is sandy, loose and impermanent, and gives way beneath each step she takes. She runs from one thing to another, forges her way through blood and loss with sheer determination by the time she’s ten, loses both her parents and then her entire village to blood and fire and tide.

The sea rolls in, Uzushio falls, and suddenly Uzumaki Kushina is the only living person capable of bearing Konoha's curse.

She wants to run.

She wants to scream.

She doesn’t.

 

 

Uzumaki Kushina meets the Kyuubi no Kitsune for the first time when she is nine years old.

She is nine and there is a hole in her heart the size and shape of a village, of every person she has ever met and ever loved and ever lost. There is grief in her, there is rage in her, but if there is one thing Kushina has never done well it is give up and she refuses to do any differently now. Her heart pounds, but she lifts her chin and straightens her spine and marches in to see her only remaining relative without letting a single step falter.

Mito smiles at her from the bed, perfect and warm with something wild and willful caught beneath it, and she should look small, aged and wrinkled and stranded in the middle of a sea of thick blankets.

She doesn’t. Somehow, Kushina can't image Uzumaki Mito ever being small.

“Kushina, my dearest,” Mito says, like they know each other beyond the vaguest way, distant blood relatives and past and future jinchuuriki and nothing more.

But Kushina is alone in the world, has lost everything she could ever call her own, and even a moment’s care is enough to ruin her. She falters, despite all her very best intentions, and it takes more willpower than she thought she had possessed not to lunge for Mito’s hand and cling to it like a child.

She’s nine years old, alone in a world that’s terrifyingly large, and she can't afford to be a child any longer.

And then a shape rises from the far side of the bed, making Kushina wrench back with her heart pounding in her throat. A lean shape of long, deadly lines, as bright as her own hair, with glowing red eyes and a mouth of dangerous teeth and a fan of nine tails tipped with white. Kushina steps back, wrenches away from Mito’s hand to stand on her own, and when she glares to hide the terror in her the Kyuubi glares right back.

“Kushina,” Mito says again, but Kushina’s eyes are caught and she can't look away.

Run, something in her whispers. It’s the part that used to smile when her people called her princess, the part that wants to be a little girl when the rest of her knows it was a luxury they lost when Uzushio fell. Run, and it’s tempting, sweet siren-song enticement to go and leave and not look back, but Kushina is no coward. She only runs to, runs forward, and will never run away.

She plants her feet and holds her ground, meets the Kyuubi no Kitsune’s stare and doesn’t allow herself to waver.

The Kyuubi holds her eyes for a long moment, more human than animal but at the same time something more, and is the first to look away. He turns with a huff, dropping back to the floor where he sprawls indolently, belying the tension-sharp twitch of his many tails.

It’s only when his gaze is gone that Kushina feels she can breathe again.

A hand touches hers, gentle but firm, and Kushina looks up to find Mito watching her, violet eyes so like her own creased with age and hard-won wisdom.

“Mito-sama?” she asks, and the lines grow deeper.

“I could have sealed the Kyuubi within myself,” Mito offers, voice low, as if it’s a confession. Maybe it is. “I could have stolen his physical form and trapped him in my soul, and made him into nothing but an angry ghost. Kushina, dearest, do you understand why I didn’t?”

There are seals, thick and black and impossibly heavy-looking for all that they're nothing but ink, traced around each of Mito’s wrists. Fragile wrists, thin and delicate, far too small to be holding the manifestations of the Kyuubi’s chains. Kushina looks at them, avoiding that wise gaze, and doesn’t have to think to realize that she doesn’t.

She whispers, “No,” as if that too is a secret.

Mito pats her hand, not pity but maybe something like it, and answers, “Somehow, my dear, I think that if anyone can, it will be you.”

 

 

Mito dies. Kushina doesn’t weep for her, for anything, because she lost all her tears when her homeland fell. She sits at her mentor’s bedside as she breathes her last, straight-backed and steady, and a demon fox the size of a pony lies beside her, head on his paws.

Her wrists ache where the needle dug deep, leaving thick lines of black behind it. They are manacles for all that they aren’t made of steel or iron, chains on her as surely as they are on the Kyuubi. The center seal is the only mark of color, burning golden in the low light, and in the center of the Kyuubi’s thick collar another mark glows to match it. Kushina catches sight of it out of the corner of her eye, again and again, and wants to flinch each time she does. Want to run, even though she knows she won't.

The Kyuubi hasn’t spoken to her, not yet, even though she sat at Mito’s door just a week ago and listened when he and Mito talked, sniping fondly at each other. His tails hang listless, and his eyes are dark.

Kushina wonders if it’s sorrow. She thinks it is. Mito held the Kyuubi’s chains for almost sixty years; is that enough time for a prisoner to feel fondness for those that keep the keys?

(She thinks, I'm the jailor now, and closes her hands into fists. It makes the tattooed seals sting and ache, and Kushina fixes her eyes on them and breathes.

No, is her next thought, because there is grief in every line of the Kyuubi’s body, a collar around his neck, but she doesn’t want to be a beloved jailor. She doesn’t want to hold his chains. They're both equally bound now, one to the other, and Kushina thinks fleetingly of Mito’s question.

I could have sealed the Kyuubi within myself. Do you understand why I didn’t?

She doesn’t—doesn’t want to—and dismisses the thought once more.)

 

 

She’s born feet-first and screaming, all red hair and temper, and doesn’t allow the world to change her.

Konoha is not like Uzushio. She is an outsider here, a foreigner, set apart by more than the cat-sized fox that perches on her shoulders and her bloody-crimson hair. There is no smell of salt in the air, no lap of waves to break the midnight silence, and the deathly hush of each night leaves her restless. Her tiny apartment holds no one beyond her and the Kyuubi, but she sneaks out through the window anyway, drops to the street in a nightgown and bare feet and runs.

The first time she does it, she reaches the end of the street before the chains between herself and the Kyuubi snap tight, and she can't take another step.

The second time, the Kyuubi rouses when she does, pads after her to the window and follows her out. Kushina doesn’t wait for him, doesn’t pick him up like she normally does in deference to this form’s short legs, but feeds him chakra the way she’s been instructed never to do frivolously and lets him grow to pony-size once more. She takes a step, another, a third, and then before she can think she’s running, packed earth firm and steady beneath her feet.

The Kyuubi runs beside her, loping gait easily keeping stride, and doesn’t speak.

The forest is dark and cool, heavily shadowed even with a full moon high above. Kushina runs until her legs are shaking and her feet are black with dirt, until each breath burns in her lungs and she can no longer see the lights of the village far behind.

There is no surcease of grief to be found in the darkness, no sudden cessation of worry bought with the stitch in her side. Her head is clearer, though, and when she looks up to find orange fur gilded gold in the moonlight, she feels less like screaming than she has in weeks.

She looks at the Kyuubi, his sides heaving but his eyes still sharp, a silent companion where she never expected him to be, and thinks of what she was told, a child growing up in Uzushio. Monster, her nurse had called the demon fox. Poor Mito-sama, she had said, and whispered tales of a beast brought low, a vicious creature without mercy or morals or anything to keep him contained but the impossible will of one brave kunoichi.

But Kushina saw the grief in him, echoing and outstripping what was in her, when Mito passed away. But she saw the Kyuubi pull himself from sleep when she slipped over to the window, saw the way he followed when he didn’t have to, the way he let her run when he had no need to do so.

The child in her, the sweet-natured princess, wants to look at him and insist, monster.

Kushina has never liked that princess-self much.

“I'm Kushina,” she says, pushing herself upright, and the words are almost a surprise. She hadn’t realized she’d made a decision until that moment. Hadn’t even realized there was a decision to be made. “I'm Uzumaki Kushina, and I'm going to be the first female Hokage, you know.” She meets those inhuman red eyes squarely, faces it head-on because she doesn’t know how to be otherwise, and forces herself to smile. “What’s your name? I can't keep calling you ‘the Kyuubi’, right?”

There is a long, long moment of silence as the Kyuubi watches her, and then he huffs and sits down, tails splaying out behind him like tongues of fire given form. He tips his head and pricks his ears, and then says, like it’s a surrender, or maybe a peace offering, “I am Kurama.”

“Kurama,” Kushina repeats to herself. She won't forget. “And? What's your dream? I told you mine, you know!”

Kurama blinks, and every line of his body reads surprised. “I'm…not sure,” he answers slowly.

Kushina looks up at the stars that peek between the twining branches. “That’s okay. I'm sure you’ll find one. Everyone has to have a dream. Maybe I can help you.”

The fox’s eyes linger on her for a long moment, but when she glances at him he looks away. He gives a short huff, tails sweeping up to curl around him, and says, “Maybe you can.”

Kushina grins, because he looks like a haughty cat. It had been one of her more inane worries, coming here, because she’s never liked dogs much, but Kurama is more feline than canine. She laughs, resting her back against the tree and sliding down to sit among the curling roots. “Can you tell me about Mito-sama?” she asks. “Not—not the Shodaime’s wife, I mean. Her.”

Kurama meets her gaze, and for the first time since Mito died, there's a spark returned to his eyes. “She was never just the Shodaime’s wife,” he says, a quiet growl rumbling up through the words, and sprawls out on the ground. Before Kushina can needle him for more information, he’s already talking, and she curls her fingers in the hem of her nightgown, hiding the seals as she listens.

At some point in the telling, Kurama's head ends up on her thighs, one front leg draped over her knees and Kushina’s fingers firmly wound in warm orange fur, but neither of them calls attention to it, and neither one of them makes any move to separate.

 

 

Uzumaki Kushina enters the world in a flare of red hair and temper, and knows she’ll leave it the same way.

Tomato, the other children call her for her round face and bright hair, and she hates it. Her hair is all she has of home, all that’s left of her bloodline beyond the seals drilled into her memory, inked to her wrists, and they mock it so easily. Children are cruel, but she can be just as ruthless, gives no quarter when they spar because how dare they. How dare they look at her and judge her hair, judge her by the fox perched on her shoulders or loping at her side. She is the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, sacrificing her freedom to keep one of their nightmares chained. She is the last daughter of Uzushio, orphan and monster by association, tomboyish and rude and too loud for a delicate kunoichi.

They try to teach her flower arrangement. She laughs in the teacher’s face.

Become a medic-nin, they say. That’s what most kunoichi do.

I am not most kunoichi, she tells them without ever saying the words aloud.

She’s no good at ninjutsu—not the way they want her to be. But she’s vicious and scrappy and unafraid, always ready to wade in with her fists flying. She’s not the delicate and demure kunoichi she should be, but she’s good at not being so. She’s a fighter, a warrior, and the first time her genin team sees battle she’s at the forefront. She runs to it, sandals flying over hard-packed earth, with Kurama at her side and a grin on her face, red hair dancing like a bloody pennant behind her.

Kunoichi are supposed to be like roses, delicate and lovely with slyly hidden thorns. Kushina is like a climbing bramble, strong and overwhelming, thorns on clear display. Her flowers are an afterthought, no matter how lovely they may be.

Hot-blooded, people try to say, and Kushina laughs at them for it. She’s willful and proud and merciful and dangerous, and they want to write her off as simply hot-blooded?

They mocked her when she said she wanted to be the first female Hokage. They snickered and taunted and didn’t believe her, but she’ll show them. She’ll show them all.

(She curls up on her bed with Kurama sprawled against her legs, leans forward and buries her face in orange fur, mixing with her hair like fire.

“We’re strong enough,” she says. “We are. We can do it.”

She’s twelve now, older and just a little wiser, a genin ready to become a chuunin. In three years she’s somehow come to think only in terms of ‘us’ and ‘we’, a plural now where she was once alone. Kurama is a heavy, grounding presence at her side, as big as he wants to be because Kushina won't constrain him.

She remembers wanting to hate him, when Konoha shinobi first came to take her away. Now she can't image being without him, or what it would be like to have him entirely sealed within her. A part of her—the foolish, stupid, optimistic princess, shoved down and silenced but still present—whispers that it would be the same, they're friends and nothing could change that, but—

But Kushina has spent three years thinking on the question Mito gave her, giving it whatever bits of attention she has to spare, no matter her intentions to the contrary.

I could have sealed the Kyuubi within myself. I could have stolen his physical form and trapped him in my soul, and made him into nothing but an angry ghost. Kushina, dearest, do you understand why I didn’t?

She still doesn’t understand it, not completely, but…someday she will, she thinks. Someday soon, maybe.

“We can,” Kurama answers, quiet but firm. He’s often derisive, frequently sarcastic, traced with bits of fury and resentment and an odd sort of innocence, but he’s hers the same way she’s his, set alone against a world that thinks they're both monsters when neither of them chose this fate. “But you’ll have to stop tripping over your own feet first, princess.”

She bristles at the nickname like she always does, tweaks an ear in revenge and laughs at the surprised yelp it earns her. “You're the one who ran right over me because you couldn’t stop in time,” she reminds him mercilessly. “I have paw-shaped bruises on my spine thanks to you.”

Kurama growls at her disgustedly, but the flick of his tails is one she reads as embarrassment. “Fine,” he huffs. “We both need to get better. Stop snickering, princess.

She does, if only to throw her arms around his neck and wrestle him down to the mattress, where he promptly grows to the size of a moose and breaks the bed entirely.)

 

 

She enters the world feet-first and ready to run, kicking out with a cry that she won't let anyone temper. She forges ahead, Kurama at her side, pushes through on sheer stubbornness whenever she hears the word can't.

Girls aren’t as strong as boys, they tell her. Learn flower arrangement. Seduce. Heal. You’ll be good at it, I promise.

No, she tells them, and laughs in their faces, because she’s the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. She’s stronger than any boy, stronger than anyone. She’s going to be the first female Hokage, the first female Kage. She’s going to show them all just what she can be, and she’ll leave them breathless with awe by the time she’s through.

She has no time for wimpy pretty-boys, blond hair forever messy, always smiling cheerfully. There's too much to be done, too much ahead of her, and Kushina won't allow herself to hold back. Ten years old, eleven, twelve and she pushes forward, doesn’t so much as glance behind her because there's no reason to. Kurama stands at her elbow, runs at her side, and she wants to be the best. She will be the best, even if she has to work the rest of her life to do it.

Two weeks after her thirteenth birthday, Kumogakure comes for her. They catch her in the dead of night, wandering beneath the trees, with Kurama on her shoulders. They want her chakra, want to take her back with them so they can use her like a thing.

Kushina sets her teeth and lets them take her, because she doesn’t want to kill them so close to the village.

She hates her red hair just as much as she loves it, but she’s no fool, left childhood behind when she watched her village burn. She plucks out strands and leaves them like a trail. If nothing else the Inuzuka will be able to track her, should the worst happen.

(She never thinks that someone else will do it first, and especially not him.)

They're near Tanzaku-Gai when Kushina decides she’s had enough. Her hands are tied behind her, Kurama is locked in a wicker cage, but that’s nothing to either of them. Kushina wriggles out of the rope, letting her vast chakra rise, and through the seals they both bear Kurama seizes on it eagerly, devouring it as fast as it comes. He grows, snapping wicker like fine thread and lunging, teeth bared in a snarl. Kushina echoes him, a habit after four years, and drives forward with her fists leading.

The power leaps between them, building and growing, and Kushina grabs for it, barely pauses to shape it before she hurls it out like a kunai. Ninjutsu is hard, has never been her best subject, but between desperation and fury she manages now what she’s never done before. The Suiton jutsu surges forward, a drowning wave, and Kushina feels no remorse as three shinobi are swept away. They won't be coming back.

Kurama snarls a warning, a threat, and Kushina spins too fast and overbalances, leaving her at the mercy of the man behind her. A kunai stabs down and she closes her eyes on instinct, knowing that there's no way to avoid it in time, no way to block, and then—

Arms, startlingly strong, scooping her up and leaping out of the way with nearly impossible speed. There's a meaty thud, a cry, and then sound of a body hitting the ground. Kushina blinks her eyes open, looking up into warm blue the color of the ocean she remembers. They're edged with worry, touched with affection she’s never noticed before, and it almost takes her breath away.

“Namikaze,” she says in surprise, even as Kurama lopes over to them with blood on his muzzle and a clear warning in his eyes. Minato doesn’t flinch away, even though most people would, but he stiffens a little before he looks back down at her.

“Kushina,” he counters, and grins at her, bright and happy. “Since we were both part of a daring rescue, I think we can use first names, don’t you?”

She flushes despite herself, reaching up to tuck her hair back behind her ear, and Kurama makes a low scoffing sound. Kushina turns her head to glare at him, meeting his droll disbelief with indignation, and then turns away with a huff and pointedly ignores him.

Minato is…sweet. Sweet and thoughtful and an idiot, and definitely still a hapless pretty-boy, but maybe he’s not quite as useless as she had thought.

(He thinks her hair is beautiful. He thinks that she’s strong. And for the first time, Kushina stops running, if only for a moment.

The red thread of fate, she thinks, pushing crimson strands away from her face. She’s always hated her hair, hated it even as she loved it, but right now—

“Beautiful,” Minato says, touching a free lock, and Kushina thinks, Oh.)

 

 

She’s born feet-first and screaming, telling everyone who cares to listen that she’ll never so much as think of backing down, and that never changes.

There's a war raging, fierce and bloody, and since there's no hiding the Kyuubi jinchuuriki Kushina finds herself on the frontlines. Monsters, the enemy nin call them, and for the first time Kushina doesn’t mind the term. She and Kurama are an intimidating picture pacing the ranks of Konoha shinobi, a small and slender young kunoichi with hair like a spill of blood, walking side-by-side with a blood-orange fox whose shoulders stand level with hers.

As much as she loves peace, fighting is simple. There's power inside her, a storm trapped and spinning, just waiting to be used, and she’s not a little girl uncertain of herself anymore. She’s a kunoichi, a jounin, at ease with the power she can wield so effortlessly. She is the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, Kurama's partner, and maybe if Kurama was nothing but an angry ghost inside of her Konoha could have hidden her away, used her sparingly. With Kurama at her side, however, there's no chance, no hope of hiding, and Kushina is viciously glad of it. Even if it means war, even if it means fighting and killing, she won't hide who she is.

Maybe, in another life, Minato would be the greatest hero of the Third Shinobi War.

Here and now, in this one, Kushina watches the Iwa nin advance and puts a hand on Kurama's shoulder. He drops into a low crouch, words unnecessary between them after so many years, and Kushina buries her fingers in blood-orange fur and vaults onto his back, settling behind his shoulders as he pushes to his feet. She draws her sword with one hand, locks her knees against Kurama's lean sides, and calls up the maelstrom that is her birthright.

Monster, the enemy whispers, and Kushina laughs.

“Ready?” she whispers into one sharp ear, and the wind picks up, setting red hair dancing like tongues of flame.

Kurama laughs too, low and heady and full of malice, gathers himself, and leaps forward into a loping run. Kushina bares her teeth, a battle-cry bursting from her lips, and they slam into Iwa’s ranks like a hurricane falling on an unprotected shore.

Monster, the enemy whispers, and Kushina thinks, Yes. I can be that, too.

 

 

She’s born the daughter of a hurricane and a wildfire, hair like blood and eyes like bruises, wild and fierce and always ready to run. She runs to, not away—never away, because it’s not in her nature and never will be. She is a climbing bramble, strong and resilient and free no matter how many people try to mold her.

There is war, but it is distant. There is death, but they are shinobi and such things are to be expected. There are nightmares, but Kushina hasn’t been alone since she was nine years old and first saw a monster rising from the far side of Mito’s bed. A lean shape of long, deadly lines, as bright as her own hair, with glowing red eyes and a mouth of dangerous teeth and a fan of nine tails tipped with white—her best friend, her greatest partner, though she hadn’t known it then.

Kurama keeps the nightmares away, sprawled out in her bed like a creature made of fire, and doesn’t tell a soul when she buries her face in his fur and weeps for fallen comrades.

Beautiful, they call her now, at eighteen with the world before her. Beautiful, they say, the children who once mocked her red hair and the way she missed her homeland’s shores. There is no whisper of princess, because only Kurama calls her that now, but Kushina pays the compliments as much mind as she ever did the title Uzushio gave her, because it means just as little.

“I don’t want to be beautiful!” she rages, but only to herself and Kurama. War has taught her that much restraint, at least. “I don’t want to be beautiful to them. I want to be strong!”

“You are,” Kurama says, simple and forthright, unflinching in his assessment. “With me by your side, how could you be otherwise?”

She throws herself down beside him, leaning against his side. He used to stay in his smallest form, the size of a cat, for weeks at a time, but now he’s big more often than not. Kushina likes it, even though the villagers stare and shy away more like this. She and Kurama are helping to keep them safe, though; they can fear all they want, and she’ll just think them all the more foolish for it.

“I'm going to be the first female Hokage,” she says, low and fierce. Not I want to be, but I'm going to be, because there's a world of difference between the two, and Kushina knows which she feels. Will, not want.

Kurama twists around to rest his head on her knee, looking up at her with dark, steady eyes that hide a wildfire. “You will,” he agrees, and she smiles, because there isn’t even a hint of doubt in his steady voice. In thanks, she reaches up and rubs behind his ears, and laughs a little when his eyes go heavy-lidded with pleasure as he groans.

“Have you found your dream yet?” she asks, rubs turning into long, sweeping strokes over Kurama's head and down his ruff. “Is there—how can I help you find it?”

He closes his eyes and sighs, and his breath smells like chakra and power and age. “I want to be happy,” he says, and Kushina feels her heart ache. “That’s all. I was before with the Sage of Six Paths, and I was with Mito, once we came to an understanding.” One eye cracks open, and he regards her with a mix of humor and wariness. “I have been with you, even if you are a crazy, hot-tempered tomboy-princess.”

Kushina huffs and tweaks his ear and hides the wide grin spreading over her face, because Kurama already knows just what that means to her, and she doesn’t need to stroke his ego by showing it any more clearly.

“Come on,” she says, shoving gently at his shoulder. “Let’s go prank Minato a bit more. Think we can get him to scream like a girl again?”

“Too easy,” Kurama scoffs, but rises to his feet regardless. There's a wicked spark in his eyes, and Kushina laughs at him, because they're both of them well-matched. “Let’s try for fainting, this time.”

“I can get behind that,” Kushina agrees cheerfully, and hooks her hand in Kurama’ fur and lets him drag her to her feet. She doesn’t touch the collar, the same way Kurama never touches the tattooed seals around her wrists; they don’t need reminders of the chains binding them both. “Let’s make sure it’s super public, too—I want to be able to laugh at him forever.”

(They end up switching the signs on the men’s and women’s bathhouses right before Minato wanders in, head in the clouds and all of his attention still on some dusty, obscure bit of ninjutsu. He doesn’t even notice until he gets all the way out to the pool, only to find it filled with naked women.

There's a scream, a whimper, a thump, and Kushina, perched on top of the wall with Kurama on her shoulders, laughs until she can't even breathe.)

 

 

She’s born feet-first and screaming, a hurricane and a wildfire and a monster to anyone who would think to harm what’s hers. She is a warrior and a sacrifice and a beautiful girl, in love with a boy with messy blond hair and the ocean in his eyes, born to walk side by side with a demon fox who breathes out power and malice.

She’s born Uzumaki Kushina, last daughter of Uzushio, jinchuuriki of Konoha, and she never lets anyone forget it.

“No jinchuuriki has ever been a Kage,” Sarutobi tells her, alone in his office with Kurama sprawled out across her feet. He’s recommended both her and Minato as Hokage Candidates, and called her in to tell her. He’d smiled, when she appeared with Kurama at her side, smiled the same way Kushina remembers people smiling at Mito, and very little has ever thrilled her more than that realization.

“Then I’ll be the first,” she tells him, unbending, and wonders at the irony, that Minato, whom she once dismissed as a wimp, is her only real competition for the seat. “Hokage-sama, I lost my village once. I would give everything in me, everything that I am, to keep it from happening again. Konoha is my home now, and I’ll protect it to my last breath. You can believe it.”

Time has tempered her, even if it hasn’t made her all that much wiser. She’s still a little girl running barefoot and breathless towards the future, still a child facing down a monster. But the future is bright, and the monster is her best friend, and the man she’s in love with loves her back. Time and war have made their mark, and Kushina likes to think she’s better for it.

The Sandaime watches her, careful and steady, and then lets her go. Kushina walks out the door with her head held high, her spine straight, and Kurama pacing at her side.

Whatever choice the Hokage makes, she’ll hold to it. Whether she is the Yondaime or Minato is, she’s shown all of herself, right down to her core, and feels all the braver for it.

She was born Uzumaki Kushina, last daughter of Uzushio, jinchuuriki of Konoha, and she’ll never let anyone forget it.

 

 

(I could have sealed the Kyuubi within myself. I could have stolen his physical form and trapped him in my soul, and made him into nothing but an angry ghost. Kushina, dearest, do you understand why I didn’t?

She does. At long, long last, when Sarutobi places the four-cornered hat on her head, the ceremonial robes weighing heavy on her shoulders, she understands. Her eyes meet Kurama's and hold, and he tips his head to her with a small, proud smile. She knows then, the way she has for years.

Because it’s easy to hate a ghost. It’s much, much harder to hate someone who walks beside you. And the Kyuubi no Kitsune is a creature of malice, of power. There's only one way to truly defeat him, and that’s to love him.

She rises to her feet, glorious in red—red like blood, red like fire, red like the hair she’s come to love—and lifts her chin. People cheer for her, loud and fierce, and Minato is the loudest among them, his smile the brightest. She curls her fingers into Kurama's fur to hide their shaking, swallows down the joy and ferocious happiness that rises like a tide within her, and steps forward into the future.

The earth is steady and firm beneath her, and she was born feet-first and already running.

Her feet are sure, unwavering, and she never looks back.)