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Gem of the Eddy

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Tazuna may have underestimated these shinobi types, especially the brats, and he feels a little bad about lying, but they still agreed to come with him to Wave than abandon him to his grisly fate. He’ll take it.

Even if that Kakashi guy’s been giving him the murder eyes when no one else is looking.

 ----

“Hey, Tazuna, I see you made it back with the shinobi!” An old boatman with leathery tanned skin and a couple missing teeth grins as they walk up to the dock.

Tazuna smiles with a wince and says, “Yeah, uh, I did. So! What’s new with you, Hadō?”

“Eh, same shit different day. Hey, spotting more foxes near shore this week, though.”

“Ooh,” says Tazuna, excited, as they all climb into the boat.

“Foxes?” Sakura asks with a curious frown.

“Oh, you Konoha folk don’t tend to like them, that’s right,” says Hadō.

Naruto hunches his shoulders.

The boatman continues, “Well, you all keep that to yourself. People here like foxes; they say some of ‘em are the spirits of fallen Uzu folk, looking out for their families and allies even in death.”

Naruto’s shoulders drop a fraction, and he asks, “Uh, Uzu?”

“Uzushio; you kids gotta know about that."

“Yes, but why is Uzushio important to Wave?” Sakura asks, curious.

The boatman scoffs. “They teach you kids to kill with your pinky finger, but they don’t tell you economics? Ah, well, not like Konoha cares one lick about Wave anyway.”

“That’s not true!” Naruto argues as he scowls at him.

Hadō holds up a hand. “Peace. I get it. You’re kids. Young enough to think your village could do no wrong.”

“Well—” Sakura starts to say.

“I’m not mad; just a fact of life. The fall of Uzushio collapsed our economy, our protections. You might think I'm being rosy, but they really cared about us. And they knew how to party. You know they had a seal that could swap body parts? Wildest night of my life,” the boatman’s eyes go distant for a long moment, “...but you kids are too young to hear about that.

“Anyway,” he continues, “our economy’s been a shambles since; maybe gets going for a year or two before it collapses again. No security of stability, so assholes like Gato think they can waltz in here and take charge. Boy, he'd be singing a different tune if the Uzumaki were still around." 

Sakura’s eyes widen a bit at that, and even Sasuke looks up. Naruto opens his mouth to say something, but Kakashi puts a firm hand on his shoulder.

“What an… illuminating piece of history,” says Kakashi, “Thank you for sharing.”

Hadō grins. “Of course; if it helps you at all with killing Gato or whatever you’re here to do, I’ll be happy. The bridge will be good for trade, if anything.”

Kakashi gives Tazuna a pointed look. Tazuna sinks lower in his seat.

----

And then Momochi Zabuza attacks them.

Tazuna starts to fear that Kakashi might not stop at the murder eyes by the end of this.

----

Sensei is stuck injured in bed after the fight with Zabuza, resting for the predicted Round Two in just under a week. Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto all agree: now is the perfect time to corner him about the Uzumaki.

Uzumaki? A clan? Sakura didn’t expect it, though in hindsight it makes sense. Uzushio, Uzumaki.

“Maa, you all want to know about the Uzumaki?” Kakashi asks where he’s sitting up in bed, reading his gross book.

Sakura nods her head emphatically; Sasuke tips his the slightest.

“Yeah, and there’s nowhere to run, Sensei!” Naruto declares.

Sensei gives them an unimpressed look. Sakura starts to sweat a bit, but she doesn’t break, and not just because Sasuke and Naruto are also holding their ground. She’s so curious; she has to know.

Sensei sighs, then looks like he’s weighing his next words. He shuts his book with a snap.

“Maa, let’s start with Uzushio. What did you learn about it in the Academy?”

“Uh, the spiral was important?” says Naruto. Sakura wants to facepalm.

Instead she says, “They were one of our greatest historical allies.”

“Uzushio fell because Konoha couldn’t arrive to help them in time,” Sasuke adds.

Kakashi nods, “Correct, well, correct enough, to all the above. The fall of Uzushio is Konoha’s greatest failure. Kiri and Iwa ambushed the island, reportedly wiping out every living person on it.”

“Why did they do that?” Naruto asks, aghast.

“The Uzu people, especially the Uzumaki, were masters of fuuinjutsu. I’d say beyond mastery. Their prowess is what made Uzushio a target for elimination. It also makes the Uzumaki name a very dangerous one to reveal in some parts of the world.” 

“Oh,” says Naruto, a bit pale, “good to know, Sensei.” Then he brightens, “But it’s okay to be an Uzumaki in Konoha, yeah? Maybe there’s—oh, wait. I would’ve run into them in the village by now. Aww,” he hangs his head.

Sakura thinks a moment, then suggests, “But maybe there were survivors. They could still be somewhere; maybe they relocated elsewhere? Or maybe they changed their names?”

Sensei shakes his head, “No, I don’t believe so. In all the places I’ve been, I’ve never seen evidence of any other living Uzumaki. And despite our original failure, Konoha would have reached out to them to provide aid.”

“Oh.” Naruto deflates. “I’m happy to finally find out about my name, but… they’re still all gone, huh?”

They all sit there for a bit in silence, letting Naruto’s words hang in the air. Sasuke stares at Naruto for a moment, and then looks away, a strange look on his face. Sakura wonders what it means.

“...Maybe we can look on the Memorial Stone for their names, at least,” Sakura tries, attempting to sound hopeful.

“Yeah,” Naruto mumbles, downcast, “maybe.”

----

Kakashi is tired.

Naruto looks… so disappointed. Kakashi sees Kushina in that face, disappointed in him. Actually, Kushina would kick Kakashi’s ass to Tea Country and back if she could see this sorry display, and Kakashi would deserve every second of it.

His students get up to leave, mood still heavy. “Naruto,” he says before he can stop himself, “would you stay back a moment?” All the kids hesitate, but Kakashi shoos the other two out with a wave of his hand; this is something Naruto should hear first. If he shares it, that’s up to him.

Kakashi is tired of running away.

“Uhh, what is it, Sensei?” Naruto asks, looking a bit nervous.

“Hang on,” Kakashi pulls out a little slip of seal paper from a pocket. “Stick that on the door; we still have some cute little eavesdroppers outside.” He watches Naruto go to the door, and he thinks about what to say next.

Naruto may never have memories of Kushina, but he can have stories. Naruto shouldn’t have to search for piecemeal information about his own mother; he should hear about her from Kakashi. Kakashi fiercely tamps down on the rising grief he’s still yet to heal from. He needs to do this, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how late he is. He owes Naruto this much.

Naruto sits back down, a mixture of nervous and curious, as he looks at Kakashi expectantly. Kakashi can’t let himself back out now, but how should he handle this? 

Fuck it; he decides to take a page out of Kushina’s book and say it plain: “I knew your mother.”

Naruto startles. “What?” He looks like he can’t believe what Kakashi just said.

Kakashi lays it out. “Her name was Uzumaki Kushina. Her nickname was the Red Hot-Blooded Habanero. She had the reddest hair I’ve ever seen, but she’d throw you off the Hokage Monument if you ever dared to call her Tomato. She was the most terrifying kunoichi I’ve ever known and she loved ramen even more than you do.” 

Naruto doesn’t scream at him, asking him why he’s only saying something now.

Naruto doesn’t punch him in outrage for keeping this from him.

Naruto scoots over to sit next to Kakashi and says, incredulous, “...She liked ramen more than me?”

Kakashi nearly laughs. Leave it to Naruto to surprise him. He eye smiles instead, and says, “Oh, she did; there was this one time Teuchi held his first—and last—ramen contest and…”

Kakashi tells story after story, the tidbits he can think of. He shies away from mention of Minato. He—he can’t. But somehow... talking about Kushina hurts less with every sentence. He watches Naruto’s face brighten again, and Kakashi feels his own grief begin to slowly ease.

Maybe Kushina will kick his ass slightly less in the afterlife.

----

Kakashi-sensei’s been nicer the past few days. Or Naruto think he’s been a bit nicer. He acts the same, but he’s ruffled Naruto’s hair a bunch of times.

Naruto is pretty happy, too. Kakashi-sensei has so many awesome stories about his mom; Naruto wants to be just like her now. Maybe he can convince Teuchi to do another ramen contest if he promises not to knock out a load-bearing wall in a fist fight against another contestant. Or get glitter everywhere.

Naruto does stop once to wonder how Kakashi-sensei knows his mom but Jiji doesn’t. Huh. Weird. He shrugs it off for now.

Kakashi-sensei also has them tree climbing, which sucks. Sakura already figured it out, because she’s Sakura and amazing. That jerk Sasuke is having just as hard a time, at least. He’s being weird, though. Quiet. Not his dumb brooding, exactly. A weird kind of quiet.

Naruto takes a break after a few hours, sweaty and frustrated, not much farther up the tree than before. He stomps over to the river to cool off.

He’s later drying off in the sun when he hears a noise and looks over to see a fox digging around in the tall grass. Naruto thinks about what that boatman said, about Uzumaki coming back as foxes, and he wonders.

“Hey, hey fox,” he calls to it just above a whisper. He doesn’t want to scare it off. Its ear twitches, and it swivels its head around to look at him. Naruto holds his breath. Animals usually run away from him. But this one edges the slightest bit closer, cautious. Naruto squints at the fox. It seems pretty normal to him, and not like a creepy spirit.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try, right?

"Hey fox, I know it sounds dumb, but..." he whispers as he plays at the hem of his jacket, "if you’re an Uzumaki, do you know my mom? Her name’s Kushina. And… if my mom or dad are still around, could you tell 'em... I said hi?"

The fox stares at him, then leaps into the brush, darting away.

"Dumb fox, dumb Uzushio." Naruto kicks at the dirt with his heel as he leans back in the grass, disappointed. 

Still, he wonders.

----

Haku notices the blond boy from Zabuza-sama’s fight passed out in the grass. Not the smartest move; an enemy could sneak right up on him. An enemy like himself, Haku muses. Still he crouches down and shakes the boy’s shoulder.

The boy snorts awake and sits up. He looks wildly around, and then sighs. “Aw, man, I was still hoping the fox came back…” he mutters.

Haku cocks his head. “A fox?”

He scowls at the river. “Oh, I just wanted to ask it for something. It’s dumb.”

Haku is unsure what that means, but he plays along, “I’m sure it’s not dumb; would you like to tell me?”

“I was hoping it was an Uzushio fox. I asked if it knew my mom and if it could, uh, send a message to her if she was a spirit, too. Sounds dumb, right?” 

Haku vaguely knows about Uzushio. Zabuza-sama had mentioned Uzumaki and ghost stories, once. He doesn’t like talking about it, so Haku doesn’t ask.

Haku shakes his head. “I don’t think so. It’s not dumb to want to speak to your mother, if she’s no longer with you.”

The boy smiles. “Alright, so it’s not dumb? Anyway,” he scowls again, “I don’t think it worked, which sucks. She’s the only family I know about so it would be nice to at least say, I dunno, hello.”

“No family?” Haku asks.

“Yeah. Everyone related to me is apparently dead, so,” he shrugs.

“Family doesn’t have to be by blood. You have people you care for? People you want to protect?” Haku presses.

“Oh sure,” the boy says, “my team! I definitely want to protect them.” He furrows his brows. “Even that jerk Sasuke.”

“It might not be a stretch to consider them as family. They don’t have to replace your parents, but they can add to the family you already have.”

“Kind of like making a bigger family, huh,” the boy contemplates. “Yeah, maybe my team is like my family.”

Haku thinks fondly of Zabuza. He may be a tool of shinobi, but… “Of course. Family is what you make of it,” Haku says with a gentle smile.

“Yeah, I like that. Thanks!” He grins. “But still, it would be really cool to meet my mom if I could.” He grins wider, “Uzumaki Kushina was really amazing, you know! She threw people off mountains if they made her mad!” He blinks, and adds. “Oh right, I’m Uzumaki Naruto, what’s your name?”

Haku blinks at the boy’s enthusiasm. “Oh, I’m Haku.” Then he blinks a few more times as the name registers.

This boy... is an Uzumaki?

Oh dear.

----

At the end of the week, like Kakashi-sensei expected, Zabuza appears at the bridge site. And Haku from the river too, which Naruto thinks is really uncool of him.

They all get into position, ready to defend Tazuna and the bridge.

Zabuza doesn’t move to attack. He instead says, “Yeah, no, hang on.” He walks away from them all, ambling over to the edge of the bridge site. It becomes more confusing when a fuming Gato walks out to meet him, alone. 

“You think you can call me here early ?” Gato calls out as he crosses his arms in angry posturing.

“You came, didn’t you?” Zabuza scratches at his chin. “Anyway. I quit.”

“You… you quit ?” Gato squawks.

“I’m not going up against even a baby Uzumaki for any amount of money.”

Kakashi-sensei gives Naruto a look. Whoops. Naruto laughs sheepishly and Haku coughs once.

“Quit, eh?” Gato reaches into his pocket. “You can’t quit when I fire you.” He smirks as he brandishes a handheld detonator. “I’ve got this bridge rigged with so many explosives that you’ll—”

Zabuza deftly plucks the detonator from Gato’s hand and snaps it in half, elbowing Gato once in the face in the same movement. Gato shrieks in pain and scrambles away, while pulling out an ornate scroll from his jacket.

“Ha!” he crows as he shakes the scroll open, wiping at his face with his other hand, “I have other insurance!” He smears the blood from his nose over the design, holding his hand in place as the scroll lights up with an ominous glow.

Kakashi-sensei’s eyes widen in recognition. “That fuuinjutsu scroll is—you idiot!”

“Scared of Uzu, huh, then get a taste of this scroll! The seller promised a guaranteed death! Hahaha—AUGHH!” Gato clutches at his chest and he falls over, the scroll hitting the ground with a clatter. But the scroll doesn’t stop moving, and Naruto hears a thunderous rumble. He looks up at dark clouds forming impossibly fast overhead and rain begins to fall.

Zabuza takes a step back. “Oh, fuck. Haku, we have to go—”

“Zabuza-sama!” Haku pushes Zabuza out of the way as a streak of lighting runs through him. He collapses in a heap as Zabuza shouts in horror. Zabuza kneels over him, desperately looking for any signs of life. Naruto can only watch helplessly. Haku can’t be dead, please— 

“Run!” Kakashi-sensei cries, pushing Naruto to move. Rain pelts down in sheets as they try to run for it. There’s another rumble, and the ground trembles with it. Sakura trips, and Sasuke pulls her to her feet, holding onto her hand as they push against the wind in futility.

Naruto squints through the sweeping rain and sees the crackling energy shoot across the ink-black clouds and begin to gather. He can see from where he is that—oh god, it’s going to strike Sakura and Sasuke!

Naruto doesn’t even have time to shout a warning when Kakashi-sensei darts in front of of them, taking the lightning strike dead on.

Kakashi-sensei collapses backwards. Sakura and Sasuke go down with him as they grab at him to keep his head from hitting the ground. Naruto can hear Sakura’s scream even above the wind. She’s trying to hold Kakashi-sensei up by his flak jacket, visibly trembling as she attempts to read for a pulse. She tries and tries again as she starts to sob. Sasuke shakes as he brackets Kakashi-sensei’s other side, too shell-shocked to even move.

Naruto doesn’t think, he doesn’t have a plan; he just needs to get to his team. He crosses his arms over his face, bracing against the brutal wind, picking up faster against him and pelting him with bullets of rain as the rumble starts again.

“Sasuke!”

Naruto flails out a hand and Sasuke reels him in. Sakura’s eyes are clenched shut in absolute terror, tears and rain streaming down her face as she grips them both. Kakashi-sensei is braced between them all; he’s still not waking up. Sasuke clutches Naruto’s arm and looks right at him, his Sharingan spinning wildly. Naruto stares back; he sees the fear in his eyes and watches the new tomoe take form. He can’t look away, and Sakura holds them tighter.

They need help. Any help. Anything.

Sasuke’s Sharingan spin faster. Sakura’s grip turns punishing. The skin of Naruto’s stomach burns.

And everything stops.

In that moment, the wind stills, the thunder halts. Even the rain, impossibly, pauses mid fall, like the world is holding its breath.

A bell chimes.

Then the rain around them shudders, ripples and contorts inward. It shapes into a violent vortex, a whirlpool, pulling them all in as they hang onto each other for dear life. The lightning strike hits the vortex and shoots wildly off course, unable to touch them.

“What the fuck is that!” Zabuza cries over the whistling wind, refusing to let go of Haku’s too-still body as the maelstrom drags them closer. Sounds of screaming and shrieking laughter reverberate around them, glowing shadows streaking past the swirling water, just outside his vision, but Naruto isn’t looking at anyone but his team, his family, as bells chime, louder and louder and louder.

----

Fuzzy. His head is fuzzy, buzzing. Naruto’s not sure what happened; he’s supposed to be at the bridge site, right? He tries to remember.

Naruto opens his eyes, and is startled to see a face he knows. Startled, because he’s seen that face on the Monument almost every day of his life.

The Yondaime is standing above him.

The Yondaime, who takes one look at Naruto, blinks several times, and says, “Uh oh.”

Naruto shrinks back. No, please, if not even the Yondaime can stand to be near Naruto—

The man immediately holds up his hands in placation. “Goodness, not that it isn’t wonderful to finally see you again, Naruto!” he says with a genuine smile.

Naruto blinks, now confused. The Yondaime is... happy to see him? Huh?

But if the Yondaime is here, then, “Did I… die?” Naruto asks, beginning to panic.

“Oh, no, not in the least! It’s just, well.” He laughs a little nervously, and turns his head to call out, “Uhm, Kushina…?”

Naruto jolts. He knows that name now, thanks to Kakashi-sensei. That’s his—

A red-haired woman shoves a yelping Yondaime out of the way with one hand, “Oh, is he here? I wanna see him! And mouth shut; you’re catching flies like your toads, pretty boy!”

Naruto’s mom could push a hokage around like it was nothing. He likes her already.

She doesn’t hesitate and kneels down in front of Naruto. “Naruto, my little noodle bowl! So good to see you all grown up!”

Seeing her, having a face to a name, having anything after all these years…

“Mom…” Naruto manages to choke out, as he squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to cry. He can’t believe it. The fox from the river had listened. It must have answered his plea; he gets to meet his mom.

“Aw, baby,” She leans forward and scoops him up, holding him close and rubbing soothing circles into his back. “There there, you’ll be alright, you know?”

Naruto rests his head against his mom’s shoulder, because now he can.

She continues, “I want you to know your dad and I are rooting for you!”

Naruto blinks. “Huh? My dad?”

“Uh, yeah, he’s right there, you know!” she jerks her head to the side at—at the Yondaime.

“You—the Yondaime’s my dad!?” Naruto is awed for only a few moments when—

“Hey! You sealed that shitty fox in me!” he shouts over his mom’s shoulder.

She turns around to join in. “Yeah, Minato, you sealed that shitty fox in him!”

Minato flails, “Ah, I’m so sorry, Naruto; it really seemed like the best idea at the time and I—”

“Don’t worry, I already punched him in the head for it,” Kushina stage whispers, conspiratorial, to Naruto.

Naruto loves his mom.

Minato settles down and coughs awkwardly. “Er, Kushina, what about the whole…” he gestures to Naruto.

Naruto, confused, looks down at himself, finally realizing—

“Gah!” Naruto flails in his mom’s arms until she’s holding him upside down.

“Oh jeez, watch the claws, kiddo!” She flips him back over and sets him down on the hazy ground.

He spins around in place, only to flop over, trying to look at all of himself at once. “How—what the hell?!” Naruto shouts, his tail—and that’s weird—whipping about wildly.

“Ooh yeah, bit of a hiccup there,” she says as if she’s talking about the weather.

“...Our son turned into a fox,” Minato says faintly. “I mean, I’ll love you no matter what, Naruto, but. That is not supposed to happen.”

Kushina shrugs. “Could’ve happened to me, you know. Could’ve been married to a fox.” She waggles her eyebrows as Minato makes a strangled noise. “Plus you messed with Uzu fuuinjutsu; what do you expect, pretty boy?”

Minato rubs at his temples with a sigh, “I’d like to say I expect for it to work with any logical sense, but I should really know better by now.”

“What’s more strange to me,” Kushina says to Naruto, “Is why you know who I am but you don’t know your dad.”

“Oh, Kakashi-sensei only told me about you, uh, a week ago?”

“A week ago?” Kushina shrieks, making Naruto’s ears pull back. “No one told you? Where was Jiraiya? Where the hell was anybody?”

“Oh no, I think I see what's happened, ” Minato groans, “did Hiruzen decide it needed to be kept top secret?”

Kushina growls. “Ugh, he so would do that! I wanna punch him in the head now too, you know!”

Naruto’s ears swivel—which feels so weird—in confusion. Who is Hiruzen? Maybe Jiji knows. He has an idea though, “Oh, hey, can I ask Kakashi-sensei about dad too; he's got stories, right?”

“Oh absolutely—wait, Kakashi-sensei? He’s teaching?” Kushina guffaws.

“I’m sure he’s… doing fine… as a teacher,” his dad says with a smile that’s more a grimace. “Kakashi-kun’s an excellent shinobi, at any rate. If there’s anyone I’d trust to look out for you, it’s him.”

“He was an intense kid, yeah,” says Kushina.

Intense? After that Zabuza fight, Naruto could maybe see it. Maybe. And his dad has a point; when it comes down to it, Kakashi-sensei said he’d protect his team with his life—

The world shudders once and it all comes crashing back. His team, the storm, the bells

“Wait, oh no, Kakashi-sensei and Sakura and Sasuke!” Naruto looks around wildly. “I gotta—I gotta go make sure they’re all okay!”

Kushina nods. “Good idea. That’s our cue that time’s almost up here, anyway. As for the fox thing: go to Uzushio; you should be able to get on the island, and there ought to be something there to help you out.” Kushina turns to Minato, “Any last-minute fatherly advice for our kid, pretty boy?”

“If you can work with others as a team, and be a good friend, I think you'll go far,” his dad says with a warm smile.

“And after that, love is all you need!” his mom adds with a wink and a grin.

Naruto nods. Uzushio, teamwork, love. No sweat!

His parents run up and hug Naruto together. “We love you so much, noodle bowl!” They let him down and take a step back. “Good luck! Say hi to Kakashi for us!”

“Bye mom, dad!” he calls out as the world around them grows hazier. His parents wave as everything fades away.

----

The storm... stops.

Tazuna looks up from where he’s hiding behind a pillar of the bridge, and lifts his arms away from his head. His ears are ringing; he wonders if it’ll ever stop. He scoots forward and peers around the pillar. Besides the debris carried in from the storm, there’s… nothing. Not a soul besides Tazuna remains.

...Maybe that isn’t quite true. He thinks he sees things dart away out of the corner of his eye but they’re long gone when he turns look. Maybe it’s better he doesn’t see. Maybe he doesn’t really want to know. What he already saw in the eye of that storm—

He hears tinny shouts over the ringing in his ears. He turns to see two crowds form; those bandits of Gato's are finally arriving... at the same moment as the villagers, who don’t hesitate to attack.

“Uh, hang on,” one of the bandits eventually shouts over the cacophony of battle, “where’s Gato?”

“Yeah… and didn’t he have the detonator?” says another.

“That asshole. He ditched us!”

“I’m not losing out on pay again!”

“Nah. Let’s go raid his hideout.”

The rest of the bandits like the sound of that and summarily abandon the fight. The villagers, bemused, watch as the still-standing bandits run off into the distance.

“Uh, well. And stay out!” a villager calls after them. They all then look at each other, at a bit of a loss. One of them halfheartedly kicks an unconscious bandit in the side. Tazuna figures that’s the end of that. Good. He can finish his damn bridge and then go drink for a month straight.

“Huh. So what happened with Gato?” Tsunami asks.

“...The shinobi took care of it,” Tazuna decides to say. They sure as shit did something.

“But where did those shinobi go?” asks Inari, craning his neck around the build site, frowning at the scorch marks.

“I dunno. Maybe they’re not into goodbyes,” Tazuna lies. He lies because that was some of the freakiest shit he’s almost died from, and he partied with Uzu people back in the day. He isn’t about to scare his grandson.

“Aw, I wanted to tell them that I was sorry,” says Inari.

“Hey, it’s okay, kiddo. They helped us and I’m sure they know we all appreciate it. Maybe we could name the bridge something to honor them.” Tazuna scratches his head a moment then grins. "Hey, how 'bout this: The Great Uzumaki Bridge," he declares, stretching his arms wide out.

“You don’t think that might make anybody from Kiri or elsewhere angry?” a villager says, worried.

Tazuna waves a hand. "Screw 'em. The world will know where we stand. Besides,” he says with a helpless laugh, “we got the gods of Uzu on our side!"

----

Zabuza lurches awake to the honks of birds. He pulls himself up, and squints through the bright sun, heart racing, to see… a flock of flamingos wading about a tide pool. One or two give him the side eye but otherwise they don’t give a shit about him. He stares at them for a long moment, trying to figure out where they came from. His gaze shifts, and he stares out at a violently churning sea in the middle distance.     

This… this doesn’t seem right at all. It was raining, with that stupid bridge, those stupid Konoha brats, and Haku was...

He tenses; oh fuck, last he remembers, Haku was... Haku was

“Zabuza-sama?” Haku calls out from where he’s slowly sitting up, farther down the beach.

“Haku!” Zabuza says as he scrambles to his feet, not caring in that moment if he sounds too relieved. Haku is here; somehow, he’s still alive.

Haku smiles, beatific, “I’m happy to see you’re well too, sir.”

Zabuza trots across the beach and holds out his hand to pull Haku to his feet. "Any idea how we got here?"

Haku frowns slightly as he brushes sand off of himself. “I’m afraid I don’t know, but I don’t believe we are in the Land of Waves anymore.”

“Yeah,” Zabuza agrees. He doesn’t know how the fuck it’s possible, but the eddies alone confirm his suspicions. “I think this is Uzushio.”

Haku’s eyes widen, and he looks around in newfound wonder. Zabuza just wants to get out of here as fast as possible. The place gives him the creeps, and Haku didn’t endure years of stories of the Uzu boogeymen from teachers and parents in Kiri.

Zabuza stares out at the sea. They’re far from other land, but, "...Can you use your ice to get us across to Wave?"

Haku shakes his head. "With that amount of water to contend against, and with the whirlpools moving that quickly? I'm afraid not, Zabuza-sama."

With Uzushio gone for years now, it didn't matter in Kiri to learn techniques to surmount the eddies anymore. It wasn’t like anyone could access the island anyway, with whatever freaky seals the now-dead Uzu people left behind in their wake.

Zabuza has the sinking feeling that may have been short-sighted of Kiri. He sighs. “We better find some shelter at least, if we’re stuck here for a bit.”

They walk a bit farther inland, past a sparse copse of palm trees and into the sprawling wilds of the island. They could always eat coconuts and flamingos at least, if they find nothing else.

Haku suddenly tenses, and stares at the ruins of a little shrine Zabuza didn’t notice before. “Sir… do you see what I’m seeing?”

Zabuza squints in the direction Haku is looking. “No, just some broken garbage. What is it?”


"Ah, well.” Haku hesitates. “A ghost is speaking to me."

Zabuza’s brow raises. A ghost? He doesn’t normally doubt Haku, but seriously?

"Oh, I’m sorry,” Haku says to thin air. “She says she’s a chakra impression. Now she’s saying only the young and innocent can see her—"

Zabuza snorts loudly at that. "Innocent. Yeah, right. Pull the other one."

"Oh. She just doesn't like you."

“Really,” Zabuza says, flat.

“You called her shrine garbage,” Haku winces ever so slightly, “...so she thinks your face is garbage.”  

Zabuza shouts, “Then she can say that shit to my face—ow!” A seal flares and a rock shoots out of the shrine, pelting Zabuza in the arm.

Haku bites his lip. “She says she didn’t wait around for 30 years to talk to a rude idiot like you.”

“Oh, I’m the rude one?” Zabuza mutters, rubbing his sore arm, but he suddenly gets chills. Some creepy invisible chakra impression managed to last here all this time? It's supposed to be stupidly difficult to make a normal chakra impression in the first place. Zabuza knows about the extended life force of Uzu people—making Kiri consider their bloody victory all the sweeter—but to do something this incredible?

...Perhaps Kiri won the battle, but not the war. The island of Uzushio might not be as dead as previously believed.

And now Zabuza is stuck on it.

Fucking wonderful.

Chapter Text

Ah.

Kakashi is dead.

There’s no relief, no great exhale, like he might have felt even a month ago. He just feels sick. He left his students behind to brave an Uzushio storm by themselves. And for all his affinity, it means nothing when he jumps in front a lightning strike with no other defense ready. He just… reacted.

He just hopes that bought them time. He hopes they somehow made it out alive.

“Kakashi?”

Kakashi turns sharply to see, by a bonfire, the only source of light in this vast space, someone very familiar. “...Dad.”

Sakumo looks distraught. “You’re here, so young…”

“Struck by summoned lightning,” he says blankly, “while trying to protect my students.”

“Students?”

“Yeah.” Kakashi sits down next to him and doesn’t say any more for a long moment. Sakumo doesn’t press. He thinks about the one thing he wished he could say to his dad.

“Your mission,” Kakashi begins. “You did the right thing.”

Sakumo stares at him, surprised.

“It took me awhile to understand it. Way too long. I learned an important lesson from a dear friend: those who break the rules are trash, but those who abandon their comrades, their friends, are worse than trash.”

Sakumo smiles. “Sounds like a very wise friend.” He huffs a humorless laugh. “I could have used those words by the end of it. I’d say I’m worse than trash for abandoning my family.”

Kakashi remains silent. His father left him, yes, but Kakashi didn’t help things; he had turned his back on his own father. He could have seen the signs, done something different.

But Sakumo can still read him like an open book. “Kakashi, you were only six.”

“But—”

“It shouldn’t be on you at that young an age, or any age, to fix the mistakes I made. I had others I could’ve reached out to.”

Yet the ones who could really make a difference, who couldn’t be swayed by public opinion, The Sannin, were all out of the village at the time.

...How conveniently inconvenient.

“Isn’t that…” Kakashi starts to really think about the circumstances of his father’s death, “Isn’t that strange that you were singled out—vilified—for that mission out of any others you may have failed? Of any missions other people have failed?”

Sakumo sighs, “But what I did started a war—”

“No.” Kakashi interrupts. “No.” He looks right at his dad. “You, you specifically, were made into an excuse for one.”

Sakumo stares back, then looks ahead into the fire thought. “I wonder…” he trails off.

Kakashi waits.

Sakumo sits back and rubs at his face with one hand. “That mission, something about it… it never sat right with me.”

“What was it?” Kakashi presses.

“Ah, no proof, just a strange feeling.” He smiles wryly. “Not much we can do about it now.”

Suddenly, a brief flash lights up the campsite from behind them.

Sakumo blinks and looks around. “That’s... different.”

“That hasn’t happened before?” Kakashi asks.

“Nope. Just me and the bonfire for twenty years.” Sakumo says with more cheer than that statement really warrants.

Quiet flashes of distant lightning erupt overhead. A steady jingling sound moves closer, growing louder. It’s the sound of little bells, and with it… a grey mottled fox?

The fox looks at Kakashi and then Sakumo and back again, the fur on its back sparking every so often with static.

“What on earth…” mumbles Sakumo. Kakashi wonders the same thing.

The fox, turns, jumps with an even louder chime of bells, and twists into a dive, disappearing into the ink-black ground. The ground ripples, and warps, contorting into a growing spiral. Water begins to flood in from all sides, a growing ocean pouring into a vortex. The fire extinguishes, throwing them into darkness only relieved by the growing flashes of lightning, echoed by the chimes of bells. They both stand up, alert and wary.

“What—ah!” Something jerks Kakashi forwards and he plunges into the water, now impossibly deep. He breaks back up to the surface to discover he’s already ensnared in the tide.

“Kakashi!” Sakumo cries out, diving in after him.

Kakashi tries to fight the current, but it’s so fast, he’s caught in a stalemate, and losing. Kakashi wrenches his arm out, and Sakumo grabs Kakashi’s hand as they’re pulled closer to the center. They’re tumbling, the vortex wrenching. Their grip is going to fail any moment.

“Whatever happens,” Sakumo gasps over the water, “just know I love you, okay?”

Kakashi can only nod and squeeze his father’s hand one last time. Their fingers slip apart, and Kakashi is dragged down, down, down into the center of the eddy.

----

Sakura wakes up, and hunches over the grass, coughing up water.

Caught in that storm… it was all she could do to hold onto her team, refusing to let go, praying for help. Anything.

She doesn’t know how this happened, or what’s going on, but somehow… somehow she knows she kept them all together.

She looks up and her heart leaps to her throat. Sensei still isn’t moving. She tumbles forward, forcing her limbs to work the short distance through the grass. She nudges at his side, desperate. “Sensei, Sensei, please…”

He twitches.

He coughs a few times—no water in his lungs, thank goodness—and huffs and breathes for a few moments.

She sobs in sheer relief. Whatever—whatever happened, he’s okay. He isn’t dead.

----

Kakashi hears his student’s voice. “Sakura?” he asks hoarsely, not quite able to open his eyes just yet. Something is.. peculiar. His chakra is… off, but it’s not genjutsu. And somehow, he has an awareness of all his students, a sixth sense that they’re here.

And, by some miracle, they’re all alive.

Kakashi’s eye snaps open. And blinks. Sakura is… that can’t be right. 

Kakashi looks down at himself. His brain stalls. And refuses to start up again.

Okay. Kakashi is not going to freak out about this.

He’s not.

He opens his other eye. Nothing happens. His Sharingan feels like it’s there, but strange, dormant.

Alright, freakout levels rising, but he’s still—Oh no.

He doesn’t even have a mask.

“Sakura,” he says with incredibly forced calm. “You’re alright? Any injuries?”

“No—no injuries, Sensei,” she says wetly.

“...Can you tell me what happened?”

“I—I don’t know! There was so much water and the lightning and you didn’t have a pulse and I don’t know!” she wails.

“Breathe, Sakura, breathe. Focus on that.”

She nods and starts taking measured breaths.

“Wha—Guys! Sakura! You okay?” Naruto calls out as he startles awake.

“No, I’m not okay!” Sakura shrieks back at him as she huffs through breathing exercises.

“Naruto, what did you do ?” Sasuke yells next.

“It wasn’t my fault!” Naruto the—Naruto the fox shouts back too quickly from where he’s sitting up.

Now Kakashi knows some part of this is Naruto’s fault.

Because Kakashi, and all of his students, have somehow... been turned into foxes.

His ninken are going to laugh at him, he just knows it.

----

“Alright,” Kakashi calls to order after he allows everyone a good screaming session, “who can tell me what happened.”

“Uhhh,” says Naruto, “I talked to my mom and dad?”

Kakashi nearly falls over in shock. “Is that so?” he asks lightly, his newfound claws in a death grip in the dirt. 

“Yeah, they say hi, by the way.”

“Ah.” That’s nice of them.

“Mom laughed really hard when she heard you were a teacher.”

“Hmm.” Yes, he always assumed she would laugh if she knew. Thanks, Kushina.

“She also punched dad in the head when she found out he sealed—” Naruto’s mouth suddenly snaps shut with a click and he hunches his shoulders, refusing to say any more.

Sakura looks at Naruto quizzically but then says, “I—I don’t really remember much after the water started to spin around us.”

After a moment, Sasuke starts to speak. “We were in the storm, and something changed. There were these… bells. The rain, all the water, started to move inward, pulling us into the current, into this whirlpool.”

Kakashi listens, stunned. This sounds distressingly similar to what he experienced… dead.

“There were things—foxes—running all around us. This... giant fox head grew out of the middle of the whirlpool, and it opened its jaws, water rushing into its mouth. It carried us all in.” Sasuke’s eyes grow haunted. “It ate us.”

Alright, Kakashi is glad he wasn’t awake for that part.

“Before it formed, I saw… the Kyuubi,” Sasuke says as he stares at Naruto, “When I looked at you. In you. I thought that’s what I saw, with my—” he grimaces, “—with my Sharingan.”

“Uh,” Naruto’s ears droop and he hunches up further, “Maybe?”

Sakura gasps. “You, you’re—”

Well. There goes that secret.

Kakashi cuts them off before they can misunderstand further. “Do you two know what a jinchuuriki is?”

He takes their silence as a no.

“A jinchuuriki is like a human container for a tailed beast. While they might have access to large amounts of chakra or other abilities, that doesn’t make them a demon in human form, or possessed. They’re still their own person. Naruto is Naruto. He’s not the Kyuubi.”  

“I see. So the fox isn’t him.” Sakura nods in comprehension. “It’s just sealed in him.”

“A seal? That makes... more sense with what I saw,” says Sasuke, bewildered.

Ah. Kakashi wonders if Naruto and Sasuke together had done something with the seal…

...Who is he kidding; Kakashi never understood how Minato-sensei managed to make any Uzu fuuinjutsu do what he wanted. He’s not even going to begin to guess what the kids stumbled into.

“Yeah,” says Naruto, perking up from his teammates being understanding, “but I still don’t know what my dad was thinking, sealing that shitty fox in me.”

Sakura pieces it together. “Wait. The Yondaime was your DAD?”

“Yeah, neat, huh. Hey, Sensei? Will you tell me more stories about my parents later?” he asks.

“Maa, I can do that,” Kakashi agrees. He turns to look at Sakura and Sasuke as well. “Once this is sorted and we’re back in Konoha, it would be prudent of you all to keep this secret. Not only Naruto’s status as a jinchuuriki, but the Yondaime had a lot of powerful enemies who might seek his son out for revenge.”

“Oh, good to know,” says Naruto. “Wait. Really? I mean, I guess he was Hokage, but he seemed kind of like a dweeb.”

Kakashi wants to laugh. Naruto is so much like his mother sometimes, it’s scary.

“But, um, how do we fix this, Sensei?” asks Sakura.

...Good question.  

“Oh! Mom said to go to Uzushio!” Naruto cries happily. “She said something there could help!”

Uzushio? Kakashi hasn’t the faintest idea how they’ll manage that, especially now, but he’ll just have to find a way. He trusts Kushina to not steer them wrong. They’ll have to plan an effective trajectory to the island from where they are now, and they certainly aren’t in Wave anymore. South Tea Country, if Kakashi has his ecology right. How they ended up here is another mystery.

But the kids look worn out, and could probably do with a longer break. “Before we do anything else, we’ll eat. You wait together here. I’ll go catch some food.” He hums to himself. “Maa, rabbit or something.”

----

Sakura grimaces as she watches Sensei trot away to find food. “Raw rabbit. Eugh.”

Naruto shrugs. "I bet it’s not bad. I've eaten way worse. Like old food thrown out from shops and stuff."  

"What?" Sakura asks, aghast. "Why?" Why would anyone choose to do that?

"Rent's expensive. The landlord guy is always adding extra fees or raising it."

Oh, right. Naruto lives by himself in an apartment, but, "...Isn't that illegal?" she asks.

"I dunno. It's annoying though."

"It is illegal." Sasuke suddenly cuts in. "You should have legal protections as a renter that prevent added costs or stipulations without contract renegotiation."

Sakura and Naruto look at him in surprise.

Sasuke's ears pull back, defensive. "What? I have to know all those rules. I have a property to maintain."

Naruto tilts his head. "Huh. Good to know, jerk."

Sakura starts to giggle. She tries desperately to stop and then starts up again. "I-I'm sorry, but it's—we've been turned into foxes and we're discussing tenant's rights, of all things!"

Naruto laughs. "Oh man, can you imagine me going up to that guy as a fox demanding he stop his bullshit fees?"

"You could bite his ankles, just as effective," says Sasuke.

"...did you almost make a joke?" Naruto asks, shocked.

"I'm pragmatic," he says flatly. It only sets off Sakura into another peal of laughter. Foxes.

Oh god, they’re foxes.

It all comes crashing to the forefront again and her next laugh comes out as a sob. She starts to tear up. "...Am I ever going to see my parents again?" she asks in a small voice.

"Aw, Sakura," Naruto sidles up over to her. "We'll get to Uzushio, fix this and get back to Konoha."

"You don't know that!" she warbles.

"Nope! I don't! But we gotta try, right? We can't give up already. We gotta—we gotta be a team on this because we only got each other now."

Naruto is stupid most of the time, and she doesn’t understand how he can be so optimistic, but his words make her feel just the slightest bit better. She’s not alone. "...You're right," she sniffs. "We can't give up."

Sasuke looks at them both silently. She’s a bit embarrassed she’s cried in front of him, but he looks more contemplative than judgmental.

----

Sasuke is unsure what to think of anything at the moment.

He’s a fox. His Sharingan is there but not. He’s a fox. He has no means to kill That Man anymore. He’s a fox. His whole life’s goal is now wrenched out from under him.

He sees Naruto, though, still at ease through any pain, still going despite it all, shrugging off his own father sealing a demon fox in him, bouncing back from the learned extinction of his clan, and laughing in the face of transforming into a goddamn animal. How he’s rallying Sakura to not give up.

How he’s secretly, quietly, no-one-can-ever-know-about-this, inspiring Sasuke not to give up either.

In any case, he’s got absolutely no choice but to play Wilderness Survival with his team for the indefinite future.

That is until about thirty minutes later, when he and Sakura turn to listen to Naruto suddenly yelling at himself.

Naruto gets up and starts to pace around. “What? I dunno what happened… you tell me what the hell happened! ...At least a fox is an improvement? I don’t get thumbs, asshole! ...Huh, you get thumbs?”

“What are you doing,” Sasuke says more than asks.

“Huh? Oh hey, Sasuke, talking to the shitty fox. ...Yeah I’m talking about you!”

Sasuke freezes. “...the Kyuubi is talking to you?”

“Oh, yeah! He just woke up!” Naruto says as if that isn’t absolutely terrifying. “He’s being more annoying than anything.” Naruto’s eye twitches. “Well you are!” he shouts aloud.

Kakashi-sensei saunters up and drops another dead rabbit from his mouth. “What is Naruto doing now?”

“Talking to the Kyuubi,” Sasuke hisses. Sakura eeps.

“...Ah,” says Kakashi-sensei, a bit faint.  

They all watch, baffled and alarmed, as Naruto argues with a demon fox. Sasuke can’t believe this idiot.

“If you’re just gonna be an annoying asshole then—eh? Foxes?” Naruto goes and looks over the cliff, “There’s nothing down there but trees and—”

----

The soft ground starts to give way under Naruto. Kakashi darts forward and grabs Naruto by the scruff of his neck as they both topple over the side.

They slide down. It’s less a cliff and more a large ridge; it isn’t too steep, but as Kakashi tries to snare the surface with his claws, the loamy soil is too soft to maintain any grip. They come to a stop at the bottom, and Kakashi sets Naruto down on the ground.

Please be more careful,” Kakashi says, exasperated, as he shakes out his dirt-covered fur.

“S-sorry, Sensei,” Naruto says, abashed, ears flat.

“Maa, well,” Kakashi looks up, “we’re not getting back up that way.” Add that to Kakashi’s wishlist: useable chakra, thumbs, thumbs, and thumbs.

“Should we come down there, Sensei?” Sakura calls out. Sasuke peeks out overhead.

“Might as well; just be careful,” he replies, watching them from below, ready to catch them if they fall too fast.

The kids tumble to the bottom of the ridge not too worse for wear. They have no choice but to walk into the forest ahead of them, growing darker from the dense canopy.

“This is creepy, Sensei,” Naruto whispers. Kakashi is on edge, watching for predators.

Chittering and shrieking laughter suddenly surrounds them. Kakashi moves to stand in front of his students, coiled tight in tension.

“Ooh, who are theyyyyy?” a red fox calls out.

“Ooh, yeah, weird foxes sneaking into our forest? That’s no good!” a white fox says, guarding a cave entrance.

The red fox comes slinking up, laughing eerie. “No good at alllll. We’ll have to—”

Kakashi lunges forward and smacks the fox hard in the face. The red fox shrieks in shocked pain and darts up a nearby tree. The white fox looks just as stunned.

"Dog-fox plays dirty!" the red fox accuses from a high branch. “Dog tactics!”

“Maa, I do train ninken,” Kakashi says, now a bit more amused than worried. The kids peek out from behind Kakashi, Naruto starting to laugh and Sakura giggling. Even Sasuke’s tail swishes slightly.

"A fox with dog friends? Such power," the white one says, awed, from her perch.

Naruto laughs harder. “Oh man, I can’t believe the Kyuubi said to come here.”

"Kyuubi?" the red fox says suddenly from behind them, where he's scooting forward on his belly trying to sneak up on them again. “You know the—”

Kakashi smacks him in the face again. The fox squeals and scrambles back halfway up the tree trunk.

"Stop that!" the fox shouts, frazzled. "And I'm sorry, I'm sorry; I didn't know you knew Kurama!"

Several more foxes poke their heads out from their hiding spots. "Ohhhhh!" they chitter, suddenly impressed, "They're with Kuraaaama!"

The white fox's tune immediately changes and moves away from the cave entrance. "Want to come in?"

"What the hell; just like that?" Naruto says.

Her tail twitches, "Of course! You aren't weird strangers now! You're just dumb, right?"

Team Seven is ushered inside by happy foxes, all trying to ask them questions at once.

"Ack! Were you bothering them, Maru, Rei?" a frail old fox with many tails limps forward. "They're gonna help us!"

"I wasn’t bothering them, Suzu,” says the red fox, Maru. The old fox gives him the stink eye. Maru pulls back his ears. “Okay, okay, not anymore. They know Kurama!!"

"Oh, that makes sense, huh." Suzu coughs, and then amends to, "Hmm, hmm, of course, totally knew it.”

"No you didn't!" the white fox, Rei, shouts.

The old fox coughs again and ignores that statement. “Hmm, we got an Uzumaki boy here, yes?” He looks at Naruto. “No one has called on Uzu gods for a long time, you know. The power available to the foxes is nearly gone. So,” he says gravely, “we need your help!”

“Uh, help that turned us into foxes, you know!” Naruto says, angry. “Why should we?”

You three called the gods for help, and now they need yours! It’s not a damn freebie!” Suzu gestures to Kakashi. "I heard bringing that guy back from the dead was more than a little tricky, you know!"

"Ooh, that always takes a bit of work, yeah," Rei nods.

“Ooh, not just a bit!” Suzu complains. “Just had to be difficult.”

The kids take a moment to absorb that comment, then:

"What?!" Sakura shrieks. Sasuke looks at Kakashi, vaguely horrified.

"Sensei, YOU DIED?" Naruto shouts.

"Maa, well..." Kakashi trails off, a bit sheepish.

“Mmm hmm, so really, they help you, you help them,” says Suzu.

“Not that we don’t sympathize with your plight,” Kakashi lies, “we’re just looking for a way to become human again—”

“Oh, you want to have a human form again? I see, I see,” Suzu nods his head. “Then yes, bringing Uzumaki to the island will totally help.”

Somehow, Kakashi isn’t reassured by that statement.

“Uzumaki—aren’t they all, um, dead?” asks Sakura, looking nervously at Naruto when she says it.

“Oh no, there are some left, otherwise we’d really be in trouble, hoo boy. Any people who claim Uzu as home could count… but Uzumaki would be the most helpful first.”

“So there’s still—there’s still Uzumaki?” Naruto asks, excited.

Kakashi starts, “Naruto—”

“I mean. Mom said to go to the island anyway, Sensei; we could find them too,” says Naruto, pleading.

“It might be nice to help,” Sakura adds.

“This is our only lead on becoming human,” says Sasuke.

Some more foxes gather, trilling delightedly.

“They’re gonna help?” asks a hopeful fox.

“We’re gonna be okay?” says another, relieved.

Kakashi sighs, resigned. His cute students are too enthusiastic for their own good. “Maa, it seems so.” It looks like their only option. For now, anyway.

----

Shinobi skills do not include making a raft.

Zabuza is so glad Haku had immediately vetoed Zabuza’s suggestion to escape the island via ice, because something about their chakra is fucked up.

Zabuza had tried a simple water jutsu while Haku was still chatting to the chakra impression and it… just exploded on him. Haku had tried next, and lost enough control that he froze a palm tree to the point of it shattering it in seconds.

They both agree to shelve experimentation for the time being.

So Zabuza had asked Haku to ask the chakra impression about it. Apparently Zabuza didn’t ask nicely enough or something, or she is into being cryptic and completely unhelpful. Some creepy shit about a heart. So Zabuza had maybe threatened to cleave her shrine in two, but she didn’t have to drop Zabuza into a seal-triggered pitfall!

Haku suggests they let her cool off for a bit and he steers Zabuza back towards the beach.  

Now Zabuza is working on his new project and Haku is fanning a fire as he readies to grill some fish. Haku didn’t even have to hunt for it. The flamingos just gave it to him. And a damn monkey thing stopped by to drop off some mangos.

What’s with this place.  

Shinobi skills definitely do not include making a raft out of coconuts and palm fronds. He keeps ripping the leaves, and he’s not sure the damn thing will even float, let alone get past the eddies of death. He just needs to make something, do something, to try and leave because this island is nightmarish and definitely cursed. Not that he believes in curses.

He tears another frond entirely in half. Zabuza yells incoherently and throws the raft into the sea. The current pushes it immediately back to shore, and Zabuza just stands there, looking at it. Mocking him.

“...Zabuza-sama?” Haku calls out, tentative. “May I have one of the intact coconuts if you are done with it? Uzumaki-sama gave me a recipe for a fish curry to try.”

“Yeah,” he sighs. “...Can I have some of the curry?”

“Of course, sir.”   

---

“Hey, didn’t you say Kurama was with them?”

One of the foxes peers at Naruto, then to the rest of Team Seven and back again, with eerie eyes, which then widen. “Oh no, is he still stuck? That’s no good; we’ll help you!”  

Another fox rolls up a star ball. “Good thing we’ve got one of these left!” It brings it up to its mouth, getting ready to throw it.

Suzu sputters, “Is that my star ball? Don’t you dare—”

The star ball shatters, sending the glittering energy within it across them. His students yelp, and Kakashi braces himself. A menacing red cloud of smoke erupts in front of Team Seven, with maniacal laughter emanating from it.

“I’m free, hahaha—oh what the fuck,” the demon fox hisses, in a voice so much less booming than it should be.

The foxes murmur to each other.  

“...Is he supposed to look like that?” Maru stage whispers.

“Uh, Kurama is so…” Rei trails off.

“Tiny!” another fox blurts. They all nod their heads.

Kurama the very normal-looking fox swivels his head around. “Tiny? You say I’m tiny?” he shrieks at them, swishing his single tail in aggravation.

"Eep!" the foxes fall over themselves as they scramble back.

“Tiny for you! Still bigger than all us!”

"But nothing wrong with little, you know!”

“You’re compact!”

“Travel-size!”

“You might want to quit while you’re ahead,” the Kyuubi says, voice dripping with venom as he takes a threatening step forward. They screech and scurry away, leaving Suzu and Team Seven standing there.

“Kurama, good to finally see you again.” Suzu slowly says, clearly stalling. “...I’m sure you have questions—”

“Talk. Now.”

Suzu coughs, “Well. The power we had is nearly gone, so… it seems we borrowed it.”

“Borrowed it,” the Kyuubi says flatly.

“Look. The kids asked for a lot—”

Borrowed it?” the Kyuubi shrieks.

“Yes, I wondered how we got any of it done. But ooh, now you can all work together to restore Uzushio!”

Team Seven disagrees. “Uh, not with the shitty fox that destroyed our village!” Naruto shouts.

“Who you calling shitty, you little brat!” the Kyuubi barks back.

“Oh, hmm, Konoha? Weren’t you being controlled by someone at the time?” Suzu asks almost absently.

“Controlled?” Sasuke and Naruto ask at the same time, then look at each other.

“What? No! No I wasn’t!” the Kyuubi squawks at them. He turns and hisses to Suzu. “What the hell! Don’t tell them that!”

“The gods would hope you could work together,” Suzu says with an exaggerated solemnity, but his eyes sly.

“You are so dead when I get my tails back. And your gods can kiss my—”

The foxes scurry back up to the Kyuubi, and skitter about him in excitement. And despite his posturing, the Kyuubi—Kurama—hasn’t actually hurt any of the foxes. Or even Kakashi and his students. Kakashi isn’t quite sure what to think about that. Or any of this.

“They’re gonna help, Kurama!”

“Uzushio is gonna come back!”  

“And you’re helping too, right?”

All the foxes turn to stare at Kurama, expectant.

Kurama looks at all of them, turns, walks out of the cave and shouts for a very long time.

Suzu ignores the outburst. “Mmm hmm, and you’re all in luck, there’s a young lady with Uzumaki blood nearby.”

"It's little Tsunade," Maru sighs.

"Aww, poor Tsunade," Rei says with drooping ears.

"She's not doing so good," says another.

"Tsunade?" Kakashi’s ears perk up.

“You know her, Sensei?” Sakura asks.

“Tsunade of the Senju. Of the Sannin. She’s an unrivaled medic-nin who was also an incredibly strong front-line fighter.”

“Ooh,” Sakura marvels, starry-eyed.  

“But,” Kakashi hums, “she hasn’t returned to Konoha in a long time. This must be where she’s been.”

“Here sometimes, yeah. We’re so weak, she can’t hear us; it’s so sad,” says Maru, as Kurama stomps back in from his shouting.

“She’s so sad, but now it’s really not good!” Rei cries.

"She's got a shark after her!" Maru exclaims.

"A loan shark," Rei drops her voice to a whisper, horrified. "Sounds scary."

“...A loan shark,” says Kakashi, flat.

Kurama stops in his tracks, and mutters, “Sage give me strength.”

----

“Why are you following us, huh?” Naruto asks loudly to their demon fox tag-along. They’re ambling down a path that brackets the forest and rolling pastures, on the way to find Tsunade.

“I need to make sure you stupid fox brats use my power right!”

“What power?” Naruto snarks.

“Incredible power you’re too stupid to use!” Kurama snipes back, baring his teeth.

With the awe of the Kyuubi well worn off by now, the kids merely look incredulous at his statement. Kakashi eyes the supposed demon fox, who now looks like an unsettling and oversized, if otherwise regular, fox.

He suspects Kurama might be bluffing.

“Fucking brats,” Kurama snarls. He then declares, “I’m getting this shit over with and getting my tails. Maybe I’ll knock over a village afterwards. How nostalgic for all of us!”

“That you were controlled during,” Kakashi counters, not rising to the bait, though it opens up so many horrifying questions about that night.  

“Fucking asshole had to say that,” Kurama seethes.

“Who did do it then?” Sasuke asks.

Kurama grins. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Yeah, actually, we wanna know!” Naruto says.

“You don’t get to. I’m not talking about this,” Kurama snaps.

“Maa, then stop bringing it up,” Kakashi says.

“Oh look, we’re here!” says Sakura hastily.

They crest the hill overlooking the modest portside village of Chaba. They should likely find Tsunade any of the village’s bars, if Kakashi recalls correctly.

As they start to sneak into the village proper, Sakura asks, “When we find Tsunade-sama, what if we just… tell her?”

“Huh, tell her what?” asks Naruto.

“Tell her who we are. We could trust Tsunade-sama, right? What if we just try and tell her what happened, and she can get us to Konoha where we could get more help?” Sakura suggests, excited.

“And then what, and be caged?” Kurama’s tail swishes, agitated, looking around at all of them. “You know that’s what will happen. You really trust your precious humans to help you?”

“Of course I do!” Naruto says, outraged.

Kakashi considers it. There are a few he trusts, yes, but there are certain powerful people he doesn’t want anywhere near his students in any capacity, especially as vulnerable as they are now.  

“It’s best we keep it secret,” Kakashi declares, hopefully curtailing any argument. Naruto turns to look at him and Kurama’s tail actually stills, surprised. “Secret until we fix this, alright?”

“We won’t get in trouble for that once we get back?” Sakura asks, anxious.

Kakashi hums. “It’s a bit of an extraordinary situation. Either way, as your team leader, I’ll take responsibility for any fallout.”

“But it’s not your fault, Sensei!” Naruto cries. “You didn’t do it!”

“But I should’ve been able to keep you from being forced into such a situation in the first place. Ergo, my responsibility. Alright?” Kakashi asks, firm, looking at all of them.

“...Fine,” Naruto mutters, sullen. Sasuke and Sakura reluctantly nod. Kakashi’s pretty sure they’re all just pretending to agree with him on his point. Subterfuge, how adorable.

Kurama hasn’t said anything, which is fine. Kakashi doesn’t need to hear whatever he’s thinking. He’s just going to focus on keeping his kids safe.

----

Team Seven is past due to return from their escort mission to Wave. Delays occur in any mission. It’s not necessarily cause for alarm, but this one—

This one, Hiruzen worries. He hasn’t gotten this far in life to not trust these instincts. Something has happened. Something is different.

In many respects, Hiruzen sees all the students of Konoha as his grandchildren. He cares for them, and of them, he cares for Naruto especially. The boy who is quick with a grin, who’s loud but tenacious. A boy with bold dreams, who calls Hiruzen Jiji.  

Yet for the good of the village, that boy was vilified instead of held heroic, is held at arm’s length, cast into darkness on his own parentage. Hiruzen knows he’s failed this child, ever more cruel when the boy looks up to him as a grandfather. Family. And now he fears he may have lost any chance, however slim, to rectify what he’s done to Naruto.

For now, Hiruzen must keep his worries buried deeply. Danzo is quick to accuse, as he arrives unannounced to bother Hiruzen, inscrutable, in his office. Hiruzen is unsurprised he’s had his hands in mission assignments. “How could you let the boy leave, Hiruzen? Let such an asset to Konoha’s defense walk outside its walls? You should have kept the jinchuuriki here—”

“Here to do what, Danzo? How would the boy grow, learn, become the best shinobi he can without these experiences?”

Danzo scoffs, but doesn’t yet elaborate on his thoughts. Hiruzen can guess. He’s well familiar with Danzo’s stance on jinchuuriki, on their “village’s greatest weapon.”

Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. An ongoing struggle for any kage, Hiruzen feels it weigh down on him, crush him, more as each new year passes. In his worst moments, Hiruzen fears he’s damned himself on all sides, irreparably, ever since Minato died. What would he think of Hiruzen, if Minato saw him now?

It’s a struggle Danzo never seems to understand.

In any case, Hiruzen is in no mood to hear him. “We’ll discuss this later. I have an appointment to see to.”

“Later,” Danzo promises, as he turns and limps out of the office. His next appointment gives Danzo a wide berth and then comes to stand in front of Hiruzen’s desk.

“Hokage-sama,” Asuma says, laid-back as always in demeanor, but still professional. Distant.

For all his supposed wisdom, Hiruzen doesn’t know how to begin to bridge the chasm between him and his son. The physical distance may have closed when his son returned to Konoha, but perhaps Hiruzen was a fool to believe that alone would make any difference.

“Asuma,” Hiruzen begins as he folds his fingers together, “I understand your genin team would like to petition for their first C-rank?”

“Ah,” Asuma smiles wryly, “it appears so. I guess Ino has been bothering the mission desk again?”

“Your team together, though young Ino is the instigator, yes. I’ve received the most interesting complaints.”

“Well, if they can show teamwork with that, even if it’s Ino dragging them along, then I don’t see why they can’t manage a C-rank.” He scratches his beard once in thought. “There’s a courier mission to Tea Country, last I checked. I think that would work well.”

“Very well. I’ll have the mission desk draw up the paperwork.”

Asuma nods. “Is that everything?”

Hiruzen hesitates. “Asuma,” he begins to say again. Something feels strange. He wants to plead to his son like a father, Be careful. Stay safe, damn the mission, no matter what.

Asuma’s cigarette slips the barest fraction. The hopeful coward in Hiruzen likes to believe Asuma can hear the words without him being audacious enough to say them. Instead:

Perfunctory. “I wish your team the best of luck.”

Distant. “Thank you, sir.”

Hiruzen watches as Asuma shuts the office door, leaving him to his thoughts.

Hiruzen is tired.

He’s tired, but he’s made his decision, hasn’t he, to remain? To put on the hat, to put aside the few for the many, no matter how much he hurts his remaining family, as it slips through his fingers. 

Hiruzen is damned as a Hokage.  

Chapter Text

A portside town means many sailors and traveling merchants. And many sailors and merchants means many, many portside bars.

They’re creeping along the pier in the growing dusk, openly discussing their next moves as they look and listen for any hints about Tsunade or the loan shark. This lack of subtlety would rankle Kakashi, but as it turns out, no humans can actually understand them. Kakashi isn’t sure if that makes him feel better or worse.

“We’re sure Tsunade-sama is in a bar?” Sakura asks again, dubious.

Kurama rolls his eyes. “Where else with her? She’s either gambling or getting trashed.”

...Kurama would only know that if he was still well aware of the outside world when still sealed in a jinchuuriki. Kakashi is just... going to completely refuse to think about the implications of that right now.

“Hey, what if we split up to look for her?” Naruto asks, excited by his own idea. “We could find her faster!”

They could split up, but Kakashi thinks of his last moments as a human, the lost grip of fingers as he plunged into darkness. He isn’t ready to let any of his kids out of his line of sight.

He’s about to veto the idea when Kurama, surprisingly, beats him to it. “Yeah, fuck that. Let me show you brats how it’s done.”

Kurama peers around, opening his eyes wide then squinting a few times. This goes on for nearly a minute. “Fucking—come on, work, Sage damn sight—ah HA!” he barks as his eyes go eerie for a sputtering moment, his abrupt fox shriek startling a passing sailor so badly he falls off the pier.

“Ah haaa,” Kurama says again, smirking. “Found her.” He ambles with a swagger right out into traffic, civilians gawking or scrambling to avoid running into him.

Kakashi wants to sigh as he and the kids start to follow. No subtlety whatsoever.

----

They push their way through the door of the seedy bar Kurama insists Tsunade is in.

“Hey, get the hell out of here.” A middle-aged patron, a merchant, tries to drunkenly shoo them out. Kurama hisses open mouthed at the patron, who swiftly leans far back in his seat. The bartender refuses to look up from the glass he’s cleaning, pretending he’s not seeing any of this.

They find Tsunade, of the Senju and of the Sannin, in the bar’s seediest corner, face-down at a grungy table, whose surface is littered with sake bottles and glasses.

“Is she okay?” Sakura asks, concerned.

“Maa, she will be.” Kakashi hopes so, anyway. That is an alarming amount of booze. 

“How’d you find her so fast?” Naruto asks Kurama. Kakashi’s curious to hear this too. 

“By her wretched misery,” Kurama declares proudly.

“What do you mean by that?” Sakura asks, even more concerned.

“You did something with your eyes,” Sasuke states.

Kurama did do something with his eyes, Kakashi thinks. Barely.  

Kurama holds his head aloft, his face the perfect picture of smug. “You little shits dare doubt me, but one of my amazing powers is to see and detect emotions in people’s hearts! I always used hatred to—” 

“Like you can tell if people are hungry?” Naruto interrupts.

“Wha—no, that’s stupid, why would you—”

“I’m gonna try it,” Naruto stares at Tsunade, straining his eyes open as hard as he can. Nothing happens. “Owwww,” he whines. Sasuke and Sakura look skeptical again.

Kurama barks, “Don’t just stare, you idiot! You look, you see.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

They’re interrupted when a stocky man with grey hair and a worried expression rushes into the back of the bar, right for Tsunade’s table.

-----

Wasabi Jirōchō races down the pier.

He’s tried all day to distract the loan shark Socha, to convince him Tsunade wasn’t in town, but Socha’s caught on to the lies. Tsunade owes the loan shark more money than Jirōchō has to cover for her, and time is running out.

He finds her at her favorite bar at the back table, surrounded by—by a bunch of foxes. They swivel their heads to stare at him in creepy unison. Beyond that, they’re kind of… cute, but the biggest one of them looks off; it has weird paws that almost look like hands. Jirōchō can’t bring himself to look at them for long.

He instead directs his eyes to his longtime friend. “Tsunade!” he hisses. He feels the gaze of the foxes, still staring at him. He ignores them as he tries not to sweat; he has bigger things to worry about right now.

“Tsunade!” he hisses again. “We need to get you out of here!”

“Heeey, Jirōchō,” she waves her hand, slowly blinking, then cocks her head. “Do you hear that?

Jirōchō listens. He hears drunken yelling and someone retching somewhere. “...There’s a man throwing up?”

“Nahhh, not that.” She shakes her head a bit. “Nevermind; wanna drink?”

He does, but not now. “Listen, Socha is after you, and he’s on his way here right now. We have to go.”

“Oh,” she slurs. “Oh shit.”

----

Jirōchō rushes Tsunade as best he can to his home. The foxes race underfoot after them, and sneak through the front door of his house before Jirōchō can shut it. He guides Tsunade to the couch, hoping she’ll stay there. He goes over and pulls back the window curtain a fraction, risking a peek to the front road. He doesn’t see anyone out there, but that doesn’t mean the loan shark and his goons aren’t on their trail.

She paws at the side of her head. “Ears are ringing, what the hell…” she mumbles.

“I’ll get you something to drink,” Jirōchō says as he walks towards the kitchen. Maybe he can sober her up.

“Oooh!” she leans her head back into the cushions. “Yes, please!”

He comes back with a glass of water. Tsunade hoists herself more upright, making grabby hands for it. She takes a swig and instantly spits the water back into the glass. “Blech.” She glares at him, accusatory, then says, “Got any gin?”

“...No.” He’ll try to distract her. He can’t take it anymore anyway, he has to ask. “...What’s with the foxes?”

Tsunade shrugs from where she’s listing on the couch. “Dunno; they were just there all a sudden, staring at me.”

“That’s—” he looks at the big orange one with the angry face and and immediately averts his eyes when it glares at him. “That’s... interesting.”

----

Naruto is still thinking about the whole sight thing. The shitty fox was completely unhelpful, so he’s just gonna keep trying on his own. He plods over to where Tsunade is starting to slide off the couch. He tries to look again. The voices of everyone else fade away, and this time, he sees. Oh no, the foxes were right . She’s so sad, it’s awful. His heart clenches. If there was something, anything, he could do—

Tsunade full body shudders and her gaze snaps to Naruto. “...What?” She slides fully off the couch to kneel on the floor and she squints at him. “What is—”

She rears back with a jolt, and stumbles to her feet away from Naruto, all the color draining from her face. “Nawaki…”

Naruto cocks his head. Who’s that?

“No, no, you can’t be… I can’t...” Tsunade backs away from him, drunkenly shaking her head, clutching at her hair with her hands as a tear slips out of her eye. “Stop! Stop with the bells! I’m sorry, please, I can’t—”

“Tsunade!” Jirōchō tries to stop her. She shoves him out of the way with the barest shift of her shoulder and slams open the front door.

They run out to follow after her, but there’s no sign of her. She’s already gone.

“Shit! Why did you that?” Kurama barks at Naruto.

“Do what?” Naruto shouts back. “I just tried the dumb seeing thing; I didn’t do anything!”

“You fucking did something, you—”

But Kurama stops as their ears flick. A strange noise just came from behind the house. They all creep to peek around the side, through some bushes. Naruto watches as three guys enter over the fence to the back garden. The leader directs one guy to come with him, and points the other guy in the opposite direction. They split up as they sneak around to the rear entry points of the house.

“Hey, Sensei,” Naruto whispers, “is that the loan shark guy?”

“Maa, it must be; it looks like Socha brought hired help as well. Mercenaries.” 

Kurama’s tail swishes in sudden delight. “And look, they split up. Oh dear, a lonely thug breaking in to this nice home? Can’t have that.” Kurama smiles with bloodlust as he drops low and slithers through the bushes after the solo mercenary.

Team Seven’s ears flick sideways again when they hear a pained shout from the kitchen. It sounds like Jirōchō! They all scramble back through the open door towards the source of the noise. 

----

Jirōchō winces from the surprise attack, his left arm crippled by a knife wound from the mercenary. But Socha is still loitering here, so that means he didn’t see Tsunade leave. Perfect. He can distract him.  

“Like the gift from your new friend here? Give her up Wasabi, or you can make more new friends.” The loan shark turns his head towards the back door, waiting for someone. And waits. “...More new friends!” he shouts a little louder. Nothing happens. Jirōchō starts to edge away to the hall.

“...Where is the other guy I hired?” Socha barks to the mercenary, who shrugs, confused. He then turns back to Jirōchō, who has to pause his escape. “No matter. Last chance, Wasabi; where is she?”

“Never,” Jirōchō shakes his head. “I won’t tell you.” Tsunade has her issues, but she’s his friend. He’ll do what he can to keep her safe.

“If you’re going to protect her, then I’ll take her debt out of you and your own hide!” Socha laughs and laughs as he walks up the stairs to raid his home. The mercenary brandishes a knife and begins to menace Jirōchō, who’s unfortunately unarmed, and down to one functioning hand for combat. He’s cornered, with no escape.

He wishes, futilely, for any help.

----

Team Seven peeks out from behind the corner, where they see Jirōchō being held at knifepoint in the kitchen. “What do we do, Sensei?” Sakura whispers.

“We gotta help and fight that bad guy off!” Naruto insists, all but vibrating in place.

Sasuke looks the barest moment at Naruto and says, resolute, “We could take him.”

Sakura hesitates, but nods with growing resolve. “We could fight… couldn’t we, Sensei?”

Kakashi eyes the mercenary. He got a lucky shot once on Jirōchō with the knife, but his movements and stance reveal him as a rank amatuer, not to mention all his overcompensating posturing. He’s likely to be caught out by the unexpected. How unfortunate for him. “Maa, if you work together, I think you can take out one full-grown man.” His kids are getting squirrely anyway; they could use the outlet.

The kids look at each other one more time, and turn to scurry into position.

The mercenary waggles his knife about in Jirōchō’s face. “Scared, huh? Get ready for me to stab you agai—what the FUCK.” The man drops the knife, startled, as three fox kits attack.

Naruto runs up the mercenary’s pant leg, skittering up and down his body like a laughing furry cockroach in distraction. Sakura leaps from the table and catches the man ‘round the face, digging into his skin with her back claws. Sasuke focuses on biting at his ankles, narrowly and deftly avoiding getting kicked several times.

Kurama walks past from the hall towards the stairs, but he pauses and snorts at the kitchen spectacle. “You’re just going to watch?”

Kakashi doesn’t look back, keeping an eye on his kids and the flailing mercenary. “They’re doing just fine. It’s a good learning experience for them.”

“...You don’t want to do any work, you lazy asshole,” Kurama accuses.

Kakashi sighs, exaggerated, “I suppose I’ll give them a hand if I must.” His kids made an... admirable plan, but it’ll take awhile for the mercenary to actually go down at this rate. Plus that Jirōchō is just standing there in shock, staring, instead of doing anything helpful. He’s the one with thumbs here.

Kakashi stalks silently behind the mercenary, and presses hard into the back of one of the man’s knees with his front paws. The mercenary’s leg buckles and he falls with a shout.

Sakura takes advantage. She positions her paws and slams the man’s head into the floor with the ensuing momentum. Sakura looks at the man, and then to everyone, amazed and elated. “He’s down! We won!”

Naruto whoops as he marches all over the body. "We did it! Go team!”

“We didn’t need help, Sensei,” Sasuke grouses from where he’s now scratching an intricate design in the guy’s ankle with a claw.

“Maa, duly noted,” Kakashi says, amused.

----

Jirōchō watches as the baby foxes trill and shriek over the body of the mercenary, while the grey one looks on like a proud parent.

Well, that’s one way to take care of this problem for Tsunade.

"You creepy foxes are alright." says Jirōchō. He then hears a horrid scream from above him, and the sound of another human body—Socha the loan shark—thumping down the stairs. The angry fox saunters back in a minute later, pleased for once. The look on its face is ghastly.

Jirōchō smiles tightly. "Please leave my house."

----

They track down Tsunade again in another bar. She’s slouching in her seat, miserable.

Naruto walks up to her, in hopes of figuring out what he did to upset her at Jirōchō’s house. Tsunade flinches as she sees him, but she doesn’t run away again.

“Oh,” Tsunade begins to cry as she picks up Naruto, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Nawaki." She sobs, holding him close, “I’m sorry I ran away. I’m sorry for everything. I—I should’ve never given you that necklace, or you might still be…” She trails off as she hiccups.

“Uhhh, I’m not Nawaki, but I bet whatever happened, he’s not that mad at you!” Naruto trills. They feel like the right words to say, even if she can’t understand him. They make Naruto feel warm.

“You... forgive me?” she asks, peering into Naruto’s eyes. After a moment, she beams through her tears, wondrous. “You forgive me. My brother forgives me,” she says again, holding Naruto up happily to the now-unnerved bartender.

She sits Naruto on her shoulder and pats his side, “You can sit right there.” She looks down at the other foxes. “Hey—the bells are from all of you right? And you all must’ve fucked up that loan shark real good—” she squints at Kurama, “—especially granny there.”

“WHAT DID SHE CALL ME,” Kurama barks, the shrill sound startling half the patrons.

“Exactly! Can always count on UZUSHIO!” She hollers just as loud in a toast and knocks back the glass. “Another!” She holds the glass out to the bartender with a grin.

The bartender takes it but makes no move to pour another drink. "Listen, lady, you're making a scene—"

You’re making a scene!” she yells back, slurred.

"Seriously, you need to go; the big fox is scaring everyone—"

"Oh yeah? I was just leaving!" She grabs all of the foxes at once as they squeak in alarm. "And you!” she addresses everyone else in the bar, “Show—show some fucking respect to the DEAD!" She kicks open the door, knocking it halfway off its hinges, and staggers down the street.

“Uhhh, where are we going?” Naruto asks from where he’s perched on Tsunade’s shoulder.

"...Wherever she wants to take us. Not much else we can do now," Kakashi-sensei sighs.

"Now she's crying on me!" Kurama hisses, outraged.

"Do you think she'll be alright?" Sakura asks, worried. “Tsunade-sama seems really upset.”

"As long as she doesn't drop us," says Sasuke, terse, clinging to Tsunade's arm in a death grip.

----

"Shizuuuuuune," Tsunade leans on the door and calls through it.

Shizune opens the door. “Ah, you’re finally back—” She takes one look at her face and the foxes in her arms and says, "...I'm not even going to ask."

Tsunade stumbles in past her.

"I'm good to go back to my room then?" Shizune turns back to see Tsunade dead-asleep on top of the bedding, clutching the foxes like stuffed animals.

She exits the room slowly. "...I'll take that as a yes."

----

Zabuza snorts awake from where he’s lying facedown in a large patch of moss. He looks up and—

Shit, it wasn’t a dream. He and Haku are still stuck on Uzushio.

He sits up and squints in the morning light. Haku, all bright eyed and bushy-tailed, is pulling open a mango with his fingers while sitting a short distance away on the beach. A lemur is dozing in his lap. He’s near the tidepool of flamingos, some of whom wander up the beach for Haku to pet them.

Zabuza watches a toucan carefully pull a large leaf, with fruit piled atop it, through the sand. It gently pokes Haku’s arm with its beak, cawing and pushing at his hand to take some of its bounty. Haku pats its beak in thanks and the toucan chatters in delight.

Haku turns his head and notices Zabuza is awake. All the animals turn to stare at him too. Haku’s smile dazzles in the backdrop of the glittering ocean waves, lit up by the morning sun. “Good morning, sir. Would you care for some breakfast?”

Zabuza lies back down and presses his face as hard as he can back into the moss, screaming into it. Maybe he’ll wake up for real this time.

----

He doesn’t. And the chakra impression is still here too.

“Good morning, Uzumaki-sama,” Haku tips his head in greeting. “Oh, thank you, you too.”

“Meh,” Zabuza says from his spot on the ground.

“Oh! Zabuza-sama, she’d like to tell us why we’re on Uzushio.”

He rolls over and sits up. “Perfect. No cryptic bullshit. Please,” he adds as the shrine flares in warning but before the chakra impression can shoot another rock at him. Zabuza knows how to be polite!

“The gods of Uzushio placed us here for a reason.”

Zabuza lays back down. He’ll risk the rock. 

“She says what she’s telling us will help us get off the island as well.”

Zabuza sits back up. “...I’m listening.”

“She says we’re here because we’ve been given gifts from the gods and chosen to help in restoring the island, allowing access to and from it again. And also because we have actual flesh hands.”

Yeah, that’s not creepy phrasing at all. Wait, specifying flesh could only mean—

“What, she wants our blood? Our skin?” Oh no, no fucking way. He remembers what happened to Gato with that scroll; that asshole was lucky enough to just fall over dead. Plenty of horror stories on Kiri were variations on why you never ever ever tangle up your blood and guts with Uzu seals. Zabuza’s least favorites stories were the one about a careless Kiri nin whose entire arms got swapped with stubby kunai and another who turned half his internal organs to sand trying to turn back time. Eugh.

“Of course not, sir, she doesn’t need our skin,” Haku lightly chides.

That wasn’t a no on blood.

Haku then cocks his head and blinks a few times as he listens. “...Ah, excuse me. She says she doesn’t need our skin yet.”

Zabuza is so horrified he can’t even speak. 

“Oh!” Haku suddenly smiles, with a relieved little laugh. “She’s kidding. She says that was just a little Uzu humor, sir.”

Zabuza stares ahead at nothing for a moment. He supposes he could count himself as lucky. Most Uzu jokes maimed people. “Ha ha,” he says flatly, “and what did she mean by gifts?”

“...She says she cannot explain it just yet.”

Of course. Of course she can’t. But Zabuza can guess. “Yeah, fucked up chakra is a great gift.”

Haku hums. “Whatever it is, sir, they’ll help us do what Uzumaki-sama cannot. She could only jump to the point of the entrance to where this seal is to aid the island, and she doesn’t have the ability to activate that particular one. It's up to us to do this.”

Zabuza is stuck on jumping. A chakra impression that could not only activate, but also jump to different seals. Everything about her is terrifying. But when he thinks about it, she hasn’t killed them, or seriously tried to hurt them. She gave Haku a fucking amazing curry recipe. And for whatever mysterious reasons, Haku really likes the Uzumaki, believes her. Zabuza can see that Haku believes this will work. And Zabuza… he trusts Haku.

“Alright,” he says, resigned to this madness, “where’s this place we have to go to?”

Haku points. “It’s right over there, sir.”

A cavern entrance that Zabuza swears was not there earlier is standing open in the moss-covered rock face that sits a modest distance past the flamingos’ tide pool. Opening that entrance had to have made a racket, and Zabuza didn’t even wake up once in the middle of the night.

Zabuza and Haku peek in, not yet daring to enter. Zabuza notices etchings of designs in the ridges of the cavern opening. He notes little flying flamingos… and foxes. Foxes. The angry and vengeful spirits of Uzushio threatened to come and curse weak Kiri children in the night and—

No. That is a fable. There are no spirits like that. He doesn’t believe in curses. He is a grown man, not a child silently afraid of foxes. He’s doing this to get off the island. He has to keep telling himself that.

“So there’s a seal in there? What are we supposed to do?” Zabuza does not want the answer to that.

Haku provides it anyway. “Ah. One of us is meant to activate it.”

Oh fuck, oh no. This is something out of Zabuza’s worst nightmares. How many cautionary allegories in Kiri began with poking at Uzu nonsense ill-advised?

But Haku believes the chakra impression. And Zabuza trusts Haku.

Haku catches the trepidation on his face. “Sir, I could go—”

“No,” Zabuza interrupts. “No, I’ll do it.” He’s still unsteady, off kilter, from Wave. Where in one flash to the next, Haku fell, so still, unmoving, as the rain fell down around them...

It keeps playing over and over again in his mind, freezing his insides with lingering terror. He’s afraid he actually will wake up back in Wave, and maybe Haku won’t. What if something happens and Haku gets hurt again? Zabuza wants to keep him safe, this time.

Zabuza gives the order. “I’ll go in, and you just watch and wait by the entrance.” Just in case the whole thing explodes and the cave collapses.

“You’re certain, sir?”

Zabuza quirks his lips into a grin. “Yeah, come on, it’ll be fine,” he says with false confidence.

Judging by the look in his eyes, Haku won’t even pretend to believe his bravado for a second, but Haku also knows Zabuza will hold firm on this. 

“Good luck, sir,” Haku says. The lemur now on his shoulder waves to him. The flamingos gathering behind Haku to gawk all honk and twist their necks about, as if to cheer Zabuza on.

Zabuza just… turns around and walks in. “What is this place,” he mutters lowly to himself as he starts to walk down the incline, deeper into the cavern.

A place of renewal.

Zabuza barely manages to avoid startling, but a shiver runs from his feet all the way to the tips of his hair. A woman’s voice echoing—is that the chakra ghost? No. Impression. Chakra impression. He loiters a moment but hears nothing else but the pounding of his heart in his ears. Zabuza picks up the pace.   

He walks until he finds a large flat stone dias with inset steps, presenting nothing but a small seal carved into the wall behind it. That must be it. He pricks one of his thumbs on his sharp teeth as he takes the stairs. He looks at the seal, like a little spiral sun, and reaches his hand out slowly towards it.

This has to be, without a doubt, the dumbest thing he’s ever done in his life.

Zabuza can’t help but hold his breath, his hand now mere millimeters from touching the seal. Whatever happens to him, he has to believe this seal will help, and that, if anything, at least Haku will be okay. He hangs on to that belief as tight as he can, and like the idiot he is, presses his hand flush to the wall.

Immediately he feels the tug. The seal pulls and pulls and pulls at him from within, his chakra fluxing, spiraling, and impossibly rising to meet its call with indomitable ease.

As the seal pulls, warmth spreads throughout him, traveling up his fingers and down to his toes, running over his shoulders and swirling in his chest. Array after array of interconnected seals light up in a growing spiral, forming a dizzying kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. He turns his head enough to watch as they race along the walls and ceiling, as they travel up and out through the rest of cavern.

Just as soon as it began, the tide recedes. Zabuza slowly exhales as it all stills, and he retracts his hand, flexing it a few times. His fingers tingle, but he’s… completely fine. It didn’t kill him or turn him inside out or anything. He feels kind of good, actually, like dozing in the aftermath of a relaxing hot bath.

He walks back, taking the time to peer at the new seals all along the cavern walls that weren’t there before, in wild shapes and designs he can’t even begin to understand.

He gets back to Haku safe and sound, and Haku looks starry-eyed. “That was… that was amazing, Zabuza-sama,” Haku breathes. “Everything on the island… lit up.” He fans out his fingers a little for emphasis. “It revealed all of the dormant seals on the island.”

Yes, it was very pretty. Great, whatever. They could find out how to leave now.

“Now Uzumaki-sama can freely travel the island to help us with the others!”

What. “Others?”

“She says that was just the first one. There’s four more seals we need to help with, sir.”

Zabuza eyes the moss on the ground. Maybe he should try screaming into it again.

----

Tsunade wakes up that afternoon and groans, "Why the fuck are there foxes on me."

She lifts the little orange one off her face and plops it on the pillow next to her.

She rubs at her forehead with a grumble and heals her hangover from being drunk for two days straight. Shizune will probably yell at her for it, but whatever, Tsunade needs to figure this fox shit out.

The biggest orange one is now pacing the floor, snapping its teeth at nothing. The grey and black one lazily eyes it for a moment, and then the cheeky little shit gives Tsunade a look as if to say, Oh, so nice of you to finally join us. The black one looks unimpressed with everything. The pink one is pawing at Tsunade, sincerely concerned.

They’re weird. It doesn't help that they all have an eerie aura about them. But a bit of her memory of the past day is coming back. She thinks about her grandmother's stories of bells and spirits and she wonders.

"...Uzushio foxes?" shes asks aloud. Are they? Did they finally come to visit her? Shit, she might really be in a bad way if this many Uzushio foxes think they have to stop by and check in. "I dunno why you're here, but I guess I can't exactly tell you to get out." She'll let them stick around for as long as it takes.

If they do, she should probably give them names.

She looks at the little orange one now jumping around the bed. Loud, bombastic, playful. He reminds her so much of Nawaki it should hurt, but really, she feels… lighter. Grief ebbing out with the tide.

She points one by one at the little foxes. "Pinky, Inky, Loud-Nawaki, hmm," she tilts her head at the adult foxes. "Grey-boy kind of reminds me of Sakumo, but way sassier." The fox flicks his ear sharply but otherwise doesn't react.

"And the big one reminds me..." she squints at it, "of grandma Mito."

Tsunade watches the largest fox shriek angrily and knock over a side table, breaking one of the legs. It grabs a pillow and shakes it in its mouth, feathers going everywhere.

She says, impassive, "There goes the deposit." She's out of money anyway. Tsunade turns to the other four. "Alright,” she claps her hands together, “you guys ever skip out on a bill before?"

There’s a knock on the door. “Tsunade-sama, are you finally up?”

"Shizune! We're going out the window!"

"Again?" Shizune asks as she enters with Tonton in tow. The big fox is still off in its own little world of minor destruction, but the other four all swivel their heads to stare down the pig.

"Hey, hey!" Tsunade snaps her fingers, "No eating the pig!" Shit, this might be a problem. But her command does the trick well enough. They all look away, pretending like they didn't just plan her pet's death. Pinky actually looks chagrined.

Loud-Nawaki gets back on her shoulder as she scoops the biggest foxes each under one arm. Angry-Mito is snapping and snarling, ineffectual in Tsunade's expert hold. She's held down worse patients with less leverage. Sassy-Sakumo looks completely unimpressed with his fox companion. He turns his head up to Tsunade with a flat expression that says, Are you seeing the shit I have to put up with?

Shizune slides the window open and picks up Pinky and Inky, not even questioning the presence of foxes. Tsunade adores that about her.

“Alright, hang on, we gotta book it fast outta town!” Tsunade says with a grin as she leaps into the alley below.

----

Ino wants to skip down the path leading them down south through Konoha, towards Tea Country. Asuma-sensei finally is taking her team on a C-rank! A mission outside of Konoha!

She can’t believe Billboard-Brow already beat her to this, rubbing it in Ino’s face on the way out to Konoha’s gate. But maybe Ino’s team will finish their mission first, and she can rub that in her face. Or... maybe Ino will see Sasuke out here on the way, too, and she can impress him with her mission prowess.

Ino maybe skips once or twice.

It doesn’t even matter that their mission is totally boring. The courier mission is for a Konoha baker who’s got a special shipment for a teahouse and is overly paranoid about his cakes or whatever getting stolen. Even worse, he’s one of those people who thinks that too many items in one storage scroll impacts quality. She wants to roll her eyes. Civilians.

“You could help carry something,” Shikamaru grouses as he hoists his backpack higher on his back.

“No can do. I’m supervising you!” That’s what he gets for not pulling his full weight to get this mission in the first place.

“I believe that’s my job,” Asuma-sensei points out, ambling along behind them.

Shikamaru doesn’t quite give up. “Help Chouji at least.”

“Um, that would be nice,” Chouji says. He’s carrying the vast majority of the scrolls, his backpack totally overstuffed. He’s carrying an overstuffed messenger bag as well, full of potato chips.

“Oh, fine,” she sighs. She plucks out a single scroll sticking out out from Chouji’s bag. “There!” she says, sunny. “You’re welcome, Chouji!”

Shikamaru gives her a seriously judgmental look. Rude.

She tries for innocent. “What? I’m helping!”

“So troublesome,” he mutters with a groan.

“Come on. Take this seriously,” Asuma-sensei says, tone light as he chastises them. But he also shifts the cigarette in his mouth, and his head tilts the barest southeast, in the direction of Wave.

Ino isn’t an expert at tells, but she’s paid a lot of attention to her team. Asuma-sensei… something might be bothering him. She and Shikamaru share a look; he’s come to the same conclusion just as fast. Chouji quiets as well, immediately catching on to their change in mood.

The wind picks up Ino’s hair, blowing it towards Wave in rivulets. It makes her shiver. She wonders where Team Seven could be.

C-ranks tend to be like test runs of real missions, for genin. Ino knows how they work, at least in Konoha. While the missions take genin outside the safety of Konoha’s walls, they’re not very high risk; they’re day trips or overnighters, and easily completed by any jounin instructor if they need to step in. Anything more strenuous for a genin team would call for an organized training trip instead.

Billboard-Br—Sakura… she’s been gone for well over a week now. No C-rank should take that long, right?

They cross over a stream, and Ino spares a glance along its banks. Near the shore grows flowers. Red spider lilies. For the first time on their mission, Ino is worried.

----

Somewhere in the northern half of Tea Country, a young man sits in a private booth in the back of a tea house, enjoying a bit of luxury in a place that doesn’t recognize him. Sometimes, in the quiet places, he likes to pretend he belongs, like he could blend in. He fiddles absently with his pipe, considering where he’d like to wander next. It doesn’t exactly matter, as long as he isn’t bothered by anyone.

He sips his tea.

He’s often restless, he knows, but it’s a different sort of restless that’s plagued him recently. Not the urge to move. More like… somewhere to settle, no matter how impossible that is.

But in this very moment, he knows this restlessness isn’t all him. He shifts in his seat, then closes his eyes, dipping his head to the side, listening.

“...What is it, Saiken?”  

Chapter Text


Tsunade skids to a halt along the fork of a dirt path overlooking the eastern seas. She snaps her head around looking for any angry innkeepers or loan sharks that somehow followed them out this far. She doesn’t sense anything, and only hears the chirrup of early summer cicadas and the low growl of Angry-Mito under her arm.

Phew. Looks like they’re in the clear.

Then Angry-Mito writhes in her grip with renewed agitation. He snaps at her foot as she finally drops him down to the ground.

“Geez!” She jumps back and damn near kicks the fox off the cliffside out of reflex. “What’s your problem?”

He barks at her, fur bristled. He’s angry, but she catches the undercurrent of unease in the fox’s demeanor. Oh. Tsunade would freak out too if someone snagged her with little warning and ran for it.

“Alright, alright,” she says as she puts down Sassy-Sakumo and Loud-Nawaki and holds up her hands in placation. “I get it, I’m sorry. I won’t pick you up again.”

Angry-Mito stops mid-snarl, and looks at her in bewildered disbelief, like Tsunade is acting crazy.

Sassy-Sakumo shakes out his fur, not even bothering to react to his larger companion’s antics, and lazily lopes after Loud-Nawaki, who’s running over to Shizune.

Shizune crouches to let loose her armful of baby foxes to their cohort. She straightens and turns to Tsunade, “Where to now?”

Hmm. Where should they go? Tsunade figures going to River Country might be a nice change of pace. There’s some raucous outposts by the border if things haven’t changed in the last few years. Then again, it’s been long enough that she could get away with going to Tanzaku Quarters again. Whether or not she wanted to stick around in Fire Country was another story.

Tsunade tips her head to the left path. “Let’s go west for now.” They’ll wander up the west coast of the peninsula and enter Fire Country that way.

But the foxes don’t follow, and yip at her when she and Shizune start walking down the inland path.

“What?” Tsunade asks as she turns back around, trying to figure out what what’s wrong now. “This way?” She points up the east coastal path that will take them up closer to Wave. “Why?”

Angry-Mito barks again. Angrily.

"I can't understand ‘fox,’ you know," Tsunade barks back, irritated.

So the foxes attempt charades. It goes badly.

Pinky and Inky are watching Loud-Nawaki spin in place, trying to describe whatever-the-hell, when Sassy-Sakumo finally sighs and wanders over to a tree. He picks up a fallen branch and saunters back. He paws away some leaf litter and starts to draw in the dirt of the path.

Tsunade and Shizune tilt their heads at the awkward, but semi-legible characters that start to slowly form. "Go to... Uzushio? Ohhhh."

Tsunade stares at the message for another moment, but the words suddenly register and she yelps, "What?! There is no way I’m going there.”

Angry-Mito opens his snarling mouth again but Tsunade cuts him off. "Hey, don't look at me like that,” she snaps at him. “I don't know enough fuuinjutsu to get in! I've seen the security there and who knows what’s been activated since—since it was attacked.”

It was grandma Mito that knew the way, who knew the safe paths, the few times Tsunade went along with her grandma’s pilgrimages as a child. Grandma always said that anyone was welcome if their heart was in Uzushio. It’s just that… Tsunade isn’t sure she counts anymore. She had turned her back on her prior life, her own history, for years now. She isn’t going to risk it with her heart as broken as it is.

Tsunade continues, “That place is riddled with defense seals that would vaporize me if I looked at them wrong.” The she winces, thinking of her empty wallet. “And I don’t exactly have the money to get across the ocean." Not to mention knowing anyone crazy enough to travel near the island.

But wait, she’s talking to Uzushio foxes. They want her to go there for a reason, and she’ll be damned if she willfully ignores a request from them. If anything, they’d have the power to help her along, right?

She cups her chin and asks, "...Unless you all can get me there?"

The foxes freeze, and all look at each other. They start gekkering at once in some sort of argument. Loud-Nawaki seems to be insisting on something, with Pinky and Inky backing him up with admirable sass, but Angry-Mito chitters back with serious attitude. Boy, if a fox could sound sarcastic, Tsunade would bet it’s like that.

Oh, the fox conference is over. Sassy-Sakumo turns to face Tsunade, and sheepishly shakes his head no. Fucking wonderful, she got the amateur foxes.

She sighs, "Well, shit, we might be out of luck." It figures for her.

Pinky’s ears droop, and her eyes turn huge and sad. Loud-Nawaki squeaks in alarm and pokes at her with his nose, trying to comfort her. Even the stoic Inky is beginning to look upset, and Loud-Nawaki is looking back and forth at them, at a pitying loss. Tsunade has to turn away; it’s too distressing.

Unfortunately, she looks right at Shizune, whose watering doe eyes match those of the baby foxes. “There’s nothing we can do, Tsunade-sama?” Shizune pleads, already irreversibly invested in helping the cute foxes find their way home.

Fuck. Tsunade’s already lost this battle. They’re getting to that island one way or another. “Alright, fine. I don’t know how, but we’ll do it.” She turns to the foxes. “We’ll think of some way to get to Uzushio, okay?”

The baby foxes start to perk up at that, thank the gods.

...In fact, they perk up a little too quickly, preening at their success. Gods-dammit, she just got fucking played.

Before she can shout at them, Shizune pipes up, “Oh! For fuuinjutsu help, we could ask—”

Tsunade cuts her off, "We’ll leave him as a last resort." She grimaces. Who knows where that pervert is, anyway. “Let’s just figure out how to get there first. I guess if we can find a ship…?”

Tsunade is lost in thought for a few moments as they begin to walk up the coastal path. All her plans suck. This is going to suck.

"Tsunade-sama?” Shizune asks, hitching Tonton up higher in her arms. “What do the foxes have to do with Uzushio?"

Tsunade glances over to her with a start. "I never told you? Huh, I guess I wouldn't have." It’s another painful thing she’s avoided until now.

What exactly happened last night? What do these foxes really want from her? She furrows her brow, trying to pull all her grandma’s stories from her memory. She keeps getting stuck on one—

“Tsunade-sama?”

Shit, she took too long thinking. “These,” Tsunade waves her hands out to their new four-legged companions, stalling, “are Uzushio foxes. They have to do with… everything.”

Shizune’s lips pursed, “Why do I get the feeling you’re stalling for time?”

Tsunade groaned, “Okay, I am, but give me a break, Shizune, I haven’t exactly thought about this stuff since I was sixteen!” Ever since Nawaki— “I’ve never even met a fox before, but they always show up for a reason.”

“A reason?”

"Like if you’re in trouble. Uzu people have all these traditions and stories about foxes. Oh, I know!” Tsunade snaps her fingers. “There's one story that always stuck with me," she begins, "of a girl who lost her mother off the northern shores of the island.”

“This was before the central village, when there were few Uzu people on the island yet. The girl and her mother had gone to collect fish from net traps in anticipation of a summer storm. They split up to cover more ground as they pulled up the many nets.

“The girl ran along the beach to check her family’s nets, but came across a fox trying to sneak out a fish from the catch. However, it was clumsy and not very good at navigating the nets. The ringing bells in the girl’s hair alerted the fox to her presence, and it tried to appear innocent despite being caught red handed. The girl scolded it lightly, hoping to shoo it away, saying her mother would not appreciate her fish stolen by a fox.

“To her surprise, the fox spoke, ‘Ahhh, but what if I was really your mother in disguise?’

“...But the fox’s impression was so bad that it just made the girl laugh. ‘It’s clear you’ve never even met my mother!’

“‘I’ve met you!’ the fox said in a perfect imitation of the girl, ‘...So what if I was you in disguise?’

“The girl only laughed harder, causing the bells in her hair to chime. The fox’s excuse was so funny and it looked so pathetic that she opened up the net and threw the grateful fox a fish anyway. The fox ran off and she got back to work.

“Unfortunately, the winds picked up much more quickly than the girl anticipated, and the rain came pouring in. Due to the location of the island, Uzu storms are particularly unforgiving and unpredictable. The girl barely managed to find shelter to wait it out and to find her mother.

“What the girl did not know was that her mother was not so lucky and did not survive the storm, being swept out to sea and overcome by the maelstrom. But the girl searched. She called and called for her. She tried until her voice was gone. And there was no answer, as her mother’s spirit was too lost to the gods of the storm and sea.

“But what did hear her,” Tsunade leaned in, “was the fox.”

“The fox heard her efforts and decided to help her as she had helped it. ‘I can run faster, see farther, and cry louder than you can. I’ll find your mother.’ The fox also asked for a bell from the girl’s hair and used its chime to mimic the sound of the girl as it leapt along the churning waves. Somehow it rang above the howling winds, just as loud as the fox’s cry.

“The mother’s spirit heard the call, and recognized the bells as the ones she weaved in her daughter's hair; her spirit was so overcome with the need to see her daughter, to make sure that she was safe, that she found the strength to follow the fox back to the island. The girl, though grieved by her mother’s death, was happy that she could say her goodbyes, and that her mother’s spirit could find peace.”

“The fox kept the bells, and could be heard ringing with each step as it ran through the island and along the seas. So it is said that since then, foxes could call forth departed spirits for those in distress or to help say farewell.”

Shizune hugs Tonton close. "Oh, that poor girl. At least they got to see each other again…” She trails off, and then asks, glancing at their new companions, “So the foxes... became guides for spirits?"

"In that story, yeah," Tsunade crosses her arms and hums to herself as she tries to remember, "but it’s more than that. They actually have a lot of roles. They help guide the living as well when they've lost their way, or to direct them on a better path. Some of the stories have foxes tricking certain people too, to teach them a lesson." She smiles wryly, "Though it's like an Uzumaki lesson. The story with the snakes is something else."

She laughs a little to herself; she only remembers that one because it was Orochimaru's favorite story, the weirdo.

----

Sakura turns away from listening in on Tsunade-sama’s conversation, mulling the story over. Does that make them all spirit guides? Is that what Naruto had done for Tsunade-sama? She had kept saying the name Nawaki. Maybe that was someone’s spirit.

She turns her head to ask Naruto, but is alarmed to find that he’s loudly sniffling, his eyes wobbling with tears.

Sensei notices too. “Maa, Naruto?” he asks, a bit bewildered.

Naruto buries his face in Sensei’s side. "That was so sad!” he wails, muffled. “But the girl got to see her mom again too, Sensei!"

“Ah, yes she did,” Sensei commiserates, awkwardly shuffling along as he tolerates Naruto leaning his entire body weight into Sensei’s side.

Right, Naruto mentioned meeting his parents, one of whom was the Yondaime. She shakes her head at how crazy yesterday was that she nearly forgot.

She does have a question for Kurama too, now that he isn’t in such a nasty mood. "Um... are you a spirit guide?" She doesn't think that's likely, but it can't hurt to ask.

"No!" Kurama barks, immediately offended, "I have nothing to do with that!"

“You’re a fox,” Sasuke points out, blunt.

"I am not just a fox. I am the Kyuubi no Kitsune, brat. I am powerful beyond mortal imagination and much more amazing. I have no need to deal with spirits and so-called gods."

He says he has no connection, but Sakura... really doesn't buy it. He's been nothing but cagey about the other foxes—and there’s obviously a history there—along with whatever spirit thing Naruto did yesterday to Tsunade-sama. Plus Kurama was no help during the pacing tantrum he threw for most of the morning. There's more to the story but she doesn't think it's wise to press.

She tries her luck with another question. "How are we going to find more Uzumaki?" Tsunade-sama doesn't exactly stand out in Sakura's senses as an Uzumaki descendant, and that worries her.

Kurama's ears flick. "Didn't you listen to the story the sad drunk just told us? You use bells. It’s a sense. That’s what the drunk heard and it’s what Uzushio foxes use for call and response.”

"But…” Sakura hesitates, “I haven't heard or sensed anything?" Was she supposed to this whole time? Is something wrong with her? Is she going to be of no help to find them?

Before Sakura can spiral into a pit of self-doubt, Naruto shouts, "Me neither!"

"Not since... the storm," Sasuke adds.

"Hmm, so we need to learn how to reliably trigger this sense,” Kakashi muses.

They all look at Kurama, expectant.

But Kurama doesn’t answer, his expression suspiciously blank.

"...You have no idea how, do you." Sensei states rather than asks.

"What the hell! And I bet you haven't heard anything either!" Naruto accuses.

"Fine, I haven't!” Kurama spits. “And I shouldn't! I don't deal with this Uzu shit! You three just had to call those gods, didn’t you? The bullshit they think they're pulling tying up my power with their power... I'm not rolling over and accepting that like a good little fox!"

"Gods we called?” Naruto yells back. “That's what that old fox guy said, but we didn't even ask for this, you know!"

"Oh, really? You didn’t ask for any help at all?” Kurama presses.

“Well, I thought it, but that doesn’t count!” Naruto’s ears fold back, “...Right?”

Sakura looks away. "...I just prayed for someone to help us. All of us."

Sasuke’s whiskers twitch, and he doesn't deny it, either.

"Of course not. You're stupid children who don't know what you played with—”

"Arguing about this again won't change what happened," Sensei idly cuts in. “We need to move forward. Any suggestions, Kurama?” he asks.

Kurama blinks, surprised, but quickly shifts his expression back to irritated. “Hmpf. With more people, meaning more power, we should be able to work faster.”

“So we really do need to find more Uzumaki first,” Sakura confirms.

“But how are we supposed to find more of my family? Sensei, even you said you don’t know where any are!” Naruto cries.

“Maa, well—”

“Then we find people who would be willing to migrate to Uzushio,” Sasuke cuts in. “That fox said anyone who calls it home counts.”

Naruto perks up. “Oh yeah! We could find a bunch of people then.”

Sensei tips his head. “You’re right that we could, Sasuke, but that’s if we can convince anyone. We’ll keep it in mind, but it might not be an effective route, considering our circumstances.” He swishes his tail in emphasis.

Sakura looks between Sensei and Kurama. “Then, um, what’s our plan for now?”

"Since the island is likely locked down and the gods are sitting on their asses after handing out my chakra like party favors," Kurama throws an ugly sneer eastward, "we check everyone with red hair and find some sorry excuse for seal master."

This sounds like... an unrealistic plan.

"Auugh, we're gonna be foxes for forever!" Naruto moans as he flops over into the grass, startling Sakura. What the hell; he’s supposed to be the optimist here!

Sasuke goes to stand over him, eyes narrowed. “Are you already giving up, idiot?”

"And what happened to all your confidence from yesterday?” Sakura tries to rally, now more uncertain than ever, “We—we can do this, can’t we?”

"Yeah, sure, but when can I have ramen again?!" Naruto wails.

What.

Sasuke stares. “...That’s what you’re worried about?” he asks, incredulous.

Naruto rolls around pitifully. “How can I eat it as a fox?” He waves his little paws in the air. “I can’t even hold chopsticks!”

It’s decided. Sakura is going to punch Naruto the second she has hands again.

"It’s still better than being human," Kurama adds unhelpfully.

She’s going to punch Kurama too.

"Oi, foxies! Loud-Nawaki? You alright?” Tsunade calls back, where she’s stopped a good distance ahead of them on the path. “We’re burning daylight!”

Sasuke pounces at Naruto. “Get up, dumbass.”

“Make me, asshole!” But he jumps up anyway, bats at Sasuke, and they chase each other up the path towards Shizune.

Sakura watches them go. She starts to walk after them and sighs, trying not to cry again in frustration at their situation. At everything.

Sensei trots up alongside her. "We haven’t lost yet, Sakura,” he murmurs. “We do have Tsunade on our side now, and she knows of a good seal master who could help if we really need it. It's a setback but it isn't hopeless. Okay?"

"Okay," Sakura sniffs once but nods, just a little more determined. It's nice to hear Sensei's reassurance.

Tsunade-sama glances at Sakura and covers her eyes with one hand with a groan. "Jeez, don't bring out the cow eyes again, Pinky.” She pulls her hand down and winks. “We'll get you home in no time." She turns back around and scans out ahead as they crest a hill. She smirks, “And I have an idea for our first stop.”

----

Tsunade leads them along the coastal path with renewed purpose. The path takes them slightly inland, as the sea air gives way to rolling fields. They travel past rows of tea plants, overlooked by the distant mountains, as they enter the south side of the bustling agricultural village of Matcha.

“Alright, foxies,” Tsunade declares as she stretches and cracks her fingers out in front of her, “I got a good feeling about this; we’re gonna try for a lot of money the old fashioned way.”

Shizune tries to interrupt, “Tsunade-sama, no—”

Yes! Let’s find us a gambling den!” Tsunade crows as she marches away on her self-appointed mission.

Shizune sighs, world-weary, and crouches down next to Kurama. She holds a hand up to the side of her mouth to whisper conspiratorially to him. “I don’t know if you know this, Mr. Fox, but her luck is not the greatest. Please try to help her,” Shizune grimaces, “or at least stop her if needed.”

And that’s absolutely going to be needed.

----

Utakata hasn’t moved an inch from his seat, clutching his pipe tight in his hand and letting his tea go ice cold. He’s caught between incredulity and fascination. What Saiken is telling him is outrageous. As it turns out, his brother—a free tailed beast—is coming this way. And, somehow, he’s supposedly the key to finding Utakata a safe place, a home.

He can’t be serious.

...Oh. Saiken insists he is serious.

Utakata shakes his head, as if the words the slug is telling him will align and start to make any more sense. He has so many questions. How on earth can a tailed beast walk into a village without being noticed, let alone fit into a tea house?

Then Saiken suddenly and fully retreats, and for once, Utakata’s mind is completely silent. It’s… terrible to have it so quiet. It’s strange to admit, but he’s gotten so used to Saiken’s chatter. The slug has become something of a constant companion, a creature who—admittedly—buoys Utakata’s spirits throughout the endless lonely days of his life on the run.

Before the silence can break him, he hears Saiken’s merry voice again in his mind, and he can’t help but relax, secretly relieved. He wonders what the slug was up to. Saiken doesn’t answer that, but he’s changing their status quo again, pressing forward. He’s requesting control once they meet his brother. Just to talk.

Utakata hesitates. While he’s comfortable working with Saiken, he’s never given up conscious control before. Saiken could easily run rampant and do anything he wanted.

But... Saiken isn’t like that. He’s not some mindless, evil thing. And as Utakata’s discovered over the years, Saiken’s nothing if not sincere.

And Utakata is tired. Any chance for a place to call home is a temptation he can no longer resist.

“Okay,” he says out loud, to himself and to Saiken. “Okay.”

He takes a deep breath, and peeks out of the curtain.

----

Asuma flicks the ash from his cigarette as his genin team crest the northern outskirts of Matcha.

As irrational and irresponsible as it is, he itches to run off to Wave, to barge in and investigate. He only has pieces of a picture, but he trusts his instincts. He knows something isn’t right.

Asuma had caught the end of his dad’s conversation with Danzo, and then the hesitation in his dad’s voice before he dismissed Asuma. It’s rolling through Asuma’s mind, over and over.

Something has gone awry with Konoha’s jinchuuriki, and by extension, Team Seven. And that means something went wrong with Kakashi. He may be a prickly shit, but the guy knows how to survive. His penchant for tardiness aside, he’d never let his team take this long on a C-rank of all things.

Oh, Asuma caught whatever worried hint his dad was trying to project at their meeting, not that it explains anything. Unfortunately, the esteemed Hokage’s favorite pastime is to be as obtuse as possible. Asuma doesn’t get it. It would save him so much grief if his dad could lay it out straight for once.

The whole situation makes for a sick, oily feeling in his gut. It doesn’t help that all his contemporaries this year for the rookie genin teams are new to this, new to taking on the the responsibility of children who have never been in a real battle, or seen the true horrors of war and conflict.

He shies away from the hypothetical of Kurenai and her team going missing too, and he brings himself out of his ruminating. He needs to focus on this mission, on his team.

Ino is subdued. Shikamaru is pretending he’s not watching Asuma closely; Chouji is following Shikamaru’s lead, though a little less subtle. Asuma curses in his head; either these kids are already way too attuned to his moods or he’s getting seriously sloppy.

He’ll distract them with their mission specs. He pulls the cigarette out of his mouth and says, “Alright, you all remember where we need to go?”

“Yep!” Ino brightens with a fake smile, “It’s the Oolong Tea House on the west side of Matcha.”

“And all we do is deliver the storage scrolls, right?” Chouji adds, a little uncertain.

Shikamaru nods. “We’re supposed to pass them off to the owner of the tea house.” He slouches, and mutters, “And then we’re hopefully done.”

Asuma brings the cigarette back to his mouth. He hopes so too.

----

Tsunade zeroes in on a place called the Oolong Tea House. Either she's been here before, or she possesses the uncanny ability to sniff out an underground gambling den like an expert ninken. After observing her for the past 24 hours, Kakashi wouldn’t put it past her.

Shizune appears fully resigned to this adventure, but she straightens up and goes, giving a stern stare-down to anyone who so much as looks askance at the parade of animals behind her.

She’s a good ally, Kakashi thinks.

Shizune jogs ahead to follow Tsunade through the back door into the gambling den, but Kurama stops in his tracks. He looks sharply to his left, his tail going stock still. “Shit.”

Kakashi tenses, which causes all the kids to tense, alert and wary. What now?

Kurama notices their staring. “What?”

“What’s wrong?” Sakura whispers, worried.

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Shut up,” he snaps, clearly lying. “Let’s just go and watch the alcoholic lose even more of her money—”

“Excuse me,” a young man in a loose robe speaks up as he steps carefully out from a private booth, looking over each of the foxes in growing confusion. “May I... speak to Saiken’s brother?”

Kurama curses again.

----

Ino rolls the the scroll back and forth in her hands.

She's being ridiculous, right? Those spider lilies are just freaking her out because she's already feeling a little off kilter from Sensei's mood.

She'll just focus on their mission. They're almost done.

They walk down the bustling market street where Oolong Tea House stands on the corner. It’s one of those trendy places that has a looser café feel to it, rather than a stuffy ceremony. Ino's surprised there's one like it in a place as small as Matcha, but she supposes it is Tea Country. A lot of the newest foodie trends crop up here first.

“Welcome to Oolong Tea House,” A robe-clad hostess smoothly intones when they enter. She glides right past them with a tea tray in hand. "I'll be right with you folks."

"Actually—" Sensei tries to interrupt but the hostess wanders off to a table to set down the tray and chat up another round of customers.

Shikamaru sighs. "Troublesome." Ino can't help but agree; she just wants this mission over with. Then she can go back to Konoha and Billboard Brow will be back and it’ll assuage Ino’s silly lily fear that her rival might be dea—

Ino catches a flash of pink out the corner of her eye and her heart seizes for split-second.

But it's not Sakura.

"Hey," Ino whispers to Shikamaru and Chouji, "did you see that?"

She gestures to the far side of the tea house, where there’s booths with privacy curtains. It’s a man in a loose fitting robe that should look ridiculous on anyone, but Ino thinks he makes it work. What really grabs her attention, however, is that the man is surrounded by a very… colorful assortment of foxes. Huh. Are they summons? They really don’t seem like it, but she wrinkles her nose; the big orange one is certainly ugly enough to be a weird summons.

As if it heard her thoughts, the big one whips its head around and bares its huge teeth in an appalling grin. She and her teammates quickly tear their eyes away, inadvertently looking at each other.

Ino can't help but let a giggle escape at her teammates’ unnerved faces. She covers her mouth with her hand. "That thing was scary, wasn’t it!" she breathes, her heart still beating slightly too fast.

Shikamaru’s shoulders drop with a snort, and Chouji’s shocked expression slowly morphs into a helpless grin, his cheeks dimpling. “Yeah, it was pretty creepy!”

"And what are you all laughing about?" Sensei turns back to ask, a blessed thread of genuine amusement in his voice.

“Oh, nothing,” she lies, smiling.

---

Kakashi wants to bang his head against a wall. Of all the C-rank missions available, of course Asuma had to choose one that sent his genin team here. And then, because Kakashi’s life is never easy, Kurama had to go and make it a hundred times worse.

“You really had to do that?” Kakashi asks as they follow the jinchuuriki for Kurama’s brother. He knew the rumors that one of Mist’s jinchuuriki was a missing nin; how interesting of him to be lurking around in northern Tea Country of all places.

Kurama trots into the booth, and wobbles his head with a self-satisfied grin. “I’m intimidating those brats into leaving us alone. You’re welcome.”

Intimidating? It might intimidate those genin for a minute. He tries not to sigh audibly. “Or they’ll just get more curious.”

Kurama just squints at him, like he can’t comprehend such a possibility.

If Kakashi had hands, he’d put his head in them. “The less they notice us, the better.”

Kakashi never thought he’d be in a position to explain to the Kyuubi the first lesson in stealth, but he never predicted he’d die and come back to life as a fox, either. What an oversight on his part.

Kurama starts to scowl again as the jinchuuriki gestures to the cushions. “Make yourselves comfortable,” he says. The man’s keeping himself composed, but it’s clear he’s just as caught off guard by this development as they are. “And, well,” he begins, “I’ll… let Saiken take over from here.”

The man sits down and shuts his eyes. His head tips down, like a string was cut. After a beat, he perks up and his eyes open again, his expression much more open and upbeat than before. He bobs his head and greets, “Kurama! Long time no see! And you brought friends!”

Kurama sighs, “...Saiken.”

“Well look at you!” Saiken gushes, resting a hand on his host’s cheek. “Back to your own body!” He looks Kurama over again and exclaims, “Oh! But one tail… you match Shukaku!”

Kurama instantly bristles, and that single tail whips around, puffed up. “You dare compare me to that weak little shit?”

“Haha, sorry, sorry!” he waves a hand and backtracks with a laugh, “I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just been so long since we’ve talked face-to-face like this.” He glances over and stage whispers to Team Seven, “For two thousand years now.”

“Woah, what, that long?” Naruto blurts out.

“You didn’t talk to your brother at all?” Sakura asks, shocked. Sasuke gives Kurama a very judgmental look.

Kurama ignores them. “Just get to the point, Saiken.”

“You’re up to something,” Saiken sing songs, “and I want in on it.”

“No, absolutely not,” Kurama snaps back.

Saiken carries on as if he didn’t hear that, “Oh, I think I can guess what it is~! Uzushio, right? The foxes make it so obvious.”

“Stay out of it,” he hisses.

“But it’ll be fun,” Saiken whines a little, “and Utakata,” he taps at his host’s chest, “is nice for a human. He’ll definitely agree to help you. And we can bring in everyone!” He counts off on fingers, “Matatabi and Kokuo and Chomei and—”

Kurama snarls, ears flat to his skull. “You’re going to tell them? Saiken, don’t you dare—”

“Ah, going to? No.”

Good, and you better keep it that way—”

“Because I already told them to come!” he warbles happily.

Kurama screeches in inarticulate rage.

“It’ll be like a family reunion!” Saiken continues on over the noise, but then he deflates a little. “Not that I could get all of our siblings to respond.”

“How tragic,” Kurama bites out through gritted teeth.

Kakashi’s eyes widen. Kurama’s siblings—

That means more jinchuuriki may decide to up and leave their respective villages. Ethics aside, jinchuuriki are positioned as linchpins for maintaining truces and power balance between the major countries. Kakashi thinks about hypothetical destabilization of alliances, treaties overturned and even the possibility of a world war—

This is not going to end well.

----

“Thanks for waiting,” the hostess chirps as she finally comes back. “Four, then? And where would you folks like to sit?”

"We actually have a delivery," says Sensei.

She tilts her head and looks them over, spotting their hitai-ate. "Oh! Oh, do you kids have a mission here? Isn't that fun! I'll go get my manager." She wanders off again before anyone can say anything.

Ino can't help but groan in tandem with Shikamaru. More waiting!

She looks around and tries to spy on that fox guy again. She strains her eyes and catches a glimpse through a sliver of the curtain. She frowns. That's weird; his mannerisms have changed from earlier. He seems more... bubbly, and delighted to be talking to the foxes.

But then the woman who must be the manager walks up to them, ruining Ino’s fun. "Welcome to Oolong Tea House. You have a mission here?"

"We have a cake delivery!" Ino declares.

"Cakes? I didn't hear about cakes," the manager says with a frown. She squints at them, suspicious, but then shrugs a shoulder. "The owner probably forgot to tell me about it, but let me go ask and make sure."

She beckons them to follow her. She saunters to a door at the very back of the hall of private booths and cracks it the barest amount open. She hollers into it, "Hey, Takusu, did we order cakes from Konoha?"

She steps back as the owner comes barrelling out of the back hall, smacking his shoulder hard in the door frame on the way. He slams the door shut behind him before Ino can get a good look at whatever’s back there.

"You startled me, Yanomi!" He wipes his sweating hands down on his apron, wincing from his likely bruised shoulder.

“Did we order cakes from Konoha,” she repeats, flat.

"Cakes? Of course, of course, uh, Maple Bakery, yes? And you, uh, have every storage scroll?”

Sensei raises an eyebrow. "We have every scroll that was present for delivery," he chides lightly. Ino would snort if they weren't in front of the client. Like they’d be so inept as to forget one.

"I, uh, just don't want to get cheated, you see!" he stutters. He looks totally nervous. Civilians can get that way, but is he that scared of shinobi? The other employees aren’t so skittish.

She catches Shikamaru’s eye, careful to keep her face neutral. Something is weird here, but Sensei seems to be pretending nothing’s the matter. Maybe he’s waiting for them to figure it out on their own.

Whatever; she and her team could take a sweaty tea house owner in a fight, easy.


----

As Saiken and Kurama continue their back and forth, Kakashi surfaces from his catastrophizing to see the kids edging slowly towards the curtain, trying to peek out of it.

“Maa, what do you three think you’re doing?” he asks.

They freeze. Mostly. Sasuke keeps going, bless his recalcitrant little heart. Kakashi darts forward to block his path.

“Well?” he asks them again as Sasuke glares at him.

“Nothing!” Naruto lies.

Sakura doesn’t. “We thought we saw something, sensei.”

Kakashi hopes that something isn’t—

Shit, Asuma’s team is right outside.

Naruto gasps. “Hey, that’s Chouji and Shikamaru!”

Sakura’s tail whips around. “And Ino-pig!”

“And you’re all staying in here.” Kakashi’s more worried about the young Yamanaka than anything. Her clan's techniques could immediately out them. 

“Low profile, yeah, yeah.” Naruto tilts his head to peer through a gap in the curtain. “Haha, their mission looks so boring. Ours was way more cool!”

‘Cool’ is not the word Kakashi would use.

----

Asuma is tempted to facepalm. Or maybe strangle this idiot. 

Nobody gives this much of a shit about cakes

Either the actual goods are more valuable or volatile than disclosed to avoid a higher insurance fee and a higher mission base price, or this asshole had the gall to make his team, his students, the proxies for a smuggling operation.

And who the fuck vetted this mission? Asuma is going to give someone in Administration absolute hell for this.

He keeps all his thoughts of punching Takusu out of his expression and instead quirks his lips in a lazy smile. “We have one or two bits of paperwork we have to do before we wrap up here,” Asuma lies, stalling.

Takusu pauses. “Paperwork? I, uh, never had to do paperwork,” he argues.

So the guy’s a repeat offender. Good to know. Asuma scratches his cheek and shrugs a shoulder. “New protocol, sorry. It’s a real pain.”

Whatever is in these scrolls, Asuma is not handing them over.

----

Saiken nods at Kurama. “So it’s settled; Utakata will go with you.”

No—”

Saiken interrupts, “Okay, great, bye!”

After a moment, the jinchuuriki—Utakata—blinks out of a daze.

He takes one look at Kurama’s angry face and says, “The discussion went well, I take it.”

Kurama sneers. “Yes, thank you so much for conspiring with Saiken on this farce.”

Utakata blinks at him. “...I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

All of a sudden he tenses and shoots out of his seat. They all still; even Kurama looks wary. Utakata waves at them to stay quiet and tilts his head like he’s listening for something.

His eyes widen. “...We all need to leave now,” he whispers, urgent.

They sneak out the booth, Utakata obscuring their exit with a ruffle of the curtain, while the shop owner is arguing with an unyielding Asuma.

They’re barely down the hall when they can sense the air displacement of a shunshin. Masked shinobi appear behind Asuma’s team, about to strike.

Ino!” Sakura screams, horrified.