The world blurred into a haze of adrenaline and sweat as his eyes searched the scroll at his feet. The pounding of his heart blocked out conscious thought, his chest heaving with every laboured breath. The world did not matter. He took no notice of the wound in his side, burning away into seamless skin as though there was never a wound to start. Words hung in the air, muffled by the sound of the blood rushing to his head, and he did not hear.
The body at his feet was cold and still. So cold, so pale, so wrong . His hands shook. He rose them up, running them through his hair, his mouth forming words that his voice wasn’t brave enough to speak.
Iruka-sensei was all that he had. The one good thing in the hell called Konoha.
His legs gave out beneath him and he folded over the body, held up by the fading strength in his open palms, nose-to-nose with the body of his teacher. Vacant eyes stared back. Vacant, empty, soulless eyes.
He swallowed the bile in his throat and lifted a hand to Iruka-sensei’s shoulder, jerking it. Once. Twice.
He pressed his ear to the body’s chest but all he could hear was his own racing heartbeat.
That man was saying things but he did not listen. Something inside him snapped. He felt it—this burning in his gut like an open flame. Slowly, he picked himself up. Heat pulsed through his body and he swayed to his feet. It hurt. It hurt and hurt and hurt and hurt and Iruka-sensei was there and he wasn’t moving and make it stop—
“I’ll take the pain away.”
He looked down to his hands at the pulsing red energy bubbling up from his skin, at the nails stretching and twisting into claws. He licked the sharp edge of his teeth. The trembling stopped. The panic soon followed. He closed his eyes and embraced the wash of power consuming him.
There was a faint pain in his back and he jerked, stumbling forward against the weight of something sharp through his skin, catching himself before he fell onto the body of his beloved teacher still there, staring up with vacant eyes. Empty eyes. Soulless eyes.
“Call upon me, boy. I’ll take it all away.”
He sucked in a breath and the metal in his skin corroded away like ash in the wind.
He looked up. Standing in the tree was the pale face of a man with pale hair and black eyes, brandishing the symbol of the Leaf on a blue bandana. The man’s grin pulled away, his eyes widening, and he laughed, long and loud and strained as he braced himself.
“Look at you,” the man breathed. “The child of the nine-tailed fox. It’s incredible.”
He growled low in his throat, his heartbeat drumming loudly all around him, and crouched low as the chakra around him built up into a haze. You killed him. You killed my sensei.
When he closed his eyes he found the waiting paw of a massive beast pressing through the cold, unforgiving metal bars of his mind, and he reached out.
Looking through the slits of his ANBU mask, Kakashi could see the drawn, tired eyes of the Hokage’s face, masking worry behind a pipe and shielding the darkness of his thoughts beneath the shadows of his hat. The world was quiet, and they were alone. The morning sky bled a pleasant blue into the dull interior of the Hokage office, but right now it seemed so far away.
Kakashi had seen many things while serving as ANBU. This was not something that he knew.
Hiruzen’s fingers interlocked atop the desk before him and he let out a burdened breath. “The nine-tails jinchuuriki has fled the village,” he said, short and simple with the weight of the implications buried far beneath the surface. “I am assigning you the task of retrieving him. You have three days before this incident becomes a problem. Understand?”
Kakashi lowered his eyes from where he knelt before the Hokage, respectfully bowing his head. “Yes, Lord Third.”
Hiruzen set down his pipe and sighed. “Up,” he commanded, and Kakashi complied. “I’m sending you alone. It shouldn’t be difficult; Naruto was just frightened off. His teacher was killed right before his eyes, the poor child.”
Kakashi nodded, the painted mask blocking out his expression as he rose to his full height. “I will return with him shortly. You have my word.”
Hiruzen smiled. There was trust in that smile, undeserved trust. With a dismissing hand, Kakashi disappeared in a whirl of leaves and wind.
Naruto ran. He ran and ran and ran and ran until his feet felt raw and the weight of the world pulled against his muscles. He ran against the sharp edges of branches and twigs as they scraped across his skin. He ran until his body couldn’t take it anymore. When he stopped, he slid down the base of a tree, guarded by its winding roots, and buried his head in his hands. Wide, trembling eyes stared hard at the ground. He could still feel the surge of power that encased him, coming from—from something, something strange and terrible and wonderful all at once.
He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes and tried to breathe through the panic.
On the backs of his eyelids, he could see blood. There was a body at his feet, still and hollow and cold, and another at his side. Pale skin, pale hair. Dark eyes. Four gashes clawing through his chest. Corrosive chakra eating away at the fabric of his uniform.
Warmth dripping from his hands in the ensuing calm.
Naruto jerked his hands away and stared down at them, shaking as he fixated on the smears of blood staining his arms and now his face, no doubt. He flexed his fingers, feeling the sticky pull. No, no, it wasn’t on his face. It wasn’t sticky. Not anymore. The blood was dry, flaking off of his skin, dark against the air. It was dry because he’d only just stopped running.
A small, strangled noise rose up from his throat and he bit his lip to hold back the tears.
What had he done?
The boy pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and covered his face. His sleeves muffled the short, hiccuping sobs that forced their way out. His eyes burned and he hugged himself knowing that it was the only comfort that he would get.
Naruto stared down at his reflection in the river, rippling and waving as the water flowed continuously down. His face carried with it his exhaustion and he was all out of tears. The image shuddered away when his hands broke the surface. He washed the blood away vigorously but it was still on his sleeves, still there, the ever-present reminder. He would need to get new clothes. And food, because he needed food. He was hungry, or… he should have been.
Naruto wasn’t sure what he was anymore.
The water chilled his skin and he lifted his hands out of the river, watching droplets roll off his skin in a daze. Time felt like it was passing on without him. He wasn’t sure how long he ran for, or how far he’d gone. Where he was. When he thought back to the landmarks he passed in his blind run, there was nothing. He didn’t know the first thing about how he would return to the village, where to go or who to ask. He didn’t even know if he wanted to return.
Naruto splashed his face with water to try to startle away his lingering stupor. It wasn’t enough. The longer he was there, with his reflection in the water, the more he started to think. He stared at his hands.
That power. That raw, unfiltered power. That was not his own. That was—that was the demon fox, the nine-tails sealed within him. And then, he could hear Mizuki’s words rippling throughout his thoughts like waves: “You are the nine-tailed fox.”
With a snarl, he slammed his fist into his reflection and rose out of a crouch, stumbling tiredly on his feet. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t. He knew who he was, and he was not—
From within, a raspy chuckle crashed through his thoughts. The voice was deep and echo-y like a far-off dream and it buzzed familiarity in the back of his skull. Slowly, carefully, Naruto sat back down and braced himself against it, looking at nothing.
“You are not the fox, boy. I am.”
Suddenly the world was dark. Water pooled around his legs but he couldn’t feel the chill, as though he weren’t really there, as though none of this was real. Claustrophobic walls lined the sides of a vast room and a steady drip bled through the quiet. He heard that laugh again—bone-chilling and haunting—and he twisted around. A set of impossibly large bars jutted out from the ground, disappearing into a ceiling he couldn’t see through the darkness. From beyond the bars stared two massive, red eyes across a towering silhouette. Naruto swallowed, cautiously twisting around to fully face the cage.
“Y—” He choked back his words, feeling an embarrassing tremble in his throat, and steadied himself. “You’re the fox?” he asked. “The—the one who…”
“You attacked the village.”
“...You killed people .”
Naruto covered his mouth and forced back the bile in his throat. Mizuki was right. Mizuki hadn’t lied. That— thing was inside him, sealed by the Fourth Hokage. He was the fox. Or—he was the container for the fox. And that massive swell of red chakra, that had been…
No one told him.
Naruto’s eyes fluttered and he huddled his arms around his chest to hide his shaking. That was why they looked at him like that, which such contempt. Disgust. They knew the beast contained within his body, knew what he was even when he, himself, was left in the dark. Why? Why did no one tell him, why—did Iruka-sensei know? Did he? No. Iruka-sensei was the one good thing in that village. The one good thing that ever happened to him.
No. He didn’t know. Couldn’t have.
The massive form before him shifted and he jumped, eyes up, watching the tailed beast with muted horror.
“I can feel the hatred you carry.”
Naruto flinched, digging his hands into the water, slowly leaning back to rest his weight on his palms. This guy was scary, sure, but… he was trapped in there. Couldn’t get out. There was a thing on the door to the cage—a seal, maybe? He couldn’t be sure—and it seemed to prevent him from going any further. There was nothing to fear. “I don’t hate nothin’, ya overgrown furball.”
The fox laughed again, amused for the moment, and Naruto swore he could see a smile somewhere behind all those teeth. “Say what you will, boy. But I feel it. You’re just like me.”
“I’m not—” He hissed, glaring up at the fox with bared teeth. “I’m nothing like you, y’know! You—you killed the Fourth Hokage, and—”
“That fool did himself in,” the fox corrected, closing its eyes and resting its head on its paws. Like that, it didn’t seem so scary. “He would have died even without my intervention. The reaper death seal is what took his life. Your stupid father only has himself to blame.”
Naruto’s hand slipped and he yelped, falling back into the water. He scrambled to get himself up even though he didn’t feel cold or wet, like this was all an illusion, and sputtered as he turned those words over in his head. “My… father? Wh—what’re you sayin’?”
A large, red eye blinked open, staring down at Naruto with thinly veiled amusement. “That horrid wretch never spoke a word of it to you. Your damnable lineage. Son of the Hokage and my last human jailor.”
“The—the Hokage? The Fourth Hokage?” he echoed, running a hand through his hair as he stared at nothing. But that couldn’t be right. “I-I’m his… son? And he… he sealed…”
The fox huffed, the tails flicking behind it causing the world to tremble beneath their force. “Your father sealed half of my chakra within you that day, twelve years ago.”
“B-but why—why would he—into his son, I—” His hands fell to his sides and he gaped up at the massive beast beyond the metal bars, feeling small and helpless and all kinds of weak. “...I don’t understand.”
“I don’t pretend to understand the way you humans think,” the fox snorted, settling in comfortably. “I curse that man beyond the grave for sealing me in here, with you.”
Naruto fell silent. His arms felt loose and limp, hanging at his sides. The weight of the world fell to his shoulders and he buckled beneath it.
“What is your name, boy?”
“Naruto,” he muttered numbly. “Naruto Uzumaki.”
The fox huffed, but there was a smile behind its indifference. “They chose that one, did they?”
“Huh?” He blinked, pulled momentarily from his warring thoughts.
“Kurama,” came the derisive answer. “Remember it well.”
“Kurama,” Naruto called in a whine, clutching at his stomach, “I’m hungry.”
He could practically feel the eye-roll aimed at him from within the seal and felt the small satisfaction that came with it. Kurama was regretting giving him his name because Naruto hadn’t stopped calling it over the past two and a half days. Once the initial crushing shock wore itself thin, it became his new favourite word.
It had to. That name was all he had. Naruto hadn’t seen another soul in days and the forest was starting to feel vast and endless in a way that frazzled his nerves. He wondered if he would ever see the village again. He wondered if he wanted to.
The truth hurt. It hurt a lot. Naruto tried to compartmentalize it for later when he returned home, but he was starting to think that he didn’t want to go back, not to the people who wore lies in their smiles and contempt in their hearts. No one told him what he was, or who he was—and how was that fair? Why did it take the giant fox monster living in his body for him to find out the truth?
They hated him. He knew that—could feel it in their eyes, in the looks that he caught them sharing. They hated him and it wasn’t his fault. And now he knew why. He never had a chance at getting the villagers to accept him.
Hokage, huh? Yeah. Sure. Like they’d ever give the title to the fox demon container.
“Kurama!” he shouted, crossing his arms over his chest. “C’mon! Don’t ignore me!”
“What do you want me to do about that, brat? Eat if you’re hungry,” Kurama hissed.
Naruto narrowed his eyes, casting his glance around the forest. “Dunno ‘bout you, but I ain’t seein’ no food.”
The exasperated sigh made it all worthwhile.
But it did not change the fact that he was still very, very hungry. He scrounged up some fruits—berries and the like—out of the trees yesterday, but hadn’t seen anything since. He didn’t know if he was headed the right way or not. Hell, he wasn’t sure if the right way was towards the village, or away from it. His mind started to wander to all of the things he could be eating in the village. Like ramen, ramen, maybe more ramen…
Ah. Teuchi probably thought of him like that, too, huh? Like a monster.
It soured his appetite.
Naruto smothered those thoughts and threw his hands behind his head, dragging his feet as he walked. “Man,” he sighed, “I could really go for some pork ramen, y’know?”
“At this point, even just plain white rice would be n—”
“Naruto. Don’t speak.”
He frowned, opening his mouth to do just that when he felt a warning flare up within him, a chill running up his spine.
“We are being followed.”
Naruto tensed and stopped midstep, his eyes wide. Suddenly he could feel it, and he didn’t know how —a chakra signature flickering to life in the copse of trees to his left. He could feel his heart pounding within his chest all the way up to his ears. Who? Who would be following him? Bandits? Mizuki—no, Mizuki was dead, he could still see the blood on his hands.
He couldn’t help it. His eyes lifted to the trees and he could see a black pant leg hidden by the leaves. The moment he looked it was gone and he blinked, rubbing his eyes, wondering if he was just seeing things.
Then that man was there before him, inches from his face, and he stumbled back with a yelp. He managed to brace himself against the edge of the riverbank—he’d been following the river because he didn’t feel like he had much choice as losing a source of water would leave him as good as dead—and his arms pinwheeled to keep him from diving in. Finally, he was steady, releasing a breath. The man was ANBU; the uniform was unmistakable, the tattoo on the man’s shoulder even more so. He was a Leaf shinobi.
“U-um,” he stuttered out stupidly. “Y’here to, like, k-kill me or something?”
The ANBU shifted, one hand on his hip and the other outstretched. “I’m taking you back to Konoha,” he said behind the mask. “The Hokage sent me.”
Naruto blinked. “The old man did?”
That hand was waiting there, expectant, and he hesitated. He wasn’t all that sure he wanted to go back. The thoughts whirling around in his head were jumbled and confusing and he hadn’t made sense of anything yet. He needed more time.
“Don’t speak. He’ll know. Listen to me and I’ll get you out of this, Naruto. Do you want to go back?”
No. He didn’t. Not yet.
“Then play along.”
Naruto swallowed back his words and took the hand that was offered to him.
The ANBU was quiet. Too quiet. It was quiet before the ANBU started guiding him back to Konoha, sure, but at least when he was alone there wasn’t a stifling tension in the air. And at least while alone he could actually talk to Kurama.
Kurama was better company than this guy. At least Kurama answered him… sometimes.
“Er—” He flinched when the masked faced found its way to him, casting his eyes to the dirt. He didn’t like when that guy faced him, shifting and hunching and kicking the ground. The mask gave away no tells. He couldn’t guess what was going on behind it; if the man was mad or bored or happy. “What—what should I call ya?”
“Hound,” the ANBU said, his voice echoing behind his mask.
Naruto nodded, his shoulders slumped, and he felt some relief when he got an answer. Every other question was left hanging. He started to think that everything he asked would be.
With a grin, he stepped out into the road before Hound, blocked the path, and pointed to himself. “Naruto Uzumaki. I’m gonna—”
His eyes widened. The words stuck in his throat.
Hokage. He couldn’t. It wouldn’t matter if he did; no one would accept him, the fox child, the container for the nine-tailed fox.
Hound was there, waiting. Silent. Expecting an answer.
Naruto plastered on a fake smile. “I’m gonna be the world’s greatest ninja!”
Hound cocked his head to the side, said nothing, and marched on. With a pout, Naruto dragged his feet behind the ANBU.
Hunger was still a thing. Hound gave him some food pills, but it was hardly enough to make up for all of the meals that he missed. The hunger was a constant distraction, even as Kurama fed him instructions on what to do or say to get out of this mess. For now, they waited. They needed to get a ways away from the river so that they could put some distance between themselves and Hound before taking a nice afternoon dip. Kurama’s plan involved a lot of shadow clones and a lot of water.
Kurama said that he recognized this man from his time within Mom. Mom was the last container before Naruto. So this man… knew Mom. And Dad, probably.
He probably knew what Naruto was, too.
They waited until Hound seemed distracted—confident that there wouldn’t be any other hassles on his mission—to make their move. With his back turned, Naruto’s hands came together in a seal and he grinned.
A shadow clone popped into existence beside him. Hound took notice, looked back—
By the time he did, Naruto was running. Both Narutos were running.
Hound was hot on their tracks, sure, but the moment they were out of sight, both Narutos produced more clones. Two, then four, then eight, then sixteen. Again and again and again and again until they were swamped within a sea of ripped orange jumpsuits and blond hair, until it was safe enough for the original to slip out and make a break for the river. Then the running started. It was a long ways back; they’d been travelling for a good two hours now and he wasn’t looking forward to how exhausted he would be at the end of this all.
One by one, Hound slashed through his clones. They all scattered off in different directions to lead him off the original’s trail. None fought back; Kurama told him not to, that he’d be no match for an ANBU in his current state, and he listened.
He trusted Kurama. No one else had ever been honest with him.
The moment the water was in sight, Naruto plugged his nose and cannonballed in. He hit the water with a smack and squeezed his eyes shut, holding his breath and allowing his body to follow the stream. He floated to the surface, arms and legs splayed, and stared numbly up at the blue sky.
Well. Now he was officially a fugitive.
Naruto shook his head, a slow grin curling his lips. “Nah,” he sighed. “I think—I think I hated that place. I think you’re right.”
Kurama’s laughter was like music to his ears. Maybe he shouldn’t be trusting the demon his father sealed away. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake.
Maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he was tired of people dictating his life.
Maybe he would follow his own path.