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on the edge (of fate's jagged blade)

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He licks his dry lips, ignoring the sting as they crack and bleed for just a moment before slowly sealing over in a sizzle of crimson chakra. It sits on the tip of his tongue, the heavy and metallic flavor of fresh blood mixing with a flavor he can’t even really describe; something that tastes like wind rustling through the trees, and fire curling up toward the sky. His lips crack again as he coughs and shivers in the cold of his cell, the chains around his ankles clinking as he shifts his weight from one painfully numb foot to the other.

He’s been standing like this for exactly 326,031 heart beats, a little over 72 hours if his hazy calculations are correct. Madara hasn’t come in that time, either to bring him the liquidy gruel that serves as both food and water, or to “question” him, and he wishes that he could feel relieved but he knows better than to feel any kind of hope in this place.

The last time this happened, the last time Madara had all but forgotten him, he was left entirely alone for a week. If he wasn’t a jinchuuriki he would’ve died of dehydration, but Kurama managed to keep him alive, and when Madara returned, skulking into the perpetual twilight of Naruto’s cell with a malicious grin, he’d begun another round of experiments (a fancy word for torture), trying to yank Kurama from his seal And when those had all failed, he’d continued screwing about with them just to hear them scream.

But this time, Naruto’s fearing Madara’s return more than ever before. He and Kurama have finally managed to drain the ancient man of his seemingly infinite well of patience, their refusals to comply sending him closer and closer to the edge, until his face (always a cruel smile hiding behind a thin layer of false apathy) had blanked entirely. He’d leaned in close, practically nose to nose with Naruto so that he could meet Kurama’s eyes behind his, and murmured that he was tired of waiting, before storming off.

They know that Madara wants Kurama, needs Kurama to reach his goal, but at this point he also wants to see them both break. They’ve caused him too much trouble, too much of an inconvenience and a delay in his plans, for him to just let them die quietly. He wants them broken, malleable, so that he can string them along, a puppeteer forcing them to dance to whatever mad tune he chooses.

Naruto figures that after he passes out for the last time, once he’s on the cusp of death and both his and Kurama’s remaining chakra is fully occupied trying to keep him alive rather than fueling the seal, Madara will swoop in and harvest what’s left of him and Kurama to make some eldritch amalgamation, a monster , just like he did for the other jinchuuriki. And then Madara will steal what’s left of Kurama from him, and they’ll both quickly cease to exist.

But at that point it’ll be a blessing, he knows.

The fourth ninja war had ended several months ago, when Kabuto (in a foolish move) had defied the orders of his leader, the man now known as Tobi, and used Edo Tensei to summon the true Uchiha Madara. Kabuto was too curious for his own good, or for anyone’s good really, and had been given information that made him uncertain that the man he was following was actually Madara.

He’d summoned Madara’s soul, likely assuming that, either way, there would be no consequence. If Madara were alive, it would have no effect. If Madara were dead, Kabuto would gain a powerful warrior, and an excuse to turn against a man more powerful than himself. Benefits all around, for him at least.

He was wrong.

Uchiha Madara had come back to life with a bang, promptly killing Kabuto and somehow properly re-animating himself before destroying nearly a quarter of the allied shinobi forces’ troops in one fell swoop. He didn’t seem to have the false Madara’s goal, he didn’t seem to want anything other than death. Death of shinobi and civilians alike--carnage with no purpose.

At least, at first.

But eventually (through his own monologuing, admittedly), they figured it out. Madara, insanely ambitious man that he is, wanted to become the Juubi. He wanted to become a jinchuuriki of the combined forms of the bijuu, and become the most powerful man ever to live, forever--to become so strong that no one could stand against him.

But not only that, he wanted those shinobi who existed, the lily livered remains of a once great warring era, to suffer for what history had turned Madara into, and for what the Shodaime had done to him when he was alive, when Hashirama had been forced to put down his best friend who’d turned rogue. A moment that Madara viewed as a betrayal, where Hashirama had seen it as a tragedy that had been forced upon them both by Madara’s own choices.

To become the Juubi, Madara only needed the Jinchuuriki. Anyone else, everyone else, was worth nothing to him. And so he began systematically working his way through the shinobi allied forces, with extreme prejudice against those of the Leaf.

The jinchuuriki were taken, twisted into monsters, and then released back on their allies to dole out emotional and physical damage. With the power of the biju and the tactical mind of their shinobi containers, they caused untold destruction under Madara’s control, and once he deemed they’d outlived their usefulness, he killed the hosts, and ripped their biju from their seals.

At this point, Naruto is fairly certain that he and Kurama are both the only Jinchuriki, and the only Leaf shinobi left alive.

It used to pain him to think that he wasn’t able to be there to protect his village, to protect his precious people, to try to save the other jinchuuriki, because he’s been here , being tortured, being experimented on as Madara attempts to weaken him and his biju in order to separate them. After a while though, he found that he had enough pain to worry about from Madara without going and adding to it himself, and he did his best to stop caring.

He does regret the deaths of the other Jinchuuriki though, if only because it means that Madara is one step closer to his goal. He was the third captured out of the remaining six Jinchuuriki, after Killer Bee and Fuu, and he’s seen the others, he’s heard their screams and watched them shatter.

Without his say so, Naruto’s head lolls back to look despairingly at his wrists, pinned to the wall above his head by a long metal nail that spears through the both of them. In the beginning it was just a pair of barbed cuffs, but after he yanked his hands through those one time too many, Madara decided to make that manner of escape impossible. His hammering the stake into the wall had been agonizing, but honestly? Considering the things Naruto has suffered since then, he almost longs for those early days.

A time when he still had hope.

He scoffs, a wheezy sound (he must still have blood in his lungs, or maybe he’s just getting sick now that Kurama can’t afford to spare the chakra to keep him any more than alive) of contempt. Hope is for the naive. He can’t afford to hope anymore, Madara has taken even that from him now.

Blood trails down the wall, into his hair, onto his shoulders in a slow, constant drip, and at his wrists red chakra appears in sputters and sparks to try and heal him. His fingertips are numb, blood unable to get to them with his arms above his head, and the gods be damned spike blocking the way. He groans, his shoulders aching and dislocated from being held at such an angle above him for...days(? Weeks? Sometimes it feels like he’s been here his whole life).

He’s shirtless, and his pants are ragged and bloodstained--the same pants he was wearing when he was brought here, and his ankles are chained about three feet apart. The bottoms of his feet are raw and bloody from old escape attempts, but he can barely feel anything there other than the dull, throbbing pain that courses through his entire body with every miserable heartbeat.

"Kurama," he mumbles hoarsely through numb lips, and there's a quiet whine that echoes through his mind, the most that Kurama is able to respond. Naruto doesn't bother to close his eyes to view his mindscape, blank blue staring into the nothing of his dim cell as he turns his attention inward.

His mind is no longer any reprieve though, because Madara is nothing if not thorough.

Naruto’s mind had, before being captured, continued to appear almost entirely as the sewer of his early life--originally because he didn’t care to bother learning to change it, then because he didn’t have the time with the war taking over his every waking moment. But, once he and Kurama became friends, Naruto had put forth the effort to make Kurama’s home something a bit more palatable, in lieu of freeing the fox.

Just within a certain range, and with Kurama’s help, he’d forced his mind to resemble a forest paradise. A large stretch of forest that Kurama could roam in, if he wished, filled with the sounds of birdsong and crickets, under a blue, cloudless sky. In the center, a wide clearing, and within the clearing, an enormous tree, large enough that even Kurama in his largest form couldn’t wrap himself entirely around it--and this is where Kurama made his home. It was a beautiful place, as long as one didn’t roam too far and reach the unending sewers.

The first time Madara had entered their mindscape, Naruto and Kurama had fought him with the entirety of their combined power. Within his mind, they were sure, they could at the very least hold him at bay, maybe trap him within Naruto’s mind and kill all three of them, saving those who remained.

They were wrong.

Madara had demolished Naruto’s mind, ruined it, burning the forest down to nothing but the charred skeletons of once great trees. His jutsus tossed ash into the air, creating smoggy clouds that blocked out the false sun. Madara had burned the very sky with the heat of his rage, and once both biju and jinchuuriki were defeated beyond any doubt, he’d done his best to make sure they’d never fight him again.

Naruto’s mental form is crucified, nails through his hands, sharp wire holding him to a wooden cross. The splinters that dig into his back are less than trivial, in comparison. Any movement, even his own breathing, digs the wire in just a bit deeper. He figures that the only reason he hasn’t been dismembered yet is because this is all technically within his mind, but it’s still just one more ache on top of all the others.

Across from him, Kurama is suspended, wrapped in barbed chains and hanging from the burned remains of the enormous tree he once lived in, a blindfold over his eyes, mouth physically sewn shut with wire after he bit Madara during his share of their torture for the first, and last, time. His blood, his chakra, drips slowly onto the ash laiden ground beneath him, and his breathing is slow and shuddery.

For a moment, all Naruto can feel is an overwhelming sense of guilt, and he slowly breathes through it.

Kurama is a being of chakra--specifically one of the forest. Each of his siblings has (had ) their own element; some were obvious, like Isobu’s water, and Shukaku’s sand, but others were more conceptual, like Matatabi being an aspect of Death. Kurama, as the eldest of his siblings, and as the first, has a little bit of all of them, though primarily belonging to the forest and all that it contains. If he’d wanted to, he could’ve sunk himself into the soil, melted into the water, become the breeze that rustles through the trees, until danger passed him by. After all, you can’t capture the soil, can’t catch the river, can’t trap the breeze--even if you ensnare a piece, it’s not possible to take it all.

But within Naruto, Kurama is trapped in a singular form. Within Naruto, he has no way to escape, and is vulnerable.

Naruto had tried once, when it became clear that Madara would win, to free Kurama. To rip the seal apart, to rip himself apart, in order to release the fox. But Kurama had fought him within the confines of his own mind--they’d battled to a standstill, Kurama ironically guarding the seal as Naruto attempted to destroy it.

“You have to be protected!” Naruto had shouted, angry and terrified all at once, fists clenched, “If we lose you to him, then all of this was for nothing--all of the fighting and dying to keep him from forming the Juubi was for nothing !” When Kurama had done nothing but blink at him, tense and waiting for another attack, he’d slumped, refusing to let his tears fall, and yelled, “Why can’t you understand that I want you to be safe?!”

I’ve lived more years than your people have known,” Kurama had insisted calmly, even as his tails lashed behind him, “And I’m no spring kit. I have the right to choose my own path, and I will not let you stop me now that I’ve found something worth protecting!

Knowing he couldn’t change Kurama’s mind, Naruto had given in with little grace and ill temper, planning to find some way to free the fox regardless. Kurama’s response was to tie them together, to tether himself deep into Naruto’s chakra system, so that even if the seal were to break, nothing could separate them. Because, in his simple terms, Naruto was his, and he was Naruto’s, and that’s how it should, and now would, always be.

But that was before, and this is now, and Naruto wishes that he’d pushed harder, fought until he could rip the seal from its golden gates--and because he couldn’t, they have suffered more than either of them thought they could.

Every drop of the fox’s blood that hits the ash laiden ground seems to echo in the silence of their ruined mind, and a scream of despair claws its way into Naruto’s throat. He clenches his jaw for a moment to suppress it, teeth grinding together, then says simply, "We can't do this much longer." Kurama lets out a muffled whine in response, and Naruto feels his fingers twitch with the need to do something, anything to ease the fox’s suffering. But he can't. He can’t even help himself.

"We can't escape, we've tried that already and I'm.” he pauses to take a deep, trembling breath, “I can't do that anymore." Naruto says hoarsely. Not only is he physically unable to run, or even properly move, physically and chakra exhausted beyond a point he's ever reached before, but also he's...he’s scared, honestly. His younger self would be ashamed by his loss of determination, his loss of self, but psychological and physical torture has taken its toll on him. Madara has managed to break him down to almost nothing. Sometimes he doesn’t even know why he’s resisting anymore.

He’s not resisting to stop Madara from taking over the world, because the man’s practically done that already. Naruto’s little bit of rebellion won’t stop him from killing everyone.

He’s no longer resisting because of his morality, if it even still exists. He’s not sure that he does, not after all the people Madara has tortured in front of him in an attempt to get him to break. They’d screamed, and some pleaded, but Naruto would not give up Kurama, not for anything. And after a while, Naruto forced himself not to care any more than to tilt his head so that others’ blood wouldn’t get in his eyes--he stopped seeing them as precious people because every time he had to watch one of them die, it fractured something within him.

Although, watching Sakura’s death had been one of the worst, regardless of how numb he’d tried to make himself. At least she’d never pleaded for him to help her, green eyes determined and filled with fire to the very end. But sometimes he feels like he can still hear her screams echoing in his mind. Hell, maybe he can; it wouldn’t surprise him if that was something Madara set up just to torment him. A quiet sound from Kurama reminds him that he’d been speaking to the fox, and he blinks back to the present to continue.

"We can't release the seal," Naruto says, and Kurama rumbles deep in his chest, an almost amused sound, because this one is his fault; his chakra, even when there's almost none left, has immersed itself so deeply into Naruto's body that without the help of a true seal master (the last of whom was among the first attack on the Shinobi Army), and Kurama’s willingness, it’s impossible to remove him. And Kurama refuses .

"We can't give Madara what he wants, I’d refuse to give you up, even if I could." Naruto says, and it’s not passion that fuels this choice now, just cold hard fact. Kurama is all he has left, and if he has to go down fighting to protect him, then he will. But since Kurama’s life is linked to his--“I can’t die. So what is left ?" He breathes heavily, head lowered, and shudders, blood leaking from his heaving form. He wishes he had the strength to cry, to rage, to do anything at all --but he can do nothing but stare blankly at his ruined mindscape.

He's startled when he hears motion, the clinking of swaying chains and grunts of effort, and he raises his eyes from staring at the ash-stained horizon. Kurama has lifted his head and is shaking it, frantically. Blood is dripping from the seams in his mouth, and he seems to be...trying to use sheer jaw strength rip them free?

"Kurama, what are you doing?!" Naruto cries, straining to free himself so that he can stop the fox from, from hurting himself, but of course it’s no more effective than it has ever been. He can do nothing but yell until his voice is cracking and hoarse, and watch as the fox struggles, and groans, and eventually manages to rip the ninja wire embedded in his lips through them, so that his mouth is free and his lips are in tatters.

Kurama lies there panting and shaking, and Naruto finds that he has the strength to cry after all, can feel tears streaming down his face. "Kurama, why ?" He pleads, "What has this accomplished? Madara will just come back and punish you more for this, please, I don't understand!"

Then Kurama's heaving, throwing up blood and rust-red chakra, so intertwined that Naruto can barely tell the difference, and Naruto thinks this is it. They’ve lived this long, suffered through all that they’ve suffered, for it to end here. He’s failed.

Then chakra, the untainted blue that Naruto’s chakra used to be before his capture, mixed in with a glimmering orange-yellow and Kurama’s own red, is expelled from the fox’s mouth to float, smoke-like toward the ground. Kurama’s panting out sobs, blood dripping from his muzzle to splatter in patches of startling scarlet along the trunk of his tree, and on the ground beneath.

The chakra is moving toward him, looking as though it’s caught in a slow, wispy breeze as it tumbles over and around itself in Naruto’s direction. "What is...what is this?" He asks raggedly, watching its progress even as his eyes scan over Kurama with concern.

"Memories," Kurama croaks, and Naruto can see him drooping in his chains, absolutely no energy left. "Took them, before Madara could. Last...last chance. Chakra will...show you. I can give. We'll need it all." He chokes out, then coughs, a wet, hacking sound that strains his bloody lips and makes his battered body tense.

The chakra is coming toward him, and Naruto watches it with fear, and maybe something like anticipation. Then it hits, and he's writhing in pain as memories that aren’t his own slot themselves into unfamiliar and unused spaces in his mind--and he knows what he has to do, pulling himself quickly and clumsily out of his mindscape.

His fingers are broken, mangled beyond repair early on in his capture so that he could never again make hand seals without agonizing pain. Madara had taken great pleasure in informing him that, even with Kurama’s healing, they would never be the same again, and because of this had had no compunctions leaving his hands pinned together above his head. Naruto had thought himself physically incapable of moving his fingers, and it’d been a blessing when they’d gone almost completely numb.

But for the chance to escape? Agonizing pain is trivial, and “impossible” is deleted from his vocabulary, the determination of his early life flooding back to him in waves of desperation. He bends and twists his fingers into the seals they need, numbness fading into flashes of awful pain, bone grinding against bone, black spots dancing in his vision as he fights the urge to pass out, urgency spurring him on, because this is their absolute last chance.

Being sealed within another being is a trial, Naruto understands. Kurama has been around for a long time, almost two thousand years in this form and more in others, and in that time he has been sealed only three consecutive times. Once each within Mito, Kushina, and most recently Naruto, and each and every one of those times, as Kurama slept his way through the boredom of capture, he gained the occasional memory.

The fox didn’t think much of it until after Mito’s death (after he realized that he would be unable to escape for another stretch of years). After he’d been sealed in Kushina, Kurama realized he could actually view memories from his containers voluntarily , send his chakra to walk the halls of his Jinchuuriki’s mind, and see what they had seen. While not the most entertaining form of distraction, it was better than staring at the same walls for years on end, and he even managed to learn a few things.

This in mind, when Madara had broken into Naruto’s mind, destroying and plundering and thieving memories left and right so that they couldn’t even think of ways to escape, it was child’s play for Kurama to copy some of them for himself, and save them within his own stores of chakra, waiting until the time was right to return them.

Too, these are not only Naruto's memories.

Kurama lived within the wife of the Yondaime Hokage, the greatest seal master Konoha ever possessed, and Kushina was an Uzumaki, and a genius of seals in her own right. Kushina’s vague memories of the Hirashin combined with Naruto’s studies of seals, and Kurama’s own archaic knowledge filling the gaps, might be just enough to get them out of here. And they’ll have to pray that it is, otherwise they’re doomed.

The knowledge from Kushina is frightfully little. Just bits and pieces of the seal as she watched Minato build it, some snippets of the man excitedly explaining breakthroughs to her, as well as her own fairly educated contemplations as to how the seal worked. Naruto’s knowledge tends more toward elemental and combat seals, things that would be useful in war as large scale destruction, but he certainly knows enough about time and dimension manipulation, what with trying to get around Tobi-the-false-Madara’s kamui. And Kurama, well, he’s surely forgotten more than Naruto or Kushina ever learned in their lives about ancient seals, so his far from negligible knowledge will be what is used as the actual physical basis of the seals.

At the ground beneath Naruto’s feet and all along his body, Kurama's chakra manipulates the blood that drips from Naruto's wounds and pools at his feet to paint jagged seals, the corrosive chakra burning and scarring as it brushes against Naruto’s skin. He shouldn't be able to do this--he wouldn’t be able to do this if not for their almost entirely open seal (more a formality at this point than a true cage), Kurama’s tether to Naruto’s chakra, and the pure desperation that fuels them both.

Madara thinks they don't have any chakra left, and for the most part he's right. Naruto certainly has no more than it takes for him to remain alive, if exhausted, starved, and injured. But, Kurama is a being of chakra. To rid him of chakra would be to destroy his entire being, it’s not possible for him to be, to exist without chakra, so he is never without it. His chakra is in his blood, in his bones, in his every strand of fur--so Kurama is tearing himself apart, piece by piece, to create this seal, literally pouring himself into their last chance to escape.

It takes them an hour, a terror and pain filled hour, to finish. Then Naruto feels Kurama’s chakra fade from his skin and wane to near-nothing, the change bringing Madara's attention, and there's no time left.

But fortunately, they're all but finished.

Naruto lifts his entire weight on his wrists, a dry sob escaping his lips as he feels his bones creak, feels the metal rod try to pull through his skin, feels his shoulders popping at the strain. Then he slams his feet down in lieu of his hands, chains rattling loudly at his ankles, releasing the last dredges of his and Kurama's joined, meagre chakra to kick start the seal.

Steady warmth surrounds his form, and for a moment he really thinks they're gonna make it.

Then he catches sight of Madara's surprised, furious sharingan eyes, the eternal Mangekyou a swirling void of red and black, as the man mouths something he can’t quite catch.

Warmth turns to sudden, jagged, stabbing cold, and then there's nothing but streaks of red and black and blue and pain and screams as the seal whisks them away.

Chapter Text

 

He wakes the first time with the taste of not quite bile, not quite dirt, not quite pain in his mouth, and before he can think about it he's spitting, trying to free his palette of the fear and plants and blood and the wind that blows through the trees that burrow into the soil that feeds the grass that grows toward the sun that shines down on the bird that flies on swift wing on the wind that blows through the trees that burrow into the soil--

He and Kurama had combined their chakra in order to do their jutsu, his cerulean washed out like color leaching from the faces of the dead and Kurama’s rust-red a shade or two off from blood, and Naruto knows he needs to concentrate--needs to unmix the two, to pull his paltry chakra from the substantial mix of Kurama’s, but he can’t seem to get a handle on it.

He can feel his chakra being lost in the bulk of Kurama’s, their chakras roiling beneath his skin, Kurama’s chakra billowing out from his skin and drawing Naruto’s with it, swiftly burrowing itself into the world around him, claws of red-red-blue yanking themselves from his core and digging themselves in, in, in and he feels it all. Everything is an extension of his body, everything is his body, his hair the grass, his nails the dead beetle carapace, his eyes fill and overflow with the river, bloated with rainwater. 

He's rolled over to his hands and knees and he's puking out his blood and their chakra and he feels it hit the soil, he is the soil and the worm within and the carrion birds eating the deer that has died a few yards away and he can feel the endless hunger of the caterpillar and the steady calm of the trees and the fear of the mouse in its burrow and it’s too much --

oOo

The second time he wakes, it's within his own mind, but everything is wrong. He can see the ash forest, broken and burned and somber, but layered beneath that he can see the chakra that makes up his mindscape, a red-blue-white-black-gold-mixmeshmess of chaotic strands that he can’t comprehend. It hurts, his mind can’t handle this strange everything that it’s never been able to see, so he closes his eyes to get away from it, but his form is a part of his mindscape and he can see through the chakra that makes up his eyelids.

He can see through himself, see the mental construct of his body that’s filled with nothing but a fibrous stitching of his chakra, a washed out, pale blue, so different from the deep cerulean it once was. He can see his every thought, clamoring at once, wisping across his vision before he even has the chance to acknowledge that he’s thinking. He can see his father’s chakra as the bare bones that remain of the seal, a golden scrawl that digs itself into scarlet-red, wrapping around it like stifling chains even with the seal as open as it can be. He can see Kurama’s chakra, suffused into every part of the landscape around him, but mostly grounded inside the fox shape he prefers to take. And, within and beneath and around it all, he can see a nothing so deep and dark it drowns, and a light so bright it blinds.

His mind is a vast, empty chasm of dark--his mind is a chaotic mess of colored strings of chakra--his mind is a tormented ash forest--his mind is a void of light--

He’s screaming, arched off the ground that doesn’t exist , nails digging deep into the layers upon layers of chakra of his mind, and he can see everything and it’s too much , then one of Kurama’s tails is draped over his eyes and Kurama is all around him. Kurama’s chakra is strong enough to block everything out for the most part and he can finally breathe--but he can still taste it and smell it and feel it brushing against his not-skin and catching in his not-lungs.

"Kurama," he chokes out, and he feels the fox shift around him.

"Something has gone wrong." Kurama murmurs, voice still scratchy from disuse and screams. Naruto feels it vibrate through the not-air and his ears ring with its strange cadence. "In our haste, a mistake was made somewhere in the sealing. We've traveled, but not in the direction we’d planned, and far too deeply mixed.” He heaves a shuddery sigh, and Naruto feels the fur around him ripple with it.

You, you were never meant to be a being of chakra as I am, and I was never meant to be as solid a being as you are. As you see and feel too much, I am crushed down to nothing and it--" He pauses, then continues, rougher, "It hurts. It hurts to be made flesh, it hurts to feel as you do.” He pauses again for breath, then says in a hoarse whisper, “But more, it hurts that for us to live, I will have to die."

Naruto can feel the tears on his not-face soak into Kurama's tail, but he can't respond, just ask softly on an exhale, "Kurama?" If he could speak, he would ask the fox what he means, he has to die ? Naruto would die in a heartbeat for the fox to live, he has to know that. If one of them has to die, take him , but he’s failed everyone else, don’t let him fail Kurama too. He’s worked too hard for this, for Kurama’s survival, to allow everything to fall apart. He won’t let Kurama die .

"If only it were simple enough that your determination could fix it.” Kurama says and shifts, and for a moment Naruto can see his thoughts scrawled out messily in the chakra around him--but then he’s engulfed in Kurama’s comforting warmth again, “But I have lived nearly two thousand years as myself, two hundred years for each of my 9 tails. To live as you will be no great hardship. I worry not for myself, but only of how you will feel."

The fox heaves a trembling breath, then murmurs in a soft, almost covetous whisper, "Know that I have loved you as I loved the first breeze that sifted through my fur and filled my lungs as I Became, as I loved the first rain that lit upon my brow and quenched my thirst, as I loved the first bolt of lighting that streaked across the sky and blinded my eyes, as I loved the first soil that my paws laid their steps upon, as I loved the first fire that warmed my pelt. I love you as I have loved all change, but I believe that I have loved you more than all of them combined, more than your kind can even comprehend. I, as I am, will miss you as I have missed no other."

Naruto can feel Kurama's tears on his not-skin, can feel the shift of fur as the fox tightens his grip on his not-body, and he wants to ask, wants to know what Kurama is planning, wants to stop the fox from whatever sacrifice he’s planning ( Naruto is the Jinchuuriki, he’s the human sacrifice, he’s the one who’s been nothing more than a tool for his entire life--why won’t Kurama let him serve the purpose he’s named for), but he can’t figure out how to move through all the chakra in his skin.

And then, in a whisper of chakra and red-orange fur Kurama leaves him, and he's lost once more in a sea of confusion and agony.

oOo

The third time he wakes, he wakes all at once.

He's weak, his head is spinning, his mouth tastes like vomit, his muscles feel rubbery, everything aches, and something on his right side seems to be out of place, but above all he's parched and he’s starving . Slowly, very slowly, he sits up, one arm beneath him, fingers digging into the soil, the other around his middle as his stomach roils at the position change. He dry heaves for a moment, dizzy as he finally makes it all the way up, but nothing comes out--his stomach is completely empty, which it informs him as it all but roars with hunger.

He squints painfully in the morning sun, even the low light of the early morning is too much for someone who’s been held semi-darkness for so long. He closes his eyes to take stock of his body, a habit of extensive ninja training as well as a year of torture (never knowing what would be wrong with his body when he awoke, never knowing if he’d be missing a limb, or organs, never knowing if his chest would still be open so he could see his own lungs work or worse ).

Throughout his life as a jinchuuriki, usually any injuries he received would heal before his eyes, or at least before he regained consciousness if they were serious enough to knock him out. But as Madara’s prisoner, with his chakra and the chakra of his biju so frightfully low, he’d usually wake up at about the same level of injury he’d fallen unconscious in, his and Kurama’s combined chakra unable to do more than keep him alive.

He’s expecting an extensive catalogue of injuries, but...there’s barely anything. One shoulder seems to still be popped out of the socket, and he’s achingly stiff all over, but other than that his injuries seem to be all but gone. There’s nothing but ragged, angry-red scars and bloody spots on his skin and clothes to show that he had gaping wounds only hours ago. His feet aren’t festering and weeping with infection, the wounds along his sides and arms are no longer raw and bleeding, the skin that Madara had painstakingly peeled from his left thigh and calf is returned, and his mangled fingers--

He breathes out a shuddery sigh, almost a sob, as he realizes they’re fine. They’re horrifically scarred, and the holes through his palms ache something fierce, but he can move them. With difficulty, yes, but they’re functional. He hadn’t realized how defenseless he felt, not being able to do hand seals and defend himself, but now that he can ...he flexes his hands and makes a shaky fist, wincing as he does so, smiling slightly for the first time in over a year.

He’s free .

He breathes in deeply, his first breath of fresh air in what feels like years, and immediately sneezes, covering his nose with one hand. Maybe it’s just because he’s been away from all smells that aren’t his own for so long, hasn’t smelled anything more than his own unwashed flesh, his blood, his piss for so long that the scent of everything else is unfamiliar and overwhelming. But whatever the reason, he can smell so much --the dew on the leaves along the edges of the clearing, a wet, clean scent. The blue flowers that dot the grass, sweet and reedy. The trees, digging into the musty earth and stretching toward the open sky, chalky, with something that smells of growth and speaks of life. Nearby, a stream, moist, clean, cool.

And suddenly he’s desperate for some water, like his body knows there’s some nearby that he won’t have to beg or be tortured for. But with his current weakness there’s no way he’s in any condition to walk. When he tries to climb to his feet, the chains around each of his ankles jangling mockingly, he almost passes out once he reaches his hands and knees, head spinning. He’s forced to pause, hands clutching the soil as he pants and tries to ground himself.

I can do this. For Kurama, I can do this. He thinks (pleads) to himself. He knows he can’t walk, there’s no way in hell he can manage it if he can barely even move. But fortunately for him, he gave up any semblance of pride a long time ago, and at this point he has nothing against crawling. He practically drags himself through the underbrush--out of the clearing he’d been in and into the trees, clawing his way through the dead and dying leaves, over roots and insects, under thorns that scrape against his uncovered skin, until he finally makes it to the stream, and practically dunks his head in.

The water is cool and fresh and he knows he shouldn’t be drinking so much, knows he’ll probably be vomiting it back up within the hour, knows that he should purify it and that he could be drinking down any number of parasitic things that Sakura has told him he shouldn’t drink, but at the same time he can’t stop because he’s so thirsty --

Then he lifts his head and cocks it to the side as he hears a strange sound. It takes him a moment to place it, but somewhere to his left, he can hear a heartbeat. There’s a rabbit ensconced in the roots of a tree; fur wet, heart thundering, blood pumping. It senses a predator, and it is afraid. As it should be.

He can feel its ears twitch in a slight breeze, he can smell its fear. And he’s so hungry .

In a second it bolts, breaking cover and heading toward the trees. He’s up and after it in a flash, before he can even think about it, darting after it on all fours in a low crouch, even as black dances on the edge of his vision. Part of him is screaming in panicked confusion, what is he doing --

He’s behind it, he’s on it, its neck is in his mouth and he’s crushing its jugular. The taste of blood fills his mouth; warm blood, meat, muscle, he’s crunching its bones and sucking out the marrow, he’s licking his paws clean--

he doesn’t have paws

oOoOo

He jerks awake and into a crouching position, a snarl on his lips because they’ve only just escaped, he won’t let Madara capture Kurama again--but there’s nothing around, just him and Kurama and the forest and the blood in his mouth.

He spits, again and again, but all he can taste is hours old blood and sinew and fur stuck in his teeth --

“What the hell?” He pants, voice hoarse with terror and thick with confusion. He can feel... everything . The trees, growing, budding, shading. The stream, trickling along the bank and over the rocks. Birds, silent in the trees under the eye of a predator.

It feels almost like his first forays into sensing nature chakra, when he could glean a vague impression of chakra of everything around him as it brushed against his own, but then he had Fukasaku to reassure him and explain what he was feeling. And even then it didn’t feel like this , it doesn’t just feel like his chakra is touching everything, it feels like his chakra is a part of everything. He’s never felt so much before, and it’s overwhelming his fledgling senses.

And despite all he can sense, it’s dark --maybe it’s a new moon or maybe the moon is hidden behind the clouds or maybe he’s still back in his cell and this is a new way for Madara to torture him, make him think he’s free even though he isn’t and he’s going to be punished again--

Some detached part of his mind knows he’s having a panic attack and that he needs to calm down, but he can’t breathe , and his chest hurts --he’s curled up in a ball, gasping for air that just won’t come when he realizes that Kurama, usually relied upon to coax him out of panic attacks hasn’t done so, hasn’t given a murmuring rumble of comfort or a quiet growl of commiseration this entire time. And that sends his panic to new levels--Kurama had been, before, speaking as though he was going to die.

Is Kurama...he can’t be --

With a thought, Naruto clenches his eyes shut and slips clumsily into his mindscape. He appears with a stumble, but he can’t even think about it, he has to get to Kurama--

And despite himself he pauses, because this is not the mindscape he left.

 

Already ruined by Madara, it has become even worse after whatever their desperate attempt at sealing did to him and Kurama. The ash ground has cracked and shattered, falling away entirely in some places to reveal bottomless chasms of endless dark. A miasma of ash fills the air, stirred up from the turmoil, blocking even the little bit of light that used to filter through the clouds. Some of the chasms are bubbling from within, filling with a mucky, disgusting, boiling brew of a nasty brownish-blueish-redish chakra that glows faintly, the only light source in this place. The only trees that remain are bony, sad, bare things.

He shakes his head, ignoring the devastation around him as best he can. It doesn’t matter, nothing matters other than Kurama. Naruto has to find him. He picks his way carefully through his mind, inching around chasms and avoiding noxious clouds of ashy smoke that puff up from the ground as he searches for the fox, searches for the one speck of color in this monochrome land of falling ash and noxious chakra.

And with a horrified gasp, he finds him.

The fox is laid on his side over the stump of the tree he once made his home in. Fortunately for him, he’s just barely out of range of the marshy brown liquid beneath him, one of his tails nearly dipping into the viscous liquid. He’s smaller than Naruto’s ever seen him, only about the size of a horse instead of towering far above Naruto’s head, and he’s unconscious and terribly injured.

Naruto had known, in some corner of his mind, that Kurama was ripping himself apart for the seals, but somehow he hadn’t realized quite how literally that applied. Kurama has large chunks of flesh and fur and muscle torn out of his sides by his own claws and teeth, blood leaks from his body and into the liquid below as he remains entrapped in Madara’s chains, now no longer hanging, just laying and digging the barbs deeper into his tortured flesh.

His breathing through his shredded muzzle is shallow and fast like he’s on death’s doorstep, and his chakra is a low, flickering ember where Naruto once expected a raging forest fire, and has come to expect little more than a lit torch.

A few leaps, nearly losing his footing and slipping into the bubbling marsh, and Naruto is by Kurama’s side. His hands flutter uselessly for a moment, and he stares. He has no idea where to start, how to start; he’s not Sakura, he’s always been one to destroy rather than mend. Never has he regretted his inability to use healing jutsu more than he does in this moment. He’s staring, staring, all he does is stare--Kurama’s blood flows around his knees and he stares and Kurama is dying right in front of him.

A quiet groan from Kurama and he jerks from his stupor, uselessly fluttering hands become clenched fists. He’s not going to let Kurama die--he won’t, he can’t . Kurama’s all he has left.

So he reaches out, flinching back a bit as his fingers brush against Kurama’s bloody fur, then powering through to grasp a strand of the chains that dig into his flesh. He forces himself to ignore Kurama’s whines as he painstakingly pulls each barb from the fox’s skin, to ignore his snarl as Naruto rolls him over to get to the chains on his other flank.

Better, but now there’s open, weeping wounds all along Kurama’s sides in addition to the ones he made himself. His blood sizzles and bubbles where it drips off the stump, and Naruto, after looking over Kurama’s wounds, huffs mirthlessly, something far closer to a sob than a laugh. Gods, what is he going to do . He can feel Kurama’s chakra, nearly gone and draining lower and lower each moment that his blood seeps from his body.

He needs bandages, gauze, something to staunch the flow of Kurama’s blood, but he doesn’t know how to morph his mind on his own. He’s always had Kurama’s help before now, the few times the fox wanted or needed something in his forest oasis, and there was never time for him to learn how to do it on his own. He has no clue how to do it, but he’ll have to try, or else Kurama has no chance. He doesn’t know much about this process, Kurama usually does the heavy lifting and Naruto provides the Will, but each time they’ve done this together, it has begun with Naruto meditating.

So, he pulls away from Kurama, weight resting on his heels, and takes a deep breath, trying to quell the rising hysteria. It takes him a couple of minutes to push his cloying emotions away far enough to fall into a meditative state, the time extended by the thought bouncing around that Kurama is literally dying feet from him , but he eventually manages it.

Strings of chakra, a web of pale blue and crimson unfurls in his mind’s eye, and he gasps. It’s--he’s never seen this before, never been aware that this is how his mind looks in its basest form. He looks at Kurama and, seeing that the fox’s ember of chakra is nearly out, tries to gently stroke it into at least a flame, grabbing a few of the nearby strands of pale blue and ripping them from the web to use as kindling. It hurts a bit, like ripping nails from the bed, but. Anything for Kurama. And it’s working, the embers of Kurama’s chakra burning just a little bit brighter.

Then Naruto turns his attention to the idea of bandages. He doesn’t know how to make bandages, doesn’t know how Kurama morphs his mind, but. He looks at himself, his mental perception, and he’s wearing clothes, a pair of loose brown pants and a black shirt. Perhaps if he copies the winding pattern of his clothes, pulls from the web of chakra and weaves, he can create something that’ll do. So he tears strands from the web, having to leave the stump for a few moments and gather more material elsewhere when he realizes he’s literally unweaving Kurama’s resting place, and begins to construct with clumsy, unpracticed fingers.

It hurts, it hurts , but he refuses to lose his last precious person--he doesn’t care what he has to do to keep Kurama alive. It takes him what feels like hours, but who knows how long it truly is, since time moves differently within the mind. Strips of cloth, clumsy and rumpled and colorless but still useful, wind into existence, and Naruto wraps them carefully where they’re needed. Kurama’s paws, darkened with his own blood, are left unbandaged as they’re the least damaged. Lacerations wind around his body following the path Madara’s barbed chains have traced, wounds an inch or more deep weeping blood, and Naruto leaves those for last. The strips Kurama has torn out of his own hide are the ones he’s most worried about, and he wraps them and places pressure on them and doesn’t flinch when Kurama’s lip curls in a hair raising snarl of pain--he’s heard all these sounds before.

When Kurama’s wounds are as bandaged and well treated as Naruto knows how, the first aid that Sakura had (almost literally) beaten into his head coming in handy, Naruto collapses to sit next to the comatose fox with a groan. Kurama is still bleeding a bit from some of his lesser wounds, but the ones that he gave himself, the ones that did the most damage, are taken care of as best as Naruto could manage.

He takes a moment to wave away the black spots appearing in his vision, and stares at the fox, looking him over with a healer’s eye. For the moment at least, the fox is as stable as he’s going to get. Naruto breathes out a slow sigh, laying (more like falling) down on his side so that he’s face to face with Kurama. He reaches out one hand, resting it on the stump in front of Kurama’s snout so that he can feel the fox’s breath, then quickly falls unconscious yet again.

oOoOo

Naruto wakes easily this time, gradually and naturally with the rising of the sun, its balmy heat warming his body. He sits up slowly, one hand coming up to wipe dew from his face as he gives a jaw-cracking yawn, and he automatically licks the drops off his hand--water is water after all, and he can spare none. But he flinches a bit as he feels a wavering tickle of chakra brush against his tongue, strange and unfamiliar.

It’s like this is all it takes to expand his awareness, to bring his attention to the dew that rests along his body, each drop a tiny pool of swirling chakra. He shakes his head like a dog to rid himself of the sensation, watching and feeling as the dew spirals through the air before landing in the grass a few feet away from him. The earth rests beneath him, the chakra of each individual grain of sand and pebble melding together to form a vast landscape of brown-sepia-beige-mahogany--

He takes a deep breath in, then lets it out slowly as he does his best to calm himself, and his terrifyingly sharp perception of those individual grains slowly fades away into a dull, persistent awareness of all the earth and stone nearby, and then fades further still, until he can only vaguely feel it beneath him. He shakes his head roughly again, hard enough that he feels like it rattles his brain, and breathes out a harsh sigh. Kurama takes precedence to any and all strange things that are going on with his body. Checking on the fox is his priority right now, nothing else (and if it helps to distract him from the hysteria clawing at his throat, then that’s all the better).

Between one heartbeat and the next he slips back into his mind, heaving a sigh of heartfelt relief as he finds the fox breathing a bit more easily, his wounds no bloodier than expected. The muddy chakra around the stump is no longer sizzling with the fox’s dripping blood. Naruto stands and stares, the momentary euphoria of finding the fox alive fading when nothing else occurs. He slowly sits, watching the rise and fall of the fox’s chest from a mere foot away.

He doesn’t know what to do.

He’d hoped that Kurama could help him, explain to him what’s going on, confirm that they’d actually made it away, tell him why he’s feeling all these strange new things with his chakra, but the fox has literally almost killed himself for their escape attempt. Even now it’s touch and go; Kurama really could still die, and Naruto is terrified that if he takes his eyes off of him for even a moment, the fox will just…

But he really needs to get himself some proper food and rest so that his chakra, and Kurama’s chakra with his, can replenish and help him heal. And for that, he has to go. He doesn’t have time for this, Kurama doesn’t have time for this. He curses himself for falling unconscious, losing them precious hours, but his body had shut down without his permission, he can’t beat himself up over it. He doesn’t have the time or energy for that.

He takes a deep, shuddering breath, and lets it out with something like a sob, leaning forward and burrowing his face gently into Kurama’s fur, heedless of the blood but careful of the wounds. He’s afraid. He hasn’t been “alone” in his own mind in...well, since he was a teen. Kurama’s always been there; first as an enemy, then as an ally, then as a friend. Kurama is the only one left , and seeing him like this, motionless and scarred and still bloody, is painful.

But at least he’s alive.

After a few minutes of just sitting by Kurama’s side, burying his face into Kurama’s fur and avoiding looking at his shattered mind, he allows himself to fade out, leaving his mental body by Kurama’s side.

He’d learned, during his time under Madara’s care, how to split his focus between the internal and the external. It hadn’t been intentional, and he’d been very careful to keep it from Madara, because the man would’ve just used it for more extensive torture. He’d just figured it out one day when he realized that he could both watch Kurama and feel Madara melting the skin off of his abdomen. Now, Naruto merely uses it to feel Kurama’s fur against his cheek, and the wind against his skin. The freedom of being uncaged.

But beneath the purely physical, he can still feel everything around him, everything living and growing and dying and just existing . Splitting his attention dulls it a bit, as does the centering feeling of Kurama’s fur under his fingers, but it’s still all around him. Not malicious, not at all, but just so vast , and it makes him feel so small. He can feel the agelessness of the soil, the trees a hundred years older than him and still young, the rocks--thousands of millions of years of solid earth chakra under his fingertips...it’s terrifying, if he focuses.

But he needs to get moving. They may have escaped Madara, but if Naruto knows anything about the man, he knows that Madara is coldly insane, and extremely determined. He won’t stop until he has the last jinchuuriki back in his clutches, and the punishment will be...dire.

So he scrapes together the absolutely minuscule amount of chakra he still has under his control and, ignoring how oddly dense it feels, swollen with this strange sense of nature, pulls it into himself so that he’s barely touching the world around him. Then, slowly, tremulously, he gets to his feet. He’s weak, even after the food and water he consumed earlier, and all he wants to do is lie down forever, but he has to protect Kurama. He can’t let the fox get captured again. He can’t .

He doesn’t know where he is, not just in reference to Madara, but in general--he hasn’t been outside in a long time. However, he does know that Madara is stationed at the allied Shinobi headquarters, purely for his own gloating amusement Naruto assumes. The shinobi headquarters is in the land of Clouds, which is in the west. These trees around him are, under further inspection, similar to the trees of the land of fire rather than their craggy counterparts in the land of clouds. So, he needs to go east, away from the land of clouds, away from Madara. Hopefully he’ll hit some small form of society at some point, and he’ll be able to rest and pick up some supplies before he truly goes on the run.

It’s not the best plan, but for now, it’ll do.

He glances at the sun’s position, rising in the east (which means it took all night for him to save Kurama), and forces himself to begin limping slowly toward it. Hopefully he’ll reach some kind of shelter before nightfall.

Even with all the fear and uncertainty, he can’t help but feel a sense of relief and joy as he takes his first free steps in gods knows how long.