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The Fox Kit

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i. i.

It was a generally accepted rule that no matter how great an infant’s chakra reserves that it was completely and utterly impossible for said child to physically manifest a friend for themselves out of thin air.

Except, of course, in the case of a baby with a malevolent chakra construct sealed in his gut.

Or, well, no. Because the case of Kurama and Naruto was not one that Gaara and Shukaku would replicate without example, because unlike the Ichibi who had been sealed into Gaara shortly before his birth – and with a faulty seal at that – the Kyuubi had been curled in Kushina’s stomach since long before Naruto’s conception. Kurama had felt the first precious stirrings of life from within his prison, and perhaps at first he had been resentful of that little bundle of nerves and chakra forming within Kushina’s womb that would one day enter the world and be able to roam freely.

But for ten precious months, that growing baby had been his, wrapped safely in the embrace of his tails, swaddled by his chakra.

And then – the Sharingan.

Kurama remembered red eyes and grief and fear and fury unlike anything else, the feeling of buildings crushed beneath his paws, trees levelled by his tails, freedom at last! Madness.

Sealed again and missing a good portion of his chakra. No, not just a good portion. His entire Yin half.

Locked away.

Weak.

Angry.

Alone.

But his previous jailor was dead. Kushina had not survived. Neither had that Minato-brat.

No, they had sacrificed themselves, and Kurama was trapped in the belly of their infant son, Naruto. His jailor was his child, the one he had guarded so jealously for ten months.

It’s not so bad, Kurama thought, curling himself into a ball within the seal and wrapping his tails around himself as he licked his metaphorical wounds. At least it’s the Fishcake. My Fishcake. My kit.

But it was so bad, because Naruto was just as lonely as Kurama had ever been. He lay in his crib at the hospital and cried and cried for the mother that he had never met, for the tender affection that no adult would give him. Feeding and changing was done with brisk efficiency, and then he was left alone again, by himself, in a world that was large and confusing and all brand new. He was moved to the orphanage, and the caretakers were swamped with orphans from the Kyuubi’s rampage, and no one had a moment extra to spare with soothing the desperately confused jinchuuriki.

Naruto was three months old and howling for attention just gone four in the morning when the seal slipped and leaked chakra for the first time. He had been put in a room by himself, so he didn’t wake the other small children when he wailed at night, but one of the caretakers came past and snarled at him to be quiet, kami help them.

And then they stormed back out of the bare dark room and baby Naruto was left all by himself and he didn’t know why, and it wasn’t anger that made the seal falter, it was alone-alone-alone.

Kurama couldn’t break the seal. He couldn’t let much chakra slip through at all, and what he did get out he tamped down tight on so as not to warn those animal-masked ninja that lurked in the shadows and on the rooftops but never interacted with the baby. Painstakingly slowly, carefully, he made himself a body with that little tendril of chakra, until, at last – he took the form of a fox.

Well, not really. Not a grown fox. Not a fox with nine tails. Nothing remotely like the Kyuubi no Kitsune, who was taller than the Hokage monument and could level mountains with a single swipe of a paw or tail.

To an outside observer, the body he formed would have appeared like that of a very young fox kit, eyes just open and still filmy with the milky blue of infancy, body rotund and fuzzy, legs stubby, canine teeth only just erupting from his gums, tail not yet bushy, ears still little and flat against his head.

But that was alright, he didn’t need to be large for the task he set himself. He didn’t need all the tremendous amount of chakra that was still locked away behind the seal on the baby’s stomach. This tiny droplet was enough, and he squirmed and wriggled across the blankets in the crib to the side of the bawling infant to tuck his cool nose against Naruto’s neck.

The baby gave a little whimper of surprise and flailed one of his tiny fists, bonking Kurama on the head.

“Ouch!” the fox kit hissed, and the vocal chords in this body were small and underdeveloped, so he spoke in a high squeak-whisper and not his usual thunderous rumbling growl, the growl that shook humans right through to their bones, but that was okay because he was interacting with a very small human baby who he had no desire to intimidate whatsoever. “Don’t hit me, Fishcake. I came all the way out to comfort you, you ungrateful little brat.”

He pushed closer to the baby, snuffling Naruto’s ears and making him giggle with his tickly little whiskers, then giving his face a thorough licking to wipe all the salty tears off his cheeks. Before long, Naruto fell asleep, and the little part of Kurama that had managed to wriggle free of the seal curled up beside him, keeping watch in the dark.

“My name is Kurama,” he said very quietly to the slumbering baby. “And you’re mine, so I’m going to look after you, since these useless humans are doing such a lousy job. And you better listen to me, because I’m thousands of years old and know more than they could ever possibly comprehend.”

It took months, but Kurama managed to get a little more of his chakra free of the seal – just a tiny amount, a teaspoon from the ocean, a grain of sand from the desert. He grew as Naruto did, and when Naruto began to toddle, Kurama was the size of a fox-kit maybe four weeks old and could tumble along beside him. For a long time, Kurama hid whenever the caretakers came, until one afternoon when Naruto was let outside to play by himself, and it was feasible for him to “find” an equally orphaned fox kit while he was out and roaming, and from then on they were inseparable.

Of course, the villagers hated it. Said it was the Kyuubi’s influence. Said it was unnatural, that the Kyuubi’s container should attract foxes. Even the Hokage seemed notably uneasy, whenever Naruto and the fox kit were brought to visit his office, though the old man never voiced his concerns aloud.

If only they knew! Kurama would think and laugh to himself as he draped his little slip of fox-chakra body over Naruto’s shoulders like a living scarf.

By the time Naruto started at the Academy, the fact that Kurama was always by his side was a given, and he was accepted into the classroom at his boy’s side with only an anxious side-eye and a murmur that the adults were careful to prevent Naruto from hearing but which did not slip Kurama’s notice.

 

ii.

 “You are the Demon Fox,” Mizuki said, grinning, a malicious gleam in his eye, like he expected this secret to shatter Naruto’s entire world-view and send him undone.

Naruto stared at him, blankly. “Uh. What?”

At his side, Kurama covered his muzzle with a paw to hold in his guffaws. Naruto was, admittedly, not the sharpest kunai in the pouch, even after years of his tutoring, and Kurama was quite willing to admit that under different circumstances his boy probably wouldn’t have found out about the Kyuubi sealed in his gut until this very moment. It was a S-Rank secret, after all, and treasonous to speak about in front of the younger generation.

Fortunately, Kurama was not a citizen of Konoha but a millennia-old chakra-construct who had no qualms whatsoever about sharing secrets with his boy. As such, Naruto had known he was the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki for almost as long as he could talk. This might have presented a problem, as Naruto had a very big mouth and might have told anyone this, except Kurama had convinced him not to. It would be an excellent prank, Kurama had explained, to pretend they didn’t know, and watch everyone else go around tripping over themselves trying not to blurt it out.

Naruto might not have been the conventionally brightest kid out there, but he was as wily as a true kitsune, and perfectly willing to play any prank Kurama could think up with the sole proviso that they not permanently harm anyone.

Incidentally, this was also how Kurama had gotten away with being a talking fox for twelve years with no one the wiser. After he explained the concept of the long con to Naruto, his boy-kit was wholly on board.

Now, though.

“He’s lying, Naruto!” Iruka said, around a gurgling bloody cough.

Kurama nudged Naruto’s ankle and coughed surreptitiously, casting a sideways glance at Iruka, who was seriously injured, fuma-shuriken in his back as he protected the small boy, but not about to die.

“Sorry Iruka-sensei,” Naruto murmured so softly only Kurama, with the sharp ears of a fox, and Iruka, who was right there, would hear him. “I know, I know.”

And the expression of blank incomprehension had cleared from Naruto’s face, and suddenly he was grinning in a way that Kurama recognised as mischievous, though other people might misunderstand it for pure evil solely for the number of times it preceded the most nefarious and colourful pranks they could think of. Naruto threw his head back, fell onto the ground, and cackled, and using Iruka’s torso as a visual shield, he went through the hand-signs for the henge.

He promptly turned into a fox that looked remarkably like the Kyuubi. The actual Kyuubi inside the seal, with blood-red eyes with slits for pupils, dark black lines across his face, deep russet fur, and nine long, lashing tails. He was only about the size of a small dog, and nowhere near the mountainous form of the actual Kyuubi, and he was leaking absolutely no malevolent chakra whatsoever, which would have been a dead giveaway that this was a simple henge to almost anyone in their right mind.

Mizuki was mad with desperation for his gambit to pay off.

Naruto winked at one of the three ANBU the Hokage had sent with him hidden in the trees.

Because Naruto mightn’t have been the brightest, but Kurama was a fox, and he knew sly and underhanded tricks when he saw them. So, when Mizuki had suggested stealing the Scroll of Seals, Kurama had told Naruto to go straight to Jiji. Naruto was just the disliked jinchuuriki child, not even a shinobi, prone to reckless pranks, and Mizuki was a generally respected non-combatant chuunin, which meant Naruto’s word didn’t stand for much, even if the Hokage was fond of him.

They hatched a plan and laid a trap and Mizuki had walked right into it.

Iruka should not have been a part of the genuine search party sent out after Naruto, who were mostly jounin and ANBU in-the-know with the sole exception of Mizuki himself, which meant Mizuki must have been the one to rope him into the search.

Regrettable.

Not unsalvageable, though Kurama knew Naruto would feel terrible for a while.

Naruto laughed again, and his laugh was the Kyuubi’s laugh, a deep rumbling growling chuckle, and gently, gently, he pushed Iruka to the side with one paw and moved into the centre of the clearing to face Mizuki. Kurama made himself useful and sat on Iruka’s uninjured leg to pin him with a flat amber stare to keep him from interfering.

“You’re quite right,” Naruto-the-fox grumbled at Mizuki, who had suddenly become very pale. “I thought I had been concealing myself rather well. What gave me away, little shinobi?”

“The – the – the seal,” Mizuki stammered.

“What seal?” Naruto growled, and no-one but Kurama heard the question in the rumbling voice.

Ah, even in his stupidity his boy was wonderfully intimidating!

Mizuki turned to run.

Naruto, faster on four legs than two because he’d been using the henge technique to turn into a fox to run around with Kurama almost since he’d started the Academy, cut him off, and chased him towards the hiding places of the ANBU, who dropped out of the trees they were hiding in at the last moment, trapping the white-haired chuunin between them and Naruto-the-fox.

“What?” Mizuki cried, utterly confounded, right before one of the ANBU incapacitated him.

Naruto dropped the henge with a poof and stood in the clearing in the moonlight giggling at a prank well-pulled off.

“I can’t believe Mizuki-sensei fell for that!” he crowed gleefully, dancing on the spot and clapping his hands. “Thank you, ANBU-san! Tell Jiji I’m bringing his fancy scroll thing right back. I just want to make sure Iruka-sensei is okay.”

Kurama felt Iruka slump in relief, and now he licked the man’s closed eyes, more to be annoying that anything else.

Iruka groaned. “Stop it, Kurama.”

Incidentally, Kurama may have earned himself a bit of a reputation for being an absolute nuisance in the classroom when he wasn’t napping on Iruka’s desk, but Iruka always gave the best ear-skritches when Kurama gave him sad puppy-dog eyes and Iruka forgave him his transgressions. He was even better than Akamaru, an actual puppy, at the puppy-dog eyes! Take that, Akamaru!

“Iruka-sensei!” Naruto cried, throwing himself bodily onto the ground beside Iruka. “Did you see? I tricked Mizuki-sensei good. But he tried to trick me first. You can’t graduate by stealing this funny scroll thing and learning a technique. That’s lies. I asked Jiji.”

“So Hokage-sama…?” Iruka said.

“We set a trap,” Naruto said, sitting up to rub his hands together and grin with far too many teeth on show. “And Mizuki-sensei sprung it. Oh, but while we were waiting, me and Kurama, I did learn a technique from this scroll, because it was boring, and Jiji didn’t say not to. Do you wanna see?”

And then he executed the kage bunshin technique and created half-a-hundred of himself.

“I couldn’t do the regular bunshin because I have too much chakra!” he told Iruka cheerfully. “So much chakra. I thought I was going to have to spend a whole ‘nother year practicing water-walking to get my chakra control good enough to do one, you know! Once I could walk over the rapids by the waterfall below the bridge without falling in, that’s when my control would’ve been good enough! Or, well, maybe never. I’m not sure. How do I explain? It’s a little like trying to thread a needle – you know, a quilting needle, one of those ones with the really small eyes – with a mooring rope. I’m pretty sure my chakra control could be so good I could walk on the water particles in the air and still not be able to make a bunshin. Hey, sensei, is that possible? Anyway, now I can do the kage bunshin, so it doesn’t matter, so does that mean next time I can skip class and just come back for the exam? A whole six months to do pranks… Oh, I can send a clone to class, and my henge skills are awesome so I’ll always have an alibi and everything, you know!”

Iruka went a little green around the gills, which Kurama found amusing to watch, and actually made a squeaking noise. “I think, Naruto,” he said quickly. “That you have displayed sufficient skill to graduate now. I’ll make a special exception.”

Naruto sat back and eyed him suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that?”

“No, no, you’ll make a very good ninja. You’ve proved yourself admirably today!” He paused. “But… Naruto, I have to ask. How did you know the fox looked like that?”

“Eh? Oh, you mean that Demon Fox Mizuki was talking about? I guessed. It had to be scary, right? Because otherwise no one would’ve been afraid of it. Did I get it right?” He grinned.

Iruka looked troubled.

“I mean,” Naruto went on, forming the hand-seals for another henge. “It wasn’t like anyone woulda been afraid of that big old fox if he looked like this!” And with a poof he’s turned into a knee-high kitsune with nine tails, except unlike before his fur was a soft pastel pink, his eyes were big and earnest and blue, each fluffy tail was tied with a red ribbon, there was a heart-shaped white patch of fur on his chest, and he was wearing a bedazzled red collar with a little tinkling silver bell on it. “This wouldn’t’ve been scary at all!” Naruto said, in a high trill, sitting back on his haunches.

Kurama was secure enough in his sense of self that he did not find this offensive in the least. Rather, he let out a howl of fox-laughter and fell off Iruka’s knee to roll on the forest floor, cackling with glee. “That’s brilliant! I’m never forgetting that!” he yowled, happily.

So many people had been left traumatised by the attack twelve years ago, and Kurama suddenly had an excellent idea about how to make them feel less frightened by the concept of nine-tailed foxes. Sure, it was his own dignity at stake, but he’d spent years pretending to be a mostly helpless fox-kit, and he could see the humour in the situation.

Iruka stared, and then chuckled lightly.

“Naruto,” he said. “You know that what Mizuki said wasn’t true, right? You’re not the Kyuubi. You’re Uzumaki Naruto.”

“Of course,” Naruto said, still pink and fluffy. “Why wouldn’t I be Naruto? Can I tell you a secret, Iruka-sensei?”

Iruka hedged.

“I think,” Naruto went on, not noticing his hesitation. “That Mizuki-sensei let the stress of the exams get to him and he went a bit mad. I hope he feels better soon. Oh, but you’re hurt, and I forgot! You should go to the hospital! Do you need help to get there?”

 

iii.

Kurama had taught Naruto all sorts of things over the years. Bits and pieces of unconventional wisdom that Naruto would not have learned anywhere else.

“Foxes,” he told Naruto once, as they were curled in the long grass in the shade beneath a tree, relaxing through the hottest part of the day. “Have to be wily. They’re predators, yes. They hunt to survive, so they must be crafty to catch their prey. But foxes are not the biggest animal in the forest. There are wolves and tigers and bears, and all of them will eat a fox, if they can catch him. So, a fox must also be crafty, that he can avoid the bigger predators. Shinobi are like foxes. They’re stronger than the civilians, who are like mice and rabbits, but there are always bigger and stronger shinobi, like the bears and tigers and wolves.”

“Like kages and the sannin?” Naruto had asked.

And Kurama had grinned foxily. “Indeed.”

Other things, too. Such as:

“Don’t just trust your eyes. Your ears and your nose are just as useful!”

And:

“The reason you have so much trouble with some jutsu is because you have too much chakra. It’s like you need a single spoonful of water, but you’re trying to get it from a raging waterfall, so you always end up with more than you need, and anything that needs precision gets so overpowered that it fails. There will be some things you will never be able to accomplish – I would not recommend medical jutsu, you’ll kill anyone you try it on, and you’ll never be good at genjutsu, but you should be able to get the Academy Three down with enough training. Uh. Hopefully.”

And:

“Your mother’s name was Uzumaki Kushina. I did not like her, and I will admit I wished for her to die so I would be free, but her death was ugly, and I’m sorry for it, kit. Your father was the Yondaime Hokage. Namikaze Minato… He was a good man. He had this technique called the Hiraishin – a time-space jutsu – that let him teleport from one place to another. They called him the Yellow Flash. He died sealing me into your stomach. I’m sorry for that, too. But! You have a brother. Sort of. Not a biological brother, or really an adoptive brother because he was never officially adopted, but there was a silver-haired kid with a mask that the Minato-brat took in a few years before you were born. Hatake Kakashi We’ve seen him. He’s in ANBU. He was Hound-san, you know, the one who was always kind when you were little?”

“He went away, though,” Naruto said.

“I think they made him,” Kurama replied. “He was a good kid, but he’s really sad. Remember he always smelled sad.”

“Why?”

“He lost his team, and his father killed himself when he was small. He’s all alone.”

And:

“The Sharingan is extremely dangerous, Naruto. Never look someone with a Sharingan in the eye. Of course, the Uchiha Clan is the only clan with that Bloodline Limit, and most of them are dead.”

“Uchiha. Like Sasuke?” Naruto asked.

Kurama nodded, solemnly. “Sasuke is the last, except for his brother, Itachi – but Itachi was the one to massacre his entire family and abandon the village.”

A long pause. “Wait, so that bastard is an orphan, like me?”

Kurama rolled his eyes. “Yes, kit. And you don’t have to love him, but he has no one left. He had a family, and he loved them – or I assume he did, unless the Uchiha madness got him early but he doesn’t seem mad to me, just a bit prickly. He had a family, and he loved them, and then he lost them, overnight. A whole clan. His mother and father and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Everyone. People, humans, like you, they don’t come out of that sort of thing unscathed. It has a lasting effect. Don’t hate him. Regardless, we’re talking about the Sharingan.”

“Only the Uchiha family have it?” Naruto said.

“Yes and no,” Kurama replied. “It can be… taken. An awakened Sharingan can be stolen from a corpse and implanted into a living host, and used by them.”

“Gross.” Naruto made a fake gagging sound.

“It is what it is,” Kurama said, philosophically. “The Hatake-brat has one. When his teammate died, he gifted it to him.”

Naruto blinked. “Kakashi-nii-san has the Sharingan?”

“Yes, his left eye. He keeps it covered. I’m not concerned about him. Uchiha Itachi, however, is a rogue ninja and an enemy of Konoha, and as such he is incredibly dangerous. The – the Sharingan can make you see things and think things that aren’t real. A fully developed one is powerful enough to control even me. That’s what happened the night your parents died. And that’s why you must be very, very careful around Sharingan users. Sasuke doesn’t have his, yet, and the Hatake-brat will probably try to protect you rather than hurt you, but there are people out there who will use it against us.”

And:

“I know you don’t like it. I know it seems harsh. But never, ever leave an enemy at your back. If you defeat him, kill him. If you don’t want to kill him, incapacitate him so thoroughly he cannot come back to attack you.”

It was a rainy evening as they discussed this, and Naruto was sniffling sadly as thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Why can’t I just tie him up?” he asked, sadly.

“Shinobi are masters of escape, kit. How much do you want a knife in your back? Now, in my personal opinion, it’s kinder to kill him, because incapacitating your enemy enough that he can’t come back to get you usually means hurting him a lot, and a tidy kill is less painful.”

“Why do I have to have enemies?” Naruto sniffed.

“Because you will be a shinobi of Konohagakure no Sato, and Konoha’s enemies will be your enemies,” the little fox said, patiently.

“I’m gonna change that when I’m Hokage.”

Kurama smiled. “I look forward to it.”

And:

Kurama sat on the Naruto’s kitchen counter and wrinkled his muzzle in distaste. “I know it’s delicious, and your name might seem portentous, but you cannot live on ramen alone, Naruto. I’m not going to go into the importance of a varied diet and macro and micronutrients with you, but you need to eat other things as well or you’re going to get scurvy.”

“But I can’t afford anything else, Kurama!”

Kurama huffed. “Because the villagers are bumping up the price of things unfairly. After you’re finished at the Academy today, we’re going into the forest and you are going to learn to hunt. And fish. And forage for edible plants and fungi. Do you know what was actually a rather ingenious human invention? Agriculture. If we can find a patch of earth that’s likely to be undisturbed, you can grow your own food.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” Naruto grumbled.

“I’m literally thousands of years old, Fishcake. I’d have to bury my head in the sand and keep it there to not know it.” He paused. “And what I don’t know, I can always sneak into the library and read about.”

Naruto mumbled something under his breath.

“Well, one of us has to do it,” Kurama replied.

And:

“Orange is a terrible colour for stealth.”

“It’s my favourite colour!” Naruto objected, hotly.

Foxes are orange,” Kurama replied. “I am simply observing that making almost your entire body an eye-catching neon colour may be counter-productive. There is no single environment where you will blend in. Not one. On the other hand, if you do learn to be hide yourself effectively in spite of the orange, then you’ll officially be the stealthiest ninja in the entire village. Even stealthier than Maito Gai, because for all that he wears that awful green jumpsuit, we’re surrounded by trees and they’re green most of the year. Go for it.”

“I’ll do it, then, I’ll be the stealthiest ninja in all of Konoha, and you better believe it!”

“Why wouldn’t I believe it? You’re my kit, and you will do anything you set your mind to.”

And: “I want to check up on the Hatake-brat again. Want to come prank the ANBU?”

“Yeah!”

 

iv.

The chalkboard eraser, until that moment precariously held up between the door and the wall, dropped down onto the head of Team Seven’s jounin-sensei as he slid open the door.

A moment of silence.

“My first impression of you,” the jounin said. “How should I say this—”

And then he was cut off by Naruto hurtling across the room like a thrown projectile and crashing into his chest, sending them both tumbling into the hallway as he screamed “KAKASHI-NII-SAN!” at the very top of his lungs, having taken that single precious second to observe the silver hair, face mask, and hitai-ate tilted down to cover his left eye and connected the dots about the identity of their new jounin-sensei.

Kurama sighed, and if he’d had opposable thumbs he might have pinched the bridge of his nose.

Damn.

He needed to come up with a way to explain how Naruto mysteriously knew exactly who Hatake Kakashi was, without ever having met him in his life – except as Hound-san, all the way back before he started at the Academy.

Oh.

He had an idea. It was a gambit, but it might work.

If only Hatake wasn’t a bloody genius. He’d just have to hope that they blindsided him so thoroughly that he wouldn’t question the answers he was given.

And of course Naruto’s jounin-sensei would be the Hatake-brat. It made perfect sense. Kurama should have realised and prepared Naruto earlier.

Naruto, as the person with the worst scores in the class, had been placed with the rookie of the year, and the top kunoichi. The rookie of the year was Uchiha Sasuke, and the top kunoichi was that pink-haired girl with the career genin parents, Haruno Sakura, who neither Kurama nor Naruto had much to do with because she had so very little in common with them.

As it was, it was inevitable that both Naruto and Sasuke would be placed under Hatake Kakashi. He was, after all, the only jounin in the village with a Sharingan and thus the only person who could potentially subdue the Kyuubi, if the worst came to the worst. He was also the only person who could teach Sasuke how to wield his own Sharingan, if the Uchiha Clan’s prized doujutsu ever manifested in their last heir – and they probably would.

“Naruto knows our jounin-sensei?” Sakura asked herself quietly, while Sasuke looked on with quiet consternation before they were all called up to the roof to introduce themselves to each other.

Hatake went first, and told them nothing but his name, but Kurama didn’t care because he knew enough.

Naruto went next.

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “And this is Kurama!” He picked Kurama up under the armpits and held him up to show him off. “He’s my best friend in the whole world and we do everything together, even fight.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Kurama said, politely. “Please take care of me.”

Sasuke and Sakura both recoiled sharply.

“It speaks?” Sakura asked, a little bit shrilly. Kurama suddenly realised that he was usually quiet in class, except for laughter, huffs of annoyance, and sly comments to Iruka. Oops.

He sniffed, and made up a half-lie on the spot. “Of course. All civilised nin-animals speak. But not in class, because I don’t want to be a distraction… Akamaru just is a philistine.”

Hatake choked on nothing, then cleared his throat and motioned for Naruto to continue.

“Shush,” Naruto told Kurama, plopping him back onto the floor of the roof. “This is my introduction, not yours. I love… uh… so many things! Ramen, and Kurama, and Jiji, and Iruka-sensei, and sunflowers, and orange. I hate meanies! And traitors. And vegetables, especially green peppers. But Kurama makes me eat them anyway, the meanie. My hobbies are trying different types of ramen and gardening. And I’m gonna be Hokage one day, y’know!”

The Uchiha boy wanted revenge, presumably on his brother though he did not specify, which Kurama thought was fair enough given the circumstances but it was a terrible life goal that would ultimately leave him lost and alone.

The Haruno girl was infatuated with the Uchiha boy for some inexplicable reason, and hated Naruto, which Kurama supposed came from the irrational loathing the villagers held for Naruto and was probably something she had learned by osmosis and not a deeply ingrained personal belief, because they’d never even pranked her or anything.

Hatake dismissed them after telling them they would have to pass his own personal test before he would allow them to become genin – but held Naruto back.

“How do you know me?” he asked Naruto quietly and seriously, after Sasuke and Sakura had disappeared.

“The angry fox in his belly told him about you,” Kurama interjected, because Naruto had forgotten that he wasn’t supposed to know Kakashi but Kurama hadn’t, and he wasn’t a wily old fox for nothing.

For once, Naruto caught on quickly. “Yeah, yeah!” he said, hopping up and down on the spot. “You’re my nii-san! Grumpy-whiskers told me all about my tou-san and kaa-chan! And you! And how tou-san was your sensei but he loved you like his son. I’m sad the Council made Jiji make you stay away, but now you’re my sensei, so we can see each other every day, and it’s going to be great!”

Hatake looked faint.

Kurama grinned foxily.

“Does he… talk to you often? The fox in your stomach?” Hatake asked.

“Oh, yeah, all the time, but he’s actually really nice and smart when he isn’t being an old grouch, so it’s fine,” Naruto said, cheerfully. “I’d be really sad if he wasn’t there. He knows everything.”

The Hatake-brat looked a bit like he wanted to be sick.

“Not everything,” Kurama said, softly. “Just lots. No one in the world can know everything.”

Naruto shrugged. Then, impulsively, he hugged Kakashi again. “It’s so great to meet you after all this time, Kakashi-nii-san. I’m gonna ace your test tomorrow, and we’re gonna be the best team in Konoha, y’know! I’ll see you in the morning. Oh… should I call you Kakashi-sensei now, or Kakashi-nii-san?”

“Either,” Kakashi said, a little weakly. “Either is fine, Naruto.”

“Thanks nii-san! We’ll get ramen sometime!” And Naruto ran off, Kurama at his heels.

“I think I like him,” Kurama said, later that evening, from where he was lounging on the headboard of Naruto’s bed, tail swishing lazily back and forward. “But I expect you’ll find him prickly, and possibly a stickler for the rules. Kushina used to tease him about that. Anyway, we surprised him this afternoon, but he’ll be cautious later.”

Naruto, who was drooping over a scroll he was struggling to read, made a noise to acknowledge the fact that he was listening.

Kurama laughed.

“Go to sleep, kit. Whatever test he gives you, you won’t be able to pass it sleep-deprived.”

“Alright, alright,” Naruto said, re-rolling the scroll and getting up from the table to flick off the light. He was already dressed in his pyjamas for the night, so he crawled into his bed. “You’re so bossy.”

“Only because someone has to look out for you, and I’m your grouchy stomach fox,” Kurama replied, hopping down off the headboard to curl up on the pillow, pressed close beside Naruto’s neck. “Goodnight, Naruto.”

“G’night Kurama. I love you.”

“I’ll bite your ears in the middle of the night, Fishcake.”

“You won’t. You love me too.”

Kurama huffed and tucked his nose beneath his tail. “Brat,” he grumbled, affectionately, as Naruto began to snore softly.

 

v.

Team Seven arrived at the training ground and waited for about forty minutes.

“He’s late to everything, isn’t he?” Sakura asked no one in particular, a little despairingly. “He was hours late yesterday… How long until he turns up today?”

“If he’s gonna be ages, I’m taking a nap,” Naruto said, then he laid down in the grass, rolled onto his side, and went straight to sleep.

Sakura and Sasuke stared at him for a moment.

“Is he… actually sleeping?” Sakura murmured, after a moment.

“Oh, yes,” Kurama said proudly. “Foxes can sleep anywhere, anytime. It’s very useful. None of that insomnia business. We can sleep away the entire day. I taught my Fishcake how.”

“That’s useful?” Sakura said, doubtfully, then added even more dubiously: “…Fishcake.”

“Absolutely,” Kurama replied. “Like when you come off the front lines and you’re pumped up on adrenaline, but you have to eat and rest or you’re going to crash from chakra exhaustion, but you go to lie down, and you can’t even close your eyes let alone sleep. Or you’re in the mountains and you want to sleep but all you have beneath you and the cold rocky ground is a thin sleeping roll and you’ve got what feels like a boulder digging into your shoulder blade and another into your hip. Or you’re injured, and the pain is keeping you awake but you need to sleep to heal. Or you’re so far north that it’s still daylight even though it’s three hours past midnight. Or you’ve been on a long-term mission and you finally get home and collapse into your soft comfortable bed, but you’ve been sleeping rough so long you feel like you’re suffocating. Being well-rested is essential to your well-being and your ability to perform in the field, so being able to sleep anywhere, anytime is very useful.”

Sasuke made a noncommittal grunting noise, but Sakura looked thoughtful.

“Where’s Kakashi-sensei, though?”

“He’s a jounin,” Kurama said, sitting back on his haunches to shrug in a way that probably looked too human. “People who have been shinobi too long pick up all sorts of odd habits to cope. It’s not an easy life.”

Kids were great. Not only were they sponges that sucked up all the knowledge and wisdom he deigned to impart, they never questioned anything and took everything at face value, so Sakura just nodded along like it was perfectly natural for a random talking fox to be telling her this.

Kurama revelled in it, and wished he’d known about this boon sooner, because it was awesome.

“My nose is sharper than any dog’s,” he said. “I can sniff out anyone in the village, and I think your sensei is tardy enough already. Why don’t I go track him down and bring him back so we can get this over with?”

“Can you actually do that?” Sasuke asked.

Kurama snorted. “Don’t doubt me, brat.”

Actually, Kakashi was just on the other side of that copse of trees, over by the Memorial Stone, so he wouldn’t be tracking him halfway across Konohagakure no Sato at all – rather just slipping through a hundred yards of trees and brush. But Sasuke and Sakura didn’t need to know that.

“Fine,” Sasuke huffed.

“Be back shortly. Don’t fight while I’m gone.”

And Kurama trotted off into the undergrowth.

Kakashi was where Kurama expected him to be, kneeling in front of the Memorial Stone, muttering to himself so quietly that Kurama could not make out the words. The fox prowled closer on silent feet to sit in the grass close beside him, then press against his flank as he, too, stared up at the stone.

Humans were funny like that. They pushed each other away and pretended to be lone wolves, but they were pack animals and needed contact with each other more than any other animal Kurama knew – except, perhaps, dogs. Yet the quiet solidarity of a small, warm, breathing, fuzzy creature was sometimes enough to soothe the ragged edges of their soul when they weren’t letting other humans near.

For a long moment, Kakashi made no sound, no movement, to let Kurama know he knew he was there, though at least he didn’t leap away as if he’d been electrocuted.

And then he rested one large gloved hand on Kurama’s back, over his shoulder-blades, and skritched gently.

Kurama went boneless against his side, and had he been a cat, he might have purred. Instead, he said, very softly: “Your friends and family are on that stone.”

Kakashi said nothing, but his fingers stilled.

Kurama went on, undeterred, his gaze finding Kushina’s name, and then Minato’s. “There are people on this stone to whom I owe a debt of great gratitude, but who I never knew.” Well, he sort-of knew them. He watched them through Kushina’s eyes sometimes, but that wasn’t the same. “There are also people on this stone who I despise with every fibre of my being, from my nose to the tips of my fur.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Sometimes, those people are one and the same, and I am very sad.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kakashi said, and his voice with tight with barely concealed emotion.

“The loss is not truly mine,” Kurama replied. “It is Naruto’s, first and foremost, which is what pains me, because he is my entire world.” He paused again, considered, because he was the one who had killed – however inadvertently – the last two precious people in Kakashi’s life. “I am sorry for your loss, also, Kakashi-nii-san.” He stood up, shaking Kakashi’s hand off him. “But, as much as I think it is proper to take the time to remember the dead, sitting in front of this stone for hours and hours is excessive, and your potential genin team is waiting for you over there rather impatiently. I have been sent to fetch you, and if you do not hurry I will bite your toes, nii-san or not. Those ninja sandals leave them horribly exposed, you know, and you don’t know when my last rabies vaccination was, so you’d best get a move on.”

Kakashi took a long, shaking breath, then eyed him shrewdly.

Kurama play-lunged towards his closest ankle, and Kakashi scrambled away from him.

“Okay, I’m going, I’m going,” he said, holding his hands up in mock surrender.

Kurama followed along on his heels, mock snapping at them whenever he walked too slowly.

They woke Naruto up – with little difficulty, because just as Kurama had taught him to sleep anywhere, anytime, he had also taught the boy to sleep lightly, and sleep with an awareness of his surroundings, so all it took was a little nibble on his ear and Naruto had sprung to his feet and was ready to go – and Kakashi explained his test to them. It involved a pair of little bells and sending someone back to the Academy.

As there weren’t really any two-man genin teams in Konoha with only a couple of exceptions – those that had had a member test out to chuunin, or die – and Konoha prided itself on its teamwork, Kurama saw through it immediately.

“You’ll have to come at me with the intent to kill if you want to have a chance,” Kakashi was saying, even as Kurama climbed up Naruto’s orange jumpsuit to whisper in his ear.

“None of you can get those bells individually,” Kurama hissed, very quietly, and Naruto cocked his head to listen, even as he kept his eyes on the jounin. “You’ll have to work together, then choose who goes back. Sasuke is very driven, and Sakura really wants to be on a team with him, so we should let them have the bells. We can graduate next time, and there’s so many great pranks we can play if we’re stuck in the Academy for another year, remember?” He was lying through his teeth, they would all pass or fail as a team, but he didn’t want to spoil the Hatake-brat’s test completely.

Naruto’s nod was nearly imperceptible. “I don’t need to be a genin now to be a great ninja someday,” he replied, under his breath.

Kurama lauded his selflessness.

Kakashi told them to go, and all three of them leapt away into the bushes.

“What’s your plan?” Naruto asked.

Kurama pointed towards the spot where he knew Sakura, who was the closest, was hiding. “Go fetch your teammates. I have the start of one, which I’ll explain to all three of you, but you can work out the finer details between you.”

Naruto crept through the underbrush, little fox at his heel, and whispered to Sakura when he found her: “Kurama has a plan, and it’s a good one, but we need to get Sasuke, come on.” She might not have liked them, but she liked Sasuke plenty, so she was willing enough to follow.

Sasuke was up a tree, so they climbed up to join him.

He looked at them crossly. “Go away, you’ll only hold me back.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Kurama growl whispered at him. “Not even you can get a bell off that man. He’s an elite jounin who’s been working in the field for two decades, and you’re a freshly graduated student from the Academy who has, what, the Academy Three and maybe a couple of clan techniques under his belt? Even if you were rookie of the year, you can’t beat him. Anyway, we have a plan.”

Sasuke made that same noncommittal grunting noise from before. Kurama took that as assent to explain the plan.

“Naruto and I will go back to the Academy,” he said, quickly. “We know we can graduate again next time, so it’s fine, and we have stuff we want to do around the village before we become fulltime ninja anyway. But none of us can get the bells by ourselves, so we’re going to have to work together. I need you, and Naruto, and Sakura to all distract Kakashi as much as possible, and I’ll grab the bells and then you and Sakura can have one each and be on a team together.”

There was a long pause where all three children looked at each other.

“That’s… not really fair,” Sakura said, and it seemed to physically pain her to say it. “I’m – I’m not sure I’m ready to be a shinobi, as much as I’d like to be on a team with Sasuke-kun. Maybe I should be the one who goes back to the Academy? I can graduate again. I was top kunoichi, but Naruto… I thought you failed?”

“Eh, I did. My bunshin sucked. But I learned how to do something way cooler, so it doesn’t matter, you know.”

Sasuke said nothing.

“Why don’t we just focus on getting the bells now, and then you can argue about who goes back to the Academy after?” Kurama suggested.

Naruto and Sakura agreed, and Sasuke grunted again, which Kurama decided to take for agreement.

“Okay, so let’s hash this out. No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, so I think we’re probably going to have to improvise a certain amount anyway. Ideas, strengths, weaknesses: go.”

And that was how Kakashi found himself surrounded by a dozen pink nine-tailed foxes with jingling bells on their bedazzled red collars, as Sakura threw kunai at him to keep him away from the river, and Sasuke used the fireball technique to keep him from disappearing into the forest, while one last small russet fox with his chakra tamped down tightly sneaked up behind him and grabbed the bells from his waist, their tell-tale jangle hidden by the ringing of the bells of the dozens of little pink Naruto-Kyuubi clones.

After, and a full two hours before lunchtime, Kurama sat by Kakashi’s side as the three genin chased each other around the field, trying to force the bells onto one another, each claiming that they would be the one to return to the Academy.

“They… passed,” Kakashi said, feebly, to the sky.

Kurama made a pleased noise.

Kakashi glanced down at him with one wary silver eye. “You understood the test. You manipulated them into working as a team.”

“Maybe,” Kurama said. “It isn’t cheating severely enough to allow for disqualification. I’m Naruto’s ninkitsune – we’re partners.”

Kakashi gave him a thoroughly disgusted look.

Kurama extrapolated. “I’m a wily old fox. What did you expect? Foxes don’t get to be my age unless they learn to be cunning. I’m, what, going on nine? The lifespan of an average wild fox is five.”

Kakashi scratched his masked chin. “I can’t believe that worked, though.”

“They’re small humans,” Kurama said, like that explained everything. To him, it did. Small humans were capable of so much more than anyone ever thought, even if they needed more protecting than the large ones on occasion.

“How do you know so much, anyway?”

Kurama hooked his claws into Kakashi’s trousers and climbed up his clothes to perch on his shoulder. “Nii-san,” he said. “You spend too much time with dogs. I can smell them on you. But I already told you, I’m a fox. Not some dumb old dog, or a human child, that you must teach everything from scratch. Foxes learn by observing, and replicating, and thinking for themselves. We’re canny because we’re both predator and prey. It would be remiss of me to remain ignorant in a shinobi village, when my friend and fighting partner is the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi.”

Kakashi mulled that over, but seemed to find it acceptable, for he nodded, slowly.

Kurama turned his gaze to the genin, where Sakura and Naruto had pinned Sasuke to the ground and were forcibly stuffing a bell down the back of his trousers.

“I think you should tell them they all passed before someone draws blood. More blood.”

“I think you’re probably right,” Kakashi conceded, shaking his head. “Foxes.

 

vi.

What this team needs, Kurama thought, as he was delicately picking at his kobukoru, Is a responsible adult. And some proper team bonding exercises.

They were at the Yakiniku-Q restaurant, after a hard day of training followed by a couple of D-ranks. Incidentally, the restaurant owners had almost not allowed Kurama in, on account of him being a dirty animal, until Naruto crossly pointed to the hitai-ate tied around the fox’s neck, so now Kurama was sitting on the table Team Seven was eating at and trying to prove he could be tidy and not, well, a dirty animal.

It was more difficult than it looked.

He wasn’t going to tell anyone that.

Particularly not Naruto, since they split cooking duties at home.

Their first D-rank had been watching a civilian woman’s small children for a couple of hours while she went to the market, followed by another moving hay bales in a barn to make room for the new hay that had just been cut.

Kurama had not particularly enjoyed having very small humans pulling on his ears and crawling all over him – he’d had enough of that when Naruto was young – but the barn had been fun. Barns were fun in general. There were always rats in the hay, and he got to chase them and kill them while Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura shifted the old hay to make room to store the new, and by the end of the mission he’d lined up nine fat rats, a couple of little ones, and a handful of mice in the yard outside for the farm cats.

Not that he, mighty, ancient, chakra construct that he was would admit to having fun eliminating vermin… but there was something so satisfying about the crunch of little bones beneath his teeth, followed by a rush of hot blood, and the way the squealing of his victims abruptly cut off.

He was nostalgic for the old days of terrorising everyone, so sue him!

At least he was taking it out on pests and being useful while he did it, and if Kakashi looked at him funny as he cackled with glee as he pounced after a rat in the barn, well, he was a fox!

So, here they were at Yakiniku-Q, all of them tired and dirty to a certain degree except Kakashi, who had sat and read that Icha-Icha porn book of his and only glanced up every now and again to make sure none of them had killed each other. And Kurama looked at his boy-kit fondly, then he looked at Naruto’s team, who were not yet meshing, and he thought: This isn’t good enough. The strength of Konoha is the strength of the bonds of her teams. Even I know that.

He understood that Kakashi kept everyone at arm’s length, that having convinced him to take his otouto and his other two genin to dinner after a hard day was in and of itself a massive step.

Actually, convincing Kakashi to feed them all had taken a lot of guilt-tripping the man, telling him all about how all Naruto could afford was instant ramen, and that if he wanted to eat anything else he had to grow or catch it himself, so they had to hunt or fish twice a week and were cultivating various crops of vegetables out in some of the lesser used training fields.

So Kakashi had begun to offer to feed them a few times a week. Sometimes it was lunch and sometimes it was dinner, but it was a start.

It isn’t enough.

“We should have a slumber party,” Kurama said, cheerfully.

That’s a good idea, right? Children do it all the time. We can play truth or dare! Except maybe without the dare, because these are small ninja, not ordinary children, and someone might get hurt, and I wouldn’t be a very responsible adult if I let that happen and we aren’t even on a mission.

“Eh?” Naruto said intelligently, his mouth half-full of food.

“Well,” Kurama said. “One day soon, we’ll take a mission, and it’ll be outside the gates of the village and we won’t get back before nightfall, so it might be a good idea to have a pretend one where we all share sleeping quarters. You know, so we get to know each other’s… peculiarities. It would be terribly unfortunate to learn that Sasuke sleepwalks across the village every night, or Sakura has screaming nightmares that usually wake her neighbours while we were out in the field.”

At the exact same moment, Sasuke snapped: “That’s a lie!”

And Sakura said, horrified: “I do not!”

Kurama shrugged. “I was speaking hypothetically, but good to know. What do you think, Kakashi-nii-san?”

“Go for it,” Kakashi said, disinterestedly, reading his book. He had somehow managed to eat without anyone catching a glimpse at his face, which must’ve meant speed-eating while no-one was looking. Kurama thought that scarfing his food like that would give him terrible indigestion, but Kakashi was only in his mid-twenties, so he could probably get away with it for a little while longer before it became an actual health concern.

“I’m not sure my parents will let me have a sleepover with two boys,” Sakura said, a little uncertainly.

“I’m biologically an adult, I can chaperone,” Kurama said. “Anyway, none of you are properly into puberty yet. What can you even do? Dry hump? It wouldn’t be a productive coupling.”

Sasuke choked and had to grab his water and take several large gulps of it, Sakura went as pink as her hair, and Naruto burst into raucous laughter and toppled out of the booth onto the floor. Kakashi fumbled with his book so badly he almost dropped it, so he flipped it closed and carefully put it away.

“Maybe I should be there,” he said, after clearing his throat. “For, uh, adult supervision.”

Kurama sniffed. “You’re a pervert. Everyone knows you’re a pervert. You walk around reading Icha-Icha in public. I am not convinced that anyone’s parents would find your presence a relief, let alone a young girl’s.”

“I’m not a paedophile,” Kakashi hissed, scandalised, before glancing around the restaurant to make sure no one was listening in.

Taking a page out of Sasuke’s book, Kurama made a noncommittal noise at the back of his throat, but said nothing.

Naruto clambered back into the booth and sat down, still giggling a little hysterically.

“Right,” Kurama said. “Kakashi-nii-san will be joining us. Our apartment is really small, so… is there someone else who can host?”

Not to mention Naruto’s apartment was right in the middle of the Akasen, and Kurama was not certain that Sasuke or Sakura would be able to navigate it safely, because shinobi or not they were children entirely naïve to the seediest parts of the world. They were ninja now, so they’d learn about it in the next few years, but Kurama would feel bad forcing prepubescent children into that lesson.

What followed was a game of ‘Not-It.’

Kakashi couldn’t have them over because he had single-room apartment in the jounin dorms and, somehow, eight ninken summons that preferred to hang around at his place, if they could get away with it.

Sakura couldn’t host because her room was too little to cram four entire people into, and she didn’t think her parents would like it if they camped out in her living room. Kakashi backed her up, citing that it may not, in fact, be appropriate for him to invite himself over to the Haruno family residence.

Sasuke… just plain didn’t want to.

Thus, Sasuke lost the game and was obliged to play host for the very first official Team Seven slumber party, and they all agreed to meet at his house at eight o’clock, giving them just over an hour to go home, have a wash, change into clean clothes, and grab their pyjamas and toothbrushes.

Sasuke’s apartment overlooked the Uchiha Clan Compound. Well, it wasn’t really a compound so much as it was an entire district unto itself, which always made the enormity of the tragedy that had happened there feel so much worse and left Kurama feeling a little breathless. The little fox admired the neat little apartment appreciatively after they had been grudgingly let inside – for a child living on his own, Sasuke was fastidiously tidy, and everything in his refrigerator and cupboards appeared to be well before its expiry.

“What are you doing?” Sasuke asked, when he wandered into the kitchen and found Kurama halfway up the shelves in the pantry, squinting at the ingredients list on a packet of dried noodles.

“Checking,” Kurama said, dropping back onto the kitchen floor.

A long pause. “Checking what?” Sasuke’s expression was one of bemusement, more than anything.

“That you have healthy food in your home,” Kurama replied. “It would be remiss of me not to ensure the health and safety of my teammates. I can trust Sakura’s parents for certain things, and Kakashi-nii-san is currently beyond my sphere of influence, but you and Naruto both have a… severely lacking social support structure at home, which may leave you vulnerable in several different and unique ways.”

“I’m not weak,” Sasuke said, immediately.

Because that was the one thing the brat took from Kurama’s concern.

The fox sighed exasperatedly. “Do you even have ears, or are those things on the sides of your head for show only? Honestly, you’re as bad as the Fishcake, jumping to conclusions all the time. I in no way implied that you were weak. That was not meant as an attack on your character. All I meant to do was point out that because you, in exactly the same way as Naruto, lack people at home to ensure your ongoing wellbeing have a set of disadvantages that other genin do not have. It is in no way your fault, it is simply a fact of life.”

Sasuke said nothing.

“You’re doing better than Naruto is,” Kurama allowed, after a few long seconds of silence where they stared at each other uncomfortably. “I found some milk in our fridge that was a week past its expiry the other day and had to tip it down the sink. I swear, that boy would forget his head.”

And Sasuke smiled and gave tiny little laugh.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Uchiha, but you wouldn’t be the one dealing with Naruto with food poisoning if he’d drank it accidentally. Anyway, it doesn’t look like you’re going to get scurvy anytime soon. Where do you keep the cocoa? I thought we could all have a hot drink before bed.”

Sasuke showed him.

Kurama put in entirely too much sugar, Kakashi took a single sip and spat his out, Naruto stole the rest of it and had a sugar high and then a sugar crash that left him snoozing in the corner. They played a very tame game of truth-or-dare that mostly involved simple dares like asking Sasuke to try to lick his own elbow, or Kakashi to hop on one foot while patting his own head and rubbing his stomach, and truths like most embarrassing childhood stories and favourite colours and foods and songs. Everyone stayed up entirely too late, after they woke Naruto up for the third time, and consequently everyone was equally late to training the following morning, so no one shouted at Kakashi.

Kurama felt very smug.

 

vii.

Tora was a menace to society and Kurama never, ever wanted to see that demon cat’s ugly mug again in his life. As a general rule, and with the sole exception of Matatabi, Kurama did not like cats on the best of days. Tora very quickly became loathed.

“Respectfully, Hokage-sama,” Kurama said from his perch on Naruto’s shoulder in the Mission Room, after they had managed to return Tora to its owned for the third time that week, and Naruto pitched a fit that Kurama did not interrupt because he thought it was a very righteous fit, all things considered. “If I see that damn cat again, I’m not going to bother bringing it back. I’m going to eat it, and I don’t even care if that counts as a failed mission. I agree with the Fishcake on this. Give us something better.”

They were given their first C-Rank. Not what Kurama was angling for – he wouldn’t have minded weeding, or more farm work. He always enjoyed those missions. Instead, they had an escort mission, one where they were taking a smelly old drunk back to the Land of Waves where they would guard him while he finished building his bridge. His name was Tazuna, and he was very, very rude.

“Ah, they’re just a bunch of kids!” Tazuna slurred drunkenly when he first laid eyes on them. “Is the short one with the stupid face really a ninja?”

He probably meant Naruto, but technically Kurama was the shortest in the group, so he leapt off Naruto’s shoulder to stand in front of Tazuna, balanced precariously on his hind legs while he threw his forepaws angrily in the air, the fur on his tail all standing on end, and yelled at the top of his squeaky little fox voice: “I’m a ninkitsune, you idiotic old man, and my face isn’t stupid! It’s normal for a fox! Your face is stupid.”

It was at that precise moment that Kurama realised that he had been spending far too much time around children, and if they saw him having a childish tantrum and pouting petulantly like this, all his siblings would laugh at him. Never mind that he was more powerful than any of them, even after that Minato-brat sealed half his chakra in the gut of the Shinigami.

Then, mentally, he shrugged it off, because it wasn’t like anyone knew he was the Kyuubi no kitsune, so this would never get back to any of his siblings anyway, which meant he could behave however he liked, and Naruto was laughing joyously at the befuddled expression on Tazuna’s face which made the entire spectacle worth it in Kurama’s opinion.

Kakashi picked him up by the scruff of his neck. “Enough,” he said, and handed Kurama back to Naruto. “Control your pet.”

“I’m more than a mere pet!” Kurama proclaimed, loudly, squirming, but not actually making a very concerted effort to escape Naruto’s grasp.

“Maa, maa, you definitely are,” Kakashi said, waving his hands placatingly. “But I think my cute little genin should all go home and pack for our mission, no?” He addressed all of them. “Make sure to bring enough for more than a couple of days. Bring food, a change of clothes, your weapons, medical supplies, water.”

“Toothbrush?” Sakura asked.

“Yes, that too. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“So, at nine then?” Kurama asked.

They scattered before Kakashi could lunge for any of them.

Helping Naruto pack was… an experience.

“You can bring two cups of instant ramen,” the fox told the boy, firmly. “They’re light, so they’re easy to carry – yes. But they take up too much space, and you need hot water to eat them, so they are not entirely practical. Tazuna should have a way to heat water at his house, unless he lives in such a backwater village they’re still cooking fish on sticks over open flames.”

“Aw, but Kurama.”

“No, Naruto.”

“You’re a bossy old grump.”

“I love you, too.”

Naruto wanted to bring his sleeping cap.

“You don’t need it, and it’ll take up the space where you could put something useful, like that roll of sterile bandages. What if you get hurt?”

“You always heal me!” Naruto protested.

Kurama rolled his eyes. “What if it’s a bad wound, and it takes me a while?”

“What injury could be that bad?”

“I can think of a few.”

Naruto wanted to pack food for Kurama.

“Naruto, I look like a fox. Everyone thinks I am a fox. I remind you now that I am not, in fact, a fox. I am a very small piece of the very large chakra construct currently residing in your gut. I do not, in fact, need to eat to sustain myself. I might do it for fun, because food tastes nice, or to inflict terror in others, but it really isn’t a necessity, and you’re packing necessities right now.”

“What if I think packing something you enjoy is necessary?” Naruto asked, sulkily.

“I thank you graciously, but decline. If I really want to eat while we’re on the road, I’ll go catch myself a mouse. I like it when my food runs and squeaks beneath my paws, and enjoy the hot rush of delicious coppery blood that runs down my throat as I crunch into it. Better than ramen.”

“Blasphemy,” Naruto gasped.

“I shouldn’t have taught you that word,” Kurama grumbled.

But finally Naruto had packed for their trip, and Kurama was satisfied. The following morning they left for the East Gate at nine o’clock, since they had given Kakashi a time to be late to so there was absolutely no reason to hurry, and met up with Sasuke, Sakura, and Tazuna, who were already there and waiting – albeit impatiently on Tazuna’s part.

He was still grumbling that they were a bunch of kids, and he couldn’t believe a bunch of kids could possibly protect him, something, something, something. Kurama tuned him out.

Kakashi arrived at ten, which was late, but earlier than expected and Naruto and Kurama beamed at him though Sakura looked a little sulky and Tazuna remained put out about this entire endeavour. Sasuke remained outwardly indifferent because he was just like that, as far as Kurama could tell.

“Don’t worry, Stupid-Face-san,” Kurama said, trotting along at Tazuna’s side. “Kakashi-nii-san has been a jounin since he was Naruto’s age, and he’s a really good ninja. It may not look like it, but you’re in very safe hands.”

 

viii.

“Puddle,” Kurama observed brightly. It was obviously a genjutsu concealing someone or something, and Kurama tended to make a habit of going around breaking every genjutsu he came across because he hated them by default. This one was not very expertly done, as it had not rained in days, the summer was hot and dry, and they were on a well-maintained piece of road with good drainage, which meant they had encountered no other puddles at any one point in their trip.

“Puddle?” Naruto repeated, and they paused to share a glance.

“Puddle,” Kurama confirmed, nodding, a toothy grin spreading across his foxy face.

“Wait,” Kakashi went to say, but he was not quick enough, for at that exact moment both Naruto and Kurama had jumped with all their might into the puddle, splashing water and mud everywhere and sending the pair of ninja who’d been concealing themselves in it springing out into the open, their ambush quite ruined.

“Ooh,” Naruto exclaimed, a kunai in his hand, mud splashed up to his armpits. “Kurama, there were people in there!”

“Shinobi,” Kurama agreed, wiping mud out of his eyes with a paw. “Why would shinobi be hiding in a puddle, I wonder?”

The pair of shinobi, clad in dark cloaks with clawed gauntlets and breathing apparatus, a nasty bladed chain held between them, appeared to consider Kakashi for a fraction of a second, and had their ambush not been so effectively decimated they might have gone after him. As it was, they leapt straight for Tazuna, but they were neatly intercepted the genin then incapacitated with a proper genjutsu cast by Kakashi, a messenger was bird summoned and sent on its way to Konoha for ANBU to come and pick them up.

For his first official fight with an enemy ninja, Kurama thought Naruto acquitted himself quite well. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, which Kurama would have to train him out of because that sort of nonsense would get him killed in the high-velocity world of shinobi battles, but then he launched himself into action, ducking behind one of the enemy nin to hamstring him while Sasuke was distracting the pair of them with kunai and shuriken, Sakura guarded the client, and Kakashi idly played with the second nin.

“The Demon Brothers of the Mist,” Kakashi said, as he peered down at the apprehended and unconscious shinobi, after. “Chuunin-level rogue nin.”

“Demons?” Naruto echoed curiously, and he and Kurama tried to creep over to inspect the enemy shinobi more closely, but Kakashi picked them up by the scruffs of their necks and deposited them a safe distance away.

“They don’t look very much like demons to me,” Kurama said, turning to sniff the abandoned bladed chain since Kakashi wouldn’t let him inspect the actually enemy nin.

Kurama was The Demon in these parts.

He would know.

The chain was poisoned. Interesting. He went to lick it to assess the components of the poison, in case Naruto ever had something similar introduced to his bloodstream and he had to burn it off to save his life… and was immediately scruffed again.

“Naruto,” the Hatake-brat said, exhaustedly. “Control your pet before it kills itself. Tazuna-san and I need to have a little chat about how this mission was mis-ranked. This is a B-rank at least.”

“But Kakashi-nii,” Kurama whined, as obnoxiously as possible.

“No, you stupid fox. Leave that chain alone. You will die. Don’t touch their gauntlets, either.”

Kurama felt oddly warm and fuzzy. The Hatake-brat cared not just about Naruto, but about him, too!

There was a big argument about whether or not to continue the mission. Tazuna won by guilt-tripping them rather masterfully, telling them all about his poor daughter and his poor grandson and how that horrible CEO Gatou was slowly killing the Land of Waves like a black rot, and they needed this bridge that was so close to being finished, or they would all die. Even the children. And his little grandson Inari was just small.

It was a beautiful piece of manipulation. Naruto was wiping away tears at the end of it, and then he turned and gave Kakashi the biggest, saddest, bluest eyes since the Minato-brat, and Kakashi caved after a minute of trying to look stoic.

“Fine,” he muttered. “Let’s go then.”

They continued.

Camping with Team Seven turned out to be an experience in and of itself, but it was not unpleasant. Kurama and Naruto got sent off to find firewood, which they were good at. Then they volunteered to find food, too, and Kakashi gave Naruto a long, slightly sad look, but acquiesced, and before dark Kurama had sniffed out a decently-sized boar which he and Naruto took down with only marginal difficulty.

Naruto had to use a handful of Shadow Clones to help get it back to camp, because it was very heavy, but the expression on Kakashi’s face when they brought a field-dressed wild boar bigger than a grown man into the campsite was well worth it.

Suffice to say, everyone was sick of pork by the time they reached the misty coastline some days later. Why Kakashi knew just the right jutsu for smoking meat for preservation was anyone’s guess but it meant that instead of leaving what they did not eat for the wild animals, which was Kurama’s usual modus operandi when hunting – to return unconsumed prey to the local ecosystem – they were instead obliged to bring it with them in a storage scroll.

“The village will appreciate it,” Tazuna said, at one point, so maybe the Land of Waves was having such an issue with food deficit that a single boar would, in fact, make a difference.

That made Naruto sad again, and Kurama curled around his shoulders and snuffled his neck, murmuring soft promises of the things they would fix when Naruto was Hokage to cheer him up – starting with the protection of the smaller neighbouring countries, the countries that did not have well-established samurai or shinobi of their own to keep themselves safe from people like corrupt shipping tycoons.

They passed beneath the great shape of the bridge, a looming shadow in the mist, but Naruto was too busy feeling morose to notice it. Kurama eyed the structure with the interest of a very, very old being, and quietly marvelled at the feat of human engineering being constructed between the island and the mainland, for it was truly massive. How little those humans were, and they weren’t even shinobi. They were just regular people who could do nothing more extraordinary than use their heads and their hands to bring the things they thought up into reality, and the amount of time and dedication that took made it even more amazing.

Kurama did not consider that once upon a time he would not have thought this of humans at all, would have thought them as nothing more than a blight on the landscape rather than short-lived but highly intelligent little creatures with unique and interesting existences, each and every one of them. It did not occur to him to consider this, because he was content now, and with his precious person, and with his precious person’s precious people, and most of his chakra might have been in Naruto’s stomach, dormant, waiting, but a small part of him was awake and out in the world, playing tricks and making friends, with a bright and happy plan for a future he would do everything he could to see fulfilled, having a better time than he had in centuries because he wasn’t alone. He was loved, and he loved in return.

They arrived quietly in the village, and the fisherman who’d given them a ride immediately left, like he was afraid to be seen with Tazuna.

“Well, come on,” Tazuna said. “Let’s head on to my home. It’s about a half-hour walk along the shore.”

Just a little way outside the village, but before they got to Tazuna’s house, they found themselves walking through a mist that Kurama thought was suspiciously unlike the mist from before. Mostly because the mist from before had been natural, and this mist was chakra-infused and deliberately placed.

Another ambush.

“I don’t like this,” Kurama said, dropping back to walk beside Kakashi, who was looking slightly more alert than usual.

Kakashi said nothing, so Kurama slunk over to Naruto, who was making a fuss about a rabbit that had given him a fright, and pressed against his side. Naruto quieted and stilled, squinting into the mist as he tested the air with his nose and listened, carefully.

“Down,” Kakashi barked, suddenly, and it was a testament to their training and their trust in their sensei that they dropped like rocks without question, Sakura dragging Tazuna down with her. A moment later, a very large sword whistled over their heads and lodged itself partway through a tree on the seaward side of the path.

Kurama knew enough about shinobi weaponry to tell a shuriken from a fuma-shuriken from a kunai from a tantou from a katana and a wakizashi, but beyond the basics he was mostly in the dark. He was, well, a mountain-sized chakra construct. He’d only learned about these tiny little pointy objects because Naruto had, at the Academy, and had not cared about them before then because none of them had concerned him any more than an insect bite might have.

Of course he now got pinned down and treated for fleas once a month, because insects were more annoying than he remembered, but that was beside the point.

A man appeared out of the mist and landed on the sword. Kurama correctly assumed it was his sword. Coincidentally, he was wearing a Kirigakure hitai-ate with a horizontal slash through it, which explained all the mist but was terribly predictable.

“Momochi Zabuza,” Kakashi said, getting to his feet and stepping between the genin and the man on the sword with the flair for truly terrible dramatics. And Kurama couldn’t remember it very clearly because it had been while he was rampaging around and mostly insane after he’d been unceremoniously yanked out of Kushina, but he was fairly certain that he’d once seen the Minato-brat turn up fashionably late to a battle on the back of a giant toad. Perhaps all shinobi were just dramatic. “Rogue-ninja of Kirigakure.”

“Sharingan no Kakashi,” Zabuza replied.

Sasuke froze like a deer staring down a tiger, his gaze locked on the back of his teacher, face expressionless but white as a sheet.

Kurama herded Naruto closer to the client, patted his ankle with a paw to let him know to stay, then slunk over to Sasuke to climb up onto his shoulder.

“It’s not kekkei genkai theft,” Kurama murmured into his ear, very, very softly and very, very quickly. “Kakashi-nii-san’s best friend was an Uchiha, but he was grievously injured when they were both your age. He was not going to survive, and Kakashi-nii-san had lost his eye, so his friend gifted him the Sharingan. The last selfless act of Uchiha Obito. Put your anger away, because it has no place here. Focus on the mission right now. Focus on surviving. Unless I am mistaken—” Kurama was not mistaken, he’d read last year’s copy of Konoha’s Bingo Book himself. “—Zabuza is one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. That means he is very dangerous.”

Sasuke didn’t move for another second that seemed to stretch longer, and then he nodded and took up a position on Tazuna’s other side, guarding him without Kakashi having to command it.

In the meantime, Zabuza had demanded they hand over Tazuna.

Kakashi declined, and they fought out over the water.

The battle… didn’t go very well, and Kakashi was promptly imprisoned in a dome of water.

Must I do everything? Kurama wondered, curling the mist around himself and slipping out across the still water, as he let the brats deal with the Water Clone that Zabuza sent at them. He trusted them to survive against a clone that was a fraction of the strength of the original. They were genin, not useless.

He had a mouthful of Naruto’s toothpaste, which he’d had to climb into Naruto’s backpack to steal, and now he was working it around between his teeth and cheeks with his tongue, working up a good froth.

Zabuza was watching the fight between the clone and the genin so intently he didn’t notice the heavily masked fox until it bit him on the ankle, drawing blood, and then he glanced down sharply to see the grinning, foaming maw and wild, white-ringed eyes of a rabid fox.

In his haste to kick Kurama away, he dropped the water prison and Kakashi sprang away to a safe distance.

It was a good kick. Kurama went flying, right over the Water Clone and into the trees. His ribs – he’d constructed an entire body, complete with chakra coils and everything in case one of the Hyuuga ever glanced his way with their doujutsu active, because he would’ve been given away immediately if he appeared as just a ball of fox-shaped chakra and not an actual nin-animal – snapped like twigs, puncturing his lungs.

The wounds healed almost immediately, but there was blood in his lungs, now. He coughed it into his mouth, which was a disgusting experience because his mouth was already full of minty toothpaste and the two flavours did not mix well on his taste-buds at all.

Hacking and retching, he staggered back towards the fight, just in time to almost get washed away by a water jutsu and watch a Hunter-nin stick a couple of senbon into Zabuza to mimic a deathlike state, then make off with his body? Fake Hunter-nin, then, because that wasn’t standard practice if anything he’d learned from that Bingo Book held up in real life.

And then Kakashi toppled over from chakra exhaustion, which gave Kurama enough time to finish wiping his mouth on some grass, so it didn’t look like he’d almost died. He didn’t want to worry anyone unnecessarily.

 

ix.

“Oh,” Kakashi said, when he awoke late the following afternoon and found Kurama curled up beside his neck. “You’re alive.”

“Don’t sound so pleased about it,” Kurama said, without opening his eyes. “The brats are downstairs, helping Tsunami-san with the dinner. They’re safe, and whole. The client is safe. We’re at the client’s house. You overused the Sharingan.”

Kakashi freed one of his hands from the blankets piled over him to scratch softly just behind Kurama’s ears. “Thank you, Kurama,” he said softly.

“Rest, Kakashi-nii-san. You shouldn’t be awake this early, not with chakra exhaustion,” Kurama told him, and Kakashi slept again. Kurama tucked his feet under his chest and wrapped himself in his tail, then buried his face in Kakashi’s hair and kept his eyes closed but his ears open.

The following morning, Kakashi was up and about even though he really should’ve been on bedrest, which Kurama informed him of disapprovingly. Sakura backed Kurama up on the point of strict bedrest, but Kakashi ignored their concerns. He did, however, think that Kurama was right – Zabuza was not dead though he was definitely injured, and would come back for them all sooner or later and probably with his Hunter-nin friend.

This, of course, meant it was time for some last-minute training in case that would somehow increase the genins’ chances of survival against an S-Rank nuke-nin.

Kakashi’s idea of training was to teach them how to tree-walk.

“But Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto whined, sounding terribly aggrieved. “I can do this already.”

Kakashi raised his single visible eyebrow skeptically.

Kurama didn’t blame him. Naruto was forever claiming to be an expert at things he knew absolutely nothing about, a bad habit Kurama could not break for the life of him, but this was not one of those times.

“Go on, then,” Kakashi said, as Sasuke and Sakura both picked a tree and began to practice.

“Why does no one ever think I can do it?” Naruto muttered to himself, stomping at a tree.

Kurama saw Kakashi suppress a flinch, obviously expecting some sort of chakra explosion.

Naruto kept on stomping, though, right up the trunk of the tree and then upside down along the broad underside of a branch maybe thirty feet in the air, until he was balancing upside-down on twigs and eventually flipped back down onto the ground.

“See? I’m a great ninja, you know! Why are you wasting my time with this baby stuff?” Naruto asked.

“Baby stuff?” Kakashi said, slowly.

“Yeah, I could tree-walk when I was seven!”

Sasuke slipped off the trunk of his tree and didn’t quite manage to stick the landing, ending up in a crumpled heap on the ground with an: “Oof!”

“Sasuke!” Sakura yelped, and leapt out of her tree, though she had been higher up than he had.

“Seven?” Kakashi repeated.

“Why don’t you believe me?”

Kakashi crouched down to meet Naruto’s eye. “I do believe you, but I’m not sure I understand, Naruto. Tree-walking is something you usually learn as a genin. It can be very difficult for many people, and requires a lot of chakra control. It is not a part of the Academy curriculum because the Academy senseis don’t have enough time to teach it to each student individually… So, I’m wondering how you did learn to do it so easily.”

“Kurama taught me,” Naruto said.

Kakashi glanced sharply at Kurama, who was lounging in a sunny spot in the clearing, enjoying the contrast of the warm sunshine and the refreshing sea breeze.

“What?” Kurama asked. “I figured the clan kids were probably getting tutoring at home, and Naruto has terrible chakra control, so it seemed like an appropriate exercise to try and improve it. Was I wrong?”

“No,” Kakashi conceded. “But where did you learn to tree-walk?”

Kurama rolled his eyes. “We’ve had this conversation before. I’m an old fox. Foxes don’t learn from books or Academy teachers – I was an adult long before I started going to the Academy with the Fishcake. Foxes learn by observing their parents – or in a Hidden Village in the absence of parents, by observing the shinobi. I found the ones with the animal mask shinobi to be the most informative, though the jounin and chuunin also contributed to my education.”

This was not even a lie. After he opened his eyes and started paying attention to the world his boy-kit was living in as more than just the nebulous idea of the den of the enemy, he had discovered a tremendous amount by simply watching the daily lives of the ninja.

“Because foxes are cunning,” Kakashi said.

Kurama sniffed. “Yes. They have to be.”

“Alright Naruto,” Kakashi said. “Why don’t you go to the bridge with Tazuna-san today, while these other two work on their tree-walking?”

Kurama and Naruto went off to the bridge. A half-hour later, Sakura joined them.

“Kakashi-sensei said I have really good chakra control!” she said, with a bright smile.

Kurama nodded, sagely. “You must. I’d bet that was faster than even he learned to tree walk, and he was a chuunin by the time he was six because he was a genius. You’re going to be really good at jutsu that require delicate control. You could be a phenomenal med-nin, if you so chose.” Because he had learned that children thrived on praise, encouragement, and direction. “Or a genjutsu specialist, though I am not particularly fond of genjutsu myself.” Kurama wrinkled his muzzle.

“You can do it!” Naruto said, ecstatic on behalf of her achievement. “Believe it!”

“You’re too loud, Naruto,” Sakura said, flinched.

“Oh, sorry. Kurama says that too. I just get excited sometimes.”

Kurama nodded. “All the time.”

Sasuke was late to dinner that night, and when he did arrive, he was dirty and scratched up and very tired. Kurama had the unsettled feeling that the status quo had been shaken up in a way that left the team feeling odd and off-balance. Apart from the Shadow Clones thing – which had ruffled no one’s feather since everyone knew Naruto couldn’t perform the regular bunshin technique to save his life – Naruto was usually the last to learn something, and Sasuke either already knew it from self-training, or could pick it up quite quickly.

That Sakura had also learned to tree-walk before him, and it seemed he was still struggling after spending an entire day at it, appeared to have upset him.

Should I step in and help? Kurama wondered as he crunched up the fried fish he’d been given for dinner. The Uchiha brat is proud and might not appreciate it. And he is determined… If he doesn’t have it down by tomorrow evening, I will help.

He cast his gaze to Kakashi and found Kakashi looking back at him with a lazily solemn expression.

Is this what you were hoping for, Hatake-brat? Kurama thought. The fox gave the jounin the stink-eye, and Kakashi eye-smiled back. Yep. Shirking your responsibilities. Is it because you’re lazy, or because you’re not sure how to teach?

Kurama speculated the latter. Kakashi, for all that he had been a shinobi for twenty-odd years, and was therefore very old for a ninja – ninja had frankly terrible life expectancies and Kurama had already resolved that Naruto was going to live happily and healthily until he was two-hundred – he was very young for a human.

If Kakashi were a fox, he would’ve been just out of adolescence, too young to have kits of his own, and would’ve probably still been hanging around with his sibling and parent foxes, still honing his ability to hunt. There would be an entire cycle of seasons between the Kakashi of now and the Kakashi that would theoretically be equipped to look after young foxes.

By that reasoning, it made sense that he would not know what to do with a bunch of twelve-year-olds when he was only just in his mid-twenties.

Kurama had been ignoring Naruto, who had been extolling some virtue or another of himself, but he tuned back into the conversation when the very small boy, Tazuna’s grandson, burst into tears and fled the table.

“I’m dealing with your genin,” Kurama hissed between his teeth at Kakashi. “You can deal with the small snotty human. I’ve done enough of that to last me a lifetime already.”

It will be good practice, Kurama thought, viciously.

 

x.

“Go on, then” Kakashi said. “Prove you can water-walk.”

“I will!” Naruto shouted, and jumped off the bridge.

He splashed straight into the ocean below and emerged a few seconds later coughing and spluttering.

“I thought you said you could do this, Naruto,” Kakashi called down to him.

“I can, you know!” Naruto yelled back up, thrashing angrily. “This water is weird. Give me a minute!”

“What he means,” Kurama said, peering over the edge of the bridge at his Fishcake. “Is that he’s only ever water-walked on fresh water. The salinity of the ocean means the buoyancy of the water here is different. He used the wrong amount of chakra in anticipation of his impact with the surface of the water, and as a result he went right through. He’ll work out how much chakra he needs to stay above it in just a second, though. Watch, and have some faith in your student for once, Kakashi-nii-san. Your lack of faith is frankly insulting. He might be an absolute idiot, but he learns by doing, and he’s been doing this for a long time.”

And, sure enough, Naruto climbed up onto the surface of the gently rolling water a moment later to grin up at them.

“Ah,” Kakashi said. “I see. Very good, Naruto. Why don’t you run the length of the bridge ten times for practice? Sakura, you can walk down that support beam and see if you can work out water-walking as quickly as you did tree-walking. I’ll watch Tazuna-san.”

“You’re supposed to be on bedrest,” Kurama said.

Kakashi shrugged unrepentantly.

“Naruto,” Kurama called. “I’m going to help Sasuke now. I won’t be far.”

“Why are you going to help that bastard? He always learns everything before me! Let me have this.”

Kurama affected his disappointed voice. “Naruto, you’re standing on the ocean right now. You’re so far ahead it isn’t even funny. Just because Sasuke usually learns things faster than you does not mean you should wish for your teammate to fail. Go do your running. It’ll help your stamina and your concentration.”

“Yes, Kurama,” Naruto said, and ran off, only splashing a little as he went.

“I’m not sure whether I should find it concerning or not that you are the one in charge of Naruto and not the other way around,” Kakashi said to Kurama. “Aren’t you his pet?”

“Pet. Ha. Foxes do what they want. People either follow or get out of the way.” Kurama lifted his chin and sniffed. “It would be more apt to say that Naruto is my pet.”

Except that Kurama didn’t like to think about Naruto as anything except an equal – albeit a small, fragile equal that wasn’t quite ready to look after himself yet – so Kurama shook that thought off and scarpered away to find Sasuke.

Sasuke was in the clearing, sitting on the grass, panting hard and glaring at his tree with extreme prejudice. The poor tree had a row of slash marks from Sasuke’s kunai going all the way up its trunk, and it was oozing sticky, sharp-smelling sap.

Kurama sat down next to him, and as he found himself doing for most of the members of Team Seven since its formation, pressed close against Sasuke’s side, a warm, quiet, fuzzy comfort as he waited for Sasuke to speak. And speak he eventually did, after he’d caught his breath.

“Why can’t I do this?” he growled.

“You can,” Kurama murmured, softly. “But it’s not an easy thing to learn, and it took Naruto the better part of a year. Oh, he shows off now, but this is your third day since you were introduced to this technique.”

“Why is he so annoying?” Sasuke asked, and Kurama noticed that his knuckles where white where he clutched at his kunai. He pawed at Sasuke’s hand, gently encouraging him to put the weapon down.

“There’s an explanation for that,” Kurama replied. “Most of it is wrapped up in S-Rank secrets, so I can’t say much, but you do know that Naruto grew up without any parents at all. In fact, I might almost be inclined to say that his life is more tragic than yours, which is a feat in and of itself.”

Sasuke glanced at him sharply. “My Clan.”

“I know what happened to the Uchiha,” Kurama said, placatingly. “That doesn’t mean you have a monopoly on the tragic past routine. Remind me to tell you about Kakashi-nii-san sometime. But we’re talking about Naruto right now. Do you know what happened to Uzushiogakure no Sato?”

A pause, as Sasuke squinted and thought. “The Village Hidden in the Whirlpools,” he repeated. “No.”

“Konoha doesn’t talk about it much, but it isn’t a secret. Just something people would rather forget, because it reminds them of their own shortcomings. It was very sad. Uzushio was where the Uzumaki Clan was from, and it was utterly decimated during the Second Shinobi War. They were close allies with Konoha, but when they called Konoha for aid, Konoha was too late, and everyone died.”

“Everyone?” Sasuke said. “But… Naruto isn’t an Uzumaki? I thought he was orphaned by the Kyuubi, and no one knew his parents, so he was named after the Shodaime’s wife, Uzumaki Mito-sama?”

Kurama barked an ugly laugh. “No. His mother was an Uzumaki being fostered in Konoha at the time. And now Uzumaki Naruto, the last of the Uzumaki, of the once great Uzushiogakure renowned for their fuuinjutsu, is an orphan of Konoha, a village that prefers not to even acknowledge that his Clan or Uzushiogakure no Sato ever existed. We live in the Akasen.”

Sasuke’s eyes had a slightly wet sheen to them, though his face was flat with anger.

“Why?” Sasuke demanded. “Why would Konoha treat him like that?”

Kurama had hit a nerve.

He tapped the side of his muzzle with his paw, and winked. “S-Rank secret. Treason punishable by death to speak of it. I cannot say, but I will tell you that it has to do with the reason everyone hates him. And I can tell you that the reason everyone hates him is not his fault. It happened before his birth, due to circumstances no one could have possibly predicted. Keep your eyes open, though, Sasuke, and you’ll see the truth.”

“Who… who were his parents?” Sasuke asked. “Do you know their names?”

“Also a secret I am not allowed to tell. Naruto knows. So does Kakashi, and the Hokage. His mother was the last Uzumaki before him, I’ve told you that much. His father was even better known. In fact, I’d wager you’ve seen his face so many times back home you don’t even think about it anymore.”

Sasuke looked at him blankly. “And he’s dead?”

“And he’s dead,” Kurama agreed. “So, Naruto’s had no one, his whole life. No one except me, and I’m just his pet fox. And almost everyone in the village has hated him. Naruto is a good kid, though, and he doesn’t want revenge on them, because he knows they don’t hate him, but what he represents. He wants to be Hokage. He wants to show them that he’s more than the thing they see whenever they look at him. He wants to protect every single one of those people, whether they like him or not, because he has no one, but he wants someone. Anyone. Everyone. Do you understand, Sasuke? He’s trying to get people to look at him as he is.”

“Noisy?”

“I’ll give you that,” Kurama said. “But no. A human boy with a playful streak a mile wide and a good heart who just wants to be seen as anything but a monster. And I’m going to help him as best I can, because he’s mine.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind. Can you… Kurama, can you help me learn this?”

“Absolutely. I was just waiting for you to ask. You realise we’ll help you with anything you need, too, right? Anything.” Kurama met his eye and held it until Sasuke looked away, his cheeks faintly pink although whether he was embarrassed or angry he couldn’t guess because Sasuke was almost unreadable. “So, tell me how you’ve been doing it so far…”

That night, Sasuke almost had it. He could walk-run to the top of the tree, but if he tried to do it at a walk, he still slipped more often than not. He stayed out long past dark trying to perfect it until, exhausted, he slumped into the grass of the clearing and fell asleep. Kurama curled up on top of his chest and drowsed.

Sometime near midnight, Kakashi appeared, little more than a pale thatch of hair and a shadow in the moonlight, a worried presence at the edge of Kurama’s consciousness.

“Leave him,” Kurama whispered. “He’s exhausted. There’s no rain on the wind, so there’s no danger from exposure, and I’ll keep watch.”

Kakashi nodded, faded back into the night, and disappeared.

The following morning, Sasuke was still asleep well after the sun had risen, and while Kurama was pleased that he was resting when he obviously needed it, he was also concerned that if he didn’t wake up there might not be any breakfast left for him! Naruto had a tendency to eat everything put in front of him and then some more, if the option were presented, which meant that leftovers were only an issue if truly prodigious quantities of food had been produced.

Given how poor it seemed the Land of Waves was, Kurama did not think very large meals were likely.

Hopefully Sakura had been thoughtful enough to put some aside for her teammate. She was hopelessly enamoured with Sasuke for reasons Kurama could not hope to divine, but it did mean that she was the most likely out of all of them to take his needs into consideration.

Kurama was drawn from his musings by the approaching chakra-signature of the fake Hunter-nin.

Momochi Zabuza was not with them, so he closed his eyes to slits and pretended to be sleeping while he observed their approach, since a little information-gathering never went amiss before approaching a potential target.

The fake Hunter-nin was a child, probably no more than a year or two older than Naruto, with long dark hair, a distinctly feminine face, and wearing a pink kimono, though they smelled male. They – he? – was carrying a basket of fragrant medicinal herbs, though he paused when he spotted Sasuke sleeping in the grass, expression cycling through surprise to fear to determination to what looked like regret.

They drew a kunai from beneath the herbs in their basket, and stepped closer on silent feet.

Kurama let them approach, keeping his breathing slow and steady, and when the kunai was gently moved toward Sasuke’s neck, as if to slit it and let him bleed out into the grass, Kurama moved, quicker than a striking snake, teeth clamping around the enemy shinobi’s wrist. He did not break skin, but pressed hard enough to bruise, and fixed the fake Hunter-nin with a pointed amber glare.

Sasuke had not roused.

Carefully, carefully, the fake Hunter-nin withdrew their arm, and Kurama let them go, scraping his needle-sharp little teeth over the soft unblemished skin of their wrist and then the heavily calloused hands before drawing back and releasing him.

“Don’t,” Kurama said, voice a soft whisper. “I can exert a bite-force strong enough to shatter your bones and snap your tendons, even if you reinforce them with chakra. Think about your options carefully and weigh your desire to remove one genin from your opposition against your own mobility, or, indeed, your own survival.”

“The last time I saw you,” the Hunter-nin replied, just as softly, wisely tucking the kunai away. “You were a rabid animal with his ribs kicked in.”

“I got better.”

“Or you were never hurt at all.”

Kurama grinned at him, foxily, which Kurama was very willing to admit was an unsettling expression on an actual fox face because it showed off all his pointy teeth and looked almost like a snarl, and why he enjoyed doing it so much. “Maybe,” he agreed.

“Then I did not need to rush off to get the vaccine for rabies for Zabuza-sama?” the fake Hunter-nin was frowning ponderously.

Kurama’s grin widened. “It was toothpaste.”

“You…”

“I am a kitsune. Either we’re the original tricksters, or the tanuki are, though that’s a debate I won’t get into now. What did you expect? How is Zabuza-san, anyway?” Kurama asked. “Naruto was sad when he thought he had died.”

“Is that boy Naruto?” the fake Hunter-nin indicated Sasuke.

Kurama shook his head. “No, this is the Sasuke brat. He doesn’t care either way.”

Sasuke chose that moment to stir awake. He froze when he spotted the boy in the pink kimono crouched down beside him.

“Good morning, Sasuke,” Kurama greeted him, cheerfully, with a lick to the cheek that had him wincing in disgust. “I was just thinking about waking you, or you’re going to miss breakfast. This is, uh…”

“Haku,” the fake Hunter-nin said.

“And Haku is…”

“I am gathering herbs. My friend is sick, so I need herbs to make medicine to help them feel better,” Haku said.

“Why don’t we help Haku and then go and get breakfast?”

“You would help me?” Haku said.

“We would?” Sasuke repeated, sounding just as disbelieving as Haku did.

“Brat,” Kurama rumbled, and bit Sasuke’s ear reprovingly. “We’re shinobi, Sasuke. Our entire purpose is not just to hone ourselves into perfect killing machines, or we would not be here, risking our lives on a wildly mis-ranked mission, helping old Stupid-Face-san build his bridge for the sake of the people of the Land of Waves. We must be compassionate, and think of the people who are not shinobi, who are not kami among men, who cannot protect themselves otherwise. Because if we forget those people, the little people, we are not shinobi, we are not even human anymore, we are just monsters.”

Like the Kyuubi. Like the monster everyone saw in Naruto.

“Ah,” Sasuke said, sucking in a sharp breath of understanding. “I see. Can you show us which herbs you need, Haku-nee-chan? We will help.”

Haku showed them. Kurama took a good whiff of what they were looking for and set about sniffing out some good specimens – he doubted he would be allowed to do the actual picking of the herbs, on account of not possessing opposable thumbs in his current shape and medicine probably didn’t work as well if it was all slobbery. So he would find the plants they were looking for, and call Sasuke and Haku to them.

As they worked, they made slightly stilted conversation, though Sasuke seemed not to notice.

“You are a shinobi?” Haku asked.

A pause, while Sasuke used his kunai to neatly trim a few sprigs of herbs. “Yes. From Konohagakure. My name is Uchiha Sasuke.”

“Uchiha?”

Sasuke nodded, but stayed focused on his task. “They were a big Clan, once.”

“Not anymore?”

“They were killed.”

“Ah. I’m sorry, Sasuke-kun,” Haku said, and Kurama thought Haku must have heard of the Uchiha before. He tried to recall his history about the Village Hidden in the Mist from the Academy, but that was one of the classes he used to sleep through the same as Naruto because it was boring and most of the facts were wrong. He’d been there! He’d been alive, then, but the humans had come up with all sorts of different stories about what had happened when and where, and sitting through them had been too boring for words.

They worked in silence for a little while, the only sounds the distance wash of waves on the shore and the cawing of gulls.

“Are you a strong shinobi?” Haku asked, at length.

“I’d like to think so,” Sasuke said.

Haku made a thoughtful noise. “Do you fight for your precious person?”

Sasuke paused. “What?”

“You can only truly be strong when you are fighting for your precious people,” Haku explained.

“I – I’m not sure I have any left,” Sasuke admitted, softly.

“Of course you do,” Kurama interjected.

“But my – that man – he killed them.”

Kurama considered that. “Is your team not also precious, in its own way?”

“No,” Sasuke said, immediately.

“You don’t like us at all?” Kurama opened his eyes wide and slicked his ears back just so, the perfect puppy-dog expression, and peered up at Sasuke imploringly. “Really? You wouldn’t be at all sad if we all died tomorrow?”

“What?” Sasuke exclaimed. “No! That’s not what I meant! Of course I’d be sad! I just—”

“We cannot replace what you have lost,” Kurama said gently. “Nor would I, nor I suspect Naruto or Kakashi-nii-san, nor even Sakura, wish to replace what you have lost. But just because you have lost one family does not mean you cannot build yourself a new one. Naruto’s in the middle of adding you to our family right now, or had you not noticed?”

“Oh,” Sasuke said, softly, like all the air had gone out of him. “I do have precious people.”

“Of course you do.” Kurama beamed at him.

“I suspect you are a very strong shinobi indeed,” Haku said, solemnly. “Thank you for your assistance, Sasuke-kun. Kitsune-san. I think I have enough herbs for the medicine for my friend, now.” He turned to leave. “Oh, and Sasuke-kun. I am a boy.”

Sasuke went all pink.

 

xi.

The attack on the bridge came nine days after their initial confrontation with Momochi Zabuza, on a naturally misty morning. Sasuke was back at Tazuna’s house, sleeping, because he had once again exhausted himself – this time in the pursuit of learning to water-walk – although now he also had a sniffle, a rattling cough, and a low-grade fever. In his dogged pursuit of water-walking mastery, he had spent most of each day repeatedly falling into the ocean and had inhaled water on several occasions.

Although he’d been able to stand on top of the water for an entire minute before falling in yesterday, Kakashi had made him stay behind today, with strict orders to rest or risk killing himself from pneumonia when they were days away from anywhere with antibiotics.

Sasuke, thankfully, was not so bone-headed as Naruto, and had agreed.

But now the mist was subtly thickening as tendrils of chakra stirred it, and Kurama could sense both Haku and Zabuza on the bridge.

He glanced sharply at Kakashi, and Kakashi was already lifting his hitai-ate and motioning for Sakura and Tazuna to back away.

And Zabuza pitted Haku against Naruto and Kurama, who promptly found themselves trapped inside a dome of ice mirrors. Haku was a child with a kekkei genkai, one of the few, he explained that had survived the Bloodline Purges.

Kurama abruptly remembered that for a long time Kirigakure had been known not simply as Mist, but as the Bloody Mist, and that he had heard the Minato-brat mention to Kushina the rumours of horrors that had happened there, back when he was the Yondaime, before Naruto was born.

Haku stepped into the mirrors and began to throw senbon at them.

“Ow, ow, ow!” Naruto howled, senbon sticking out of his arm like the pins of a porcupine. “Come out and fight fair, asshole!”

“He will not, Naruto,” Kurama said, and nimbly darted out of the way of a rain of lethally sharp needles that would have impaled his chest and punctured all the tiny organs in his equally tiny ribcage. “Fights to the death tend not to be fair.”

“Why would I fight fairly?” Haku asked. “I am a shinobi. As a shinobi, I am but a tool to be used by Zabuza-sama, and as a tool I do what is asked of me to help him attain his dream by whatever means necessary. Is this not the same for you?”

But Naruto was a jinchuuriki. Before he was a day old he’d had a bijuu sealed in his gut and been made an extremely powerful weapon, coveted and despised in equal measure for the enormous destructive power he contained. There might have been people on the Council, maybe even the Hokage himself – Kurama could not read the old man’s mind – who did, truly, believe that Naruto was a tool. Naruto, on the other hand, was no one’s tool to use and manipulate because Kurama had made certain of it. Had carefully built his boy’s sense of self and confidence until he could not be used, not to wage war or bring death and despair.

Could he be conned into helping people in a tough spot? Yes. But so could Kurama.

But they would not be weapons. They were not tools built and honed for the waging of war.

“I…” Naruto said, a little uncertainly, and then he sniffled, and his lower lip wobbled and Kurama hoped to Kami that Naruto was not about to cry right here in the middle of what was supposed to be a life-or-death battle. “I don’t think so. Kurama… you aren’t… you aren’t my tool, are you? Because I don’t want you to be.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Kurama said. “If you started getting stupid megalomaniacal ideas like that, I’d just eat you. I don’t suffer morons.”

Naruto sniffed. “Thanks, Kurama. Ouch!” He now had a dozen senbon in his thigh and ankle.

“You’re surprisingly resilient,” Haku noted, idly. “Most people would’ve fallen unconscious by now.”

Sasuke turned up. Apparently, a couple of Gatou’s civilian bandits had tried to attack Tsunami and Inari. They were now charred bandits and would be getting up to no further mischief on account of being dead.

“You should have stayed at Tazuna’s house,” Kurama told Sasuke, who was running through the seals for a Katon technique, even as he coughed hoarsely, though the fox was admittedly interested to see how the Uchiha Clan’s Great Fireball would fare against an ice kekkei genkai.

Not very well, it turned out, and then Haku slipped out of his mirrors to kick Sasuke into the ice prison, and Sasuke was stuck with Naruto and Kurama.

“Well, how do we get out of here?” Naruto demanded, no one in particular.

Sasuke and Haku began a cat-and-mouse game through the mirrors, and though Sasuke’s body wasn’t quick enough to catch up, his eyes were. One moment he was squinting at the mirrors as Haku dashed between them, his eyes dark as pitch, and the next they had bled red, pupils contracted to small dots, a pair of tomoe in one eye, and one in the other.

So, Sasuke had unlocked the first stage of the Sharingan. Kurama felt a faint crawl of unease but was immediately distracted by a new barrage of senbon, for Haku – upon realising that Sasuke could use the Sharingan against him – seemed determined now to end the fight as quickly as possible.

Kurama jumped in front of a wave of senbon that would have killed Sasuke and dropped to the concrete of the bridge, hacking up blood, a needle stuck right through the side of his throat from one side to the other.

“Kurama!” Sasuke yelled, though Naruto froze.

And then Naruto and Sasuke were both hit and went down, but only Sasuke stayed down, fallen not a foot from Kurama, who could see his face, eyes glazed, and face drained of colour.

Naruto staggered back to his feet.

“What are you?” Haku asked, and though his face was masked his voice was horrified. “You should be dead.”

Naruto ignored him, stumbled past Kurama, who watched him out the corner of his eye as he staggered over to Sasuke, who was very still.

“Kurama,” Naruto whimpered, his bloody fingers toughing Kurama’s fluttering flank for a moment. “Sasuke, is he?”

Kurama tried to speak, but only gurgled as his throat filled with blood and spilled from his mouth onto the bridge.

He’s alive, Kurama thought, in their shared mental space. He’s hanging by a thread, but he’s alive.

The response he got from Naruto was not a coherent thought, but a garbled series of images and feelings. Pain. Fear. Grief. Loss. Family. A sense of having only just found something incredibly rare, incredibly special, the most beloved thing in the world, and being right on the precipice of losing it. An image of Kurama as he was, not as he pretended to be, the mountainous and terrifying nine-tailed fox with the heavy, corrosive chakra, the being that resided in his gut.

It is a risk, but I understand, Kurama thought, and popped out of existence. His hitai-ate and two dozen bloody senbon clattered onto the bridge where his body had been a moment earlier.

The next moment, he and Naruto switched places. Instead of Kurama trapped inside Naruto’s gut, Naruto shifted into Kurama’s, where his tiny soul was held close and safe by the mental manifestation of Kurama’s tails in the form of a soft, fuzzy cradle. In the outside world, the prison of ice mirrors shattered and melted all at once as the Kyuubi emerged and launched itself off the bridge and into the ocean.

Haku was thrown backwards, tumbling uncontrolled and head-over-heels, as the Kyuubi rose up on four feet until it was peering down at the bridge, which was only elbow-height, water lapping over its enormous paws. A quick lash of its many tails, and the obscuring mist was blown away, leaving the scene on the bridge clear beneath the sunny sky.

Everyone had frozen where they were.

Good.

Including, it would seem, that boat of ruffians approaching the mainland end of the bridge in what looked like an ambush.

Kakashi was staring at him with abject terror.

Less good.

Zabuza was being held still by Kakashi’s ninken, and they were cute, too. So no one was dead, yet – excellent.

“KAKASHI-NII-SAN,” the Kyuubi boomed, and Kurama immediately regretted letting Naruto control his vocal chords, because that honorific growled out in that huge booming voice was… No, it was fine, even if his siblings heard about this. Kurama was doing this for Naruto. “SASUKE NEEDS HELP. PLEASE SAVE HIM!”

“The seal,” Kakashi said, more to himself than anything. “The seal… It broke. The Kyuubi is free. Oh, no, Naruto.”

The Kyuubi only heard this because he had very large ears.

He let out a tremendous and aggrieved whine. “KAKASHI-NII-SAN. STOP WORRYING ABOUT ME AND HELP SASUKE.”

“That obnoxious blonde kid was the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki? Konoha sent the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki here, to stop Gatou, and we released the Kyuubi?” Zabuza said, disbelievingly, then: “Haku! Run! You cannot fight that monster! No one can fight that monster!”

Incidentally, none of this was true. Naruto and Kurama had accidentally broken the seal when Naruto was eight years old. It had been the result of some years of curious poking, both from within their shared mindscape and from examining the seal painted on Naruto’s belly, which was only visible when he was channelling chakra.

All of it had faded except a few last wispy black lines of ink by the time Naruto was ten, which was the first time that Kurama had hypothesised that it might be possible for them to switch places though he was hesitant to try lest he burn Naruto’s tiny, fragile, human soul to a crisp.

Everyone ran, then, bolting along the length of the bridge towards the island as quickly as possible. Kurama felt an immense relief when he saw Kakashi herding Sakura and Tazuna along, and pause to scoop Sasuke into his arms, fleeing side-by-side with Zabuza and Haku.

Close your eyes and cover your ears, kit, Kurama thought, as the Kyuubi turned to the boat. We have one more thing to do but you will not like it.

He waited until he was certain Naruto’s eyes were squeezed shut, and he had his hands clamped safely over his ears, then he tightened the cradle of his mental tails until it was more like a cage and locking them together to block out the outside world.

“WHERE IS GATOU?” the Kyuubi demanded, turning towards the boat, which was powered by a small outboard motor and was not swift enough to outrun him.

Gatou’s hirelings were not loyal when their lives were on the line, and they shoved him toward the front of the boat viciously. He was an ugly little man, too. Overcompensating for something, Kurama thought, the Kyuubi stalking through the ocean, and he kept the thought private, even as the enormous Kyuubi grinned maliciously and leant down to pluck the screaming Gatou off the boat and kill him with a single crunch.

He spat the body into the water – let the sharks eat the disgusting little man – then tipped the boat over for good measure, spilling Gatou’s bandits into the ocean, before he at last turned back to the bridge.

Unwitnessed by anyone, as they were all too busy fleeing in terror, the Kyuubi leapt toward the unfinished end of the bridge and unceremoniously shoved Naruto back into the world, pulling most of himself back into the space in Naruto’s soul where he lived that seemed to exist whether the seal was fully intact or not, except for a tiny speck which detached and took form in time to land on the bridge in the shape of a little red fox. Naruto landed next to him, less gracefully, and flopped onto his stomach.

“Ouch,” Naruto said, and went to sleep.

Kurama checked on him, but it appeared to be a simple case of utter emotional exhaustion more than anything physically serious.

 

xii.

There was nothing like suddenly being confronted by a colossal bijuu to cause people to make unlikely alliances, Kurama thought, as Kakashi and Zabuza ventured back onto the bridge near sundown. Neither of them had their apprentices along with them, and for good reason. It would be the absolute height of irresponsibility to bring children incapable of effectively fleeing so close to such a source of potential danger.

Too bad that source of potential danger was as extant as it had been yesterday evening at sunset. The only difference was that they knew it existed now. So much for S-Rank secrets. Ha, ha. No one every expected the Kyuubi.

Kurama had spent the better part of the day chewing that issue over, after he’d examined the spot where Kakashi and Zabuza had fought, checked to see the Kyuubi had not caused any structural damage to the bridge when it had emerged, and recovered his hitai-ate, which he slipped over his head and wore around his neck like a collar.

Kurama thought they’d done the right thing, in the end. They had disrupted the fight so thoroughly that Zabuza and Haku could no longer continue to harangue Kakashi, or pose a threat to Sakura, or Tazuna, and hopefully they had got Sasuke the help he needed in time. On top of that, Gatou and most of his cronies were dead, drowned, or were still running away.

On the other hand, Kakashi thought the seal had broken.

The seal was broken, but it broke ages ago and wasn’t an issue. Although he had been afraid he might burn Naruto’s tiny soul away when they switched positions this morning, that had not been the case, and wrapping the boy in his chakra had been surprising familiar, like the ten months when he had cradled Naruto protectively while he was in Kushina’s womb and curiously watched him grow.

But… how was Naruto going to explain that the Kyuubi went back into his stomach of its own volition? The Kyuubi was a monster. It was angry and it rampaged and killed indiscriminately in its madness. It didn’t obediently hop back into its container, or yell at its nii-san to go help a teammate.

Oh, this was a disaster.

He could spin it that Naruto was in control the entire time, that Naruto had attained complete mastery over the Kyuubi by some mysterious power? Which was kind of untrue, because Naruto didn’t even know how to pull on Kurama’s chakra, and that power was love and Naruto would probably say that, and that didn’t sound believable at all.

Zabuza and Kakashi slowly, slowly, crept along the bridge, like it had been rigged with mines or explosive tags in their absence, and came to a stop maybe twenty feet away from where Naruto was sleeping peacefully, a little pool of drool forming on the concrete under his mouth. Kurama sat beside him, feet tucked tidily beneath him, tail wrapped around them, a little guardian.

“Kakashi-nii-san,” Kurama greeted. “Zabuza-san. Gatou was unfortunately too close to the battle site, and got eaten, so I do not believe you will have further reason to fight each other.”

Kakashi and Zabuza glanced at each other, warily.

“Kurama,” Kakashi said. “Where did the Kyuubi go? Which direction did it run? We… didn’t see.”

“We were more focused on getting to a safe distance,” Zabuza admitted.

“There’s no path of destruction,” Kakashi continued. “Did it head out to sea?”

They thought the Kyuubi had run away? Actually, that would make sense. Once upon a time, Kurama might very well have fled after escaping his container.

“Uh,” Kurama said, a little awkwardly, because he knew they wouldn’t believe him. “It went back inside.” He pointed at Naruto with a paw.

Kakashi looked at Naruto, now, and he did so with reluctance and misery in every visible part of his expression and body language. He was expecting a dead child. People tended not to survive a bijuu leaving their bodies, after all. Naruto snorted in his sleep and rolled onto his back, and Kakashi startled like a frightened cat.

“That child is a monster,” Zabuza breathed.

“No, he isn’t,” Kurama said firmly. “He does contain one, however.”

Kakashi finally composed himself and cleared his throat. “Kurama, is he alright? Can you wake him up?”

Kurama tilted his head like a dog hearing a new sound for the first time, or a fox trying to pinpoint the sound of a mouse moving under the snow, because he happened to know it made him look adorably confused. “You usually find it so fun to wake your cute little genin when you find them napping and they shouldn’t be.”

“Just wake him for me, please. I need to check something.”

“You need to check that he’s still Naruto, and that the Kyuubi hasn’t take him over from the inside,” Kurama said. “Alright. I’ll wake him up, but you better have food ready back at the house because he missed lunch and he’s going to be starving.”

He got up, and snuffled Naruto’s ears. Naruto groaned and tried to cover his head with his arms, mumbling something incoherent, so Kurama jumped on him, and licked whatever pieces of face he could get to through Naruto’s fingers.

“Five more minutes, stupid fox,” Naruto grumbled.

“You’re going to be late to class,” Kurama told him, and stepped on his belly, making him wheeze, but he stubbornly rolled onto his side.

“Don’t care,” Naruto said.

“Iruka-sensei said he’d buy us ramen at Ichiraku’s if you did well on that test today,” Kurama continued.

Naruto sat up, sleep crusting his eyes and a trail of drool creeping across his face most of the way to his ear. “What?” he said, and then he stumbled to his feet and started running along the bridge, right past Kakashi and Zabuza who jumped out of the way hastily. “I’m coming, Iruka-sensei!”

Kurama looked at Kakashi smugly.

Naruto stopped halfway along the bridge, finally realising where he was, at which point he turned around to level an accusing finger at Kurama. “You! There’s no ramen, and Iruka-sensei isn’t here! Kurama, that was mean. You’re a meanie.”

“You still have one of those cups of instant ramen, and I’m sure Stupid-Face-san will let you have some hot water. You can probably sneak it in before dinner, if you hurry,” Kurama called to him.

“Ah, you’re right!” and Naruto ran off.

Kurama turned to Kakashi and Zabuza.

“Is Sasuke okay? Naruto was very worried.”

“I… gathered as much, when the Kyuubi demanded I tend to him,” Kakashi said, a little sheepishly. “Yes, Sasuke will be fine. He has no major internal bleeding, or organ damage, and Zabuza-san’s apprentice helped us remove the senbon safely. He still has a fever, though, and he’s asleep, because he really has been overdoing it these last few days, so he’ll need to rest a little longer.”

Kurama nodded, pleased. “Good.”

The three of them walked in silence for a while.

“I thought I knew demons,” Zabuza said, after a while. “The called me the Demon of the Mist. But…”

“The Kyuubi is something else entirely,” Kakashi said, and he sounded like his mind was far away and years in the past. “Not even the strongest shinobi can stand a chance against a bijuu, and the Kyuubi is the strongest of them all. Your only hope is to seal them away.”

“And it’s sealed in that child?”

“Yes.”

“Naruto is a genin,” Kurama piped up. “And he’s a great ninja already. Just a bit… loud, and unrefined.”

“And hyperactive, and knuckleheaded,” Kakashi added. He paused, deep in thought. “I really thought that would kill him.”

Kurama sniffed. “You should give him more credit. He’s going to be Hokage one day, you know!”

Oh, kami, he was starting to affect Naruto’s verbal tics.

Kakashi laughed, but it was a humourless laugh, the laugh of someone who was laughing so they didn’t cry instead. Zabuza and Kakashi parted ways at the end of the bridge, bidding each other farewell.

“If we ever meet again on the battlefield, I hope you give me a good fight, Sharingan no Kakashi!” Zabuza said, then glanced in the direction Naruto had run off. “Though perhaps I would prefer if we met again as allies.”

“Goodbye, Zabuza-san.” Kakashi saluted him lazily. “I wish you well in your endeavour of the reformation of Kirigakure.”

“Tell Haku farewell from me,” Kurama said, climbing up onto Kakashi’s shoulder because both of them were unfairly tall and he didn’t like craning his neck to peer up at them. “And tell him that being your tool is not all there is to being a shinobi. Tell him that helping the little people and looking after your friends is also important, and that you can help someone achieve their dream without being theirs to manipulate. You can do it because you love them and that’s what friends do.”

Zabuza stared at Kurama for a long moment. “I see you and Haku spoke at length.”

“Between having senbon thrown at me,” Kurama agreed. “It was all really very philosophical.”

“Very well. I will tell him.”

Zabuza wandered away through the village, and Kakashi headed off towards Tazuna’s house through the trees.

“You are a very strange fox,” Kakashi murmured, at one point.

Kurama hummed, neither in agreement nor disagreement, more to make a noise to acknowledge that Kakashi had spoken at all.

He sat up awake that night in the room where Team Seven slept, alert and watching, and moving from one person to the next as they stirred and whined in distress. The entire room smelled of stale fear and old grief, and he was unsurprised that every single person had nightmares.

Kakashi, because his memories of the Kyuubi were incredibly traumatic. The last time he had seen the Nine-Tails, he had lost the very last of the family he had cautiously scraped together from bits and pieces after his father died. The death of his father had affected him for such a long time that he had only just begun to accept his team when Obito died, and then Rin. Minato and Kushina had both been extraordinarily powerful shinobi, must have seemed almost invincible, for all that there was danger present – and then they, too, were torn away in an instant, and just as with Obito and Rin, Kakashi had been powerless to help.

Kakashi did not cry out in his sleep. Years as an ANBU operative, and an active jounin, had presumably trained him out of the habit, but Kurama could feel the tension in the air, the distress that rippled out from him, and each time he moved to the side of Kakashi’s bedroll and pressed close and warm against the right side of his face and neck, gently murmuring nonsense to him until he relaxed again, and then Kurama would have to move on, because Naruto was thrashing and crying in his sleep, the tang of salt sharp in the air, crying over friends he dreamed had all been killed while he had been powerless to help.

Kurama licked away his tears and promised him quietly that everything was alright, everyone was okay.

Sasuke shivered with fever-dreams. He had taken his first lives that morning, but it had not been a quick or clean kill, Gatou’s cronies had burned and died over the course of minutes, not seconds.

Kurama praised him for his bravery, for protecting Inari and Tsunami, told him he’d done the best he could, told him the next time would probably not be easier, but he would at least know what to expect.

Sakura dreamed of Sasuke, lifeless and dead on the bridge, killed by Haku instead of gravely wounded. She dreamed of the horror of the Kyuubi turning not on Gatou but on them, of being crushed between immense jaws, of chakra so oppressive she could barely breathe, let alone move.

Kurama promised her she was safe, the Kyuubi was not here, it would never turn on her, Sasuke was safe, they were all safe.

And as soon as one person settled, another would stir, and Kurama would move on, going around and around the room feeling helpless and sad and wishing his precious people weren’t experiencing this.

The next few nights were little better, though the days were bright and happy, and they all pitched in with assisting in the construction of the bridge, except Sasuke, who came along bundled in a blanket but was made to sit down by the railing with a thermos of tea. Before long, with the aid of Kakashi, the genin, and Naruto’s innumerable clones, the bridge between the Land of Waves and the mainland was completed.

Unfortunately, Tazuna could not be discouraged from naming the bridge The Great Kyuubi Bridge in honour of their great and terrifying saviour.

All the way back in Konohagakure, the Sandaime Hokage received a message from a courier hawk from Kakashi. It read thus:

Hokage-sama,

Our mission has been completed. Tazuna-san has finished the construction of his bridge, and I will be returning with my team in the morning. I will give you a more thorough debrief when I arrive, but I am aware that the rumours of what occurred here may have reached you already, and you may be rightly worried.

I wish to assuage some of the fears that you may have had.

Yes, we did encounter Momochi Zabuza, the Demon of the Mist, and fight him twice. He had been hired by Gatou, CEO of the Gatou Company. That shipping company, you know the one. After Gatou’s death, which nullified Zabuza’s contract, we no longer had reason to engage each other in combat, so I allowed Zabuza and his apprentice to leave unmolested. Attempting to apprehend or kill him seemed unnecessarily risky with genin in tow and no back-up.

The Kyuubi did make an appearance and eat Gatou. I have yet to determine why, although it was only present for five minutes. Naruto claims that the Kyuubi did not escape, they just ‘switched places.’ He explains that he went into the fox’s stomach for the duration of that time, and then they switched back. I did not personally witness this phenomena, as I was attempting to get everyone in the surrounding area to a safe distance, and as such can not confirm. However, when I sent my ninken out to attempt to attempt to track the Kyuubi, in the event that it had escaped, they returned to me with nothing.

Naruto is well and in good spirits. He showed me his seal, and I believe it has either broken or been seriously tampered with. As you know, I am tolerably well-versed in the art of sealing, but any stop-gap seal I tried to apply to broken area just burned off within a few minutes, and as he seems like himself I have resigned myself to leaving it.

I regret that we may have to bring in a seal-master, as this is well beyond my area of expertise.

Sasuke has been unwell, after inhaling seawater, but is mostly recovered, and Sakura seems determined to become stronger.

They both now know that Naruto is the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki, and I am not certain if it will be possible to contain this secret much longer. Incidentally, I take no responsibility. I had absolutely no idea this could even happen. I thought seals only weakened during childbirth. The people of the Land of Waves are very happy, and have named their new bridge ‘The Great Kyuubi Bridge.’ They have also painted a mural of the Kyuubi tipping over the boat with Gatou and his men on it. It is not a very good mural, but there have been a lot of visitors already to see it. I have enclosed a drawing of the mural.

The drawing of the mural was also not very good, and if Sarutobi Hiruzen hadn’t known what he was looking at, he might not have recognised the badly-drawn four-legged thing with a jagged line for a mouth and nine curling lines to be the Kyuubi at all.

We expect to be back in the village by next week.

The letter was signed with a henohenomoheji.

The Sandaime Hokage sighed sadly, puffed on his pipe, and reached for a scroll. He was too old. He should never have come out of retirement. Hokage was a young man’s job. And he needed Jiraiya back in the village ASAP because someone competent needed to look at that seal last week.

 

xiii.

They arrived back in Konoha near nightfall. Kakashi sent them all on their way, because he needed to speak to the Hokage in private, then walked off with his back strangely straight and a grim expression in his one visible eye, almost like he was walking off to his own execution.

“Wanna get ramen with me?” Naruto asked Sasuke and Sakura.

Sakura hesitated. “I should really go home,” she said, twirling a strand of hair around a finger, absently. “We were away a really long time, and I… missed my parents.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, drooping just a little. Kurama almost fell off his shoulder and had to dig his claws into Naruto’s jumpsuit or risk an ungraceful tumble. “Tell them we said ‘hi,’ I guess. Sasuke?”

Sasuke shrugged, but he followed along behind Naruto as he walked towards Ichiraku Ramen.

Ichiraku Ramen was not unoccupied. A familiar and beloved Academy teacher was sitting on one of the stools there, finishing off a bowl just as they arrived. Kurama had a fraction of a second to realise what was coming, and hastily catapulted onto the counter just in time.

“IRUKA-SENSEI!” Naruto bellowed, and tackled him with a flying hug.

“Shoo, no animals,” old Teuchi said, waving a cleaver threateningly at Kurama. “You’ll get fur in the broth, it’s a health hazard.”

Kurama yelped and bounded onto the one stool that had not been tangled up and knocked down by Naruto and Iruka.

Teuchi eyed him warily. Kurama eyed him warily back.

This was a ritual they went through every time.

“The usual, please, Teuchi-san!” Naruto said, hauling himself up using the counter for balance. “And – uh – what do you want, Sasuke? My treat.”

“No,” Sasuke said, a little bit stiffly, picking up a stool and climbing onto it. “I will pay for us both. Hello, Iruka-sensei.” He ordered brusquely.

Iruka finally managed to get up, wincing slightly.

Kurama wondered if he needed to break Naruto of the habit of flying-tackle-hugs, but Naruto was a small boy, most of his targets were adult chuunin and jounin in their prime, and he always preceded these hug-attacks with a bellowed warning, so it was really the other person’s fault if they got knocked over. If he started doing it to little old people Kurama would put his paw down, but until then he deemed it acceptable.

“It’s good to see you, Naruto, Kurama,” Iruka said. Then added, slightly bemusedly: “Sasuke. I didn’t know you two got along.”

“We’re friends, you know! I’m friends with all of Team Seven!” Naruto exclaimed.

Sasuke stuck his finger in the ear closest to Naruto, presumably to moderate his volume a little bit. Sometimes Kurama wished he still had fingers.

“I’m glad to hear that, Naruto,” Iruka-sensei said, sounding genuinely pleased, as Teuchi put their bowls of ramen in front of them.

Iruka had not initially liked Naruto, back when he was made Naruto’s homeroom teacher when Naruto was eight years old. Kurama had been suspicious of him for a long time because of it as his behaviour had neither been the irrational hatred of the villagers nor quite the wary distance of the shinobi. It was more personal, which had been odd because Kurama was reasonably certain they had never met Iruka before.

And yet he’d treated Naruto like any other student. Not a particularly liked student, but just like every other student all the same. The consequences for poor behaviour were the same, as were the rewards for good, though Naruto had still been struggling with too much energy and little chakra control at eight, coupled with no friends and only a fox demon for moral support. There had been a group of particularly cruel children who mocked him every day, children so vicious that Kurama always left the Academy with his teeth itching from the intense desire to bite the little brats.

Things had come to a head when that group of little boys had gone to the cemetery where many of the shinobi killed by the Kyuubi were buried. It was apparently haunted by the ghost of the demon fox and going into the cemetery on the night of the full moon with only a little paper lantern was supposed to be some sort of test of courage.

Naruto and Kurama knew the haunting to be blatantly untrue, as they both knew precisely where the demon fox was and it was generally draped around Naruto’s neck like a living scarf or trotting along at his heel, but they were always up for a good prank.

So they’d snuck into the cemetery at sundown and climbed up onto the piece of abstract stone artwork at the far end of the cemetery supposed to represent the Will of Fire and waited until Kurama heard the scuff of children’s sandals. Naruto had henged into his Kyuubi-Kurama imitation and stood high up upon the abstract stone fire, tails lashing against the light of the rising full moon – and those horrible bullies from the school had run away squealing like trapped rabbits.

By the time Iruka-sensei burst into the cemetery a minute later, kunai in hand, Naruto dropped the henge and hopped down to sit on the ground in the moonlight shadow of the abstract stone, and he and Kurama were looking out across the field of graves, the joy and laughter from their prank dulled by the knowledge that this was the true power of the Kyuubi. This was the destruction Kurama wrought, this was why the village treated Naruto so badly. All these lives lost.

The immensity of the loss the village suffered had been sobering.

Iruka told them off for the prank, and Kurama had realised, then, that what he was smelling and feeling from the Academy teacher was not anger, not really, but fear and grief. Grief like their dog-faced ANBU watcher had carried around like a shroud for years. Grief like the Hokage wore every day. The grief of someone who had lost their precious people.

And when Naruto and Iruka argued and Naruto swore he would never go back to the Academy, never, Kurama came to a realisation. The following morning he got Naruto up hours early and forced him to the library, where they found a list of those who died in the Kyuubi Attack. And, sure enough – they found Umino Iruka’s parents.

“He’s not angry at you,” Kurama whispered to Naruto, between the stacks of books and scrolls. “He’s angry at me, but whenever he looks at you he thinks of me, because I killed his parents. And I’m very, very sorry.”

“He’s an orphan,” Naruto had murmured, then. “Just like me.” And then he’d burst into tears and run all the way to the Academy to arrive two hours too early. Upon spotting Iruka, he’d started crying anew, ugly bawling, and between sobs he’d apologised for every single slight he could think of. For every prank and every time he’d failed a test and every time he’d fallen asleep in class or not paid attention, even every time he secretly thought Iruka was just a big old meanie, as though Iruka could somehow divine his innermost musings and was not a chuunin not yet out of his teen years.

It had been… awkward, and ended with Naruto crawling into his teacher’s lap to wipe snot all over his flak-jacket.

Their relationship got better, afterwards, though, and half the time when Naruto forgot himself in class Iruka just laughed. And when he did well, he’d invite him out to eat ramen. And he sometimes let Kurama sleep on his desk during the boring lessons, like history and math, so annoying little fingers didn’t poke his sides or pull his tail like what happened when he snoozed too close to the kids.

“I missed you so much, Iruka-sensei!” Naruto was babbling, between mouthfuls of ramen. “I haven’t seen you in forever and ever! And I love Kakashi-nii-san, don’t get me wrong, but you’re like my first family from before I really knew Kakashi-nii-san and I love you too and I was really sad without you.”

“Shouldn’t he be ‘Kakashi-sensei’?” Iruka asked.

“I don’t know why,” Sasuke said, suddenly cutting in. “But Naruto already knew who Kakashi-sensei was before we even met him, and he’s been calling him nii-san from the start. Kakashi-sensei seemed surprised, too.”

“That’s ‘cause he is my nii-san!” Naruto said. “Anyway, he said it was fine if I called him that.”

Iruka obviously didn’t quite know how to process that, so he just smiled and ruffled Naruto’s hair. “So I heard you had a big mission.”

“Yeah, but we have to talk to Jiji about it tomorrow, so I can’t say anything now,” Naruto grumbled. “It was really cool though, except when it was scary, but it all turned out okay.”

“I’m glad.”

Iruka ruffled Naruto’s hair, and Naruto squawked indignantly.

 

xiv.

Kakashi had had them doing training in the mornings, and D-ranks in the afternoons. Kurama noticed he was quieter, more serious, and the little fox hadn’t spotted a copy of Icha-Icha since they got back from the Land of Waves, which was very abnormal.

“Are you well?” Kurama asked, sitting beside Kakashi on the riverbank one afternoon, as the genin practiced their water-walking while they fished trash from the river.

Kakashi made a pensive sound, glancing away from the three brats, who were splashing and laughing as they worked. Well, Sakura and Naruto were laughing, though Kurama had spotted Sasuke smirking a minute ago, when he flicked a piece of waterweed at Naruto’s head starting a game that looked like an odd mixture of tag and evasion training. “Ah, I’m fine, Kurama. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“This team is my family, and I’ll worry about any member of it if I deem they are acting abnormally.”

Kakashi appeared to think that over. “Maybe I’ve just decided to get serious about training these three.”

Kurama flopped against him. “You’re worried. Hokage-sama is, too, unless I’ve been imagining the animal mask ninja following Naruto around. You don’t have to be.”

“How can I not? The Kyuubi—”

“The Kyuubi called you ‘Kakashi-nii-san,’” Kurama interrupted him. “I think it’s clear who was in control of it.”

Kakashi scratched his chin through his mask. “I still don’t understand.”

“Not everything is meant to be understood.”

“Is that a real saying that I have conveniently never heard, or are you just pretending to be wise?” Kakashi asked.

Kurama grinned up at him and said nothing, and then Kakashi got a face full of waterweed and they all played tag on the river for a while.

After they filed their mission report Kakashi released them to enjoy the rest of the afternoon following their own pursuits, and Naruto yelped happily and ran off to find Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon, who he’d promised to play ninja with. It didn’t matter that he was a real ninja these days and had no need for pretend play, it was still a fun way to spend the latter half of the afternoon and early evening, and Kurama relished running through the streets dodging rubber shuriken and kunai as they formed teams and took turns being the pursuing shinobi, or the infiltrating shinobi.

Incidentally, they got in trouble a lot while they were playing ninja, but it was usually innocent trouble like sneaking into adult bookstores as part of their infiltration missions or bumping into people in the market streets while they were running after each other, and they rarely got more than a good verbal lashing.

Today, Naruto had invited Sakura, who had hemmed and hawed and wrung her hands, but ultimately agreed when Kurama promised it would be fun, screw what Ino or anyone else from their graduating class thought, none of the rest of them had even been on a C-Rank mission yet so they weren’t allowed to judge.

That had cheered her up, and although Sasuke had declined their invitation, citing that he wanted to go and train by himself, Naruto and Sakura were laughing joyously as they chased the three little kids through Konoha. Sakura was often so quiet, unless she was hitting something. Kurama thought it was nice to see her smiling openly and having fun.

And then Konohamaru bumped into the back of a young man in a strange dark-coloured jumpsuit complete with hood and… ears? It looked familiar somehow, though Kurama couldn’t recall why. Konohamaru fell down, and the young man, who had geometric purple paint on his face, turned to leer down at him.

“You should be more careful,” he sneered. “That hurt, you know.” He picked Konohamaru up by the back of his shirt. “I think I should hurt you back.”

Kurama shivered from nose to tail, his skin crawling. The air around them was thick with the scent of raccoon dog, mixed with the smell of sand dunes at noon and dry desert wind, and a roil of turbulent emotion. Shukaku.

“Hey—” Naruto started to yell, but Kurama patted his ankle with a paw, and he closed his mouth so quickly his teeth clicked.

Stinking tanuki, Kurama broadcast into their shared mental space, and Naruto tensed all over. I have this.

Okay. I trust you.

Konohamaru may never forgive me for this, Kurama thought, apologetically. I’m going to take advantage of his status, which he’s been trying to escape.

Their mental space communication had become very quick, over the years, though they didn’t do it often – it felt more natural to speak to each other in the physical world – and they were capable of flinging ideas at each other a lot faster than they could during ordinary conversation. A decision had been made in fractions of a second. Kurama smelled the sudden cold sweat Naruto had broken into, pungent like fear, even as he clenched his fists in determination. The little red fox climbed his jumpsuit and clambered onto his shoulder, nuzzled his cheek reassuringly.

“You should put the Honourable Grandson of the Sandaime down,” Kurama said, firmly.

“Eh?” the young man with the face-paint said and dropped Konohamaru in a heap on the ground. Konohamaru yelped and flailed then scrambled over to join Moegi and Udon where they were hanging back behind Sakura and Naruto.

“Kankurou!” a young woman with dirty-blonde hair, apparently accompanying the oddly dressed man, snapped reprovingly. “Why can’t you just leave well enough alone?”

“That fox speaks,” Kankurou said, disbelievingly. “Is it a summons?”

“No, Kurama’s just a regular ninkitsune,” Sakura said.

“Kurama.” Ah, and there was the jinchuuriki. A boy with red hair up in that tree, a large gourd on his back, and the kanji for ‘love’ tattooed onto his forehead? Okay, unusual, but not really any odder than the brat with the purple face-paint. Another Suna-nin, from his hitai-ate, and related to the other two, from the way he smelled and what little of his chakra Kurama could feel beneath the angry snarling of Shukaku’s chakra within him. His voice was inflectionless, but there was a question there all the same.

Where was the nearest ANBU? Ah, there, someone concealing themselves two blocks to the east. Good. Not close enough to see, though if their hearing was good they might listen in.

Kurama lifted himself onto his hind paws, balancing himself with one paw on Naruto’s head, and let the shadow he cast in the setting sun behind him take on the shape of longer ears and eight additional lashing tails as his eyes bled from amber to the colour of freshly spilled blood.

“I’m Kurama. Konohagakure is fox territory,” he said, directly to the boy, black markings creeping from his ears down across his eyes to now nose. “You smell like tanuki. All tanuki will behave themselves in fox territory, or I’ll kick their weak, stupid butts from here all the way back to the desert. This is your one and only warning. And that goes especially for any tanuki who happens to be called Shukaku who is a dobe and wouldn’t even know a precious thing even if he was sitting right on it.”

“Kankurou, Temari,” the red-headed boy said. “Come, now. You are an embarrassment.”

“Yes, Gaara-sama,” they chorused.

And they body-flickered away.

“What was that?” Sakura asked.

“I don’t like tanuki,” Kurama said, letting his shadow return to normal, his eyes fade back to a very plain amber, and the markings on his face disperse. “Especially Shukaku. He’s the most annoying person I ever met in my entire life, and he’s not even a human. I don’t why those Suna-nin smelled like him, but I don’t like it. Anyway, they’re gone now, it’s getting late, and I think that a traumatic experience like that deserves ice-cream, what do you think, Konohamaru-kun?”

Konohamaru harrumphed and crossed his arms over his chest, then thought about it for a moment. “Yeah,” he agreed. “But only if you buy it!”

“I haven’t got any pockets, but Naruto just got paid for a D-Rank, so he might shout you?”

“Oi, Kurama!” Naruto whined, but the tension was forgotten.

Kurama remembered halfway home that the face paint and jumpsuit were traditional puppeteers’ garb.

Still weird.

 

xv.

There was a soft tap on the window beside Naruto’s bed. The night was warm. Naruto was deeply asleep, laying on top of his bedcovers on his back with his arms and legs splayed out in every direction. Kurama lay beside him, close but not touching, sprawled on his side and panting softly in the heat.

In the morning, Naruto would comb his fur with the slicker brush Kakashi had given him, after he noticed that Kurama was shedding his undercoat in a messy albeit very natural fashion for a wild fox. Apparently that was not good enough for a ninkitsune who was supposed to be the well-cared for partner of a shinobi, however, and he should be sleek and healthy and civilised in appearance.

Kurama had had mixed feelings about this, until he realised how nice having his fur combed felt, and how much less itchy he was after all his dead undercoat had been brushed away.

He was dreaming about it.

It was a good dream, one full of happy feelings that made his chest want to burst.

The soft tap repeated itself, and Kurama roused to the darkness of Naruto’s little apartment, a shadow on the windowsill, and the nearby and very unmistakable rolling of Shukaku’s wild chakra. Ah, the jinchuuriki had sought him, them, out. Well, it was to be expected, really.

He rolled off the bed, padded over to the window, and hopped up onto the sill to unlatch it.

The red-headed jinchuuriki slid the window open and slipped inside.

“I wouldn’t cause a commotion,” Kurama said, before the Suna jinchuuriki could open his mouth. “There are three ANBU operatives watching this apartment as we speak. No doubt this will be reported to the Hokage within the minute. It will be allowed only so long as violence does not occur, but if they detect even a hint of bijuu chakra, we’re going to have all hell rained down on us. And I don’t know about you, or that idiot tanuki who never thinks before he acts, but I’d personally rather avoid that if possible. There are innocent people living next door, and though they might not make their livings through the most… legal means, they have been kind to us.”

The red-haired boy was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, and he sounded ever-so-slightly puzzled: “You were sleeping.”

“It’s night time. People sleep at night time,” Kurama replied. He peered up at the boy’s face, and saw the dark rings around his eyes, and thought that perhaps this child never slept at all.

The boy pointed at Naruto, who was snoring softly. “He’s sleeping.”

“Yes?”

“He’s like me, but he’s sleeping, and the monster doesn’t come out when he does.”

Oh, so that was why the boy looked so tired. He had to stay awake, or Shukaku would wreak havoc? That… didn’t bode very well for anyone. And it said all sorts of terrible things about his seal. Kurama wanted to look at this terrible seal out of morbid curiosity – how different was it than his and Naruto’s had been? But he was also afraid to, he knew the ugliness of what had been done to his brother and this child would sicken him.

He decided that ultimately, it wasn’t his business.

“I can wake Naruto up, if you like. It’s rude to sleep through visitors. He might make tea,” Kurama offered.

The boy said nothing.

The silence stretched so long it got awkward.

“Right,” Kurama said, at length, climbing back onto the bed. “Yes, I’ll just wake Naruto, I’m sure he’ll be delighted to meet you, he loves making new friends, and we can have some tea, or maybe cocoa – I’m great at making cocoa, ask anyone except Kakashi-nii-san – and I think I hid a box of pocky on the top shelf, we can share, if you like pocky—”

“I want to kill you,” the boy said, and Kurama froze.

“Uh, that isn’t a very nice thing to do to someone you just met.”

The boy fixed him with a very intense glare. “Okaa-san wants to kill you, too, but Okaa-san said if I tried you’d kill me. Okaa-san said I wouldn’t be able to do it. Okaa-san said you’re much stronger than me. Okaa-san is very angry at you for it.”

Kurama wondered who this kid’s mother was, because she sounded even more homicidally psychotic than the kid. He hoped he hadn’t widowed her or something accidentally, but he didn’t remember there being any delegates from Suna being in Konoha before his unfortunate episode of Mangekyou-induced madness… He didn’t recall that entire episode of his life that well, though, so it was always a possibility.

“When you return to the inn, or wherever you’re staying, you should tell your mother I’m very sorry for whatever I did to earn her ire,” Kurama said, bowing. “Now, about that cocoa? It really is good, I promise, and we’ve even got milk that’s in date.”

The boy stared at him.

Kurama decided to just take that for acceptance.

“Oi, Fishcake. Get up! We have visitors! Er, a visitor. No, visitors.”

Naruto moaned. “But Kurama,” he whined, and buried his head under his pillow.

“Naruto, don’t be rude. We’re the hosts, we should provide food and comfort.” Kurama pushed him off the bed.

He landed with a squeal and a thud, and sat up to fix Kurama with an indignant pout.

“Go put the kettle on,” Kurama said. “Look, we have guests.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, noticing the red-haired jinchuuriki for the first time. “You’re the tanuki guy. You’re like me and Kurama. Hi! I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and this is Kurama, the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Or, well, a part of him. Like, the tiniest sliver of his toenail! Most of him is in my tummy. This is the part that comes out to keep me company so I’m not lonely. He’s my best friend in the whole world and I love him but he’s mean and makes me eat vegetables sometimes.”

Ugh, too much information that Shukaku could be listening in on.

Kurama was going to be laughed all the way to the Southern Continent.

“Kettle,” Kurama reminded Naruto, gruffly, and Naruto stumbled sleepily off to the kitchen-area to flick on the light and putter around, running fresh water into the kettle and pulling out the sugar, the cocoa, the milk, and the cocoa pot. Kurama turned to the red-headed jinchuuriki. “It would be polite at this juncture to introduce yourself.”

“Sabaku no Gaara,” the boy, Gaara said.

“It’s nice to meet you, Gaara-kun.” Kurama smiled at him, but it wasn’t the toothy fox grin, and rather a relaxed squinty-eyed, soft-eared, wiggly-tailed, genuine smile. “I don’t really like your bijuu, Shukaku, very much because he’s my most stupidest, littlest brother, and I’m the biggest brother, so it’s my duty to squish him into the dirt when he gets too big for his trousers, but we could be friends, you and I.”

“I’ll be your friend, too!” Naruto called. “Kurama, can you come do the rest, I don’t know how.”

“Come sit at the table and make yourself comfortable, Gaara-kun. The cocoa will be just a minute,” Kurama said, scampering into the kitchen to leap nimbly onto the counter and turn on one of the burners and push the cocoa pot onto it.

Gaara’s stare turned blank with incomprehension.

“Sit, sit, sit,” Naruto chanted, pulling out a chair for him and shooing him towards it.

Gaara sat, shrugging off his gourd to sit it by his feet, leaning against his chair.

Naruto sat across from him, leaned his elbows on the table, and grinned at him, expectantly.

Gaara was staring back uncertainly when Kurama turned to pour the already-heated water into the pot. Just a little, just enough to dissolve the cocoa powder and the sugar. He held a wooden spoon a little awkwardly between his paws as he mixed them together, until the room smelled sweet and warm and chocolatey, before he tipped in the milk.

“Mugs, Naruto,” Kurama said. “And put the rest of the milk away.”

Naruto jumped up to do as he asked.

Kurama turned and pointed to one of the cupboards. “There’s pocky on the very top shelf of that cupboard, there. Why don’t you get it down and offer to share some with Gaara-kun.”

“Okay!” Naruto said, and he had to climb onto the counter and stretch up on the tips of his toes to reach. “We had pocky?” Naruto paused, holding the packet.

“Yes, for guests who might not appreciate ramen,” Kurama told him. “Go on, then, and come back. The cocoa’s warm enough now and I need your help to pour it into the mugs.”

Naruto delivered the pocky to Gaara, returned with two sticks in his mouth like walrus teeth – Kurama had told him about walruses ages ago – and they carefully poured the hot cocoa into the three clean but old and slightly chipped mugs.

“Here you go, Gaara!” Naruto said, putting the first mug in front of the red-headed jinchuuriki. “Kurama makes the best hot cocoa out of everyone I know.”

“He said that,” Gaara mumbled, more to himself than anything.

“The secret is the amount of sugar you use,” Kurama said, hopping up onto the little kitchen table as Naruto brought over the last two mugs of gently steaming cocoa. “And you can’t put too much water.” He winked. “So, Gaara-kun, was there a reason you came to visit us at—” Kurama checked the kitchen clock. “—Just gone two in the morning?”

“Okaa-san was angry,” Gaara said. “And I was curious.”

“Curious?” Naruto repeated. He had a cocoa-moustache.

“People are not afraid of you.”

Naruto looked at Kurama, who looked right on back at him.

“Eh? Yeah they are,” Naruto said. “Well, lots of them, anyway. But they don’t mean it. They don’t really know that I’m not the Kyuubi, and it’s the Kyuubi they’re afraid of. I’m Uzumaki Naruto and I’m going to be Hokage one day, believe it!” He covered his mouth with a hand, and laughed, grinning foxily, and it was a cute expression on him. “They’re scared of the Kyuubi, but they don’t know Kurama is the Kyuubi and he’s been pretending to be my pet fox for years and years and they just think he’s cute! Isn’t it a great prank?”

“Prank,” Gaara said, glancing from Kurama to Naruto and back again.

“Yeah! It’s a long con, Kurama explained it to me.”

Gaara tilted his head, like he was listening to something. They watched him, wondering what he was doing.

“Okaa-san thinks you’re the stupid ones,” he said, at length.

“Eh, your mother’s here? Where? We should’ve offered her cocoa and pocky, too!” Naruto cried.

Kurama eyed Gaara thoughtfully, as an idea struck him.

“Your mother… who speaks and only you hear her,” he said, slowly. He glanced meaningfully at Naruto.

We can do that, too, but I am not your Kaa-chan, he thought into their shared mind-space. A momentary pause, as Naruto digested this. He got a very mixed-up sequence of hurt, outrage, sadness, and misery in return as Naruto understood the consequences of what Kurama was telling him.

Naruto burst into messy tears.

“Naruto,” Kurama said, gently. “Why don’t you find that thermos we’ve never really used and put the rest of the cocoa in it, so Gaara-kun can take it with him? I need to have a word with Gaara-kun.”

Naruto nodded, bawling snottily, and left the table.

Kurama turned to Gaara, expression serious.

“I am very sorry, Gaara,” he said.

Gaara looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “What is going on?”

“The voice in your head only you can hear. That is not your mother,” Kurama told him. “Shukaku is playing a very mean trick on you. I thought tanuki were better at pranks than that, but it would seem I was wrong. He’s been playing the long con, too, but he hasn’t been playing a fun, safe prank at all. He’s been playing a prank meant to hurt you and everyone around you and that is not okay.”

Gaara sat there, frozen, except for a subtle tremor running through his entire body.

Naruto crept over and put the thermos down on the table in front of him. Gaara didn’t seem to notice. Kurama, however, observed the small swirl of sand escaping from the gourd.

“Naruto, moved behind me, please.”

Naruto did.

“Shukaku,” Kurama said, addressing the bijuu directly. “I would prefer not to fight in the heart of Konoha. This is my village, and I will protect it with extreme prejudice, but I do not want to harm the people who live here. If we are to battle, we must head outside the walls to a safe distance. Do not think I am incapable of making you – do not forget that I am the Kyuubi no Kitsune. I will not hesitate to beat you so badly you cannot reform for a whole century, should you force my hand. But I do not want to hurt Gaara.”

Gaara looked at him, sharply, then.

“Okaa-san hates you,” he hissed, malevolently. “I hate you.”

And he hefted the gourd onto his back and left through the open the bedroom window, leaving Naruto and Kurama alone, but for the slightly worried-feeling chakra signatures of their ANBU watchers.

The thermos of cocoa was gone.

“Well,” Kurama said. “He despises us, but that could have gone a lot worse.”

Naruto picked him up and cuddled him to his chest, sniffling miserably. “I love you, Kurama.”

“I know you do, kit. I know you do.”

 

xvi.

“Are you guys afraid of me?” Naruto asked, laying on his back on the grass as they waited for Kakashi to finish sitting at the memorial stone, talking to dead people.

“No,” Sasuke said, immediately. “Why?”

“Just something someone said recently, it’s nothing.”

Sakura, who was sitting beside him, reading a medical textbook, went to pat him idly on the head but she wasn’t paying attention and got him in the face instead. “Whoever they were, they had no idea what they were talking about,” she said, but she was clearly only half paying attention.

Naruto dropped his voice. “What about the, you know, the Kyuubi?”

Kurama, who was sitting on his belly with his feet stretched out in front of him, regal like a sphinx, watched Sasuke and Sakura both spare him little more than an idle glance.

“You seem to have that situation reasonably well in hand,” Sakura said, after a while. “It was scary when I saw it… But you saved our lives, so.” She went back to her book.

“I didn’t even get to see it,” Sasuke groused. “I bet it wasn’t as cool as all that.”

And that was that.

Kakashi arrived not too long after and told them he’d signed them up for the Chuunin Selection Exams, which were in a week.

“A little more warning might have been nice,” Kurama sniffed, indignantly. “Though I suppose that explains why there are so many foreign shinobi in the village. What’s it entail?”

Apparently there were three parts to the exams, but Kakashi couldn’t tell them more because they changed each time.

“But you became a chuunin at six!” Naruto said, and Kakashi looked like he wanted to ask how he knew that, and went so far as to open his mouth before abruptly closing his mouth when he remembered that Naruto was known to speak regularly with the Kyuubi, who had watched him through Kushina since he was a kid.

If only he knew just how much time he spent actually interacting with the Kyuubi…

Ha, but Kurama was going to milk this for as long as possible because he liked being petted and fed titbits and treated like he was beloved and precious by everyone. It was an excellent boon for a creature so magnificent as he, even if he had to be little and fluffy to do it.

“You’ve been a shinobi for ages!” Naruto went on. “You must’ve seen a few exams in progress, or heard what happened in them, in your long and… Kurama, what’s the word I want?”

“Prolific,” Kurama said.

Naruto nodded. “In your long and—” he pronounced the following word slowly and carefully, as if tasting how it felt in his mouth: “—Prolific career as a shinobi. So you gotta be able to tell us what to expect!”

Kakashi scratched his head. “Ah,” he said. “I think the entire point of the Selection is you go in blind. Because as a shinobi, you will encounter missions where you’re entering a situation with too little information, and you must adapt to what you find, or fail and die. Kind of like what happened in the Land of Waves. But with the Selection, there will hopefully be a lower likelihood of, well, fatality.”

Naruto thought about that, face grim with concentration, and then he smiled sunnily. “Okay, Kakashi-nii-san! I understand. Thanks for explaining the reason.”

Kakashi looked at Naruto thoughtfully, as if he were only just noticing him. “Huh,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. “All right! You all want try for chuunin, right?”

Four decidedly determined nods, including Sakura, who had been shadowing the med-nins at the hospital two days a week and studying medical texts in most of her free time, because she’d been inspired by Kurama’s suggestion and was determined that if someone were to get as hurt as Sasuke had in the Land of Waves, she’d be able to heal them up in a snap next time.

“Okay!” Kakashi clapped, eye-smiling. “Let’s do some serious training, then! We’re going to start with evasion. Whoever gets hit ten times first gets the D-Rank to find Tora again after lunch. Whoever gets hit ten times second gets to look after the Kobayashi brats. Whoever gets hit last picks where we eat dinner afterwards and has the afternoon to recuperate. Go!”

Yelps as he suddenly had rubber practice shuriken between each finger, and all four of them were springing in different directions. He was surprisingly good at leaving welts when he hit, even with practice shuriken, too, so it wasn’t like there wasn’t incentive enough not to get hit without the terrible D-Ranks he’d lined up for them if they did badly.

And so the week sped by with training drills and stamina building and taijutsu practice, a couple of afternoons spent honing their ninjutsu and the art of breaking genjutsu, and before they knew it they were meeting at the gate in front of the Academy, where the first of the exams was to be held.

It was meant to be up in a classroom on the third floor. For some reason, a whole bunch of genin were clustered around a door on the second floor trying to get into the wrong room. Amongst them was a boy in bright green spandex which scared Kurama more than anything he’d seen since Uzumaki Mito came along with a means of sealing bijuu – though that might be because he was just angry at the impudence of humanity back then than because he understood real fear – because had Maito Gai somehow managed to spawn? Surely not.

What a terrible thought.

“Genjutsu,” Kurama murmured, looking at the wrong number on the door sign. “Let’s go.”

They snuck past to the next staircase up like the good little ninja they were, since if two dozen of their competitors got themselves eliminated by not turning up at the classroom on time, then that meant less competition later. And Kakashi had been kind enough to explain that the Chuunin Selection was something of a competition and an equaliser between all the large countries that entered genin, with only the best passing to become chuunin and setting the general standard for the strength of shinobi across all the countries. Even if he didn’t explain anything else.

Kakashi met them at the door to the correct room on the third floor, congratulated them on all turning up together because if they hadn’t none of them would’ve been able to tackle the Selection – it was supposed to be done in three-man teams – and sent them inside with an honest eye-smile having told them he was proud of them.

Kurama could feel Naruto glowing without even having to touch their mental space, the happiness was just exuding from him that powerfully.

And then they found themselves in a room with more than a hundred battle-hardened, tough-looking shinobi absolutely bristling with weapons, many of them fully-grown adults with bodies lean and strong from years of dedicated training and the flat dead eyes of men and women who had killed so often it no longer phased them.

Kurama spotted Gaara off with those other two Suna-nin, Temari and Kankurou.

“HI GAARA-KUN!” he yelled as obnoxiously as possible, just because he could, and it would annoy Shukaku.

Gaara twitched, and Temari and Kankurou flinched away from him subtly. Interesting.

Also, the rest of the room was staring at them, now, and Sakura had edged behind Naruto as if to use him as a human shield in case someone started throwing kunai.

“Is that a talking fox?” someone toward the front of the room asked.

“Must be a summons,” someone else said.

“That little shrimp has a summons contract? No way. Are summons even allowed?”

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t be.”

It turned out that the rest of the rookie genin from Naruto’s graduating class were also attempting the chuunin exams, and they proceeded to have a noisy reunion by the doorway, because they were children with a total of about four months and a handful of D-Ranks under their belts as career shinobi and were adorably ignorant like that. Kurama had to admit, he was mostly fond of this little group of children, who’d been in Naruto’s classes for years and as such who he’d come to know reasonably well. He was leery of a few of them – Aburame Shino, Yamanaka Ino, Hyuuga Hinata, Nara Shikamaru, even Inuzuka Kiba could out him as being not a real fox if he was incautious.

So far, however, judicious application of flea treatment to keep Shino’s kikaichuu away, pretending to have nothing interesting going on in his mind and thus never prompting Ino to peek, taking care whenever he constructed his physical body so there weren’t any abnormalities Hinata might spot, maintaining his cover so completely even Shikamaru with the enormous Nara genius didn’t think him troublesome enough to question, and making certain he smelled like a real fox and not pure chakra so Kiba couldn’t sniff him out, meant he’d avoided detection.

It might’ve been different, he might not have managed to avoid detection so long if he’d had to interact regularly with their parents, but Naruto hadn’t really been invited around to anyone’s houses when he was younger, so Kurama’s disguise had remained intact.

Akimichi Chouji always had a delicious snack on him, and he would occasionally share a chip or two with Kurama.

Kurama thought he liked Chouji best out of all the rookie genin, after Team Seven, though he was not so ignorant of his own self to realise his feelings for Chouji might not just be cupboard love.

Their loud reunion was interrupted twice: first by the team with boy in green spandex coming in – and the boy shouted a challenge at Sasuke before running off to another part of the room with his teammates, a girl with her hair up in buns and another Hyuuga that Kurama didn’t recognise, and a second time by another unknown Konoha genin who had apparently taken the chuunin exam six times and was on his seventh attempt despite the fact he didn’t look very much older than them.

He introduced himself as Yakushi Kabuto. He wore big round glasses that Kurama thought made him look a bit like one of Shino’s bugs, he was weirdly friendly for someone in what was essentially a competition, and he had a bunch of funny cards because he apparently had statistics on everyone taking the exam.

“What can you tell me about Rock Lee?” Sasuke asked him, and Kabuto picked a card out, infused it with his chakra, and read out what he knew.

Rock Lee was one of Maito Gai’s students. A genin for a year-and-a-bit, never took the Chuunin Selection Exams before because Maito Gai had not submitted him for it. Extremely good at taijutsu. Not very good at anything else.

“Sparse,” Kurama noted idly. “What’ve you got on Sabaku no Gaara?”

Even less, it turned out. Kabuto didn’t even know he was a jinchuuriki.

“Oh, me next, me next!” Naruto cried, hopping from one foot to the next. “What do you know about me?”

Kurama pricked his ears interestedly.

Kabuto picked out a card, infused it with his chakra, and said, a little blankly: “Uzumaki Naruto. Student of Hatake Kakashi, also known as Sharingan no Kakashi and Copy-nin Kakashi, Eternal Rival of Maito Gai. Just graduated to genin. A prodigious number of D-Ranks, has your sensei been running you ragged? One C-Rank… which was mis-ranked and could be considered an SS-Rank because you encountered the Kyuubi, two S-Rank missing nin from Kiri, escaped all three, captured two different Kiri missing nin, and still somehow managed to complete… your… mission. Uh. Interesting.”

“Didn’t you make these cards yourself?” Sasuke asked, suspiciously. “Shouldn’t you have known that already?”

“I did,” Kabuto said, waving his hands and grinning in a very sheepish manner. “I guess, I just didn’t realise it was you guys that did that mission! You’re so… little.”

“I am not!” Naruto snapped, hotly.

“Naruto, you’re twelve,” Kurama said. “You’ve got plenty of time to get taller. That’s probably what Kabuto-san meant.”

“Exactly!” Kabuto said, hurriedly.

“You met the Kyuubi?” Shikamaru asked.

Team Seven all looked at each other.

“Yeah,” Sakura said, a little awkwardly, but they were saved from further unwanted friendly interrogation when Morino Ibiki dropped into the room and announced the start of the exam.

To Naruto’s consternation, it was a written exam.

Kurama realised promptly that it was an information gathering exercise disguised as a written exam – and information gathering was something Naruto was only good at when it suited his nefarious purposes and not otherwise.

Luckily for Naruto, he and Kurama were partners and together counted as one entire shinobi, so it was not considered cheating when Kurama sat on his lap, scanned the page, took the pencil between his teeth, and filled out the first nine questions for him with the sort of expert knowledge that only came from being a millennia old chakra construct that had had the opportunity of unparalleled lengths of time to pursue intellectual avenues… when he wasn’t squishing things that annoyed him, or trapped in peoples’ guts.

They were finished within ten minutes, and to prevent anyone from cheating off them, Kurama had Naruto flip the page over and gave him the pencil so he could doodle on the back.

Naruto was not at all cowed by the tenth question, as he figured Kurama would be able to answer it anyway, so he sat there patiently, twiddling his thumbs as team after team left. In another world, one where Kurama had hated Naruto as a jailor and had not been friends with the entirety of Team Seven who viewed him as an odd creature that was half pet and half supplementary sensei when Kakashi couldn’t explain something, Sakura might have put up her hand out of doubt for Naruto’s ability to answer the tenth question.

But this was not another world, and no one doubted that with Kurama’s assistance Naruto would succeed, so Sakura’s hands remained by her sides as she waited for the tenth question to arrive. Sasuke was confident enough in himself and his team that he did not consider raising his hand, either.

Long, silent minutes passed. Their numbers dwindled.

And Mitarashi Anko came crashing through the window to tell them they’d all passed, the tenth question was whether or not they would stay for the tenth question, which had Naruto scratching his head in confusion, but Kurama understood well enough.

 

xvii.

Training Ground Forty-Four had a booming population of foxes.

Over the past half-dozen years, they had bred like rabbits, and it was now difficult for someone to walk into the Forest of Death without startling at least two and sending them scurrying off into the bushes. This might have been because the megafauna of Training Ground Forty-Four had, roughly half-a-dozen years ago, all unanimously become abjectly terrified of anything and everything small and fox-shaped.

They were so terrified of things small of fox-shaped that even their offspring were frightened of things small and fox-shaped, and it was not an uncommon sight to see an enormous Land of Fire tiger creeping after a deer, only for a little fox to think it was great fun to leap playfully at the tiger – and send it running in the opposite direction, fur puffed up with its tail tucked firmly between its legs.

Kurama… may have had something to do with this.

Training Ground Forty-Four was a very good hunting grounds for a hungry little boy who couldn’t afford anything but instant ramen. And “KEEP OUT” signs and high fences weren’t really a very good deterrent for mischievous little children or their equally mischievous pet foxes-slash-bijuu-in-disguise. Rather, they acted as something of an invitation, like a flashing neon sign that said: This place in interesting, come in and see why!

So, they’d done a lot of hunting in Training Ground Forty-Four, because there was almost no chance of a single small boy dangerously affecting the existing ecosystem with overhunting when he only took an animal he could carry, never came more than twice a month, and the Training Ground was twenty kilometres from one side to the other.

And maybe Kurama had beat the fear of foxes into a few larger animals that would have preyed on a small human child out in said training ground all by his lonesome, but it wasn’t his intent for the fox population to spiral out of control! Thankfully, the foxes here seemed to be largely insectivorous, and they were not pushing any other animal out of their ecological niches.

But it still meant that Training Ground Forty-Four, also known as the Forest of Death because of all that horrific megafauna and poisonous flora, had also earned itself another name over the past few years. Kurama didn’t even know how it made sense, but he supposed it was a bit like the small children thinking the spirit of the Demon Fox haunted the cemetery where his victims were buried.

The Forest the Kyuubi Cursed.

“It should be ‘The Forest the Kyuubi Blessed,’” Kurama grumbled to Naruto, flopped despondently over the boy’s shoulder like a very small sack of potatoes.

Naruto giggled, and Mitarashi Anko, the proctor of this exam, shot them a feral glare. “You think this is funny?”

“No, no,” Naruto said, quickly. “Just – the name is funny. The Forest of Death. It’s not really that scary!”

Anko squinted at him, one of her eyes twitching, and behind her, in one of the enormous trees beyond the fence on a branch a hundred feet up, a snake that was probably thirty feet long uncoiled from a branch and slithered away, probably disturbed by the smell of fox.

“Little boys like you will be the first to die. You—” she began, then paused at looked at him more closely. “Oi! You! Orange brat! You’re the little monster that’s always coming in here in the middle of the night! Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused me? You’ve traumatised all of the snakes, they’re terrified of you! I thought you were a weird ghost! But no! You’re a genin. Oh, that is so much worse, I am in so much trouble. And so are you!”

Kurama covered his face with his paws. Right. Mitarashi Anko was the tokubetsu jounin who oversaw the curating of Training Ground Forty-Four. They’d run into her a few times, usually gone midnight, and fled whenever they saw her, usually leaving behind their kill, if they’d made one.

Oh, awkward.

“Oops,” Naruto said, totally unapologetically.

Sakura and Sasuke looked at him curiously.

“The hunting is really good in there,” Naruto hissed at them.

“Of course it is,” Sasuke said, while Sakura groaned something about suicidally stupid people to herself.

Anko threw her hands in the air and snarled to herself, then went on with her explanation about the second exam, and how each team would have to have both a Heaven Scroll and an Earth Scroll and reach the tower in the centre of the training ground with all three team members to pass, but that they would only be given one scroll at the beginning of the exam, ensuring at least half of them failed. If not more, because the megafauna was quite lethal and there was a possibility their corpses would never be found…

Then they had to sign consent forms. On account of, from this point on, there was a very real possibility of dying. And Anko, and by extension Konoha, would not be held responsible for any loss of limb or life that occurred when shinobi was pitted against shinobi in what was essentially extreme survival games combined with a moderated battle royal.

Across the field, Shikamaru put up his hand. “Is it too late to resign from the exam?”

“Yes,” Anko said, and she had a remarkably malicious grin. “You may not leave between exam stages. You will spend five days in the Forest of Death, or you will get your Heaven and Earth Scrolls and reach the tower before then, no exceptions.”

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru sighed.

“That isn’t very fair,” Kurama said. “If he wants to leave, it should be allowed. Ah, well.”

They handed in their consent forms, were given their scroll, were herded to a gate equidistant from the other teams around the perimeter of Training Ground Forty-Four – and then they had to wait half-an-hour. Naruto whined petulantly. Kurama, who was very good at taking naps that lasted entire eras, but was not very good at being patient otherwise, also whined.

Sasuke appeared to be vehemently pretending he didn’t know who they were in front of their chuunin proctor.

Sakura seemed to be considering the pros and cons of walloping them, but ultimately decided against it, as they might need to be mobile to get to the tower.

Finally, finally, as Naruto was laying on his back, with Kurama perched on his belly, both of them singing loudly off-key, the clock struck two-thirty, the gate opened, and they were released into the forest.

“So, smart and beautiful teammates, while we were otherwise occupied, did you come up with a plan?” Kurama asked, and the entirety of Team Seven came to a screeching halt to look at each other sheepishly.

“Err…” Sakura said, flushing pink.

“If the dobe knows this forest as well as he said, then he knows the way to the tower, correct?” Sasuke asked.

“You bet I do!” Naruto said, cheerfully.

Off in the distance, someone screamed, horribly. It sounded like they were dying.

Sakura squeaked.

“They probably ran into a snake. Or a leech. Or a tiger. Or a centipede. Or a spider. Or a pack of hungry foxes. Or walked into one of those poison plants that feel like your skin is burning off if you touch them,” Naruto said, peering thoughtfully in the direction of the screams as they faded away, then shrugged. “Come on, the tower’s this way. The river passes by about a kilometre away from it, so we can set up an ambush somewhere around there, for the teams incoming, and steal a scroll off a team that’s already got both. That seems easiest. We should be able to get there before in a couple of hours, if we’re quick and avoid the tigers that live on this side.”

“That’s… not a bad plan,” Sasuke admitted.

“Eh he, I’m actually pretty smart, you know!” Naruto said. “But I gotta pee.”

He turned away from Sakura and Sasuke to go against a tree, but Sakura objected. “I don’t want to see that, Naruto! Go behind a bush or something!”

“Just turn around, Sakura,” Kurama said. “And keep watch. It wouldn’t do to get separated here. You might get eaten by something.”

Sakura mulled that over, nodded, and turned around to eye the trees warily while Naruto relieved himself and Kurama hissed at him: “Honestly, Fishcake, why didn’t you go before? You had a whole half-hour!”

“You didn’t remind me, Fox-face!”

“I’m not your mother, I’m your pet fox!”

“Sometimes I forget because you nag so much!”

“Ugh,” Sasuke said. And then, eyeing a lone bamboo pipe sticking suspiciously out of the ground without even a leaf growing from it, with a tight ball of chakra hidden and malicious intent Kurama could’ve felt a mile off in the earth beneath it, he said: “If we do get separated, we should have a way to check whether we’re who we say we are. A password.” And then he recited about a dozen lines of a pop song, and Kurama stared at him flatly.

“That’s stupid, Naruto will never remember that. Okay, here’s a better password: how many of my paw-pads are pink?”

“Oh, I know!” Naruto said, but Kurama shoved his paw over Naruto’s mouth to stop him blurting the answer out, then showed Sakura and Sasuke each of his paws in turn.

The answer was none, though zero would also work – all his paw-pads were black, which was natural for an adult red fox. Lack of pigmentation would have been unusual. But whoever was hiding over there couldn’t see and wouldn’t know that.

“Alright, let’s get going,” Naruto said, clapping his hands. “The easiest route is to go that way until we reach this funny-looking tree that looks like it has a face—”

The chakra that had been hiding under the ground leapt up behind them, there was a flash, and a great gale suddenly rushed over them. Kurama stuck to the ground with by circulating chakra in his feet, but Naruto didn’t think fast enough and went tumbling head over heels off through the bushes.

That was not a genin-level technique!

Then again, Sasuke and Naruto both knew ninjutsu that wasn’t genin-level, and he was pretty sure that several of the other older genin probably knew some as well. He made a split-second decision and bounded off after his boy, figuring that Sasuke and Sakura were reasonably intelligent, and with excellent chakra control and the Sharingan between them, they ought to be able to hold their own against three other genin.

He arrived in time to find Naruto being eaten by a snake.

It was abnormally large, even for a snake from Training Ground Forty-Four.

Summons, Kurama thought, catching the ozone-tang of a summoning on the air, even as the flat-eyed snake turned its gaze on him, and no snake native to the area would dare think twice about facing down a fox. And then he thought: No genin should have a summons contract.

“Spit him up,” Kurama said, glaring up at the enormous snake. “Or you’ll find I’m worse than a mongoose.”

The snake laughed at him.

It was not laughing as he burrowed into its brain through the back of its skull, and it was absolutely not laughing when Naruto used the Kage Bunshin to explode its gut from the inside.

“Quick,” Kurama said. “That wasn’t one of the normal snakes.”

“You’re telling me,” Naruto grumbled, and they dashed back the way they’d been blown, crashing through leaves and branches uprooted shrubs that had been ripped away by the chakra-induced gale. “They never get that big!”

A wave of Killing Intent rolled over them, and Naruto staggered.

“Run,” Kurama snarled at him, both in his mind and in the physical world, pushing the choking oppressive KI of a furious Tailed-Beast out in front of him. The other Killing Intent sputtered and died.

They sprang up into the trees, leapt from branch to branch, in time for Kurama to spot Sasuke desperately trying to evade another giant snake, Sharingan spinning. Kurama did not hesitate. He rebounded off a tree branch, and reinforcing his tiny, twig-thin bones and tendons and muscle-fibres with chakra he leapt straight into the snake’s mouth and through the top of its head to catch himself on a bough just above, dripping with blood and grey matter.

The snake collapsed, and… a person of indeterminate gender broke out of it, like they had been hiding inside its skin. The person did a weird gross thing with its body and coiled around the branch Sasuke was crouched, frozen, on as if they were part snake, too.

Their chakra was tightly condensed. It reminded Kurama of the ANBU, but the ANBU hid themselves like they were not there, and this person-snake-thing was tamping their chakra down just tightly enough that it seemed like they had genin-level chakra.

Kurama dropped down in front of Sasuke, hackles up, teeth bared, growling.

The person-snake-thing peered at him impassively with weird snake-slit-eyes.

Killing Intent rolled over them again. Kurama didn’t budge.

“Little mind tricks like that won’t phase me,” he said. “Who are you?”

“Kurama, that’s Orochimaru,” Sakura called, from behind him. “Get away! He’s really dangerous.”

Orochimaru. Kurama narrowed his eyes. “Rogue-nin from Konohagakure no Sato,” he said, sitting back on his haunches, but watching the person-snake-thing carefully. “One of the Legendary Sannin, contemporary of Senju Tsunade and Jiraiya. Exiled for unethical human experimentation. I think you’ve gone a bit too far with your experimentation, Snake-Face-san, you’re looking a bit… how should I put this? Inhuman.”

Orochimaru just laughed and summoned a third snake, one that was much, much larger than the others.

“Kurama, Naruto, we need to run,” Sasuke said urgently, his voice high and tight and trembling just a little. He sounded very scared.

“Eh?” Naruto exclaimed, because he was as dense as a brick and had very little concept of strategic hauling ass in the other direction unless he was running away from a lecture, but he was more afraid of those because they were boring than for any other reason. Until maybe a hundred years ago, Kurama wouldn’t have considered retreat either, but he’d learned the hard way. “Are you really Sasuke? What’s with this coward stuff? Tell me the password!”

“The password is none, dobe! None! Kurama’s paws are all black!”

Go, Naruto, Kurama thought, fiercely. He’s more dangerous than Zabuza or Haku ever were. Get somewhere safe. Get to the tower. I’ll distract him.

“Good enough for me! Sasuke, Sakura, this way!” Naruto barked, and the sound of flight through the trees followed, though Kurama didn’t take his eyes off Orochimaru, or let his senses falter, because this man was on par with Jiraiya of the Sannin – Jiraiya who had taught the Minato-brat, who in turn had sealed half the Kyuubi into the belly of Shinigami, and he was not to be underestimated.

“How cute,” Orochimaru cooed in a way that set Kurama’s teeth on edge. “The sweet little ninkitsune is buying them time to run away and find a grown up.”

Kurama could count on one paw the number of times he’d been called sweet in his entire life, but he refused to rise to the bait.

“I’ll just kill you first and go after them,” Orochimaru said, and – did something gross and creepy with his tongue. “Or maybe I’ll go now, and just let my dearest eat you, so I don’t waste time.”

Kurama snarled, leapt at him on top of his snake’s head, but he used the kawarimi technique to replace himself with mossy sludge from one of the trees, and was chasing after the genin in the next moment. Kurama went to follow, but the snake shook its huge head, throwing him off, and snapped its teeth after him.

Damnit!

Hopefully Naruto would be okay for the precious few seconds it took him to deal with this stupid summons. At least he had no witnesses as he let some of his tightly tamped down chakra free and flicked the tiny toes on his paws through a sequence of heavily simplified seals.

Wind and fire combined, and the snake screeched and writhed as it burned.

A subtle pull on the greater part of Kurama’s chakra, fear and loathing mixed with a sharp protectiveness, and Kurama went hurtling through the trees in pursuit of Orochimaru.

Suddenly – nothing.

Naruto was unconscious.

That wasn’t good!

He burst onto the scene as Orochimaru launched his head out, all weird and stretchy like he had no bones, and bit Sasuke on the neck. Sasuke screamed and collapsed, Sakura caught him, and Kurama hurtled into Orochimaru’s jaw head-first. There was the crunch of breaking bones and his head whipped around on his weird snake-y neck, which was admittedly very satisfying.

Kurama caught himself on a tree trunk, snarling, as Orochimaru stared at him with wide-eyed surprise.

“Oh,” he said, jaw twisted grotesquely to the side and blood leaking from one corner from his mouth. His skin seemed to be peeling away to reveal different, paler skin underneath? Weird and gross. Was anything about this guy not weird or gross? “You’re still alive.”

“Yeah, and your stupid snake is dead!” Kurama growled, all his fur standing on end.

“A shame,” Orochimaru said, before he melted into the tree, and Kurama was pretty sure people couldn’t do that anymore, it was a lost kekkei genkai, but Orochimaru was weird and gross.

Sakura burst into tears.

Kurama hopped over to her and took a closer look at Sasuke, whose chakra had gone kind of wobbly and who now had a curse seal of some variety where Orochimaru had bitten him.

“That isn’t a very good sign,” Kurama said.

 

xviii.

Naruto woke up in time to help them carry the unconscious Sasuke down the tree.

“He burned our Scroll,” Naruto said morosely to Kurama, when they had crawled into a safe little space between the roots of one of the huge gnarled trees of Training Ground Forty-Four. The hollow was large enough for the three genin, but too small for any of the particularly nasty local megafauna to enter, and though not particularly comfortable, it was dry and safe enough.

“We can take the Chuunin Selection Exams another time,” Kurama told Naruto, from where he was nosing at the cursed seal, trying to get a better understanding of it.

“And he did something weird to my stomach. It made me pass out.”

Kurama sat bolt upright. “Show me.”

Naruto did.

There were the remains of a seal there, already fading away to wispy nothingness, though Kurama could see from the faint lines what it had been. Five points laid over what had once been an eight-point seal. If their original seal had been intact, Naruto’s chakra would’ve been impossible to regulate until someone could counter it. But the Five Elements Seal was designed as a permanent seal to go over another existing permanent seal, not one long since broken, and as a result it had caused a temporary chakra disruption before being burned off by Kurama’s corrosive chakra.

“You’ll be fine,” Kurama told him. “No lasting damage, back to normal by tomorrow morning at the latest. Because of the thing we did when you were eight.”

Sakura was distracted enough by treating Sasuke’s wounds and sudden elevated body temperature that she did not question the vague thing that Kurama and Naruto did when Naruto was eight. Which was breaking the Kyuubi’s seal.

“Ah,” Naruto said, and turned his attention to Sasuke also. “Kurama, is he going to be okay?”

“I don’t know,” Kurama said. “That’s a very evil curse mark, and I cannot remove it.”

He was still covered in snake blood and brains, so he set about giving himself a thorough tongue-bath, cleaning himself from nose to tail tip. Once he was convinced there was no longer gore beneath any of his claws, or in his ears, or matting his fur, he crawled into the collar of Sasuke’s shirt and pressed his warm little body against the curse seal as Sasuke shivered and groaned.

Sakura healed the self-inflicted kunai wound on Sasuke’s thigh. “It was the only way he could break the fear,” she murmured, her hands glowing a faint green in the increasing gloom.

“Kudos to him for finding a method that worked,” Kurama said. “But stab wounds in this sort of environment are asking for an infection! He should’ve pinched himself or something.”

Sakura smiled sadly. “Do you think this fever is productive, or should we try to reduce it?”

“Unless my understanding of human biology is very wrong, and I don’t think it is because I paid attention during those classes unlike someone,” Kurama glanced at Naruto, who was peering warily out into the forest. “Then we should try to bring it down. Fevers that get too high can cause convulsions, and death, and it’s getting up there. You brought medicine?”

Sakura nodded.

“Good. You know how to give it to an unconscious person medication without choking them? Excellent, Naruto, come here and help for a second.”

“You gotta live, you hear me, bastard?” Naruto said, softly, as he lifted Sasuke’s head so Sakura could trickle water mixed with crushed fever-reducers into his mouth. “You’re stronger than this, and you got a dream same as I do, and I’m gonna help you succeed, same as Kurama’s gonna help me, because you’re my friend!” He took a deep, shuddery breath. “Sasuke, you just believe it, okay?”

Kurama looked at Naruto, and saw the grief and exhaustion in every movement and every breath. Today had been too much excitement. Sakura was the same. Her expression was haggard, her face pale.

“Have something to eat, some water,” he told the brats, albeit gently. “Sleep. I’ll watch first. If – if Sasuke gets worse, we’re going to have to call for help. And, Naruto, if it comes to that, though it might be dangerous for you, you’re going to have to make a lot of noise when you do it, to get someone’s attention. They – the proctors – they’re going to be expecting a certain amount of noise in here, people are going to be dying, so you’ll need to unleash Kyuubi. Konoha hates Kyuubi, there are still people hurting so much from the last time Kyuubi was loose here, they’re all going to want a piece of him, so that is the absolute surest way to get them to come.”

Naruto considered that, then nodded determinedly. “If it comes down to me or Sasuke.”

Kurama smiled at him. “You’re a good friend. You’ll be a good Hokage.”

Sakura fell asleep before she’d eaten even a half of her ration bar. Naruto followed her shortly after.

Kurama turned to peer out into the lowering darkness in the forest.

He could still smell snake.

There were three genin planning to murder them at sunrise, not a hundred yards from their current hiding spot. That was unacceptable. Kurama looked from Naruto, curled on his side, head pillowed on his arm, knees pulled up by his chest, to Sakura, expression already darkening in a nightmare, and wondered.

The night stretched long. Sasuke stirred, then settled, his expression sometimes contorted into one of pain. Sometimes he whimpered and sometimes he cried, soft sobs and pleas, though what he was begging for Kurama could not guess.

Kurama didn’t think he’d even seen the Uchiha brat cry before. He’d been dry-eyed and staunch when he’d returned to school after the Uchiha Massacre. Naruto cried all the time, and Kurama never knew if it was because he felt things more acutely than other people, or if he’d worked out that the act of crying had an unusual tendency to make humans feel better afterwards.

Sometimes Kurama wished he could cry. He felt it would be cathartic.

Through the long dark of the night, Kurama licked his tears away, whispered promises of a better future in his ear, and sang snippets of old lullabies he only half remembered.

Sakura woke from a nightmare with a sharp jolt a few hours before dawn, her breathing fast, hands clasped to her chest.

Kurama paused in his recounting of the peaceful precursor of ninjutsu, ninshuu, gifted to the world by the Sage of the Six Paths, to regard her silently for a moment. She peered back at him with wide green eyes that shone faintly in the darkness.

“A nightmare?” he asked.

She nodded silently, then asked: “Is Sasuke?”

“No change,” Kurama said. “We should give him more water and medicine.”

They did.

“Have you been awake this while time?” Sakura asked, after the silence between them had turned from moments to minutes.

“Yes, but I can sleep whenever, wherever, and stay awake when I need to. I am an adult, and I do not have to take into account the fact that I am growing when I consider how long I can push myself before I need to rest,” Kurama said.

“You should rest anyway,” Sakura told him, with a little wobble in her voice. “I don’t think – I don’t think I’ll sleep anymore, now.”

Kurama gave a thoughtful hum. “Sakura, I do not need to sleep now.” Or ever, he just did it because it felt good and he liked curling up in the sun, or next to Naruto, or in some other warm, comfortable spot, and snoozing. “However, putting my views on taking revenge aside in this one case, I would very much like to go out and beat something to a bloody pulp, and I was wondering if you fancied joining me.”

“Your views on revenge?” Sakura echoed.

“The best revenge is a life well lived,” Kurama said. “Someone can do terrible things to you, make your life a prison, a literal hell.” Uzumaki Kushina hadn’t really needed to use the stakes after she’d chained him. That had been excessive in the extreme. “They can try to kill you, or they can hurt your precious people, and certainly you can go off and kill them, but you’ll only feel better for a little while, and then you’ll feel just as bad as when you were thirsting for their blood. So, the best revenge is a life well lived, and even though they might not be there to see it, you can take comfort in the fact that they tried to ruin you, but they didn’t, and you’re happy.”

“That seems…” Sakura began. “And we’re making an exception…?”

“Well, yes,” Kurama said. “There’s a group of maybe-genin roughly a hundred yards that way, and they stink so badly of that awful snake guy I can smell them from here. I can also hear them, and they’re planning on killing us at dawn – probably waiting for better visibility, the idiots, a shinobi’s best friend is the darkness, I rescind my previous statement, they probably are genin after all – so I propose going over there and taking out a little vengeance. Not direct vengeance, just vengeance one step to the side of the target we actually want to take revenge upon.”

“Orochimaru,” Sakura whispered.

“Yes. But also they want to kill us and I don’t want that. Here, I have a plan. Can I show you something? Watch what I’m doing with the chakra in my paw.”

She took hold of the proffered paw, because ‘watching’ really meant ‘feeling with her own chakra.’

Kurama slowly reinforced bones and muscle and tendon and skin, one at a time, waiting each time for the tiny change in her expression to register that she had felt the change.

“You try now. Just a finger,” Kurama said.

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because this is how I headbutted my way through the head of that snake without breaking my own skull or snapping my neck or leaving myself with permanent spinal injuries. I reinforced my body with chakra, because I’m little and breakable, and I can perform physical feats I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, because I’m too small and will never have the muscle mass to back me up.”

Sakura’s frown deepened. “So, in taijutsu—”

“Yes,” Kurama nodded enthusiastically. “Most useful for taijutsu. The more muscle you have, the stronger you’ll be! But you can hurt yourself, using your muscles like that, which is why you reinforce them. Imagine punching a rock with your bare hand. That’s hurt a lot.”

“It would,” Sakura said.

“But if you make all the parts of your hand stronger…”

“Oh,” she breathed. “I won’t get hurt.”

“There are people who fight like this already,” Kurama said. “But you need good chakra control. It doesn’t use much chakra, since you’re keeping it all inside and not using any jutsu, but you need really good chakra control. You need to be able to feel your own muscles and skin and bones, and I don’t think either Sasuke or Naruto will ever be that good. Imagine if I told them to try to feel how different their skin was from the tissue underneath? But I think you already know what I’m talking about, though, no?”

She was staring at her hand, and he felt her chakra move. A moment later, she was clenching a perfectly reinforced fit.

“Excellent!” Kurama said, standing up and wagging his tail. “Let’s go beat some of Orochimaru’s stupid maybe-genin up! And don’t forget to reinforce the other muscles you use for punching, too, like the ones in your back, or you’ll hurt yourself.”

 

xix.

“Watch me again,” Kurama murmured, and Sakura laid her hand on him and concentrated. “I’m going to show you something else.”

He tamped down his chakra tight, pulling it in close and squashing it down until it resembled that of a natural woodland creature.

“It’s like you’re an actual fox,” Sakura said, face blank with astonishment.

“I am an actual fox,” Kurama said, feeling a moment of anxiety as he wondered what he felt like if not fox.

“I mean a normal fox, not a ninkitsune with years of training,” Sakura explained. “Your chakra kind of reminds me of the Kyuubi’s. It’s… warm and sort of heavy, but not the same? Because being near the Kyuubi is a bit like being in a room so hot you can’t breathe, even if its not that hot at all, and all your insides feel like they’re being squashed at the same time but the air pressure hasn’t changed. It’s a bit hard to explain.”

“Must be because we’re both foxes,” Kurama squeaked, feeling his paw-pads start to sweat. “You try masking your chakra now.”

It took her a few attempts, but eventually he deemed her acceptable.

He peered at her through the predawn darkness, seriously. “We’re going out there to do irreparable harm, Sakura,” he said, eventually. “We’re going out there to absolutely remove any possible chance those three have of ever continuing their careers as shinobi. We’re going to knock them out, and then we’re going to cripple them permanently. Is that okay with you? I can go alone, if I must.”

Sakura glanced anxiously at Sasuke, then her gaze slipped to Naruto, who had curled up until he was in a little ball not dissimilar to a sleeping fox, face hidden under one of his hands, knees tucked almost to his chin.

“You’re sure they’re Orochimaru’s?” she asked.

“Even if they weren’t, they’re going to try to kill us,” Kurama said. “But yes, I’m sure. They reek of him. It’s not very pleasant.”

“What do they smell like?”

“It’s… How do you explain sight to someone who has never been able to see? Huh. That’s a difficult question. They smell like snakes. Snakes smell a little bit like musk and cucumbers and rotting corpses, and Orochimaru-stink is mixed with a weird antiseptic smell, and those two scents don’t really belong together, rotting corpses and antiseptic, so it kind of reminds me of how a hospital morgue might smell? Except I’ve never been in a hospital morgue, so I don’t know. There are places Naruto and I never thought it was appropriate to prank because it was disrespectful, you know. It’s just – it’s a weird contradictory smell. With a side of cucumbers.”

Sakura’s face screwed up in disgust. “Gross.”

“I know, right?”

She was silent for a moment, and then her eyes hardened, and her fist clenched, and she nodded firmly. “I can do it! Shannarou!” she hissed. “Let’s go do this.”

She was beautiful. She was fearless. She did not falter, even when their enemies were unconscious and Kurama had ripped the tendons and nerves and muscles out from behind their knees, destroying their legs, before he asked her to heal the severed arteries, so they didn’t bleed out. Kurama chewed off their feet, and she only blanched a little and asked if it was overkill, and when he said it wasn’t, they were enemies of the lowest calibre, she nodded and accepted his word, looked away as he gouged out their eyes, her mouth drawn in a determined line.

For good measure, they disarmed their enemies and destroyed their weapons, blunting the kunai and shuriken on stones and stomping the odd metal arm one of them had into the ground, breaking it into tiny pieces, and then Kurama sent Sakura back to watch Sasuke and Naruto with the scroll they pilfered.

“I really don’t like how sick Sasuke is,” Kurama said. “And I don’t want to reach the tower and get turned away because we don’t have two scrolls, so I’m going to go steal some other team’s scroll. We’ll move out when I get back.”

Using his stupid stubby little fox toes, and his even stupider dew claws, he went through the seals for the henge, and turned himself into a slightly smaller, more generic forest fox like the hundreds of others that inhabited these woods, his hitai-ate hidden.

“Good luck,” Sakura said to him.

“I won’t be long, I know this forest like the back of Naruto’s hand,” Kurama told her, and raced off into the underbrush.

The first team he came across was the once composed of Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji. They were hiding in some bushes not too far from where Kurama had left Team Seven, and their plan seemed to revolve around trying to avoid everyone else until their five days in the forest were up. He peered at them fondly as they slept on the ground, decided that out of Konoha-solidarity he would not take their scroll, and darted off to find a team of foreign shinobi.

Next, he encountered one of Maito Gai’s team. That odd green spandex kid. Rock Lee was moving at speed through the branches above him, and he must’ve seen dozens of foxes already, because he ignored Kurama entirely and left him unmolested. He was another Konoha shinobi anyway, so Kurama didn’t pursue.

At last he found a group slightly scratched up in an area that smelled like both fox and bear, sleeping high up in a tree. A little girl with such vibrantly red hair and such an enormous pool of chakra that she reminded Kurama of an Uzumaki – though they were all dead, so it was impossible – had the scroll in her pack, and he stole it stealthily because it was the opposite of the scroll the now debilitated Oto nin had had.

Then he raced back off, another little forest fox among hundreds.

Sasuke was stirring in a way that looked like it would lead to wakefulness when Kurama slipped back into their hollow and dropped the henge, and the scroll.

“Any trouble?” Sakura asked.

Kurama shook his head. “No, I stole it from some sleeping kids. They’ll fail, but they probably won’t die, and that’s the best outcome at this point. Naruto, up.”

Naruto woke up faster than Kurama had ever seen him awaken before. “What? What is it? Is Sasuke okay?”

“No change,” Kurama told him. “We’re going to the tower now to try to seek medical attention. I don’t like this.”

“Okay,” Naruto said, without argument. “I can carry him on my back. Boy, I’m so glad Kakashi-nii-san made us do all that stamina stuff carrying those packs full of rocks, or this would be really difficult.”

They packed up camp and left into the predawn, Sakura and Naruto following Kurama, whose night vision was the better than any human’s. Packing up camp, incidentally, didn’t involve packing anything but quickly dismantling the rudimentary traps they had set, and then removing all traces of their presence in the first place, which went just as quickly, as they hadn’t dared have a campfire when the light and smoke might attract others to their location.

Dawn came as they neared the tower, and the chakra around Sasuke started to roil and churn.

“Stop,” Kurama said, hurrying them into the undergrowth. “Naruto, put him down, now, and back away.”

“What’s happening?” Naruto asked, his voice wobbling and tears beading in his eyes.

Kurama peered at Sasuke, whose face was scrunched up with what looked less like pain and more like fury. His eyes snapped open, Sharingan active, and oh, hey, he had two tomoe in each eye now and they were whirling, and that made Kurama feel less comfortable than ever. Creeping black lines swirled across his skin as he launched himself to his feet, crouched low. They were radiating out from the curse seal, and he bared his teeth in a surprisingly animal expression quite unlike him.

“Sasuke-kun?” Sakura asked, from a dozen feet away. “Are you – how are you feeling?”

But Sasuke slumped back to the ground and covered the side of his neck with his hand, wincing, and the lines spiralled back. “I have to… I have to get stronger,” he whispered to the dirt between his knees. “I have to. I have to.”

Kurama, who was by far the most durable out of the three of them, crept closer and crawled onto Sasuke’s lap. “Hi,” he said. “It’s good to see you awake. We were really worried.”

“We were, you know!” Naruto whisper-yelled. “You can’t die, Sasuke! You’re my friend, and I gotta help you realise your dream.”

Sakura sniffled. “You had a really high fever, Sasuke-kun. Can I – can I hug you?”

Sasuke lifted one hand, and wrapped an arm around Kurama, pulling the little fox so tight against his chest that Kurama could feel the anxious thrum of his heartbeat, leaving Kurama feeling strangely like he was being treated less like an animal with bodily autonomy and more like a stuffed toy. His other hand came up to wipe at his eyes. Naruto and Sakura took that for permission and crowded close in a slightly awkward group hug which left Kurama feeling very squashed indeed, but he felt like this was something the children needed more than wanted, so he put up with it and tried not to wheeze.

“He killed them all because I wasn’t strong enough,” Sasuke whispered.

Kurama guessed he was talking about the Massacre. Poor kid. It probably ate at him every single day. The little fox wiggled until he could take a deep breath. “He killed them because he wanted to. You were a child and would’ve died, too.”

“Why didn’t I, then?”

“I can’t read minds, and I even if I could, I wasn’t there, so I cannot tell you. I’m sorry, Sasuke,” Kurama said.

“He killed all the other children, though. Even the babies.”

Kurama winced, and Sakura hugged Sasuke a little tighter.

“He was your brother. I guess he loved you too much to kill you, too,” Kurama suggested.

“No,” Sasuke said, but it was a broken, miserable little whimper.

Kurama licked the salt from his cheeks, then nosed his ears the way he knew was tickly because it always made Naruto shriek. Sasuke pushed his face away to bury his nose in Kurama’s fur and inhale deeply, and Kurama knew that even more than having a warm living thing pressed against their side, inhaling the scent of a warm living thing was soothing to human beings, who were odd and adopted all sorts of animals they weren’t remotely related to.

“It’ll be okay, Sasuke,” Kurama said. “You’re not alone, and if you really feel you have to kill him to be able to truly live yourself, then we will help you, okay?”

“I don’t… I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sasuke sniffed. “It’s got to be me, because it doesn’t matter if he kills me. He should’ve killed me back then.”

“Sasuke, no,” Sakura said.

And Naruto started crying, but it was the silent sort of crying instead of his usual loud bawling.

“That is absolutely not true,” Kurama informed him, firmly. “Here’s what we’ll do: We’re all going to get stronger, so none of us will get hurt, not you or me or Sakura or Naruto. Or even Kakashi-nii-san, though we’ll have to work on him, because he’s stupidly reckless about chakra exhaustion and he’s going to run himself into the ground, I swear, though most of it is that transplanted eye and you have to admit it does give him at least some semblance of an advantage. I digress. Team Seven is going to be the most unbeatable team there ever was! And then we’ll go kick Itachi’s ass all the way from Suna to Kumo so he regrets ever, ever messing with you, even though you were a kid and couldn’t do anything, because karma always comes back around.”

“Believe it,” Naruto whispered.

“We’ll always be Team Seven,” Sakura added, nodding.

Sasuke sniffed, and gave them the faintest hint of a watery smile. “Thanks.”

They sat like that for a long time, until Sakura took the hand Sasuke had been wiping his eyes with to pull him to his feet, and Naruto wrapped his arm around Sasuke’s shoulders on his other side to stabilise him as he walked, and the made it the rest of the way to the tower.

Unfortunately, Kurama was carried the entire way tucked into the crook of Sasuke’s arm like a plush toy, but he tolerated it because he knew it was an emotional comfort thing, and who was he to deny a child in need comfort?

 

xx.

Naruto was not Kurama’s first child. The first infant Kurama had found his chakra curled protectively around had been the child of Senju Hashirama and Uzumaki Mito. He’d been so angry at the time, freshly locked away in his very first jinchuuriki, that he hadn’t seen how precious that child truly was and had taken the weakening of the seal caused by pregnancy and childbirth as an excellent time to thrash and claw at the seal, trying to escape.

Later, after he found himself sealed into Naruto, he found himself regretting his foolishness. He had been ecstatic to find that that child, his first, had gone on and had a child of their own: Senju Tsunade, and to find that Tsunade had made an extraordinary name for herself as an amazing healer and a tremendously powerful taijutsu fighter, one of the very few people with sufficient chakra control to achieve the Yin Seal.

And he was heartbroken to discover she had fled the village of Konoha to become a drunk and a gambler. She was almost his own granddaughter, and the horrors she had faced that had left her with such dysfunctional coping mechanisms that he mourned for her loss, also. Of course, she was old enough to look after herself – she was Jiraiya’s age, and Jiraiya had been the Minato-brat’s sensei, and Minato had been the Hatake-brat’s sensei, and only now was the Hatake-brat Naruto’s sensei.

This did not stop Kurama from reading about the way she fought and healed, examining it critically, and breaking the technique down into the most basic composition to begin to teach to Sakura, who was young but had a sensitive nature and had yet to find her specialty. Her chakra control, though, was extremely promising, to the old fox’s eyes.

Team Seven hung around the hospital for three days, after Kakashi placed a temporary containment seal over the mark on Sasuke’s neck, and then they returned to the small arena at the tower to forfeit as a team.

“I do everything I say I will and never go back on my word,” Naruto said, cheerfully, as he bowed out. “But I never promised anyone I was gonna make chuunin at this Selection! I only just made genin, I was mostly in it for the experience of what the Selection Exams were like, and I got a lotta that! Too much, maybe. So I’m forfeiting now.”

Actually, after a team discussion about how Orochimaru had infiltrated the event by killing three genin from the Land of Grass and taking their places, as well as placing his own team of genin in the Selections with specific instructions to target and kill Sasuke and Team Seven as well, if necessary, they decided that maybe they could have another attempt at Chuunin Selection at a later date when they would hopefully not be the targets of body-snatchers and assassins.

Not that genin weren’t assassins-in-training, but usually they weren’t entered in the Chuunin Selections specifically to assassinate one particular team and make it look like just a part of the exam.

They were not the only ones to forfeit. Sabaku no Gaara forfeited, which startled both of his sibling-teammates badly, though they did not also forfeit. That Kabuto kid and his team forfeited, which was kind of weird because none of them had gotten hurt. They reached the final part of the exams, and then just randomly gave up for no reason. No wonder they never passed.

But here Kurama was now, on a sunny Monday morning, watching Team Seven napping as they waited for Kakashi to show up. Well, Sasuke, who’d been tired since Orochimaru bit him, and Naruto who slept anywhere, anytime, were napping. Kurama had encouraged Sakura to meditate, to get more in touch with her chakra, and she was sitting there with her eyes closed, but she wasn’t asleep because he could feel the way she was moving her chakra around.

He fell asleep eventually as well, sprawled in the grass.

When he woke, it was to two quickly approaching chakra signatures. One was Kakashi’s, and he wouldn’t’ve ordinarily noticed it had it not been joined by another very large, disturbingly familiar presence.

A moment later, Kakashi appeared before them, and he was not alone. With him was a tall older man with shaggy white hair, red clan markings, and a Mount Myouboku hitai-ate. Jiraiya of the Sannin. Not quite as good at the art of fuuinjutsu as Namikaze Minato had been, as the Minato-brat’s fuuinjutsu education had been supplemented by Uzumaki Kushina, but his original teacher and good enough at fuuinjutsu that he posed a risk to Naruto and Kurama because of the knowledge he held.

Kurama bit back the urge to growl, and rolled onto his back to hide the fact his hackles were all standing on end.

“Ah,” Kakashi said to Jiraiya. “It looks like we might have to come back later, Jiraiya-sama. It would seem that my cute little genin are all sleeping!”

Jiraiya didn’t look as amused as Kakashi did. “Hokage-sama dragged me from the other side of the continent for this, Kakashi-san. Apparently it’s a matter of utmost urgency, and I have research I could be doing. Either you wake them up, or I will.”

“I’m already awake,” Sakura said, without opening her eyes. “Whatever you’re planning, don’t include me, thank you.”

Kurama had finally managed to smooth down his fur, and weren’t autonomic reactions annoying? How did animals deal with these? So he hopped up and moved briskly out of the way, because those hand seals Jiraiya was flashing through promised a good drenching.

“Ack!” Naruto shouted, as the moisture Jiraiya pulled from the air was dumped over the sleeping genin, springing to his feet and scrambling away. “Kurama, you coulda told me it was gonna start raining! Oh. It isn’t raining. Hey! Why’d you do that to us? That was mean!”

Sasuke remained where he was, lying on his back on the ground, glaring at the sky as if it had personally wronged him.

“Are you going to get up, Sasuke?” Kakashi asked.

“No.”

Naruto was squinting at Jiraiya, now, a perplexed expression on his face. “Are you my godfather?”

Jiraiya’s eyes widened comically. “What? How do you know that?”

“My stomach fox told me,” Naruto replied, tilting his head. “You look like he said you would. Are you a pervert? He said my godfather was a pervert, and to never go anywhere with him without a responsible chaperone because – uh – Kurama, what’d he say?”

“If you explained it to me right, Kyuubi was worried about the bad influence of perverts on growing young minds,” Kurama replied, yawning. “Kakashi-nii-san is bad enough, reading porn in public, but Kyuubi said Jiraiya was a super-pervert and could not be trusted to be appropriate with small children.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right!” Naruto said.

Jiraiya looked like he’d gotten all sweaty all of a sudden. He turned to Kakashi and said: “Hokage-sama was right. It’s an extreme emergency and I need to look into it right now.”

“Maa, I guess,” Kakashi bleated. “You’ll look at the curse seal Orochimaru put on Sasuke after, though?”

“It depends on how dire Naruto’s situation is. This might take some time to undo. It seems like the Kyuubi has sunk its malicious claws quite deeply into his mind…”

“Hey!” Naruto objected.

“Kurama, you’re chaperone,” Kakashi said, quickly.

“Great,” Jiraiya crowed, and he grabbed Naruto by the collar of his jumpsuit, and Kurama by the scruff of his neck, and disappeared with them in a shunshin. They reappeared at the entrance to an onsen on the outskirts of the village.

“Nope,” Kurama said, hanging limply from Jiraiya’s large hand with his tail tucked up between his legs. “Nowhere with naked people. Pick somewhere else.”

“Ichiraku’s,” Naruto suggested, brightly.

“Ramen, ramen, ramen!” Kurama agreed, not because he loved ramen more than anything else but because it would be more difficult for Jiraiya to get Naruto half-naked to examine the place where his seal had been in front of Teuchi and Ayame.

“You’re a weird summons,” Jiraiya said, holding Kurama to examine him at eye height.

“Probably because I’m just your regular, every day garden-variety ninkitsune,” Kurama agreed. “I’ve never even been to the domain of foxes, I don’t even know what it’s called! I certainly didn’t come from there.” Not true. It was the place where the ruins of the Sage’s temple, the one that he had sent Kurama to protect a long, long time ago, used to be. But without getting Naruto to sign the actual Fox Summons Contract, pretending to be a fox summons was too fallible.

“You’re creepy,” Jiraiya said to Kurama.

“I am not! I’m a normal fox,” Kurama yelped, flailing. “You’re the creepy one, you old perv!”

“Foxes don’t talk.”

Kurama crossed his paws over his chest and huffed, offended. “I do!”

“Can you put me down?” Naruto asked, plaintively.

Jiraiya, outnumbered two-to-one, gave the entire onsen thing up as a bad job and took them to Ichiraku Ramen. Kurama crowed for joy at having won this round against the old sannin. Naruto crowed for joy about getting ramen. Jiraiya sighed, heavily, as he hauled himself onto his stool, and Naruto asked him if he was shouting their early lunch, since he was his godfather, and paying for necessities like food and stuff was his job, right?

“So,” Jiraiya said, as he stirred his noodles with a chopstick. “What else does this, uh,” he dropped his voice. “Stomach fox tell you to do, Naruto?”

“Just boring stuff,” Naruto replied. “Like eat my vegetables and pay my rent and do the laundry. You know. The stuff I usually forget.”

“You turned up to training in your pyjamas two weeks ago because you ignored your stomach fox and didn’t do your laundry then realised you had nothing clean to wear,” Kurama sniped at Naruto grumpily, around a mouthful of pork belly.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at him, petulantly.

Jiraiya was sweating again. It was pungent enough that Kurama could smell it over the greasy deliciousness of the ramen.

“Does the fox ever tell you to hurt anyone?” Jiraiya asked.

Naruto peered up at him, like he was checking him for head injuries. “No. I think he’s a closet pacifist, though he pretends he isn’t.” Kurama hissed at him in their mind-space. Lies and slander! Naruto prattled on, and he was either blissfully ignorant or a brilliant actor and Kurama couldn’t even tell with that child anymore. “We help people! He’s gonna help me become Hokage, and I’m gonna be friends with everyone and make sure everyone is happy and safe! That’s our greatest dream.”

“Er…” Jiraiya said. “Would it be alright if I checked your seal?”

Uh oh.

There it was.

 

xxi.

“What seal?” Naruto asked, perfectly and honestly oblivious. “That weird snake-y guy said something about seals too.”

Actor, Kurama thought, viciously proud of his amazing child. And then, with a sinking feeling, he thought: Wait, no. Maybe he just forgot. That’d be more like Naruto. He didn’t even get dropped on his head as a baby. I don’t know how these things slip his mind.

“Then,” Naruto continued, and yep, that was the sweet, sweet smile of ignorant oblivion. “He did a bad touch with his fingers and I passed out it was so horrible.”

Kurama was torn between howling with glee at the way Jiraiya went all pale and sick-looking at the implication of those words and wailing in despair at the scarcity of Naruto’s vocabulary. Surely, surely, Naruto knew how to phrase the application of the Five Elements Seal better than that?

“Are you gonna finish your ramen?” Naruto asked Jiraiya, noticing he’d hardly touched his bowl.

Mutely, Jiraiya shook his head.

“Can I have it?” Jiraiya stared at him for so long that Naruto took it as an agreement, swiped his bowl, and started scarfing it down with the same enthusiasm he’d eaten his first five bowls with.

Jiraiya turned to Kurama. “Is he a bottomless pit?”

Kurama sat back on his haunches to shrug. “Dunno. We usually can’t afford more than three bowls when we come by ourselves, and if someone else is treating us, they tend to cut him off by now out of concerns for his health or something. I’m not that well-versed in the gastric concerns of humans, but I know that some foxes eat up to a quarter of their own body weight daily.”

“You say ‘we’ as if you belong to Naruto. I was under the impression that you were one of Kakashi-san’s pack?”

“Eh, no. Why would I be Kakashi-nii-san’s? I mean, I suppose all of Team Seven are just extended members of his pack, but Naruto is mine,” Kurama said.

Naruto finished Jiraiya’s bowl of ramen and sighed contentedly. “Can I have another?” he asked, with a hopeful gleam in his eye.

“I think you’ve had enough for now,” Jiraiya said. “I would like to go somewhere with fewer people to look at your seal.”

“I don’t got a seal. Think I’d know if I did,” Naruto grumbled, obstinately. “Fine, though.”

Jiraiya picked them both up by their scruffs again and took them all the way out to a little-used training ground outside the wall, a long way from the centre of the village or any human habitation.

Jiraiya dumped them unceremoniously in the grass beneath a big old tree, and told Naruto to pull up his shirt.

“This isn’t for something perverted, is it?” Naruto asked him, suspiciously.

“No, you’re supposed to have a seal on your stomach,” Jiraiya said, and Kurama thought it looked like he was getting to the point where he was considering pulling out his hair in frustration. Naruto squinted at him, and Kurama squinted at him too, but Naruto pulled up the shirt of his jumpsuit to reveal his naked, unmarked belly. Jiraiya sighed, and said: “You know how you channel chakra to your feet to tree-walk, right? Channel chakra to your stomach for me.”

Naruto did so.

The tiny black wisps of the broken seal showed up, then faded away.

Jiraiya swore. Colourfully. At length. And paced backwards and forwards at he did it. At last, he sat down, panting and red in the face.

“See,” Naruto said, poking his own stomach. “I don’t have a seal. The snake guy tried to put one on me, and it hurt, but it went away again.”

“He tried to do a Five Elements Seal,” Kurama said. “But it didn’t work, because the Eight Trigrams Seal is broken.”

“You know fuuinjutsu?” Jiraiya asked.

Kurama made a noncommittal noise. “Some. Enough to be of use, on the odd occasion, but I don’t have thumbs, so I can’t use it easily. I can read seals well enough. Look at these dew claws. Look at them. They’re useless! I have to use a brush with my mouth! Do you know how unwieldly that is? I wish I had hands.”

“So Orochimaru didn’t touch you in a bad adult way, he tried to put a seal on you?”

“Yeah, I told you that before!”

Jiraiya sighed in relief, then had another thought and went quite still. “Naruto, how long has that seal been gone.”

“Since I was eight,” Naruto said, still poking at his stomach. “It’s alright, though, because Kyuubi is nice.”

Jiraiya succumbed to the urge to tug at his own hair as he looked despairingly at the branches of the tree above them. “Kyuubi is nice,” he repeated. “The Kyuubi destroyed half of Konoha twelve years ago.”

“Only because the guy with the weird orange mask and the black cloak with red clouds and the one funny Sharingan made him do it,” Naruto said blithely.

Jiraiya went completely still. Kurama wasn’t even sure he was breathing anymore. “Black cloak with red clouds,” he said, slowly.

“You hard of hearing, old man? That’s what Kyuubi told me, and that’s what I said!”

“How would the Kyuubi know about the Akatsuki…” Jiraiya mumbled to himself.

Kurama didn’t actually know what an Akatsuki was, but he didn’t say anything.

Jiraiya stayed in his own head for so long that Naruto and Kurama moved out of the shade, lay on their bellies in the sun, and began to play jan-ken to pass the time. Kurama was winning eleven-nine when Jiraiya finally came back to himself.

“Naruto,” he said. “I would like to speak to the Kyuubi. Do you think that would be possible?”

Naruto glanced at Kurama anxiously. Kurama hoped it looked like he was glancing at a friend for reassurance, and not like he was asking for permission.

If I close my eyes, Kurama thought into their shared mind-space. I should be able to manifest as Kyuubi without dispelling or becoming disorientated. We’ll see.

Just don’t puke, Naruto thought back, just a little bit venomously. “Okay,” he said aloud, and smiled brightly. “On three, old man? Also, if people from the village come, can you send them away? I don’t want them to hurt Kyuubi. Alright. One, two, three.”

Kurama cowered, covering his eyes and ears with his paws to block out as much external stimuli possible, as Naruto pulled himself into the mind space at the same time as he forcibly shoved the Kyuubi out. One moment there was a small boy lying in the grass in front of Kurama, the next moment Kurama was lying in the grass in front of Kurama – and oh, yep, he was dizzy now, and that was a weird out-of-body experience he was having, looking at his own self through the Kyuubi’s eyes.

The Kyuubi turned its tremendous head away from the tiny, tiny little fox cowering in front of it to peer down at Jiraiya, who now also seemed tiny.

“HELLO, TOAD SAGE,” the Kyuubi said, grinning to show off all its magnificent teeth.

Jiraiya stammered.

“I UNDERSTAND YOU WISH TO SPEAK WITH ME,” the Kyuubi continued. “WELL, GO ON, GET ON WITH IT. WE’RE TOO CLOSE TO KONOHA FOR THIS, AND I DON’T WANT TO UPSET ANYONE UNDULY WITH MY PRESENCE, SO WE HAVE TO BE QUICK.”

Now Jiraiya was gaping.

“GET ON WITH IT, WHELP!”

“You certainly are the Kyuubi no Kitsune,” Jiraiya coughed out, after a long moment. “There’s no doubting that chakra.”

“I CAN SQUASH YOU IF YOU DON’T GET TO THE POINT,” the Kyuubi pointed out, and lifted a forepaw threateningly. A dozen panicked chakra-signatures, incoming from the village, fast. “WE’RE ALMOST OUT OF TIME.”

“What do you want with Naruto?” Jiraiya asked him, finally. “What is you plan?”

“TO HELP NARUTO BECOME HOKAGE SO WE CAN PROTECT OUR PRECIOUS PEOPLE,” the Kyuubi said. “EXCUSE ME, WE’RE ABOUT TO HAVE COMPANY.” He flicked through the seals for a henge, and turned himself soft pastel pink and bedazzled, just in time for two squadrons of ANBU to arrive, ready to defend Konoha with their lives – then pull up short. “GOOD AFTERNOON. IF YOU DO NOT MIND, I HAVE PERSONAL BUSINESS WITH ERO-SENNIN HERE. EVERYTHING IS FINE, ISN’T IT, JIRAIYA-SAMA?”

“Er, yes. Go back to the Hokage and tell him everything’s fine,” Jiraiya said. “I’m just… having a quiet word with the Kyuubi. Nothing to worry about.” He was extra sweaty now, his hair all damp and sticking to his head with it.

“YES. PLEASE DO NOT WORRY. I MEAN NO HARM.”

The ANBU didn’t move. Kyuubi started to feel anxious. Jiraiya looked like he was about to keel over dead.

As abruptly as he had appeared, the Kyuubi was pulled back into Naruto’s soul and they switched places, the tremendously huge pink chakra construct disappearing with a puff of smoke as Naruto reappeared in a heap on the grass. “Okay, that’s enough,” Naruto announced, leaping to his feet. “Kyuubi’s going away now because he scared too many people and felt bad!”

“But why did it turn pink?”

“Less scary if he’s pink,” Kurama, now no longer nauseated by the feeling of having his eyes open in two places at once, sat up and said brightly. “He probably hoped it might diffuse the situation with the animal masks. I’d say it probably worked, because they didn’t skip straight to attacking.”

“He makes me eat green peppers, old man, if you’re looking for dirt on him,” Naruto stage-whispered. “He’s super mean about it too, you would not believe. ‘You’ll be a runt if all you eat every day is ramen, Naruto. Do you want to be a runt forever? Because that’s where you’re heading.’ Can you believe it?”

The ANBU members were now shuffling their feet awkwardly, looking to one another and signing off rapid-fire questions. Then, as quickly as they’d come, they disappeared again.

“I need to speak to Hokage-sama,” and Jiraiya disappeared, too.

Naruto and Kurama were left standing in a field all by themselves.

“That coulda gone worse,” Naruto decided.

“Probably,” Kurama agreed. “But he might’ve dropped us back off with Kakashi. We’re miles away!”

“Aw, man, you’re right. It’ll be dinner time by the time we get back.”

Kurama sat back on his haunches to shrug. “Least we had lunch, and he paid for it.”

Naruto grinned and folded his hands behind his head as he began to walk back in the direction of the village. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Kurama thought it miraculous that they went unmolested over the course of the following few days… Surely, Jiraiya would have told someone about Naruto’s missing seal, and someone would have come to fix it. Surely, Kurama was going to be locked away again. He woke every morning tense and anxious and was snippy at everyone.

But nothing happened.

Weird.

Must’ve been Naruto’s insistence that the Kyuubi made him eat his vegetables.

 

xxii.

Kurama was beginning to think that Sabaku no Gaara didn’t have any real concept of time, or even understood that most people slept at nighttime. Or maybe he was just an obnoxious brat who turned up at three in the morning for the sake of being an obnoxious brat and disrupting other people’s sleep schedules.

He was back at Naruto’s window, tapping on the glass.

Kurama grumbled obscenities to himself as he rolled off the bed and padded over to let him in.

“Good evening, Gaara-kun. Morning. Whatever. At least you’re polite enough not to break in,” Kurama told Gaara, as he slipped off the windowsill into Naruto’s little kitchen. Gaara gave him a faintly startled look, and handed him the thermos from his last visit. “Oh, thank you, but we never used that. You could’ve kept it.”

“I want more,” Gaara said. “Will you make some?”

Kurama cast a glance at Naruto, who was deeply asleep after a day learning elemental jutsu. Kakashi had handed them bits of paper to channel chakra into a couple of days after Jiraiya’s visit, and they had all been given a scroll containing instructions for a jutsu matching their elemental affinity and sent off to learn it. Naruto, predictably, was had a close affinity with wind, and he’d been working himself into the ground trying to get his jutsu down.

“You’ll have to help me, because I’m not waking him up,” Kurama told Gaara, sternly. “He did some really difficult training yesterday.”

Gaara quailed for a moment.

“I don’t bite, you know.”

“I felt you the other day,” Gaara said. “It said you weren’t as strong as you used to be. But it also said that that didn’t mean you could be underestimated.”

“Well, I expect not,” Kurama agreed. “I’m still stronger than Gyuuki, even with half my chakra sealed in the gut of the Shinigami!”

“Gyuuki?” Gaara asked.

“The Hachibi,” Kurama said. “Looks a bit like someone stuck the front-end of an ox to the back end of an octopus.”

Gaara’s face went curiously slack. “It’s laughing,” he said.

Kurama frowned. “His name is Shukaku, and he might be my littlest brother, and I might not like him much, but he is still a sentient entity capable of intelligent thought – beyond bloodlust and madness. Have some respect, Gaara-kun, for the responsibility you hold in your hands. Shukaku is thousands of years old and a being of immense power.”

Gaara looked at his feet. “People fear me because of it – him. They hate me.”

“You said that before,” Kurama said. “Come here and help me get the milk.”

“When I sleep,” Gaara said, lifting the carton of milk from the refrigerator and placing it on the counter, where Kurama indicated. “He comes out. And he hurts people. Kills them. I’ve killed lots of people, too. Is that bad?”

“Well, I’m going to be honest, Gaara-kun, it’s not good,” Kurama said, kicking the fridge closed. “This cupboard. Can you grab that packet? Yeah, that’s the sugar, and that tin’s got the cocoa. Did you mean to do it?”

“Yes and no,” Gaara said. He paused, then added: “When I was six, I killed my uncle. Yashamaru. I thought he loved me, but my father sent him to assassinate me. I – I didn’t mean to, I protected myself, I didn’t know it was Yashamaru. Then his mask came off, and he told me he hated me, and that my mother hated me, she died hating me because I’m a monster, and he blew himself up.”

“You’re not a monster,” Kurama said. “Here, this is the pot for making cocoa. Can you measure out a couple of pints of milk for me?”

Gaara did so, hesitantly, like he had no idea what he was doing.

Kurama smiled gently. “That’s perfect, thank you, Gaara-kun. I’m too little like this to do it myself.”

“You have enough power to destroy everyone in this village,” Gaara said, tilting his head. “I felt it! You could’ve killed everyone!”

“I don’t want to, though. I like Konoha. My precious people are here.”

“Precious people,” Gaara echoed.

Kurama measured a cup of water into the cocoa pot and shoved it onto the little stove. “Yeah. I’ll tell you a secret, Gaara-kun. I don’t think Shukaku knows about precious people. That’s why he’s so mean to you and hurts the people around you.”

“Oh,” Gaara said, softly. “Why doesn’t he know?”

“Because I only just learned. And if I’m the oldest brother, and I know the most, and none of the other bijuu are even aware about having precious people, how can Shukaku know?”

Gaara went slack-faced, like he was listening to something. Then he said: “He says you’re weak.”

Kurama sniffed disdainfully as the water came to a boil and he started to tip in the sugar and the cocoa. “I disagree. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Shukaku doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as usual. Add the milk for me, please, Gaara-kun.”

And obediently, if a little uncertainly, Gaara did.

“Good, thank you, Gaara-kun,” Kurama said, picking up the wooden stirring spoon a little awkwardly to mix the cocoa as it heated.

“Do you think I can have precious people?” Gaara asked, standing on the tips of his toes to watch the cocoa in the pot.

“Of course,” Kurama replied. “It takes a little work to find someone, and sometimes they’ll be precious to you but you might not be precious to them, and that might make your heart hurt. But I definitely think you can have precious people. I think you could be one of my precious people, if you’ll allow it. And like we said last time you visited, Naruto would love to have you for a friend. He loves making friends.”

“Really?” Gaara asked, and it came out as little more than a whisper.

“Really,” Kurama said, nodding. “I think this is ready now.” He flicked off the burner. “Would you like a mug now, or would you like to take all of it away in the thermos?”

“Can I – can I stay here the rest of the night?” Gaara asked, and this time he said it so quietly he might as well have breathed it, but Kurama didn’t have sharp ears for nothing. “I don’t want to go back to the inn.”

“Your siblings won’t be worried? What about your jounin-sensei?” Kurama said, even as he walked up the wall to fetch a mug from one of the high cupboards for Gaara.

Gaara shook his head. “I told you, they’re scared of me.”

“Even them?” Kurama asked, and felt his heart hurt.

“And,” Gaara said, accepting his mug of cocoa but starting to tremble. “My father… They want to invade Konoha. They’re going to invade Konoha. And I think I must tell you. They’re going to wait until the final exam of the Chuunin Selection, and attack while everyone’s distracted by the tournament. I said I wasn’t going to help, and a lot of their plan had been hinging on the damage I could do with him, but I can’t and they’re really angry and keep asking questions and I don’t want to go back right now and—”

“Hey,” Kurama said, even as he assimilated this information and considered the people he should inform to ensure that there would be the fewest casualties in the event an invasion occurred when Gaara thought it was going to happen. “It’s alright. You can stay here as long as you need. Calm down, take a deep breath, you’re alright. It’s alright. I’m not angry. Naruto won’t be angry. We can work this out.”

Thank Kami, he didn’t start crying, but then, Kurama wasn’t sure Gaara knew how to cry.

He did, however, fall asleep at the table.

How many days running had he been awake, anyway?

“Shukaku, you tanuki bastard,” Kurama growled at the unconscious child, as he wrestled him onto the bed beside Naruto with great difficulty because twelve-year-old boys, no matter if they were on the small side for their age, were still much larger than perfectly ordinary foxes. “If you try anything, I swear.”

Shukaku, however, did something sensible for once in his long and irritating life and remained quiet and still.

 

xxiii.

“—Part, I think, of the truly precious nature of humanity, Shukaku, is their ephemerality. We will exist forever, and as we both already know, their lifespans pass in the blink of an eye. What are they but mayflies? That’s the flaw in our thinking. We underestimated them. We walked all over them, for generations, and they finally did something about it, and I was angry, yes, for they used a perversion of ninshuu to do it, to trap me, to lock me away in the dark, away from the world. But I had forgotten what otou-san asked of us, back at the beginning of things, and that was my mistake. I should have been guiding them, for generation after generation, from my temple, not roaming around knocking mountains on them, or washing entire settlements away with tsunamis, so we were trapped in a cycle of wrongness, but it was my fault we were wrong because I didn’t do what I was tasked. Little wonder they call us demons.” Kurama suddenly realised that the red-headed jinchuuriki was blinking at him, sleepily. “Oh, good afternoon, Gaara-kun. You were asleep for a long time.”

Gaara launched himself off the bed, the cork on his gourd popping off to allow his sand to swirl around him as he looked around, fearfully.

He paused, his expression becoming one of confusion.

“I’m still here?” he asked. “I fell asleep, but he did nothing?” And then he tilted his head, listening to an answer Kurama couldn’t hear. “Oh. He says you talk a lot. He says you… talked his ears off?”

Kurama sat back on his haunches and shrugged unapologetically. “Well. You were here, which meant he was here, and I know he’s aware even when you aren’t. Anyway, Naruto’s at training right now, but we’re supposed to be having team dinner at the Yakiniku-Q restaurant tonight, Kakashi-nii-san’s pick, and Naruto wanted to know if you wanted to come, if you woke up in time?”

“Kakashi-nii-san?” Gaara said. “You… he wants to know how you can have a nii-san. You’re the oldest.”

“Oh, well, he’s Naruto’s onii-san, only not by blood, and I just call him that too, because I can’t call him ‘Hatake-brat’ to his face. I’m trying to keep a low profile. You, Naruto, and Shukaku are the only people in the entire world who know that this beautiful foxy face is, in fact, the Kyuubi no Kitsune, and I intend to keep it that way. So, lips sealed, Gaara-kun. You can call me Kurama, or Kurama-san, I don’t mind which, but absolutely not Kyuubi-san or -sama or any variation thereof. Got it?”

Gaara nodded as enthusiastically as Kurama thought he was capable of being.

“Alright, put your sand back in your gourd, now. I don’t want to have to sweep again this week.”

Dinner went surprisingly well, in that there was no bloodshed, although Gaara was very quiet throughout. He sat by the wall, with Naruto squished into the booth beside him, his gourd between his knees under the table, and Kurama on the table by his side as a sort of fox-shaped shield to prevent too much attention reaching him.

The entirety of his introduction to the rest of Team Seven had been handled by Naruto, who said: “Everyone this is Sabaku no Gaara, from Suna! He’s my friend, and he’s like me!”

After, they parted ways.

“I should go back to the inn,” Gaara admitted. “It might be bad if Suna accused Konoha of kidnapping me, especially since I’m not partaking in the Chuunin Selection anymore.”

Everyone bid him goodnight, but after Kakashi looked at Kurama and Naruto with a bemused look in his eye and said: “Naruto, how did you manage to befriend the youngest son of the Kazekage? That kid is supposed to be—” He cut himself off, and finished lamely, “Well.” Kurama heard the monster in the words left unsaid, though.

“I like him,” Naruto said, staring off along the street Gaara had disappeared along. “He’s kind of shy, I think. But he’s like me.”

“You said that before,” Sasuke pointed out. “What do you mean, like you? Stupid also?”

“Jinchuuriki,” Naruto replied. “Oh, Kakashi-nii-san, Kurama and I got something we need to tell you. But… it’s really private.”

That got Sakura and Sasuke’s interest immediately.

“What?” Sakura demanded.

“Boy stuff,” Naruto told her, and pointed at his crotch.

She immediately wrinkled her face up in disgust, and Sasuke made a revolted noise.

“Well, go on, shoo,” Kakashi said to them, and they made themselves scarce, leaving himself alone on a dark street corner with just Naruto and Kurama. “Naruto, this better—”

Kurama leapt at his flak jacket and scrambled up it in time to cover his mouth with one paw. “Not here,” Kurama said. “You have somewhere we can speak where we won’t be overheard?”

Why me? the expression in Kakashi’s eye said, as he led them to his room in the jounin dorms, with Naruto and Kurama following quietly at his heels. He touched a privacy seal array on his door as he pulled it closed. It flared briefly with chakra, then darkened. His ninken all looked up from where they had been napping the evening away, but when they saw the seal light up, they all put their heads back down and pretended to go back to sleep.

Nosy dogs, Kurama thought. But dogs were notoriously loyal, and they were unlikely to betray Kakashi.

“We can speak, but do so quietly,” Kakashi said, eyeing them both equally warily.

Kurama wondered why, then realised that yeah, he was kind of as loud as Naruto sometimes.

Weirdly, Kakashi’s room didn’t have any dogs in it.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you didn’t have room for a slumber party,” Kurama said.

Kakashi glowered. “Surely this isn’t just about my home—”

“Suppose we heard a rumour,” Kurama interrupted him. “It’s the kind of rumour that could start a war, or route one before it began. We heard it from a credible source, but we ourselves are unfortunately not really considered reliable because other people might think we’re just pulling another prank.”

Kakashi slipped off his sandals and moved into the room, stepping over and around sleepy canine bodies to sit down on his bed, resting his elbows on his knees, and resting his chin on his laced fingers as he regarded them, seriously.

“I have noticed,” Kakashi began. “That the pranks you pull tend to be harmless. An inconvenience, at the most, or an eyesore, but harmless.”

Kurama nodded. “Yes. We don’t want to hurt people.”

“And you never do,” Kakashi observed.

“I like your blanket,” Naruto said, then, pointing at Kakashi’s green bedspread, which was decorated with a shuriken pattern.

“Thank you, Naruto,” Kakashi said.

“Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto said, wringing his hands. “Gaara told us Suna was gonna invade, and I don’t want there to be a war because then we’d have to be enemies, except he’s my friend. He’s got no friends in Suna ‘cause they’re all scared of him, like people are scared of me which I know is why they’re mean, they think I’m the Demon Fox, but I’m not Kyuubi, Kyuubi is just my grumpy stomach fox. So there can’t be a war, and we gotta tell you, because no one else will believe us. I’m just the Demon Fox kid, and even if I told Jiji, there are other people Jiji has to listen to who’d say I was being stupid and not to listen to me, so it’s gotta be you, Kakashi-nii-san, since they’ll listen to you. You’re a great shinobi already, so they gotta listen to you, you know!”

Kakashi followed this string of non-sequiturs quite well, though he still blinked in surprise a couple of times.

“I,” he began, paused as if not entirely sure how to continue, then plough on anyway. “Yes, okay. I’ll go to Hokage-sama—”

“Kakashi-nii-san, go to Ero-Sennin, have him go to Hokage-sama,” Kurama said. “He might be a super pervert, but he’s also a spymaster, and if you can convince him you heard it from a good source, he can look into it and confirm it, and then maybe we can stop this before it starts. Gaara-kun has already told us he won’t fight against Konoha at Suna’s behest, so we don’t have to worry about the Ichibi being unleashed on us, and I think he might’ve been a cornerstone of their invasion plan, but we have to make sure!”

Kakashi looked suspiciously at Kurama. “How do you about Jiraiya?” he asked. “Very few people are aware of his actual position, and for him to remain effective, it has to remain that way.”

“Don’t worry, Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto said. “Kyuubi told us, and we’re actually really good at keeping important secrets.”

“There isn’t an intelligence leak,” Kurama added, placatingly.

Kakashi still looked worried, in his one lonesome eye, and Kurama had the stray thought that he was remarkably expressive for a man who covered almost his entire face. “When is this supposed to happen?” he asked.

“Half their people are probably already in place,” Kurama admitted, a little sheepishly. “But we only just found out from Gaara-kun, so. They plan to attack when everyone’s distracted by the third exam. I assume ANBU and the jounin forces will be distributed differently then than at other times?”

Kakashi nodded. “Yes. Konoha will be hosting many foreign dignitaries, as well as the Kazekage, as they oversee— Why am I telling you two this?”

“We kind of figured as much,” Naruto told him, solemnly. “It’ll be my job as Hokage, one day, to know these things. Goodnight, Kakashi-nii-san.”

“Good luck,” Kurama wished him.

 

xxiv.

Kakashi was making them do flexibility stretches for cooldown after taijutsu training in the middle of the afternoon a couple of days later when Jiraiya reappeared in Naruto and Kurama’s lives in a swirl of leaves. Kurama thought the old Toad Sage was very brave, coming back after such a bad scare with the Kyuubi, and he was only a little bit sweaty and anxious-looking as he turned to address Kakashi.

“Might I borrow your student again today, Kakashi-san?” he asked.

“By all means,” Kakashi said, fixing Kurama and Naruto with a brief but very firm glare that said: Behaves yourselves.

“This isn’t for something perverted, is it?” Naruto asked, standing from his stretch to eye Jiraiya curiously.

“No, no,” Jiraiya said. “I wouldn’t want to risk the Kyuubi’s ire on that matter, definitely not. I thought I might do some special training with you, the sort Kakashi-san cannot offer.”

“Eh? But Kakashi-nii-san is a great sensei.”

He really wasn’t, by Kurama’s estimate, although he wasn’t awful, either. He definitely liked his genin, which went a long way, he just had no idea what to do with them, how children learned, or even what was age-appropriate. First he’d taught them too little and trained them too lightly. Now, he was pushing them like they were fresh ANBU recruits that had recently been added to his ANBU team, and he needed to whip them into hardened soldiers ASAP, so they could defend themselves in any situation and adapt to abrupt changes in mission parameters on the fly.

Granted, Kurama preferred the latter over the former because he fancied their survival rate would be much better, and Naruto was absolutely going to live to become Hokage and reach two-hundred and have so many great-great-great-great grandchildren he couldn’t even remember them all.

Kakashi still didn’t know how to slow down or simplify something for a kid who didn’t understand a concept he grasped instinctually, though, and Kurama found himself as co-sensei most days.

But they were still genin who hadn’t hit thirteen yet, and Kurama had to push for a couple of days off every week and breaks for food, water, rest, and fun exercises where instead of emulating life-and-death situations, they did something light-hearted, like play pretend ninja as if they weren’t real ninja, complete with fake rocks made of painted cardboard boxes, or throw water balloons at each other for a morning instead of lethal objects, or just nap in the shade for an afternoon instead of completing D-Ranks wearing weights on their wrists and feet.

Kurama knew the genin knew they could die. At this point they understood that fact implicitly. They had realised it in the Land of Waves, and this fact had been compounded by Orochimaru. Now they needed to find a good work-life balance before they ended up like all the other shinobi in Konoha with maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Now, Jiraiya looked at the scratched-up, bruised, slightly singed and very muddy children. He looked at Kakashi, who was also a little ragged around the edges. “I do not doubt that Kakashi is an excellent sensei, Naruto,” he said. “But I know something Kakashi doesn’t, and I wanted to share it with you?”

Naruto cocked his head. “But Kakashi knows everything,” Naruto said, naïvely. “He can copy any technique.”

Jiraiya took a deep breath in through his nose, then exhaled through his mouth. “Naruto, I want to let you sign the Toad Summoning Contract. The Hatake Clan typically signs with dogs.”

“Toads?” Naruto asked. Then he smiled brightly. “Okay.”

Kurama repressed a shudder as he remembered the Yondaime appearing on the battlefield of Konoha on the back of the Boss Toad. He didn’t really like toads, but Naruto thought they were cute.

“Kurama, chaperone,” Kakashi said.

“We don’t need that little fox to come with us,” Jiraiya protested.

Naruto scooped Kurama up and cuddled him to his chest. “Ero-Sennin,” he whined. “Please can Kurama come? He’s my partner!”

“Fine, but it’s not my fault if he gets eaten.”

Naruto gasped in outrage. “Those toads better not dare! I’ve seen Kurama burrow through the head of a snake summon before, so you tell them, Ero-Sennin. You tell them that if they eat him, he’ll dig right outta their bellies and then they’ll regret it!”

Jiraiya took them to an adjacent training field. He sat down, and beckoned they sit, also.

“Kakashi-san tells me that you are… attentive students,” he said, eyeing them speculatively. “But Konoha has become more dangerous lately. You may not be aware of this, but not long ago we uncovered three spies planted by Orochimaru amongst the genin taking the Chuunin Selection Exams.”

“You mean those guys from Oto who were gonna kill us in the Forest of Death?” Naruto asked.

“What – those genin we had to send home on a cart because those feral forest foxes hamstrung them and ate their feet and faces?” Jiraiya asked, perplexed. “No, I am speaking about Yakushi Kabuto and his teammates, Akadou Yoroi and Tsurugi Misumi.”

Naruto and Kurama looked at him blankly, until Kurama suddenly remembered that weird kid with grey hair. “Oh!” he said. “You mean that genin with the cards on every single person present at the exam, who’d taken it and failed half-a-dozen times already, then weirdly just gave up at the end of the second exam even though his entire team got through fine? Yeah, I can see it.”

“He seemed nice,” Naruto said, scratching his head, then shrugging. “How’d you find out they were spies?”

“He killed seven of the ANBU stationed around the Uchiha Compound late in the evening last week. A specialist tracking team brought in confirmed the perpetrator by scent, and when ANBU operatives later stormed the apartments of the suspect and his teammates, they had been professionally cleaned out.”

“You mean Inuzukas, huh?” Naruto asked. “You brought in Inuzukas. Their noses are the best.”

Jiraiya peered at him, thoughtfully.

“How do you know they belonged to Orochimaru?” Kurama asked.

“We have had one confirmed sighting of Yakushi since then, and he confirmed our suspicions.”

Kurama squinted at him “You aren’t going to tell us more, are you?”

“Correct, so don’t ask any more questions,” Jiraiya said.

“Eh?” Naruto yelped. “You can’t just say that! I have so many questions now! Why is the weird snake guy so obsessed with Sasuke, anyway? Why didn’t that bastard say something about people being murdered all over his family’s home? That mighta been something he’d mention to his team!”

“Sasuke doesn’t know it occurred,” Jiraiya admitted. “Thankfully, it would seem that Sasuke was not present in his apartment at the time of the attack because of an impromptu late-night team bonding exercise involving a garden plot in the back hills which turned into a camping trip? I figured it was better not to ask.”

“We went to visit my pumpkin vines,” Naruto said.

Jiraiya’s expression was that of a man who dearly wanted to ask questions, but at the same time thought if he did so he would learn yet another thing he had been trying very hard to remain ignorant of. “I didn’t need to know, thank you for telling me, and that does not help demystify the situation at all.”

Naruto grinned. “I try! But why are you telling me this, Ero-Sennin? And why am I going to sign on with the toads?”

“Well, Yakushi and his accomplices are at large, possibly still in the village. Seven ANBU are dead, Gekkou Hayate, one of the village’s tokujou, has been murdered under suspicious circumstances, and I’ve been hearing some unsettling rumours lately that lead me to believe that Konoha either is not safe, or will not remain so for very much longer,” Jiraiya said, and Kurama thought that was a roundabout way of explaining that he’d smelt the smoke of war on the morning winds. “I’ve been in debate with Hokage-sama and the Council for some time about how much information you should be given so you may keep yourself safe.”

“Ero-Sennin,” Naruto said. “This is a shinobi village. It’s built on secrets. But, between me an’ Kyuubi, we know enough.”

Jiraiya regarded him seriously. “Maybe. Maybe not. But I would like you to have more than just the ability to unleash a giant, angry, pacifistic fox or generate a hundred Shadow Clones at your disposal. Being able to summon a toad to assist you in battle would be a start, but I would also like to teach you to channel the Kyuubi’s chakra.”

“Can I do that?” Naruto asked.

“It will depend entirely on whether he will let you,” Jiraiya admitted.

“I’ll ask,” Naruto said.

Take what you need, Kurama thought at him. It was always available to you. I never figured you wanted it, and I’m not using much of it right now.

Aren’t you made of chakra? Will I use you up?

Kurama had to fight very hard to keep a straight face on his little physical fox body. Instead, he lay down on his belly in the grass, crossing one forepaw over the other and resting his muzzle on them, trying to appear boredly unaffected. No, Fishcake. You will not ‘use me up.’ My chakra regenerates with rest the same way yours does, though I can pull it from the natural world around me, if I must. You needn’t worry.

“He says it’s fine, and I could always use it, I just never thought to!” Naruto said. “Oh, except I accidentally borrowed a little bit when I was fighting Orochimaru in the Forest of Death because I was super worried he’d hurt my friends, which was why he put that seal on me. I think that was the only time, but it was on accident.”

“Yes,” Jiraiya said. “Well. I expect you’ll need to supplement your own chakra with the Kyuubi’s to perform the summoning jutsu, at least in the beginning. Here, watch me.”

And he showed Naruto the hand seals, summoned a toad, and had him sign the contract while Kurama was hiccupping, because he’d had to swallow his giggles.

 

xxv.

“Not too much. Don’t summon one that’ll eat you,” Kurama said, then hiccupped.

Naruto focused. He went through the hand seals. Kurama felt him draw on his chakra, then push some of it back. He said the words for the summoning jutsu, though Kurama had no idea why shinobi went around shouting out what technique they were using. That would give their opponent too much of an opportunity to counter, wouldn’t it? Or did it somehow help them get the technique correct? Were humans that bad at moulding chakra?

Even the Toad Sage had said the words.

Kurama chewed the inside of his cheek, hiccupped, and wondered if that was another thing he could train Naruto out of. Or – or, he had a better idea! Say the words for the wrong technique! His hand seals said one thing, his mouth said another, and then he came out with something different again? Excellent prank in some instances, valuable misdirection in battle?

But the seals did help focus chakra to an extent. It wouldn’t be very easy.

Kurama would have to think about it. If he could train Naruto until he only needed one seal for most of his techniques, then any other seals would be superfluous, and he wouldn’t be using them to channel chakra. He only needed the single seal for the Shadow Clones these days.

Yes. That might work…

Naruto summoned a tadpole.

Jiraiya laughed at him, but Naruto panicked because they were in the middle of a dry field and Kurama had stopped him from fishing tadpoles out of a pond when he was four. Tadpoles couldn’t breath out of water, Kurama had explained. They were still too little, and if Naruto caught them and pulled them onto the dry land, then they would die.

Kurama had taken him back to the pond every day to watch the tadpoles develop, grow back legs then little arms, then absorb their tails, until one day they were gone, and Naruto cried.

“They’re frogs now, Naruto,” Kurama explained to him. “Or toads, maybe, I can’t really tell. But the thing is, they didn’t need to stay in the water anymore because they were all grown up. They’ll still be nearby, though.”

And they had poked around in the reeds until they found one of the little amphibians they had watched grow, and Naruto had shrieked with delight as the frog had hopped back into the water with a splash and swum to hide under a lily pad and regard them accusingly.

In retrospect, those peaceful and informative afternoons might’ve been the start of Naruto’s love of amphibians. Kurama had always hoped it wasn’t genetic.

“Tadpoles aren’t supposed to be out of water!” Naruto cried, now. “It’s gonna die, Ero-Sennin. Help! How do I send it back? Quickly, they can’t breathe like this!”

Jiraiya showed him how to dispel the tadpole, and it disappeared in a tiny puff of smoke, leaving Naruto anxious and shaky. Jiraiya laughed at him.

“A tadpole,” he cackled. “You summoned a tadpole! Ha! I don’t know what I expected.”

Naruto glared, turned around, and sat down facing away. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Go away.”

“Eh?” Jiraiya said. He looked at Kurama. “What’d I do?”

Kurama hiccupped. “Naruto is ignoring you because we endangered that tadpole’s life unduly. It might die now, it might not grow up to be an adult toad, because we summoned it when it was too young and took it from the water before it was ready to survive on land or breathe the air. We are not averse to hunting animals for our dinner, but we do so for only to sustain ourselves, never for fun or training, and tend to take animals that are old enough to have had a change to reproduce already – culling only the young native to any area could irreparably damage an ecosystem. Anything we do not take, we leave for local predators, and to go back to the earth. So, we summoned a baby and endangered its life, which goes against all our principles, and then you laughed at him when he got upset about it.”

Jiraiya looked perplexed. “That’s… an interesting philosophy for a shinobi to uphold. I hate to assume, but the Kyuubi was involved, wasn’t it? Why is all our information about that monster so wrong? Never mind! Questions for another day. The toads of Mount Myouboku are hardy creatures. It’d take more than that to hurt one of their young.”

Kurama gave him the stink-eye and stuck his tongue out at him, petulantly, but relented. “I’ll talk to Naruto.” He hiccupped again.

He padded over to where Naruto was sitting, and found his boy was crying silent tears, snot running from his nose because he was too afraid to sniffle and give himself away.

“Oh, kit,” Kurama said, and clambered into his lap to be hugged close.

“I didn’t wanna hurt him,” Naruto said, very quietly, his voice wobbling.

“I know you didn’t,” Kurama replied, trying to sound soothing but hiccupping halfway through his sentence.

“I’m never, ever going to summon another animal again,” Naruto said.

“Don’t you dare make that a promise, Naruto,” Kurama said, because once Naruto promised something, he never forgot, and he never broke his promises. “Imagine how sad the toads are going to be. They finally get a new summoner! You’re the first one since the Yondaime, then you summon a tadpole, and refuse to summon any of them for the rest of your life. They’re going to feel so rejected. Jiraiya said that tadpole was probably fine, too. The toads are pretty strong.”

Naruto gave up and sniffed. It was a disgusting, snotty sound. “I don’t want to accidentally bring another baby here and risk hurting it,” he said.

Kurama mulled that over. “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do. Disregard what I said before about not using too much chakra. Use every scrap of chakra you can! Every bit of yours, and as much of Kyuubi’s as you can manage, and summon the biggest, fattest, strongest toad you possibly can! I’m sure you won’t get a tadpole again that way, you’ll get a nice good toad that’s ready to leave the pond and will be interested in an adventure.”

“Do you think I can do it, Kurama?” Naruto asked.

“Of course! You can do everything, if you set your mind to it. You’re gonna be Hokage one day.”

Naruto’s face set in an expression of grim determination. “Okay. I’m gonna try again.” He got up, placed Kurama down gently, and turned to Jiraiya. “Watch me! I’m gonna summon a real big toad this time!”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, kid,” Jiraiya said.

Naruto focused. He went through the hand seals. Kurama felt him draw on his chakra – and oh, that was quite a drain actually, but Naruto was slamming his hands on the ground and shouting out the summoning. Kurama felt a moment of impending doom swoop through his chest, and with a great crash the Boss Toad appeared.

“Uh oh,” Kurama said, sprawled beside Naruto on the Boss Toad’s head beside Naruto, then hiccupped.

“He’s… huge,” Naruto breathed.

“He’s not a tadpole, I’ll give you that,” Kurama agreed.

And that was how they met Gamabunta.

 

xxvi.

“Sasuke wants to kill his brother,” Kurama said to Kakashi before dawn one morning, as they were watching the genin have a mock battle on the river. “Because of what Itachi did to the Uchiha Clan.”

“I know,” Kakashi replied, and he sounded grim.

Kurama was lying across his shoulder on his blind side, not allowed to join Naruto in the fake fight because it would skew the battle unfairly in his favour, and Kakashi wasn’t certain that Kurama would remain unbiased and fight for himself were he allowed to be his own team, which Kurama thought was fair enough. As much as he adored Sakura and Sasuke, Naruto would always remain his priority. “Ah. You are also afraid of him running off half-cocked and getting himself killed, then?”

Kakashi must have been spending too long with Sasuke, because he made one of those noncommittal little grunting noises.

“I had a thought about that,” Kurama said. “Well, I’ve had lots of thoughts about that, actually, and I no matter how I look at it, I can’t see a positive outcome because Itachi is a S-Rank rogue-nin and Sasuke is a genin. The math doesn’t add up.”

Kakashi said nothing, but Kurama assumed he was listening, because Naruto and Sasuke were at a stalemate and Sakura was sneaking up on them, her chakra masked the way Kurama had taught her.

“Loath as I am to admit it, Orochimaru may begin to look more and more like a viable option for Sasuke to gain the strength and cunning he will need to defeat Itachi in battle,” Kurama said. “I don’t want that. I like Sasuke. He’s one of Naruto’s precious people, and Naruto will never let that lie, not as long as he lives.”

“What do you suggest?” Kakashi asked.

“I’m so glad you asked,” Kurama grinned, but Kakashi couldn’t see it, because he was flopped over their jounin-sensei’s left shoulder. “The Sharingan is an incredibly powerful doujutsu. This cannot be denied, but it is fallible. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the reason Zabuza-san used such thick mist on the bridge back in the Land of Waves was to limit your visibility? This leads me to believe that like anything, the Sharingan can be fought. In fact, that reminds me: Haku performed hand seals with just one hand. So, here’s my proposal: we begin training the kids to fight in situations where they are down one or two senses. You can learn, too, because I know you had to summon your ninken to help you with Zabuza-san, and that was unacceptable – you need to be able to fight sightless as well.”

“Why?” Kakashi asked.

“Dunno. Suppose someone throws chilli powder in your eyes or something. Sharingan won’t be any more useful then than it woulda been in that mist. Or suppose you’re going up against a superior Sharingan, like one of those ones that looks like a pinwheel, not tomoe. We have to assume Itachi has it, or he wouldn’t’ve been able to decimate the entire clan like that – and you can’t look someone like that in the eyes, or they’ll do terrible, terrible things to you. We must teach the kids how to combat things like the Sharingan, and I think Sasuke will be more likely to stick around if he thinks what we’re doing will actively help him later,” Kurama hummed thoughtfully. “Also, a shinobi leads a dangerous life, and it is unsafe to take the wholeness of body for granted. They should know how to keep fighting, keep running, find their way home, even if one shoulder is dislocated or their arm is broken, or they can’t see or hear or smell or their chakra has been disrupted or sealed.”

“What got you thinking about this?”

“Huh? Oh, I was thinking about how Naruto can do the Shadow Clone technique with just one seal now, and whether it would be possible to teach the kids to do other ninjutsu moulded with a single seal but add in multiple other seals and shout the wrong technique name for misdirection purposes,” Kurama explained. “One thought led to another, you understand.”

“Yes, I understand,” Kakashi said. “And I think you’re right, but it will be difficult. We have the seals to help us focus for a reason.”

“I don’t want them to die, Kakashi-nii-san,” Kurama said. “I know the life of the shinobi is often short and brutal, but they’re mine, I protect my things, so I have to prepare them as best I can, and if that means difficult training and underhanded tactics, well. I don’t want Sasuke to go to someone who wants him for his kekkei genkai purely because he promised him strength and ability we could not. On that note, you should teach him the chidori.”

Kakashi picked Kurama off his shoulder by his scruff to hold him and peer at him, aghast. “That’s an assassination technique.”

Kurama peered back at him, unapologetic. “Yakushi and his accomplices are still unaccounted for. As far as I am aware, Suna is still planning to invade at the tournament for the third exam, which is only a few days away now. The more the kids have in their respective repertoires to throw at an enemy that they might either escape or defeat them, the safer I will feel.”

Kakashi pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, and sighed, shakily. “I hate that you’re right.”

“I do too,” Kurama said, wiggling free of Kakashi’s grip on his scruff to scramble along his arm and drop onto his chest, hanging onto his flak jacket with his claws. “Cuddle me, Kakashi-nii. I’m sad and I want a hug.”

Kakashi obligingly wrapped his arms around Kurama and held him close, running his fingers through the fur on the back of Kurama’s neck. If he realised that it was actually the other way around, that Kurama had decided that Kakashi was the one who needed a hug and had instigated it for him, so he didn’t have to ask, well, he didn’t say anything. He just closed his eye and sighed, until there were identical squawks of surprise from the river and Sakura came running over to them, grinning widely.

“I won, Kakashi-sensei!” she cheered, as Sasuke and Naruto decided it was a hot day and there was nothing wrong with turning their previous battle atop the river into a fight to see who could splash the other the most.

Kakashi looked up to eye-smile at her. “Masterfully done, Sakura.”

 

xxvii.

An hour or so before the start of the tournament that comprised the third exam of the Chuunin Selections found Team Seven out on a training field, running laps around a pond with blindfolds on. Gaara sitting on the side-lines acting as an impartial judge. If someone peeked, he had been given permission to lob pebbles at them, and as he used his sand to throw the pebbles instead of his own arm, they were remarkably painful.

Kurama, who was also blindfolded and who had been tripped over a dozen times already, thought they probably looked like a bunch of headless chickens running in uncoordinated circles. Naruto had already fallen into the pond twice.

And, oh, there was another splash and an outraged yowl. That was the third time.

“Use your nose, Naruto!” Kurama called to him. “Pond-water has a distinct smell, if you’re looking for it!”

“Can’t,” Naruto called back. “My nose is all full of pond-water now. Everything smells like it.”

Sasuke snickered, and then fell over, from the sound of the thump and the soft “Oof.”

Gaara laughed, delighted.

“Ouch!” Sakura yelped, as she and Kakashi ran into each other.

Kurama ducked around them, relying partly on his hearing and partly on his chakra sense that told him that tightly-controlled but prickly like a static shock chakra was Kakashi, and the soothing earthy chakra belonged to Sakura. A pebble pelted past him, but he heard it whirr in the air, and ducked.

“Kurama, you’re cheating!” Gaara complained.

“Am not! I can’t see anything. I’ll come over and show you. My eyes are closed shut underneath here – it’s not my fault they’re humans and all their senses are about as blunt as hammers.” Kurama wheeled, loped lightly over the surface of the pond because water had a feel to it, if one was focusing closely enough, and made his way to the burning, uncontrolled, maelstrom that Gaara felt like.

Gaara fiddled with his blindfold and harrumphed. “Guess you weren’t cheating after all. Hey! Naruto!”

Naruto wailed as the pebble Gaara threw struck true.

“No cheating,” Gaara said, firmly.

“Sorry,” Naruto called, not sounding remotely contrite. That, Kurama supposed, was one of the consequences of growing up without ever having to deal with broken bones that took weeks to heal, muscle aches after hard exercise, or lingering bruises from picking a fight with the wrong person. Pain was fleeting, and because it was fleeting it was forgotten almost immediately.

Uzumakis were known for their vitality; for their enormous chakra pools, for their longevity, and for their naturally quick healing. All Kurama had done was increase Naruto’s chakra, and hasten already faster than normal healing… Yet, had that caused Naruto to develop a lack of caution?

Thought for another day, because there were a pair of fast-moving chakra signatures inbound. They were the tightly-coiled signatures of ANBU who were not actively trying to hide themselves, and yet were still curled in on themselves somehow. Kurama had never seen a non-ANBU member who held their chakra so close to their chests… Except retired ANBU members, maybe.

“Someone’s coming,” Gaara said.

Kurama pushed his blindfold up and opened his eyes. The others did the same. Kakashi sucked in a sharp breath as the two ANBU, and indeed they were masked and uniformed ANBU, dropped into their clearing.

“Cat-san, Monkey-san,” he greeted them, and Kurama decided he must know them.

“Kakashi-san,” Monkey replied, and Cat inclined his head before they both turned to face Naruto. “Naruto. Hokage-sama and Jiraiya-sama request your presence at the Hokage Tower… Gaara-san, you are wanted by the Kazekage.”

“What’s Jiji and Ero-Sennin want now?” Naruto asked, and Kakashi flicked his ear in reprimand.

“Don’t be disrespectful,” he said.

Naruto pouted at him. “I’m not.”

“And get going. Being late is disrespectful.”

“Hey! What does that make you?” Naruto yowled indignantly, even as he began to run back towards the centre of Konoha proper.

“Be safe,” Kurama said to Gaara, nosed his cheek briefly in goodbye, and took off after Naruto.

Sarutobi Hiruzen was waiting for them in his office, a pile of paperwork pushed to the side, so he could peer over the desk at them. Jiraiya was with him, looking unnaturally solemn. Most of Kurama’s memories of this man involved him smiling or joking or making some sort of mischief. He was older now, of course, but it still wasn’t a good look on him.

“Naruto, I see Kurama is here as well,” the Sandaime said.

“Kurama goes everywhere with me!” Naruto said, brightly.

“Yes, and that has been the case since you were toddling around outside for the first time. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a closer relationship between a shinobi and his nin-animal.”

“You won’t,” Naruto said. “Kurama’s my best friend in the whole world, and he’ll always be my best friend, believe it!”

Kurama scrambled up Naruto’s jumpsuit to perch on his shoulder to smile foxily at the old men, teeth and all. “Believe it,” he agreed.

“I had hoped that we might keep this meeting just between the three of us,” the Sandaime said, indicating himself, Jiraiya, and Naruto. “But I see we will include Kurama as well. Come, Naruto, and sit. I have some things I feel it is important you should know.”

“Eh? Why’re you telling me secrets? I’m just a genin,” Naruto said, even as he threw himself into a chair, almost toppled it, and recovered.

“They regard you most of all,” Jiraiya explained.

“Oh,” Naruto said. Then he said: “Wait! Is it something Kyuubi might know? Because if it is, you don’t need to tell me! He already did. He said he wasn’t a citizen of Konoha, so you couldn’t punish him even if it was a S-Ranked secret, so it didn’t matter. And then he said that you couldn’t punish him anyway because he was in me, and you wouldn’t hurt me because you need a jinchuuriki for your political games or something, I dunno, he lost me at that point.”

“So you know the Yondaime—”

Naruto shushed them. “That’s a secret!”

“Then that’s why you refuse to call Kakashi-san ‘sensei?’” the Sandaime said, heavily. “You’ve known all this time. And you failed to react as anticipated when Mizuki told you that you were the Demon Fox.”

“’Cause I’m not! I’m Uzumaki Naruto, you know! I just have the fox inside me and we talk. But I wasn’t supposed to let Iruka-sensei know I knew, so I pretended not to,” Naruto said.

Jiraiya looked at Naruto, thoughtfully. “You’re smarter than you let on,” he said.

“He really, really isn’t,” Kurama told him. “But he gets by.”

Naruto grinned like that was the best compliment in the world.

Jiraiya turned to the Sandaime. “I’d like to take him on as my apprentice,” he said. “After everything calms down, that is.”

The Sandaime sighed. “It might be a good idea for Naruto to leave Konoha for a little while,” he agreed. “There are people here who are… uncomfortable with the current situation. He may be safest with you.”

“Are Kakashi-nii-san and Sakura and Sasuke coming, too?” Naruto asked.

“I’m not taking on an entire genin team and their abnormal jounin-sensei!” Jiraiya said, hotly. “And the pet fox, though I suppose I can’t escape the pet fox either way.”

“I am a ninkitsune,” Kurama grumbled.

Naruto gave him the puppy-dog eyes. “But Kakashi-nii-san is my sensei and I just found him, and I love him and he’s my family, you can’t make me leave when I just found my family! And Sasuke is in just as much danger as I am, if not more! He can’t stay here if I’m leaving, you know!”

“Yare yare,” the Sandaime muttered to himself. “We’ll discuss this again later. But now we should head on over to the arena to watch the third exam. Would you like to sit with Jiraiya and I, Naruto? You’ll have to be quiet, and behave yourself, because there will be Feudal Lords and the Kazekage and his son in attendance.”

 

xxviii.

It was immediately obvious that Naruto, slightly damp, covered in grass stains and dust from falling over, and smelling of pond-water, did not, in fact, know how to behave in front of a room full of opulently dressed Feudal Lords and Ladies and their various retainers. He froze like a rabbit being stared down by a wolf as everyone in the Feudal Lord’s box turned to greet the Hokage, and their eyes slipped from the most powerful man in Konoha to Jiraiya before settling on the filthy, smelly little blonde boy trailing behind them.

Kurama, sitting on Naruto’s shoulder, surreptitiously picked a piece of waterweed from Naruto’s hair and flicked it out into the hallway.

The Sandaime greeted them, thanked them for travelling all this way, spoke quietly to one about the latest dalliance of his grandson and laughed because “Children will be children!”

Naruto, to his credit, did not yell or trip over anything or make any sort of scene beyond being a pint-sized Konoha ninja dressed in bright orange. He just… stood in the corner, quiet as a little mouse, and stared on in utter bewilderment. Kurama found it endearing, and Jiraiya must have, too, because he came over to stand beside Naruto and clap him on the shoulder, jovially.

“If you become Hokage,” he said. “One day it will be you talking to those very important people from all over the land.”

Naruto gulped, nervously. “I think,” he squeaked. “I’d rather fight them than talk to them.”

Jiraiya laughed. “Not a one of them is a shinobi,” he explained. “It would be a short, dishonourable fight.”

And Naruto quailed.

At last, the Sandaime had done enough handshaking, and he led them up to the open seats high above the arena, where he and the Kazekage would be watching over the entire tournament. The Kazekage, dressed in long blue robes, most of his face covered except for his eyes, was already there, standing at the railing and peering down at the line-up of the eight finalists. Beside him was Gaara, looking tense and uncomfortable, and a pair of Suna-nin. ANBU, Kurama thought, though they were dressed as ordinary jounin might.

A dozen Konoha ANBU were concealed around them. Everyone except Naruto, who was not quite good enough at sensing chakra yet, was probably aware of their presence.

“Gaara!” Naruto cried, joyously, and flew at him in a tackle-hug-attack that sent Kurama toppling off his shoulder.

There were a dozen sharp spikes of terror from around them, the air turning sharp and bitter tasting with fear. Everyone present was aware of Gaara’s sand, and the way it reacted to perceived threats without Gaara even needing to think, and the Kazekage’s youngest son’s unfortunate and terrible bloodlust. They were probably expecting Naruto to be surrounded by sand and crushed into a nasty smear of blood in an instant.

Instead, Naruto and Gaara went tumbling head-over-heels into the railing. Naruto was laughing delightedly at finally having caught Gaara off-guard, and Gaara was pushing at his face, looking faintly irritated but also like he wanted to laugh along with Naruto, and there was nary a grain of sand to be seen.

“Ah,” the Sandaime said, sweat beading on his brow and lip. “I see that you have met Gaara?”

“Yeah, Jiji! Me an’ Gaara are friends, you know!” Naruto said, leaping to his feet and then extending a hand to help Gaara up. Gaara took it.

“Of course he’s friends with the Ichibi no jinchuuriki,” Kurama heard Jiraiya mumble. “I don’t think that kid is capable of not making friends with everyone he meets.”

The Hokage greeted the Kazekage and exchanged stilted pleasantries as Gaara and Naruto came over to Jiraiya to say hello. The Kazekage took his seat, made a thinly veiled barb about the Sandaime’s age which fell short when the Sandaime wholeheartedly agreed with him, and the Hokage stepped forward to address the eight genin lined up down in the arena, along the assorted people who had gathered to watch the exam.

Naruto whispered to Gaara throughout the address. “Look,” he said. “That girl, that’s Hyuuga Hinata. She was in my class in the Academy! She’s nice, but she doesn’t say much. And beside her, that’s Inuzuka Kiba, he’s one of her teammates, and on his head is his ninken, Akamaru. Akamaru is cool, but Kurama doesn’t like him. Probably because Akamaru is cuter and an actual puppy, not a fox who sometimes pretends to be a puppy, so he can get away with more stuff.”

“I will pee on everything you hold dear,” Kurama grumbled.

Gaara looked alarmed.

“And that’s Aburame Shino, he was in the Academy with me, too, and he’s their last teammate. He’s kind of quiet, too, but Hinata and Shino are pretty smart. They must’ve all done real good to get so far, you know!”

“What about the other Konoha genin?” Gaara asked.

“I don’t really know them,” Naruto admitted. “They were a year ahead of us, so we never really did stuff together. But that kid with the big eyebrows and the bowl-cut? That’s Rock Lee. He’s kind of weird, and I think his sensei must have infected him because his sensei is kind of weird, too, and he’s Eternal Rivals with Kakashi-nii-san? But I’m not really sure how that happened because Kurama never worked it out, and Kakashi-nii-san won’t tell me.”

“That boy looks like Hinata’s brother,” Gaara pointed out.

“He isn’t,” Kurama said. “They’re cousins, but their fathers were identical twin brothers, so they might as well be half-siblings.”

“That’s Hyuuga Neji,” Naruto said. “He seems grouchy all the time and I don’t know why. And that’s Tenten, their teammate. I don’t know much about her, so it’ll be really cool to see her fight!”

Gaara pointed at the two sand siblings. “That’s my older sister, Temari,” he said. “She uses that fan and wind techniques to fight. And that’s my older brother, Kankurou. He uses puppets.”

“Puppets?” Naruto breathed. “You can use puppets to fight? That’s awesome! Believe it!”

“I’ve always found it creepy,” Kurama said.

“You would,” Naruto replied.

Gaara snickered.

The Hokage wound up his speech, and the first two combatants remained in the arena while the other six left the field.

“Oh,” Naruto said, squirming excitedly on the spot. “It’s your brother and Shino! Shino uses bugs.”

“Kikaichuu,” Kurama expounded. “Not any bug, though he never liked it when we did pranks with bugs in class. They live inside him.”

Behind them, the Kazekage and the Hokage were speaking quietly to each other.

“Who is this strange boy?” the Kazekage asked the Hokage, and Kurama decided he had to mean Naruto because he probably wasn’t senile enough to have forgotten his own son.

“That’s Uzumaki Naruto,” the Hokage replied. “A genin from our most recent class of Academy graduates. An orphan, formerly a ward of the state, his parents died in the Kyuubi Rampage. He and his teammates made through the first two stages of the Chuunin Selections but he forfeited with his team before the third exam after one of them was injured. My former student, Jiraiya, I’m certain you will have heard of him, has found him quite promising and is thinking of taking him on as an apprentice for a time. He wants to be Hokage one day, so I thought I’d give him a treat.”

Kurama thought the Hokage absolutely had ulterior motives.

The Kazekage made a thoughtful noise and called for his son. “Gaara, it is my understanding that you also successfully made it through the first two stages of the Chuunin Selections yet chose to forfeit before the third exam. Would you like to explain that to me?”

Gaara looked wearily at the man who – if he was to be believed – had attempted to have him assassinated several times. “I’m too dangerous,” he said.

It quickly became apparent from the perplexed expressions on everyone else’s faces that this was not, in fact, a comprehensive enough explanation.

“The only people who made it through the second exam were his teammates and Konoha genin,” Naruto said, cheerfully. “And Kyuubi told Ichibi that if Ichibi hurt anyone from Konoha, he’d kick his ass so bad he wouldn’t reform for a hundred years. Because Konoha is Kyuubi’s which means that no meanies are allowed. So, Gaara forfeited so he wouldn’t hurt any of my friends because the math was bad.”

“I’m too dangerous,” Gaara said, again. “I always kill.”

“Oh, Kami,” Jiraiya whimpered.

“I… see…” the Kazekage said, very slowly, before turning to the Hokage, who has turned the colour of sour milk. “I assume this is your jinchuuriki?”

“Er, yes,” the Hokage replied. “Naruto, you didn’t tell me that happened.”

Naruto shrugged. “Kyuubi had it under control, and me and Gaara are friends now so it didn’t matter anyway!”

“His seal is a strong one, I hope,” the Kazekage asked, perhaps a tad anxiously, and presumably because Gaara’s was a mess.

“I don’t have one, it broke when I was little,” Naruto said sunnily, then turned back to watch Kankurou and Shino, who were squaring off against each other having put the entire arena between them.

The Kazekage made a sound a bit like a kettle going off.

 

xxix.

Naruto was still sniffling over the end of the fight between Hinata and Neji two matches later, when Temari crossed weapons with Tenten briefly – and then forfeited. The Kazekage had excused himself to the bathroom towards the end of Lee and Kiba’s match, and not yet returned. Beside them, Gaara stiffened and turned to Naruto and Kurama.

“It’s now,” he whispered.

But Naruto was yawning, even as he wiped at his tears. “I’m really sleepy all of a sudden.”

Kurama bit him, and he yowled indignantly. “That’s a genjutsu, you useless child!” the little fox hissed.

Sure enough, almost everyone in the grandstands below the Hokage’s box were slumped in their seats, including most of the genin and even a couple of the chuunin. The present ANBU and jounin were awake and alarmed, even as the man with the left half of his face obscured leapt up onto the roofing before the Hokage’s box with Temari and Kankurou behind him.

“Gaara,” the man began, and Kurama assumed this was Baki, Gaara’s jounin-sensei.

“I said no!” Gaara shouted at him.

“Kankurou, Temari, take Gaara—” Baki began.

“No!” Gaara shouted again. “No, I’ll kill you! Go away!”

Baki tried again. “The mission, Gaara—”

Sand swirled out of Gaara’s gourd. “I’m not doing that mission,” he snarled, his eyes wild.

Kurama noticed Jiraiya eyeing the boy with suspicion and placed a paw on Gaara’s forearm. The sand froze mid-air.

“Don’t hurt someone who might be precious,” Kurama said, solemnly. “Even if you disagree with them now, you may regret it later.”

More ANBU arrived, but they reeked of snakes, and suddenly they were battling with the ANBU who had been hidden in the Hokage’s box and Jiraiya, and Baki had disappeared with Kankurou and Temari in tow.

There came an explosion from the other side of the village. Three tremendous snakes – summons, they had to be – had breached the village wall. People were screaming. The Kazekage was still in the bathroom, which was kind of weird but Kurama had more important things to worry about like the hundreds of defenceless people trapped in a sleep-inducing genjutsu gathered in one convenient place for extermination while there was an invasion going on.

The thoughts he threw at Naruto were rapid-fire, and the agreement he got in return was laced with determination, a sense of duty, and concern for the village, not just the lives of a few.

Naruto grabbed Kurama and thrust him at Gaara, and Kurama was glad that everyone else was busy enough with fighting that they weren’t paying attention to a pair of prepubescent genin huddling in the Hokage’s box. “Here. Can you look after him for me? He got caught in the genjutsu,” he said, and winked when Gaara peered at him with an expression of disbelief.

Naruto bounded out of the box, leapt for the centre of the arena, and pulled himself into the Kyuubi as Kurama closed his eyes tight and buried his face in Gaara’s shirt.

First, the genjutsu.

Luckily, very few genjutsu were so powerful that a person could sleep through a rampaging bijuu, and people were snapping awake with utter and abject terror in their hearts before the Kyuubi’s paws had even touched the dirt. The arena was a little bit small for the sheer enormity of the Kyuubi, who found itself trying very hard not to either step on anyone or bump into one of the grandstands because it very much didn’t want to squash anyone.

Sadly, waking everyone up from the genjutsu and appearing in the middle of Konoha had the unfortunate side effect of making everyone start screaming.

“GAH!” the Kyuubi wailed, leaping out of the arena, over the most-heavily developed part of Konoha, towards the snakes. “STOP SCREAMING, I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU! YOU’RE HURTING MY EARS.”

More people screamed, but there were fewer of them as it neared the wall.

Also, the Kyuubi might have accidentally uprooted a few trees, but it mostly avoided knocking over houses and it was fairly certain it hadn’t felt anything… small and crunchy… get under any of its feet yet. And it was keeping its tails to itself. Really, the people could scream a little bit less. Except those Suna-nin up on the wall suddenly having regrets about the choices they had made that had led them to this confrontation. They could scream a little more and preferably run away.

The Kyuubi pounced on the snakes – and they were joined together towards their tails?

If one snake dies, the Kyuubi wondered. Will the other two die as well as the first slowly poisons their blood while it rots?

Then it decided that such thoughts were semantics anyway because the snakes were all threats in the immediate sense, even as it tore into the throat of the first snake with fangs and claws, ripping its trachea out.

The second head of the snake wrapped around one of the Kyuubi’s back legs, while the third head bit into its shoulder – but the Kyuubi flared its chakra, burning and corrosive, and the snake reared away from him, screeching. Patches of skin and scales sloughed away to leave behind great steaming wounds, and the snake writhed, but it could not slither away quickly enough.

The Kyuubi bit into the second head, crunching the snake’s skull, before turning to the third head. The third head’s mouth was so severely burned its tongue had come away and its fangs had fallen out, so the Kyuubi raked it with its claws and sent the last snake tumbling to the ground in a wriggling, bleeding heap.

“WHO ELSE OPPOSES KONOHA?” the Kyuubi roared, blood and spittle flying from its slavering maw. “WHOSOEVER WISHES TO TEST THE MIGHT OF KONOHAGAKURE NO SATO, I DEFY YOU.”

For some reason, the Suna-nin and the Oto-nin the Kyuubi was sure it had spotted had suddenly made themselves scarce. The Konoha-nin that were now appearing on the walls and buildings around it also seemed to be seriously considering running away.

The Kyuubi lowered its head to peer at them, found several injured in one of the towers nearest the wall breach.

“YOU ARE INJURED. I AM GOING BACK TO ENSURE THE HOKAGE’S SAFETY. WOULD YOU LIKE ASSISTANCE TO THE HOSPITAL?” None of them said no, but none of them said yes either, and some of them looked like they were bleeding quite heavily. “CLIMB ON MY HEAD. I WILL CARRY YOU. IT IS NO BURDEN.”

A half dozen people were helped onto the Kyuubi’s head, and then it turned and picked its way very, very carefully back towards the centre of Konoha.

“PLEASE BE CAREFUL. I DO NOT WISH TO STAND ON YOU BY ACCIDENT. I AM SORRY ABOUT YOUR CHICKEN, BAA-SAN. I DID NOT MEAN TO SQUISH HER. PLEASE SPEAK TO THE HOKAGE ABOUT MONETARY COMPENSATION.”

The med-nins and the civilian doctors at the hospital were very scared, too, but they helped the injured shinobi off of the Kyuubi’s head and into the emergency room for evaluation, and the Kyuubi continued picking its way around carts and livestock and buildings, trying not to kill anything.

It found the arena empty, the Oto-nin that had been disguised as ANBU dead, the Hokage alive if moderately disturbed, and Jiraiya looking all sweaty again. The Kyuubi wondered if Jiraiya was just sweaty in his old age, or if he was actually nervous. Gaara was peering up at the gigantic fox, his face slack with something between awe and worship, even as he held Kurama close to his chest – and, yep, there was the dizziness of being in two places at once.

Naruto and the Kyuubi switched, and Naruto scrambled up to the Hokage box. Kurama pretended to stir awake in Gaara’s arms. Gaara gave him one last hug and put him down.

“Jiji! I was so worried! Is everyone okay?” Naruto exclaimed.

“Naruto,” the Hokage said, a little faintly, and Kurama was fairly certain that was relief, but it was a weird, multi-faceted relief. “Yes, yes, as far as I know our losses were kept to the barest minimum, less than a handful. That was the quickest invasion I think I’ve ever seen. But where did the Kazekage go?”

They found the Kazekage’s robes in the bathroom, along with his skin, which had seen shed like he was, well, a snake. Also, they smelled all snake-y and gross. Kurama was incensed that he’d failed to notice before. Orochimaru must’ve somehow managed to hide his scent. Kurama had overlooked his murderous intent because he’d known the invasion was happening, but that had obviously been an error.

“So,” Jiraiya said, sitting on his heels. “That was not the Kazekage at all, but Orochimaru.”

“Why’d he run away?” Naruto asked.

“I don’t know,” the Hokage said. “What I do know, without any doubt, is that I am too old to be Hokage any longer. I tried to retire more than a decade ago. This time, I’m retiring for good, effective immediately! Someone else can take the hat. I need to go lie down, I am an old man, why does no one understand that I am an old man, I have a grandson!”

And he threw down the hat and stalked off.

“I have a really bad feeling all of a sudden,” Jiraiya said.

“I think my father might be dead,” Gaara said blankly, poking at the pile of skin and robes.

Naruto burst into noisy tears for the second time that day.

 

xxx.

Mission: Team bonding exercise.

Mission Objective: Cheer up Hinata while she recovers. People visited other people while they were convalescing, didn’t they? Kurama was fairly sure they did.

Parameters for success:

- Hinata is cheered up.

- Team Seven is not forcibly removed from the Hyuuga Clan Compound.

Parameters for failure:

- Hinata is upset.

- A teammate abandons the exercise. Kurama was looking at Kakashi and Sasuke in particular.

- Cause a ruckus at the Hyuuga Clan Compound resulting in forcible removal from the premises.

- Earn the ire of the Hyuuga Clan Head, Hyuuga Hiashi.

Objectives completed so far:

- Ask Shino, Kiba, and Kurenai-sensei about Hinata’s likes and dislikes.

- Procure appropriate gifts and food suitable for someone convalescent.

Objectives yet to be completed:

- Enter the Hyuuga Clan Compound.

- Locate Hinata’s room.

- See Hinata.

- Leave without upsetting anyone.

This was probably the most difficult team bonding exercise Kurama had ever set, because it required being nice… er… civil to someone outside their usual social group. Certainly, most members of Team Seven interacted with Hinata periodically, but not on an ongoing daily basis like they did each other.

Naruto had still been upset about the match between Neji and Hinata, even days later.

“He’s her family,” he’d said to Kurama. “How can he do that to her? Hurt her so badly?”

And Kurama had had to explain that sometimes families weren’t always love and protection and everything he’d always imagined. Sometimes, families were parents who pushed too hard or just didn’t care, or branch family members who were treated like cannon fodder, or the scum on the bottom on the main family’s shoe, and Kurama had thought about Uchiha Obito who he’d known so briefly through Kushina, bright and sunny and shunned, dead the day he unlocked his Sharingan, and he mourned in his soul.

Naruto mourned, too, his understanding of family shattered.

“Sometimes,” Kurama had told him. “Your family is bad, or you don’t have one, so you look around you at your precious people, and you decide that they’re your family instead. I think those families are the strongest. Team Seven is our family, and I think it’s a great family.”

But Naruto still cried.

And Kurama hated it, hated seeing Naruto so despairing over something he couldn’t hope to change, so, here they were, standing in front of the gates to the Hyuuga Clan Compound as a team to visit Hinata. The last of the Hatake Clan. The last loyal Uchiha. The last of the Uzumaki Clan. And a little clanless girl from civilian parents. And, well, a pet fox. All here to see the former Clan Heiress and offer her their support.

The guards at the gate looked at them skeptically.

“Maa, maa,” Kakashi bleated at them. “Just let us in before the kids start yelling. We want to see Hinata-chan and wish her a speedy recovery. We won’t cause trouble. I promise on this copy of Icha-Icha.”

To anyone who knew of Sharingan no Kakashi and his particular habits, this probably seemed like a fairly decent promise, almost akin to swearing on his life or his mother’s grave. Unfortunately, it was not, as that was actually his third copy of that particular volume of Icha-Icha, the other two having died unfortunate deaths. One had been fiery and had involved Sasuke. The other had been… a bit more interesting and had involved a stray kunai and an experimental explosive tag that Kurama might have been involved in, but the book had ended up sadly sodden and dripping such a deep purple ink the text had no longer been legible.

As such, this was an incredibly poor promise of good behaviour, because Kakashi had become accustomed now to having to purchase the same books repeatedly and the sanctity and untouchability of Icha-Icha had been forever lost.

“Very well,” one of the guards, a middle-aged branch chuunin probably, said, and let them in.

“This way,” Kakashi said, made them all take off their sandals, and led them through the compound unerringly, which might have been creepy if Kurama didn’t know that he’d been ANBU and probably knew far too much about the layout of most of the private residences in Konoha. “If I remember right, Hinata-chan’s room should be over here—”

And then they met Hyuuga Hiashi in the hallway.

He was a tall, imperious sort of man who peered at them a bit like they were ants that had dared invade his pantry, except Kurama was quite sure that Hiashi was the sort of man who never looked in his own pantry because he had people to do that for him.

“Good afternoon, Hiashi-sama,” Kurama said, from his position curled around Sakura’s shoulder’s like a living, breathing scarf. “Don’t mind us, we’re just here to give Hinata-chan our best wishes on her speedy recovery!”

“Look,” Sakura said, holding up the arrangement of flowers they had got from the Yamanaka flower shop, all of them mild-smelling and with innocuous meanings. “We got her these.”

“And these!” Naruto added, showing Hiashi the bag he was carrying with the boxes of pocky, konpeito, amanatto, chocolates, and candied strawberries.

“We also made her a card,” Kakashi said, pulling the card from one of his numerous pockets and showing it to him.

Thankfully, Sakura was quite good at paper crafts because the card would have ended up disastrously left in Naruto’s hands, or not made at all if left to Sasuke or Kakashi. As it was, it was quite well made, and they’d all signed it and written individual get-well-soon messages inside.

“You are all here to see Hinata,” Hyuuga Hiashi said, slowly, as if trying to parse a particularly wordy passage in a text written in an ancient dialect.

Naruto, Sakura, and Kurama nodded enthusiastically. Kakashi eye-smiled. Sasuke grunted.

“She was in our class at the Academy,” Naruto said, just a little-too-loudly, but that was okay because at least he wasn’t shouting so it was close enough to an inside voice that Kurama wasn’t going to bother. “She’s really nice!”

“Nice,” Hiashi said, as he turned and beckoned for them to follow him.

They passed a screen door that was open onto a courtyard garden, where Neji was hunched over a book in the shade, reading. Naruto spotted him, then turned away and ignored the fact that he existed entirely. Neji noticed them and stared as they went past.

Kurama stuck his tongue out at the boy and pulled down his eyelid, making a very ugly face.

Neji’s eye twitched, his cheeks flushed, and he buried his nose in his book hastily.

Kakashi covered a snort of laughter with a cough and Hiashi paused to level him with a flat glare.

“Hinata is in there,” he said, indicating one door of many very similar doors. “She has training in the dojo in twenty minutes, so try not to make her late. I know of your habit, Hatake-san, and I disapprove.”

“Eh, it’s fine. None of us mind,” Naruto said. “He’s only late because he’s talking to the Memorial Stone and making time for all your friends is important, even if some of them aren’t there anymore.”

Hiashi took on a distinctly constipated expression and strode off.

Objectives completed so far:

- Ask Shino, Kiba, and Kurenai-sensei about Hinata’s likes and dislikes.

- Procure appropriate gifts and food suitable for someone convalescent.

- Enter the Hyuuga Clan Compound.

- Locate Hinata’s room.

Objectives yet to be completed:

- See Hinata.

- Leave without upsetting anyone.

So far, so good. They’d even survived an encounter with a previously-unaccounted-for Hyuuga Hiashi. Now all they had to do was see Hinata, give her the gifts, maybe make a little bit of small talk but she seemed to be naturally very quiet, so it might be best if they kept the idle chatter to a minimum, so they didn’t overwhelm the poor girl, and then successfully make their escape.

Sakura knocked on Hinata’s door.

The Hinata who answered it was pale and wan, thinner and more tired-looking than Kurama had ever seen her. At the sight of them all crowding in her doorway, she paler further, and uttered a soft little: “Oh.”

“Hi, Hinata-chan!” Naruto said, cheerfully, waving so exuberantly he whacked his hand on the doorjamb and yelped. “We were worried about you, so we came to see you and wish you to get well soon! And we brought presents!”

He thrust the bag of candy at her.

“O-oh,” she stammered.

“Can we come in?” Kakashi asked.

She stepped hesitantly out of the way, and Team Seven crowded into her room.

“We brought you flowers, too,” Sakura said, and showed her the flower arrangement. “Shall I put them on your bedside table? We know you like flower pressing, but fresh flowers might be nice while you’re recovering.”

Hinata, who had slumped bonelessly into the chair beside the window, nodded mutely.

“My cute little genin made you a card,” Kakashi said, and handed it to her.

She took it, looked at it, then seemed to lose all her strength and let her hand flop down uselessly.

“Here,” Sakura said, kindly. “I’ll put that beside the flowers.”

Kurama slithered down from Sakura’s shoulders onto the floor, to hop into Hinata’s lap. “Will you scratch my ears?” he asked her. “They’re really soft. Ah, thank you Hinata-chan, that’s lovely.”

She smiled, shyly.

“Th-thank you, everyone,” she murmured, very softly.

“You’re welcome,” Naruto said, as cheerful as ever. “You’re our friend, so of course we came to see you.”

“Ah,” she said, then said no more, her pale cheeks turning quite pink.

“Well,” Kakashi said, reading the emotions in the room remarkably well for a man who Kurama was quite sure had no idea how to understand other human beings at all, clapping his hands. “Your father said you have training shortly, and we don’t want to overstay our welcome. Get well soon, Hinata-chan, and I’ll talk to Kurenai-sensei so that hopefully our teams can train together sometime! Won’t that be fun?”

Everyone bid Hinata farewell, and they left.

Neji was waiting for them in the hallway.

They were on the home straight, their mission was almost over and successful, but watching Naruto’s shoulders tighten, Kurama suddenly had a sinking feeling in his chest. He supposed their mission would still be considered a partial success, even if Naruto and Neji got into a scrap here and now, because they had achieved their primary mission objective, which had been to visit Hinata without upsetting her or getting turned away before they could.

“Why do you care about her?” Neji asked. “She’s weak. She’s not even Clan Heiress anymore because she wasn’t strong enough.”

You’re weak,” Naruto returned.

“Now, now, children, let’s not fight here,” Kakashi said, and they both ignored him.

“You think you’re strong,” Naruto continued. “And maybe you could be, one day, but you’re not. You’re just a… a… a big meanie is what you are. An’ people who only fight for themselves or to be mean or whatever are weak cowards.”

‘Big meanie’ was not, in Kurama’s estimation, a very good insult for one ninja to throw at another. ‘Weak coward,’ on the other hand, was fighting words.

“What do you know about it?” Neji spat venomously.

“Probably too much,” Kakashi said, and then he picked Naruto up by the collar of his jumpsuit. “Time to go. You can come meet us at Training Ground Seven at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, Neji. Bring Gai and Tenten and Rock Lee, and you and Naruto can sort it out between you while the rest of us train, but you are not going to fight each other in Hiashi-dono’s house.”

Ha! Saved by Kakashi after all.

Mission: Complete.

Mission status: Successful. No casualties.