[pyrrhic / ‘pir-ik/ , achieved at excessive cost, a victory in which the victor’s losses are as great as those defeated. From Pyrrhus, the name of the Epirote king who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC but suffered heavy losses.]
Fire and ash and screaming, a wave of malevolent chakra grasping and tearing and—
Naruto surges forward, Kurama rising to the surface, and black-twisted violet explodes before them, shattering the ground and tearing a vast crater in front of the approaching army.
“Go!” Naruto shouts, halfway distorted with Kurama's own growl, and they’ve been working in harmony for so long that Kurama can't tell whether it’s truly both of them acting with one mind or they're just familiar enough with each other that it doesn’t matter.
Behind them, an earthen wall sinks back down, and Kurama can hear Sakura shouting orders to retreat and regroup. He doesn’t spare a glance around to see how many shinobi in the scouting party survived the first attack, though; all of his attention is on the twisted forms staggering upright around the edges of the bijūdama’s devastation.
Got enough chakra for another one of those? Naruto asks, dropping into a ready crouch. Clones shimmer into existence around him, a mere handful—even Naruto's energy reserves aren’t boundless, and they’ve pushed the limits far too many times in the past five years.
Kurama scoffs, half in wounded pride and half in answering challenge. Hell yeah. Let’s fry these bastards. They interrupted my nap.
Naruto laughs at him, wild and reckless, and channels his chakra. Kurama feels the blond’s inner world bleed and shift, and opens his eyes in the bloody twilight of the physical world, earth firm beneath his paws.
“Come on then, old man,” Naruto mocks lightly. “You need all the beauty rest you can get.”
Kurama huffs, offended. “’Least I can't hide a baby in the bags under my eyes, unlike some people,” he retorts, but crouches down, calling up his own power and exhaling it in a twister of fire. In the tornado’s wake he lunges, not giving the enemy any time to recover, and Naruto charges with him, Sage chakra flaring like a loosed tempest. A breath, a blaze of power bright enough to blind, and their mingled attack detonates like a sun exploding, sweeping out across the mountaintop and leaving nothing but ashes behind.
The shaky edge of inexorable fatigue isn’t something Kurama was ever familiar with before a few years ago, but by now he knows it well. It sinks its claws into him, pulls him down and makes him stagger as he comes to a halt. Beside him, Naruto is a little better—they’ve learned not to leave the others without at least one defender strong enough to halt Kaguya—but he still reaches up to lean against Kurama's leg, chest heaving as he pants for breath.
“Thanks, Kurama,” he manages, patting orange fur lightly. “Go back to your nap. I’ll wake you up if anything happens.”
There's no arguing with the brat, especially when Kurama feels like he’s very close to falling right over. He doesn’t, because then Naruto would just laugh himself sick, and as much as everyone needs a laugh or two at times like these, Kurama's not going to let it be at his expense. He grumbles, pretty much just for show, but lets his physical form fade away.
When he opens his eyes again, he’s in a darkened clearing, a campfire flickering in the center, and even though there's no wise Sage, no familiar bijuu gathered around him, it feels enough like home that Kurama can close his eyes again without worry, curling up against the trunk of a vast oak and settling himself comfortably. A slow breath, easing down from the tension of battle, and then there's a touch to his side, a gentle murmur that’s less words than it is safety, contentment, trust.
I'm here, don’t worry, Naruto's chakra-sense whispers around him, and Kurama breathes out and lets himself slide into darkness.
A creeping sense of change brings with it the first stirrings of awareness. Slowly, Kurama rises from the depths of an exhausted sleep, reluctantly opening his eyes and shifting his tails away from where they cover his face. He expects the strange double vision that is his overlapping sense of Naruto's world outside and his own surroundings of forest and firelight.
What he gets instead is darkness.
There is no noise. There is no light. There's not even the faintest hint of anything around him, and for the first time in a very long while Kurama feels a trickle of apprehension worm up his spine. He rises to his feet, but doesn’t quite dare a step into the nothingness surrounding him.
“Naruto?” he tries instead. “Naruto, what the hell?”
No answer. Somehow Kurama can't bring himself to feel surprised.
He calls for his chakra and crimson cuts through the darkness, sweeping around him and then rising in a tightening spiral as he reaches for the outside world. There's no sense of hatred near them, no malice, nothing but the deep undercurrent of grief that he’s grown accustomed to over the last year. He stretches, reaches, chakra rising like a cloak, and—
A feeling very much like having a door slammed right in his face.
Kurama recoils with a yelp, somewhere between alarmed and affronted. The little brat just blocked him, shut him out completely, the way he hasn’t in a good twenty years. Knowing Naruto, that either means the brat is dying or nothing’s wrong and he’s just being stupid and secretive.
Honestly, Kurama isn’t sure which he’d rather it was.
Because he’s nothing if not stubborn, Kurama braces himself, digs his claws into the ground, and tries again. This time the lash of power is closer to a windstorm than a testing gust, and he can feel something shake in the distance, as though it’s about to give.
Instead of a closing door, this time he gets a swat with a newspaper.
“Stop it, Kurama!” Naruto snaps, shimmering into existence between his front feet. “I'm trying to concentrate!”
“That’s why it’s called concentration, brat; stop letting yourself get distracted,” he retorts automatically, before his eyes narrow sharply. Something’s different with the man; something’s changed, even though it can't have been more than a few hours since Kurama saw him last.
If he didn’t know better, Kurama might even call the look hiding behind Naruto's normal enthusiasm…well. Desolation is just about the only word that comes to mind.
“Wait a minute,” he growls. “Just what is it you're trying to do? Did Kaguya—?”
Naruto dismisses that with a wave of one hand. “Everything’s fine, so stop worrying. It’ll just be another minute or two. But keep your chakra to yourself, got it?”
Without so much as another word, he vanishes again, and Kurama snarls impotently, glaring at the spot where he’d been standing. “Little brat,” he huffs, but does as asked, pulling his chakra back in around him. His surroundings are a bit lighter, if still featureless—a frightening thought, if Naruto can't even spare the trickle of chakra to make his headspace look the way it normally does—but beyond it, Kurama can sense the very faintest touch of other.
Sakura, he decides after a moment of carefully study. That’s her, but amplified to the brilliance of a star gone nova, which can only mean she’s using her Strength of a Hundred Seal. The power is calm, though, so it’s clearly not a fight, and there’d be no reason to make Kurama sit out if it was. But still—Sakura has been saving that power for years, hoarding it for some desperate situation they won't escape any other way. People have died so that the survivors can maintain this last, desperate ace.
Between that and Naruto's sudden, complete lack of extra power right now, it’s more than just suspicious.
Still, Kurama trusts Naruto more than he ever has another soul. He’d even doubt the Sage of Six Paths before he would Naruto. If Naruto says to wait, he’ll wait, even if it makes him twitchy with nervous tension. Only an idiot wouldn’t be nervous, with Sakura and Naruto so clearly working on something together.
Just one missing now, Kurama thinks a little grimly, sinking down on his haunches and wrapping his tails around himself. Just one, but he’s not coming back any time soon. Kurama has no fondness for any Uchiha, but even he can mourn what Sasuke's loss means for Naruto personally. Even he can feel the sheer depth of pain that Naruto hides behind a smile. It is, he thinks, probably very similar to what drove Obito mad the first time, though Naruto doesn’t have a Sharingan to push him further down the road to insanity.
Sasuke isn’t the only loss, of course, isn’t the only death to push Naruto closer and closer to the edge of despair, even if he’ll never allow himself to go over. Too many, these last five years, all of them Naruto's precious people, all of them lost as Kaguya stretches her malevolent influence across the Elemental Countries. Like a tide she’s swept away all before her, and now only a scattered handful of shinobi are left, trying to halt the flood.
Kurama is stubborn to the point of being pigheaded, but even he sometimes can't understand just why they all keep fighting.
Except…it’s Naruto. It’s Naruto rallying them, pushing them on, keeping their spirits up and their thoughts on victory. And in the face of that, who would ever be able to give up halfway through?
The tight tension-sharp ache of nervousness drives him back to his feet, sends him pacing ten long strides forward, then back again, senses trained on the outside world. He can't quite make anything out, can't see or feel the way he normally would, but there's enough chakra building that even shut away and more than half blinded he can't miss it. Naruto and Sakura are doing something, and that alone would be enough to make him twitchy. Between Sakura's seal invoked and all of Naruto's power—
Kurama wonders a little viciously if this is it, if this is the blow that will end the war. It would be just Naruto's style, coming with no warning and entirely out of left field, overwhelming even Kaguya in her insanity and leaving everyone gaping at their sudden victory.
Why leave Kurama out of it, if that’s the case? Naruto isn’t so much as touching the bijuu’s chakra right now, even though they’ve long since combined their reserves. In fact, the extent to which he’s not touching Kurama's chakra means that Sakura, with her more comprehensive grasp of chakra control, likely has some hand in helping him separate the two.
Even now, with the world crumbling away beneath their feet, Kurama is still one of the most powerful forces in existence. The other bijuu are gone, recaptured and eaten alive to satisfy Kaguya’s madness, and Kurama is the last one left. Both his Yin and Yang halves have been reunited, and he’s proven time and again that he’s more than able to withstand the goddess long enough to let their companions get to safety. There's absolutely no reason, if this is a victory blow, to leave him out of things. In fact, doing so reaches a level of stupidity he’d thought Naruto had left behind with his twelve-year-old self.
If it’s not a final shot at destroying Kaguya, though, what could it possibly—
The world blurs.
Kurama yelps without meaning to, claws scrambling madly for purchase as everything around twists, shifts, and contorts, as if he’s caught in some sort of darkened kaleidoscope. There's a gut-wrenching pull, like a vacuum opening up right in front of him and dragging him in, and for the life of him Kurama can't even begin to resist. Even as he goes sliding forward, the edges of his self blurring and shifting, he shapes his chakra into a vast lifeline and grabs desperately for his jinchuuriki.
This time there's no door, no swat to the nose. Things shudder and shake as Naruto reaches back, catching the metaphorical hand in one of his own, but—
Naruto burns like a volcano at the very worst of times, no matter what. He’s strong and vivid and so very much present that sometimes it’s hard for Kurama to see anything else at all. Right now, however, it’s…different. Horrifyingly, Kurama is reminded of Obito's final death, a strong figure crumbling away to ash without so much as a glancing touch.
“Naruto,” he manages, and then again, sharper: “Naruto! What is this? Stop it!”
For one brief moment, all he can see is Naruto, standing in front of him—not tiny, the way Kurama usually sees him, but exactly eye-level. He’s smiling, but there's heartbreak behind it as he stretches out a hand. Still smiling, always smiling, and the look in his eyes is love and apology and that impossible, boundless faith that first shocked Kurama out of his seething hatred and made him think.
“Sorry, Kurama,” he says, and his voice is warm. “But this was the only way, and you wouldn’t have agreed if you’d known.”
“Agreed to what?” Kurama cries, struggling against the pull still dragging him backwards. “Naruto, what did you do?”
“We’re going to fix things,” he says, blue eyes burning, and his fingers brush Kurama's cheek. There's no sense of fur, no fox’s snout, and Kurama goes still, too shocked to fight. He slides back another foot before he can regain control of himself. Naruto takes a step to match him, and reaches out to grab Kurama by the shoulder. The drag of darkness eases, and on instinct Kurama reaches up, curling his fingers around Naruto's wrist in return.
A human hand, he notices with bewilderment. Long fingers with familiar scars, dark brown skin a sharp contrast to Naruto's deep tan. Claws, still, but far smaller, more like sharpened fingernails than his normal talons.
“What?” he whispers, dazed and panicky all at once. “Naruto—”
“Sorry,” Naruto repeats, and like everything he says, he truly means it. “Sorry, Kurama, but we couldn’t think of another way. Kaguya’s winning. We can't let her.”
“We can beat her,” Kurama tries, because he’s heard Naruto say it enough times that it’s rote by now. “We can. She’s mad, and we’re protecting everyone, so there's no way—”
Naruto's hand on his shoulder tightens, and for a moment grief bleeds into the blue of his eyes. “But we haven’t,” he says, and his voice doesn’t quite break, but somehow Kurama would feel better if it did. Never, ever has Naruto allowed himself to grieve, not for his personal loss. Kurama's never really had anyone to lose, beyond the Sage and this man in front of him, but he doubts that such a thing is healthy. “Kurama, there's no one left to save.”
Kurama goes still the pieces falling together with a horrible shiver of foreboding. Oh. Oh. Naruto's expression earlier, the look in his eyes now, the way his smile is faltering around the edges and held by nothing but dogged will—
“The camp,” Kurama says, just above a whisper. “They're—?”
The last of the shinobi, the last few people left alive. The camp he and Naruto had left when they received Sakura's distress call, knowing that her small team of scouts wouldn’t be able to hold Kaguya’s forces back for more than a few minutes at best. They’d run to reach her in time, leaving the people they’d gathered hidden safely away in a deep cave with plenty of exits. Because Sakura's messenger had told them how many they had faced, on the mountaintop. Told them how many, and Kaguya only has so many twisted undead soldiers scavenged from the corpses of those dear. Only a few hundred, and with all of them accounted for—
“She must have made more,” Naruto says, and his smile fades away, replaced with exhausted resignation. “There weren’t—no one made it out. And three of Sakura's scouts died, so…”
He doesn’t finish, but he doesn’t need to. Nine shinobi remaining, plus Sakura and Naruto. Eleven left, out of the thousands that once populated the world.
It’s clear enough that with this final blow, Kaguya has won.
“And this?” Kurama asks. “What is this supposed to be, then?”
The devastations is wiped clean from Naruto's expression, replaced with the implacable determination Kurama is so familiar with. Blue eyes turn to steel, and his smile is the one that makes Kurama impossibly, unwaveringly certain that there's no way things could end without some sort of victory.
“This?” Naruto laughs, so very much the trickster that it makes Kurama smile too. “This is you saving the world, Kurama!”
A seal blooms beneath their feet, like a flower’s petals unfurling in the dawn. Lines both familiar and foreign, massive in their complexity, traced with power that makes the very air vibrate. Bits and pieces Kurama can recognize—the basis is the Hiraishin, he thinks, but it’s been expanded, amplified. The Hiraishin puts all of its emphasis on movement across space, even though there's a component to deal with time, while this—
Space has been written out, and time is the only thing left.
“No,” he says, knee-jerk reaction to Naruto's insanity. “Are you crazy? This won't work! No human could survive—”
Naruto just smiles at him, even as Kurama redoubles his struggles, unfamiliar human hand locking around Naruto's wrist as he tries to wrench himself forward. “Sorry,” he says again. “I'm sorry, Kurama.”
“You're going to be!” Kurama snarls, throwing himself forward with all the force he can muster. His free hand locks in Naruto's shirtfront, but the fabric tears, and he cries out in dismay. “No! Don’t do this, please. Naruto, we’ll find another way! The seal—with enough adjustments—”
Naruto shakes his head. “Sakura and I have been working on this for a long time,” he says. “We wanted to send all of the bijuu back, because there’s no way to survive the trip unless you’re a construct made completely of chakra. Human minds can't handle the strain. But now you're the only bijuu, and—and Sasuke's gone, so we don’t even have as much power as we were planning on.” Grief rises again, but Kurama can see him push it down and keep smiling. “You’re our last chance, Kurama—everyone’s last chance. So you’ll do it, right? You’ll go back and save all of us?”
It’s blackmail, pure and simple, playing on the emotions that Naruto gave Kurama to begin with. He pauses, staring into Naruto's eyes, and can't see anything except faith and conviction and a burning, searing hope the likes of which he hasn’t encountered in far too long.
“Naruto—” he says, and can't manage another word.
“You can do it, Kurama,” Naruto tells him, stepping closer. He doesn’t hesitate, but throws his arms around Kurama and hugs him, impossibly tight. It feels different than the casual or fond hugs Naruto has given him before, more like he’s being fully wrapped in comfort and reassurance and love, and Kurama returns the gesture without thinking, burying his face in bright blond hair. Against his ear, he can hear Naruto whisper, “You’ve always been a hero, Kurama. Now everyone will be able to see it. I’ll miss you, but you need to do this.”
“Like you're giving me a choice,” Kurama manages, and his voice breaks. He pulls back just enough to meet Naruto's eyes, and says, “You were my first friend, Naruto. I couldn’t give a damn about most of the world, but—for you. I’ll save you. You have my word, you manipulative little brat.”
For a moment, Naruto looks about to argue. Then he huffs and reaches up, rapping his knuckles against the side of Kurama's head. “I wouldn’t be me without my precious people,” he reminds Kurama, “so you’d better save them too, bastard fox, got it?”
Kurama laughs before he can help it, and Naruto grins back, and they both pretend that their faces are dry instead of wet with tears. A pause, and then Naruto lunges forward again, wrapping Kurama up in another tight hug that steals the breath from his lungs and leaves his heart aching. Then he loosens his grip, steps back, and Kurama forces himself to untwist his claws from orange fabric and let him go.
“Bye, Kurama,” Naruto manages, raising one hand in a halfhearted wave. “Kick some ass for me, okay?” A hint of a smirk, and he adds, “And look in a mirror as soon as you can, got it?”
Kurama doesn’t even want to know. He just shakes his head, turning to stare at the twisting darkness behind him, and answers, careful not to let his voice shake, “See you soon, kid.”
He gets a laugh for that, warm and startled, and he’s smiling when he lets himself be dragged headfirst towards an impossibly long fall.
Behind him, there's a flicker of power, a vast surge of cruel chakra, and a scream. Kurama jerks around, lunges back before he can stop himself, and the world blurs into the sharpness of reality. He sees Kaguya, looming and deadly, Sakura collapsed and lifeless before her, Naruto pale and shaking but standing firm. He raises his hands, but all of his power is wrapped up with Kurama, being sucked away into the seal painted across his skin, and there's nothing left.
Black chakra rods stab through flesh, bright blood splattering across the grass, and Kurama screams, grief and fury and red-edged rage overwhelming him to block out the pain.
One last glimpse of a familiar body falling, empty-eyed, and then everything is lost to darkness.