The seals break to the sound of a baby’s first strident cry.
A hundred years of confinement hasn’t dulled Kurama's reflexes. For the barest, briefest moment there's a crack in the framework of his prison, and Kurama hurls himself against it with all the force of god given a century to gather his strength. A moment of impact, a burst of power, and the world rushes in to fill his senses. Paws strike the ground, finally tangible once more, and he roars with fury that’s been directionless for too long.
Somewhere beneath him, a woman screams. A man shouts, fury and fear in equal measure, and power ripples, swelling like a river in flood.
For half an instant, Kurama debates staying, fighting. He wavers between the choices, caught in indecision, but—
A flash of pink skin amidst the blood. A child, newborn and tiny, in the center of a sealing array, waiting only for a life to bind Kurama within it.
Kurama knows this child, shared a body beside its soul for the last ten months. He had wrapped himself around this child, first in boredom and then in curiosity, felt the babe change from a clump of cells to a thinking, breathing creature, fed on Kurama's chakra as much as anything else. A god in a world of ancient spirits, Kurama has never before had cause to know a child, has never before had a hand in the creation of a life. He is himself an act of creation, but exists to sustain, to end. To give a thinking, feeling being life—that’s something entire new.
The decision, then, is easily made. This little creature is Kurama's, and Kurama is greedy, avaricious and grasping without any of the restraints his two human prisons have clung to. If he wants, he takes, and there is nothing and no one in all of creation that can stop him.
He takes the child, swallows it down and cocoons it in chakra to keep it safe, and then he turns and runs.
Another cry behind him, the man again, desolate and desperate, but the woman’s breath is fading, faltering, and he doesn’t pursue. He goes to her, as if that will stop the Shinigami already bending lovingly over her, and in an instant Kurama is far from the pathetic little village and running flat-out. Each stride is a long, carrying him further than a human could ever hope to chase, and he laughs with the glory of freedom regained.
Too long in a cage of mortal flesh, he thinks, and reaches out, stretches himself into the air and land, the forests and rivers and curling wind. The other spirits of the land welcome him, wild and fierce, acknowledgement of a natural god returned to their ranks, and Kurama submerges himself in the vast tide of chakra that covers the world.
Within him, the child stirs. There’s no second cry, no wailing, just a sense of confusion, a simple sort of need. Kurama curls his chakra around the babe, cradles it carefully as he slows and then comes to a stop on the shores of a clear mountain lake.
A human child needs things, he knows, even when it’s just as much his as it is its mother and father’s. More his, he thinks, than theirs, and is viciously satisfied by that. They thought to breed another container to hold him, but this little thing is steeped in Kurama's chakra, his essence. It’s very much his, and if the humans think they can use one of Kurama's own against him, they're laughably stupid.
That doesn’t, however, make Kurama any more knowledgeable about what an infant human requires. He considers it for a moment, already feeling its faint pangs of hunger he isn’t certain how to soothe. A human would know, but Kurama loathes them, hates what they did to him, hates what they still do to this world the spirits have deigned to allow them to inhabit. They're destroying it, spreading ruin wherever they walk, and it eats at Kurama like a cancer. He can feel the destruction wearing at him, chipping away at his strength for every section of forest that’s devastated by humanity.
No human is going to raise his child. Kurama will devour any who tries to so much as come close.
“Kurama,” a well-remembered voice murmurs, like water over rocks, and the surface of the lake bubbles. A shape surfaces, spiked shell breaking the water first, and Kurama lifts his head, tails lashing as he watches his brother rise from the depths.
“Isobu,” he returns, settling on his haunches as the other god bobs his head in greeting. “They didn’t seal you.”
“They’ve tried, brother,” Isobu counters, “but never well enough. You escaped them?”
Kurama bares his teeth, too vicious to be a laugh. “Well, they certainly didn’t let me go.”
Isobu’s chuckle is like thunder in the cold air, shaking the leaves that are just starting to change color. “The forests missed you. Maybe they’ll grow better now that you’ve returned.”
Kurama can feel it in the earth all around them, the stunted, creeping edge of new growth too weak to make the last push towards the sunlight. Autumn is coming; now isn’t the time to flood this world with his chakra, encourage the strength and vitality that his absence has removed. Spring isn’t far, though—it never is. And when it comes this land will see growth as it hasn’t in a hundred years.
“I missed them, too,” Kurama admits, turning his head to survey the mountainside around them. It’s remote and empty of any humans, beautiful in its wildness. His two human containers never used his power for fear of corruption, and they were right to be so wary of it—Kurama is the land, the same way Isobu is the lakes and rivers. A touch too much of his power and he would have overwhelmed them, taken back control and taken revenge.
With a low growl at the thought, he shakes himself, as if to scatter the stench of humans as he would water from his fur. Not yet. There's time to regather his strength, to build himself back to what he was before a hundred years of confinement left him weakened and wan. “Any news of the others?” he asks, because he heard whispers through his jailors, rumors of other gods chained as he was, and this land has only nine of them. There could be no others beyond Kurama's brothers and sisters, though he held hope, for a while, that the humans simply mistook powerful spirits for gods.
He lost that hope long ago, when the world started dying around him.
Isobu makes a low, mournful sound. “All taken,” he confirms. “You were the first, but once the humans had the method, the others fell quickly. It feels like the land is choking on its own ashes now.”
It does. There's a darkness to things, a heaviness. Like rot creeping up from deep within the earth, infecting everything and spreading like a plague. Kurama growls, letting it rumble through the air and stir the rocks around them. He casts his senses out, taking in the way the forests sag beneath the lack of care, the absence of natural chakra—
Except…there. To the north and west, there's a spot that burns with pure energy, vivid and clean. Kurama pricks his ears up, turning that way curiously, and asks, “On the land between the seas—did you notice?”
Isobu chuckles again, his three tails churning the water as he turns to follow Kurama's gaze. “A foolish human,” he says, and at Kurama's scoff amends, “More foolish than most. He tried to recreate the union of a nature spirit and a human. His end was not kind.”
That’s enough to get a rumble of appreciation from Kurama. The woman who sealed him the first time, his first jailor—her husband was the child of an earth spirit and a human, even if his human traits were unfortunately stronger than his ties to the spirit world. Kurama had hated him more than the rest, for that, but he reluctantly acknowledges that spirits can’t always control where they find love.
But to force such a union, either through science or chakra? Kurama is absolutely certain the fool got what he deserved.
Still, the idea is…interesting, especially given the aftermath that glows so purely in Kurama's senses. He studies the area for a moment, then asks, “The subject—human?”
“Originally.” Isobu sounds nothing except amused. “Not so much anymore, but he’s sleeping, and a water god wasn’t enough to wake him, though I tried. He’s…interesting.”
Originally human, but now far closer to being a spirit, if he isn’t one entirely. That sounds like exactly what Kurama needs. Isobu wasn’t close enough kin to wake him, but if he’s the product of an experiment on an earth spirit Kurama will certainly be.
“Watch yourself,” Kurama warns, already turning north. “If they have the rest, they’ll come for you next, Isobu.”
“The same to you, Kurama,” Isobu retorts, and with a surge and a wave he sinks back beneath the water, settling at the bottom of the lake once more.
Kurama doesn’t bother looking back as he picks up speed, hurtling down the side of the mountain and towards that verdant valley in the distance. It tastes like spent power, like the touch of a minor god, and he wonders just what it was the foolish human tried to do. Did he try to bind a god-tree to a human body, foregoing sealing in an attempt to merge them?
He probably died in agony, Kurama thinks, and laughs to himself in satisfaction. These humans can use the barest edge of chakra and think themselves its masters. They touch the spirit world and think they know all there is to understand. It’s only because they breed like rats that their arrogance hasn’t gotten every last one of them killed by now.
The human child he’s carrying stirs again, close to waking fully, and then subsides. Kurama curls another layer of his chakra around it, cradling it carefully, and knows that this one will be different. This one is his, bathed in his power since the moment it was conceived, and now entirely removed from human corruption. It may as well be half spirit, and Kurama will see to raising the babe as part of his world, not theirs.
Its own parents were going to consign it to the life of a human container, feared and hated for the god bound within it. Even if he were one to feel guilt, Kurama wouldn’t feel it for this.
Between Kurama's speed and his size, the path up to the valley with the new spirit takes only a handful of hours, and as the sun starts to crest the horizon Kurama is already sweeping down into the impossibly thick forest that’s sprung up. It’s not unnatural, at least in that it was created by a spirit, but Kurama has been to this place before, knows it the way he does all of his land. This is new, and not simply the growth—there's a sense of life here that there never has been before. It’s been a graveyard of great beasts for millennia, but now—
Now this is new land, and at the heart of it is a new spirit.
That, at least, is simple to find. There was a cavern carved into the mountain once, but it’s crumbled, given way beneath roots and trees exploding outward from the epicenter of their growth. They bend themselves out of Kurama's way as he passes, stepping around the bones of a human that lie broken and shattered, nearly hidden by the roots that cover them. A few paces on is a tree that dwarfs even Kurama, the bole as wide as three men are tall.
Kurama studies it for a moment, then leans in and breathes over the trunk, letting his power flood the valley like a storm touching down to earth.
With a groaning creak, the trunk splits in a long vertical line, then peels back. The heart of the tree is drenched in chakra, not the twisted, diluted version humans use but clean, untainted. Kurama breathes it in, grin all sharp teeth and bloody humor, and watches as the wood curls away and a small, pale shape tumbles out, landing on its hands and knees in front of him.
“Good morning, little one,” Kurama rumbles, and the new spirit coughs and trembles, cloaked in long black hair and the tattered rags of clothes too small. Young, even for a human, he judges—like the chuunin in the village he just escaped. He looks up at Kurama, and it’s the most delicious irony to see those eyes, the eyes that trapped Kurama the first time, set into the face of his newest subject. Deep scars as well, curled like the whorls of a tree where they stretch across the right side of his face—a remnant from his human life, and one he’ll never be able to escape if they're still with him now.
“Kurama-sama,” he says, surprise and awe in his voice, and then pauses, a flicker of confusion rising to the surface.
Still some human instincts, then, Kurama judges, but he recognized Kurama, called him by title. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
“Do you remember being human?” Kurama asks, dipping his head to nose the boy’s hair back from his face.
The boy allows it without protest, smoothing the long locks back the rest of the way when Kurama stops. “I…do,” he agrees, and there's a furrow between his brows, but when Kurama lies down, flipping his tails in invitation, he slides forward to press up against Kurama's elbow, shivering in the cool air. Kurama has seen spirits born before, though never from a human life, and lets his chakra sweep over the boy, lets it wraps him in comfort. At the same time, he pulls up the bundle of chakra holding the child from inside of him, and lays the tiny creature carefully on the ground in front of the new spirit.
There’s a sharp inhalation, and the boy tugs off the rags of his shirt, bundling them into something like a blanket. He wraps up the child, lifts it and cradles it to his chest, and then looks up with wide, worried eyes. “Kurama-sama?”
Kurama rumbles the fox version of a purr, heavy and rough and gargling, but it makes the line of the boy’s shoulders ease a little. “It’s mine,” he says. “Can you care for it?”
“Him,” the spirit corrects, but his arms tighten around the child. “I can do that. I…think I used to babysit?” He shakes his head, frown returning, and looks down at the child. “Does he have a name?”
The humans had discussed one, Kurama remembers, if vaguely, muffled by the seal he was under then. Naruto, and…as far as human names go it could be far worse. A whirlpool is a decent namesake. “Naruto,” he decides, dipping his head to study the babe with one eye. “His name is Naruto. Yours?”
It takes a long moment, but the boy finally answers, “Obito. I was…Obito.”
Kurama huffs, annoyed. “You still are,” he says, flipping his tails around to cover the more fragile pair. The sun might be rising, but the wind still has the bite of approaching winter to it. “You're just better now. One of us. Not human trash.”
Obito nods as he hunches over the baby, clutching him close, and those red-and-black eyes are full of something like wonder. He smiles, holding his finger in front of Naruto’s face, and foggy blue eyes open. The child gives a loud wail, demanding and clear, and Obito laughs a little. “Someone’s hungry,” he says. “Don’t worry, Naruto, we’ll get you something soon. You're going to be all right.”
Kurama huffs at the assumption, but levers himself to his feet. There's a human town close enough to reach quickly, and he has no compunctions tearing it apart so Obito can find what Naruto needs. Better not to risk them expanding in this direction, after all; it takes a lot of nature chakra to purify an area this large, as Obito has done, and ruining it would be a damned crime.
Not the first the humans have committed against Kurama's land, but—
Well. That’s for later. Immediate problems now.
Crouching down, he stretches one paw out and orders gruffly, “Up. We’re going.”
Obito scrambles to his feet, shifting Naruto into the crook of one arm, and then puts his foot in the bend of Kurama's leg and leaps upward. He lands lightly on Kurama's back, settled and steady, and Kurama pushes up, then surges forward into a long-legged, loping run, the rising sun turning the clouds crimson behind him.
He can just hear the sound of the baby’s cries over the wind, and it makes him bare his teeth. Mine, he thinks, just like this world. Naruto is his now, and the land will be his again. The humans keep pushing forward, advancing, destroying.
It’s time they remember why they feared an angry god so much they chained him up, locked him away. Time they remember just what force there is behind a hurricane.
The smell of blood is hardly something new in the depths of the forest. There are predators here, and plenty of prey, and it’s hardly uncommon to come across the scent of a fresh kill somewhere among the trees.
Even so, Naruto pauses, leaning out over the shadowed forest floor. The oak he’s perched in sways a little, but the branches hold, and he takes a deep breath, seeking the source of the scent. Not deeper into the woods, towards the mountains, but…south. Towards the road.
Naruto isn’t fond of going south. Kurama always gets grumpy—grumpier—and Obito gets tense and angry. The forest thins, and often echoes with the sound of falling trees. Smoke hangs heavy in the air, thicker than wood-smoke and more choking, and the animals are gone.
Still. This smells like a lot of blood, and close. Naruto breathes it in, shifting carefully, and leaps lightly to the next wide branch. The sword Obito brought him is across his back, and it’s not as if Naruto has been helpless since he first started walking. Obito might worry about him going south without at least one of the foxes with him, but nothing says Naruto has to tell him.
(That does not, Naruto acknowledges with an internal wince, actually have much of a bearing on Obito finding out, but he can hope.)
Like quick-darting shadows, forest spirits scatter around him as he leaps through the branches, some pausing to watch him pass, others whirling out of sight. Naruto waves to those he knows, but doesn’t pause, skirting the edge of the river and heading for where the trees thin slightly. The land slopes up, and the hillside is the one break in the forest for miles, bare grass and wildflowers. Naruto lands lightly in it, laughing at the feel of it cool and soft under his feet, and pauses there, looking back the way he came. There are clouds building on the horizon, thick and heavy, and a wind picking up. If he doesn’t hurry, he’s going to get caught in the rain.
The smell of blood is stronger than ever here. Naruto follows it up the hill, then down the other side, skidding through rich earth and vaulting over a fallen log half-covered in toadstools. A little ways ahead, there's an outcropping of jagged stones where the wolves sometimes make their den when they have small cubs, and that’s the origin of the blood. Naruto glances around, curious more than wary, but can't see any signs of a fight. Unless one of the animals dragged a kill here—
There's a human sandal sticking out from behind the rock.
Naruto freezes, the little voice in the back of his head that sounds like Kurama and Obito in equal measure screaming for caution. He holds where he is for a long moment, waiting, but except for the growing smell of blood there's no sign of life.
As much as Kurama and Obito would like it otherwise, Naruto has met humans. There are caravans that travel on the road, or smaller groups, and for all that a half-human created these woods they're dangerous to humans now with so many spirits in residence. Naruto has helped the humans pass safely, and they're always grateful, always happy to agree to mind the land in return for passage.
That old Toad Sage always talks about balance, give and take and humans living in harmony with spirits. Naruto likes the idea more than Obito seems to, but then, Naruto has seen Obito's scars, knows a little of his story and the pain he feels at all times. He has reasons to dislike humans. But—Naruto isn’t Obito, and he doesn’t hate the same way. There's no possibility that Naruto can leave this person if there's any chance they’ll survive.
“Are you alive, person?” he calls, straightening from his crouch. “Hey, anyone awake?”
No answer except for an owl spirit ruffling its feathers in offense above him. Naruto rolls his eyes at the creature, who pointedly looks away and hunkers back down, ignoring Naruto entirely as he takes the last few steps around the rock.
A man is lying in the alcove formed by two leaning boulders, sprawled out like he tried to drag himself all the way into the shelter but didn’t quite manage it. He’s battered and covered in deep wounds, like he picked a fight with a wolf pack, and his white hair is matted with mud and twigs until Naruto can hardly make out the color. Naruto would almost think he was dead except for the gentle, steady rise of his chest and the white-knuckled grip on the kunai in his right hand.
“Hey,” Naruto prods again. “Shinobi guy. Are you gonna take my head off if I fix you up?”
No answer, which Naruto supposes is answer enough. He pulls his sword from his back, using the sheathed tip to nudge the kunai aside until he can grab it without risking his head, and then slides in close. The man still doesn’t move, even when Naruto digs through his weapons pouch for rolls of bandages.
“How are you still alive?” Naruto asks as he drags the man out into the light a little more, trying not to reopen any wounds. They look almost a day old, if Naruto has to guess—he doesn’t heal as slow as a human, but some of the animals in the forest do, and he’s taken care of them before. “I thought shinobi were supposed to be sharp and stuff. And, you know, smart enough not to bleed to death.”
Still no answer, but when Naruto unzips the guy’s tattered flak jacket and pulls it away, he stirs a little, visible eye fluttering a little. Naruto pauses, attention caught by his covered face, and debates getting rid of the mask, or just…taking a peek. After a second, though, he reluctantly concludes that stopping the bleeding is more important, and uses the appropriated kunai to cut the shinobi’s shirt off. There's too much ground-in dirt to use it as a bandage, so Naruto sets it aside to be burned and starts cleaning and bandaging.
“Rin,” the man murmurs, eye moving beneath the closed lid. “Knock it off. Report…”
Rin? Naruto tilts his head, watching as the stranger stirs, but before he can ask the man stiffens, jerks away from Naruto's hands. Naruto yelps as the bit of cloth he was tying on is wrenched away from his fingertips, and snaps, “Hey! Stop that!”
Predictably, the man doesn’t get more than a few inches before he turns the color of fungus and sinks back to the ground with a groan, one hand coming up to clutch at his side.
“You're stupid,” Naruto tells him, exasperated. “How did you not already bleed to death? And why didn’t you fix yourself while you could still see straight?”
“I…thought I could make it back to Konoha,” he says, breathing just a little bit harder, though Naruto is absolutely certain that he’s actually in a lot of pain. Naruto spars with Kurama, after all, and he’s seen how Obito can get when people start cutting down trees. Pain isn’t something new to him. He opens his mouth to say something about it, but before he can, the one visible grey eye slits open, and the man says carefully, “You're not Rin.”
Naruto stares at him for a long moment. “You're kind of dumb, aren’t you?” he asks skeptically.
The man blinks, his gaze finally seeming to focus on Naruto. He blinks again, then says mildly, but with a healthy dose of affronted dignity, “I have a concussion.”
Vaguely, Naruto can recall Obito grumbling about head-wounds and their complications, concussions included, but it’s not something he’s ever had to feel for more than a few seconds, thanks to the fact that he shares Kurama's chakra. “If you say so,” he allows, and tries not to let doubt slip into his voice.
For a moment the stranger tips his head back, looking heavenward. “It’s true. I'm Hatake Kakashi.”
At least he remembers that much. In that one book the Toad Sage left, the guy who hit his head couldn’t remember anything until he had sex with that one chick. Naruto can't quite recall her name, but even when he’s female his breasts don’t get as big as hers were, so if that’s a vital part of the cure this guy would be out of luck.
“Okay,” Naruto says cheerfully. “Nice to meet you. I'm Naruto.”
There's a distinct pause. Kakashi eyes him a little disbelievingly, and then says slowly, “The Copy-Nin.”
Naruto scratches the back of his head, not entirely certain what the man is getting at. “Uh. Good for you? Can I finish putting the bandages on now?”
Kakashi seems to deflate a little. “Are you going to steal my wallet while you're at it?”
“No?” Naruto blinks at him curiously, picking up the small pad and tugging Kakashi's arm towards him. “What do I need your wallet for? I don’t buy stuff.”
Wary gaze on Naruto's hands, Kakashi hums, faintly disbelieving. “You live out here? The forest is dangerous.”
“Not really,” Naruto says cheerfully, and he loves this forest, so he’s not about to let someone dislike it for no reason. “If you're disrespectful it won't like you, but it’s just a little grumpy about stuff most of the time. It’s a nice place underneath that.”
Kurama would smack Naruto with his tails if he heard him say that, because Kurama might as well be the forest, but that’s kind of Naruto's point. It’s rough on the outside, but not bad. He should know; Kurama and Obito have raised him, and they're both his family. He loves them, and he knows they love him too, even if Kurama doesn’t like to show it.
Kakashi hums in a way that could be acknowledgement, polite skepticism, or disagreement, but all he says is, “Do you know how far it is to Konoha?”
“Uh…” Naruto calculates travel times in his heads, and then guestimates for the bits he doesn’t know. Obito won't let him actually go to Konoha, or at least won't let him go yet. He says their plans aren’t ready, and Naruto might get impatient sometimes, but when Obito goes white with pain and can hardly move from the ache in all of his limbs, he’s hardly about to argue. “It’s about a day, I think?”
Immediately, Kakashi moves to stand up, but he barely makes it off the ground before he sways and his legs buckle, making him sit down hard. He groans like he can't quite help it, pressing a hand over his face, and stays very, very still for a long moment.
“You’re really dumb,” is Naruto's annoyed assessment. “It takes a day when you're healed. If you can't walk it’s gonna take a hell of a lot longer.”
“I can't stay here.” Kakashi reaches up to touch his hitai-ate where it slants down across his eye. “I was on a mission, and Konoha needs to know I survived. The Hokage will worry.”
That…might prove a problem. In any other circumstances, Naruto would just call one of the wolf or fox spirits and ask for lift. However, in these circumstances, with a wounded, human Konoha shinobi wanting to travel back to the village, that’s probably not such a good idea. It hits practically every last one of Obito's buttons, and on a scale of one to don’t-even-think-about-it-young-man, this sits squarely on grounded-until-you're-the-same-age-as-Kurama. It’s also starting to get dark, and if Naruto isn’t back home within a few hours, both Obito and Kurama will start looking for him. Then they’ll just find Kakashi anyway.
Naruto is pretty certain they won't actually hurt him, but they’ll definitely want to leave him to fend for himself, and Naruto stubbornly refuses to even consider it.
“Can you just—stay here for tonight?” Naruto asks, bordering on desperate. He casts a glance at the sky, where the sun is already staining the clouds with fiery streaks of color, and then back down at his reluctant patient. “I can take you back to Konoha tomorrow, but right now I have to get home.”
“Here?” Kakashi says, not quite mildly alarmed but certainly close, and casts a wary look at the surrounding trees with their creeping shadows. “Shouldn’t we at least get back to the road?”
Naruto snorts. “The road’s next to the river, like an hour that way.” He waves a hand toward the east. “You’ll be fine here, I told you the forest wasn’t mean. Looks, just—” He presses his hands together, eyes narrowing in concentration as he calls up just a touch of the nature chakra Kurama gave him. There's the odd tickle of his eyes bleeding gold, the sudden rush of awareness as the forest rushes in to fill his senses with its clamor of life, and—
With a low, groaning crack, the boulders shift and realign, settling into a tighter press as the shallow cave deepens. It’s longer than Kakashi is tall, and if he doesn’t try to stand up—which he shouldn’t be doing anyway—he should be fine for a night.
“If a bear or a boar comes, just block the entrance,” he says proudly, turning to grin at Kakashi.
Kakashi looks less than enthused. “It’s dangerous to be out here at night,” he says firmly. “If you can just take me back to the road, I'm sure someone will pass—”
“Not tonight,” Naruto interrupts. “Look, it’s only for a few hours. I can take you back tomorrow! But you shouldn’t wander around on your own when the forest doesn’t know you, and it’s too late to head back to Konoha now. Please?”
For a long moment, Kakashi stares at him. Then, with a sigh, he sinks back against the rocks, one hand pressed to his side, and nods. “All right,” he agrees.
“You're not going to bleed to death?” Naruto asks, a little suspicious.
“Maa, maa, I think you got all the big gashes.” Kakashi crinkles his eye like he’s smiling, though with the mask Naruto can't tell whether he really is or not. A pause, and he asks, “You can make it home before dark?”
Naruto huffs, offended, and crosses his arms over his chest. “I'm seventeen, not seven. And there's nothing here that would ever hurt me. I’ll be fine.”
Kakashi looks fairly skeptical about that, too, but doesn’t try to argue. “You can get me to the road in the morning?”
“I can get you to Konoha,” Naruto corrects. “It’ll take twice as long if you follow the road, but I know the forest’s shortcuts!”
For a long moment, Kakashi just looks at him. Lightly, he touches the slanted hitai-ate that covers his left eye again, and then asks, “Are you a spirit, Naruto? Why are you helping me?”
The question makes Naruto laugh. “Why wouldn’t I?” he asks easily. “This is how things always go in Ero-Sennin’s books, and you're a lot more handsome than the guys he writes about. I thought it might be fun to see what happened, and you needed my help anyway.”
Kakashi looks like he can't decide between bewilderment, amusement, and disbelief. “Icha Icha. You’ve read Icha Icha.”
“I guess?” Naruto wrinkles his nose a little. “Ero-Sennin brings more of his dumb books every time he comes, but I liked the first one the best. The main character had the same name as me!” He grins, still excited about that, and leans forward to peer at Kakashi's face. Kakashi blinks at him, a little baffled, but Naruto just smiles. “Hey, if you're like the hero guy in the books, does that mean I get a kiss when I lead you back home?”
The time, the flicker of amusement when Kakashi's eye crinkles is much clearer, and it’s easy to see it’s genuine. “Spirits like kisses? I never knew that.”
“I'm only half-spirit!” Naruto protests, and then pauses, frowning thoughtfully. “Kind of? Kurama says it’s complicated. But I'm pretty sure I like them.”
“Then you can have one when we get to Konoha,” Kakashi agrees, clearly humoring him, though Naruto doesn’t really mind. “Provided I survive the night.”
“You’ll be fine,” Naruto insists, pushing to his feet. He turns, looking up, and calls, “Fukuyo! You’ll keep an eye on him, right?”
Kakashi goes tense, one hand darting towards his weapons pouch, but the owl spirit above them opens one fathomless black eye and turns her head to stare unblinkingly at Naruto. Then, with a theatrical sigh, she flares open her wings, shakes out her feathers, and settles back down. “Kurama failed to teach you manners, little one.”
No outright refusal, which with an owl spirit means the same thing as agreement. Naruto laughs, waving his thanks. “Kurama doesn’t have any manners, Fukuyo. He can't exactly teach them to anyone else.”
Her burble is pure amusement. “Very true. But the other one, the tree child, he should know. Respect his lessons, if Kurama doesn’t give you better ones.”
Naruto pulls a face, but doesn’t argue. It’s not like Obito is all that better, honestly; he just happens to have that weird thing about respecting spirits because they're old. Being friends with them is easier, Naruto thinks, but he’s not about to argue with Obito. The spirit has no compunctions about slapping him in the back of the head if he thinks Naruto is being disrespectful, and he hits hard.
Turning back to Kakashi, he offers up his best reassuring smile. “See? Fukuyo is a spirit of good luck; she won't let anything happen to you. You’ll be fine until I get back!”
Kakashi eyes the owl, then eyes him, and says dryly, “I feel safer already.”
Naruto kind of suspects that was intended to be sarcasm, but he’s not entirely sure, so he ignores it. With a wave, he turns to head back towards the center of the forest, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll be back right after dawn. Thanks, Fukuyo! Don’t be dumb anymore, Kakashi!”
There's a quiet but insistent protest behind him, but it’s lost to the wind as Naruto leaps into the branches, heading back towards the heart of the woods as fast as his feet can carry him.
The spirit boy looks like Minato.
Carefully, Kakashi resettles himself against the rocks, breath escaping him in a faint hiss as he jars his broken ribs. Rin is going to kill him, he thinks wryly, because it’s easier than considering the implications of a seventeen-year-old who looks just like his Hokage, some kind of spirit with a spark of mischief and a desire to help those who need it.
It’s almost the anniversary. A month shy, but—that’s one of the reasons he needs to get back to Konoha as soon as possible. Kushina's death always weighs heavily on Minato, and right now things are particularly stressful. Between Danzō’s demands for expansion so they can match the weapons produced by the Land of Sky, the Land of Sky’s vague threat to all five of the Great Nations, the appearance of Akatsuki, and the rising tensions between the Nations themselves, Minato has been sleeping too little and worrying too much. Kakashi's rather disastrous mission probably hasn’t helped, either.
And now…this. Though Kakashi can't entirely say he’s sure what this is. Did Minato's son, supposedly devoured by the Kyuubi when he was barely ten minutes old, turn into a cheerful, helpful spirit? If so, he’s definitely in the minority of spirits Kakashi has encountered. They tend to be far more likely to devour humans whole than bandage up their wounds.
With that in mind, Kakashi transfers just a little more of his attention to the truly massive eagle owl perched in the tree above him. He hadn’t even noticed it until Naruto spoke to it, and that unsettles him more than its size or the clear intelligence in its eyes. Konoha has suffered too many small, quick, merciless attacks from spirits in the past few years for him to be anything close to comfortable with it perched right above him like this.
At least it’s ignoring him, he consoles himself, and tries not to flinch when multicolored orbs of light sweep past the opening of his little cave. In the distance, wolves call, and more answer, and over their eerie howls there's a long, low rumble of thunder.
Rain, Kakashi thinks as he hunkers down, is exactly what this day needs to make it even better. He grits his teeth and tries to shift into a position that doesn’t hurt quite so much, breathing carefully, and tells himself that it doesn’t matter. He’d be stuck in the forest either way tonight, and at least like this, he has shelter, some (admittedly slightly dubious) protection, and the promise of a guide who’s probably trustworthy, seeing as he hasn’t killed Kakashi yet.
If Naruto doesn’t show up tomorrow, Kakashi should be rested enough to try and find his way back to the road. He’s not losing anything by staying where he is for a few hours. And if Naruto does show up, Kakashi might be able to get a few answers about his past.
There's no way he’s Minato's son. That newborn boy was eaten when the forest god broke free from Kushina's seal. But—the resemblance can't just be coincidence, and Kakashi wants to know why it exists. He’s always disliked mysteries.
When he drops into the grove where Kurama spends most of his time, Naruto can see in an instant why neither the fox nor Obito came looking, even though Naruto is definitely late. Obito is all but collapsed against the trunk of the great tree that makes up the forest’s heart, his face ashen and his breathing labored, while Kurama is pacing around the grassy open area, hemming in a spirit Naruto has never seen before. He’s taller than Naruto by a good bit, with blue skin and dark hair, dressed in a black robe dotted with red clouds.
When Naruto lands lightly off to the side, the stranger doesn’t so much as glance over—not that Naruto blames him, given the way Kurama is eyeing him like his next meal. One hand is fisted, white-knuckled, around the hilt of his massive sword, but he hasn’t made any move to unravel the cloth wrapping it, or even to pull it from his back. Probably smart, Naruto decides, dumping his own cloak of white fur and hurrying over to Obito. He tugs the spirit up until he’s resting back against the tree’s trunk, and one black-and-red eye slits open, attempting to focus.
“Back late,” Obito rasps, and Naruto feels his chest tighten at the half-strangled sound of his voice. “Trouble?”
“Uh.” Naruto really should have thought of a good half-truth before he made it all the way back. “There was a hurt animal? I'm going to try to get it back to its pack tomorrow.”
True enough, probably. Kakashi smells faintly of wolf, enough so that someone in his family must have had a bond with a wolf spirit at some point. Not anymore—pretty much the only spirits that will bond with humans now are the toads on Mount Myōboku, and that’s because of Ero-Sennin turning himself half-spirit—but not too long ago, either.
Any other time, Obito would push, because Naruto is a terrible liar and Obito can always tell when he’s hiding things. Right now, though, he just makes a small sound of acknowledgement, eyes closing, and Naruto feels horrifically guilty for the trickle of relief that slides through him. To cover it, he reaches for one of the discarded blankets, dragging it up to cover the spirit, and tries to restrain his desire to wrap Obito in a tight hug and hang on until he’s sure Obito isn’t just going to break apart and disappear.
“Are they cutting down trees again?” he asks, chewing on his lip with helpless worry.
Obito breathes out a laugh that isn’t amused in the least. “Kodama,” he says, bitter and angry and laced with the pain his connection to nature gives him each time the forest is hurt. Some really stupid human tried to fuse him to a god-tree, Naruto knows, and it worked, but…weirdly. Obito isn’t exactly a spirit, but in the opposite way from how Naruto isn’t exactly a spirit; Naruto is more human than anything, while even Kurama doesn’t have much of an idea just what Obito actually is.
“They're cutting down kodama?” Naruto repeats, not quite able to believe it, and his fingers tighten on the edge of the furs. “But—don’t they notice them bleeding?” That’s usually enough to turn off most of the people who do it by accident, which means this isn’t an accident.
“A whole grove,” Obito confirms, and he opens his eyes again to give Naruto a tired smile. His scarred hand comes up to ruffle Naruto's hair, and Naruto leans into the touch. With a soft snort, Obito levers himself up on one elbow and calls, “Kurama, you probably shouldn’t eat him.”
“I don’t know,” Kurama drawls. “I'm fond of sushi.” Even so, he comes to a halt, looming over the blue-skinned man, and bares his teeth in what could either be a fox-smile or the beginnings of a snarl. With Kurama it’s always kind of hard to tell. “So, shark-man, what are you doing so far from the ocean?”
The man takes a breath and straightens, releasing his grip on his sword. “I'm Hoshigaki Kisame, and I'm with Akatsuki,” he says, injecting a cheerful note into the words despite the clear tension on his face. “We’re trying to bring balance back to the world by freeing the trapped gods.”
At that, Kurama's head dips, his ears pricking up. “Oh?” he asks, darkly interested. “Humans interested in balance? That’s novel. And I suppose in return for our freedom you want power?”
“We’ve got plenty of our own,” Kisame counters. “Kyuubi-sama, we’ve already released the Yonbi and the Gobi.”
Kurama huffs out a low laugh. “And here I though Son and Kokuō managed to slip free on their own. I probably should have known. But what are you doing here, Samebito? I'm very far from trapped.”
Kisame grins, showing shark teeth. “Yeah, I’ll admit this mission was easier than I expected, Kyuubi-sama. Still, if you need me, our leader wants us to help the gods in any way we can. Enough spirits have died already.”
At that, he flicks a glance at Obito, not quite pointed, but close enough that Naruto bristles. “Obito isn’t gonna die!” he says fiercely.
“Easy, Naruto,” Obito murmurs, putting a hand on his arm. He squeezes gently, ordering, “Help me up,” and when Naruto opens his mouth to protest Obito just looks at him. It’s the kind of look that says I changed your diapers, are you really going to test me? Obito is particularly good at those.
Naruto shuts his mouth and helps him up.
“Konoha is digging a new mine on the edge of the village,” Obito says, and with Naruto's help he can mostly push himself up straight. Naruto can't help but wince at the thought of what that will do to the spirits in the forest; they're already suffering. Obito is already suffering. That people are going to make it worse, that they're not listening even when the spirits have tried so hard to tell them that the entire forest is dying—
Naruto doesn’t get really angry very often, but this is enough to make him. “We have to stop them,” he says, as strong as he can make it. “They have to realize what they're doing is wrong.”
“They will,” Kurama rumbles, settling on the ground at the base of the massive tree. “Tomorrow we’ll head for the village and put a stop to it. This has gone on long enough. I've been holding as many of the spirits back as I can, but no more.”
Naruto's stomach twists. He wants to go, but—Kakashi. Kakashi is hurt and alone and Naruto promised he’d get him back to the village. “I’ll, uh, meet you there?” he tries, a little sheepishly, and looks up at Obito with his best pleading eyes. “I promised that animal I’d get it home. But it’s from close to the village!”
Obito stares at him for a long moment, then sighs and presses a hand over his face. “Of course it is,” he says wearily. “Naruto, I don’t want—”
“No!” Naruto interrupts stubbornly. “I'm going with you! You're not going to leave me behind! I can help!”
“Let him come,” Kurama huffs, flipping his tails out and cutting off Obito's protest before it can even start. “He’s old enough now, and this affects all of us. Stop clucking and deal with it.”
Obito rolls his eyes, but gives in with a sigh. “Fine, but Naruto, take Ume and Oka with you, all right?”
That—that actually works perfectly, Naruto realizes, brightening. Ume is always up for keeping a harmless secret, and if she goes along with it Oka will too. They can help his get Kakashi back to the village in no time. With a laugh, he leans forward and hugs Obito as tightly as he dares, and says brightly, “Sure! Thanks, Obito!”
“Brat,” Obito tells him, but it’s fond. “Did you eat?”
“Uh…kind of?” Naruto allows himself to be peeled off Obito, if reluctantly, but doesn’t quite want to tell him that the last group he helped get out of a kitsune’s trap had repaid him by feeding him chocolate. That’s definitely not something Obito will approve of.
Apparently able to read that in his expression, Obito rolls his eyes, but doesn’t press. “Fine. Then I guess you don’t need that ramen—”
“Ramen?” Naruto pounces on the word. “You got ramen?”
“Thank Kurama,” Obito says, clearly amused, and Naruto turns to throw himself at the massive fox.
“Thank you!” he cheers. “I take back everything I ever said about you being horrible and grumpy.”
Kurama grumbles, shoving him away with a paw. “Get lost, brat, I'm going to catch something disgusting off you.” There's a note of fondness in his voice, though, so Naruto just grins.
“I've got some dango to go with it,” Kisame volunteers, expression amused as he glances between the three of them. “If spirits eat that kind of thing.”
Obito studies him for a moment, brows lifting. “Aren’t you a spirit?” he asks, assessing, and the man huffs out a laugh and rubs a hand over the back of his neck.
“Only half,” he confesses a little bashfully. “Dad was a Samebito, but my mother was a fisherwoman from Water Country. She always said he was her best catch, even if no one else wanted him.”
With a chuckle, Obito lowers himself carefully to the ground beside the fire, reaching for his teapot. “Gives a whole new meaning to netting a good husband,” he says, smile pulling at his scars, and when Naruto retrieves one of the cups of ramen and drops down to sit next to him, he reaches out to ruffle blond hair. Naruto lets him without protesting, though he does roll his eyes a little, and holds up a second cup for Kisame's inspection.
“Do you want some, too?” he asks. “Kurama and Obito don’t like it ‘cause they don’t have any taste, but—hey! Ow ow ow!”
With one last hard twist, Obito extracts his knuckles from the top of Naruto's head. “Brat,” he warns, as if he’s not smiling too.
Kisame laughs, settling across the fire from them. “Sure,” he agrees, though Naruto can't help but notice how his eyes are on Obito instead of the ramen. “Sounds good, kid.”
Naruto sticks his tongue out at him, then ducks away from Obito's chiding swat, laughing. Kurama sighs at their antics, stretching out with his head on his paws, but when Naruto collapses back against him he only makes a quiet noise of complaint, which for him might as well be the same as enthusiastic consent.
Naruto is fully aware that his little family is incredibly weird, and that things are bad and getting worse, but right now he’s happy. He’s not going to let anyone take that away from them.
(He wonders, just for a moment and on a whim, where Kakashi would fit in here, around the bright fire. Teasing Obito, crinkling his eyes at Naruto, wary but amused in the face of Kurama's grouchiness. And…that makes him smile a little wider, for no particular reason he can think of.)
“Foxes,” Kakashi says blandly, eyeing the two red vixens as they circle him interestedly.
“Kitsune,” Naruto corrects, sliding off Oka’s back and crouching down next to the shinobi to check his bandages. They haven’t bled through, which is about all Naruto can tell from a glance, but Kakashi looks at least a little better than he did yesterday. A bit tired, maybe, but Naruto knows sleeping on bare ground isn’t all that comfortable.
Ume chatters her amusement, then sits back on her haunches, grinning. Oka echoes her with a happy fox-scream, body-checks Kakashi right into Naruto just as he and Naruto are rising, and bounces over to sit with her twin.
“Hey!” Naruto protests to the two of them, staggering a little under Kakashi's weight. “I told you I’d find you oden for this, Oka, knock it off.”
The older twin huffs, but hunkers down and rests her head on her paws, ears pricked. Immediately, Ume drops right across her back, making Oka snarl in indignation, and in a moment they're a yipping, growling blur of teeth and scarlet fur.
Naruto wonders, just a little, if this is how Kurama feels when he and Obito bicker.
“They're okay,” he assures Kakashi, who’s gone from looking skeptical to looking downright wary. “They're just excited. All the spirits are going to be today.”
Kakashi looks from the foxes back to him, and pauses. His eye flickers over Naruto, taking in the white fur wrapped around his shoulders, the way his eyes have bled to gold and nature chakra has edged them with streaks of red, the sword at his side and the spear across his back. “…Is something happening?” he asks slowly, and his fingers twitch like they want to reach for a kunai.
Naruto hesitates. Kakashi doesn’t seem like a bad person, and he definitely doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would knowingly chop down kodama trees just to dig a mine. But…Naruto doesn’t know him, not really. So he simply smiles brightly and says, “Kurama's just stopped being all angry. It’s nothing. I don’t go near Konoha very much, though. Do you like it? Is it nice? Do you like the people there?”
Kakashi blinks, sorting through the questions. “It’s my village. Of course I like it. It can be nice. Most of the people are good.”
Not quite the firm denouncement of the digging and clearing that Naruto was hoping for, but…maybe he can leave Kakashi a little ways outside the village when they're close. By the time he makes his own way back, Kurama will have taken care of the mine, and Obito, Naruto, and Kisame will have found out who’s responsible and made them stop.
Yeah, Naruto decides. That sounds like the perfect plan. He puts his fingers to his mouth and lets out an ear-splitting whistle, making Kakashi wince and Ume and Oka scramble upright. They turn to look at him, identical right down to their wide, wounded eyes and pitiful expressions, and Naruto huffs at them. They’ve been spending too much time around the wolves if they think puppy eyes are going to work on him. He’s the master of them.
“Come on,” he insists. “We have to go.”
“Please tell me we’re walking,” Kakashi says, a little faintly.
Halfway onto Oka’s back, a leg slung over the vixen’s pointy shoulders, Naruto gives him a bewildered look. “Why?” he wants to know. “Ume said she’d carry you, and she’s really steady. She’s not going to let you fall off.”
With a happy chortle, Ume sits up straight and lets her mouth loll open in a cheerful smile. She hops to her feet and circles around to stand next to Kakashi, clearly waiting.
“Come on,” Naruto urges, checking the sun. It’s barely after dawn, but when he’d slipped out of the clearing Obito had been spreading his chakra through the forest in greater quantities than ever before, giving it near-sentience all over rather than just around the kodama, and giving the kodama enough to fight back by themselves despite the pain connecting with them further brought him. Kisame had promised to keep an eye on him, but Naruto's worried. He wants Konoha to stop. What they're doing is killing the forest, murdering the spirits, and the sooner Kurama, Naruto, and Obito put an end to it, the sooner they can start fixing everything.
Kakashi hesitates for another moment, but at Ume’s impatient chatter he cautiously curls his fingers into her fur, then pulls himself onto her back. When she moves to follow Oka, he jerks, nearly overbalancing, and Naruto can't help but laugh at him despite the sour look it earns him.
“Hang on with your knees,” he instructs, and Oka agreeably circles around to walk next to her sister. “They're kitsune, so you can't hurt them, and they're all twisty. If you're not hanging on, you're going to fall off no matter what Ume does.”
“You seem like a proficient fox-rider,” Kakashi comments dryly, though Naruto can see him shifting into a slightly better position as the vixens leap forward into an easy, loping run.
“Kurama taught me,” Naruto confirms cheerfully. “And the wolves—I get to go hunting with them sometimes! Baichō says I'm good even if I look like a human.”
Kakashi darts a glance at him, just a quick shift of one grey eye, but Naruto was trained by Obito, who’s a tricky bastard even when he’s taking it easy on Naruto, so he catches it easily. “Have you always lived in the forest? What about your parents?”
For a moment, Naruto doesn’t say anything, a portion of his good humor fading. He keeps his eyes fixed on the forest in front of them, watching the trees pass, and takes a breath. “Kurama told me my parents were the kind of people I shouldn’t have had to grow up around. They didn’t want what was best for me. So he took me away.” Another moment and he smiles, small but intent. “I don’t know them, but I know my family right now, and I don’t want to change them.” He leans forward, tangling his fingers in Oka’s fur where it shades from scarlet to snow, and the vixen stretches her legs as she leaps forward, increasing her pace. She dodges around a log, paws skidding in the fallen leaves, and—
Ume leaps right over it, landing next to them, and Kakashi—who looks a little pale, but determined—says firmly, “Accepting your old family doesn’t mean giving up the new one.”
Naruto gives him a startled look, but smiles a bit. “Maybe not,” he agrees, and turns to look south again. There's a strange edging to the brightening sky, not clouds at all, and Naruto's fingers tighten a little in Oka’s fur when he realizes that it’s smoke. “Do you know anything about the mining?” he asks.
Kakashi blinks, shifting back a little to follow his line of sight. “In Konoha? A little bit. One of the village elders found out how the shinobi from Sky Country make their weaponry, so he’s trying to recreate the process. He needs more metal, though, and getting it from another country makes us vulnerable, so he’s trying to find it here.”
Horror slides through Naruto, cold that laces his blood and twists through his gut. “For weapons?” he demands, and Oka slides to a stop at his tone, her ears folding flat to her skull as she whines. Ume twists around, coming to a halt facing her, worried golden eyes on Naruto. Normally he’d reassure them both, tell them he’s fine, but—
Weapons. Konoha is doing this for weapons. Obito is fading each day, Kurama is diminishing, the forest is dying, and they're making weapons for a war that hasn’t even started yet. For a war that might never start if they tried to build trade with other places instead of tearing up the earth.
Kakashi is watching him, assessing and cautious, and Naruto takes a deep breath, fighting back the surge of chakra rising around him. Obito and Kurama will feel it and worry if he loses control. “Which elder?” he asks.
There's a long, careful pause. “Somehow,” Kakashi says mildly, though he looks a little like he’s bracing himself for a fight, “I don’t think I should tell you that.”
Naruto snarls, and it comes out with the wild edge of a fox’s anger. If he takes the time to feel it, the entire forest is stirring around them. Spirits fly overhead, slide around them through the shadows, move through the earth. The wolves are with Kurama, every pack living within the forest, and he’s called all of the foxes as well. Kisame is there, and Obito, and the forest is coming alive beneath their feet, ready to defend itself.
One name and they’d know who to hold responsible.
“Please,” Naruto says, holding Kakashi's gaze squarely.
A soft breath, and Kakashi says quietly, “I think you're the son of our Hokage, Namikaze Minato.”
Naruto's eyes go wide, and he pulls back.
Eye crinkling in a smile that has little of humor in it, Kakashi hums. “I don’t know what this Kurama told you, but there's no mistaking that you're Minato and Kushina's son. He was supposed to have been eaten by the Kyuubi almost eighteen years ago when it broke free of Kushina's seals and killed her, but apparently that was wrong.”
His mom was one of Kurama's jailors, Naruto thinks, stunned. No wonder he never talks about it except vaguely, grudgingly. And—his mom is dead, and it’s Kurama's fault, but Kurama never asked to be locked away inside a human. So who’s the one at fault here?
“My—my dad’s still alive?” he asks, and the words break a little in his mouth.
Kakashi's gaze softens a little. “Come meet him,” he urges. “Come to the village and talk to him.”
Naruto hesitates, but. But it’s an opening, and one he’s not going to let pass. “If you tell me who’s doing the mining,” he bargains. “Then I’ll talk to him.”
There's half a second’s pause, and Kakashi says, “Shimura Danzō.” The name is flat, uninflected, like it comes along with a bitter taste in his mouth.
Taking a breath that shakes a little, Naruto nods. “Oka, Ume,” he says, “let’s go.”
The vixens don’t need more of a cue than that. As one they turn back the way they were headed and leap forward, redoubling their earlier pace, and Naruto leans into the wind of their passage, eyes once more fixed ahead.
They’ll make it in time, he’s sure.
There's no other option.
The screams are the first thing Naruto hears.
Still in time, he thinks, already reaching for his spear. Just—a little bit later than he had hoped. A sharp whistle has Oka changing course, heading for the source of the commotion, and she leaps for the high village wall, landing on top of it and twisting to keep her balance, then taking off down its edge with Ume right behind her. Beneath them are shouting humans, shinobi dressed like Kakashi, and the first wave of spirits.
There's blood in the air, the taste of nature chakra heavy and thick on Naruto's tongue, and he sees a flash of white in the press and shouts, hurling himself off Oka’s back. The green-clad shinobi who was about to kick Obito in the spine hits the shaft of Naruto's spear instead, shattering it, and Naruto snarls and lunges for him with all the speed of the sage-state Kurama taught him. He doesn’t aim to kill, has never killed a human unless they tried to kill a spirit first, and even then only if there's no other choice, but slams sideways into the man and knocks him back.
Obito spins, the six rings on his shakujo chiming a bright counterpoint to the sounds of battle, and his red-streaked white mask doesn’t let Naruto see his face, but the relief is clear in his body language. “Naruto,” he says, reaching out, and Naruto grabs his hand and drags him out of the way as a bear spirit surges past into the green-clad shinobi who is just bouncing back to his feet.
“I thought you weren’t going to fight!” Naruto protests. “You said you wouldn’t!”
Obito's scarred hand ruffles his hair, just lightly, and the spirit says, as if Naruto can't feel him leaning into Naruto's hold, “I'm fine. But we don’t know who is in charge of the miners, so I—”
“Shimura Danzō,” Naruto says, even as the thud of paws hitting the earth sounds behind him. “He’s one—”
“Of the elders,” Obito finishes thoughtfully. “I…remember him, I think.” The he stiffens, darting around to put himself between Naruto and Kakashi, his shakujo coming up in clear threat. “Go, Naruto,” he orders tensely, and the pavement around his feet buckles and cracks as greenery starts creeping upwards.
“No!” Naruto lunges into his path, pushing the tip of the weapon down. “He’s the one who told me who it was!”
There's a sharp breath, somewhere between reluctant amusement and disbelief. “Your wounded animal, I assume?”
“That mean he’s on our side?” Kisame rumbles, stepping out of the shadows with a shark’s toothy smile. “Should we make sure?”
Obito is very, very tense and very, very still, hands white-knuckled around the staff. Naruto glances worriedly at him, but says firmly, “No, Kakashi's fine. We need to find Danzō.”
There's a sudden crack in the distance, a rumble, and an explosion of smoke and dust in equal measure that rises towards the sky. Obito turns his face in that direction, hesitating, and then nods once. “Danzō first,” he agrees. “Kurama's almost done with the mine. We should hurry.”
“He’s probably close to the digging,” Kakashi volunteers, his tone lazy even though his posture is anything but. “He usually oversees it in the morning. Your attack would have caught him there.”
Obito snarls, and all around them the trees and plants that cover Konoha tremble with the sudden flood of power, twisting like they're coming awake. “You were warned,” he growls, shakujo thumping down into the dirt and sending vines and roots crawling up around it. “Multiple times, but you didn’t listen. This is the forest defending itself, cutting out a cancerous growth.”
Before things can escalate, Naruto grabs Obito's elbow. “Come on,” he urges, tugging at him. “We should hurry.”
For a moment, Naruto thinks Obito is going to try to fight anyway, and between Kakashi's injuries and the fact that Obito has to still be exhausted from spreading his chakra and in pain from the clear-cutting, Naruto honestly can't say who would be more in danger from that. But then Obito takes a breath, lets it out, and nods again. “Right. Let’s go.” A sweep of his hand has trees bursting through the earth, like growth seen on fast-forward, to clear a wide swath through the fight. He takes off at a run, Kisame just a step behind him, and Naruto moves to follow but then pauses, casting a worried look back at Kakashi.
“You’re hurt,” he says. “Can you keep up?”
Kakashi's eye crinkles a little, and instead of answering he vanishes in a whirl of leaves, reappearing on the far side of the battleground. Naruto laughs and leaps after him, and Ume and Oka surge down from the top of the wall to flank him. With the ease of practice, Naruto grabs Ume’s ruff, matches her steps, and leaps onto her back without slowing. She lets out a wild, eerie, gargling laugh, barreling through a knot of shinobi with dogs, and leaps for the rooftops in a long, smooth bound. Naruto keeps one eye on the flicker of Kakashi disappearing and reappearing further ahead, steering her towards the dispersing cloud of dust with his knees, and she goes with a will, the wind whistling with her speed.
This fighting is scarcer on this side of the village, but more desperate. Naruto can see the wolves and most of the kitsune locked in battle with shinobi in plain white masks, the spirits trying to press ahead towards them painfully barren stretch of land just beyond the wall. Kurama is a massive shape within in, bigger than Naruto has ever seen him and harried on all sides by more shinobi. There's a flash of yellow around his feet, a surge of nature chakra that’s strangely familiar, and Naruto realizes with a start that there's someone here using the Toads’ chakra. He growls at the thought of someone turning it against Kurama, of all people, but doesn’t give in to the urge to help. Kurama is a god, and has spent the last sixteen years recovering in the northern grove, where Obito's chakra purified the land. One year in a dying forest won't have weakened him enough to require Naruto's help against humans.
The familiar flare of Obito's nature chakra, as beautiful and deadly as a poisonous flower, draws Naruto left, around the edge of a rough building. Kisame is fighting there, sword unwrapped and a hungry smile on his face, and Obito is tearing through a press of white-masked shinobi like he’s untouchable. He’s not, Naruto knows, and he launches himself from Ume’s back, grabbing his sheathed sword. He slams into the rearmost shinobi with a cry, then summons his chakra and hits the next knot with a screaming wind that hurls them right off their feet and into the wall. Another comes at him, sword sweeping at his head, but Naruto rolls under the blow and slams the hilt of his own blade into the man’s jaw, then slides around a lash of fire and takes out the summoner in a blur of speed.
Ahead of him, Obito has pushed through, leaving shinobi scattered like fallen leaves behind him, and has an old man backed against the stone of Konoha's great wall. “No more warnings,” he growls, low and menacing, lifting his shakujo as if he’s going to use it like a spear.
Before he can, a three-pronged kunai thuds into the wall above Danzō’s head and sticks there, quivering. Obito freezes.
With an entirely irreverent edge of humor, Kakashi says, “Oops. Sorry, my hand slipped.”
There's a flash of yellow light. A man appears out of the middle of it, eyes orange with the Toads’ chakra flowing through him, more three-pronged kunai in each hand. He doesn’t even hesitate, but whirls in front of Obito, catching the staff between the crossed blades of his kunai and forcing it away. “Kakashi!” he says, relief clear. “Where—”
His eyes land on Naruto, catch and hold, and he goes still.
Namikaze Minato, Naruto assumes, staring right back at him. Really, he’s seen himself in slow rivers and still lakes before, and this—this man can't be anyone else.
“Naruto?” Minato manages to get out, choked and bewildered, full of pain and aching, bone-deep relief in equal measure. “Naruto?”
Naruto can't help it. He grins at the man, bright and full of a kitsune’s mischief, and waves cheerfully. “Hi! You're my dad?”
Minato looks a little like he’s about to faint.
There's a heavy pad of footsteps as Kurama rounds the building, casually flattening it with a sweep of his tails. “Obito,” he rumbles, and it seems as if he’s growing even more, taller than the tallest tree in the forest as his chakra surges like an ocean around them. From right behind Naruto, Kakashi sucks in a sharp breath, going stiff, but before he can manage so much as a sound Kurama asks dangerously, “This is him?”
“The old one,” Obito confirms, drawing his shakujo back. He reaches up, pulling his mask off and tucking it into his belt, and meets Danzō’s narrowed eyes with his own hateful glare.
Minato's eyes flicker between Obito and Naruto and Kurama, and he turns a little to look over his shoulder. “Danzō?” he asks, half in question and half in warning.
The old man says nothing, but Naruto's pretty sure the way he’s staring at Obito, like he wants to set him on fire and spit on the ashes, says a lot all by itself.
Kurama laughs, low and deadly like the first stirrings of an earthquake. “You didn’t know, little Hokage?” he asks, full of cutting amusement. “I see your gaze hasn’t grown any wider in scope since the last time we met. We gave the miners a summer’s worth of warnings that what they were doing was killing the forest. Every one of them was ignored.”
“Advancement always carries a price,” Danzō says, sharp and angry. “You would leave us at the mercy of our enemies?”
“Konoha won't be very strong if the forest’s spirits turn it into a wasteland!” Minato snaps, rounding on him, and the sudden lash of his chakra is deadly enough to make Naruto step back in surprise. “This is something you should have told me!”
“Too late,” Kurama laughs, baring his teeth. “Much too late, little Hokage. This is—”
“No,” Naruto says, and then more loudly, “No!”
Kurama goes silent, dipping his head to study Naruto for a long moment. “You’d side with them?” he demands, and Naruto's known him his entire life. It’s easy to see the trace of angry hurt in his expression.
“Of course not!” Naruto insists, bopping him on the nose in indignation. “You're my family. But the old guy is the only one who knew about this! He’s the one responsible. Punish him, not the rest of them.”
“Naruto,” Obito reproves. “We don’t know that this will be enough to stop them.”
He’s not moving to attack, though, and Naruto takes that for the victory it is. “So?” he asks. “You gave the village warnings before. Danzō just made people think they were attacks without cause. Try again. This time they’ll know!”
There's a long moment of silence, and then Obito sighs a little. He sweeps his staff out and steps back, clearly giving in. “All right,” he allows. “But this is Kurama's choice.”
Naruto holds Kurama's gaze, pleading but also entirely firm. The god stares back, steady and assessing, and then heaves out a sigh that smells of blood and fire. “Fine. But this one is mine.”
Minato opens his mouth as if to protest, but at the same moment indignation flares in Danzō’s eyes, and he lunges with startling speed, dodging around the Hokage. A kunai appears in his hand, but he doesn’t aim for Kurama or Obito. Instead, he throws himself at Naruto, intention clear on his face. Naruto leaps backwards automatically, but he’s off guard. Kakashi surges forward, shoving Naruto back to step in front of him, and Obito spins with a furious cry—
Massive jaws snap shut in a spray of blood. Kurama shakes his prey like a normal fox would a rat, then tips his head back and swallows Danzō completely.
There's a long, stunned moment of silence on the part of the Konoha shinobi. Naruto winces, and Obito sighs. “Damn it, Kurama,” he says in clear exasperation. “Now you're going to be complaining about indigestion for days. Why wouldn’t you just spit him out?”
Kurama looks unrepentant. “He threatened the kit,” the fox rumbles, then dips his head and noses Obito back so he’s face to face with Naruto. “Are you coming home, Naruto?” he asks, and his stare is sharp and measuring.
Naruto grins at him, ignoring the blood on his muzzle, and lunges forward to wrap his arms as far around Kurama's nose as they’ll go. “Of course!” he says into rust-orange fur, squeezing tightly.
With a low grumble, Kurama shakes him off, but his chakra curls close around Naruto regardless. “Brat,” he huffs, and then turns to fix Minato with one red eye. “First warning,” he growls. “You get two of them.” His chakra surges, a clear call, and a bare moment later spirits start flooding over the wall, heading back towards the forest.
Obito snorts quietly, but slings his shakujo over his back, casts a long look at Kakashi and Minato, and then turns away. “I’ll stay close by,” he tells Naruto, halfway to a warning, and when he starts walking Kisame falls into step with him. The big man gives Naruto a wink, nudges Obito a little with his shoulder, and gets swatted for his pains. He laughs, and Obito huffs, but there's the faintest trace of a smile on his face.
“Be smart,” Kurama warns Naruto, nosing pointedly at him, and then straightens. “You're sure?”
“Of course,” Naruto says cheerfully, and turns to grin at his father. “I promised. And besides, Kakashi still owes me a kiss.”
Thirty feet away, Obito stops dead. Kurama's eyes narrow sharply, and he demands, “What?” at the exact same moment as Minato.
“Maa, maa,” Kakashi says a little desperately, raising his hands even as he starts to back up quickly. “It’s not what it sounds like.”
“Bakakashi!” Obito snarls, as threatening as a typhoon with his chakra rising. The entire village shivers noticeably as the plants start to stir again. “What did you do?”
Apparently not that dumb, Kakashi takes advantage of the split-second opening and dives for cover.
Naruto laughs, even as he goes to stop his guardian spirit from killing the man he rescued. Kurama and Minato are both hotly demanding explanations, Obito is shouting, and Kakashi is dodging frantically, but as far as Naruto is concerned, the day certainly could have ended worse.
“Let’s run!” he says cheerfully, catching Obito's shakujo on his sheathed sword and grabbing Kakashi's hand.
“You are not helping,” Kakashi informs him, but when Naruto drags him away he doesn’t resist, and Naruto just laughs.