Naruto has been hearing it for as long as he can remember.
It’s not a voice or anything, just a growling rumble that fluxes in pitch and intensity, a dark, hateful sound that brings to mind bared fangs and the color of blood. He’s curious, despite being mildly terrified, about where it comes from.
It doesn’t go away.
Naruto knows better than to talk about it. No need to be a bigger pariah than he already is. It’s the worst at night, when the deep roar raises like a howl, full of fury and pain and something Naruto knows very well. Something like loneliness.
He doesn’t sleep much on those nights. He doesn’t sleep much at all anymore.
He’s seven when he tries to talk to it for the first time. He’s the dead last, the failure at everything, so he doesn’t actually expect to succeed.
Let alone get it on the first try.
It’s one of those dark, lonely nights again. He’d failed a taijutsu history test today. The words had made his head hurt and his body jittery again as he read them, and he’d ended up drawing stick figures in the margins on the last page and turning the test in mostly blank. Iruka’s look of disappointment had hurt. He’s usually good at taijutsu.
He’s lying on his bed, running his eyes along the cracks in his ceiling, when he thinks- what the hell.
Naruto closes his eyes, reaches back into his own head, and thinks; “Hello?”
There’s no response, but the growling stops, slows to something like a rumble. After minutes pass with no other response, Naruto opens his eyes, sighing.
But he’s not looking at his bedroom ceiling.
He’s not in his bedroom at all. He’s suddenly standing, knee deep in filthy water in a cavern so huge he can’t see the ceiling through the murk. An enormous metal gate, thick ornate black bars stuck with a paper seal, seals off an entire section of the place.
“Hello?” Naruto repeats.
Something dark and enormous shifts within the cage, uncurling from the dark, but still moving in the shadows.
“Hey, I can see you, ya know. I know you're there.”
The massive shape stills, growling softly. Something swishes, several somethings, sweeping through the air and sending ripples across the dark water. The shape moves forward into the sparse light of this place, and Naruto gets his first glance at his internal tennant.
The creature is massive, all sharp teeth and cruel eyes, tails flicking back and forth restlessly in the dark. He’s the color of bright blood, though faded and dingy, giving the rough bristled fur an orangish tint. It looms over him, sharp, black wreathed red eyes regarding him with disdain and annoyance.
Yeah, Naruto’s seen that look before, giant monster thing or no.
“So you’re the voice in my head?” Naruto asks. Some part of him acknowledges that he should probably be terrified, but for some reason he knows the enormous creature can’t hurt him.
The big fox– because it clearly is a fox, Naruto may be an idiot but he at least knows that much, multiple tails or no– tilts its massive head slightly.
For a second Naruto wonders whether or not the thing can actually understand him, but then it speaks.
Its voice is so low and deadly it’s like a seismic wave against Naruto’s eardrums, dark and powerful and heavy.
~You can hear me already, little meat sack?~ The fox grumbles, it’s voice tumbling rough and abrasive to fill the space with its vibration. Naruto fights the urge to rub at his ears.
“Yeah, I can hear you. What are you? What are you doing down here?”
The fox growls ferally, like Naruto’s pinched an unseen nerve.
~Go back to your world, petty human. I have no patience for your kind. Get out.~
A push of dark and powerful energy, and Naruto finds himself flung back into his body, back into the dark emptiness of his apartment. For a moment Naruto entertains the idea of it all being a dream, but he can still feel the dark power pulsing restlessly beneath his ribs and decides that no, he hadn’t just imagined it.
The next day is just as bad as the last, but this is nothing new to Naruto. The hateful looks, the distrust, the disgust in some cases, he’s used to it now. Things like Sasuke beating him in a spar and then not acknowledging him for the rest of the day, Sakura and Ino looking annoyed with every word out of his mouth– they’re all things Naruto has dealt with before and will again. It doesn’t matter. He still loves this village, loves these people despite their hate. They’re good underneath it, and he has Iruka and Jiji. His life could be far worse.
That night, as he looks into the cool darkness of the night sky through the window, he does it again.
Closes his eyes and dives backwards.
Every night after that, he lets himself fall back into his head, finds himself in the filthy, dark cavern of the Fox’s prison. For the first week or so, the fox sends him right back out the second his metaphorical feet hit the ground, but Naruto is nothing if not impossibly stubborn, and so he just keeps showing up.
Eventually, the Fox stops kicking him out of his own head and starts to study him; like he’s a particularly oddly behaving insect. Naruto finds that the louder he is, the more likely the Fox is to eject him, so he does a lot of looking around and asks benign questions instead of the ones that have been nagging at him.
The relationship that results is… strange to say the least, and not really what Naruto had been expecting. The fox mostly ignores him, curling into the corners of his prison either to nap or do whatever it is that giant fox creatures do instead of sleep. Naruto talks, mostly to himself, about his day or whatever comes to mind, and so long as he doesn’t raise his voice too much or ask any probing questions, the creature lets him stay. Naruto isn’t sure exactly what the fox gets out of it, but Naruto gets a place to go when he can’t sleep, and even though the fox never listens when he speaks, it helps sometimes to talk to him instead of to himself.
Naruto might be imagining things, but he thinks the fox has stopped howling so much at night.
It goes on like this for a long time, and for the most part it stays the same, except for that sometimes instead of sleeping through his presence, the fox will watch him with intense eyes, blood red irises searching for something Naruto’s not sure he has. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does Naruto just keeps talking like nothing has changed, except he actually talks directly at the fox instead of at the walls.
After the first few exchanges of harsh, snarled words, the Fox doesn’t speak for six months.
Naruto goes about his normal life. Iruka-sensei is awesome and takes Naruto out for ramen all the time now, and Teuchi and Ayame are always nice to him, so it’s not so bad compared to what it could be. He talks to the fox about them a lot, but he leaves out being kicked out of the Korean barbeque place and the takoyaki stand. It doesn’t matter so much anyways. Not anymore. Naruto still doesn’t sleep much, but it’s for a different reason now, something less exhausting.
And somewhere along the line, the Fox ends up staring at him more often than he sleeps. The angry howls are gone entirely.
More months pass by like this, a standstill brought about by the combination of Naruto’s stubbornness and the creature’s refusal to acknowledge him. That’s okay though, Naruto is used to being ignored, and he knows how to make sure he’s noticed.
Then, suddenly and without warning, that changes.
Naruto knows something’s up the second he settles back in his head for the night. Normally the fox is tucked into the corner someplace, steadfastly pretending that Naruto doesn’t exist, but not this time.
This time the creature is waiting for him, closer to the bars of his prison than he’s ever deigned to be before, bright red eyes glowing with intent sharp enough to cut steel.
Naruto is all of seven and a half and very stubborn about it, so he glares right back, refusing to be cowed by the giant creature behind bars.
~Why?~ The fox demands immediately, the first word it’s spoken in more than half a year. It’s voice is the same as Naruto remembers, low and rough, but unless Naruto is hearing things there’s a second tone underneath the aggravation that hadn’t been there before.
Something like confusion.
And it shows a little on his face too–his ears are tucked a little more, his eyes aren’t quite so narrow, his fur is bristled along his snout.
Naruto blinks dumbly, taken aback. “Why what?”
~Why do you do this? Insist on returning here night after night. You will gain nothing from it. There is nothing for you here.~
The creature hasn’t raised his voice though– it’s still low and strangely thin despite its harshness.
Naruto makes a face. “Who says I have to get anything out of it?”
~You mean to say that you would converse with a monster on a whim?~
The last word is growled and spat like a curse, and oh yeah, Naruto knows that emotion like he knows his own heartbeat, no matter how hard the giant fox creature tries to hide it.
And that’s it suddenly. It makes sense in Naruto’s messed up head now. Because if there’s one thing that Naruto knows, it’s pain, the inside kind, the kind that comes from loneliness and loss and fear and anger. And it’s so easy to see how all that hurt can produce all that hate.
“You’re not a monster.” He says, with all the confidence and stubbornness in his little body. Because monsters are made, not born, and people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Naruto isn’t, but according to most of the village, he isn’t a person anyway.
The creature snorts, tails lashing behind him.
~And how would you know that?~
It says harshly, but the confusion is still there, underneath the rage and hate and hurt. But Naruto knows that fury and loathing and disdain are only really bodyguards for the deepest and ugliest of wounds.
“I just do!” Is what he says though, because Naruto has never been good with words.
~You don’t know anything.~ The creature insists, but the conviction in its words just isn’t there anymore.
~What do you think you’ll get out of this?~
The fox asks again a long time later. Naruto is sitting, legs crossed, in the six or so inches of water that floods the fox’s prison. The water is linked to Naruto somehow– he isn’t sure why, but the worse his day is, the thicker and more sludge like the water becomes. Today had been awesome though– Iruka-sensei had let him get an extra portion of ramen at Ichiraku, because he’d actually had to make Sasuke work for his win in sparring today. The water is cool and clear as a result, and despite the Fox’s usually sour mood, he seems to be enjoying a reprieve from the muck.
“Why do I have to get something out of it?” He repeats, leaning back on his arms to stare at the fathomless ceiling above him. “It’s so quiet here, how do you stand it?”
~I find myself missing it more and more.~ The creature growls.
Naruto ticks his head to the side and kicks his feet a little. “But don’t you get lonely?”
The question seems to take the enormous being off guard.
~What would you know of loneliness?~ It snarls, but Naruto doesn’t rise to the bait, even though a year ago he might have wanted to.
Instead he looks up, smiles, and lies right through his teeth.
“Not much.” he says easily.
The fox’s ears twitch and his eyes narrow.
~What is your name, little human?~
Naruto smiles with less teeth. “Naruto, Naruto Uzumaki!”
The fox’s ears go all the way up at that, his crimson eyes widening fractionally.
~Uzumaki, you say?~
The fox mumbles, almost to himself.
Naruto nods and rocks forwards to put his hands on his knees. Something changes in the air, enough of the tension leaves the atmosphere that Naruto feels brave enough to ask his own question.
“So, what’s yours?”
The fox pulls its head back from the bars abruptly.
~What is my what, exactly?~
“Well you have a name, don’t you?”
The fox freezes instantly. The tails still mid swish and the little world around them suddenly goes very very quiet.
Just when Naruto begins to think that he probably said something wrong the stillness breaks- the fox's tails start up their soft swish again, and the fox speaks. Low and clear.
~My name… is Kurama.~
“So what even are you?” Naruto asks one day, when Kurama seems in a good enough mood to answer questions. He’s lounging easily, tails swaying idly back and forth, colossal head resting lazily on crossed forepaws. The fox lifts his ears a little.
~You mean you don’t know, fishcake?~
Naruto shakes his head, brows furrowing at the odd nickname. “Nope. Nobody talks about it.”
Kurama doesn’t answer immediately, instead he regards Naruto for a long moment with keen crimson eyes.
~I am the bijuu of Nine Tails.~
He says eventually.
That means nothing to Naruto, and he says as much.
“What the heck is a bijuu?” Because he’s noticed the nine tails thing already, and figures Kurama will elaborate anyways.
~Humans call us Tailed Beasts. We are beings of living chakra, and have existed far longer than your little shinobi villages.~
“Living chakra? Whoa… does that mean you’re like, really really strong then? Iruka-sensei says chakra is why Chunin and Jounin ninja are so strong.” Naruto babbles.
Kurama just snorts through his nose harshly.
~Like ants before dragons. I am the most powerful being you are ever likely to meet.~
“Out of all of you?” Naruto asks, horribly curious. “You did say us, right? How many bijuu are there?”
~...We are nine.~ The Kyuubi says with some reluctance. ~I am the eldest.~
“Are the others foxes too? Like you?”
Kurama shakes his head.
~We are all different. Gyuuki, for example, is an Ushioni. A bull demon.~
“How many tails does he have? What does he look like?”
Kurama blinks, clearly not expecting his enthusiasm, so Naruto tries to tone it down a little, sits on his hands and makes an effort to be still. It’s hard.
~He’s the bijuu of Eight Tails.~ Kurama allows. ~And I suppose if I had to describe him to a human, he appears as a mix between a bull and an octopus...~
Kurama tells Naruto about his siblings in only cursory detail, and Naruto has never had a brother or sister before, but Kurama makes it sound like it’s simultaneously the best and worst thing in the world. He seems sad when he talks about them, but Naruto doesn’t ask.
Shortly after that comes one of the worst days of his life.
He’s not exactly sure how it happens, it’s all a freaking blur, but there’s screaming and anger and fury and even more hate than Naruto is used to, a man with a wide red face practically spitting at him, Ayame yelling somewhere in the background.
He doesn’t even really remember what the man had said, but he remembers it hitting all the parts inside him that already hurt. He was running before he even managed to start breathing again, doesn’t hear Ayame’s furious outrage, and doesn’t notice the powerful stranger that materializes around the corner–he just bolts. He doesn’t look where he’s going, doesn’t care, because the man’s words are still rattling around in his head, the equivalent of all the cold hateful stares he’d ever been given voiced aloud.
Monster. Demon. Worthless. Should never have been born.
And he knows he should be used to it by now, but it hurts like nothing he’s ever felt, to be so easily disregarded, so easily told that his existence means nothing. Nothing at all.
And so he runs until he can’t run anymore. And by the time he realizes where he’s going, it’s too late.
Naruto has heard of the Forest of Death before, on the tongues of Jounin and Chunin alike, but he’s never seen it, never thought that it might look like enormous dense trees and a canopy so thick it turns day to night. Never thought to heed the warning calls of ravens overhead or the hissing sound of swampy ground between the gargantuan roots. By the time he realizes he’s made a mistake he has no idea where he is, no clue how to get out of this dark place.