"Good morning! Time for breakfast!" the Fox caroled, coming into their rooms with a heavily laden tray...the 'not spilling' of which kept him from moving fast enough to dodge the pillow that Anko hurled at his head.

"Would you please piss off?" the jonin growled.

"Now, now," the Fox said. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! If you don't eat, you will grow weak, and that could lead to you suffering harm. Please, have something." He set the tray gently on the ground next to them and stepped back.

The team sat up carefully, looking at the offering. It was piled with delicious-looking items: sausages, biscuits, maki, tempura, and more. There was a noteable absence of ramen.

"Did you cook this?" Anko asked suspiciously.

The Fox laughed. "Me? Hells no. Why would I ever have learned to cook?"

"Then where did it come from, Fox-sama?" Shino asked.

"Oh, I sent some clones around to tell the neighbors to cook something for you. I chose the best of the results and punished the bad cooks so they'll do better next time."

"What do you mean, you punished them?" Anko asked.

The Fox shrugged. "I thumped them a bit, that's all. I'm sure the medic-nin will be able to fix them." He looked at the shocked expressions in confusion. "What? It's not like they were going to improve on their own. I mean, some of them were in their forties and they still couldn't cook! I was helping them."

"You were helping them by putting them in the hospital?" Anko asked.

"Yes, exactly," the Fox said. "Being able to cook well is an essential life skill for humans. It saves money and leads to better nutrition. By giving them motivation to improve, I have pushed them towards a healthier and richer life."

"I note that you don't know this 'essential life skill'," Anko said.

"Well, of course not," the Fox said. "I'm not human. Now, please, eat something."

Anko glared at him but reached for a biscuit. The genin followed her lead, looking just as unhappy as their teacher.

"So, what shall we do today?" the Fox asked brightly. "We could train...I know some wonderful jutsu that might be useful to you. Oh, or we could go back to Konoha and bathe in the blood of your enemies. Which do you prefer?"

Horrified silence.

"Another biscuit?" the Fox asked, offering the plate to Hinata.

"N-no, thank you," Hinata said.

The Fox shrugged and offered the plate to Anko and Shino, both of whom refused.

"You three eat like birds," the Fox complained. "With the number of calories you burn during your training you really should eat more. You need to keep your strength up if you're going to stay safe; after all, I can't be there all the time." He paused, thinking. "Hm, actually, I suppose I can. Kage Bunshin is such a useful jutsu, don't you think?"

"Yes, it is," Anko said. "Speaking of which, any chance we could talk to Naruto?"

"Oooh, that's going to—"

o-o-o-o

"—ET DOWN HERE!" Naruto yelled, yanking on the sky so hard that the Fox bounced off the grass.

The Fox picked his modified-Naruto body up and brushed the dust off.

"You rang?" he asked calmly.

"You were supposed to deal with the Snake and then come back here, not hang onto my body!" Naruto said.

The Fox's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Really? Hm...let me think, what exactly was the agreement? Ah, yes. You were worried that Orochimaru would put you in his labs, possibly kill Anko, and do something to Hinata or Shino. And since you still hadn't managed to get the hang of your new body—the new body that I specifically built so that you could protect your precious people, might I add—since you still hadn't even mastered walking, it was necessary for me to take over. Yes?"

"Yeah, but you weren't supposed to keep it!" Naruto snapped.

Kurama sighed and morphed back into his vulpine form, although he was polite enough to be only somewhat larger than Naruto instead of his usual towering self.

"Naruto, nothing has changed," he said. "You're still in Sound. If I gave you the body back you still wouldn't be able to control it. Orochimaru would still be able to put you in his labs, kill Anko, and do whatever he wanted to Hinata and Shino. I'm still in the process of completing the charge you gave me, which is why I haven't switched places with you."

"Well, why don't you just deal with the Snake?" Naruto demanded. "Take him out and everything's fine."

Kurama shifted uncomfortably. "I'm...actually not sure I could," he said.

Naruto blinked. "What?"

"Given how things are, I'm not actually sure that I could take Orochimaru in a straight fight," Kurama said. "Our new body has superconductors for nerves, fullerene fibers for muscles, and monomolecular crystalline claws; we can outrun a jackrabbit, lift a horse with one hand, and carve our initials into granite. I can use use that speed and strength comfortably, but that doesn't make me a hand-to-hand fighter."

"But—!"

"Naruto, I'm a giant fox," Kurama said. "Well, actually, I'm an immaterial mass of chakra, but when I'm being a physical form it's that of a fox the size of a small mountain. In my natural form if I want to hurt someone, I step on them. Or smack them with a tail. Or bite them. Or lots of things. But none of those things involve punching or kicking, or any other aspect of a hand-to-hand taijutsu battle." He growled in frustration. "Darkness and fire, I'm not even supposed to be a biped! How in the hells would I know how to fight as one?"

"But..." Naruto stopped, his mouth working for a second as he tried to sort out the clash of thoughts that were trying to get out of his mouth. "You dealt with those ANBU."

"Yes," Kurama said. "From ambush. By saturating the entire area with thousands of clones in a move they could not have expected. The fact is that in a straight fight those ANBU would have taken me to school."

"What?!" Naruto said. "How? You're the Nine-Tails! What about all that business about being superhumanly fast and strong? And the claws?"

"Naruto, the main difference between our claws and a kunai is that the claws can't be taken away," Kurama said. "In a ninja fight, a kunai will go through a person with no more effort than our claws would. And yes, I'm the Nine-Tails. I have incredible chakra reserves, lots of lost or not-yet-discovered knowledge that I know because Primordial from beyond time and space, and so on. What I do not have is any experience at taijutsu." He shook his head. "In a straight hand-to-hand fight, Orochimaru would carve me like a steak."

"You are kidding me," Naruto said. "I don't believe you."

Kurama shrugged. "Believe me or don't," he said. "It's true. Of course, I'm not stupid enough to fight Orochimaru hand-to-hand—oh, I went for him fast enough there on the field, but I was expecting him to shunshin or kawarimi. I just wanted to distract him and keep him busy while the team got away. Still, if it really came to it, I would do everything I could to keep him out of hand-to-hand range."

"But you can make thousands of clones!" Naruto said. "You could just overwhelm him!"

Kurama rolled his eyes. "Yes, because that worked so well when you tried it on Anko, didn't it? Orochimaru is enormously better than she is. Yes, our body is fast, strong, and dangerous, but it needs your combat skills in order to be dangerous at close range. I can use it, but not efficiently." He paused, looking for an analogy. "Do you remember Masui, that gang leader who used to claim the area around your apartment?"

"Yeah...?" Naruto said.

"You were ten, he was twenty-two. He was twice your height, outweighed you by a hundred and fifty pounds, and was an experienced brawler. What happened when he attacked Mrs Izuma?"

"I stomped him into the mud!" Naruto said. "Nobody touches my precious people!"

Kurama nodded. "Exactly. It's not a perfect analogy—you had learned some minimal chakra sheathing, so you were much stronger than a ten-year-old should have been—but it makes the point. He had all these physical advantages, yet you completely crushed him because you had enormously superior skill. Sure, if I got my hands on Orochimaru I could pop his head off like a cork, but it wouldn't happen like that."

"But you took him down...," Naruto said in confuson.

"No," Kurama said. "He allowed me to take him down. He could have kawarimied out of my grip any time he wanted. That was why I agreed to talk with him—it bought time. Oh, we could have escaped. I could have kept throwing out clones ahead and then kawarimiing with them, moved fast enough to stay ahead of him. I couldn't have evaded him with that little sensor-witch spotting for him, and I couldn't have gotten the others out."

"Well, what about using jutsu on him?" Naruto asked. "You said you know the Rasengan, you could have used that. And you must know others."

"Yes, I do," Kurama said. "Many of them. Immensely powerful ones, too. And I'm happy to teach them to you. That doesn't mean I have experience using them, though. How successful were you at the kawarimi the first time you tried it? Because I'm thinking that I'd like my first attempt at a jutsu to happen somewhere other than a life-and-death battle with one of the most powerful men in the world where the lives of our friends hang in the balance."

"You used the Kage Bunshin," Naruto said weakly.

"Which is your signature move," Kurama said. "I've had dozens, if not hundreds, of chances to 'watch' you doing it. I can do the Doton: Earth Wall because I watched you practice it. I can do the Swamp of the Underworld because oh my gods Jiraiya would not stop showing it off to Kushina after he invented it. I can do a few shaping tricks with my bijuu chakra, the three basic academy jutsu, and that's it. Now that you know all that, do you still think that I should have kept trying to fight Orochimaru instead of attempting to negotiate?"

Naruto looked mutinous but said nothing.

"I'll take that as a no," Kurama said. "Next question: do you really want to take control of the body again? By pulling me down here you've already left the team unprotected. Do you want to leave me locked away down here while you go up, unable to even walk?"

"They aren't unprotected," Naruto grumbled. "You left all those clones up there."

"Godsdamn it, Naruto—!" Kurama stopped and took a deep breath. "I forget you've had no experience with your mindscape. Naruto, why am I standing here right now?"

"Because I pulled you down here?" Naruto asked.

"Yes, exactly. Now, what am I?"

"You're...the Nine-Tailed Fox?" the blond said.

Kurama nodded. "Yes. More specifically, I am chakra made manifest and bound into a physical form. What else might that describe?"

"Uh...well..."

"My clones, Naruto!" Kurama snapped. "When you pulled me down here, the thing you were pulling on was my chakra. It all came along, meaning that every single one of my clones just popped. The team is up there, unprotected and at risk."

Naruto's eyes went wide; he opened his mouth...and then closed it again. "No," he said. "I'm not going to panic again and say something I'll regret."

"You don't need to panic, but you shouldn't waste time, either," Kurama said. "It's unlikely there will be a problem in the next few minutes, but the longer we talk the more risk there is that Orochimaru will come over and see that I'm not there anymore." He hesitated. "Also...I'm not entirely sure what's going on with the body while we're both down here at the same time."

Naruto frowned. "What do you mean you're not there? Our body—my body—is still up there, right?"

The Fox nodded, glancing up. "Yes. But neither of us is currently inhabiting it. It's a material body and you're a material being; even when you send your mind down here, part of you is still in control up there. Last night, though, you gave me control. You gathered up all the pieces of yourself and brought them down here in order to make room so that I could go up there. Just now, you yanked me down here hard enough that I couldn't leave anything behind to do maintainence; our body is probably lying unconscious on the floor, and I don't know how long it'll keep breathing without one of us in charge." He studied his blond jailer carefully. "So. One of us needs to go up. Who's it going to be?"

Naruto's mouth worked as though he were chewing something very sour.

"You," he answered at length.

o-o-o-o

"Go go go go!" Anko shouted, no-hands cartwheeling over a blast of chakra-infused water needles even as she hurled a spray of shuriken at two of the nearest attackers. "Don't stop don't slow down go!" She blurred forward at the captain of the Sound patrol; he spun around her punch with a hair's breadth to spare and fired a chakra-enhanced backfist at her that she would have taken her head off if her contingent kawarimi hadn't yanked her out of the way.

"Six, get the kids!" the patrol captain shouted, too busy with Anko to look over his shoulder at his subordinate. "Don't hurt them, just take them back to—oof!—Lord Chuikage!"

The patrol captain was good. A jonin for three years, his combat skills were well respected among his peers; he had even been a guest lecturer at the Sound Academy taijutsu classes once or twice. He was stronger than Anko, only slightly slower, and had an inch of reach on her.

What he did not have, however, was a Cursed Seal of Heaven and a nigh-frantic need to protect his students.

The shoulder of Anko's uniform burst into flames as she activated her seal for the first time since leaving Sound years before. Black chakra vomited forth, wreathing her body in a greasy murk with tendrils extending in all directions.

The captain jerked back, but not before Anko flicked a hand in his direction. A wire-thin trail of the murk lashed out from her fingertips and wound around his neck; a quick jerk of her arm and he was pulled forward directly into a spear-hand strike that blasted through the center of his chest and out through his spine.

Patrol Six, the ninja whom the captain had ordered after the fleeing genin, turned at the sound of his captain's strangled cry, but was too far away to do anything. His four surviving teammates went for Anko in a coordinated rush.

They were only chunin, but these chunin had trained under a man who had won the title 'Legendary' in part because of his tactical skill. During the weeks that Anko and her team had been 'guests' of Sound they'd done their research, talking to people who'd known her when she studied as Orochimaru's protégé. They knew her strength, speed, and favorite tactics in great detail. Individually they were no match for Anko at close-range taijutsu, but they were fully justified in believing that they could wolfpack her to death. They fought in well-coordinated pairs, one on each side of their target. One would feint, forcing her to face them, and the other would strike from behind.

That was the basic tactic, anyway. It worked well in civilian battles, where fighters were rooted to one place. Ninja battles were a bit more fluid—combatants continually shunshined and kawarimied, constantly seeking unprotected angles of attack. Still, four-on-one was bad odds, and the reason the chunin fought in pairs was so that one could be on defense and one on offense. In particular, the defender was assigned to kai every few seconds as defense against genjutsu, thereby denying Anko the best tools in her repertoire.

Ninjutsu flew back and forth, fire and water clashing and covering the battlefield in steam. Syrup Traps erupted everywhere, denying portions of the field to all combatants. Anko was holding her own, but even with the physical enhancements of her Cursed Seal she couldn't quite manage to get through the enemy's teamwork to land a solid blow.

Of course, fifteen million kikai bugs makes a pretty good leveler.

When Shino's swarm arrived, thirty seconds into the fight, the chunin found themselves swamped with enough bugs to blot out the light. The bugs covered the entire field; there was no clear space in range of kawarimi or shunshin even if the Sound nin had had the presence of mind to do so. They popped fire, burning away hundreds of thousands of their insectile attackers, but the survivors hurled themselves on the Sound nin in a suicidal frenzy.

Obedient to their master's commands, the bugs forced their way into their targets' every orifice. This breed weren't biting insects—they lived purely on chakra and lacked actual mouthparts—but they still rammed their wedge-shaped heads into eyes as hard as they could at the same time as their siblings crawled into ears, nose, mouth...all the while slurping frantically on the victim's chakra.

A normal Aburame hosted a few tens- or, for the most senior clan members, hundreds of thousands of kikai. The force that Shino set on the Sound ninja was fifteen million. The five Sound ninja hit the ground in a limp sprawl, all the chakra instantly drained out of them.

Shino didn't even look back; he was too busy running. He hit an uneven patch of ground and stumbled, his tightly-strapped arm pushing his center of gravity slightly away from where his reflexes expected it to be. Hinata reached out without looking and stabilized him, all the while running at top speed.

Both genin were shunshining time after time, zigzagging furiously as they went. A medicine-ball sized blob of Shino's bugs was clinging to each of their backs, continuously vomiting Naruto's stored chakra into the coils of their master and his teammate. The genin spent it profligately, running as though hell itself snapped at their heels.

"Incoming friendly, left rear," Hinata said, puffing slightly.

The inky black form of Anko's chakra-wreathed body appeared beside them. "Good job," she said, her voice blurry and indistinct. She was scrubbing blood from her forearm with a cloth as she ran.

"You know how, in the Academy, they always tell you to punch through your target?" Anko said. "Yeah, don't do that. It takes too long to shake the body off your arm."

Neither of the genin knew quite what to say to that.

o-o-o-o

"...which concludes my report, Hokage-sama!" Anko said.

"Hmm," Hiruzen said. He took a moment to sip his tea; he had long ago discovered that it was a useful way to buy a few seconds to think. It was part of why he never had a meeting without a pot of tea handy.

"That's quite a story," he said. He paused and took another sip of tea. "One thing I am curious about, though...why exactly did you feel it necessary to kick Cat into a wall?"

The Hokage had been able to close off Anko's Cursed Seal of Heaven. The vile black chakra was beginning to ooze very slowly back into it; her body was visible from the crown of her head to just below the eyebrows, while the rest of her was an oozing, drippy mass of oily darkness. An unexpected benefit of this was that it concealed the fact that she was blushing furiously. Long experience and rigid pride concealed the shrieking agony that was wracking her body, the price of using the Seal.

"I may have been a bit...overzealous, Hokage-sama," she said as calmly as she could manage. "He, uh, acted in a way that I mistakenly interpreted as hostile. I take full responsibility and will make both apologies and reparations to Cat-san when he finishes with the medic-nin."

"Would your 'overzealousness' possibly have anything to do with a combination of combat fatigue and the use of your cursed seal?" the Hokage asked with deceptive mildness. "The seal which I once informed you could be fatal if used?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama!" Anko rapped out, bracing to attention. "I felt the choice was warranted in defense of my team!"

"Hmm," Hiruzen said. "So, just to summarize the current situation: the Republic has weapons capable of killing ninja from miles away. Orochimaru is preparing for war against the owners of these weapons. He has also collected enough chakra to power a town, and is busily proceeding with the same sort of experiments that I ran him out of Konoha for—although I think the vivisection is new. Last but by no means least, the Nine-Tailed Fox has turned Naruto into a monster, is now in control of his body, and is still in Sound under Orochimaru's control. Have I missed any salient facts from your report, Mitarashi-san?"

"As leader of Team Anko, I am responsible for the deaths of half a dozen ninja from Sound, Hokage-sama!" she said.

"Ah, yes, mustn't forget that," he said, loading his pipe and taking a moment to get it lit. "Well. That's certainly a lovely garnish on the meal, now isn't it? Let's go back, however, to the part where the jinchuuriki of the Nine-Tailed Fox is in the control of my former student, after what was supposed to be a simple scouting mission. Specifically, the part where you left him behind."

Anko swallowed nervously. "I made a command decision in the field, Hokage-sama," she said. "The Fox had gone unconscious for no reason we could identify, and we had no way of telling how long he would remain unconscious. His clones had been keeping Sound ninja at a substantial distance, but they disappeared when the Fox went unconscious, meaning that there was no opposition immediately around our dwelling. Extracting myself, Hinata, and Shino was going to be challenging enough, and I did not feel that we could carry Naruto's weight and still make the necessary speed. Furthermore, the Fox seemed motivated to keep us under house arrest in Sound, and I was confident that we could not escape against his wishes. This was probably the only opportunity we were going to have and I took it. I recognize that leaving one of my team behind was a failure, and I am prepared to submit to whatever punishment you deem appropriate, Hokage-sama!"

The Hokage rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Anko..." He trailed off, not sure where he wanted to go with that. "Just go home and see Ibiki and Reizo," he said. "I'll let you know tomorrow what, if anything, I'm going to do with you." He sighed. "Anko, this was supposed to be simple—a nice, safe scouting mission to get you and the kids out of Konoha for a while until we could figure out what to do about Hinata. Instead, you've been missing for weeks, the Fox is at least partially out, he's in Orochimaru's control, and the two of them are actively collaborating. Just...go home."


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