This is hot off the presses, so to speak so there are likely quite a few mistakes in there. I'll come back in a day or so to fix it up. But I figured you guys had waited long enough.

*Chuckles nervously* Uh, please don't kill me...

"I called his name again and again. And I learned that each time, nothing called back. I learned that no matter how much you want something, how many times you scream to it, sometimes it's out of reach. I decided to stop calling out for someone who would never call back."
~Natsume Takashi (Natsume Yuujinchou)

When he opened his eyes, he was in a prison cell.

The ceiling was smooth with no cracks or abrasions on its surface. He wasn't sure how long he stared, trying to find one imperfection to no avail.

It was better than staring at a door that would never open or even his broken body slumped on the blood-stained ground with his arms shackled above his head. He lost feeling in them a long time ago, so it was easy to forget that they were still there.

His entire body felt numb without the hum of chakra beneath his skin.

His stomach throbbed once more, and he tore his gaze away from the ceiling to look down at the angry red lines of the seal stretching over his stomach and up his chest. They glowed faintly in the dimness of the room. Even with his basic understanding of sealing, gleaned from years within one, he could tell they were unnecessarily strong.

(They weren't taking any chances with him. Just as expected of humans.)

He turned his gaze back towards the ceiling.

Unmarred, unlike him.

He tried, at first, to pull up his age-old rage.

When he first woke up here he had tried so hard to feel that burn deep within his core once more.

(Surely with these new human emotions it would be even more intense, even more blinding. Blinding enough to forget those terrified blue eyes or the sheer blankness of that single grey eye. Maybe, maybe he could forget everything and just focus on the fire and the rage.)

But, the rage was gone.

Everything was gone.

(He didn't have the strength to be angry.)

Kurama blinked slowly up at the ceiling.

(He didn't even have the strength to cry.)

He was empty.

(Why was it…after years of wishing he didn't feel so much…those emotions abandon him the moment he would rather lose himself in them. Was this another human thing? Or was it a punishment for his failures…)

He blinked slowly once more.

Or maybe he fell asleep for a brief time.

It was so hard to tell in this room.

This room devoid of sound and life.

Time meant nothing here.

He hadn't seen another person since he was put in here and a serious-eyed white-haired man painted more seals on him to completely cut him off from his chakra.

(Where was Naruto? Sasuke? The Third? Kakashi-sensei?)

"Who am I kidding." His voice sounded raspy and weak from disuse. "Why would they come here when they know…they know…"

He swallowed painfully and closed his eyes.

It did nothing to block out the memories.

He looked down at the seal again.

'They're probably planning on putting me back in a real seal.' He thought bitterly. 'I'm too dangerous after all. Too dangerous to be left to my own devices.'

Never mind the fact that he never actually attacked innocent people before that man.

(Does this act even matter anymore?)

Between one moment and the next, he found himself kneeling on the glass of his mindscape, staring down into crimson eyes and swirling chakra.

It didn't really matter anymore. Everything had fallen to pieces. All those years spent pretending. Years spent living in fear. Now his fears have come true.

He revealed his secret. Everyone probably knew by now.

Naruto knew.

His eyes…

Kurama shook his head violently to rid himself of the image, but it had burned itself into his mind. He let out a choked sob and blinked hazily at his fractures reflection overlapping with the beast below.

(It didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore.)

With a shaky breath, he raised his fist.

A calloused hand caught it.

"Natsuki," The voice was softer than he remembered. "What are you doing?"

He closed his eyes trying to fight back the tears threatening to well up.

(Not her. Please not her.)

"Let me go." He replied, his voice shaking.

"I can't do that."

He felt her kneel beside him, his hand still caught in her gentle grip.

"I can't let you break the seal. Do you know what would happen?"

"Yes." He tugged weakly at his trapped hand. "But, I don't think you know."



Her grip didn't loosen. Kurama took a breath and glared stubbornly into his warped reflection. He could see her own reflection beside his. Long red hair fell about a pale face, etched with concern and love.

(It was the face of a mother. He knew Naruto would give anything for a look like that to be directed at him.)

"I am not your son."

Kurama felt her flinch back, her grip on his hand going lax in shock. He continued before she could try and protest.

"I'm the prisoner you kept chained away. I'm the monster that you feared and hated. I'm…" His breath caught in his throat and his chest felt tight. "I'm the one who killed you."

He didn't look at her. He couldn't look at her.

Instead, he forced himself back to reality and continued to stare blankly at the ceiling. He didn't know for how long.

Time meant nothing here.

"My, aren't you a pathetic sight."

He blinked slowly.

(When did the door open?)

It took him some time to place the face.

"You are…from that time…during the written test."

"I'm pleased you remember me, Natsuki Uzumaki…or should I call you Kyuubi no Kitsune?" The man's face stretched in a grin and his glasses glinted in the dim light, obscuring his eyes. "My name is Kabuto."

Kurama let out a short breath and leaned his head against the wall.

"What do what you want?"

"You've really given up? A couple of days in a holding cell and the great Kyuubi no Kitsune has given up completely. How pathetic."

Kurama closed his eyes, but there was no blocking out the words.

"Are you truly the Kyuubi? That towering beast? The most powerful biju? How can that be? No, you're just a sniffling child, aren't you? There is no way the Kyuubi would allow himself to be chained like this without a fight."

"You know nothing." He whispered, eyes still shut tight.

'You don't know how empty I feel right now. It's terrifying.'

(He never thought he would miss that endless, all-consuming emotion.)

His hair was yanked ruthlessly. He squinted up at his attacker, but the man's face was blank.

"You're right. I have no idea what exactly is going on with you. I only know what I've observed and even that is contradictory and missing pieces. But even so, whether you're human or biju, giving up is beyond pathetic."

He slammed Kurama's head into the wall behind him, forcing his vision to waver as pain shot through his whole body. He choked on a gasp. It felt like all his nerves were on fire.

"Continue moving forward. Fight against those who would cage you. Fight for your freedom. Fight for the right to live. If you don't know yourself, then find yourself. If you hate yourself, then make yourself anew. To fight, to change, to struggle even in the face of insurmountable odds. That's what it means to be human."

The man laughed a hollow laugh.

"Or at least, that's what I've been told." He grinned down at Kurama.

There was a click and suddenly his arms were falling limping into his lap. He stared at them blankly for a moment before the pain set in and it felt like he was being stabbed with burning hot needles. He gritted his teeth as he fell sideways onto the cool ground.

He watched through tear-filled eyes as sandaled feet walked towards the door. They paused right at the entrance.

"Will you get up and continue struggling? Or will you give up and wait to be shoved back in a cage…or worse? I can leave the door open for you, but the choice is yours alone to make."

His arms trembled and threatened to give out on him as he pushed himself to his knees. But, when he made it he froze, staring silently the bright hallway behind the door. He blinked slowly. The light made his eyes sting after days in the dimness of the room.

"My choice." He whispered hoarsely.

(His choice….)

(When was he ever given a choice…? For as far back as he could remember… Even...even Hagoromo...made decisions for him...)

Kurama frowned and reached a trembling hand to clutch at his chest.

He didn't feel so empty anymore.

(His choice…)

'I want too…'

The woman who told them what happened had said that it was normal to feel numb. It was normal to reject the truth at first. She put her hand over Sakura's trembling fingers and talked softly and gently. She was likely trained to deal with patients who went through traumatic experiences. She remembered vaguely on their medic unit back in the academy that all medical personnel in the hospital were trained for a variety of situations, from mundane health checks to village a major crisis.

Sakura supposed the woman must have misinterpreted her expression…

'Poor child,' the nurses whispered behind their hands. 'She's been through so much already only to hear of her sensei's death…how cruel. Look at her, she can't even cry she's in such shock.'

None of them understood. None of them realized she was not numb. She was not in shock.

(There was a white-hot sun in her chest. It burned and raged and shouted to be released.)

She was scared of it. So, she said nothing. She just tilted her head down and asked softly to go home. They let her after a day of monitoring her wounds, deciding that she'd be fine to finish her recovery with her family. Her mother hugged her tightly when she got home and, despite the pain, Sakura hugged her back with just as much strength.

With some rest and medication, the pain faded, but the rage did not.

It kept her awake at night with its burning.

It clung to her and pestered her until she couldn't take it anymore.

(Like a nat buzzing right next to her ear. She couldn't focus on anything else.)

She didn't have any darker clothes in her closet, except for one outfit. The funeral attire she was required to own after graduating from the academy. Her mother had recently had it ironed and prepared. It still smelt of fabric softener. The flowery scent she normally loved. The scent of home. The scent of happiness.

But, there was no room for happiness in her now.

Only rage.

(She clutched at it and gritted her teeth to keep from screaming. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all.)

There was a drumbeat in her skin, it resonated deep down in her bones. It beat loudly in her ears and made everything seem very simple.

She pulled on the funeral clothes, wrapped her bright hair in a dark scarf, and crept out of the house.

'I'm here to inform you that your sensei has died in the line of duty…'

There was something going on at the Hokage tower. Shinobi were flocking to it, but Sakura was on her own mission. It was simple to slip into the building and even simpler to ghost down the stairs leading into the maze of hallways that was the prison. It was strange. She had always imagined this place to be dark and creepy. Like in the horror books she sometimes read. But, the hallways were brightly lit, and it smelt vaguely like the hospital, a sharp antiseptic scent.

It would have been almost a relief, except for the bodies.

She knew she normally wouldn't be able to slip in so easily. Something was off. There were fewer guards than there should be, and the ones still there were slumped over, either asleep or dead. She didn't know which.

(Perhaps she was numb. She didn't stop to check on the guards. Too afraid she'd lose the fire and not be able to continue her mission.)

After wandering for a little while a glimpse of white caught her attention and she blinked slowly at the sight of a vaguely familiar man slipping into one of the cells down the hall from her, whose heavy-duty door was littered with glowing seals. His pale hair stuck out just as much as her pink locks would have had she not thought to cover her head. She shook her head and continued her hunt.

(She had her mission. She couldn't get distracted now. Not when the rage still boiled her blood and drummed a rhythm of hatred in her bones.)

Sakura ghosted through the hallways eyes and ears peeled for any movement or noise that would either lead her to her prey or get her caught. It was eerily silent in this maze of cells.

(She once read that this place was made to be confusing in order to mislead prisoners who managed to escape their cells. Only those who had permission from the Hokage knew the complete blueprint of the underground maze. She wondered if this was a mistake. Would she be lost down here forever? Doubt started to stifle the fire in her chest…)

Some hallways held the heavy duty doors she had seen the pale-haired man slip into. Others held cells with only bars allowing one to have a complete view of the prisoner. Whether hallways held one or the other seemed completely random to her.

She had started to wonder if she had gotten herself lost. Her hands began to tremble. Not with rage, but with...

Then, she caught a snippet of a familiar voice and followed it down another hallway without hesitation.

(The drumbeat became louder and the fire burned brighter the closer she got.)

"I'm telling you we can do it-"

"Shut-up Kankuro! We lost! We're imprisoned. There's no escaping from this…"


Sakura stepped lightly into the dim light cutting off any further conversation.


She didn't even glance at the boy who had pushed himself up again the bars of his cell to try to look at his sister in the one next to his. Her eyes were on someone else.

The man sat in a seiza position. Shoulders back and head held high with pride. The only thing that gave away his act was the chains wrapped tightly around his wrists, glowing faintly from the seals etched carefully onto their surface. The fire was gone suddenly. In its place was cold so bitter it made her shake and shiver.

(But, it wasn't enough to make her drop the kunai clutched tightly in her hand.)

"Are you here to kill me, girl?"

(Was that her plan? She hadn't really thought it through. She just followed the pounding of the rage in her veins. Could she really kill him? This man in chains?)

"…he bravely tried to inform the Hokage of Suna's treachery, but unfortunately, he was caught and killed…"

"My sensei is dead." Her voice was whisper-soft with tightly controlled rage, but it echoed in the silent hallway.

She heard an intake of breath from the cell behind her.

"I'm sorry…"

"I don't want your apologies." She snapped, throwing a glare over her shoulder. The boy flinched back, looking younger without the face paint. More vulnerable. She turned away.

The man nodded slowly. Entirely too sensible for someone in his position.

(It made her want to stab a kunai in his eye.)

"Your sensei was Hayate Gekkō, yes?" The man tilted his face up to the ceiling with a small hum. "He was a good opponent, but I was not the one who killed him."

"Liar," Sakura growled, raising her kunai as she stepped toward the cell doors.

"Sensei isn't a liar."

She whirled around at the low, gravely voice with wide eyes and panic in her chest. But, the boy in the next cell over was not the same boy she watched turn into a monster. There was an exhausted slump to his shoulders as he curled into himself, with his knees to his chest. He blinked sleepily up at her, looking painfully vulnerable.

(Why. Why were these people she swore to hate looking so frail? So small? So, so human…)

Sakura slowly relaxed her stance, eyeing him distrustfully even as she turned back to the man.

"I cannot prove my words for I do not have the evidence," The man continued solemnly. "But I did not kill him."

"Then who did?" She snarled lowly.

The man sighed softly. "Our former associate, one of Orochimaru's men. Kabuto Yakushi."

The memory of the first task was almost a physical blow that sent her stumbling back. It knocked the wind out of her as her memories clicked into place and that name was attached to a face. Her chest felt too tight as her mind flashed back to pale hair. She sucked in a breath before darting back down the hall. She slid into walls several times as she weaved her way through the hallways back to that spot. Back to that door.

When she got there, it was already too late.

The cell was empty.

'I'm sorry Naruto, you don't deserve me as a brother.'

Kurama coughed harshly as his legs gave out beneath him, leaving him kneeling on the ground still trying to catch his breath. A rustle in the bushes had him glancing up warily. He tensed but realized with trepidation that he was too weak from the harsh battle, imprisonment, and seals to fight off any pursuers.

He was lucky enough that everyone seemed too distracted with something at the Hokage tower to catching him stumbling his way out of the village.

He didn't relax when Kabuto's smirking face can into view.

"So, you decided to leave after all." The man murmured as he crept closer.

There was no surprise in his voice. Kurama scowled weakly at him between coughs and shied away from probing hands on his head and chest. The soft touch of healing chakra soothed the tightness in his chest allowing him to regulate his breathing once more.

Kabuto frowned as his hands drifted lower and hover above his stomach where the extra seals still seared his skin and made him lightheaded. Kurama forced his led like arms to curl around his midsection defensively. Kabuto smirked faintly and pulled away.

"They really did a number on you Kyuubi-san." He laughed quietly. "How cruel."

Kurama twitched at the name.

(How many times had he wanted to be acknowledged as the biju he truly was, instead of the human he was pretending to be? Why did it feel so strange now? So, wrong.)

The man straightened and glanced around the woods. The large trees cast deeper shadows with the faint light of the moon.

"I'm sure you realized by now that I'm not acting out of some misplaced sympathy." He laughed at Kurama's scowl. "My master is Orochimaru. He can help you Kyuubi-san."

Kurama sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. This was all too much. All he wanted to do was sleep. "What does he want? I can't imagine he's too pleased with my part in ruining his plans during the chunin exam."

"Orochimaru has always been a scientist at heart, Kyuubi-san. He doesn't mind that his plan fell through, especially when he's found something incredibly interesting to focus on in its stead."

"Meaning he wishes to experiment on me," Kurama replied flatly.

Kabuto laughed. "He is very interested in your situation. Surely you can understand? An all-powerful, immortal, biju trapped in the body of a human, yet maintaining total functionality of the body."

Kurama sighed again and curled his arms tighter around himself, ignoring the dark bruises and still stinging cuts that his chakra couldn't heal due to the extra seals placed on him during imprisonment. He stared at the dirt for a few moments, wondering vaguely if news of his escape had spread yet. How soon would the Konoha shinobi be after him?

A hand ran through his hair, thankfully mindful of the knots and grime that hadn't been washed out since his capture, clumping the locks together. "You should take our offer, Kyuubi-san. My master will help you and protect you. He is not interested in the bijus' power, simply your unique situation."

Kurama let out one final sighed before glaring up at the grey-haired man.

"Stop calling me that."

Kabuto blinked in surprised but quickly caught onto the note of acceptance in his voice and smiled in amusement.

"What should I call you then?" He asked as he pulled Kurama to his feet.

Kurama swayed as his eyesight swam for a few moments. Kabuto didn't wait for him to recover and instead pulled him onto his back and took off into the trees. Kurama laid his head tiredly on the man's shoulder and considered his question.

He had never told a human his name before.

(Somewhere in the back of his mind, a strangely hopeful part of him had wanted Naruto to be the first human to know.)


Bright blue eyes filled with betrayal and fear.

Kurama watched the world blur around him as Kabuto picked up speed, trying to ignore the pain in his chest that had nothing to do with physical pain.

He closed his eyes against the morning light peeking through the trees.

"Kurama. My name is Kurama."

It was warm and sunny out with a nice little breeze to prevent it from being too hot. White fluffy clouds drifted lazily through the bright blue sky. The birds chirped happily, and the cicadas buzzed. All in all, it was a gorgeous day. It was the sort of day that Naruto would normally love to spend out on the training grounds with his team.

But today wasn't a normal day.

"Whenever I think of funerals, I think of rain and dark clouds." Sasuke murmured.

Naruto wondered when he arrived.

He wondered how long he had been sitting there on the swing in front of the academy.

(It was their swing. The swing they always took turns on when they were little. He remembered fighting over who got to use it first. Natsuki always won. Always.)

He had no idea.

Sasuke leaned against the tree and tilted his head up to look at the branches looming overhead.

"We're going to be late."

Naruto still didn't respond.

He didn't know how.

(It was like his words were tangled deep in his chest, making it hard to breathe and impossible to speak.)

"You know when the massacre happened it rained for three straight days." Sasuke continued. "Or at least, that's what I'm told. I was unconscious for those days."

Naruto didn't remember that happening.

His voice grew quieter. "They were probably lying out of some sort of misplaced sympathy. Adults like to do that when they think you can't handle the truth."

Naruto's hands trembled.

"What truth?" His voice was a mere whisper.

Sasuke glanced at him briefly before looking up again. "People die every day, but it's not constantly raining. Bad things happen on beautiful days too."

Naruto looked at his feet. His right leg was still trapped in the ugly, cumbersome brace, he had only been allowed out of the hospital to go to the funeral and had to return immediately afterward. The pants of his funeral attire were slightly short.

(They would have fit Natsuki just fine.)

His eyes filled with tears and he choked back a sob.

'Why…why did you have to leave? Why did you leave me? Natsuki? Did you think I hated you?'

"Because I don't." He covered his face with his hands and curled into himself. "No matter what they say, I don't hate you."

"He loved you." Sasuke's voice was faint and a little shaky. "There's no way he left willingly, not like…"

"There you two are."

Naruto's head jerked up at his sensei's tired voice. It was strange to see him out of uniform and in all black. He patted Naruto roughly on the head.

"Come on you knuckleheads. The funeral is about to start."

"You're one to talk," Sasuke muttered.

Kakashi chuckled, but there was something off about his eye.

(Natsuki would know what was wrong. Natsuki was always good at reading people. If Naruto was as good then maybe he could have helped his brother.)

"Yes, yes…everyone knows I'm a hypocrite."

They both winced.

"I…didn't mean it like that." Sasuke murmured softly.

It was strange to see regret on the Uchiha's face. Naruto stood slowly leaning heavily on the crutch the hospital gave him. He knew that it was at this point that he'd normally smile and crack a joke to ease tension.

But, he just felt so empty.

Naruto was missing his other half.

His little brother, who ran away in the midst of the Hokages sudden and brutal murder.

Naruto already knew what everyone was saying about the situation. Fingers were already being pointed even as evidence was still being gathered.

(Poison was found in the Hokages system. The same kind that was found in another shinobi's wounds. A man who had been killed by one of Orochimaru's men, Kabuto Yakushi, when we were all still in the Forest of Death. Kabuto Yakushi was later seen by a genin in the prison, going into Natsuki's cell. It wasn't much, there was a lot still unknown, but at the end of the day..the Hokage was dead and people wanted someone to hate. )

He could feel the accusing stares as they approached the crowd. He could feel the burn of hatred and suspicion.

(Naruto wondered if this was what Natsuki felt every day when they were kids? Was he really feeling their emotions or was it all in his head?)

"Chin up." Kakashi murmured. "Don't let their words get to you."

That was easier said than done, but Naruto tried his best. He lifted his head and met a pair of familiar green eyes.

Even though they were in the same class in the Academy he didn't talk to her very much, she was only interested in Sasuke, but he had really liked her long pink hair and sparkling green eyes. He had gushed to Natsuki over how pretty she was and how he really wanted her to notice him. Her hair wasn't long anymore, instead, it hung in jaggedly just above her shoulders as if she had cut it herself in the dark. Her green eyes weren't sparkling either. They were dark with rage.

(He was used to such looks...but something seemed off. She never looked at him that way before. Mild annoyance, and a little bit of smugness sure, but never anger like this.)

Kakashi-sensei shuffled them away breaking their unintentional staring contest and forcing Naruto to turn his thoughts back to the funeral. There were two pictures on the altar. One of the Hokage and another of a man Naruto barely recognized. He couldn't stare too long at the pictures before his eyes started to water and he had to stifle a sob.

He wasn't the only one.

So, many people surround him. Heads lowered. Eye filled with tears.

A lot of people Naruto didn't know spoke about the Hokages life and achievements. They spoke about the Will of Fire and the future of the village, but Naruto tuned them all out. Instead, he stared down at his feet vision blurred by tears and mind clouded with memories.

(Why. Why did this have to happen? Everything suddenly went wrong all at once and there wasn't anything he could do to stop it. He was too weak. Too stupid. He promised he'd protect the people he cared about, but when it came down it...he couldn't. They slipped away from him without a word.)

He went through the rest of the funeral mechanically. Laying his flower down when prompt and shuffling back to his place. It was over before Naruto knew it. Half a day at most. For some reason, he thought it'd be longer. He guessed that even with the Hokage dead the village still had to keep functioning. He stared listlessly at the alter as people shuffled around them. Some leaving. Some comforting their loved ones. Others looking just as lost as Naruto felt.

Kakashi left them at one point to comfort a sobbing woman with long purple hair, but Sasuke stayed by his side a hand on his elbow and his head lowered in grief.

(He wondered vaguely how close his teammate was to the Hokage. He never thought to ask.)

"My condolences." A voice murmured behind them.

Sasuke flinched, hand automatically dropping to his side where his weapons pouch usually was and shifted closer to Naruto. Naruto, for his part, glanced over his shoulder warily, suddenly very aware of his vulnerability.

The old man behind them was leaning on his cane almost as much as Naruto was leaning on his crutch, and half his face was covered in bandages. Naruto vaguely recalled him being one of the people who gave a speech. He felt his shoulders relax slightly, even while his injured leg he could probably take this guy just by hitting him with his crutch a few times.

"My apologies. I didn't mean to startle you." The man's voice was soft and his expression was calm with a hint of sorrow when he turned his gaze to the memorial pictures in the distance. "I simply wanted to express my condolences for your loss. I am Danzo."

"Why us specifically?" Sasuke asked his tone just barely polite.

The man turned his one eye on Naruto and murmured. "You are Naruto Uzumaki, yes? You lost your brother."

"He's not dead," Naruto replied automatically.

"Of course not." The man shook his head. "But, he was taken away. Surely that is a call for sympathies?"

Naruto blinked slowly. "I thought…I thought everyone thought that he left with Orochimaru…"

"I suppose most people think that way, but I have always upheld the sentiment of looking at things logically rather than allowing for unnecessary emotion to cloud one's judgment. Your brother was injured and locked away. How would he be able to fight back and who would hear him cry out if the assailant already knocked out the guards? It is more likely that he was taken unwillingly."

Naruto looked down. "I know Natsu...he wouldn't just leave…"

"Yes, testimony from someone who knew him well is worth more than those who never met him...though..." The man blinked slowly, his eye sharpening slightly making Naruto's skin crawl with uncertainty. "You didn't know he was the Kyuubi, did you?"

Naruto looked down. He felt Sasuke squeeze his elbow tightly.

" I didn't." He whispered softly.

"You can't know everything about a person, especially when they want to keep a secret close to their heart."

Naruto's heart skipped a beat and his head twisted around to see his favorite teacher. Iruka glanced briefly at him before bowing respectfully to Danzo.

"My apologies for interrupting Danzo-sama, but I think these boys need to go home and gets some rest. They've been through much in the past week."

Danzo smiled gently at them, but for some rest, it sent a shiver down his spine.

(He suddenly felt irritated for some reason.)

"Of course, of course." The man murmured.

He reached out and ruffled Naruto's hair gently. The gesture was so familiar, he felt the tension leave his body and his eyes filled with tears.

(Old man…)

Iruka steered them away silently with a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Naruto glanced up at the man, taking in his profile and lingering on the smudges of shadows beneath his eyes. How long had it been since he'd seen him or interact with him in any significant way? It felt like everything had been a rush of action since they got back from their mission in Wave. No time to stop and breath. They hadn't really been able to settle down at all before the Chunin exam.

His eyes lingered on the smudges below Iruka-senseis eyes.

(It sent a stab of pain through his chest as a pair of purple eyes overlapped Iruka-senseis brown ones.)

His breath stuttered.

(It hit suddenly and painfully. Iruka-senseis parents were killed during the Kyuubi attack…)

"Naruto." He stared stubbornly at his feet instead of looking up at his former academy teacher.

He heard the man sigh softly and felt a hand run through his hair.

"Stop it. You're think too much, Naruto."

"Yeah, you might hurt yourself if you continue," Sasuke muttered.

Naruto sent him a glare.

Iruka chuckled. "Boys, that's enough now."

He glanced up hesitantly. Iruka smiled at him, a little sadly. Naruto bit his lip.

"Natsuki isn't a monster, he-"

The man's smile dimmed and his eyes grew distant.

"Naruto…" Iruka sighed and ran a hand through his own hair. "I know."

Naruto felt the air rush out of his lungs.

It was good. It was a start.

Despite all the glares, the suspicion, and the hatred there were still people who cared. People who didn't think that Natsuki was a monster.

Now all he had to do was make sure Natsuki himself didn't believe that.

Shikamaru glanced towards his door when he heard the voices rise in an argument downstairs. It still wasn't as loud as it could have been. Nor as loud as it tended to get when his dad invited his friends over for drinks and shenanigans.

No, it was practically silent compared to those nights.

(That was telling.)

He wasn't sure who all was down there. His dad's old teammates definitely. They had come through the front door like they normally did. Their visit wouldn't cause suspicion. But, there were others Shikamaru knew. Other's who didn't come through the door. Important people. Suspicious people.

He rubbed idly at his still bandaged chest.

With so many things happening all at once, he was a little suspicious himself.

"I am the Kyuubi. I am the Nine-tailed Fox."

He pushed the unwanted memory away and rolled over to look out his window.

(It didn't matter how many times he turned that moment over in his mind, repeating every detail. It didn't matter how many times he deconstructed every word and expression from the moment he met the orange haired boy...demon...friend? It didn't matter because it didn't make any sense.)

Moonlight danced among the branches and leaves of the old oak tree outside his window. It cast shadows that stretched and swayed. He watched the shadows dances for a moment, trying to quiet his mind.

(To no avail. His mom always said it'd take nothing short of death itself to quiet a Nara's thoughts.)

The voices rise in pitch again before abrupting cutting off as if they realized that they were being too loud.

Shikamaru wondered what they were arguing about.

He could make a few guesses.

(The Hokages death was too suspicious. And yet any information, any clues, seemed to have vanished into thin air. Leaving only conjecture and petty people pointing their petty fingers at who they could pin the blame on without incriminating themselves. It was an absolute mess.)

Shikamaru wasn't as naive as some of his year mates. He could spot corruption when he saw it. His father was the Jounin Commander after all. And he never bothered trying to hide the shadows that lingered and thrived in their seemingly peaceful village from his son.

(The shadows were what made the Nara strong. The Nara thrived in them and learned to control their unwieldy nature.)

(There were shadows in Natsuki's eyes that day. Shadows that seems to be consuming the boy...biju…)

He tried to shake that thought away, but it was like the floodgates had opened.

He had been able to puzzle out everything that led to their horrify encounter in the forest of death. Orochimaru wanted the Uchiha, his eyes specifically. Team 7 had barely fought him off, then run into team 11, and then ran into another team that followed Orochimaru. That's where the older Konoha team came in and Shikamaru and his own team. Both drawn in by the fighting. The Suna team, also working for Orochimaru, probably tried to finish the task early, but their own jinchuuriki lost control when he felt the chakra of another one of his kind.

That all made sense. It was bad luck on all of their parts, but all the pieces and choices involved made logical sense. It was what happened after that he couldn't wrap his mind around.

"I am the Kyuubi. I am the Nine-tailed Fox."

Years. Shikamaru had known him for years.

(He was a bit odd, but he wasn't...he wasn't a monster...a demon like the stories portrayed the Kyuubi.)

He cared about his brother and his friends. He was sly and quick-witted. He always caught Shikamaru's muttered comments and always had a retort for his complaints.

(It was difficult to try and compare the person he thought he knew, to the demon that ravaged their village.)

That wasn't where the mystery ended though. No, it wasn't even close. Though he imaged most of the people there forgot what came after that sudden declaration. They were too focused on the declaration itself.

"Even if you are separated now, you will always be together and one day you will return to being one. Every one of you has a name and you have a different form from before…follow a rightful path search for what is the real strength and until that day..."

What did that even mean? The other biju recognized it and seemed to take it as proof of Natsuki's wild claim.

(Natsuki himself had said the words almost like they were a prayer...)

Nothing made sense anymore.

He heard footsteps, then his father saying his goodbyes to his old teammates. Apparently, the meeting was over.

(There was so much he didn't know. About the village. About the biju. About Natsuki…)

Shikamaru stared up at his ceiling. He listened closely and imagined for a brief moment that he could hear the other visitors leave on silent feet.

(He should feel frustrated.)

He hated not knowing things. It was liking trying to complete a puzzle without all its pieces. It was impossible and ridiculous.

(And yet…)

He could probably just forget it all. Mind his own business and continue like he always had. He could throw the puzzle away. That would be the most logical course of action. Probably safer too.

(Excitement buzzed through him as a rare grin stole over his face.)

He could give up.

But, he knew he wouldn't.

(This puzzle is...interesting.)

Naruto closed his eyes to the moonlit hospital room.

When he opened them, he was in that room again. The bars stretched high above his head. Twin red eyes watched him solemnly from the darkness behind them. Naruto stood there silently for a long moment.

Then, he took a step forward, his head held high.

"Natsuki is my brother."

"Natsuki isn't real."

Naruto tried not to tremble at the way the rumbled growl rolled around the room, echoing in the silence. His voice sounded weak and small in comparison.

"He is real and he's my brother." He jutted out his chin stubbornly.

The beast in front of him blinked slowly at him as if trying to figure out whether or not he had gone insane.

He closed his eyes briefly and admonished himself.

(No, he was not a beast. He was Natsuki's other half. He was a person who felt pain and sorrow just like he did. Just like Natsuki did.)

He opened his eyes and smiled.

(It still hurt, but he'd do it. He'd always smile for Natsuki.)

"And since you're his other half then that makes you my brother as well." He tilted his head. "So, what should I call you? I can't call you Natsuki 'cause that'll be confusing. What's your name?"

"Are you…insane?"

Naruto's smile widened into a grin.

"Maybe! After all, I'm thinking about ways I can help you guys be whole and out of this damn cage when I get Natsuki back! Most people would probably think that's crazy since you guys are biju and all that, but it doesn't matter to me, because…"

He took a breath.

(He thought of Natsuki's last smile. He remembered how much pain was in his eyes. He remembered all the sleepless nights and hidden sorrow.)

(He thought about the broken smile this half of his brother showed him while telling him the truth. A truth that Naruto didn't want to hear at the time. A truth he should have heeded instead of rejected.)

'Natsuki was always lookin' out for me, huh,' He thought fondly. 'Well now it's my turn.'

"…I made a promise." He looked directly into the burning eyes staring at him from the darkness beyond the bars. "I'm going to protect the people I care about no matter what. That is my nindō, my ninja way."

There was silence for a long time.

For a long time, he thought that he wouldn't receive an answer.


Naruto woke up slowly.

When he opened his eyes, he smiled up at the off white ceiling bathed in the suns morning light.

"It's nice to meet you," he murmured to himself. "Kurama."




"Kurama. My name is Kurama."

Ok. So, that's a thing. I wonder, how many of you guys saw this coming? Kurama going with Oro was the decision I was talking about last chapter. The one I decided early Zabuza arc (and laying hints since then too). It's also one of the main reasons I kept Zabuza and Haku alive. But, seriously though. Did you see that coming or was it a complete surprise?

Anyway, let's talk Oro. I think I mentioned before that he's my favorite type of villain. One who is completely unrepentant. He doesn't really have a "greater good" motivation. In fact, his motivations are always completely selfish. I adore that. Don't get me wrong, I like Obito, Pein and characters like them, but my favorite villains are the ones allowed to be complete selfish a-holes. Now, when presented with an immortal biju trapped in a human body. What do you think he'd do? Oro likes poking things. Especially interesting things, like a biju in a human body. Remember his ultimate goal is immortality, and what better subject to poke and prod than an actual immortal? Well, that's my interpretation anyway.

Also, I just want to say thank you to all the people who leave positive reviews on this fic. I have a lot of anxiety about sharing my writing with other people. So, you're kind words and encouragement really gives me the confidence boost to continue this story and writing in general. Thank you, this story would have never gotten to this point without you.