Naruto woke up in extreme comfort. Too much comfort. His bed wasn't this good, and neither were hospital beds, so it was unlikely that something went that badly. But his quick assessment of his surroundings (while laying still, as he was taught) showed him that no, he wasn't captured or otherwise in danger.
No, for some reason, he was using Kurama as a bed.
This set off its own wave of panic before he realized that since he didn't actually remember going to bed last night, and not even a clone would be stupid enough to try something like this on its own, Kurama himself must have put him here.
Either he was very worried about him, or he had an unexpected soft side. Naruto wasn't entirely sure which was more disturbing.
At the same time, Kurama wasn't up yet, and he was still kinda tired.
And besides, when was he going to have a chance like this again?
So he settled back down, pushing a little deeper into the fur, and entirely missing the fact that Kurama was, in fact, awake.
Kurama sighed internally. This wasn't the sort of behavior he wanted to encourage. Deception among allies was poison. Training your ability to lie was one thing, deceiving a friend was another. And while this particular lie was quite harmless, it led to attitudes he did not want anywhere near Naruto.
At the same time, yesterday was an ordeal, and he likely would have let Naruto sleep in regardless. He needed time to think, anyway.
The entire ordeal with Orochimaru was… problematic. It was a decent plan, if one without any backup plan even remotely possible. The issue was that he got complacent. Overestimated his own intel. Wasn't ninja enough. A single mistake was all it took for something to go wrong. Something that he drilled into Naruto's head from day one, but neglected to apply himself.
You gather intelligence first, then plan. No, you plan first on the intelligence you do have, gather more, then modify said plan accordingly. Kurama entirely neglected the last two steps in favor of his own ego. That had to stop. Naruto was the perfect ninja for intelligence gathering, and he used precisely none of his skills.
More importantly was the fact that this was exactly the same mistake as he made last time. The same pride, and like before, Naruto was paying for all of it. Perhaps not so extremely, but he was paying all the same.
And if he wasn't careful, he'd kill his friend. Perhaps again, if his dark suspicions were correct.
Kurama sighed again, this time physically. Naruto stirred, but other than shifting a little, didn't move.
He was powerful. Perhaps the strongest being on the planet. But he had always pounded into Naruto that power was not everything. Perhaps he should follow his own advice. Naruto needed others. He always did. That was his strength. Not his chakra. Not even him. His tongue won fights more decisively than his fists.
And Naruto's lack of creativity suddenly made a lot more sense.
Oh, Naruto was just as crafty when it came to trap-setting, and Kurama did a good job of making him as unpredictable in battle as possible.
But Naruto only had Kurama's teaching. Perhaps a little of Kakashi's style, but Kakashi never was an up-front or direct teacher. And Jiraiya focused on sealing rather than direct combat. Naruto's style had always been a mix of everything he had seen randomly thrown in. And it worked. That was the first thing that had impressed Kurama the first time around, though he certainly wouldn't have admitted it at the time.
And he had entirely forgot this crucial detail when he trained the boy.
Naruto needed the other Konoha genin. He needed their Jounin sensei. And of course, he still needed him.
Kurama may be alone in this trip through time, but Naruto didn't need to be alone with him.
First, though, Naruto needed someone to stay with him and get a handle on being a fox. This time without any transformations involved.
He spoke, and while his voice still rumbled, it was gentle. «Naruto, time to wake up.»
Naruto yawned and sat up. The first thing he noticed through his apartment windows was that the sun was much more prominent than it should have been. "Kurama? What's going on? I don't remember you giving me a day off –
"Oh." He touched an ear.
Naruto laughed nervously. "Well, I guess I'm just a bit more like you than before, huh?"
Kurama grunted his affirmation. «I did not expect the change to be so… literal, but this may prove to be more beneficial than I anticipated. As I said before, I will not fully remove myself from you until the Akatsuki threat is gone, but if what I hope is correct, and your chakra system is also more fox-like, you should have less difficulty now. Which means you have the potential for much greater chakra control.»
«Potential, that is. You will still have to train, but it will be significantly easier without my varying levels of integration interfering.»
"Right." He opened his mouth to speak, but a sudden thought made him gasp. "Kurama? Can I leave? I never actually got to check on Sakura or Sasuke."
Kurama shrugged. He had already told himself that any training Naruto did today was to be self-inflicted. «Just remember to change. We're keeping all of this as secret as possible for now.»
Naruto looked at him strangely, then realized what he meant. He put his hands together and transformed in a puff of smoke.
Except he didn't, as he looked exactly the same afterwards that he did before. And as he had obtained a ninja's awareness of his own body, he knew exactly why it didn't work out as planned.
"Kurama, the fox parts aren't affected by chakra. Like, at all."
Kurama cursed. He knew exactly why that was the case, too, and should have seen this coming. It was the very reason becoming a human Sage was so dangerous for other species as well. Untamed youki made you turn into the respective animal, but those changes could only be reversed by the same energy. Not chakra.
In essence, transformation for Naruto was by necessity a Sage Art.
Maybe he could get away with just getting him to use the youki on its own in this case, since he only wanted to look like himself.
But Kurama also had memories from his own life, before he ruined it by accepting the Sage's offer. Transformation was a powerful tool, but nature energy always had a symbolic element, which was why it tranformed unprepared users into animals. Or statues of those animals.
You want to transform into a human? Well, in order to maintain that transformation, you had to use energy. Which required you to be yourself in some way. Strange eyes. Pointed teeth. A tail that you kept hidden. Even if you just wanted to be a rock, the best even a master could do was include some scratches that happened to look like a fox in the correct light.
Humans really had it easy that way.
But whatever the case, a day that Kurama meant for Naruto to have to himself suddenly turned into an unavoidable race for training, just like it always was.
Because there was no way in hell Naruto was just going to laze around when it was one more day until he would see his teammates.
It took Naruto three days for him to even passably look like he used to. And three hours before considering just going out anyway.
But he quickly corrected that thought himself. He didn't even ask Kurama. Ninja were observant. Unless you were really, really good, it was hard to hide things. Maybe small things, as long as you made sure they wouldn't expect it. But not something as big as a tail. Or even ears. That was what genjutsu were for. To make people see what they expect to see, and not look too closely.
At first, when asked to find the new chakra, or "youki," he expected that it would somehow be the easy part. It always was when he was in the Academy. Back when Kurama taught him the first time.
But no. He somehow had to ignore all the chakra that was already there and look for something different.
That isn't to say that his training did not help him at all. In fact, his most recent training in separating his will from his chakra made him very, very aware of exactly where his chakra was flowing at all times.
The issue was that even his normal chakra wasn't flowing in the same way anymore. So a lot of the times he thought he found something, it wasn't actually new.
It was only on the actual morning of the third day that he realized that there weren't nearly as many differences as there should be. It was as if his new ears and tail didn't exist, and the pathways that used to go through his old ears were just… missing.
There should be pathways there.
He didn't have a more fox-like chakra system at all. Which meant there was one that he wasn't just seeing yet.
Which meant those weird differences weren't because they were more fox-like, it was because there were two systems, and they were intersecting.
After that, it was easy. The youki was harder to draw on, and it was really small. It was weird. Slippery, and didn't like to be used like the chakra he was used to. Trying to stick a scroll to his hand was… strange, and didn't really work well. But it worked better than he expected when it came to transformation.
His first attempt was perfect. And shattered after half a second, because he suddenly couldn't use the energy at all. Which is what Kurama warned him about, that he always had to be somewhat foxlike.
He thought that meant it just wouldn't work. Not that it would work, and then fail later.
But he tried again, this time with a clearer plan. A tattoo of a fox tail, located in the small of his back.
That one failed, too. Not entirely. He still had access to youki. Just not enough to maintain the transformation. He had a really small amount as it was.
Naruto wasn't about to do endurance training for a week just to see his teammates, though. So he gave up and decided to cover his entire torso with fur.
That worked. He looked human, as long as nobody took off his armor. And it wouldn't look unusual from the outside, as all ninja outfits had some form of padding regardless. And it meant he retained full access to this new chakra.
Not that it gave him much advantage. By what little awareness he had managed to grasp of this new system, his body was just barely producing enough to keep up with what this transformation was taking from him. Not what he was used to at all.
Though he supposed with less to focus on, it was a great deal easier to control. Was this how Sakura felt all the time?
Naruto turned a full circle in front of Kurama. "This good enough, sensei?"
Kurama snorted. «You still smell like fox. But it will do for now. Plenty of Inuzuka smell of dogs.»
He waved, turning away. "All right. See you soon!"
«You know I'm still in here, right?»
Naruto blushed. "Yeah, but… I mean…" He rubbed the back of his head. "You're stuck in here, too."
Kurama rolled his eyes and curled back on his cushion. «I'll be fine, Naruto. Go have fun with your teammates. Freak them out a few times for me, would you? I don't think the old man told Kakashi yet.»
He chuckled. "All right, all right."
But as he closed his apartment door and ran over the rooftops to the usual training grounds, he couldn't help but feel off.
Everything looked the same. Felt the same. Smelled the same.
Except for himself.
Author's Note: Sorry for the long wait, everyone. Lots and lots of distractions. That, and losing half a chapter to formatting the wrong drive. That's a real motivation killer. (Glad I always keep backups so it wasn't the entire story. Downloading fanfictions no longer works because of Cloudflare, which is annoying as hell.)
I can't promise regular updates, because the medical issues I have are still a thing (and worse, affect me mentally, so it becomes very difficult to focus properly on writing for long periods of time), but I still have a plan that will take this story to what will hopefully be a satisfying conclusion. (I will not cut this story shorter than originally intended, ever. Unless something strange happens that prevents me from ever writing fanfiction again, I will finish this.)