Rating: M

Warnings: Language, drive-by fluff, fight scenes, minor character death both on-screen and off, light angst, an abbreviated dirty joke, cliffhanger, etc.

Word Count: ~5000

Pairings: eventual Kakashi/Kurama, past Sasuke/Naruto

Disclaimer: I don't hold the copyrights, I didn't create them, and I make no profit from this.

Notes: Okay, back on track! (I know it's still Tuesday, but only for another hour so I'm calling it good and posting, whoops.)

In defense of this chapter, Naruto is ridiculous shounen and no one ever uses logic. I tried to divorce my brain from reality to that degree and couldn't manage it. Therefore, you will notice people fighting dirty, ganging up on other people, and using logic to fight. I'd be sorry, but…yeah. I'm really not.

(Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who left well wishes. My father is out of the hospital and apparently doing well. I appreciate your patience with me last week. ^-^)


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Chapter LIII: Cumber

[cumber / ' kəmbər /, to hamper or hinder (someone or something); a hindrance, obstruction, or burden. From Middle English cumber, cumbren aphetic variant of acumbren "to harass, defeat".]

For the barest fraction of a heartbeat, Kisame glances up.

Desperation surges in the moment of the opening. Kurama throws himself backward, bringing both feet up hard. One slams into Kisame's gut as the other plants right between his eyes, and Kurama kicks off with all the force he can muster. Suspended in water, it's faster than he expects, and he ends up summersaulting deeper into the darkness, spots starting to swim in his vision from lack of air. The shark that was lunging for his spine almost slams into Kisame, who dives out of the way, and Kurama kicks hard while he's still recovering, arrowing for the surface.

Far above, there's a light, broken by the shape of a human descending rapidly. A dart of color against the surrounding darkness, a flicker—

Kurama very nearly loses his breath on a startled sound, even as brilliant light sparks.

Kushina's Sealing Chains erupt around them, turning the murky water golden in a sudden rush. She pulls up, floating suspended even as her chains whirl out to grab at summons, a handful aiming for Kisame directly. If there's anything that can hold him, it's those, so Kurama doesn't waste even a moment of his remaining air, stroking desperately for the surface.

One hard kick, another, and his head finally breaks free of the water.

"Kurama-nii!" Naruto shouts, and a half-second glance at the shore shows him in Kakashi's hold, reaching like he's going to dive after them given half the chance.

Like hell, Kurama thinks fiercely. "Stay there!" he shouts back, then takes a huge breath and ducks under again.

Thinking is easier without the dire need to breathe pressing at him. As he dives he calls up his bijūdama, lets his chakra condense at levels even Kisame and Samehada won't be able to absorb. Tighter and tighter as it spirals, past Kushina as she focuses on the summons, straight for Kisame with his eager grin, and—

Impact.

The world shatters.

It's like being caught in a vortex in reverse, like the being jerked up and away and out by some vast, careless hand. Kurama loses his air in a yelp, but it hardly matters, because with a stomach-turning lurch the jutsu breaks and he's suddenly on dry land. One staggering step, the sudden shift too jarring to leave him with anything close to his normal balance, and in that blistered second there are hands on him. Something drags at his chakra, cruel and ravenous, and Kurama snarls but he's at a disadvantage. He turns, tries to punch, tries to kick out a knee, but Kisame overwhelms him, sucks his power down like it's a meal.

"Fucking get off of me," Kurama growls, trying to grapple, but the angle is wrong. He can't get any leverage, can't manage to move as Kisame redoubles his hold and drags him back towards the water.

There's a low, rumbling laugh right next to his ear. It makes Kurama try to jerk an elbow back reflexively, but Kisame's got him in a stranglehold and all he manages to do is flail a little. "Sorry," Kisame says, entirely insincere. "Boss's orders."

Which, of course, just makes it better, because Obito wanting him captured is predictable, aggravating, and will absolutely lead into something Kurama does not in any way want to be part of.

Since physical attacks aren't working, he grabs for his chakra and slams it into Kisame like a weapon. He's already heading towards tired from using so much against Kushina, but this he can manage.

And it's enough. Kisame staggers, missing his footing, and the fraction of a second is just enough for Kurama to slam his head back into Kisame's face, then kick him in the balls and tear out of his grip. Half-shark or not, Kisame wheezes, and his face goes pale.

In the same moment, there's a burst of bright laughter, and an arm hooks through Kurama's, dragging him back. The familiar chakra is enough to keep him from tensing, so he goes with it, and Kushina pulls him up onto solid ground. They're both soaking wet, dripping massive puddles on the bank, and Kushina at least looks like a kappa's victim, hair plastered to her face and wrapped in soggy hanks around her throat. Her grin is unflagging, though, especially when she tells him cheekily, "Nice shot."

It startles a laugh out of Kurama, even though it shouldn't, and he smirks in return, even though most of his attention is still on Kisame as he pushes himself fully upright. "Thanks," he answers. "Fighting dirty is our specialty, isn't it?"

Kushina's grin gains teeth, and for half a heartbeat Kurama wonders, stunned, if she knows he doesn't mean Uzumaki in general, but them in particular.

There's no time to ask, though; with a snarl Kisame takes a step forward, clawed fingers curling into fists, and Kurama catches the bunching to thick muscle just in time to hurl himself and Kushina out of the way. Kisame plows into the space where they just stood, but instead of stopping—

"Fuck," Kurama snarls, and the moment he gets his feet under him he lunges right back at Kisame, because the former Kiri nin wasn't aiming at them, he was reaching for—

Kisame dodges the lash of Kushina's Chains as they slam into the earth around him, shakes off the shockwave Kurama drives into his back, and scoops Obito up in his arms. From the other side, a stream of Utakata's acid-filled bubbles whirls towards him, but a wave of water swamps them before they reach. Another step, faster, and Kurama almost reaches.

The river surges again, cresting like a misplaced tidal wave, and Kurama has to leap back or be swamped. When the water recedes, Kisame is gone.

"Fuck," Kurama repeats, letting himself straighten slowly. He glares ineffectually at the river as it rises once more, naturally this time, and halfway considers picking up a rock and hurling it into the water, just because. But that's childish, and moreover it won't make Kurama feel anything but more frustrated, so he buries the impulse as two more figures appear at the top of the slope and slide downward.

"Is everyone okay?" Jiraiya calls, eyes flickering to Naruto first and Kakashi second. Allowable, Kurama supposes, and shoves his sodden hair out of his face as he turns to—

"Kurama!" Kushina cries joyfully, and there's a blur of soggy red out of the corner of his eye. He turns on instinct, and somehow finds himself with an armful of former jinchuuriki as she wraps her arms tightly around him, burying her face in his neck. Not to tear his throat out, the way he halfway expects, but…a hug.

"Kushina?" he asks warily, able to see Jiraiya gaping at them out of the corner of his eye, and Tsunade with her brows rising towards her hairline.

"Play along," Kushina insists, quiet but fierce. "You've been telling everyone you're my brother, you know? So act like it!"

Well, he's hardly about to argue with that, especially in front of Sarutobi's students. 'Kushina's brother' is still a hell of a lot more likely to let him stay close to Naruto than 'Kyuubi in human form', so if Kushina is willing to run with it even when she knows it's a lie, Kurama will too.

Instead of protesting, he hugs her back, and they're both wet and cold and a little bloody, but—

It almost feels like that last hug Naruto gave him, back when everything started. Kushina is strong and steady against him, and she presses her cheek to his and whispers, "Thank you for taking care of Naruto."

There's a lump in Kurama's throat, and he's only ever felt the most passing fondness for Kushina before, but…this is all right. For Naruto, and also, just maybe, a little bit for himself.

"Kurama-nii!" Naruto cries, right on cue, and an instant later he slams into Kurama's leg. It makes Kurama snort, and he reaches down, grabbing Naruto by the back of his shirt and hauling him up.

"What, brat?" he asks, but can't quite make it as gruff as he's aiming for.

Naruto stares at him for a long moment, wide-eyed, and then throws himself forward, wrapping small arms around Kurama's neck. "I was scared! You were gone and there were sharks and then Mom went after you and she was gone—"

Hands tug at his pants, and Kurama can't quite manage to look down when Naruto's got his head under his chin, but he hardly needs to.

With a laugh, Kushina crouches down, then stands back up with Gaara in her arms. He immediately reaches for Kurama, and she snorts. "This one is yours too, I take it?" she asks, and that grin means trouble.

Kurama rolls his eyes at her, but he takes Gaara as well, letting the little boy bury his face in Kurama's shoulder and cling tightly. "Oh, stuff a sock in it."

Kushina, of course, ignores him. "You look like an Uzumaki, you know?" she tells Gaara cheerfully, ruffling his hair and making him glance up at her warily. Meeting his eyes, she gentles her smile, and adds, "That's a good thing, kid. Kurama and Naruto and I need more family."

Aquamarine eyes go wide, and Gaara stares at her for a long moment, then glances up at Kurama.

Kurama just tips one shoulder in as much of a shrug as he can manage at the moment. "Don't look at me," he defends. "You signed on to this crazy caravan the second you decided to come with us. No getting out of it."

Gaara promptly buries his face in Kurama's shirt, even as Naruto cheers. "Yeah!" the blond says excitedly. "Me an' Gaara can be brothers, and Fū-nee and Yugito-nee are our sisters, and we're a family."

Smiling softly, Kushina reaches in to gently pinch his cheeks, then kisses him on the forehead. "We are," she agrees, and glances up, including Kurama in the slant of her smile. "Definitely."

Kurama has absolutely no idea what or who she thinks he is, beyond not actually her brother, but he lets himself smile back, just a little, because—Naruto ran to him, not Kushina. Kushina included him, rather than pulling Naruto away. And maybe that's a sign that things won't be changing all that much, even if Obito did manage to get away.

The relief is dizzying, and Kurama takes a careful breath, burying his face in Naruto's hair.

"You're all wet," Naruto protests, wriggling a little. "Kurama-nii! It's cold!"

It really is. There's a winter wind picking up, sharp enough to cut through to the bone, and Kurama grimaces. He's carrying a sealing scroll with the extra clothes Anzu gave him, and…there might be some that will fit Kushina. Enough to get her something dry, at least.

"Right," he says, pulling back with a sigh. "There's a fight we need to finish first, though, and I'm pretty sure we don't have time to stop and change."

"Go," Utakata says, crossing the empty stretch of flooded bank and stretching out his arms, a clear offer to take both six-year-olds. "I'll watch them. More closely this time, I promise."

Kurama really doesn't want to let go, but Kisame is gone, and Obito still has Kushina's seal on him. He won't be getting out of it easily, and Kurama's pretty sure Kisame won't leave his side before he has. Naruto and Gaara should be safe, and beyond that, he needs to make sure Yugito and Fū aren't hurt.

"Come on, brats," he chides, dropping his arms a little so Utakata can grab them. Kushina is still smiling, soft and a little wondering, but when he raises a brow at her she just grins.

"We'll be right back, you know?" she says reassuringly, patting blond hair, then red. "We're going to kick everyone's ass and win the battle, and then we can all go back home, okay?"

"To Konoha," Kurama clarifies, when Gaara's eyes widen with clear horror. He meets the little boy's stare, and says with as much conviction as he can put in the words, "We're your home now, Gaara. Stop forgetting that, squirt."

Gaara gives a quick nod, reaching out for Naruto, who grins broadly. "Go, Kurama-nii! Go, Mom!" he cheers.

Kurama snorts, but gives him a quick smile as he turns away. A swift step, then two short leaps, and he lands next to Jiraiya on the hill, crouched and waiting. "Well? Were you coming down here for a reason, old man?"

Jiraiya gives him a narrow look, but tips his head. "I felt the Kyuubi's chakra," he says. "Contained?"

That gets him a grin with an edge of teeth, full of humor at the memory of the Kyuubi's bewildered expression. "For the moment, yeah."

When nothing else is forthcoming, Jiraiya rolls his eyes, then jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "Fighting's winding down. Most of the puppets are gone, and Kakuzu's pretty much a puddle of ooze. Orochimaru skipped out, I think, and Terumī and Rōshi have cornered Sasori. Nagato's Paths are still fighting, but Han, Bee, Yagura, and Zabuza are over there right now. Tobi?"

"Escaped with Kisame, the bastard," Kushina says, cheerful and malicious in equal measure as she pauses next to Kurama.

Jiraiya looks at her like she's a miracle, and when he goes to speak his voice shakes. "Orochimaru—he implied that be brought more than one person back to life."

Kushina's eyes soften, and there's something boundlessly sad in her eyes as she reaches out, touching Jiraiya's hand gently. "Hatake Sakumo," she says. "He was the other. Not—"

Minato, she doesn't have to say.

Joy flares, twined together with disappointment and grief and hope, and Jiraiya presses a hand over his face.

"We're wasting time here," Kurama says gruffly, and steps away, meeting Tsunade's grim eyes. "The Paths are the ones we need to deal with first."

"Right," Kushina agrees, and if Kurama didn't know her quite as well as he did, that tone might fool him. She cracks her knuckles, then glances at Kurama with a grin that's only just barely forced. "Well? Are we splitting them down the middle, or just taking them as they come?"

With a roll of his eyes, Kurama leaves her behind, leaping back up onto the road and heading towards the last of the fighting. There are destroyed puppets everywhere, and the majority of them look like they were used as scratching posts for a cat with pyromaniacal tendencies. Apparently Matatabi and Yugito were both having fun.

He finds the girl herself a little further on, seated on a puppet that's still mostly intact, but lifeless, frowning at her scratched hands. "Kitten," he calls, and she glances up immediately, relief spreading across her face.

"Kurama-nii," she says happily, and when he reaches for her she takes his hands and tumbles forward to hug him tightly.

Her chakra is lower than it should be, he judges, looping an arm around her shoulders. But, despite it being depleted, she doesn't look like she's been hurt, and Kurama runs one hand over her dusty hair. "Nice work," he tells her, and Yugito makes a noise that she definitely learned from Matatabi.

"I'm a good kunoichi," she says without hubris. "They weren't even real." Her eyes dart back, over his shoulder, and she tenses a little. "Kurama-nii—"

Kurama glances over his shoulder to see Kushina giving him an arch look. He makes a face at her, which makes her grin, and then tells Yugito, "She's fine."

Yugito doesn't look like she fully believes him, but she allows it with a nod, pulling back a step. "Are we still going to head for Konoha, Kurama-nii?"

"Of course, kitten. Be a shame to come all this way just to back out now, wouldn't it?" Kurama tugs lightly on the tip of her braid, then asks, "Would you go help Utakata keep an eye on Naruto and Gaara? I'll send Fū your way too, if I see her."

She takes another wary look at Kushina, but nods regardless. "I won't let anything happen to them," she promises solemnly.

Sage, this kid, Kurama thinks wryly, but he lets her go. "I know you won't."

Yugito smiles at him, sidles around Kushina, and hurries back towards the riverbank. She's not stumbling yet, Kurama assesses, watching her move with a faint frown, but she's definitely tired. Better to get her doing something without a lot of stress so she can wind down.

"Come on," he says to Kushina, because she looks like she's going to make a smart remark.

Thankfully, she saves it for later, though Kurama has no doubt that this is just a delay in hearing it. Instead, she says, "They're all jinchuuriki, aren't they?"

"Why do you think they're with me?" Kurama retorts, and—

"Incoming!" a cheerful voice calls, just as a shape comes flying at Kurama's face. He lunges to catch it on instinct, and finds himself with an armful of green-haired little girl with wings.

"Fū," he says, somewhere between testy and relieved. "What exactly do you think you're doing?"

Fū gives him her best innocent smile, then points over his shoulder. "Following Yugito! I can't help against Pein anymore—there are too many people, and I just keep blinding them instead of the bad guys."

Kurama snorts, swinging her down to stand on her feet as the wings fade away. "Smart, sweetheart. Anyone I need to punch for you?"

The question is considered for a moment, Fū wrinkling her nose thoughtfully. Then, with a faint huff, she says, "The guy with the gravity. He almost knocked me out of the air a couple times."

That makes Kurama's eyes narrow, but when he looks her over he can't see any sign of wounds. "Will do," he agrees. "Yugito headed for the others by the river up there. You're good?"

"I'm good," Fū confirms cheerfully. She gives Kushina a bright smile, then ducks past at a quick jog.

"Cute," is Kushina's verdict. She casts a sideways glance at Kurama as they start forward again, and asks, "Yours too?"

Kurama pointedly doesn't answer, because they're coming up on a curve in the road, and beyond it the sound of fighting is clear. "Ready?" he asks instead, and Kushina laughs.

"Of course! Let's teach those bastards a lesson!" she agrees, and plunges head, leaving Kurama behind as she throws herself around the bend.

"Sage damn it, Tomato," Kurama hisses, but not quite loud enough for her to hear him. He goes after her, immediately throwing himself the Deva Path as it aims at Han. It sees him coming, of course, turns at the last moment and makes Kurama dive aside from the ripple of gravity. Without pausing, Kurama rolls right back to his feet, summons a bijūdama, and slams it full-force at the Naraka Path, who's stationed in front the King of Hell.

There's not enough warning, even with their shared vision, for the Naraka Path to do anything but brace for impact.

The dust clears in a whirl, showing nothing but an impact crater left behind, and in the sudden silence that's fallen over the little battle, Kurama straightens with a feral grin. "That's one for me," he tells Kushina mockingly.

"Oh, we're making this a competition now?" she returns, but she's grinning. "Fine, we can do it that way. Don't come crying to me when you lose, though!"

Kurama scoffs, then lunges left as Kushina goes right. Zabuza and Haku are working in tandem to harry the Asura path, so he leaves it to them, aiming instead for the Preta Path. Without the Naraka Path, it's the main defensive power. Take that out, and—

Han's chakra flares, and a moment later there's a sound of impact. The Deva Path goes flying past him, colliding with the Human Path where it's facing off against Yagura, and the heartbeat of confusion allows Kurama to slide to his feet, a shockwave rippling right at the Preta Path. The Path grounds itself, ability blooming in a sweep of pale blue, but Kurama keeps going anyway. Another shockwave directed at the ground makes the canyon walls tremble as it raises a wave of dust, and there's a sound like a gong as it reverberates off the barrier.

Then there's a rush like a thousand birds all chirping at once, a meaty thwack, a heavy thud. The winter wind whirls the dust away, and Kakashi steps away from the Preta Path's corpse, his face a little pale but otherwise steady as he shakes out his arm.

"Thanks for the cover," he says mildly.

Kurama snorts. "You finally decided to stop sulking?"

"I," Kakashi says primly, "would never sulk."

That's so patently untrue that Kurama laughs in his face.

Kakashi, of course, shoots him a wounded look, then pointedly says, "That felt too easy."

"Their ability to work together and their shared line of sight is the big threat," Kurama says with a roll of his eyes. "Take that out and with enough people, we can take them down. Especially with a surprise attack."

"Well, I did say I was very good at killing people." Kakashi gives him a crinkle-eyed smile, then brings his hands together and vanishes in a whirl of leaves.

If that's how he's planning to play it, Kurama can work with that.

He takes a quick look over the battlefield judging where he'll be of use. Han is advancing on the Human Path, who's visibly retreating from both him and Yagura, and the Animal Path is crumpled on the ground, from the state of its wounds looking like Yagura and Zabuza tag-teamed it. The Asura Path is still facing the swordsman and his apprentice, and that just leaves—

Golden chains catch the light, and Kushina snarls, "Going to try and hold me down again, asshole?"

(No, Kurama thinks, and there's a faint, niggling worry in the back of him mind. This isn't everyone. There should be…what?)

The Deva Path leaps aside, ducking around behind Han. It waves a hand, and the big man stumbles, almost falling to his knees. The Human Path takes advantage of the opening, spinning in, and Kurama kicks it back, slamming it into the wall of the canyon.

"You're not the only ones who can work together," he tells it viciously, and this is the weakest Path, the one Nagato readily sacrifices when he needs to, but it's still one of his Paths. Even if they can't manage to get to Nagato himself, if they can take out all of his Paths, it will take him time to make new ones.

He summons one small bijūdama, lets the positive and negative chakra whirl into an orb at the tip of his finger, and lunges. The Path tries to dodge, but it's hemmed in by the cliff walls, and Han is waiting right behind him; there's no getting around both of them. It reaches out, a ghostly glow gathering around one hand, and Kurama can easily recall Naruto's memories, the bodies of friends with their souls dragged out of them, but without touch the ability won't work.

Kurama pulls up just out of arm's reach, and lets the bijūdama fly from his fingertip.

"Thank you," Han says as the dust disperses. He straightens his hat, and then adds, "I'm beginning to owe you quite a lot, aren't I?"

Rolling his eyes, Kurama waves that off, even as he turns to look for Kushina and Kakashi. The former, at least, is easy to spot, hounding the Deva Path back towards an outcropping of stone, and the fact that he can't see the latter means that he's probably fine. "Fuck off. It was just—"

Something clicks.

"Did you see a woman?" he demands, rounding on Han. "Blue hair, no expression, usually with the Deva Path?"

Han blinks, then frowns. "No," he says. "No, I don't think I saw her at all after Terumī engaged her."

Damn it. No Konan means she headed for Nagato, and that likely means the bastard is about to make his escape. Or she's going to try to grab the jinchuuriki herself, but she's never struck Kurama as quite that dumb.

Kurama grits his teeth, forces himself to breathe out, and says, "They're going to try to stage with a retreat soon. We need to pin them the fuck down before they get away. I'm not leaving Tobi with any soldiers at all if I can help it."

Han nods, turning back to the battle. A hesitation, and he says, "Help with the Deva Path. I'll assist Momochi and Yagura."

That's the best division of labor, so Kurama doesn't bother replying, just ducks around the big man and heads for his former jinchuuriki at a run. She's visibly getting frustrated, Chains not quite enough to hold him, but the Path isn't managing to advance, either. It's a stalemate, and without the five other Paths to share line of sight, the Deva Path is just a resurrected corpse with the ability to toss gravity around.

In a matchup like that, Kurama's money is honestly on Kushina.

Still, there's nothing saying he can't speed things up a bit. Launching himself up and over Kushina's head, he drops down between the Deva Path and the cliff, balanced lightly on top of the rocks. An instant of will and fire curls around him, shaping itself into a dragon, and Kushina laughs, bright and vicious. Her Chains stab forward, like they're aiming to tear right through the Deva Path's chest, and in the same moment Kurama sends his jutsu whirling out, curling around Yahiko's body to cut off all avenues of escape.

"You interfere on the path to peace," the Path says, deep and warning. "This world tears itself apart, and the only way to halt it is—"

"What, listening to a man whose face you've never seen?" Kurama mocks. "Following the orders of a man with his own agenda? Yeah, you make a convincing argument, all right. Tell me, you ever choke on all that hypocrisy?"

Kushina giggles, incongruous against the backdrop of her bloodthirsty grin. "I don't know, little brother," she muses. "Maybe he's used to it by now. Still, that's a big mouthful, isn't it? Kind of makes me wonder—"

"Stop right there," Kurama cuts in almost desperately. "Sage, that is not something I fucking want to hear. Keep your dirty jokes to yourself."

Kushina blows him a kiss and gives him a wink. "I didn't say anything! That was all you."

Kurama gives her a dark look, shoving down the flicker of amusement in his chest. "Focus. And—who the fuck said I was younger?"

If the Deva Path had expressions, Kurama is fairly certain he'd look exasperated right about now. As it is, he takes three quick steps to the side and raises his hands. "If you can't be convinced of our task, I have no further need of you," he intones, and Nagato is always a dramatic asshole, but Kurama's pretty sure that this takes the prize, because there's no way—

Oh.

"Shit," he snarls, and throws himself at Kushina, grabbing her around the waist and hurling them back towards the others even as the Deva Path brings his hands together in a ringing clap. He spreads them, palms opening, and a sphere of impenetrable darkness rises, drifting up to obscure the sun.

"Chibaku Tensei," the Deva Path says, and presses his hands together.

The world trembles, shudders—

Cracks.