Kurama listened. That's all he really could do; listen. He listened as Naruto told him about the council, how they had become corrupted and was plotting against him. He listened how the poor Hokage was lost and that his call for help was his last resort. He listened to his friend, who was tired and so clearly betrayed by people he thought he could trust.
Kurama could still remember the weeks that followed his extraction from Naruto. He wasn't usually one to dwell on the past, but as he listened to Naruto explaining the corrupt council and how they might be planning to overthrow him as Hokage, Kurama couldn't help but think back to the events from the past. Because perhaps, if he hadn't been so proud, this whole fiasco could have been prevented...
Several years earlier...
The sky was covered in thick grey clouds, a clear sign of rain. But for the time being it was still slightly warm and dry, and the people of Konoha were going on about their day-to-day life as much as possible. But there was something different today, you could see it in the way several citizens carried themselves. Some even found themselves constantly glancing at the hospital if they passed it.
Why? Because their beloved leader and hero, Uzumaki Naruto, was currently in the hospital, unconscious. And while the medics said he was well on his way to recovery, there were still those who were sceptical and worried he would die.
This was nearly on everyone's mind, everyone except for the young Hokage's wife and the very person who put him in the hospital in the first place.
Kurama was still trying to adjust to his new body, it was odd having his own physical form after so many years. He had used Naruto's body while in battle before, but that was nothing compared to now, where he had his own. Of course, he had been told that he was not allowed to roam around in Konoha in his original form, so he had to transform into a human. Not really his cup of tea, but if it meant he could have freedom, then so be it. However, not wanting to lose the power he had over those who wished to manipulate him, he retained several supernatural features, just to scare them off.
Uzumaki Ino, on the other hand, thought he was 'adorable'. He had tried to convince her otherwise, but she just laughed him off and patted his cheek like he was a little boy! Ridiculous woman!
Speaking of the woman, she was currently seated at Naruto's bedside, knitting another scarf. She had twenty in her collection now and her obsession was starting to border on insanity. At least that's how Kurama perceived it. She'd even offered to make one for him which he politely declined. Bijuu didn't wear scarves.
Ino suddenly gasped and looked up, her blue eyes wide. Kurama, who was seated by the window, turned around, worried that perhaps something had happened to Naruto, but instead he found Ino hunched over, her arms circled around her bulging stomach.
"What's wrong with you, woman?" Kurama asked. He had observed her from inside of Naruto for years, even when they were only little annoying brats in the academy, but he had to admit, he didn't actually know her that well. Was she trying to get his attention or something?
Ino gave him a very dirty look, one he recognised. He had seen it on a woman's face before, just once, when Kushina had gone into labour all those years ago.
"Oh, for goodness sake, now!?" Kurama asked.
"Hey, it's not like I can say 'don't come now baby'!" Ino yelled back. Kurama sighed and stood to press the call button above Naruto's head. He knew the nurses would probably come running, expecting some change with Naruto, only to find his wife in labour, but he was not a doctor or a midwife and there was no way he was going to handle a woman while she's giving birth. He had to go through it with two of his former Jinchuuriki in the past, he didn't really fancy ever doing it again.
But as the fates would have it, when the nurses did arrive and helped Ino into a wheelchair so they could escort her to the maternity ward, she grabbed his hand and he was forced to go with her. Bloody hell the woman had a death grip!
And so Uzumaki Kaguya was born. Her name was a sore spot for Kurama, not because he had known Hagaromo's mother personally, but the former sage had told them of her; the brave woman who ate the forbidden fruit from the God Tree and was the first human to have chakra as a result. When Kurama heard the name Kaguya, his memories ultimately went back to the days where he was a newly created entity, a small portion of the whole; the Juubi. And he missed those days, back then humans didn't really know of him, he had freedom and he didn't have to be 'good'. Now there were rules and greedy individuals who just wanted to abuse him.
Of course, Ino chose the name Kaguya for a completely different reason. She whispered the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter to the newborn babe with blonde curls with a large smile on her face. Motherhood suited the woman well, Kurama had to admit. But as he glanced at his squashed fingers he idly wondered if they would ever recover from the abuse they had received from the blonde woman's grasp.
Probably not. Next time Naruto decided to knock up his wife, Kurama will be staying far far away.
"Thank you," Ino's voice shook Kurama from his reverie. Kaguya was now attached to Ino's bosom, and the woman was staring at him, same large smile still on her face. Kurama raised an eyebrow.
"For what?" he asked.
"For being here," Ino replied. "Naruto couldn't be, but he will be so happy to know you were."
"Not like I had a choice," Kurama shrugged. Ino chuckled and looked down at her daughter again.
"Do you want to hold her?" Ino asked.
"No," Kurama said very quickly, maybe too quickly. He cleared his throat. "I mean, would you really want your daughter to be held by me?"
"Of course," Ino laughed. "You are our friend."
Kurama blinked. He had not been aware that Ino considered him a friend. For two weeks he had stayed with her, because her husband could not. And during those two weeks he ever only had 'bonding time' as she called it about twice; when he helped her up and down the stairs and when he escorted her to the hospital twice a day to visit Naruto. They rarely spoke outside of those times, Kurama preferred to lock himself up in the guest room while Ino lay on her bed and knitted scarves and little socks and all kinds of other creepy yarn items. So a 'friendship' was not what he would call their relationship.
Ino must have read his mind, because she chuckled. "Any person Naruto deems worthy of being called a friend, is a friend of mine."
If he were human, Kurama was certain he would have blushed. But alas, he was not, so no blushing today. But he gave Ino a small smile, he liked her, despite the fact that she very nearly just broke all his fingers under an hour ago. She was warm and radiant, with a smile that could rival her husband's. She stood firmly for justice and was very intelligent, having graduated with top marks after Uchiha Sasuke and Aburame Shino. She loved taking care of others and she never took no for an answer. It was such a pity that some people had come to view her as shallow and greedy, all because of how she dressed (which was for comfort) and because she sometimes felt overshadowed by her companions (Haruno Sakura in particular).
Yes, Naruto had chosen his life companion well.
A knock on the door interrupted the precious moment between newborn, mother and the beast. Ino didn't even have a chance to invite the person in before the door was knocked down and almost the whole of Konoha stormed in.
News of Kaguya's birth had spread quickly, and all of Ino's friends and family had come to welcome the new addition to the world. Yamanaka Inoichi, a proud new grandfather, was crying his eyes out as Ino handed the baby to him. His wife, Mrs Yamanaka and Hyuuga Hinata both stood by his side, mesmerised by the newborn's face.
While everyone was distracted by the baby and congratulating Ino, Hatake Kakashi stepped up next to Kurama. His daughter, Kana, was staring at Kurama with big eyes, at the age of five, she was not aware of who or what he was, but his pointy ears and vermilion hair and eyes must have put her on edge. She was, after all, just as intelligent as her father, or so many claimed.
"Still here, then?" Kakashi asked, his gaze focused on Ino and the baby.
"I am not leaving until Naruto awakens," Kurama replied.
"Scared that you have killed him?"
"No, but it is what a friend would do."
The corners of Kakashi's lips quirked up. "I will never get used to you using that word. Your friendship with Naruto saved us."
Kurama shook his head. "No, he saved me. And not just me, all nine of us. Not one of the bijuu are tied to a country now, we are all free to do as we please, as long as we don't harm humans. And our freedom would never have been possible if it weren't for that boy."
Kakashi's facial expression suddenly turned stony. "I came to warn you, actually."
Kurama raised an eyebrow, but since Kakashi had lowered his voice, Kurama assumed he should not visibly overreact, because Kakashi clearly did not want the others to hear.
"Warn me against what?"
"There are people who don't like the fact that you are now free," Kakashi whispered. Kurama smirked.
"Oh, I know. But that's the thing isn't it? There will always be someone who hates me."
And there was one person who was very verbal when it came to her opinion that the bijuu should have stayed where they were – sealed inside of a Jinchuuriki so that they could be controlled and manipulated. Her name? Shimura Ayaka. Kurama did not find her intimidating, in fact, her small frail build made her look more like the damsel in distress than the big bad wolf. But she was the niece of a very old notorious man and her belief in him was strong.
Even if he was dead, the stupid old fool had gotten himself killed trying to become the Sixth Hokage and ultimately the leader of the Allied Shinobi Forces. Kurama wasn't sure whether Ayaka had inherited more of Danzo's intelligence or his stupidity. Perhaps a bit of both.
Kana tugged on her father's trousers, indicating she wanted to be picked up. Kakashi complied and lifted her into his arms. Her dark eyes stared straight at Kurama, piercing through him. Oh she was intelligent alright, he could feel it in the way she scrutinised him.
"You're a fox," she stated, her voice young but assured.
"I am," Kurama replied. Kana tilted her head to the side, then giggled, surprising not only her father, but the fox himself. Kurama was tempted to ask what she found funny, but a movement in the doorway caught his eye. He frowned, excused himself and slipped outside. Kakashi watched him leave, weary. Kana, on the other hand, just kept giggling.
"Did your mother never teach you it is rude to eavesdrop?" Kurama asked once he stood alone in the sterile hallway of the maternity ward. A sigh echoed from around the corner, and with one step Shimura Ayaka revealed herself. Her brunette hair was tied up in a bun, her dark eyes shone with determination, but her posture betrayed her. She was nervous and he could not only feel it, he could see it.
"And what would you know of mothers?" Ayaka retorted. "You never had one."
"Touche," Kurama snorted. "What are you up to, Shimura?"
"I'm simply keeping an eye on you, that is all," was Ayaka's response.
"Aw, how sweet," Kurama taunted, "doing what Uncle Danzo would have wanted?"
Ayaka's eyes narrowed dangerously and her lips pursed into a thin line. "It was a mistake to free you and the other bijuu. Uzumaki Naruto is a fool, and I can't sit back and let him destroy Konoha."
Kurama rolled his eyes. "Can I use the phrase, 'apple doesn't fall far from the tree' if it concerns a niece and uncle? Because this all sounds familiar and is starting to give me an ear ache."
"Watch your tongue, demon!"
"No," Kurama barked as he stepped closer to Ayaka that he almost pressed against her. "You watch your tongue, you silly little girl! Uzumaki Naruto is not a fool. If you want to get really technical about all the things he had done for this village, then at least once he has saved your life. You should be grateful he is trying to change things for the better, rather than holding on to old ways that are no longer valid or in the best interests of the people."
"What makes you think my way of thinking isn't in the people's best interest?" Ayaka retorted.
"Because you're alone."
Ayaka froze as he uttered those words, which caused Kurama to smirk. He had hit home, really hard. Because that was just it, Ayaka was alone and the loneliness was killing her. But she was also proud, and therefore there was no way she was ever going to admit she was wrong or go back on her ways. It wasn't in her nature. Her stubbornness could be seen as her strength, but it was also her weakness.
"I am not alone," Ayaka muttered as she looked down at her feet.
"Really? Then where's your friends who support you? Where's the so called 'people' who feel the world should run like you want it to be run? Where is your precious ol' uncle, huh?"
He knew bringing up Danzo was a bad gamble, but he was having too much fun to care. Shimura Ayaka's trembling lips and glassy eyes was making him feel in control, like he has finally gotten back the power he had lost when Uchiha Madara had locked him in a cave.
His satisfaction shattered when Ayaka looked up, determination burning in her eyes, despite the tears that threatened to flow.
"I promise you, I will find people who will follow me, Kurama," Ayaka stated. "I will stand up to you and your precious Hokage, and then we'll see who the real boss is."
And with that she turned around and stomped away, leaving the bijuu behind, shocked. For several minutes he thought she was serious, that she'd actually pull it off, but then he just laughed. There was no way she would get a strong force behind her!
Oh, how wrong he was.
Kurama was staring out the window, Naruto's story sinking in, but the silence was broken when Naruto cleared his throat. The fox turned around, surprised that the blonde had more to say, but he knew he shouldn't have been surprised, Naruto never shut up...
"Council and other village issues aside," Naruto sighed, "there is also the Ino incident."
Kurama wasn't sure whether he should be worried or happy that the woman, who he very clearly saw as a close friend, was mentioned. Judging by the exhausted expression on Naruto's face, Kurama assumed it should be a matter where worry was required. And while his concern increased as Naruto told the tale, he could also see the small hints of contentment on the blonde's face. So, the idiot had gone and fallen in love with the alternate version of his wife too, eh?
Several years earlier...
If Kurama thought Uzumaki Ino was insane earlier, then he was solely mistaken, because labour had surely messed with the woman's head. Who in their right mind would leave a two week old baby in the care of a big bad fox?
Of course, it hadn't been intentional. Ino had been feeding newborn Kaguya quietly when there was a call from the hospital. Ino had answered, listening to the speaker on the other side and promptly turned as white as a sheet. Kurama, of course, knew immediately that something had happened to Naruto. He offered to go, but Ino had declined and stated it was probably better if he stayed at took care of the baby.
And so here he was, sitting in Naruto's living room, baby in arms. Kaguya was staring at him and chewing on her fist, which Kurama found extremely disgusting. Did all humans chew their fists? What on earth did it accomplish? He just did not understand and the only conclusion he could come to was that all human babies were cannibals. It was a logical explanation.
Time ticked by, and the sun was starting to disappear beyond the horizon, and still no news from the hospital. Kurama was starting to worry, and Kaguya was becoming restless. An idle thought passed by and Kurama wondered if human babies were like ducks and named the first thing they saw their 'mother'. Does that mean Kaguya thought he was her 'father' because he had been the first male she saw?
Suddenly he didn't feel all that enthusiastic about babysitting anymore, not that he was in the first place. Nope, he was going to the hospital, with baby and all.
He would never forget the stares he received all the way through the streets. It wasn't everyday you saw a bijuu with a baby, so those silly humans better have burned the image into their retinas.
As it turns out, Naruto had entered cardiac arrest, completely out of the blue. His vitals had been fine one minute, and then boom! Heart failure and the works. Ino was hysterical and she started screaming like a banshee when she saw Kurama with Kaguya in the hallway.
"You were supposed to stay home!" she shrieked.
"No way," Kurama argued. "I am not your babysitter, take your baby and leave me out of it."
Ino pursed her lips, her eyes were glassy. Kurama knew she was about to burst into tears, so he stashed Kaguya into her arms. Ino looked into her daughter's eyes and smiled weakly.
"She looks like him," she muttered.
"Yeah, she sort of does," Kurama agreed. "How is he?"
"Stable, but they don't know what's going on yet," Ino replied. "I'm scared, Kurama...what if he dies?"
"He won't," Kurama argued. "Not when he knows there's you...and Kaguya."
Ino's weak smile widened slightly as a few tears escaped from her eyes. The door behind them swung open and Tsunade walked out. Ino and Kurama studied her closely for any signs, but the woman had her pokerface on, much to their frustration.
"Is he okay?" Ino asked timidly, very unlike her, but she was an emotional wreck right now, so Kurama did not blame her.
Tsunade stared emotionlessly at Ino for several seconds, making the air tense, and then she smiled, warm and open and so very Tsunade.
"See for yourself," Tsunade said just before she stepped aside to allow them access to the room. Ino and Kurama glanced at each other, then together they stepped inside and was met by a pair of familiar blue eyes they both had come to love very deeply, in different ways, of course.
It was quiet their reunion. For a long time the three adults just stared at each other, while Kaguya gurgled and reached out to the strange, but somewhat familiar man in the hospital bed.
Naruto's first words as a non-Jinchuuriki was; "What!? I missed her birth?"
Despite his initial annoyance at being in a coma during Kaguya's birth, the minute the blonde babe was placed in his arms, it all melted away. Naruto grinned as Kaguya waved her tiny arms above her.
"We make awesome babies together, Ino," he commented, causing the blonde woman to blush a deep red. Her husband gave her a wink in return.
Meanwhile, Kurama was trying not to gag. Humans were so mushy.
Naruto stared at his daughter, amazed at the miracle of life. His gaze shifted to Ino and he smiled. She was beautiful, even with her much more rounded figure because of pregnancy. He knew she would probably work it all off, but in his opinion, she was fine just the way she was. Kaguya gurgled and patted one of her arms against her father's chest, catching his attention. He looked down at her again, amazed to see her smiling, if it could be called a smile since she had no teeth. Oh she was beautiful and he knew that one day he definitely wanted more.
"Thank you, Ino," Naruto whispered, surprising both the blonde and the fox that stood by the window.
"For what?" Ino asked.
"For everything," was the soft response. Ino felt tears forming, although she had no idea why. With a small laugh she sat down on her husband's bed and wrapped her arms around him.
"You're very welcome," she replied with tears rolling down her cheeks.
Kurama observed them, then turned his attention back out the window, a smirk on his lips.
'Well, Minato, it looks like Naruto found his Kushina. Although her punches are not as painful, thank the gods.'
Sasuke and Suigetsu stood close together in a small alleyway just outside Hyuuga Astra's shop. They had followed the coordinates on Karin's fake mission scroll, and were both surprised it led here. The two exchanged glances, then turned their attention to the awfully quiet building.
No one appeared to be home, because the windows were shut and the curtains drawn. But they were still cautious, because this is where Karin went missing, so anything could happen.
"I knew that woman was fishy," Suigetsu muttered. Sasuke raised an eyebrow and tilted his head, motioning for Suigetsu to elaborate.
"What?" Suigetsu asked, "Don't you think her sudden appearance into everyone's lives was just that...sudden?"
"She's been here for years, Suigetsu," Sasuke argued. "Karin comes here all the time to buy dresses."
"Yes, she's been coming to this building to buy dresses for years," Suigetsu agreed, "but I don't remember it always belonging to Hyuuga Astra. What kind of name is Astra, anyway?"
Sasuke frowned, trying to put the pieces together, but he just could not remember anything about the shop prior to Hyuuga Astra taking control of it, and that was easily a decade ago.
"You're not drunk, are you?" Sasuke asked.
"No, I don't do alcohol, remember?" Suigetsu retorted. "It dehydrates me very quickly. But that's beside the point, Sasuke, do you seriously not remember anything about this place before Hyuuga?"
Sasuke shook his head. "No, she took over ten years ago, before then the place was locked up."
Suigetsu stared at his friend, eyes wide. "Uh, no, Hyuuga Astra took over a few months ago, before that the shop belonged to some old woman."
Sasuke blinked. Suigetsu blinked back. And then it clicked.
"You don't think?" Suigetsu asked.
Sasuke nodded. "Mind manipulation, has to be. Hyuuga Astra is not who she says she is at all and she's planted seeds into our heads. Wonder why it didn't work on you?"
"Maybe I'm very fluid?"
Sasuke rolled his eyes. Now really wasn't the time for jokes. "We have to report this to Naruto."
"Yeah," Suigetsu agreed, "but that can happen after we've saved Karin."
Sasuke wanted to argue, but his teacher's old words echoed through his mind. He scowled, of all times to remember the past, did it have to be now? With a nod, Sasuke and Suigetsu jumped onto the roof to check the surroundings, before they both jumped down into the back garden. They exchanged glances, then both kicked the door down. They were going to find their teammate, even if it meant luring the shark to the bait, because that is what teamwork meant.
Those who break the rules are trash. But those who abandon their comrades are even worse than trash.
With thirty-seven-year-old Ino...
Ino did not know what to expect when she arrived in Sunagakure. She knew Gaara had gotten her 'message', the kyuubi had been very adamant about that, but that is not what worried her. No, she was more worried about what kind of person Gaara in this universe was. Was he like the one she knew back in her dimension; quiet and diplomatic, with a good head on his shoulders? Or was he more like when he was in his youth; dark, gloomy and mysterious? Or maybe he was none of the above and a completely different person?
And then there was the topic of his 'gift'. Was he aware of it in this dimension? Did he know how to use it? Because if he didn't, Ino wasn't certain if he could be any help, but she had to try. Because the longer she tried to figure things out by herself, the more she realised that something was missing. Not in the sense that she couldn't figure it out, but rather like a chunk of memory was missing.
There had been a sandstorm on the first day of her journey and while she took refuge in a cave she decided to meditate. And that was when she discovered there was something very wrong within her concious – her memory had been altered, or erased, she was not certain yet. But the empty space was there, she knew how her mind worked and she knew how memories and extracting worked, so she knew when there was something wrong.
She had nearly kicked herself for not having noticed sooner. She called herself a Yamanaka, and yet she could not even pick up a manipulation of her own mind. But the discovery did provide one answer; the person behind this all definitely knew how to work around the mind. Ino worried that perhaps it was another of her clan, someone filled with petty jealousy and this was their revenge. But she couldn't quite see the motivation, so perhaps it wasn't a Yamanaka. But it was someone who knew how to manipulate memories...and someone who was able to decipher her notes on Five Dimensions to Heaven.
She really needed to get to Suna as soon as possible, because this person was definitely not in this dimension...and that meant Naruto and the other Ino was in danger.
When Ino reached the large village gates to Sunagakure, she was met by a familiar face.
Upon first inspection, Gaara seemed quite normal. Ino watched him carefully; he had the same auburn hair, the same turquoise gaze, the same stature. Even his gait was the same, so Ino felt a sense of relief. Getting to know him would not be a challenge.
"So, how is the husband?"
Or so she thought.
Ino blinked, surprised by the question. She glanced behind her, but there was no one there, so Gaara was definitely addressing her. She had not told him anything about who she was or where she came from in advance, the only word she had exchanged with him was through Kurama, and that was just one word, which should have given Gaara a hint, but not enough to know her life story.
The smirk on his face, however, made it very clear that he was very well aware of who she was. When Ino struggled to gather a response, the Kazekage chuckled under his breath, something Ino was not accustomed to, at least not on a Gaara with such a young face. Even at sixteen, the Gaara she knew had been rather...antisocial, not out of choice, but because he just didn't know how to communicate properly.
Ino tilted her head to the side. "Sabaku no Gaara, are you sporting a second personality under that facade of yours?"
The smirk on his lips did not fade, in fact it only seemed to grow. He also tilted his head to the side. "Perhaps, Uzumaki Ino."
The two stared at each other in silence, Ino out of shock, Gaara out of amusement.
"How did you know I was not the Ino of this world?" Ino broke the silence after several minutes.
"The same way I know there's a gap in your memory," was the response. Ino was momentarily confused, and then slowly it sunk in and her eyes widened.
"Oh my god...you're telepathic?"
Alright, that shouldn't have been a surprise. Gaara, her Gaara, Hinata's Gaara was also telepathic, but not on a large scale. He could only read the minds of bijuu and communicate with them, that was his limit. But this Gaara, young Gaara, he could read the minds of humans as well?
"Yes, I can read your mind," Gaara stated. "What do you mean 'Hinata's Gaara'?"
Ino opened her mouth to explain, but he cut her short.
"Ah, we're married. Fascinating."
"Keep out of my head!" Ino shrieked, feeling very violated.
"Not until you apologise for calling me a psychic. You know me in another dimension, so you should know I hate-"
"-the word," Ino finished for him with a smile. "I know."
"What other surprises do you have hidden under that fake emotionless mask of yours?" Ino asked.
"Whatever do you mean?"
"I don't know, you don't seem like the Gaara that got described to me."
"And who described me?"
"Naruto, of course."
"Hm, yes, he is one of the majority that has not witnessed my 'other personality' as you put it."
"Has your siblings seen it?"
"No. When I was a child, I told Temari I cold hear her speak without her mouth moving, and she told me to shut up and never mention it again. So I didn't."
Ino felt saddened by that. Poor Gaara, like so many others that were different, he had to hide it, because the fear of the unknown made others do silly things.
"Well, you have certainly surprised me, Lord Kazekage," Ino chuckled. "I suppose I do not have to explain why I am here?"
"No," Gaara replied. "And I have already figured out how to regain your lost memory."
Ino was stunned. Gaara stepped aside, allowing her space to enter through the village gates. Ino stepped past him and grinned.
"Well, we better get started then."
A/N: There you go, another chapter! Just a few more to go, I believe, I can't give you an exact number, but the ending is not far. I do not have plans for a sequel at the moment (there's an idea, but I'm just not that into it), but I am working on a spin-off, which I mentioned before. My plan is to publish the spin-off sometime after I finish this one.