In the dead of night on the coldest night of the year, Hinata Hyūga was lost. Running away from her uncle’s funeral had been a terrible idea, but it’d all been too much. She’d felt the weight of everyone’s gaze upon her, judging her, condemning her, blaming her. No one had looked at her, of course. They were Hyūga. No self-respecting Hyūga would be caught staring when the Byakugan would serve equally well. But the utter absence of attention to her presence held its own meaning. She was the clan heiress; no one completely ignored her. Then her cousin Neji had shed tears, and she’d just had to remove herself from the ceremony before she made everything worse.
And so Hinata lay huddled in the middle of the street buried halfway up to her knees in snow. A solitary street lamp above kept the dark at bay and her kimono staved off the cold, but nothing held back her tears.
The sound of crunching snow approached at a steady, casual pace. Eventually, it came to a stop just in front of Hinata. She pulled her head down further into her legs. Someone from her family must have come to drag her home. As much as she tried to stop her trembling and tears – such vulgar displays were unbecoming of a Hyūga, much less someone of her station – she could not.
For an eternity, nothing happened.
Hinata dared peek out from behind her legs. Before her was not anyone she’d expected. He had short, spiky, blonde hair and three whisker-like scars on each side of his face. His blue eyes with actual pupils were fixed upon her. He stood at least three feet tall, wore an intense frown, and cloaked himself in a faint, barely noticeable aura of otherness that prickled her chakra.
And still nothing happened.
“G – g-good evening?” Hinata tried.
“Obviously not for either of us,” the boy replied.
A shiver ran down Hinata’s spine at the words. The boy’s voice was so very human and yet just a tiny bit of wrongness set it infinitely apart. Instinct long buried beneath reason and learning screamed at her. “Flee!” it said. “The thing before you is not for man to know.”
Yet Hinata did not flinch away from the sensation nor quietly disregard it as anyone else would. She studied it, trying in vain to classify its nature. It was so faint a feeling, one easily ignored or overlooked. Were the boy older, she might have attributed it to some ninja technique – a subtle genjutsu or peculiar killing intent, perhaps. But he was not.
And Hinata was curious.
The boy arched his eyebrows, and his gaze trailed along the lingering tears on Hinata’s face. She brushed them off with her kimono’s sleeves and asked again.
“Why is your evening bad?”
“Oh, the usual,” the boy said with faux cheer. “The weather sucks. The orphanage threw me out to die. I have no idea how humans mold chakra. I get thrown out of the library. I’m trapped in a body I hate. I’m locked in a constant struggle to make the brain controlling this sack of flesh operate on a level that doesn’t make me feel like a halfwit. Even when it does, every thought is coloured by alien biology. And don’t even get me started on having a gender.” The boy made a face like he’d bitten into a rotten fruit. “Now I’m venting to a kit too young to remember this conversation a year from now or be believed if she told anyone of it.”
The boy took a deep breath and let it out through his nose in a loud puff of misty breath. “So? What world ending catastrophe has driven a three-year-old to tears alone in the snow?”
Hinata blinked. She’d barely followed half of what the boy had said, but she was old enough now to know she had no idea what he’d said. She did, however, realize that it was probably very, very bad.
And so Hinata did what her mother always did for her. First, she rose to her feet and brushed the snow from her kimono. Then she smiled, reached up, and rubbed the boy’s head despite his protests. She cooed some incomprehensible, soothing sounds and, once finished, asked, “Feel better?”
The boy gave Hinata a look that said, “Are you an idiot?”
Frowning, Hinata felt emboldened and pulled out her secret, forbidden technique: a hug.
“Feel better?” Hinata asked. She squeezed a little tighter when she didn’t get an answer right away and asked, “Feel better?” again, although this time it come off more like a command.
After a moment of silence once they parted, the boy reluctantly admitted, “I hate that I do,” and Hinata beamed. She had no idea why he would dislike that, but mission accomplished nonetheless. “Hmph. What’s your problem, then?”
The question brought back all the reasons Hinata was here. She shrunk into herself as she whispered, “My uncle died. My fault.”
The boy quirked his eyebrows. “Kits of any species are not responsible for their actions. You lack the mental capacity necessary to shoulder blame for anything more complex than stealing another’s afternoon snack. That you are struggling with the concept at all is an indication of excellent moral grounding.”
A moment passed.
After a sigh, the boy said, “It’s not your fault. Your parents should have prevented you from being involved at all.”
“But – but everyone blames me.”
That visibly resonated deeply in the boy. His eyes narrowed, and a scowl emerged upon his face. He schooled the expression within moments, but Hinata caught it nonetheless. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” he said. “Humans are fools. Quick to judge. Slow to admit mistakes. And they rarely revise an opinion and even then only with great difficulty. Your species is a blight upon this world.”
Hinata had no idea what to say to that.
“Well, most of you are,” the boy added. A strange tone underlaid his voice which Hinata didn’t recognize. “A few are alright. There are exceptions. I admit to a certain fondness for you at the moment.”
Unable to say a word in response, Hinata blushed and fidgeted with her thumbs and index fingers.
“Judging by the eyes, you must be a Hyūga. How appropriate, and yet such irony considering how cold your clan has grown over the centuries. I suppose I should escort you home.” The boy held out a hand. “What’s your name?”
“H-Hinata.” She shyly took the boy’s hand, unable to look him in the eyes any longer. “Yours?”
“Around others, I’m Naruto Uzumaki. In private, you may call me Kurama.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Hinata saw a face she’d not seen in forever. There’d been snow everywhere the last time they’d met!
“Mother, can I go play with my friend?”
Hitomi Hyūga broke off her conversation with the merchant she’d been speaking to. She first glanced down at Hinata before following the line her daughter’s index finger made to where Kurama was walking down a nearby alley alone. Hitomi hummed curiously. “When did you meet Naruto?”
Hinata scrunched her face up in pretended thought and feigned forgetfulness. “I don’t remember.” She had a strange feeling Kurama would rather she not tell. Besides, secrets were fun!
“Hmm. Well, alright.” The veins about Hitomi’s eyes pulsed as she activated her Byakugan. “Remember your manners, and enjoy yourself. I’ll be here if you need me.”
As Hinata moved at a hurried but dignified pace to catch up to Kurama, she overheard just a little of her mother’s resumed conversation.
“You’d let her play with the demon?”
Hitomi scoffed. “You don’t actually believe that. If he were, do you really believe it wise to antagonize him so?”
Putting that strange snippet of conversation aside for the moment, Hinata quickly caught up to Kurama. When he noticed her approach and turned to face her, she found herself shyly stuttering, “H-hello, Kurama.”
“Well, well. If it isn’t my…cousin of some variety? Niece? Granddaughter?” Kurama cupped his chin with a hand and tapped his cheek. “Hmm, I’ll have to think about that.” Snapping out of his odd musings, he said, “Good morning, Hinata.”
Noticing Kurama’s distinctly cheerful manner far removed from his prior low spirits, Hinata asked, “Did something good happen?”
“Indeed! Although I find eating a chore and frankly disgusting at times, I’ve discovered a heavenly delight not unlike basking in a high concentration of natural energy.”
Hinata tilted her head to the side.
“I’ve found my favorite food,” Kurama clarified. “Ramen is delicious.”
Three whole seconds passed in absolute silence.
“There’s been a horrendous error in your upbringing.” Kurama grasped Hinata’s hand and pulled her along. “Come with me. We must correct this immediately.”
Hinata giggled behind her free hand as she allowed Kurama to lead her. Even if she couldn’t always follow what he said, the manner in which he spoke never failed to entertain. Eventually, they arrived at a food stand a few minutes walk away. Kurama entered without delay and climbed up onto an empty chair. When Hinata hesitated to join him, he got off and pulled her inside.
“I don’t have any ryō,” Hinata protested.
“Don’t worry. We’ll put it on my tab.” A feral grin grew on Kurama’s face. “The hokage is paying. Hey, Ichiraku!”
A male voice called out, “Coming!” A few short moments later, a man as old as Hinata’s father appeared from a doorway. “Welcome back, Naruto. How’s my new best customer doing?”
“Fantastic as always! Nothing keeps me down, you know.”
“Good to hear. And who’s this with you?”
“Hinata! She’s my bestest friend ever. Believe it!”
Ichiraku laughed freely in a way so rarely heard within the Hyūga compound. “Any friend of Naruto’s is a friend of mine. Are you two here to eat?”
Kurama grinned in a wide, silly way so at odds with his usual demeanour. His hands interlaced behind his head with his elbows held up and outward. “Of course. Hinata has never even heard of ramen.”
“What! Is this true?”
It took a second before Hinata realised that, at the end of that rapid back and forth, the question had been directed at her. Eventually, however, she managed to say, “Y-yes,” and hopefully passed off her momentary lapse as shyness. Not that that hadn’t also been present.
“Well, that will never do,” Ichiraku concluded. “What’ll you two have?”
“Whatever’s ready,” Kurama replied.
A minute later, Hinata had a huge bowl of noodles, beef, and vegetables in front of her. Kurama and Ichiraku both watched her intently as she took her first bite. “It’s good,” she quietly said.
“‘Good,’ she says,” Kurama cried. “Good! Hinata, I’ve never felt so betrayed.”
With a laugh, Ichiraku excused himself to go continue setting up his business for the coming lunch rush. When he was gone, Hinata timidly insisted, “It is good.”
In a far more subdued and normal manner, Kurama chuckled. “There’s no accounting for taste.”
Hinata smiled at the pun. Then, knowing that her mother was watching, she returned to her meal with all the grace expected of the Hyūga heiress rather than assaulting her bowl to sate her hunger as her friend did and as she wanted.
Some time later, Hinata recalled a question she wished to ask. “Kurama, why do people call you a demon?”
“Because they believe that they believe I’m the kyūbi.”
“Hmm, this is a hard concept for a kit.” Kurama leaned back and tapped his bowl with his chopsticks while he stared at the ceiling. “You know what a genjutsu is, right?”
“Imagine that your ramen is the product of a genjutsu, but you claim that it’s real. If you’re hungry, will it make you full if you eat it?”
“Um… Maybe?” Hinata knew genjutsu could make you feel things that weren’t real.
“A fair answer. That was a poorly posed question. Let me rephrase it. Will the illusory food nourish your body if you eat it?”
Hinata shook her head with more certainty.
“Exactly. But if you believe it’s real and you’re starving to death, you should eat it, should you not?”
Hinata thought about that for a few seconds before nodding.
“Indeed. That’s the correct choice to make. If you believe it’s real, you should eat it. However, if you say it’s real but then don’t eat it, you only believe that you believe it’s real. Make sense?”
It took a full minute of turning that chain of strange logic over in her mind before Hinata hesitantly said, “Maybe?” She was leaning toward no, but she wanted Kurama to think she was smart.
“All right, let’s put your understanding to the test. Describe a demon to me.”
“Um… Scary? Evil? Strong?” Hinata hummed, trying to remember a word. “Cuh… Cun… Cunning?”
Kurama made another one of his feral grins, although this one looked rather more silly than the last. “Only the most cunning,” he claimed. Then the moment passed, and he asked, “The word demon has a very negative connotation – er, that is people think of bad things when the word is used. Does it seem like a good idea to call a demon as such to its face? Or to just generally abuse and annoy it?”
Hinata shook her head fiercely back and forth. That ranked very highly on the list of all time worst ideas she’d ever heard of. Her mother had said something similar now that she thought of it.
With an expectant look, Kurama rolled his hand, inviting Hinata to continue that line of logic.
“But…people…do it anyway?”
“They…” A second passed, and then it came to Hinata. “They don’t believe you’re a demon!” she said. “They just think they do.”
“Well done, Hinata. You’re a smart kit.” Said girl blushed at the complement, not that Kurama noticed as he turned his attention back to his ramen. “I look forward to watching you grow. With any luck, you’ll turn out to be one of those rare, decent human beings.”
Hinata made a silent promise to do just that. One question remained, however.
“Are you a demon?”
Kurama scoffed. “I’m certainly not like this.”
Later that night as Hitomi put Hinata to bed, the latter asked, “Mother, what is a demon?” She had a vague idea, of course, but nothing in precise terms.
“Oh, you heard that, did you?”
“Well, most use the word to refer to the monsters in fairy tales. Imaginary creatures like tengu and oni. Some less kind people use the term to refer to others with more…unusual kekkei genkai. Konoha has few such bloodlines, so our friends and neighbors are less used to them. But you’re my kind, gentle, special little girl. You don’t think there’s anything wrong with your friend, do you?”
After Hinata shook her head with all the ferocity due to such a question, Hitomi ran her finger through Hinata’s hair with a loving smile. “That’s right. Naruto was the perfect gentleman treating you to brunch, wasn’t he? That’s certainly not something a demon would do.”
That made sense, but there yet remained more to ask. “What is a kyūbi?”
Hitomi’s expression froze for a moment before suddenly growing very, very controlled. Even Hinata could tell. When she spoke, her voice took on that overly sugary tone she adopted when she wanted to gently coax information out of her daughter or husband. “Who told you about the kyūbi, sunshine?”
Alarm bells rang within Hinata’s mind. She had the distinct and unignorable impression that telling the truth would be a very bad idea. Instead, she substituted a half-truth. “No one. I heard it is all.” Which was entirely true. Kurama had never explained what a kyūbi was, only left it up to her imagination whether or not he was one.
“Hinata, this is very important.” Hitomi pressed, “Are you sure you can’t remember who said it?”
Nervously, Hinata shook her head. If her mother knew she was lying outright this time, nothing came of it.
Barely audibly, Hitomi sighed. “The kyūbi,” she began, “there’s only one, thankfully, is a giant fox the size of a mountain with nine tails each the length of Konoha.”
Hinata’s eyes widened. Kurama certainly wasn’t the size of mountain! But hadn’t he also once said he was trapped in his body? Did that mean he was shrunken? Or maybe squeezed and squished into a little boy barely taller than her? That sounded horrible!
Continuing without pause, Hitomi went on to say, “It’s the greatest and most terrible of the nine tailed beasts. It can raise tsunamis and flatten mountains with a single swipe of a tail.” The accompanying gesticulation left Hinata giggling despite the subject matter. “Some people call the tailed beasts chakra monsters and believe that they’re living chakra. Others call them demons, but they’re not inherently bad. The three-tailed turtle is well known to be of a gentle and timid disposition.”
Hitomi nodded. “Personally, I think they’re great spirits who have made the journey to our world. They’re part of nature, both the good and bad aspects. Just like anyone else, they can be kind and playful or angry and vengeful. They can be a gentle rain or a raging storm and should be treated with the same respect you would give to any other spirit.”
After a moment’s pause, Hitomi added, “Also, Naruto is most definitely not the kyūbi, and you shouldn’t ever suggest he is. You wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings, would you?”
Hinata was fairly sure Kurama would take offense to her following that advice to the letter, but she shook her head anyway without objection.
“That’s my girl. Now how about a bedtime story? I remember one my mother used to tell me about the sanbi.”
Spring passed into summer before Hinata saw Kurama again, this time in a park rather than in the city’s central marketplace. And this time, she not only knew more about him. No, this time, fortune was with her! She just happened to have an extra cinnamon bun. Though it would pain her to part with it, she knew what she must do.
The boy – spirit? god? demon? – in question slowed his walk to let Hinata catch up to him. When she came within speaking distance, he said, “We meet again, dear niece. How are you?”
“I, uh – um, good. I–” Hinata held the box containing her sweet behind her back and fidgeted. “Um… You’re the kyūbi, right?”
With a nod, Kurama said, “No one would believe you if you told them, but yes. Why do you ask?”
“Well…” Hinata worked up her courage and pushed her shyness aside. “Mother said you’re a tailed beast, and tailed beasts are spirits, and all spirits should be respected the same, and – and here.” Having said that all in one breath, Hinata gasped to fill her lungs as she held out her cinnamon bun.
A moment passed as Kurama stared between Hinata and the box.
And then Kurama burst into laughter. Hinata, chagrined, was halfway to apologizing for her presumption when he cut her off and said, “No, no. I’m not laughing at you. Just this situation. Is this an offering?”
Hinata replied with an uncertain nod.
“Then thank you.” Kurama opened the box, delighted, before then quickly taking a bite out of the cinnamon bun. “It’s good.”
This time, Hinata offered Kurama a wide smile. So pleased with her success, she even teasingly added, “‘Good,’ he says.”
Kurama smirked and took another bite. “You know,” he began before swallowing, “I don’t believe I’ve ever been given a legitimate offering before. Not in person, at least. I’ve gotten a few laughable, desperate bribes, but not this.” He fell silent for a moment, staring into the cinnamony goodness before him. He took another bite, one far larger than before, and properly savored it. “All right, kit, I’m naming you my high priestess.”
Kurama nodded and merely continued, “I don’t know what I need one for, but I’m honest enough with myself to admit it’ll mostly just be an excuse to do you favors. It’s not as though I have anything better to do until I can figure out how to mold chakra and get my hands on some fuinjutsu texts anyway.”
That last sentence came out as a mumble, but Hinata heard it nonetheless. With growing excitement overcoming the confusion of being named a high priestess – whatever that was – she slowly and carefully ran her hands through the beginner’s activation sequence for the Byakugan. “Kurama! Kurama! Look what I can do!”
With one final, “Byakugan!” Hinata’s dōjutsu flared to life. Suddenly, she could see everything in a three meter radius around her. Like a blind man opening his eyes for the first time to behold colour in all its glory, it was a crystal clarity to the world she wished she could maintain indefinitely. She could even see chakra. And for the first time, she saw just how much Kurama had within him. A raging storm of blue with flashes of red lightning coursed through his coils. He might even have more than her father! Certainly, he dwarfed her little shower. The description ‘chakra monster’ did him no justice.
Kurama grinned. “My high priestess, did you just mold chakra to activate your Byakugan?”
Hinata nodded excitedly, nearly hopping on her feet.
“And you intend to teach me how you did that?”
Hinata nodded again with equal passion.
“Do you perchance know how to perform the transformation technique?”
To Kurama’s hopeful tone, Hinata regrettably admitted, “No. I’m sorry.”
“Hmph. Nevermind that. You’ve done more than right by me already, kit. Get me started, and I’ll return the favor tenfold another day.”
Abruptly and with little warning, Hinata’s Byakugan drained the last of her chakra. She promptly collapsed into a heap on the ground.
Kurama facepalmed. “Starting with relearning how to share chakra until you can build up a respectable reserve of your own, it seems.”
The transformation technique, while only a simple E rank ninjutsu, was one of the most incredible in its simplicity and versatility. It was no mere genjutsu, no trifling illusion. Indeed, it placed the subject’s real body in some other space and replaced it with an entirely new, real, solid construct the invoking ninja could control like a puppet as though it were their own flesh. Such was the gateway to many advanced techniques that each borrowed an aspect of its power. Even on its own, the applications were limitless.
In high level combat, however, it saw little use. The concentration required to maintain the transformation, while small, could be terminally distracting. It required a continuous supply of chakra as well, too much for Hinata to provide for more than a few fleeting moments if she managed it at all. Kurama, on the other hand…
With a burst of smoke, the ninjutsu took hold. Kurama as Hinata knew him vanished. She glanced down, and the sight before her made her gasp.
“So cute!” Hinata squealed, unable to help herself.
The tiny red fox that was Kurama turned its head away in mute protest. “I am handsome, majestic, lordly,” it seemed to say, “not cute.”
But such obvious lies required no Byakugan to see through. Hinata scooped Kurama the fox up in her arms and showered it in affectionate petting. It’s bushy tail batted once against her head at the indignity of the situation, but the way it pressed its head against her hand betrayed the truth: it loved the attention!
After a minute or two, Kurama squirmed out of Hinata’s arms and transformed back into a human. She pouted, but he remained indifferent to her silent plea – for now, at least.
“Hmph. Well, that’s a significant improvement over this sack of flesh,” Kurama mumbled to himself. “Need to find an alternative way to communicate, but that shouldn’t be too difficult. I’m sure there’s a ninjutsu that allows mutes to speak. Need to figure out how to incorporate opposable thumbs without making it look unnatural. Hmm… Adding more tails would probably be pushing the limit of Konoha’s lynch mobs’ tolerance. Bah! It’d also probably tip off…”
Kurama trailed off as he caught Hinata’s expression. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Come home with me.”
“Please? I’ll… I’ll, um… Um… I’ll build you a shrine in my room!”
“No. The transformation will fool most ninja so long as I don’t draw their attention, but you live in an area with hundreds of Byakugan wielders within shouting distance of you at all times. I won’t even make it through the front gate unless your clan has fallen into sloth and arrogance since the last time I checked in on them.”
“Pleeeease,” Hinata begged.
“Hinata,” Hitomi deadpanned while channeling chakra into her hands. “I hope you’re aware that the fox on your shoulder is a person.”
Without mercy, Kurama smacked Hinata’s head with his bushy tail to little effect. It was softer than her pillow.
“I see this was your idea,” Hitomi said, visibly relaxing at the confirmation of her daughter’s safety. Now more amused, she asked, “What trouble are you getting your friend into, then?”
“Um…” Hinata’s brows scrunched together as she tried to recall exactly what Kurama had told her to say when – not if – they got caught. “You shouldn’t judge Naruto for wanting to be a fox. Everyone has a right to feel comfortable in their own skin.”
That drew a snort out of Hitomi but nothing further beyond that except a raised eyebrow.
Hinata then delivered the next line she’d been instructed to say. “It’s a joke in bad taste to piss off hostile villagers?”
“Language, young lady!” Hitomi turned her glare upon Kurama. “And I’ll thank you not to teach my daughter such words.”
Despite lacking the proper anatomy for it, Hinata heard Kurama snicker.
With a sigh, Hitomi made a clone and sent it off toward the center of town. “I’ll inform the hokage that you’ll be staying with us for the night so he doesn’t start a fox hunt for a trickster like you.”
Hinata got the distinct impression that she’d missed something as Kurama snickered again and Hitomi smiled.
“Come along, then, children. You can explain yourselves when we get home.”