An Earnest Prayer

“I’ll ask you one final time before we begin. Are you sure you want me to attempt this? You’re fading, and Hinata has adapted to having my chakra running through her. In you, it might sooner tear you apart in the volume you’ll require than piece you back together.”

Hitomi stared at the tiny, unassuming fox perched atop the footboard of what would otherwise likely become her deathbed. Even now, her mind strained to accept that the rabble had been right, if for all the wrong reasons. It was a disorienting sort of double vision. One eye saw the horrible monster who’d almost reduced Konoha to naught but memory; the other saw the surly boy who didn’t hide his understandable anger nearly as well as he thought but nonetheless doted on her daughter.

He also claimed to be their distant uncle, which Hitomi hadn’t even begun to unpack.

Regardless, it was for Hinata that Naru – no, Kurama had come with this offer. That was something they could certainly find common ground on. Hitomi couldn’t say she was at all comfortable with the interest he had in her daughter, but Hinata had blossomed since they’d brought him into the family. It might be foolish, but she would take this leap of faith.

Hitomi closed her eyes, breathed deep to prepare herself for the ordeal to come, and then steeled her resolve. “Do it.”

A moment passed as Kurama studied her, his tail curling from side to side. Whatever he wanted to see, he must have found it. With a nod, he leapt from his perch to land between her legs. He flicked his head, and Hitomi shed her nightgown as quickly as her failing strength would allow her.

Then Hitomi felt it, the buildup of malevolent energy. She’d never forget the sensation of it prickling at her skin, the memories that came with it, nor the alien sense of otherness. This time, however, it lacked the overwhelming weight that should have accompanied it as the slightest trickle strained to pass through the seal on Kurama’s power.

Alarms sounded throughout the compound. No one would sleep through this except, perhaps, Hinata.

“We don’t have long,” Kurama stated. “Prepare yourself.”

Hitomi braced for the infusion of chakra, confident. She might have effectively retired from active duty, but she was a jōnin. She’d served as well as anyone. She could fight on par with the likes of Mikoto Uchiha and Kushina Uzumaki. She could do this.

The world burned. It was all Hitomi could do to keep from screaming as Kurama’s chakra flooded and overwhelmed her own. She clawed at her skin in reflex for all the good that did. It felt like he’d replaced her blood with acid and let it slowly melt her from the inside out. In comparison, she barely even noticed when he ripped her womb open and carefully removed her baby. How did Hinata so casually endure this?

A violent fit of coughing seized Hitomi, and she felt the warm wetness of her own blood splatter across her chest. Her vision swam. Her heart skipped a few beats too many. She wasn’t going to make it, was she?

As she weakly writhed in bed, slowly slipping into darkness, Hitomi wondered how it’d come to this.

In hindsight, all the signs were there. Carrying Hinata to term had been difficult; this new child had started worse and grown ever more terrible as the months dragged on. Now, as Hitomi stared at the blood on her hand, she realized it might already be too late.

No, it was too soon to say that. Hitomi wiped away the blood trailing from her lips and, lacking any other immediate option, licked the evidence away. The last thing she needed right now was a panic or excessive fussing over her health. Stress was as much the enemy as whatever was wrong with her. She had to remain calm, keep her head, and not let her hormones send her into hysterics.

Hitomi waddled her way toward her bedroom, hoping no one would read any more into her uneasy steps than that of a frustrated woman a few weeks at most away from giving birth. Along the way, she asked a servant to tell Hiashi to come join her as soon as reasonably possible. There was no need to rush. She had at least a few days left in her, she was sure. If she were in any immediate danger, she certainly wouldn’t be able to walk.

That wasn’t nearly as reassuring a thought as she pretended it to be.

It didn’t take long after Hitomi made it to bed for Hiashi to appear at her side. He was always fussing over her these days in his own subtle way, just as he had when she’d carried Hinata years ago. For once, he might be right to treat her like glass.

“Hiashi, do you recall how hard it was for me to deliver our daughter?”

The question prompted Hiashi’s grasp on Hitomi’s hand to tighten, although that was the only outward sign of his concern. “Has something happened?”

“It might be worse this time.” That didn’t quite sell how bad Hitomi worried this might become, but she thought it best not to worry Hiashi until she knew what there was – or better yet, if there was something – to worry about. “Would you fetch a doctor for me? This close to delivery, I don’t want to take any chances.”

Hiashi rose immediately in somber dignity, not haste. Never haste. “Of course,” he said. “Rest easy until I return. I shouldn’t be long.”

“Try not–”

But Hiashi was already gone via a body flicker.

“–to draw attention.” Hitomi sighed. She’d wanted to keep this quiet – and preferably kept entirely from the children – but that was lost now. Word of the head of the Hyūga clan rushing into the hospital and demanding a doctor in her beloved but socially stunted husband’s usual imperious manner would spread across the entire village before nightfall. “Well, I suppose I can’t fault his devotion.” Really, it was that earnest nature underneath the stoicism that had won her over when they were young. Oh, she could just lose herself in the memory of that night at the waterfall.

A blush crept up onto Hitomi’s face. Yes, she would just have to deal with the consequences.

“Young lady, I’m sorry, but you really can’t go in there. Your mother needs her rest.”

That might be so, but she’d promised to be quiet. What would it hurt? The doctor would have none of it, however, just as two of her clan had sent her away already today and so many more had the day before. This was a conspiracy! It became clear to her now that she would have to sneak her way in without permission if she wanted to see her mother.

After being escorted back to her room, Hinata rushed to her wardrobe and gathered more appropriate attire for her mission. She thought about wearing her priestess uniform for the extra protection, but she needed stealth right now, not durability. That meant something in a brown that matched the wood used to construct the Hyūga compound. There wasn’t much to choose from that met those specifications, unfortunately, but she found an old training gi in sort of the right color that still sort of fit her. It would have to do.

All the commotion woke Kurama from his nap atop her bed. Those adorable ears of his perked up first, and then his head rose from his pillowy tail to blink uncomprehendingly at the world while his brain sluggishly returned to proper form. He noticed the clothes in Hinata’s hands and asked, “Training?”

Hinata shook her head and she slipped out of her kimono and began changing. “They won’t let me see mother, so I’ll sneak in.”

“They?” It only took Kurama a moment to understand. “Oh, the doctors. I suggest you listen to them.”

Words like that deserved only one response. Hinata turned a disappointed frown onto Kurama.

Kurama, however, appeared unfazed. “It’s your choice,” he said as he settled down to resume his nap. “Mammals are disgusting, if you want my advice. If your mother has gone into labor, you don’t want to be there.”

Whatever that meant, Hinata didn’t care. She had her mission.

The fundamental problem of attempting stealth in the home of the Hyūga was that line of sight meant very little. It was to be avoided, certainly, but only when doing so wouldn’t seem suspicious. No, the great difficulty came from the very probable likelihood of someone, guard or otherwise, activating their Byakugan and spotting trouble by chance from five buildings over.

But the doctors? None of them were Hyūga. Hinata had a true chance to sneak past them while they were focused on more important things.

Thusly Hinata stole her way through the corridors from shadow to shadow. Around the few members of her clan she couldn’t avoid, she acted as though nothing were out of the ordinary. They didn’t bother her, just as planned. Everything was coming together.

A pair of approaching voices made Hinata look for cover. There was a plinth with a vase atop it, but they might notice her out of the corner of her eye once they passed by her. A chest of drawers was nearby as well, but it didn’t look like she’d fit inside any of them very well. What she needed was an armoire. Lacking that, however, that left her with a door. She had no time to activate her Byakugan, so it’d be a gamble to take. If anyone were inside the room beyond, she’d be caught.

In a split second decision, Hinata went for the door. She slid it open and closed it behind her. If the approaching voices heard, they likely wouldn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t as though they were the only people who were supposed to be in this area, after all.

A quick glance around the room left Hinata breathing a sigh of relief. She was alone. As such, safely hidden, she pressed an ear to the door and listened carefully in absolute silence.

“–have to inform them both. I hate to say it, but at least something good may come of this. Having the Hyūga sympathetic to granting the medical corps more funding would be huge.”

“It might even lure Lady Tsunade back to the village if she finally got what she wanted. We could learn so much from her.”

“True. I hate these cases, though.”

“Yeah. I can’t imagine what it must be like to choose between your child’s life and your own.”

Hinata covered her mouth with her hands to hide her gasp. She backed away from the door. That couldn’t be true!

But what if it was? What would she do? What could she do? She didn’t know any medical techniques. She didn’t know anything about medicine. She couldn’t do anything.

She was going to lose her mother. The truth struck Hinata like an earth ninjutsu to the gut. Tears welled up at the corners of her eyes. When her knees lost their strength, she stumbled back and hit her head against a table edge and bit her lip hard. She stifled her wails into soft sobs as she doubled over and then curled up with her legs pressed against her chest. She could taste blood, and her head might be bruised. Her first instinct was to go to Kurama to ask him to heal her, but–

Time froze in that instant as realization dawned on Hinata. There was something she could do, something no one else would think to do.

Hinata brushed the tears from her eyes. Then, abandoning all pretense of stealth, she crossed the room and slid the balcony door open. Finding nothing and no one in her way, she leapt up onto the railing and then to the ground below. She took a straight line to her room where she found Kurama sleeping away the afternoon at such a critical juncture in their lives.

She shook him awake.

An annoyed growl escaped Kurama before his eyes opened. “Hinata,” he said with narrowed eyes. After a moment to take her in, however, they softened into his usual expression. “What happened?”

“Mother is dying.” Hinata intended to waste no time. She didn’t know how to properly pray to spirits or gods, but she didn’t think Kurama cared all that much about formalities. “Please save her. Please. I – I don’t – I – I…” Unable to restrain herself any longer, she ran her sleeve against her runny nose and couldn’t swallow a sob. “Please.”

Kurama uncurled from his rest. “I’ll see what I can do.”

It was a sobering thing, staring one’s death in the face. A strange numbness took hold of her. Hitomi felt as though she should be doing something important in these final moments, maybe spending time with her children or exchanging sweet nothings with her husband, but life tended not to be so kind. In all honesty, she didn’t think she even had the energy.

Instead, Hitomi suffered the tests and ministrations of the doctors preparing to save the life of her last child. They’d do their best for her as well, of course, but she’d set their priorities in order and knew not to indulge in false hope. They gave her a few more days at most before her body would likely give out on her. An appreciable fraction of her clan had set out to track down the world’s greatest medical ninja, Tsunade – some before Hiashi had even given the command – but it was unlikely she’d return to Konoha in time if she decided to help. Still, she appreciated the gesture.

Hitomi let the time pass her by, listlessly staring out her balcony door. From her angle, she had a pleasant view of the clouds drifting across the sky on this early spring day but little else. It wasn’t much, but it kept her mind distracted when she couldn’t work up the energy or desire to pick up anything more engaging.

Then she blinked. Had Hitomi’s eyes deceived her? Once upon a time, she would have scoffed at the notion. But no, they hadn’t. It had been Naruto she’d seen leaping from an adjacent roof of the compound. Her ears picked up the faint pitter-patter of his paws above the background noise of the doctors at work. Then, to her surprise, a ceiling tile of her room slid silently aside to let him drop into the room right onto her bed.

Hitomi chuckled to herself as best as she could manage while the doctors threw a fit at this breach of security. How classically ninja.

Before anyone could throw Naruto out, he said, “Could I have a private word? It’s important.”

“Of course, Kurama.” Despite protests, Hitomi threatened that she had strength enough yet to throw everyone else out if they didn’t grant her this reprieve. She didn’t, but she would try anyway, and they knew it, and that was entirely the point.

The medical staff filed out quickly. The sooner they left, they no doubt thought, the sooner they could get back to their patient. Once they were gone, Naruto first verified that no one was foolish enough to spy on the wife of the Hyūga clan head. A nurse lingered nearby, naturally, in case she needed to call for immediate medical assistance, but they were otherwise alone.

While she waited for Naruto to satisfy his paranoia – an unfortunate but useful trait in a ninja – Hitomi said, “That was a very good approach. Nearly silent, too.”

Naruto harrumphed. “They increased security since the last time they caught Hinata wandering about up here. Apparently, they don’t want children and animals getting in the way.”

To be fair, Hitomi would consider that a sensible decision were it anyone else in this bed, but she was pregnant and dying and felt she had a right to bite someone’s head off over it for denying her children access to her.

“Now,” Naruto began as he leapt up onto the footboard of Hitomi’s bed, “in the interest of not relying on the hearsay of a five-year-old, are you dying?”

That…didn’t sound quite right. At the risk of her waning health failing her, Hitomi briefly activated her Byakugan. Sure enough, that was Naruto’s chakra, and sure enough, that tiny application of chakra left her gasping for breath and coughing up a few drops of blood.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Naruto said wryly. “Complications due to childbirth?”

While that was certainly Naruto, Hitomi couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. She’d known several child prodigies, and even they didn’t speak like that. As such, she warily answered, “Yes, a heart condition, apparently. My body can’t handle the strain.” Worse, it was starting to affect her baby. She could try to keep herself alive and let the child die or she could cut herself open and in all likelihood die during or soon after the operation. Both options were terrible, but she’d made her choice.

Naruto said nothing for a time, merely letting his tail swish about as he stared at Hitomi, deep in thought, with narrowed brows. Eventually, he spoke once more, and his words shocked her to the core. “I might be able to save you and the child.”

Hitomi’s lips parted, but no words came forth.

“My chakra has regenerative properties. If I flood you with it, unfiltered, it should stabilize you while I rip out the source of the problem.”

When Hitomi proved unresponsive, still trying to process what she’d heard, Naruto gestured at her womb with a paw as if it weren’t obvious what he’d meant.

“It will be agonizing, however, and I make no guarantee of success. This isn’t something I have much experience with.”

“I…” Hitomi brought a hand up to her head. She felt lightheaded. “Have you done this with Hinata?” When Naruto nodded, she demanded, “Explain.”

There was a noticeable delay before Naruto chose to comply. “To teach her how to convert foreign chakras into a form she can take in and use, I’ve fed her a trickle of my own unfiltered. The lessons have yielded mixed results so far. She hasn’t learned the technique yet, but her body is adapting the way my own has to channel my power naturally, which is useful in and of itself. The malleability of youth, no doubt.

“As a proof of concept, I’ve healed a number of her scrapes, cuts, and bruises just by pushing a little chakra into her.” He paused and locked eyes with Hitomi. “You will require a lot. Raw. With no prior exposure.”

She didn’t know what did it, what last clue finally made the truth click, but Hitomi knew who she was speaking to now. “You’re the kyūbi,” she stated plainly. Already on her deathbed, she didn’t bother to wonder if it were wise to so bluntly call him out on it.

The kyūbi stared down upon her in silence, a perfectly understandable confirmation all on its own.

“I don’t understand. Why are you doing this? What are you doing here? Why Hinata?” The questions spilled forth without restraint. None of this was right. None of this was how things were supposed to be.

A considering hum emanated from the kyūbi. “Is it so strange for an uncle to help his niece in her time of need?” he asked.

“I – what – you can’t – how does that even–” Too much too fast, a flash of sharp pain surged through Hitomi as she tried to sit upright. She let herself collapse back onto her back and brought a hand up to her forehead. This had to be a fever dream. Or had Naruto taken the fox motif too far and adopted a trickster persona?

Hitomi snorted at the absurd thought. She was dying, not hallucinating. Children didn’t just suddenly adopt the speech patterns of an adult. In the face of this madness, she could only ask, “Who was your father?”

“An Ōtsutsuki, the forebears of your clan. Ancient history, but your eyes always breed true.”

“I…see…” Hitomi had to admit that the opportunity to pick the brain of a being older than dirt tempted her, but this wasn’t the time to press for further details. “Is that why you’re here? To reconnect with family?” And wasn’t that strange to say.

The kyūbi dismissed the notion. “Not particularly. I have nowhere better to be while I’m stuck like this.”

Considering what life had been like for him before, Hitomi couldn’t find any fault with that answer. “And Hinata?”

“She has been unfailingly kind to me since she learned I existed. I intend to repay the favor.”

A moment passed in silence.

That was it? It wasn’t that Hitomi couldn’t believe it, but it lined up too neatly with the reputation foxes had. Especially for a being so infamously bloodthirsty as the kyūbi. It could be true, but he could just as easily be playing off her expectations.

And yet he didn’t have to be here. The kyūbi could just quietly let her pass away. He would still have a place here even without her. Regardless of how inexpressive Hiashi could be, he had to know that. Even if Hiashi didn’t care about him on a personal level, it’d be the height of foolishness to cast him aside now that the clan had him.

No, Hitomi couldn’t see why the kyūbi would be here offering his help if he were lying. Revealing himself like this was a big risk. If he were making a higher level play to enact some greater plan later, it would require winning her fully to his side, a largely pointless action. She’d already firmly planted herself in his corner when he was just Naruto, after all.

Then again, that could just be what he wanted her to think.

Ugh, I’m too dying for this nonsense. Mind games were the one aspect of ninja life she didn’t miss but which had followed her into clan and village politics anyway. “Could you give me some time to think about your offer?”

“I’ll return tonight to hear your answer. I doubt anyone will approve of this plan, so we’ll need to work in secret if you wish to attempt it.”

That…was probably true, which meant Hitomi needed to keep the kyūbi’s secret at least until then if she accepted his offer. And in all honesty, she knew she would. Between almost certain death and a real chance at life with no apparent strings attached, she would pick the latter. First, however, she would have to write a few farewell letters in case something went wrong. That was assuming the doctors would let her, of course.

As Kurama rose from his perch, he said, “I will not be offended if you turn my offer down, but I will leave you with this. Do you really want to leave me and Hiashi to raise Hinata?” He snorted in amusement at the justly horrified look on Hitomi’s face. “She needs you in her life.”

With that, Kurama padded his way along the footboard of Hitomi’s bed until he came to the end post. He leapt onto that first and then moved to make the leap back through the ceiling tile he’d left displaced.

“Wait, Na–” No, Naruto wasn’t the kyūbi’s name. She couldn’t just call him the kyūbi, either, but then she did know his name, didn’t she? “Kurama?”

The kyūbi, Kurama, twisted his head to look at Hitomi in silent question.

“Before you leave, is there a Naruto?”

For a few moments, Kurama almost looked like an ornamental statue with a perfectly blank expression. Then the spell was broken. He answered, “If there is, I’ve never met him,” and then leapt away. He replaced the ceiling tile before he left to the soft sound of his paws on wood.

The night was late, but Hiashi nonetheless continued working through his backlog of paperwork. It was simple but consuming, boring but mind numbing. He let himself get lost in the routine, forced his thoughts not to wander, and enjoyed the sweet bliss of not feeling anything. As far as coping mechanisms went, he’d seen far worse.

The sudden spike of malevolent energy was impossible to mistake and snapped Hiashi out of his haze. As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the fates conspired to mock him. His mind leapt first to the political consequences of this. This had always been a vulnerability to the plan to foster Naruto, one they’d prepared for, but questions would be asked.

Hiashi then shook himself of his foolishness. Politics weren’t what was important right now. His family was falling apart again, and however much it hurt to acknowledge that, the situation required him to do so and act immediately. Anything less would leave Hitomi haunting him for the rest of his life just to scold him.

On second thought, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a poor course of action.

Shaking off such wishful thinking, Hiashi shot out of his office. He rushed past the fools who were still gathering in force to deal with the terrible threat of a little boy who, judging by where he felt the kyūbi’s chakra emanating from, had likely just learned that his foster mother was not long for this world. Understandable, he admitted, but unnecessary.

Upon arrival at the entrance to Hitomi’s room, Hiashi took a moment to collect himself and smooth any wrinkles out of his haori. It wouldn’t do to upset Naruto any further, so appearances had to be maintained. If he appeared at all distressed, he couldn’t be the rock to weather the storm. Now ready, he slid the door open.

Hiashi wasn’t prepared for the sight that met him. Hitomi’s white sheets had turned red. Blood pooled beneath her bed and slowly seeped its way across the floor. Its source was obvious. Hitomi lay still, naked, mutilated, and long since dead or unconscious. Before her, literally red-handed, Naruto sat on his haunches with a fierce look of concentration on his face. Beside him rested a newborn girl.

The shock faded quickly, and Hiashi activated his Byakugan. Just as he was about to strike to restrain Naruto, he realized that the boy was feeding the kyūbi’s chakra into Hitomi. That strange act stayed his hand long enough for the boy to speak.

“You’re here. Good. Take her to a doctor.” Naruto gestured to Hiashi’s new daughter with his tail without once turning his attention from Hitomi. “Make sure she’s healthy. Newborn humans are supposed to cry, I think.”

While an entirely sensible course of action, Hiashi had a larger concern to address. “What are you doing?” He was careful to keep his tone free of any anger but made it a firm command. He expected an answer.

“Trying to save your wife’s life,” Naruto replied distractedly. “She’s not responding nearly as well to this as Hinata does. It was always going to be a gamble, but I hope to get her stable enough for proper medical ninjutsu to finish the task.”

Hiashi turned his attention toward Hitomi again, this time inspecting her more closely. Her heart was certainly still beating, if weakly and irregularly. The kyūbi’s power had, in a word, devastated her chakra pathways, but they yet managed to direct energy to where it needed to go. Most importantly, despite all evidence to the contrary, she’d yet to bleed out. That could only be possible if Naruto’s actions were having an overall positive effect.

But it could be done more efficiently.

With a simple hand seal, Hiashi made a clone and instructed it to take his new daughter to receive any appropriate medical attention. He, on the other hand, moved to place himself beside Hitomi’s bed. “You have no control,” he stated without reprimand. It was to be expected of most children without also adding the difficulty of channeling the kyūbi’s chakra into the mix. “Allow me to assist you.”