Gaara had long entertained the idea that he would either help Naruto save the world, or die trying.
So when Naruto approached him in the camp, the last holdout of the remaining shinobi, and told him his idea, Gaara was predictably skeptical. Not because he doubted it would work - Naruto had a knack for achieving the impossible - but because he doubted he would be any help. Everything he’d ever become had been because of Naruto. He didn’t see any reason why they would both be needed.
“Gaara,” Naruto pleaded. “We’re the only ones left with the chakra for this, and I can’t do it on my own. I just can’t.”
Gaara understood what he meant - while, practically, it would be possible, Naruto didn’t think he could handle being alone again.
Which, honestly, neither could Gaara.
So, with that in mind, he agreed.
It would be nice to see if he could tame Shukaku this time, if nothing else.
Naruto explained the basics of his jutsu to him as they worked on drawing out the massive seal that would do most of the detail work of the technique for them.
“Our bodies can’t take it,” he said. “Our brains would be paste at the end, and we’re not technically jinchuriki anymore.” He looked sad at the reminder, and Gaara felt a pang of sympathy - he and Shukaku had never been close, but Naruto and Kurama had become friends at the end, with the bijuu even sacrificing himself to keep Naruto alive.
“If we’re not going through physically, how are we doing it?” Gaara prompted, trying to keep Naruto on track.
“Right. We’re sending chakra through,” Naruto told him. “All of it. Our bodies here are going to die, but…” He looked around, eyes haunted. “Gaara, this world is already dead. I can tell you the names of every single person who is left, and I’m awful with names! We’re burnt out. The only way to fix it is for it not to happen at all.” He turned around, gripping Gaara’s hands in his. “You and me, we’re going to send our chakra through. The seal will warp it through time, like the Sharingan can manipulate space. Our chakra will hit ourselves when we were younger, and will either merge with them or take them over. I’m not really sure. But that will give us both the chance to fix things ahead of time.”
Gaara watched Naruto, taking in the desperate edge to his features, and then sighed. “How far back?”
“Dunno,” Naruto told him. “I’m probably gonna have to be a missing-nin to get anything done, so it doesn’t really matter how old I am, y’know? So I guess it’s up to you.”
Gaara closed his eyes, cursing himself for his own foolishness, because he couldn’t believe what he was about to ask. “It’s impractical,” he warned. “But I would like to save my uncle, if possible. His death was the turning point in my life, where every single person lost faith I could be human. Preventing that grief and that exile could help quite a bit.”
“Six, then,” Naruto said, seeming to consider it. “Okay. Six. I’ll be a little kid, which will be weird, but hey! At least I’ll be in time to stop Itachi from going nuts. Hopefully.” He released Gaara’s hands, nudging him toward the seal. “Alright, then. I’ll add the right lines, and we’ll be off.”
Within minutes, they both hand their hands pressed to the lines, and Gaara pretended he didn’t hear Naruto softly praying for it to work beside him.
There was a bright flash, and a swirl of pure chakra as the jutsu flared to life, and then they were gone.
Gaara woke with a shout that quickly became a growl, his body warring with itself. He quickly realized what had happened: his adult chakra, immense and powerful, had entered his six-year-old body and completely absorbed the faint chakra that was already there. Shukaku had clearly noticed the energy of his jinchuriki being swallowed whole by something stronger, because the Ichibi was awake and fighting for control.
Luckily, though, Gaara had practice with this.
He gathered his chakra into himself and pushed back, focusing on rebuilding the walls inside him that held the bijuu back. “Enough,” he hissed to himself. “I am not going to harm you, Shukaku. I’m your only ally, so I suggest you calm down.”
The chakra inside him twisted as he felt the tailed beast recoil, and within seconds, he was dragged down into their shared mental space.
Inside his mind, Gaara did not appear as a child, but the man that he’d been mere moments ago. Shukaku, on the other hand, looked harrowed and sickly.
“Your chakra is the same, but stronger,” Shukaku observed, watching him through thin-slit eyes. “How? What are you?”
“I’m your jinchuuriki,” Gaara replied. “Only older.” He explained simply the jutsu they’d used and the circumstances, and watched the Ichibi back away from the bars holding him in slowly.
“You have a lot of bold claims, there,” Shukaku said. “Am I supposed to just believe that?”
“No,” Gaara said. “But I ask you to trust me.” Before the beast could do more than sneer, he pressed on. “Your seal is broken, and it’s stifling you and weakening me. I can’t do anything with it on like it is. I’m going to find a way to fix it - but I may end up having to just pull it off. I’m not going to do that unless I can trust you to work with me, but I know you can. In the future I came from, your brother - Kurama - he gave his life to help his jinchuuriki, entirely of his own volition. I expect you to be just as strong of heart.”
Shukaku looked floored. “Kurama would never. He’s too proud.”
“And Naruto is too easy to love,” Gaara countered. “He never once saw the Kyuubi as being beyond saving, and Kurama appreciated it. I expect that right now, in Konoha, Naruto is having this same conversation with the fox, trying to win him over.”
Shukaku watched Gaara warily for a moment longer, before settling in against his bars, staring his jinchuuriki down. “Tell me your story,” he demanded. “All of it. I will decide at the end.”
Sitting down and settling in for the long haul, Gaara began at the beginning.
Meanwhile, in Konoha, Naruto was grateful that he had always been in forced isolation as a child, because the scream he woke up with would have been difficult to explain if someone heard it.
But being awake in the middle of the night in a long-lost apartment meant he’d succeeded, so he pushed back into his brain and sought out the probably-sleeping fox, because they needed to have a long talk.
He hoped Gaara was okay. Shukaku would probably be a pain in the ass. At least Naruto had Kurama’s name as proof of his claims.
Gaara left the mental plane of the bijuu, armed with Shukaku’s begrudging cooperation, to see that the morning sun was just starting to sneak in the windows. Given Suna’s location, that meant it was likely mid-morning, rather than dawn, as it took ages for the sun to be clearly visible over the cliffs.
He wondered for a split second why no one had come to fetch him yet, only to remember that he had no one at this age who would risk disturbing him at any time, let alone in the morning. Which, really, was sensible, because this was back in the height of the time of his insomnia, when he literally couldn’t ever sleep due to fear of giving Shukaku control.
If I sleep, he thought to the Ichibi, will you be wrecking my village?
I apparently need you to keep me from getting shoved into a statue, Shukaku replied. So, not unless someone really ticks me off.
Gaara thought of how easy Shukaku had always been to lose his temper, and sighed. Looks like his sleep schedule would be as poor as it had been before his bijuu’s removal after all, even if it wasn’t as bad as his original childhood.
He was already dressed, which made sense considering the aforementioned insomnia, but the loose green shirt he loved so much as a kid felt alien to him. It was loose, with a large and bunched collar, clearly something worn for comfort. Gaara, in his older years, had traded all sense of comfort or style for sheer practicality, sticking to bodysuits and, later, his Kage robes. He didn’t have any hope of finding something like that in his size around his room, and he wasn’t really sure that was what he wanted to go with, anyway. Going from loose tunics to tactical gear randomly at age six was a red flag he really didn’t want to put up.
He searched through his things, scouring all the clothes he’d been given at some point for training or what have you and promptly ignored in favor of his singular habitual outfit, looking for something less...infantile.
He eventually dug up a plain black shirt and a red-brown mantelet, and decided that would suffice. He’d have to get clothes at some point, if he was going to be building up his body strength again. He wasn’t going to try and train when his cloak brushed the ground when he stepped.
Once satisfied that he looked at least a little like a real person - mourning the fact that he’d continue to appear to be a child for years - he headed out of his room, sweeping through the house, peeking into all the other areas and looking to see who was around.
Understandable. Kankuro would be...eight? And Temari nine. They were both old enough for the Academy, and were likely in class. Which left Gaara to figure out what exactly he wanted to do for a day while he waited for other people to arrive.
Suddenly, he stumbled, staring into the distance blankly as a thought occurred to him. Waiting accomplished nothing, because he would not have company regardless. His siblings feared and hated him, though not as much as after his uncle’s death, which meant the only person he could actually speak to was Yashamaru.
He let out a low breath. Seeing his uncle alive, knowing that the man did not actually hate him, and that his betrayal had been done on orders...He didn’t know how he’d deal with it.
Hopefully well enough not to give Shukaku an opening. He didn’t trust the racoon bastard just yet.
He didn’t know where exactly his uncle was, so he decided not to bother seeking him out - they’d stumble upon each other eventually, certainly. Instead, he decided he’d start on the open displays of change - tiny ways he’d act to show that he wasn’t the demonic creature they thought he was.
In his teens, Gaara had developed a fondness for domestic tasks that he guarded intensely as his prime secret. Only his siblings knew that the easiest way to get him to relax was to give him a room to clean or a meal to cook. He couldn’t help it, though - it was a task he could fixate on that required little thought and allowed him to help the people he cared about. It was perfect for a coping mechanism, basically.
He directed that love of homemaking toward the home of the Kazekage’s children, carefully picking up the house and re-organizing things to be neat and tidy. He recalled what systems had worked best for Temari and Kankuro, and incorporated them into his redesign of the rooms, making sure everyone would be happy with the layout.
For a brief moment, he debated extending the cleaning to their rooms, as he would have as a teen, but ultimately decided against it. They did not trust him, so he would not invade their space yet.
...Well. Maybe not Temari’s. He knew for a fact that Kankuro’s room would be disgusting if left unchecked, so he was at least going to clean out the dishes and trash, if he wouldn’t mess with anything else.
When everything was sufficiently cleaned, he turned to the kitchen, searching through the cabinets and fridge, taking inventory of their groceries. There were a vast assortment of things, but they were all simple, easy-to-prepare meals, just a hair shy of being Naruto’s level of nutrition. Shaking his head, he hunted down a notebook, and began recording a list in neat handwriting of the things they needed. He knew better than to try and go get them on his own - he’d scare the market vendors half to death with his presence, and besides that, he was currently far too small to carry back even a fraction of the things he wanted to buy. He had to climb on the counter to reach the top cabinets. It was awful.
When he had roughly two pages of kitchen staples listed, he checked the time, and deemed it late enough in the day his siblings would be home soon. As such, he moved on to his last task: cooking an actual meal from the meager offerings of their kitchen.
They had enough basic ingredients for him to make several simple dishes, or he could get creative with substitutions and make something a little more detailed.
By the time he heard the key turning in the door, marking the return of his siblings, he had several tiny curry bread loaves sitting on a tray, perfect for an after-school snack, and his sister’s favorite tea steeped and prepped in a pretty but rarely used teapot.
The more Gaara looked around their little house, the more he saw that reminded him that they weren’t really people. Their living space looked like someone had set everything up for a family, and yet all the traditional and typical things were shoved aside to collect dust while they operated like they were camping behind enemy lines.
He fixed himself a cup of tea out of the pot, pouring it into the tiniest little glass and sighing over the thought that he was, in fact, only six at this time. Just as he was sitting the pot back beside the platter, he heard a sharp inhale behind him, and looked up to see his siblings both watching him as though they’d discovered him in the midst of a murder scene.
They’d probably be less surprised by that, actually, Shukaku pointed out, and Gaara didn’t bother answering him. They both knew it was fair.
“Hi,” Gaara greeted, speaking softly, treating them as though they were woodland creatures he was trying not to startle. “I didn’t want to go outside, but I was bored, so I made food. If you’re hungry, you can have some. I think they’re good.” He looked down at the tray, frowning. “I don’t actually know. I don’t like curry bread, really, but we had a lot of curry roux in one of the cabinets, so it was easy to make. I think I messed up on the spices, because it smells really strong, but I think you like it that way, right, Kankuro?”
He looked up to see his brother looking completely stunned. Gaara knew for a fact that Kankuro preferred foods to be a level of spicy that should be outlawed, and that Temari was only slightly more reasonable. He hadn’t messed up, in cooking, he’d done it exactly as he intended - but they didn’t need to know that. They were already suspicious enough.
“You...made us food?” Temari asked, tentatively. “Because you were bored?”
“Well,” Gaara said, looking at the spread before him. “I also cleaned. And made tea. But days are a lot longer when you’re by yourself, so I needed something else to do.”
Temari and Kankuro exchanged a look, and then Kankuro stepped forward, clearing deciding to be the brave one. He picked up a curry bread loaf, taking a bite, only to blink in shock and stare down at it.
“Gaara,” he said, slowly.
“What?” Temari asked, stepping up immediately, looking concerned. “What’s in it?”
“Ambrosia,” Kankuro replied. “Literal god-food. This is amazing and I’m pretty sure it’s some type of forbidden jutsu.”
Temari hit him on the shoulder. “You scared me, asshole!” She reached over, plucking the loaf out of his hands, taking a bite herself, which ended in a long groan. “Oh, that is good. Gaara, where did you learn to cook?”
Gaara headed over to the counter, fetching the long-abandoned recipe box there, with cards written in his mother’s curly handwriting. “These.”
Temari paused mid-bite, and Gaara watched her eyes glaze with tears. “Mom’s recipies,” she murmured. “You found them?”
“I cleaned,” he reminded her. “We have a lot of things we don’t use, in here. That seemed sad.”
Temari watched him, clearly considering, before humming and looking away, taking a pointed bite of her bread. “Yeah,” she agreed. “It is sad.”
Gaara allowed himself a private smile, because he knew that tone. Temari was thinking, and if the look on her face told him anything, she was realizing that he was being genuine. Maybe, just maybe, he could convince his sister to be close to him again.
Looking to his brother, who had not stopped shovelling his face full of curry bread, he decided that Temari would probably be the deciding factor. Kankuro had never really been hard to please.
Gaara had somehow gotten his family to relax enough to start playing cards at the table, still sipping tea by his side even though the curry bread was long gone, and was watching them debate whether cheating at cards could be considered shinobi training when Yashamaru finally walked into the kitchen. Watching his long-dead uncle blink in shock at the sight of three small children seated around a table was funny enough that it outweighed the absolutely crushing weight of grief that hit him when he saw the man.
“Hello, uncle,” Gaara greeted. “Temari has managed to successfully cheat Kankuro out of three rounds of cards, which is impressive, given the amount of high value ones he has snuck into and out of his sleeves since the first match began.”
Both his siblings instantly jumped on each other at the confirmation that they’d both been cheating, bickering good naturedly, and Gaara gave a small smile at the interaction.
Looking back to his uncle, he saw Yashamaru’s eyes were slightly wet, and he wondered what his mother’s brother saw that hit him so heavily. “It’s good to see you getting along,” the man told them, voice hoarse, and Gaara watched both his siblings still at the comment.
He braced himself for them deciding that was their cue and taking off, leaving him alone again...but slowly, Temari relaxed her shoulders, and gave a smile that was only slightly strained. “Gaara is a good teammate for a card match, even if he doesn’t play. He’s distracting Kankuro enough I can win easily.”
Kankuro straightened up, eyes going wide. “What?” He turned to his brother, looking scandalised, and Gaara smiled.
“Temari only ate one piece of curry bread,” Gaara informed him. “We fed the rest to you, and you were so busy eating you did not notice her retrieve a second deck of cards during the preparations.”
Temari laughed as Kankuro groaned, slumping down against the table, clearly admitting defeat.
“Well, at least we know you’ve got a sense of teamwork,” Yashamaru said. Then, to Gaara’s surprise, the man crossed the room and ruffled his hair, the light touch a shock.
Gaara might have eventually found many precious people, but he had never been one to reach out to other people, and everyone else took their cue from him and never touched him. He got so used to having a good foot between himself and other people that to have a hand actually on him made his breath catch, but when he saw the other three tense in preparation for a reaction, he forced himself to let the breath back out and relax.
He looked up to his uncle, gave him his best attempt at a reassuring smile, and told him, “I saved some of the curry bread before the card game. It’s in the fridge. It smells like fire, but they both liked it.”
Yashamaru laughed. “I don’t mind a little bit of spice. I’ll grab one, thanks. You made them?”
Gaara nodded, at the same time Kankuro began gushing about the wonder of his brother’s baked goods.
Gaara let the men converse, looking to Temari, who was watching him with a curious look. He tipped his head in a questioning gesture, and she looked down to the table, lips pursed.
Ah. She was trying to figure out what he was up to. She was still scared of him, quite understandably, and he was probably confusing her greatly by acting…well, decent .
Suddenly, Gaara felt suffocated. The idea of sitting here, in front of child forms of his family and the ghost of a man who once defined him, and pretending to be an innocent child with no ulterior motives made him nauseous.
He shifted back from the table as subtly as possible, but the effort was wasted, because there were instantly three sets of eyes on him.
“I,” he started, trying to excuse himself, but his voice wouldn’t work. He knew the feeling, had become intimately familiar with it in his later years: he was panicking, his body going on the defensive as his mind tried to work its way out of the hole his dark thoughts had dug him into. He turned, leaving the room, not running but walking as quickly as he could. Within seconds, he was in his room, climbing out his window and onto the roof.
As a young man and a Kage, Gaara used to respond to panic attacks by walking the streets, reassuring himself by looking at all the people who smiled kindly to him and greeted him by his title that No, Gaara, you aren’t a monster, you’re a person . You are cared for, you are loved, you are not pure self-loving carnage.
That wasn’t an option, at age six, and so Gaara comforted himself by curling up in the bright light of the mid-afternoon sun, soaking in warmth that hadn’t existed in the infinite night created at the end of their original world.
His sand started swirling around him, forming tiny tendrils that began slashing out like whips, and he realized that it was responding to his fear. Or, more accurately, Shukaku was - it was his chakra feeding into the sand.
Huffing, he pushed back into himself again, returning to their mental plane.
“Stop!” Gaara hissed up at Shukaku, glaring. “If you won’t behave for the village, or for me, behave for yourself. The Akatsuki are going to be after jinchuuriki, and it will be a lot easier for them to take me if the village already hates me. You’re going to make your own death easier, killing everyone who passes by.”
Shukaku snarled at him. “I’m an ancient being of pure chakra, brat, I don’t need a lecture! But your seal is full of blinders. I can’t see what you see, I just feel you. If you’re not in danger, you’ll have to let me know! Otherwise I won’t be able to tell not to attack.”
Gaara paused. He...hadn’t known that. He’d always just assumed Shukaku didn’t care about what he wanted. Maybe...maybe that was unfair.
“If I need your help, I’ll tell you,” Gaara told him. “In the meantime, until I can find a way to alter the seal, please just...rest. You could probably use it, with how much chakra this thing is sapping out of you.”
The Ichibi snorted. “I’m being put down for a nap by a six year old,” he muttered. “If Kurama could see me now.”
“Naruto said he spent most of his time asleep, because he just couldn’t be bothered to watch people be stupid all the time,” Gaara informed him. “He wouldn’t really have room to make fun of you for sleeping when you actually need to.”
Shukaku rolled his eyes, but laid down obligingly. “Okay, brat, get out of here. The blinders are still on, so I can’t see if someone comes up to you while you’re locked up with me, and somehow I don’t think you being checked out completely is a good way to keep folks from panicking.”
That was fair, so Gaara inclined his head in acknowledgement and fled the mental space, blinking back into awareness on the roof.
To see his sister standing in front of him, stance battle-ready, face pale and terrified.
“Temari,” Gaara greeted. “You followed me?”
“You’re…” She straightened up, blinking. “You’re still...you?”
“Shukaku is resting,” Gaara told her, watching her blanch. “We have an agreement, right now.”
“It’s not bad,” Gaara hurried to reassure her. “He will rest, and rebuild strength, and in return I will look for someone to fix my seal.” He held up a hand to stop her distressed cry, explaining, “It’s broken, sister. They didn’t do it right, and that’s why I can’t control him, and he can’t control me. Neither one of us is healthy, right now. If I fix the seal, he’ll be stronger, but so will I, and he’ll be able to help me without controlling me.” And vise versa, but he felt that was probably too much to add at the moment. “Once the seal is fixed, I’ll become a shinobi, the same as you and Kankuro. Shukaku is very angry, all the time, but if we can direct that anger toward enemies instead of friends…” He looked up at his sister, expression of pain open for her to see. “That would be worth anything I had to do to get there.”
“How did you even figure all this out?” she asked, incredulous. “You were completely different just yesterday.”
Gaara pressed his lips into a thin line, debating the answer he wanted to give.
“Jinchuuriki have a space in their mind,” he decided, opting to offer a version of truth. “In it, every bijuu and jinchuuriki can talk face to face. I used it to talk to Shukaku.” He tipped his head, and then admitted, “He’s not as crazy as I thought he was. He just can’t see anything. They trapped him completely, so he has to take over my body to know what’s happening. So he keeps doing that. And then he gets angry at how people are and attacks and then they die and then I’m back. Over and over and over again.” He curled in on himself, dragging his knees up to his chest, resting his chin on them. “I never realized that letting myself get upset people didn’t want to be around me made it even worse. In a way, it would have been easier if I gave up immediately.”
There was silence, and then Temari softly murmured, “I’m glad you didn’t.” Gaara looked up at her, and she was staring at him, a familiar determined expression on her face. “I’m glad you kept caring about people. I’m always scared you’ll hurt someone without knowing it, but now you know you can do it, and you really don’t want to. That’s enough for me to feel better, even if I don’t feel great. And…” She took a deep breath. “If fixing your seal will help you get better, than I’ll help you find a seal master. Shit, I’ll learn sealing myself , if I have to.”
Gaara couldn’t help it; he snorted. “You’d be terrible at sealing. Even your handwriting is bad.”
“True,” she admitted. “But that’s what the Academy is for! You’ll see when you get there.”
Gaara smiled, a tiny little hopeful thing, meant just for the two of them. “Yeah. I guess I will.”
While Gaara spent the first week back in his childhood slowly adjusting his family to the idea he wasn’t going to murder them, Naruto had a far less productive time trying to find anyone in Konoha he could get to stop and actually speak to him.
While Gaara wasn’t in classes, Suna not starting their extensive study program until around age eight, Konoha students began at six. Meaning that most of Naruto’s week was spent trying to dodge Iruka and avoid sitting through first year classes again.
He was grateful, though, that Konoha taught on a rotating system, rather than assigning teacher by year: he started in Iruka’s year for incoming students, so he would be the man’s student all the way until age twelve or graduation, whichever was first. Kids next year would get a different teacher who would be in charge of them indefinitely, and so on. It saved Naruto from having to actually do things, because he knew Iruka wouldn’t push him to show up to class. He’d be irritated that he was skipping, sure, but Iruka had always been forgiving of his lack of desire to show up. Maybe he just thought that Naruto hated feeling stupid when he didn’t know something other people were taught by their parents, or that he didn’t want to be surrounded by kids who all had their own friends when no one would even look twice at him. Whatever the reason, Naruto knew he had time before he’d be missed in his lessons.
When the first day of the second school week rolled around, though, Naruto knew he couldn’t keep ditching. He hadn’t had any success on his own, anyway: he was predictably ignored by everyone over a certain age in the entire village, and usually regarded with skepticism or disgust by those under that bar.
So, class it was. Maybe he could make some friends in his age group? Ohh, if he could befriend Sasuke, that would make things way easier. He’d have to look into that. It should be easier as kids, he thought, because before the massacre Sasuke hadn’t been a total bastard, if he remembered right.
Which he might not. Twelve years was a long time, and most of his life at age six was a mystery to him.
He headed into the classroom, groaning when he saw the chalkboard up front declaring it a sealing theory day. The basic seals had always baffled him, even when he finally got good enough at chakra control to manage single shadow clones and finer detailed jutsus. If he had to, he could pick apart a detailed S-rank seal, because every single detail involved in it was marked down clearly. He just had to...read it, basically. Simple seals, though, were just weird shapes on paper that somehow did cool things. A basic, E-rank seal could be completely different without looking like it was anything new, just because “oh, that line there is oriented to the left, instead of the right.”
Naruto wasn’t a detail person. He tended to look at the big, obvious things, or the tiny insignificant ones. He had never really gotten the hang of taking in both. Seals required a total situational awareness that he simply did not have.
He slinked into the back of the classroom, dropping down in a corner seat, wondering if he could manage to nap through the lesson if he stayed really quiet. It wasn’t as though he’d learn anything in class anymore, after all. The things they taught in the Academy had never clicked for him, but they were only meant to serve as a base for knowledge, that full-fledged ninja could build on with time. Naruto hadn’t needed the skills, because he had the raw chakra and the healing factor to get away with a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach. So it was entirely possible his grades would still be total garbage, but whatever. He could at least pass the graduation exam, when the time came, he thought. Shadow clones were easy as breathing for him, these days.
Naruto had, originally, opted to take the graduation exam with every single class from the end of his first year forward, determined that he would get it right early. By the time he was actually twelve, he’d started shrugging it off with the excuse that he’d wanted to see what it was like, not letting anyone know how badly he felt he’d failed. Now, he wondered if he would do that again. It wouldn’t be too difficult to pass it early, but then he’d be given a new team. But then again, that would give him access to resources that were limited only to Academy-confirmed shinobi.
He sighed. He’d have to figure that one out eventually, but for now, he’d stress about getting through classes without dying of boredom.
The class slowly filled with kids, and Naruto took a moment to note with wry amusement the fact that the two seats next to him remained distinctly empty, even as the rest of the desks were filled fully.
Naruto scanned the room, curious, because he didn’t remember all of these kids. That made sense, though - a lot of kids started the Academy as a test, only to leave after the first year when it became apparent that they had no skill with chakra manipulation.
His eyes snapped to the door again as it opened for the last time, revealing Iruka, laden with books and looking like he’d rather have another few hours of sleep before having to deal with small children.
“Alright, kids,” Iruka greeted, sitting his things on his desk. “If you read the board, you’ll know we’re doing sealing again today. Last week we went over seal types, so today, I want to test how well you remembered them.” He took several basic practice sealing scrolls off his desk, and began passing them out. “You’ll have half an hour. I want you to seal something away. Anything is fine - just a pencil will do. You can use any seal matrix you can remember. It just has to work.”
Naruto blinked, considering. ‘Just has to work,’ huh?
He grinned to himself. He was going to have a lot of fun in school this time around, he thought, if he kept being given loopholes to exploit.
Iruka paused in front of his table, staring down at him. “Naruto,” he greeted, eye twitching in what he probably thought was a subtle show of irritation. “You were absent last week, so I’m not going to worry about-...”
“No!” Naruto reached out, snatching one of the practice scrolls. “I know sealing scrolls, Iruka-sensei. I can learn almost anything out of a book if I take the time to read.” He figured that was a better explanation than ‘I’m actually eighteen and something adjacent to a Kage.’
Iruka seemed skeptical, but left him with the scroll without further protest, so Naruto counted it as a win.
Laughing to himself, Naruto grabbed some ink, already running through the list of possibilities in his head.
He’d always wondered what being a child prodigy would be like. It’d be cool to pretend he was, for a while.
“And, time,” Iruka called, standing from his desk. “Everyone line up in the front of the class, we’ll go through your scrolls.”
He went along the line of children, watching as they unsealed small objects - ink bottles, pens, erasers, hairpins, and all sorts of other small objects. Some students didn’t manage a successful scroll, and he spoke with them for a moment, advising them on how to improve their understanding of the art.
And then he was at the end of the line, and he realized he’d missed someone.
He looked around, frowning. “Naruto?” He looked to the other kids, eyebrows raised. “Has anyone seen Naruto?” At the blank looks and denials of his students, he moved toward the back of the room, making his way cautiously toward Naruto’s desk. The boy hadn’t sat anywhere near a window, and when asked, none of the students could recall seeing him leave. He was simply...missing.
Iruka paused at his desk, looking at Naruto’s abandoned scroll there. He wondered if the child had sneaked off when he realized he couldn’t complete a seal. With a sigh, he unrolled the scroll, thinking he’d get a look at what Naruto had attempted-...
Only to shriek and drop the seal as Naruto materialized in a puff of smoke, grinning wide, standing tall on top of the table.
“Ta da!” the boy yelled. “I sealed myself, Iruka-sensei! Sealing tiny stuff is hard, because it’s really specific, but I know my own chakra really well, so putting it into a scroll is easy!”
Iruka stared up at the boy from where he’d fallen to the floor in shock, processing the fact that Naruto, the child who struggled with the most basic concepts in lessons, somehow managed to seal his own entire body into a scroll.
Instantly, Iruka realized that such a feat was literally impossible with a simple E-rank seal, and he scrambled back to his feet, scooping up the scroll to examine the seal work.
What he saw was...gibberish.
There was no recognizable seal matrix, nor any basic symbols. The lines looked more like graffiti than anything, interlocking in bold and ugly lines, creating sharp angles and interlocked shape across the paper.
He looked up to Naruto. “What is this?”
“Huh?” Naruto said, before looking down to the scroll, like he’d forgotten what they were even talking about. “Oh, yeah. I had to make up some stuff to make the seal work, because I forgot what the design was supposed to look like. It’s kinda cool looking, though, so I like it.”
“You...invented a seal,” Iruka repeated, dumbly. But then it clicked in his brain: of course Naruto was good at seals. He was an Uzumaki. Their clan had been renowned far and wide for their sealing. It was in his blood. Iruka had been dismissing him preemptively based on his scores in practical exams, but this was clearly Naruto’s strength. Maybe this was what he should focus on teaching the kid.
“That’s excellent,” Iruka told him, and watched Naruto actually stumble, looking floored, and it occurred to him that no one probably ever complimented the kid. That...sat oddly with him, making him slightly sick inside, and he resolved to offer Naruto praise for his achievements whenever possible. “Sealing is usually one of the most difficult things for a shinobi to grasp. The fact that you managed it speaks highly of your mental abilities. With that in mind, learning proper chakra control and jutsus shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Naruto straightened, and Iruka felt like he stopped breathing, because he knew the look in the kid’s eyes. He’d seen that look plenty of times, sitting in the hokage’s office, watching world-worn jounin stumble in from a mission they’d nearly died on, and give a report with that same expression. It was a soul-deep ache, a void that could never quite be filled, that said I’ve seen the worst of the world, and the best, and I cannot tell which one wins.
And then the kid smiled, bright as the sun, and it was like that look had never been there. “I’m gonna get great at all sorts of things, y’know, and I’ll be hokage one day besides. Just watch me do it!”
Iruka smiled at him, and was amazed to realize he wasn’t even a little bit doubtful of that. “Maybe you will. But for now, you’re my student. So get off the table! You’re going to break it!”
Naruto hopped down with a laugh, and Iruka felt like something fundamental had shifted between them.
He kind of liked it.
In the week that Gaara had been back in early Suna, he’d made a point not to leave home. No one trusted him outside, among people, so he handled everything he needed done outside by passing on requests to his siblings or uncle, and spent the rest of the time working things out domestically.
That was only going to work for so long, though, and Gaara had to get out eventually. Plus, he was going stir crazy - he’d gotten fairly into the habit of daily exercise for years, and then toward the end he and the other remaining shinobi were moving constantly. To be sitting still for days on end was grating him.
Still, it would probably be best if he didn’t get seen by very many people. So instead of simply walking around, he waited until nightfall, and slipped out to the training grounds.
Shinobi villages never really slept , but people who stayed up at night always did so for a reason, and that reason rarely took them anywhere near the training grounds. As such, picking the least-used one and remaining quiet meant Gaara didn’t really worry about being found or watched. Without fear of observation, he had no reason to hold himself back, acting like he didn’t have a whole extra decade of knowledge than he should.
He mentally nudged Shukaku, informing him of his intentions, and he cautiously accepted a thread of the bijuu’s chakra through the tattered seal, which he fed into his sand.
If Shukaku was not able to properly observe, he wouldn’t be much use in a fight - at least not in the way that Kurama had been helpful to Naruto, advising him on better strategy and protecting his back when he got distracted. If Gaara was going to work with the Ichibi, he needed to find a way to do so as they were, until the seal was fixed.
So, he guided the bijuu’s chakra to coat the grains of his sand, strengthening them until a single one could pierce straight through skin, with the proper force.
And then, with that done, he revealed the trust portion of the plan: with Shukaku’s chakra to coat the grains, Gaara withdrew his own thick walls of chakra from them, leaving them stationary in the gourd.
Brat? Shukaku called to him, confused.
I’ll carry a smaller gourd with defensive sand, Gaara thought back. But this way, I can save chakra by only grabbing what I need. It gives me better control over the attacks, too, if I purposely choose every single movement of the sand.
Good thinking, the bijuu complemented, and Gaara blinked in shock, because that wasn’t even slightly sarcastic. Oh, hush, the bijuu scolded him. I’m eons old, brat, I know when someone’s plan is good! You’re still an idiot, but you’re better than most humans, at least.
Gaara snorted. He’d take what he could get, at least.
He started running through basic exercises, the kind he hadn’t run in years, because he still only had a six year old’s strength. Luckily, he didn’t have far to go to hit where he was used to: Gaara had lived his entire life with only the most basic taijutsu knowledge, relying entirely on distance in fights. While his typical excuse was that most strength training required you to injure yourself and heal, which he could not even attempt to do with his automatic protections, the more honest reasoning was that he was a massive perfectionist, and if he couldn’t do it exactly right he didn’t want to do it at all. And even if he managed all his katas with textbook precision, it was hard to watch Rock Lee fight and think of oneself as even decent at taijutsu.
Still, even if he didn’t care much for making himself stronger traditionally, he had plenty to gain from training his body. Endurance, mainly, but also things that would help with his usual evasion tactics - namely, speed and flexibility.
So he started with the most basic of exercises, and when he felt confident he’d mapped out the limits of his current body, he started on the actual work.
By the time the sun was rising, he was sweating and tired and had at some point stripped down to nothing but the black short-sleeved bodysuit he’d worn under his training clothes. He didn’t stop then, though, but kept pushing, taking regular breaks to meditate for half an hour or so and rebuild his chakra while Shukaku’s automatic responses healed up any torn muscles or other injuries.
Leave me calluses, please, Gaara asked of the Ichibi at one point. I really hate having soft hands when I need to grip things, and using sand to coat them feels weird.
Shukaku had called him a baby, but thickened the skin on his hands anyway, so. Win.
He was in the midst of practicing handstands when a shadow fell over him, and he chose to show off a bit, lifting on hand off the ground and twisting at the wrists to turn around without standing, and looking up at his visitor.
Kankuro was staring down at him, seemingly torn between disbelief, horror, and amusement.
“You and Temari were both well trained prior to entering the Academy,” he pointed out. “I should not be so far behind my own siblings.”
“...That’s fair,” Kankuro allowed, and Gaara took the opportunity to test the backspring he’d been working on earlier, leaping to his feet.
His landing stumbled, and he ended up being caught by his brother just before he hit the dirt, which was more than a little embarrassing. Luckily, Kankuro didn’t seem to really notice, too preoccupied with the realization he’d just touched Gaara and not been obliterated.
Gaara straightened, brushing dirt off of his hands, scowling at the foreign sand sticking to him. He called up his own in a wave - ignoring Kankuro’s flinch - and used it to scrub the other grains off.
“I hate getting dirty,” Gaara complained. “Why can’t they build training areas inside?”
“Because we tend to fight outside?” Kakuro replied, and Gaara admired his recovery. He was pretty sure Kankuro would have been shaking in terror at what he likely saw as a near-death experience for a while. “Besides, look around. No building would survive.”
Gaara glanced around, taking in dips and cracks in the earth from where his sand had ravaged it during his practicing, as well as the multiple craters where his sand had scraped up earth trying to catch him when he fell.
“I think,” he said, slowly, “that I might need to practice somewhere stronger.”
“Maybe someday,” Kankuro said. “For now, I think you’ll be okay. I’ve seen this place look a lot worse.”
That was true, so Gaara relaxed a bit, turning to his brother. “Did you need me?”
Kankuro jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, and Gaara looked to see the sun well over the edge of the cliffs. “We got back from class and you still weren’t home, and no one knew where you went, so I came to check.”
Gaara shifted, looking back to the training field. “Did Temari tell you about what I’m planning?”
“You mean the crazy thing?” Kankuro replied. “Where you want to mess with your own seal? Yeah, she told me.” He waved to the minor chaos around them. “Is that why you’re out here? Training so you can hold him back?”
“Not really,” Gaara said, and felt Shukaku’s slight pull of surprise in the back of his mind. “Whether his seal stays the same or gets fixed, we need to be able to work together. I’ll never be safe if I’m always fighting to stay in control.” He held out a hand, swirling sand in it, creating clever little micro designs as he went to show how finely he commanded them. “Shukaku and I have to be on the same wavelength to get anywhere. The easiest way to do that is to learn how to watch each other’s backs without getting in the way.”
Kankuro watched him, a strange look on his face. “...You know,” he finally said, crossing his arms. “I never noticed how smart you are. You talk like you’re an adult, and you’re not even seven yet.”
Gaara twitched at the reminder of his physical age, and grimaced. “I don’t think age really works the same for jinchuuriki.”
“Maybe not,” Kankuro allowed. “C’mon, let’s go home. You’ve got me and Temari spoiled on your cooking, now, so we’re both hungry.”
Gaara huffed. “I’m not cooking with you both in the house. You make fun of me when I stand on chairs.”
Kankuro snorted. “Well, get taller, shrimp,” he replied, and Gaara marvelled at how far they’d come in a mere week. “Or teach the rest of us to cook.”
Gaara sniffed. “You’re not allowed to cook. You never get the ink from your puppets off your hands completely, and that’s not safe to eat.”
“I guess you’ll have to keep feeding me, then,” his brother sighed. “Until one day you and Temari shove me off on some poor unsuspecting wife.”
“May she find strength through her suffering,” Gaara said, tone dry, before nudging his brother lightly. “Come on. If Uncle brought home the ingredients from my list yesterday, I should have a new recipe to try.”
They headed to the house together, Gaara smiling lightly as his brother celebrated the prospect of new delicious foods.
Originally, he thought living his childhood again would be the worst type of hell. Instead, it was just the opposite.
He tipped his head back, feeling the sun on his face, and wondered when he’d see Naruto again. He had a lot to tell him.