In the future, when Naruto is a little older, a little wiser, and the worst war of his lifetime is over, he stands beside Gaara in the waning afternoon light. From their perch at the top of the Kazekage tower they see the moment when the sun sinks down to touch the horizon and the whole desert turns to fire. Naruto finds something in that sight, in the endless waves of gold streaked with yellow, red, orange, that makes his throat tight with an emotion he can’t describe. In his peripheral vision Gaara waits serenely, eyes unabashedly trained on Naruto. He can feel his face heating under Gaara’s intense gaze, pink rushing embarrassingly to his cheeks, and abruptly understanding dawns. Carefully, he reaches out to grasp Gaara’s hand, squeezing lightly as grains of sand slither between their fingers.
A strange peace settles over Naruto as he waits in the warmth of Suna’s famous red sunset, with Gaara, all his quiet gravitas intact, standing whole and well at his side. “This is–”
“–an indulgence,” Gaara finishes, but he’s smiling, a pleased quirk of the mouth and a crinkle around his eyes. Naruto holds tighter. It is an indulgence, but one they have time for.
Even now, Naruto sometimes marvels at how they have changed – how Gaara has changed: grown older, wiser, more compassionate, embodying principles that Naruto still aspires to. It’s a strange thing, he knows, for jinchūriki to grow kinder with age, the way they have.
(for Gaara, kindness was a lesson learned in blood, and it stuck. for Naruto, it was a lesson learned in fear, and made sweeter for it)
During his Academy years, at night Naruto imagined that his walls were alive – a row of teeth in the doorway, a strange shape in the mirror, and in the gloom by the plants, a great malevolent eye peering out of the black. (and somewhere deeper, a voice like the grave saying, “this is not your body,” into the dark)
There were other monsters also, faceless creatures in animal masks crouching on his rooftop, but Naruto knew well that there were worse things than ANBU in the shadows of his apartment.
Some nights Naruto would lie awake in his bed with a mind full of white noise, imaging that there was someone else in his skin, pinned flush to his bones and spitting fire into his head. It was a thing made of rage and blood and terror – a thing Naruto didn’t recognise at all. (here is what Naruto knew: there was someone else’s soul buried under his own)
In the mornings whatever, (whoever), it was was quiet, sleeping soundly as Naruto took flight across Konoha’s rooftops, dodging ANBU and angry chūnin minders. He was constantly running away, glancing over his shoulder at their frowning faces with a grin so large it hurt his cheeks. Sometimes, he dreamt that he was chasing them instead, watching their frowns turn to looks of terror. The sight made his stomach turn in a way he didn’t like. He thought the emotion he was experiencing might have been dread. (he doesn’t want to think that it was glee instead)
Once, in the hazy years before the Academy, one of Naruto’s caretakers broke his arm. It was an accident of course, Naruto had turned to flee from the scene of a prank when a hand had reached out to snatch him up, shake some sense into his silly head – an instant of a too-firm grip and childish bones cracking under his skin. The memory only ever came in fits and starts: an angry face above his head, the hideous pain in his arm, and a red, red, haze blooming behind his eyes. (and later, the Hokage’s face under the fluorescent hospital lights, looking very, very old)
Naruto can never recall what happened in between, but a week later his arm was healed and he had his own little apartment in the heart of Konoha, with huge, gorgeous, windows for the ANBU to look in on him. (he never saw that caretaker again)
If Naruto were ever to define his childhood (and he is very careful not to), he might define it as a study of absence – the teacher whose benevolent smile disappeared whenever Naruto had the correct answer in class, the carefully blank look on his chūnin minder’s face when he showed off the fat rabbit he caught in the forest with his newly-learned traps, or the expression of abstract fear mingled with disgust when a civilian mistakenly met his eyes.
The first time the Hokage praised his ‘ingenuity’ in trap-making Naruto waited patiently for the warm glow of pride to appear in his chest, but it never came. He deliberately doesn’t think about the hollow disquiet that settled behind his ribs instead, or how his reflexive grin had ached like his teeth had suddenly grown too big for his mouth.
(sometimes, Naruto wondered if his emotions weren’t wired the same way everyone else’s were – sometimes, he wondered if there wasn’t some ravenous beast in his guts, eating all those warm feelings he could read on other peoples’ faces. sometimes, he wondered if whatever, (whoever), it was needed them more than he did)
Naruto has always known the nature of the creature sleeping under his skin.
One late summer evening during those strange pre-Academy years, Naruto wandered into a ramen stall with only thoughts of golden noodles and simmering broth. The pork ramen looked amazing, practically shining out of the sign proclaiming it to be the day’s special. When he peeked up he caught the eye of the man behind the counter whose expression mirrored his own: apprehension, and perhaps a little curiosity.
A beat later, the man leaned forward, conspiratorial and smiling, “You have a good eye young man! The pork ramen deluxe is the best on the menu!”
As he ate his noodles, Naruto waited for the warmth in his chest to fade, but it lingered even after the bowl was long empty. (he thought that even the dark thing lurking inside him couldn’t steal that strange joy away from him – there was enough to share)
There were fundamental lessons Naruto learned in his childhood, not as early as some, but far from too late; when he was younger, a little more foolish, and a great deal smaller, someone who wasn’t the Hokage or Iruka-sensei taught him to be kind.
(Teuchi doesn’t know it, but he helped save the world.)