Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any related characters or properties.

Impending Challenges

Naruto watched as another person came by and looked at the wares, a small older woman, who inexplicably took a look at the weapons display and bought a knife with a curved blade and a detaching handle, as well as a set of other attachments that could be added to the handle. It was one of Han's more interesting prospects, but it didn't seem practical to him. Usually a simple kunai did its job.

When the lady left with her multi-purpose tool, he turned to the teenager. "Wouldn't you make more money if you sold that steam engine design?"

The normally quiet jinchuuriki shook his head after a long moment. "That was one of the first things Gatou ever bought, but no one else was ever able to build one like mine. It's probably because it was initially powered by my chakra." He gestured to his stomach, where the Gobi lay. "They can't figure it out."

Naruto shook away the memory of the Jouki: Rasengan (Steam Release: Spiraling Sphere), borrowed from when a portion of the Gobi's chakra resided in his seal during the final fight of the Fourth Shinobi World War. He thought instead of Gatou, who had been found dead next to his bodyguard several weeks ago due to what appeared to be a drug overdose. Naruto's clone had forced that outcome, of course, but thanks to their group's help with capturing Suien, they had not been connected to any kind of investigation.

"Hey!" someone shouted, a familiar voice appearing from around the bend. Han and Naruto looked up to see a sweaty Karin and Gaara approaching, the summer heat and humidity bearing down on them. In the girl's hand was a brochure of some kind.

His heart jumped, and his mind whirred. Karin and Gaara were supposed to be trying to find information about Fuu's whereabouts if they could, or any relevant information about the village that could apply to her. Any sensory skills they all possessed couldn't locate her, so they had to track her down the old-fashioned way. They, and Naruto's clones, had been searching for weeks by asking the villagers but no one seemed to know where to find her. Only that they saw her very infrequently, and no one would speak about the fact that she was a jinchuuriki.

Naruto took it from the redhead's hands and studied it, seeing something advertised as the Trials. It had a location and a date, set only two weeks away at the very start of August. "What is this?"

"Shibuki-san shared it with me," Karin explained, earning a nod from Naruto. "He seemed excited about it, and said it was something that happened every year. He wouldn't tell me what it was all about though."

"But I think it's where we'll find the jinchuuriki," Gaara explained, and Naruto raised an eyebrow, studying the page once more.

"Oh? Why do you think that?" He was glad that some of the things he was passing along were sticking in their minds, because if they had discovered some hidden meaning in this brochure to point them toward Fuu, then they were paying attention to what was 'underneath the underneath'.

"Read the passage on the inside flap, near the bottom under the picture of the location."

Karin grinned. "Count the stars too! There are seven of them surrounding the Trials, for the Nanabi!"

Naruto opened it up again and read it carefully aloud. "See if her supposed 'luck' will finally run out." The Lucky Number Seven, Chomei... He smiled at the three people before them. "If this is true, then we have two weeks to find her."

He tried hard not to rip the brochure in half when he finally understood what it meant. The Trials were some kind of horrible test, and from the sound of it, the audience were all betting against her. The village was probably torturing her, forcing her to fight to the death for all to see, and everything was so, so wrong.

"What do you mean?" asked Karin.

"I'm not letting her go through this again, so we're going to get her out of there."

Over the past several weeks, Gaara supposed he had to be getting better at this, much to the chagrin of his body's tenant. The last time he pulled himself into the mindscape, it only lasted a few seconds. He wondered if it was more difficult to deal with because of the Ichibi's emotional state, but considering that the monster was always a myriad of inexplicable, but negative emotions, he wasn't sure that theory panned out.

Sometimes he could go for several minutes, but most of the time, he couldn't get it to work at all. "Communication is the key to a successful partnership with the Bijuu, and Shukaku is no exception," Naruto had reminded him only minutes ago for the umpteenth time.

The desert landscape stretched seemingly endlessly before him, even greater than the most desolate locations within Kaze no Kuni. The unforgiving sun passed overhead, but it felt warm on his skin. The spiraling storm still raged in the center of the vast desert, a wall of impressive rain and a moat of water holding the giant tanuki inside.

Gaara supposed that the area outside of the rainstorm was the representation of his own chakra. If that was the case, he felt lonelier than he ever had before just thinking about it, staring at the empty expanse of rolling dunes. He tried to push that feeling out of his mind, but it was much more difficult than that. He had to physically remind himself that he had Han, and Karin, and Naruto. And if everything worked out, he would have Fuu and the other jinchuuriki soon.

After the better part of a year, he and Naruto had already gained two companions. Based on the old timeline Naruto had described, the Akatsuki had not begun gathering the jinchuuriki for another four and a half to five years, give or take. Gaara wondered how reliable that could be, given how many changes Naruto had made already. Would they tip off the Akatsuki and force action sooner, or would their group remain a secret long enough to gather them all?

"Why the fuck are you bothering me again?" the creature asked, his voice calm but with quite a bit of untapped rage hiding under the surface. The Bijuu's skin seemed to rustle underneath the surface, the blue lines darting along its sandy body and changing the shape.

"I would never bother you intentionally," Gaara said, although the small playful part of him was enjoying the fact that he was upsetting Shukaku.

"Bullshit." The creature rolled his eyes and flicked his tail, slamming it into his prison. Like before, the rain solidified to block the tail that immediately began to turn to glass. Shukaku roared in pain at the superheating rain and just grew more angry, and Gaara didn't stop himself from flinching. He didn't know if it was because of seeing him in pain, or if it was because he was scared for his life.

"This fucking cage is 'bothering me intentionally!'" The giant creature mocked. "I liked it more when I could roam the desert."

"I wish you had your freedom too," Gaara said truthfully. "I know what it's like to be in a cage." He remembered years of only being able to leave Yashamaru's home without someone escorting him.

The monster's golden eyes spun, the star in the center of them widening. "So you'll let me go!? I'm so gla-"

"No," he interrupted. "No, I can't let you roam free like before. If it means that I'll have to constantly hear your voice inside my head against my will, then you'll never be free again."

The creature just laughed. "You think this is good enough to hold me for the rest of your miserable life!?"

Gaara considered it a moment, remembering the specifics of this kind of seal. "Yes. I do. Because Naruto designed it."

Shukaku roared lightly. "You mean the future bastard!? I'll fucking kill him!" A wave of chakra extended even beyond his rainy prison, and Gaara was pushed from the seal, an odd feeling washing over him.

He opened his eyes from the meditative pose, legs crossed with his fists pressed together at the base of his chest, and found Naruto sitting across from him on the training field overlooking one of the small canals that run through the village, leading toward the great lake. The blonde was looking over several scrolls and making notes, still working on Han's seal.

Speaking of Han, he peeked over to see the tall jinchuuriki evading Karin's clumsy movements, which had not improved a great deal after their weeks of practice. The girl tried to move into a kick, but Han stepped away from it and into her personal space, and he didn't even have to touch her to force the redhead to fall to the ground on her backside.

"You don't have a definable stance, and that kick left far too wide an opening," he explained simply.

Gaara didn't know what to say to her; she had improved the least during their physical training. Week after week, Naruto and mostly Han gave her intricate critiques, but she was not visibly improving. Naruto said she'd gotten faster if nothing else, but that wasn't going to protect herself if it came down to it. The focus of her training was on chakra chains, and even that was slow-moving.

He supposed he didn't have much of a leg to stand on to judge her. While he had regained most of the control he had had after Naruto's new seal, it was the reaction time and reflexes that had waned the most. No longer did the sand move up automatically to protect him, so he would have to find some way to regain that at some point.

"Oh, Gaara," Naruto suddenly said, looking up. "Did it work or have you been here the whole time?"

The Suna native frowned at his question. Had Naruto been paying any attention to him? The blonde was supposed to have been giving him lessons on communication and making contact with the jinchuuriki. While it was a solitary activity, he still expected that the boy would pay attention to him and not get so preoccupied.

"It worked, but he's not happy. Said he was going to try to kill you."

Naruto merely laughed. "I bet so. I guess he's angry that there's a chakra construct of me in there somewhere. I bet he tries to prank Shukaku while you aren't around." The blonde grinned, and Gaara just laughed.

His eyes followed Karin's movements, but he was still talking to the other jinchuuriki. "Why is there a construct of you in there? And why does it look like... older you?"

His expression grew dark for a couple moments. "I didn't know it would do that, but I guess you're looking at what my middle-aged chakra looked like. Or will look like." He frowned deeper. "Whatever. My chakra will act like a buffer in case the seal starts to break down."

A buffer...? A chakra fail-safe written into the seal. He didn't know anything about fuuinjutsu beyond what Naruto has taught him, but it sounded advanced.

Gaara had yet to get the chakra-version of Naruto to appear inside the seal again, no matter how much he tried. He knew the time had not yet come for when he was ready, like it had said, but he had lots of questions about the future. And the real Naruto wasn't going to answer them.

"Are you going to tell them?" he asked suddenly, reminded that neither Karin nor Han knew the huge secret Naruto was hiding. "I only ask because I'm curious. You do what you think is right, not what I say."

The other jinchuuriki sighed. "I really should, shouldn't I?" Gaara merely shrugged.

Secrets were a necessity in the shinobi world. That much had been drilled into his head from day one, from every teacher he had ever had. Naruto, Yashamaru, his father, and even his siblings. But secrets also carried weight, especially secrets kept from friends and comrades.

But he wasn't going to judge Naruto's decision not to tell them yet; he trusted the other boy too much for that. Maybe it might have been smarter to voice his actual opinion, but there was some part of him that wanted to believe it was all okay. That it didn't matter if Naruto ever told the secret to anyone else. In some ways, Gaara was glad he was the only person Naruto trusted with it.

The redhead supposed it reminded the other boy of the old timeline. One of the sparse details he was given was that Gaara and the Hachibi jinchuuriki had been the only jinchuuriki he ever knew, and that he had been one Naruto's closest friends and confidants for years. Perhaps Naruto was guided by some nostalgic reason to only trust him with the secret.

"Again, I don't think it matters whether you tell them or not," he explained. "At least not yet."

Naruto looked at the other two, still running drills. Neither Karin nor Gaara had been able to hit Han more than a few times, and only Naruto seemed to be a match for him. The tall jinchuuriki was easily better at taijutsu than Naruto was, but that might have had to do with the limitations of Naruto's body rather than the actual skill level. After all, the kid's muscles were only nearly seven years old, no matter how old his mind was.

"When we get Fuu, I'll explain it to all of you."

Karin paced back and forth outside the flower shop, curious as to how this was going to actually work. Across the street was a library; she didn't really like to read, but Shibuki did and that was the point of this talk. A nervous flick of her hand brushed away any dirt on her gray shirt.

They had ten days before the Trials, and no one in their group had been able to figure out what they actually were beyond some sparse details. So she had a mission of sorts, and in a way, it might even be fun. She gripped the brochure in her hand, wanting to use this as a point of reference.

When the brunette boy entered the library with a small bow to the lady at the desk, the door closed and the nerves were getting to her. During their stay in Takigakure, Karin had made an interesting friendship with the village leader's son. If it had been anyone else, she might not have been very nervous. But he was in a position of power and she was starting to feel odd.

She knew the importance of making their group seem aloof, but settled. Thanks to Han's trade, they were able to secure some kind of trust in the eyes of the important people of the village. She was still worried she would sprout some small detail that would jeopardize everything they were working toward.

Karin finally stepped off the curb and walked across the street, passing in front of a horse-drawn cart carrying fruit, before entering the library. She bowed to the lady, trying to ignore the dusty smell of old paper.

"Can I help you with anything, little one?" the lady asked as the door shut.

Karin glanced around, catching Shibuki in the corner of her eye. If she said it loud enough, the boy would surely notice. "Yes. I was wondering if you had any records of the Trials? I'm so excited for them." Displaying the brochure, the lady seemed to understand.

"I am too. I missed last year's event, but I have my tickets this year. But I don't have any information for you," she explained. "That kind of information would probably be hidden away somewhere in a more high-profile library."

So Naruto was right. A civilian library wouldn't have what they needed. The Uzumaki glanced over to see Shibuki still filing through some interesting scrolls and books in the fiction section; he must not have heard her.

"Thanks anyway," Karin said, before turning to scour the shelves herself. No book in the store seemed remotely interesting, but she made a show of looking for Shibuki's sake. The nervous pit in her stomach had not receded at all.

"Karin!" She glanced over to see the brunette boy walking over, surprised to see her. She smiled at seeing him. "It's good to see you again."

The girl nodded and made a show of displaying the brochure that he had given her. "Likewise."

"Why are you carrying that around?"

The moment of truth... "Well, I'm trying to learn more about it. My friend Han is really interested in it."

"Really? Is he a shinobi?"

She furrowed her brow, meeting his eyes. "No, but he's trained, if that's what you mean? He's a struggling merchant. I don't think you've met him."

He seemed to dawn with realization. "Oh, right. That's who you're living with." She nodded. "Do you think he'd be interested in fighting?"

Fighting? She turned away slightly, staring down at the paper. "What do you mean?"

"This year's Trials are looking for volunteers, but not many people ever volunteer," he explained, an odd look on his face. "My dad's having to conscript some of the shinobi into fighting, but we have a couple others who have a death wish." The boy lightly chuckled, confusing her.

She looked at him, puzzled. "A death wish? What exactly is going on there?"

He glanced around for a moment, as though looking at anyone who might be listening. "The Trials are a series of fighting matches against someone important. It's forbidden to tell you who that person is, but that doesn't matter. It's important to our village's culture."

She stared down at the paper, realizing what all of that meant. They have a culture of entertaining the citizens with death matches against their jinchuuriki?

"Heh, it was probably stupid to ask you if Han would be interested. He's probably not qualified to fight against her, and it would be stupid to send him to die."

A dark idea ran across her mind, but if anything, it had to work. It might be the only opportunity they have. "He's in. Sign him up."

The tall teenager slid the pack onto his back, testing its weight and versatility of movement. He leaned in every direction, and mentally noted he needed to make it smaller on the right side, because he couldn't reach backward without it pinching his skin, even through the clothing.

Sliding it off of his back, he studied the components and shifted them around, curious if it would work. Pressing his thumb into a small slot, he pulled chakra from his gut and into the slot, watching the tank of water mix and bubble. The heat was palpable through the air, and steam suddenly engulfed his face. He shot backward, feeling lightly burned around his eyes.

"Having trouble?" asked the voice of Naruto from the doorway.

He tried to ignore the pain of the heated air, remembering to write down that he needed to find a way to redirect the steam, as well as cycle the water. "A little bit, but I'm getting closer to figuring it out."

He met the blonde's gaze and felt odd once more, a pit in his stomach spreading. Ever since Gatou's death, he couldn't look at Naruto the same way again. It was inexplicable, and unjustifiable, but he couldn't get the idea out of his head. He was suspicious of the boy's potential involvement in Gatou's death.

Han knew the official report. Gatou and his bodyguard overdosed. He supposed it didn't make any sense to assume Naruto had some hand in it, but on some instinctual level, he felt odd around him.

Logically, he pushed it out of his mind and didn't let it bother him. There was no way the boy had something to do with it. He didn't have it in him. He knew Gatou had been a drug addict, a long-time opium sufferer. Chances are, he was stupid for even considering it.

But still, the fear remained.

"We've got good news," Naruto said, as Karin walked into the room from her adjoining hotel room. Gaara peeked his head out of the bathroom, a sandy towel draped off of his head.

"We have a plan to get to Fuu!" the little redhead said with a bright smile. Han locked eyes with Naruto and saw the mischievous smirk on his face.

She sighed as she picked through her meager helpings, hating the village even more. The Trials were coming, days away now.

Fuu knew it was hopeless to assume she would be out of the village any time soon, thanks to Suien's ridiculous suicide. She couldn't imagine that the Taki shinobi would be stupid enough not to check for pills, when they took every precaution imaginable to ensure she wouldn't get out under any circumstance. An altitude-sensing seal around her neck, bars on the windows, impossibly dark hallways, and a probably simple locking seal on the other side of the door.

She sipped water from the canteen, trying to ignore her depression and focusing on rage. If she worked hard, harder than ever before, maybe she would get the chance to actually be free, as per the Trials' rules. But she squandered that hope very quickly. Her performance didn't matter; these Trials were the village's entertainment. Even if she somehow succeeded, they would merely make her an active shinobi and all of Takigakure would become her prison. Fuu would be forced to follow her village's role and support them on missions, and she would never get the chance to escape.

The jinchuuriki rubbed her fingers along the plate, gripping the fork carefully. Her eyes flickered to the small crack in the door where they dropped her meals. She hadn't been given a new handler after Suien, so she hadn't had any real human contact in months.

Fuu withdrew into herself more and more, the tension gathering on her shoulders so painfully that she forced herself onto her feet, stretching carefully to test her flexibility. When she flipped completely backwards, kicking off of the wall itself, she spun in mid-air and landed carefully next to the cot. These agility tests were necessary, even in the small room.

She almost begged for a mission, if only to see the outside of the cell. They wouldn't let her train in a more open space without a handler, so she only had sparse moments to check that her physicality still remained. She forced herself to exercise, to perform as many drills as she could, only to give herself a fighting chance.

But they didn't care. They were setting her up to fail, to get knocked around like a rag doll and barely survive, only to repeat the next year for the whole village to see. They told her it was to toughen her up for official missions, but she hadn't had any of those in a long time, even when Suien was alive.

The Trials were supposed to be her ticket out of the village, but that wouldn't happen now. Suien's team wouldn't be able to find her, and without him, she couldn't imagine they were even coming in the first place.

Fuu had no choice. She dropped to the ground and alternated one-handed push-ups, forcing her body to move in perfect harmony with her heartbeat. Her speed was what she prided the most, but her body had plenty of power behind it as well. Getting herself into prime physical condition was all she could do.

Nearly half an hour later, there was a slight knock on the door. The sound was confusing to her addled mind, and she panted lightly as she caught her breath. A short female chunin opened the door and made the mistake of passing the threshold.

Fuu was on her feet in no more than a second, bounding across the room with only one large footstep, her hand against the woman's throat and throwing her against the wall hard. A fist collided with her stomach, leaving the woman breathless.

"What... the hell?!"

"Don't approach me without my permission," she explained carefully, dropping the woman. She clambered to her feet and slid past the open door, before turning around with a vindictive expression on her face.

"I was going to tell you some information you'll want to know, but I think you don't deserve to have it now," the chunin explained snidely.

Fuu just laughed callously. "I suppose you don't have to do what you're told to do when it comes to me, right?"

The woman twisted her lip in disgust. "Try not to die." And with that, the woman left.

"Don't worry; the village won't let me actually die."

"Shouldn't I be preparing for the Trials?" asked Han simply.

Naruto glanced around the underground room Gaara had created out of the sand, and smiled at how easily it had come to him this time. The room carried much more detail than before, and was larger and deeper into the ground. Naruto inspected the non-detection seal lining the room, fixed on the small crystalline charm sitting on an altar. Their emergency provisions were here, stored in a scroll, as well as other various items. Most of their day-to-day supplies were still in the inn, somewhere far above them.

"No, this is necessary," Naruto said, thinking about Han's question. The Trials were very soon, but they had an interesting predicament.

It all seemed to make so much more sense when the details fell into place. Iwagakure had wanted to sever the connection Han had with his mother in order to get him to submit to the Gobi's power and use it effortlessly. Instinctively. Because Han had admitted only weeks ago that he could only draw on a sliver of the Bijuu's power.

"Why is that?" the other jinchuuriki asked.

"Because I suspect Fuu has much more control over the Bijuu than you do," he explained. "And chances are, she might rely on it to win. And I don't want you to die, so I'm going to fix your seal."

Han stared at him. "Really? What if something goes wrong?"

"It won't," he explained. "When I repaired Gaara's seal, I learned how to make it work for all of you. The difference is the amount of power, but I've worked on it consistently for months. I should have it calibrated right."

Naruto was hoping he would accept it. Even if something went wrong, he already had a paper with a chakra suppression seal ready to hold it back long enough to work.

When Han finally nodded. "If you think it will help me fight her, do it."

Naruto nodded, instantly creating several shadow clones. They began tracing the necessary seals all along the room, almost the same as they did for Gaara. Han stood in the center of the sand-created room, shirt off and ready.

"Are you nervous?" he asked.

The taller jinchuuriki nodded. "I can't help it, but I'll get over it."

When all the necessary precautions had been taken, Naruto took several deep breaths. Glad that he was the only one present this time, with Gaara and Karin far above them waiting in the wings, he felt he could concentrate better knowing they were safe. Last time, the sand had reacted to the chakra shift, nearly flooding the room. Thankfully, that would happen this time.

Whirling through hand-seals with trained proficiency, he ended in the ram seal before slamming his thumb on the primer seals. "Uzumaki Hakke no Fuuin Shiki: Gobi Shuusei (Uzumaki Eight Trigrams Sealing Style: Five-Tailed Beast Modification)!"

The sealing array suddenly exploded with blue light, trailing along the seals and condensing under the spiral, gathering in a glowing circle under Han's feet. Just like Gaara's seal, the bright blue ink began to crawl up the body of the teenager, glowing underneath the dark pants, until it extended beyond the fabric and wrapped around his hips.

The jinchuuriki before him was more tempered than Gaara, wincing from the pain, and reached backward to touch his back, where the seals had gathered in the center of the space between his shoulder-blades. The air seemed to heat with the force of the chakra, an odd humidity sticking to every surface.

Naruto walked around carefully to observe his back, as the old invisible seal was stripped away. It condensed again and traveled back to Han's naval, where it spiraled out. He tore at his skin, his face contorted in a kind of silent pain, and he suddenly looked up at Naruto with an intensity he didn't expect.

"Why did you do this to me!?"

The blonde backed away slightly, prepared for the worst, as an uncharacteristic anger gathered in his expression. When the eyes suddenly shifted, becoming bright blue with an odd orange outline underneath it, he pulled the suppression seal from his belt and prepared to use it.

The ink condensed into its shape, still glowing with bright blue light. The seal had the general shape of Naruto's, and like the Ichibi version of the seal, had a magatama in the center of the seal. Unlike the other two, this seal also had four more magatama, all gathered directly in the center to form a diamond shape.

As soon as the glowing subsided, Naruto's fears that the Gobi would escape were crushed. The eye effect of the Bijuu's chakra disappeared as Han lost consciousness, falling to the ground.

Han pushed himself up, feeling refreshed, but with a phantom pain running along his stomach. He looked down to see the new seal on his bare skin. Naruto succeeded...

He glanced around, realizing that he had no idea where he was. A cave filled with what looked like steel stalactites, glinting in the light that didn't come from anywhere in particular. The air was oddly dry for a cave, and for a moment, he wondered if Gaara somehow knew how to sprout metal now to add to their hidden cavern.

But the loud sound of something rustling finally got his attention. He flipped around and immediately gasped.

The Gobi stood between four stone pillars, each decorated with a spiral not unlike the one on his navel. It was forced down on the ground by a steel arch that held it tight against the ground, not letting it escape. This was the first time he had seen the Gobi beyond pictures, and its odd amalgam shape was interesting. It had the body of a horse, but seemed to have the snout and general characteristics of a dolphin. It let out an odd squeak, but when its orange-ringed blue eyes finally noticed him, it struggled more.

"I feel like I've been here forever, even if it's been seconds for you, but I haven't gotten it to say anything." The voice was strikingly familiar, but a small bit deeper. Was the Gobi speaking?

Han whirled around to the source, a blonde man about a head shorter than he was, wearing what looked like the Konoha ANBU uniform over his body, but the stranger's hitai-ate was blank. He had piercing blue eyes and what seemed to be whisker marks on his cheeks, and his aura screamed of annoyance.

"Who are you?"

"Isn't it obvious?" the man said. "C'mon, isn't there a younger version of me running around outside this seal?" Han's eyes widened, just as the man's did. "Well, I don't know if I was supposed to say that or not."

Han's mind whirred. "Naruto?"

"Bingo, kid," the middle-aged man explained.

"What's going on? What are you doing here?"

The man merely sighed. "Eh, you probably should get the answers from him, not me. But I'm here to help you control that." He stuck out a thumb at the Gobi. "That's probably going to be hard since it won't talk."

Han stared the great beast before him, and the expression on its face was clearly one of rage. He approached it carefully, walking forward and stopping at the space right above it. The Gobi rolled its head around and breathed hard, before looking away. It didn't look remotely comfortable in that position, considering the shape of its legs.

"You think I could let it stand up?"

The older Naruto walked forward to join Han, rubbing his chin. "Maybe, but I wouldn't try it now. Too complicated."

He didn't reply and just stared in the creature's angry eyes. He could see that it had a lot to say, and it was anything but calm. "I... I don't even know where to begin. I'm not sure if I should be mad at you, or mad at the world that caused this to happen. I am glad to see you face to face, if nothing else." He looked at the uncomfortable legs of the giant creature. "I'll try to fix this so you can move more freely. I just can't do it yet."

The Gobi didn't say anything at all, but the rate of its breathing spiked. Han imagined that it was filled with indignation at the idea of its jinchuuriki controlling it like that.

Naruto watched as Han awoke from the quick seal, looking around the hotel room at each of them. Karin looked worried, unsure of what he would say. Naruto felt like he himself was on pins and needles, worried as to how the jinchuuriki's first real meeting with his Bijuu went. And how he would react to the chakra fail-safe version of Naruto.

"How long was I out?" he finally asked after a moment of hesitation.

"Two days," Naruto answered. "How are you feeling?"

Han glanced downward at his shirtless torso, generating chakra quickly enough to reveal the odd seal. "Just a little light-headed."

"What was the Gobi like?!" Karin asked, oddly excited.

Han breathed deeply. "Quiet. I think it refused to talk to me, so probably not a good sign."

The redhead from Suna glanced at Naruto, and then back to Han. "How are you going to bond with the Bijuu if it won't talk to you?"

"I don't know," he finally said. "But that's why Naruto's here, right?" He gave a light smile that cut through the odd tension in the room, but Naruto wondered if that was just something he was imagining.

"Heh, yeah. Did you see an older version of me in there?" he asked, cutting to the chase. Gaara met his eyes and Karin looked on with confusion. "He was pretty good-looking, huh?"

Han just laughed. "I don't know about that. He said to ask you about how that happened."

"It's a chakra buffer," explained Gaara, cutting in before Naruto could say it. "Naruto placed a bit of his chakra in the seal to help you control it when you're ready."

The blonde just smiled, but he was very aware that he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. If he took a figurative step back, he could prolong the time travel explanation. But if he leaped over the edge of the cliff, he could tumble to his doom.

"Yeah, he's right. I made it look like what I want to look like when I'm older!" He didn't meet Gaara's eyes, grinning and trying to keep up the charade of being young. "Wasn't I cool?!"

For now, that was easier, and he felt almost comforted by the lie. He wasn't sure if Han could see through it or not, but he was starting to think the other jinchuuriki was wising up to the secret.

Han merely nodded lightly, seeming to accept that explanation. After another moment, he stood up from the bed and took a deep breath, before glancing at the three children. "So what next?"

"We need to get you ready for the Trials," Naruto explained. "We can't have you die fighting the jinchuuriki, now can we?"

I think the only thing I dislike about this one is the length, but I wanted to update because I haven't in a while, so here it is. Let me know what you think in a review!