A/N: With Behind the Sun, A Political Arrangement, and the occasional Nightly Friend, what am I doing starting a new story? Well, I can't stop me. This idea has been simmering in the back of my head for way too long.
Also, take note that Naruto isn't exactly his usual happy self. There is a reason for this, and it's not that I don't know how to write him in character. There will be a revolution to his old self, but for now you will see him in mourning, basically. (He's also half crazy, I think I made him schizophrenic by accident...)
Disclaimer: Nope, not mine.
Rinse and Repeat
Chapter One: Wrong Place, Wrong Time
He woke with a start.
Gasping, Naruto bolted into an upright position, and spun a full three hundred and sixty degrees.
However, he quickly deemed the martial stance he had assumed to be unnecessary, as there was no threat to punch in the face. His hands slowly dropped to his sides, relaxing from the lethal spades to just hands again, fingers twitching in his nervousness.
Taking deep breaths to calm himself, Naruto studied his surroundings more closely as the adrenaline subsided.
It was a smelly, dank alley, nothing more than a niche between buildings, with fire escapes above and several trashcans lining the walls.
He blinked up at the sliver of sky he could see between the brick walls rising on either side of him. It was a day overcast by clouds, but his internal clock told him it was early morning.
He couldn't remember how he got there. Which was worrying.
A flash. The sound of flesh hitting flesh. Fire. Blood. Chunks of stone and plaster to be dodged as the structure collapsed around his ears, but the fight went on. And red. Red everywhere.
Naruto blinked, suddenly seeing the alley again.
Was that a memory?
He looked down, feeling misplaced. A memory of yesterday? What had happened? However, something told him that what that was had occurred a very long time ago.
He startled then, suddenly realizing how close the ground was.
He was on his feet, wasn't he?! Then why was the ground three feet closer than it should be?!
Looking down, hoping he wouldn't dread what he saw, he found his legs to be intact, thankfully, only... small.
Feeling his panic rising, he brought his hands up for inspection.
Sure enough, they were in the same condition as his legs.
He turned them over.
Unscarred. Delicate. Like a child's hands.
And they were child's hands.
He ran his hands over his face and chest, searching for the smallest detail to prove that discovery wrong.
It was all wrong.
He slapped his cheeks, marveling at their soft roundness. Gone were the hard, rugged angles of manhood, no more were the numerous scars of a shinobi career survived.
He looked down at the child's body that was now his own, lifting up his shirt to see the seal. Which wasn't there.
He almost went hysterical for a moment, before the new shot of adrenaline sent a spark of chakra through his system, alighting the faint outline of the spiral as it passed through the coils it traced.
Naruto took a deep breath, calming himself again. These days the seal was always present, a testament to the Kyuubi's growing presence. He felt his cheeks again, only now noticing the absence of the pronounced furrows of his thickened "whiskers." They were again as they had been in his childhood, if his fingers felt the truth, barely noticeable indentations that gave the impressions of shadows lining his face in the right light.
He dropped the hem of his shirt, and rubbed his thumb over the tip of each of the fingers of the same hand in turn. Dirt ground into his skin refused to give way.
He was filthy. He was weak— missing the hard-packed muscles he had spent years conditioning. And— his stomach rumbled— he was hungry.
If this was a genjutsu, it was the most detailed he had ever come across; and it must have been powerful if Kyuubi, a natural illusionist, had not already dispelled it. Plus, he didn't think there was anyone still alive with the ability to so perfectly recreate his childhood.
However, despite his growing doubt, Naruto brought his hands together in his signature tiger seal, just to make sure. He gathered the chakra from inside himself, readying to release it. However, it burst from his grasp, leaving his body with a literal bang.
Naruto blinked up at the gray sky from his new position on his back.
He hadn't even had the time to say, "Kai!"
He hadn't lost control like that in... he didn't know how long. These days, losing control— even the smallest mistake— would be fatal.
However, as he picked himself up and saw that his self and his surroundings were unchanged, he started to doubt that these days were the days he was thinking about.
But this wasn't right! Naruto was a grown man. He had grown up with everyone else— Sakura, Sasuke, Sai, Lee, Neji, Shikamaru, Temari, Kankurou... Kakashi, Iruka, Jiraiya, Tsunade— everyone. And he had seen them die. And each death, every time he failed to save one of them, he aged. He didn't think he even knew how to be young again.
"Age is relative, really." he mused in a monotone. "Sorrow, rage... death. These things make you older."
I wasn't listening to him, really. His voice was just a distant rumble that I nodded to occasionally as he stroked my head absently. It was warm in his lap.
"And laughter... happiness... love— these things make you younger."
I opened my eyes then, grinning. "I guess that makes us no older than boys."
He smirked; his fingers brushing my cheek. "Not quite that young, maybe, but young enough."
Naruto leaned into the touch, purring, and wanting more. However, he stumbled, and realized there was nothing.
Gritting his teeth, Naruto looked upwards, willing his tears to recede.
There was no lap on which to lie, no loving fingers to caress his skin, no soft lips to claim. Never again.
Glaring forward in determination, afraid to close his eyes in fear that he would be assaulted with the memory of his cooling body cradled in his arms, Naruto started towards the end of the alley.
He was a ninja. It was his job to persevere, even when he felt like curling up in a corner and crying himself to sleep.
It was brighter in the street. A few pedestrians were about, the early risers only now appearing in this quiet square.
But he knew their numbers would soon multiply, the sound level would increase, until it became a busy boulevard by noon.
He knew because this was Konoha. And he knew Konoha like the back of his hand— or at least what used to be the back of his hand.
But this couldn't be possible.
He had seen the village in its final moments, as it burned, filling the sky with black, choking smoke. And he had been there until the last of the fires sputtered and died, and the place was left a silent, charred landscape. And Naruto had found then, searching the ruins desperately, that he was the only one left.
Konohagakure was no more.
He grit his teeth, grinding them as his fists clenched, and willed himself calm. "To become angry over nothing is pointless. And to become angry without focus is folly." He took a deep breath to push away the anger that bubbled up over the sight of Konoha again— uncaringly displayed by some illusionist's trick. Could he be imagining this? Had he finally become so unhappy with reality that he had hidden himself so deep in his imagination that he couldn't even get himself out?
Another breath, and he was still. He had learned long ago to school his emotions, as it had become more and more necessary as the influence of the demon inside him grew stronger. He could take all that anger and bottle it up, to be released when it was needed.
When he opened his eyes again, there were four masked shadows surrounding him.
"Come with us," one of the ANBU said, "the Hokage wants to see you."
Naruto narrowed his eyes at the anonymous ninja. He had never trusted the ANBU, and he wasn't about to put his faith in this preposterous reality he was trapped in, but, despite the veiled hostility he could smell coming off the shrouded ninjas, he guessed the best thing to do was follow along until he had this thing figured out.
"So, Naruto, I've recently been informed that you ran away from the orphanage again." The old man leant back in his chair behind his desk, parting his lips with each exhale to release a puff of smoke.
Despite the fact that the man was trying to prompt him to speak, Naruto was too awed by the sight of him to get past gaping openly.
Years had separated him from the death of the Sandaime, but that time had only served to distill in him a greater respect for the man— the first to ever give the little demon child a chance.
And this had to be him. Every detail was perfect. Naruto had not forgotten the only light bringer from his childhood, no matter how infrequently he had seen him. The sight, the smell, the sound, the discrete twinkle in his wise eyes— it was all the same. No human had the imagination to replicate a picture so perfect.
Unless... the illusionist wasn't human at all.
"Naruto? Do you hear me?" Sarutobi removed his pipe from his mouth, and leaned over his desk, squinting at the wide-eyed child. "I asked you: why did you run away?"
Naruto blinked, forcefully bringing himself back to the present. "...Why?"
The Hokage chuckled, and replaced his pipe, but inwardly, he was grimly trying to decipher the blonde child. "I wonder, why run away from a warm bed and free food? You never tell me why you so vehemently prefer to sleep on the streets where it is cold, digging through garbage for food, eh?"
Naruto tilted his head to the side, remembering. He had always hated the orphanage; it was an unhappy place for most of its charges— but especially for him. As soon as he was old enough to understand the concept, he had sought to escape it.
"Because it's better."
"But why? Is the orphanage really so terrible?"
Naruto scowled, disliking that he had to dig up memories better left forgotten to explain. "They locked me in the basement or a closet in the weeks between your visits, or outside when it was cold, and fed me only intermittently. They turned a blind eye when the other kids taunted me and even once encouraged them to throw rocks. I was neglected to the point that my growth was stunted due to poor nutrition. I had a better chance of survival on the streets than in there."
The Sandaime Hokage was staring at him openly by the time he finished. "Naruto... is this true?"
He was getting angry again. "Why? Do you think I'd lie about that?"
"...No, I suppose not." Sarutobi leaned back in his chair, sinking into thought. "I just wasn't aware..." he blinked suddenly. "Wait, did you say your growth was stunted?"
"How would you know that, Naruto?"
Ah, that was right, he was in the form of a child, so it was not as easy to tell. "How old am I?"
The Hokage frowned, but decided to play along. "You are eight years old, Naruto."
Eight, huh? That was about twenty years wrong. "And how old do I look?"
Sarutobi's brows furrowed. "Well, you..." he frowned deeply, taking in Naruto's full form all over again. He was ragged, dirty, and much too skinny. The Sandaime decided he would have to look into that starvation he claimed his caretakers had put him through, regardless. He was also small. But was he too small? Comparing him to Konohamaru, his four year old grandson, he looked... almost the same age. But Naruto was eight, and four years made a big difference in a child's growth.
Naruto grinned sardonically as the Hokage's eyes widened in realization. "So now you see, huh, took you long enough."
"Naruto, you— why haven't you told me this before?"
The blonde shrugged and scratched his head, remembering again. He had been young and proud. And well-used to fending for himself. Whining had never gotten him anything, but further punishment. "I didn't think it would help anything."
Sarutobi sighed, and Naruto noticed a slight droop in his shoulders. "Naruto, I've told you before, I'm here to help you. All you have to do is tell me."
Of course, Naruto understood this now. However, twenty years ago, as an eight year old already used to a harsh and unfair life, all he knew of the old man was that he occasionally brought gifts and smiles and people treated him a little nicer when he was around. But Naruto hadn't even understood the concept of asking for help, such ideas had only brought him trouble before.
The Hokage rubbed his face tiredly, before regarding anew the child standing in front of his desk. He felt the remorse again, that he had failed so miserably to fulfill the Yondaime's dying wish, and give the child the life he deserved. "It's a good thing I already made the arrangements. You won't have to go back there, Naruto."
The blonde snorted. "Like you could make me."
The Hokage frowned. Naruto was usually a happy and agreeable child, when he wasn't being obnoxious and stubborn. But there now seemed to be a rather... bitter and guarded gleam in his normally open and innocent eyes. Sarutobi was struck with another pang of regret and sympathy. "I've set up an apartment in your name, and I'll also be giving you an allowance out of my own pocket, so that you can buy yourself food and necessities." The Sandaime was inwardly mournful that he had no way to directly care for the boy, what with his busy schedule and no willing sitters. Eight was too young to be taking care of one's self. "And also... I've negotiated to get you into the ninja academy."
He paused there, waiting for the tiny blonde's explosion of joy.
Naruto blinked. He remembered this day. The ANBU had dragged him into the office kicking and screaming, and the Hokage had given him this very same news, despite the fact that he had kept his mouth shut on what had been done to him at the orphanage. He had been looking forward to his entry into the academy for a long time, and his reaction had been in typical Naruto fashion— loud.
But that was old news now. "Uh, thanks, I guess," said he warily, after the silence had drawn out.
"Hm," the Hokage sat back again, looking disappointed.
He jumped up then, having come to a conclusion, and practically twirled around his desk in his haste. Naruto had not been aware the old man was still capable of such agility.
"Are you hungry, Naruto?" The Sandaime knelt down on his level, a strange, pained urgency in his wizened face. "Would you like some ramen? I'll buy you as much as you want."
Naruto blinked, still feeling that strange misplaced sensation. He was pretty hungry. If this were the day it was being made out to be, he hadn't eaten the day before either, most likely. "Yeah, sure,"
"Well, here it is." the Hokage handed Naruto his key. "I know it's not much, but I'm sure it's much better than the street."
The blonde nodded absently, taking in his empty living room. The kitchen was on his left, he knew, and his bathroom and bedroom on his right. Also to his right was a door out to the roof onto a small balcony, which held a great view of the sunset in the evenings.
This would be a home to many lonely nights.
"I've already had the cupboards stocked, and I've left some furniture for you. There's plenty of ramen to last you at least a week. I'll be sending you an allowance weekly," Sarutobi rummaged through his pockets, before handing Naruto a thick envelope. "use it wisely."
Naruto nodded, already calculating the number and quality of weapons he could buy with the money in that envelope. At least one good set of kunai and shuriken, ten meters of ninja wire, and as many explosive notes as he could get would be his first order of business. Explosive notes were only sold to shinobi by law, but he knew ways and places to get around that. Hunting for food would cut living costs, and was enjoyable survival training. One got used to supplying for one's self very quickly in the war-stricken world he was used to.
He looked up as he noticed the Saindaime had stopped talking.
"Naruto..." a wrinkled hand fell on his shoulder, and the blonde's gaze slid away from those pitying eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't intervene sooner.
That was new.
The Hokage knelt down to his level, and gripped his bony shoulders. "I won't let anything like that ever happen to you again, understand? Just next time, tell me sooner."
Naruto's brow furrowed as he studied the Hokage's earnest expression. "...okay."
Naruto remembered his first day at the academy. However, instead of having to find his own way, the Hokage insisted on walking him there this time.
Sarutobi had been abnormally... clingy the two weeks or so since Naruto had woken up in the alley. The fox child could smell a mixture of emotions on him that were normally hidden under his wrinkled exterior. Worry. Regret. Pity.
The Sandaime had visited him at least once a day, making sure Naruto had what he needed, and offering to buy him things.
It confused Naruto, as the Hokage had never visited him so frequently in the past. The illusion— whatever it was— was very accurate, but was deviating from the natural order of his life. Perhaps telling the Hokage his troubles had changed the timeline? His doubts that he was in an illusion at all grew. It just felt real, and Naruto had always had a good sense for figuring out genjutsu thanks to the Kyuubi. However, he didn't have any other explanation for the phenomenon.
"Do you have everything you need, Naruto?"
The tiny blonde glanced up at the Hokage. "Yeah,"
The academy was only a few meters away, and other children were saying goodbye to their parents all around them just like he remembered.
The Hokage seemed to falter for a moment, reaching out hesitantly for the child. He settled for ruffling his yellow locks. "Make sure you stop by my office afterwards, Naruto. I want to hear everything about your big day."
Naruto rolled his eyes. It wouldn't be good news, that was for sure.
Sarutobi's attention was diverted, and the weight of his hand lifted from Naruto's head. "Ah... Yamato-san,"
A familiar ninja walked up to them. "I didn't know you were coming today!" He bowed at the waist. "We will make arrangements immediately—"
"That won't be necessary." The Hokage waved him off demurely. "I'm just here to drop off Naruto."
The chuunin's eyes lowered to the small form beside the Sandaime. Naruto could smell the loathing. "Ah, yes, Uzumaki Naruto will be joining my class this year." It was a bland statement, but the Hokage couldn't see the disgust the ninja unveiled on for the demon child.
Naruto's first year teacher at the academy had earned his disrespect early on. He had made Naruto leave class during lectures using any excuse he could find— from accusations of being disruptive, to the untimely cleaning of the chalkboard erasers, and he had always failed to supply Naruto with a partner during taijutsu practice, and kunai during target practice. It was a good thing Naruto knew everything he had to teach this time around.
"Yes, he's looking forward to what you can teach him, Yamato-san." The Hokage had never known anything about it.
"Of course, Hokage-sama," Naruto could smell the falsity of his smile. "Come, Uzumaki, I'll get you a desk."
Naruto followed the deceitful chuunin, knowing that his desk would be in the far back, and missing one leg.
As predicted, Yamato-sensei did not have a partner for him come taijutsu practice at the end of the day. However, instead of sitting on the sidelines, waiting for a partner to be freed up like Yamato-sensei said, Naruto decided to go off on his own.
He was used to being alone, after all, especially during training.
Naruto paused, his fist impacting the wooden training dummy painfully— he definitely had to train this body until it could handle the fighting style he was used to, or he'd be useless.
However, his mind was not on the pain.
"Come on! Let's spar!"
"Just a quick match! It'll be fun!"
"I have things to do."
"I won't keep you long, I promise!"
He closed his eyes briefly, before glancing at me askance. "You're very persistent."
I laughed. "You know it'ttebayo!"
His lips twitched, a flash of that brief half-smile I had come to crave. "Fine, one match."
Naruto grit his teeth, and punched and kicked the post with renewed vigor, ignoring the splinters and blood that flew past his eyes.
He couldn't help but to remember.
"No— don't try to talk! I've got you, you're safe now."
He gasped for breath, gripping my shirt in his pain. I wanted to hold him tighter, to squeeze him so he knew that I would never let go, but I didn't want to give him any more pain. "We've fought together... for a long time..."
"Save your breath! We just have to—"
"Naruto!" he coughed, his grasp on me desperate. "We— don't you see— there is no more 'we.'"
My panic rose. "No, I'll find a way to— I stopped to listen to his weakening voice.
"For so long, it's been just the two of us. We are the only ones left." He winced, going stiff in my arms before falling limp again. "And now— ah! —and now... it's only you."
"No! You're not gonna die! I won't let it happen!"
He smiled painfully, his white teeth covered in a bloody sheen. "Naruto, it's too late, you know that."
"No! You can't die!" You can't leave me!
"You— you've always been— stubborn."
I sniffed. "You're stubborn, too! You can get through this!"
He shook his head, his grip on me tightening. "I've already held out— ugh... long enough."
"Naruto," he gasped. "Listen to me!"
I quieted, so that he could continue.
"We've— we've been fighting for a long time." He reiterated. "But... we can only fight for..." He gasped, and I tensed, wishing there was something I could do. "... so long." he finished at last.
"What are you trying to say?"
He gave me that painful smile again, his hazy eyes telling me I already knew that. "You still have enough chakra... don't you?"
I was angry again. "No! There's no way I'm leaving you!"
He shook his head, panting weakly now. "N-naruto... please, you have to... you're the only one... who can fix this now."
"N-no... I can't!"
With his waning strength, he reached up to cup my cheek, tracing the ragged scar there, left by red-hot flying shrapnel eight hours ago. Now, I barely noticed it, as it was already healed. "Naruto... we've failed... everyone is... everything is... gone. And now it's up to you... to fix it." He spoke with frequent starts and stops, as his breath came erratically.
I shook my head, tears running tracks through the dirt and blood on my cheeks.
"Go back, Naruto, and fix it."
"Stop worrying about me!" His hand dropped limply. "This is about more than—" he paused, and I held my breath, praying he hadn't taken his last. "—me."
"You shouldn't be talking."
"Naruto," he smiled weakly again. "What did I just say?"
I quieted to let him speak.
"I... love you."
"I love you, too!"
"I know that, now be quiet!" I tried not to notice the constant stream of blood now dribbling from the corner of his lips. "We've had some... good times together, but..." he trailed off, and his eyes closed.
"Hey? Hey! No, no, no! Baby? Talk to me!"
"Stop panicking. You're no use when you panic." His eyes opened again. "You understand, don't you? We have only one chance left, and you have to take it."
"Without you?" I was starting to understand, and I hated the idea already.
"Without me, yes."
"No! I can't!"
He winced, and I stilled, watching him carefully in those final moments. "Naruto... you have a chance to fix all this. I know... the jutsu is dangerous, and may not work at all... but you... have... you have..."
I sobbed his name as his eyes drifted shut again. "Don't leave me!"
"Just..." I leaned down to hear his faint mumblings. "... promise me... you'll just... take the chance. For me... for everyone..."
"Okay," I kissed his unresponsive lips. "okay, whatever you want." I didn't care that his blood was smearing my face.
"Why... are you... still here?"
"I can't leave you now! I'll do the jutsu, damn it! But you can't ask me to leave you now!" I bit my lip to withhold the sobs threatening to overtake me. I brushed his vibrant hair from his face, waiting for those soulful eyes to open and take me in again. "Baby? Come on... baby?!"
Naruto's fist impacted with the post, which by now looked like a giant beaver had taken a go at it.
After that, all he remembered was red.
Had he done the jutsu? Was he really in the past? If so, he had missed the time he wanted to land in by a whole decade, plus, the jutsu was not meant to change his body. He was supposed to be placed in the time he desired with his old body intact. Or so they had assumed, according to how the demons had described it.
He fell to his knees, only now realizing the extreme pain of his new, tiny, untrained body after a training session which would normally not even cause him to break a sweat. He grit his teeth as he flexed his fingers, irritating the open wounds on his knuckles. At least they were already healing, but he'd have to clean them to speed it up.
The entire reason they had avoided the time traveling jutsu was because it was entirely too easy for the thing to go wrong, and they didn't know if it would work at all, beyond blowing them to bits.
"Gaara..." he panted, willing his overwhelmed body to calm, and looking up at the sky, which was a merry blue today— how unfitting. "I have a lot of work to do, ne?"