"Watch for the blades, they're poisoned!" Neji yelled to his teammates, before snaring four opponents in his Hakkeshou Kaiten.
"Stop flinging them around!" Lee bawled in reply, knocking away a couple of stray kunai as he blurred among his five attackers. "Their weapons are being thrown all over the place because of you! The fire of my concentration is flickering in the wind of your –"
"Shut up, Lee! Get that woman to deflect the blades from you then!"
"Excuse me," came the annoyed voice from the trees above, "I'm not the weapons specialist my sister was, remember? I do illusions!"
"Then come up with some useful illusion!"
"I'm trying, but there's dozens of them – what the hell?"
"What is it, my lovely teammate Penpen?"
"Stop calling me Penpen!"
"What," Neji said ominously, "is happening?"
"…Neji-sempai, you wouldn't believe it even if I told you."
At the edges of the crowd, the black-clad enemy shinobi were being ruthlessly and extremely efficiently killed. There was only one flash of one single blade for each man, silent and precise, so simple and clean that it was almost… elegant.
The single assassin broke through the ranks, leaving the falling and the fallen in his wake, and emerged into the centre of the fight, where the attackers were converging on the Konoha team. "Neji, Lee, what the hell? There's hundreds of them!"
Even fighting for his life, Neji spared a moment to roll his eyes. "Stop exaggerating, there's fifty at most."
"Yeah? How would you know?"
"Oh, right. Byakugan."
"Would you just do what you do best, already?" Neji demanded. He had two idiots for teammates, he didn't need another one joining the chaos.
"Fine, fine. Get that stick out of your ass, Neji!"
Neji growled something uncomplimentary under his breath, but it was lost in the sound of dozens of clones popping into existence with a war cry. The man he was fighting at the moment froze in shock, and Neji took that fraction of a second's hesitation and killed him.
With the new additions, their attackers broke and ran, and were killed in the running. Neji looked around him at the carnage, grimly satisfied, and then nodded at the newcomer as the clones all poofed out of existence again. "Didn't know you were in the area, Naruto."
Naruto pushed back his hood, and Neji had to once again marvel at how no one had realized Naruto's parentage, in the past – Naruto in his twenties looked almost exactly like the Yondaime, especially with the long bangs framing his face. The fox-grin was something unique to Naruto alone, though. "I was actually headed for a village near here when I sensed your chakra, and realized that you needed rescue."
Neji glared. "I never need rescue, Uzumaki. We were handling things."
"Oh yeah? You call that handling? Where I come from, we call – oof."
Smirking to himself, Neji made no move to help as his teammate tackled the blond in a running hug. "Naruto-kun! It has been such a long time! I have missed your boundless youthful energy and inappropriate humour! And… what?"
"Oh!" Lee hastily released Naruto. "I apologise, Naruto-kun! My joy at seeing you again overwhelmed my better judgement! To repent I will do one hundred –"
"No, no, it's fine." Naruto straightened, and grinned at Lee. "Great to see you too, Lee."
"Naruto-kun!" There were actually tears of happiness in Lee's eyes. Neji snorted.
"You're just jealous," Naruto said amiably, turning back to Neji. "How've you been, though? Why are you all the way in Rock territory?"
Neji grimaced. "Rogue company of Sound nins."
"We were only supposed to capture one or two of them," Lee interjected. "We were ambushed, however, in this very forest!"
"I figured," Naruto said dryly. "Neji might suck, but he's not stupid enough to lead his team right into enemy land."
"Do you want to get beaten, Uzumaki?" Neji demanded, but there was no heat in it. Something occurred to him. "I take it that Hokage-sama's informant about these rogues was you, then?"
"Yup," Naruto said cheerfully. "I'm not roaming around the world for nothing, you know."
As always, reminded of why his old friend had left Konoha eight years ago, Neji felt some part of him ache for Naruto's loss. This time, however, he had good news. "Naruto… I've got a lead for you."
Naruto stiffened. "You do?"
"East of here, there's a small village that can barely be called a village at the foot of the mountains. Apparently, there's a man living some way up the mountain side who periodically comes down for supplies. It's a slim chance, but… the way he was described…"
Some primal emotion flared in Naruto's eyes, and he was suddenly more alert, sharper. "I see. Thanks, Neji."
Neji returned the brief hug that Naruto gave him – he normally wasn't one for such touchy-feely things, but to see Naruto was rare, and so he made an exception for the blond – and watched as Naruto gave Lee a slightly longer (and definitely stronger) hug, since Lee was one for such touchy-feely things. Then Naruto gave the two of them a mock-salute. "See you guys!"
"Good hunting, Naruto."
"Good luck, Naruto-kun!"
"Sure hope so! Bye, Neji, Lee, and whoever you are, Neji's and Lee's teammate in the trees!"
He was gone in a flash. Neji had to shake his head – who would have imagined that now, the dead-last idiot Naruto would be better than all the rest of them?
Penpen dropped down from the trees, eyes wide. Neji and Lee worked best as a pair, after Tenten's death in the final war eight years ago, but for the more dangerous missions like this one, they were usually assigned a third partner. This time, they'd been assigned Penpen, Tenten's sister – Neji couldn't remember either of the real names anymore, something he supposed he should be repentant about but couldn't really bother with.
"Was that the Uzumaki Naruto?" Penpen breathed, staring at the spot where Naruto had been. "The man who has the highest body count for S-class missing nins? The man who was offered the Rokudaime position, but turned it down because he said he wasn't worthy, even though all the best shinobi in the village openly acknowledged his power? The man who single-handedly took down Uchiha Sasuke?"
The mention of Sasuke stung, because no matter what, Sasuke had been one of them, but they both had enough practice not to show it – after the war, the village had turned its back completely on the Uchiha line. Neji knew that Lee had to have felt the same pain, too, but his friend didn't show it when he said proudly, "Yes, that was our friend the great Uzumaki Naruto!"
Neji winced. "Why are you calling him 'the great Uzumaki Naruto'?" he demanded. "It's a good thing Naruto isn't here to hear you, his ego's insufferable enough already."
"But he is great!" Penpen said, awed. "Neji-sempai, Lee-sempai… I didn't know you were so close to Uzumaki-san. Do you know why he left? Why he hasn't returned to Konoha for eight years? I mean, I understand if you can't tell me, but… everyone's been wondering about it for ages!"
Neji and Lee exchanged looks. Then Lee said, "He's… searching."
"For someone," Neji agreed.
"For eight years?"
Neji smirked, and there was a touch of sadism in it. "Naruto is very stubborn. When he gets an idea in his head, he won't give it up on pain of death. When he sets his sight on a goal, he won't rest until he achieves it. When he sets his sights on his prey…"
"His prey is going to seriously regret whatever he did to set Naruto-kun on his tail," Lee finished.
The smile they shared was not nice at all.
"Eight years…" Penpen said thoughtfully. "It has to be related to the war. Uzumaki-san is seeking revenge, isn't he? Someone killed his friend and got away."
Neji and Lee looked at each other again, smiles gone.
"I'm sorry! That was out of line. You knew the person who died too, right? I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay," Neji said automatically.
"I'm sorry," Penpen apologized again. "This is the last question I'll ask, I swear! If you can tell me, that is."
"What is it?" Lee said kindly.
"Um… who was it?"
Neji remembered the hours and nights, in the past eight years, in which the story unfolded. He could almost hear Naruto's voice again, quiet and sorrowful, most often accompanied by the soft crackle of the campfire they would share during the times they ran into one another, Neji and Lee on missions, Naruto on his quest. He could almost hear Temari's softer speech, and Kankurou's gruff one, their words briefer, but no less pained, as they told of what they saw during those times they visited Konoha, or Neji and Lee visited Suna. He could almost hear Sakura's sweet, sad voice, and Tsunade's weary one.
Piecing together the single story from all those voices, Neji could almost imagine the events as they happened, almost as if he was watching over Naruto's shoulder. Watching over it all.
Gaara was the first to find me, Naruto had said. Neji still remembered how that normally loud voice broke, how the flames reflected in unseeing eyes. He could almost see the memories that Naruto kept alive with each day.
Gaara was the first to find me, as always…
Eight years ago.
Gaara is the first to find him, as always. He enters the clearing quietly, carefully, making no sharp noises or movements. He is not carrying an umbrella, and so the rain soaks him, too.
He lifts one shoulder in response.
"We have won. Konoha is safe."
Oh. Good. Naruto knows that he should be feeling relief, or even joy, but he does not have enough strength left. He is too tired to do anything but sink into the buzzing emptiness within him.
A gentle but strong hand on his arm pulls him to his feet. Naruto's body goes along with it, his brain detached from events. He stumbles as he straightens, and Gaara catches him.
"We should get back to Konoha."
A flare of panic. Naruto grabs weakly at Gaara's arm. No, not Konoha – he cannot be in Konoha now. Not yet, not when he still… not when he just…
Gaara seems to understand. "If you do not mind, my medics will tend to you. They are not at the level of the Hokage or her apprentice, but they are competent."
As long as it isn't Konoha. Naruto lets go.
They leave, and Naruto does not look back, but only because he does not even have the strength to lift his head.
The eyes of the Suna medics are dulled, their lips pressed tight. Naruto stares up at the ceiling as they tend silently to him. All around him in the large, makeshift hospital tent he hears screams and groans and wails and sobs. He wishes he could close his ears, and closes his eyes instead.
"We've healed the life-threatening ones, the rest he will have to heal on his own. I'm sorry, Kazekage-sama, but we must allocate our chakra to –"
"I understand. Thank you."
The medics' alien presences are replaced by a familiar one. A warm hand rests on his shoulder. "Sleep," he hears Gaara murmur.
Voices he knows wakes him up. They are arguing, but at the same time they are not. There is no heat or anger, just weariness.
"I cannot let you…"
"He does not want…"
"I understand what…"
"It would be best…"
Naruto knows what they are discussing, and it gives him a reason to stir. "No," he tries to say, but it comes out in a croak. "No."
Tsunade is leaning over him as he forces his eyes open. She looks worse than he feels, and so she looks near death. There are wrinkles on her forehead, around her eyes, her mouth. Her eyes are shadowed. "Naruto, how are you feeling?"
"Not Konoha," he manages to whisper. Croaking hurts his throat.
The shadows deepen. "I cannot…"
"He is in no condition to do anything but rest," Gaara says in his quiet way. "I will personally take responsibility. The council need not worry."
Tsunade wavers, and gives in. "Fine," she says, straightening, and Naruto loses sight of her. "He can stay with you."
They speak further, voices low, but Naruto stops fighting to stay awake now that his aim is achieved. He closes his eyes again and lets the emptiness take over.
It is Temari he sees when he finally swims back into consciousness. Her eyes widen, startled as she draws back from where she was hovering over him.
"One of the guest rooms in the Kazekage's suites. You've been asleep for four days. Gaara asked me to check up regularly on you; he hasn't been able to leave his duties."
Naruto takes the glass of water she hands him, with murmured thanks, and sips from it. The water is cool and soothes his throat. He drinks down half the glass before lowering it again. "I'm sorry to intrude."
She shrugs, and it draws Naruto's attention to how thin her shoulders have become, how sharp the lines of the bones in her face. "No apologies needed. You're always welcome here, you know that. How are you feeling?"
"Everything hurts, but I'll live."
Her smile is bittersweet. "You don't sound too happy about that."
Naruto looks away. He shrugs a little. The cool water is warming in his hands; he should drink it up soon. Warm water leaves a sluggish aftertaste.
Temari sighs, but it is worn, not angry. "I'll let you rest. Gaara will probably find some way to drop by later."
She heads towards the door, and for the first time Naruto sees her fully. "Your –" he blurts, before cutting himself off harshly. "I'm sorry." For your loss. For bringing it up. For being whole and recovering while you…
Her smile this time, when she looks back over her shoulder at him, is twisted. "Yeah. Me too. But I'm alive, and I daresay I'm happy about that. So don't worry."
The door closes behind her. The muffled thumps of her cane on the stone floor are louder than the accompanying slap of her single sandal. Naruto listens to the slightly uneven rhythm until it fades.
Gaara comes in the evening, dark circles around his eyes darker than ever in his pale face, paler than normal. His eyes are not the only things that are bruised; his skin is almost entirely black-blue.
"Your skin… I didn't notice at all."
"You were in an almost catatonic state. " Gaara takes a seat by his bed. "It is understandable."
"One of my opponents was a taijutsu specialist. I have been practising, but my taijutsu is still weaker than most. He managed to escape when I was gaining the upper hand, but he… left his mark." Gaara pours water into the empty glass and hands it to Naruto. "You need to drink more."
"I'm going to have to take a piss soon." Naruto accepts it, sips from it, hands it back.
Gaara puts the glass down and nods to a wall hanging that looks like a carpet. "The door to the bathroom is behind that hanging."
"You have eaten?"
"Yeah. After Temari left, one of your servants brought in some porridge. It was horrible."
"You took some heavy internal damage. Porridge is the only food you can eat for the next week."
Gaara's green eyes are steady, and solemn. Naruto does not remember them being this expressive. "If it were not for the Kyuubi healing you, you would have –"
"Shut up." Naruto's fists clench. He looks out the round window blurred by sand, rather than look at the tightening of the corners of Gaara's eyes. "I don't want to talk about it."
"…very well." Gaara rises. Naruto refuses to look at him still. "I will return tomorrow. We will not speak of it for now."
Naruto sits stiffly, his head still turned away. He does not reply.
Gaara pauses at the door. "I am glad that you are awake, Naruto," he says softly. "But now that you are, you cannot avoid it forever. I will force you to face the truth if need be."
He leaves as quietly as he came. The light fades completely in a few minutes, but Naruto does not move, not even when a servant comes in to light the lamp by his bed.
"Gaara… are you okay?"
"You look… pale."
"I am always pale."
"Not like this."
"It is the bruises."
"…he will not talk to me."
"You need to give him time. He just woke up."
"We used to be able to talk about anything."
"Everyone has secrets, Gaara. Maybe this is his."
"But… what secret can he have, that is so terrible that he cannot share it with even me?"
The next evening, Gaara brings him a letter.
Naruto opens it even though he does not really want to, and scans the contents. It's from Tsunade-baa-chan, updating him on Konoha's restoration and the tally of the death and wounded. Implicit in every line is the question: when are you coming back?
He shuts it into the bedside drawer. He would have thrown it out the window if he had the strength, or burnt it if he had the chakra, but he does not. So the drawer is the next best thing.
Gaara does not comment. He simply watches Naruto shut the drawer on the world outside, and says, "The medics tell me you will be strong enough to walk short distances in two days."
Yesterday one of the servants found him on the floor unconscious. He'd passed out on his way back from the bathroom. Naruto flushes a little at the memory, and mutters a few unintelligible words.
"They also said that you could graduate from porridge tomorrow."
Naruto brightens at that. "Ramen?"
Gaara smiles slightly, and while he has been smiling more in the past few years, each time is still a surprise to Naruto. "Possibly."
Naruto pleads with Gaara for a few more minutes, until the other man relents and says that he will see what he can do. On his way out of the room, Gaara pauses and gives Naruto a long look.
Don't, Naruto tries to convey as he stares back. Don't you dare.
Gaara's eyes darken slightly, but he turns away. He leaves without another word.
But Naruto knows that Gaara's patience has its limits, and that those limits will be reached very soon.
"That look on your face…"
"Don't do anything stupid, Gaara."
"I never do stupid things, Kankurou."
"Yes you do. Whenever it concerns Naruto, you keep doing stupid things."
"…I know what I am doing."
"Do you really? You're not exactly experienced in emotional matters."
"I know what I am doing."
"…yeah, sure. I just hope you don't make things worse."
He has ramen for dinner on the third night that he is awake. It is soggy, apparently to aid digestion, and there are more vegetables than anything else, but it is ramen. Naruto eats it happily.
Gaara is smiling faintly again as he watches Naruto eat. "The medics are unhappy about this," he says. "We made a bargain – for every meal of ramen, you will have to eat three meals arranged for you by the medics."
Naruto grimaces, but he knows that he has no choice. "Oh well. At least I get one meal of ramen every two days. Thanks, Gaara."
"I am happy to help." Gaara helps steady the bowl when Naruto's shaking hands threaten to cause the noodles to spill onto his lap.
"Thanks." Naruto notices that the bruises have not lightened. "Those are really deep, huh?"
Gaara glances at his revealed forearms, and then tucks his hands in his lap, the sleeves hiding the skin to his wrists. "Yes," he says simply.
"It must really hurt whenever you move."
"I have become used to the pain… it is only superficial, unlike yours."
"Don't," Naruto hisses, eyes narrowing.
Gaara glares right back, a touch of his old self shining through. "You are being a coward."
"I'm fine with being a coward."
"You do not mean that."
"Yes I do." Naruto feels like the walls are closing in. "Gaara, if you value me as a friend, stop it."
Gaara stands in an abrupt movement. "It is because I value you as a friend that I will not." He takes the empty bowl from Naruto's hands and puts it on the tray on the bedside table, and then leans in and kisses Naruto hard.
Naruto freezes for a moment. Dark eyes flash through his mind. He shoves Gaara away with something akin to terror, and takes a few deep breaths. "What the hell?"
Gaara is unreadable. "You used to enjoy our… interactions."
"Yeah, when I was healthy and horny. I'm practically bedridden now, for fuck's sake!"
"Is that the only reason?"
"What other reason is there?" Naruto's eyes narrow. "Look, if you want a kiss, I'll give it to you – but you have to stop pushing me about… about everything. Okay?"
Gaara looks at him silently for such a long time that Naruto begins to feel uncomfortable. He finds the redhead attractive, and they have had sex many times before whenever Naruto visits Suna, but he is still unable to understand what the other man thinks.
The other man smiles a faint, bitter smile. His only response is to take an envelope from the folds of his clothes and toss it onto Naruto's lap. Confused, but grateful for a distraction from the odd, tense air between them, Naruto opens it without thinking.
Instead of the letter from Tsunade he expects, a familiar necklace tumbles out.
Naruto stares. Then his eyes dart to the front of the envelope – he cannot help himself. On it is written, simply, 'Naruto', in a familiar hand.
"I can't find my necklace."
"Is it important?"
"Baa-chan gave it to me, so yeah."
"Too bad, then. Have fun looking for it."
"Wait – you're going already?"
"I should never have been here in the first place."
"That's true, but –"
"We are still enemies, dobe. I am still going to kill you one day. Never forget."
"Wait – Sasuke! Sasuke –"
Sharp pain brings Naruto out of his memories. He looks down and realizes that his fist is clenched so tightly around the necklace that it bites into his skin.
"It was one of the few possessions found on his body," Gaara says quietly.
Naruto utters a short, sharp yell of desperation and anguish and pure fury, and hurls the necklace as hard as he can. It clatters against the wall and to the floor, but Naruto is already focusing his chakra. A few words later all that remains of the envelope is ash, which Naruto sweeps onto the floor. He looks up at Gaara, eyes burning with too many emotions to name.
Gaara regards him silently.
"Get out!" Naruto screams.
A flash of pain, in green eyes, before Gaara blanks his expression. He leaves the room.
Naruto buries himself under his covers, shaking. He curls up into himself in the darkness of the blankets, desperately fighting memories.
He cannot see the necklace any more, but he does not need to.
Its presence burns.
"Gaara? Are you awake?"
"You look terrible. The bruises haven't faded yet… wait. Gaara, you didn't get any sleep at all, did you?"
"…I love him, Temari. I am sure that this is love, even if I am not good at emotions. I love him so much. I thought that he loved me too, at least a little."
"But I am realizing now that he has never been mine."
"You can't know that –"
"I do know it. And it hurts so much. Why am I not good enough?"
"It's not you, Gaara –"
"But that is what it comes down to, Temari. I am not good enough. I am not… I am not the one he wants."
"Knowing that even when he had me, I was not enough… it hurts here, Temari. It is an almost physical pain above the heart. Why does it hurt so much?"
"Oh, little brother… I'm sorry. I don't know what to say."
"I cannot face him today, Temari. I cannot be myself today. Will you…"
"Yeah. Leave it to us."
It is Kankurou who comes the next day. Naruto is relieved, and some of his wary tension fades. He does not know what he would say to Gaara if the redhead were the one to come.
There is an ugly burn scar on Kankurou's neck, peeping out from under his collar. Naruto does not know how large it is and does not want to know. He ignores the injury and gives Kankurou a wan grin.
"Hey, puppet boy."
Kankurou snorts. "Asshole." He drops onto a chair. "How are you?"
"I can walk to the toilet and back again without fainting."
"What an achievement." Kankurou grins briefly. "Hear you've been eating herbs and shit."
Naruto grimaces. "Yeah, yeah. Rub it in."
"Gladly." Kankurou pauses. "You… had an argument with Gaara yesterday?"
"Uh…" Naruto has no idea how much Kankurou knows, and so has no idea what to say.
Kankurou seems to take that as an affirmation. He shakes his head. "Man, you two are the most complicated pair I've ever seen."
"What?" Naruto says blankly. "What do you mean – Gaara and me –"
"Gaara told me a long time ago. And Temari too, of course. We know that the two of you have been fucking like bunnies whenever you meet."
Naruto is not sure that the heat in his cheeks is humanly possible. Maybe the stories of spontaneous combustion have some truth to them. "Gaara told you?"
"Yeah. Don't worry, no one else knows… for sure, anyway. I think lots of people suspect. You two aren't exactly subtle."
"Wonderful," Naruto mutters. "Fucking brilliant." He looks up to see Kankurou watching him speculatively. "What? Just ask already."
"You and Gaara… how serious are you?"
"Serious?" Naruto blinks. "He's my best friend."
"I mean romantically."
"Nah, we're just friends with, um, benefits." Naruto shrugs. "We agreed not to complicate things."
But Kankurou is as serious as Naruto has ever seen. "You don't have any romantic feelings towards him? At all?"
Pinned under Kankurou's unexpectedly hard gaze, Naruto squirms. His stomach twinges a little. "I… I might have some feelings for him. I mean, you can't lust after someone and spend half your time with him without falling for him a little. But… I'm not in love with him, I think. Don't tell Gaara any of this, by the way," he adds, glaring for emphasis.
Kankurou rolls his eyes. "I won't." He sits back in his chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Is there really no chance for a relationship between you two?"
"I like having Gaara in my life," Naruto admitted, uncomfortable. His stomach hurts again. "But I think I can live without him. I'm sorry… that sounds –"
But Kankurou waves a hand dismissively. "It's okay, it's good that you're honest." He sighs. "Naruto… in that case, can I ask a favour?"
"Ask and I'll see," Naruto says cautiously.
Kankurou sighs again. He, too, looks exhausted and thin. "Gaara… really cares about you. He's much more serious about you than you are about him – not that I'm blaming you," he says hastily when Naruto opens his mouth. "But that's just how things are. Everything about you affects him strongly. He's been really subdued ever since the war ended, worrying about you I suspect, and he's constantly distracted. Today was especially bad, after your argument yesterday. It's not healthy for him."
When he pauses, Naruto blurts out, "So what do you want me to do?" He feels really horrible, seeing how concerned Kankurou is.
"Can you break it off with him completely? Just be his friend, nothing more, no benefits or anything like that. Make it clear to him that you're not interested in a relationship. I think in the long run, Gaara will be better off. If he gives up on you, he can find someone else." Kankurou looks seriously at him. "Can you do that?"
Naruto grimaces. His stomach is aching really badly now, the guilt churning in him. "I…" He's being selfish, he knows, but he does love Gaara, a little, and he thinks that if he tries he might be able to love Gaara a lot. The thought of Gaara with someone else… it is a nauseating thought. It almost makes Naruto want to throw up.
And then a surge of cramping pain makes Naruto double over with a groan, and he realizes that the nausea is because something is actually, physically wrong. "Fuck…"
The last thing he hears is Kankurou scrambling to his feet, yelling for a medic. In the next instant the most crippling pain yet hits him, and Naruto mercifully blacks out.
"Is he alright? What happened? How could the medics have missed –"
"Gaara, calm down! You're just distracting the medics!"
"Kankurou – what happened? Did you do anything to –"
"…I am calm. I apologise."
"So… Naruto? Is he alright?"
"Gaara… little brother. Before that – there are some things I think you need to hear."
He senses Gaara's presence by his side before anything else. Apparently Gaara also senses that he is awake, even before his eyes open.
"Are you feeling better?"
Naruto opens his eyes, catching Gaara's gaze and hastily looking away. "Um, yeah." He gingerly prods his stomach. "What happened?"
"There was some damage in your intestines that was not fully healed, obstructing proper digestion. It is fixed now. Technically it should still hurt, but you are on pain-suppressing drugs."
"Oh, good. That fucking hurt." Naruto pushes himself upright.
Gaara helps him with the pillows, so that when Naruto lies back he is propped up in a sitting position. "But you are fine now?"
Naruto smiles at him brightly. The room is soft and swimmingly pretty. "Doesn't hurt anymore. Probably the drugs, but hey, I feel good."
"Good." Gaara hesitates. "I am sorry for… for giving you the envelope without warning."
Naruto's smile fades. Oh yeah. The plunge in his mood from high to low is almost comical, so dizzying he feels like the world is spinning. He resists the almost overwhelming urge to glance at the corner where he threw the necklace. "It was a shitty thing to do."
Gaara bows his head. "I apologise."
"Yeah… it's fine."
"And I apologise for what I am about to do."
Naruto stares. "What?"
Gaara looks up and pins Naruto's gaze with his own. There is something painful in that gaze that Naruto wants to look away from, but cannot.
"You have been sleeping with Uchiha Sasuke."
The words are a blow that takes Naruto's breath away. He is frozen, numb. It is a shameful truth that he never thought anyone else would find it about. And to be confronted with it by Gaara, of all people…
The pain in Gaara's eyes deepens. Naruto knows that his thoughts are clear to those green eyes, because Gaara has always understood him all too well. He knows that his silence is an admission.
"I will not lecture you about how he is our enemy. You should know that better than anyone." Gaara closes his eyes, as if to gather strength. "I will not pass judgement, or let my own feelings come into the matter."
"Gaara…" Naruto does not know where this is going, but he has a terrible feeling about it.
"You loved him. You still love him." Gaara's voice is tightly controlled. His eyes, when they open, are devoid of emotion. "That is a fact that you have been denying. Now that he is dead, denying it any longer is foolish."
Naruto is shaking his head vehemently, and he does not know when he began. "No. No, I don't love that bastard – I can't –"
"You do." Gaara is relentless. "And you must admit it, if you ever wish to have closure."
That hollow, ringing emptiness is coming back, growing in Naruto's chest. Sightless black eyes flash through his mind, and he finds himself choking. "No…"
"And he loved you."
Naruto's eyes widen. He stares at Gaara, who seems so alien all of a sudden. "What…?"
"You love this necklace." Gaara opens the bedside drawer, and there the necklace is, crystal blue. "I do not know how Uchiha came to have it, but the important thing is that he kept it. He treasured what you treasured. And even though he was hell bent on destroying the world as we know it, he still sought you out. He still held you. He could not keep away."
It is becoming hard to breathe through the numbness and the shock. Naruto does not want to hear all these words. He does not want to think that Gaara might be right. That Sasuke… that Sasuke actually…
"He loved you," Gaara repeats softly, and now his voice is breaking. "And you love him. That is why… that is why there is no room in your heart for me."
Naruto barely registers the pain and sorrow in Gaara's voice. "You're lying." he whispers. "He can't have loved me… he can't…"
"He did." Gaara's voice is soft.
Naruto stares at his hands, unseeing. The last few seconds of his battle play out across his skin. "His hesitation… that split instant… I didn't imagine it. He really did hesitate. He hesitated…"
And I killed him.
"Oh god," Naruto breathes, as the revelation paralyzes him. "Oh god."
There are so many emotions bubbling up within him, and Naruto feels hysteria rising. He is lost in his own world, memories of his times with Sasuke parading through his mind, every little action, every quick glance explained, now. Naruto feels like screaming.
He is not aware of hitting away Gaara's tentative hand. He is not aware of Gaara standing, leaving. He is not aware of clutching the necklace to his chest, hunching over it.
It is only when he looks down at his palm what seems like ages later, that he realizes that the point of the crystal has cut into his hand. His palm is slippery with blood, and it is like looking into the past, looking at his hands on that day. His hands… and Sasuke's blood.
Sasuke, who loved him and who died for it.
The glass of water is still by his bed. There is no thought left in Naruto's head, only emotion. He reaches out and smashes the glass against the wood of the table, not caring that the glass cuts into his hand. He wants it to cut.
He finds the biggest piece, and brings it to the skin of his arm.
The glass is just beginning to slice into his skin when there is yelling, and someone attempting to yank his hand away. Naruto snarls, fighting back, feeling like he is being torn apart on the inside as well as on the outside. And then there are more people piling into the room, grabbing him. Preventing him from moving, from joining Sasuke so that he can apologise and maybe see if they can work things out…
A sharp, thin pain in his arm. Even in his incoherence, Naruto knows that it is a needle.
Numbness, spreading. Calm trails in its wake.
And then there is nothing.
"This is my fault."
"Gaara, no –"
"I should not have forced him to – Kankurou was right, I am useless at these –"
"Stop it, Gaara! Maybe your timing could have been better, but you were right that he had to –"
"You do not need to make excuses for me."
"I'm not! I'm just not blaming you –"
"I should be blamed."
"I am to blame."
Naruto's eyes and mouth feel like crap when he awakes. He registers an unfamiliar presence, and turns his head slowly, his muscles responding sluggishly.
There is a Suna-nin he does not recognise, slumped in a chair next to the door. Their eyes meet.
"You're awake, huh." The man heaves himself off the chair and comes to stand over Naruto, looking down at him with an odd mixture of annoyance, dislike, and pity. "Remember anything?"
Naruto blinks. Is there something he should remember?
The man frowns. "The drugs still in your system, I guess. You probably feel like you're wrapped in cotton wool."
That is pretty accurate, Naruto thinks. He feels all woozy.
"I really don't like you. First, you do stupid shit that makes our Kazekage all frantic. Then I get stuck with guard duty watching you. But I can't really bring myself to hate you, because I know what it feels like to lose someone you love. And I can't imagine what it's like to kill that someone yourself, though it's a risk in any shinobi's life." He sighs, as Naruto tries to figure out what the hell he's talking about.
"Go to sleep, kid. Sleep off the drugs. You won't feel so crap when you next wake up."
Sleep is already overtaking Naruto again. He closes his eyes.
"You look really sick, Gaara. You should see a medic, or at the very least stop working yourself into the ground."
"The medics are tired. I would rather them save their chakra for those who really need it, like Naruto."
"He's not even hurt. The servant came in before he could do anything."
"…how could he do it, Temari?"
"The drugs were partly at blame."
"But he still chose to… to kill himself. Did Uchiha mean so much to him? Is there nothing here to hold him back? Do I… do I mean so little? And all his friends…"
"He wasn't thinking clearly, Gaara –"
"But he was thinking. And in that moment, nothing existed for him but Uchiha. The rest of us did not even feature in his thoughts."
"I am tired of hurting so badly, Temari. I am tired of dreaming and wishing for what will never be. I am tired of lying to myself about what never was."
"How could I have meant so little to him?"
The light is bright, and Naruto's eyes ache. He groans.
Footsteps. The rustling of curtains. The light dims.
Naruto opens his eyes cautiously, and sees Gaara standing by the window, watching him. "Thanks," he mumbles. His mouth feels curiously dry, like he's been on sleep medication – baa-chan forced it on him once, when he refused to stay in the hospital. He reaches for the water by his table, pours it into the mug, and drinks.
Then he blinks. "What happened to the old cup?" The mug in his hands is varnished wood.
"You do not remember?" There is nothing at all in Gaara's voice.
Naruto stares at him. "Remember what?"
Gaara just stares back. In the darkened room, Naruto can barely see the glitter of green eyes. He cannot even make out the pale skin, which he usually can easily pick out in the dark. The bruises must not have faded much. Naruto wonders briefly how deep they are, to still be so dark after so many days, but that is not his concern right now.
There are no clues from Gaara, so Naruto looks down at his mug, puzzled. And then it hits him. He drops the mug into the covers, spilling the last few drops. "Oh, god." He looks up at Gaara, almost unable to believe his own memories. "I… tried to kill myself?"
Gaara shrugs very slightly. "In your defence, the drugs probably contributed. Their side effects include heightened and extreme emotions, mood swings and scrambled logical reasoning processes."
"I tried to kill myself?"
Gaara makes a tiny, impatient noise. "Yes."
Naruto looks down at his arms. There is no sign of any injury.
"You heal fast, as do I. There will be no physical reminder of your incident."
He looks back up at Gaara, slowly processing what happened. "I… I'm sorry, Gaara."
"What for? You need not apologise to me."
Naruto blinks. "Are you angry at me?"
"No. Why should I be?"
"You sound angry," Naruto points out.
"Only at myself. I should not have told you."
There is only one thing that Gaara can be talking about. Naruto rubs the skin of his forearm, still unsure what he feels about the whole thing. "I needed to hear it."
"I should have chosen a better time." Gaara shakes his head minutely. "I did not think that your feelings for Uchiha run so deep that it would affect you that greatly. It looks like I underestimated your love for him, and overestimated – no, never mind. This is not the time."
Naruto remembers Gaara's words from before, and he bites his lip. He does not know what to say – the words that are on the tip of his tongue will merely give Gaara hope, and he does not know if he wants that. He needs more time, to sort out his feelings… and to get over Sasuke.
He just hopes that it's possible.
So he searches for something else to say. "I really am sorry for trying to… yeah. You know."
"As I said, you need not apologise. Particularly when you do not mean it."
Naruto stiffens, a little angry. "What does that mean?"
"A part of you wishes to be with Uchiha, even now."
Naruto is really angry, now. Even though some part of him knows that a lot of his anger is because of shame and anger at himself for doing stupid things, right now he cannot face what he did, and so he takes his anger out on the most convenient person. "Look, my ninja way is to never dwell on the unhappy things, to always stand strong on my principles. I wouldn't have tried doing that if I was in my right mind!"
Gaara shrugs. "If you say so."
"What's wrong with you?" Naruto demands. "It wouldn't be any of your business if I did, anyway. You don't know how it feels, killing someone you love with your own hands!"
The corner of Gaara's lip curls. "You forget who you are talking to."
Oh, right. Yashasmaru. Naruto frowns. "That's different."
"How is it different? Yashamaru loved me, in his own way. He could have poisoned me anytime. There are many ways to kill me which would not have triggered the sand, and he had every opportunity. But he chose to attack me head on, knowing that he would likely not survive." Gaara takes a deep breath, and it hisses out between his teeth. "And I killed him."
"The sand killed him, not you."
"The sand is part of me." Gaara smiles humourlessly. "I killed him, no matter how you look at it. So do not think that you are to be pitied, Naruto. You are not some tragic hero."
"Pity? Tragic hero? What the hell?" Naruto sits up ramrod straight, glaring.
Gaara continues as if Naruto never spoke. "You did what you had to do. He might have hesitated once, but he would have killed you in the end. The extent of your injuries testifies to that. You either kill or be killed in our world, Naruto. I felt many things when Yashamaru died, but I never thought of killing myself."
"Yeah, you went around killing everyone else instead!" Naruto snapped. "How is that better? One life for hundreds – the world would have been better off if you'd killed yourself in the first place –" He realizes what he is saying, and stops, horrified. He stares into wide, anguished green eyes in the darkness.
"I see." Gaara's voice is so very quiet. He blinks once, and all emotions are wiped clean from his eyes.
"Gaara… you know I didn't mean that, right? I was just angry." Naruto breaks their gaze, unable to hold that emotionless gaze. Hating himself, more than ever, but unable to say it.
"Of course." As always, Naruto cannot tell anything from Gaara's voice. "We are both highly emotional now… it is best if I leave."
Naruto watches him walk towards the door, not knowing what to say. "Gaara…"
"We will talk later." Gaara does not look back. He opens the door and leaves.
The door closes behind him, and Naruto lets himself slump back on the pillows. He knows that Gaara's words stem from worry and concern, and that Gaara has never been good at expressing those emotions, but his own emotions are still in a mess from the revelation of Sasuke's feelings and he cannot control them well.
When Gaara next comes in, Naruto decides, he will apologise. He will grovel if need be. He will do all he can to make Gaara give him that faint smile, which will mean that everything is alright again. That they can go back to the way they were.
He refuses to acknowledge the tiny voice that tells him that things will never be the same again.
"Gaara, the guards tell me that there were raised voices – my god, you look –"
"Kankurou. I don't… feel…"
"Gaara? Gaara… Gaara! Shit! Guards, get a medic in here now!"
Naruto waits, but Gaara does not come the next day.
Or the next.
The third evening, Naruto is contemplating going to find Gaara himself, when the door opens. He looks up hopefully.
Sakura stands in the doorway, smiling wanly at him. She looks tired, and her hair is limp, and she seems to be washed of colour but Naruto surprises himself with how glad he is to see her.
She seems to read his relief, and her smile turns slightly wry. "It is surprisingly good to see you too, Naruto."
He opens his mouth, not knowing what to say, and finds himself blurting, "I'm sorry."
Sakura raises an eyebrow. Closing the door, she comes into the room and sits by his bed. "Whatever for?"
Naruto cannot meet her eyes. "Sasuke," he says simply.
"Ah." Sakura takes his hand. "Naruto… Sasuke is, was, our responsibility. We failed him and everyone he hurt. So it was also our responsibility to stop him, and you did it, Naruto. You did it for both of us. We could not save him, so the next best thing – the only thing – was to stop him. You have no need to apologise."
Naruto pulls his hand away, the guilt eating him alive. "Sakura… I…"
He tells her. He tells her everything.
She is silent for a long time. The dusk falls silently outside the window, the warmth seeping out from the room.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, when the silence becomes too much to bear.
Sakura breathes in deep, and then sighs deeply. She rubs her eyes. "I… think I can understand," she says slowly. "If I were you… if I was in your place, I might have given in, too. He is a… a very attractive man, and his personality is strong and hard to guard against."
"I should never have…"
"Forget it. It's all over and done with, and you… you did what you had to do, in the end."
"I loved him, Sakura."
To his surprise, she smiles faintly. "Did you really?"
Naruto blinks. "I…"
"Did you want to know more about him? Did you think of him and miss him every time you weren't together? Did you see something and think to yourself how perfect it would be for him?" Her smiles turns a little quirky. "Did you guys even talk, or just…"
Naruto turns beet red. "Sakura!"
She pats his hand. "I'm just saying. Only you know how you feel, Naruto… think it over."
He nods distractedly, mulling over her words, but then what she says next brings him up short. "Come on, let me check you over. I'll heal any remaining problems and then we can go."
"Wait – we're leaving? Now?"
She nods. "Tsunade-sensei asked me to come get you."
"I can't leave yet! I need to find Gaara and apologise to him." Something passes through Sakura's eyes at that, and Naruto looks suspiciously at her. "What?"
"Naruto… about Gaara…"
She hesitates. "Well –"
"He does not want to see you." Kankurou is slouching in the doorway, glaring. Oddly, his glare seems to be split between Sakura and Naruto; Naruto is not aware of any animosity between them. "And I don't blame him either, after what you said."
Naruto winces. "I apologised… it was in the heat of the moment!"
"So?" Kankurou shrugs. "You still said it. And anyway, this is for the best. Remember our little talk?"
Naruto remembers all too well, and the oddly possessive urge rises in him again. "Romantic feelings or no, Gaara's still my friend. I still have to apologise."
"I'll tell him for you."
"Face to face."
"He doesn't want to see you." Temari has arrived, too. "And I don't think it's a good idea anyway."
Naruto throws up his hands. "Look, I know Gaara, and I know that he's going to sulk until I grovel, okay? You guys should know it, too. Do you want to be saddled with a sulking Gaara?"
Kankurou and Temari exchange unreadable glances. Then Temari sighs. "Look, Naruto… I'll be honest with you. Gaara is busy with work and he has asked us to keep you away from him using any means necessary. This is not something you can resolve with just an apology."
Naruto feels stricken, guilty beyond belief. "If it's that bad… then all the more I should –"
"Naruto." Even Sakura is shaking her head, when he looks at her. "Just drop it. Tsunade-baa-chan really needs you back; we need every able body, especially shinobi, to help with restorations and to take missions."
Naruto stares at all three of them. He has a feeling that they are hiding something, but what? The only thing he can think of is that they are keeping him away from Gaara without Gaara's knowledge, thinking it for the best, and if that is true then Gaara will find some way to contact him later. The redhead is stubborn like that. So Naruto doesn't really have a reason to keep insisting.
Some sixth sense of his is screaming that it is a very bad idea to just drop it like Sakura suggests, but what else can he do?
So Naruto agrees. Within an hour, he and Sakura are racing through the trees.
He cannot help but feel that something is terribly wrong, but he has no idea what it could be.
"He's gone, Gaara. You don't have to worry about him seeing you like… like this. And Sakura should know better than to say anything."
"Thank you, Temari. Kankurou."
"There's still a chance – Sakura said –"
"An almost impossible chance, and I do not want to risk the consequences should things go wrong."
"Tsunade can do it, she's skilled enough that the chances of failure will be lower –"
"They are too high for a marginal decrease to affect it much. I will not risk it."
"I refuse to just give in without even trying!"
"It is not your choice."
"Damn it… if only we'd noticed something wrong sooner…"
"No one is to blame. There was one medical emergency after another. This is my fate, and I will accept it."
"I have never asked the two of you for any favour. This will be the first and the last thing I will ask of you. Temari, Kankurou… if you love and respect me as I love and respect you –"
"– please let me go."
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto waves frantically at her when he spots her pink hair. "Over here! Over here!"
Sakura hits him on the arm when she finally shoves her way through the crowd. "You idiot! Act your age already!"
He grins at her unrepentantly, rubbing his arm. "That hurt," he complains.
She rolls her eyes. "Wimp."
Her eye twitches. "What did you say?"
Naruto backs away from her ominous tone and scary countenance. "Eh heh heh… nothing!" He remembers his gift and hastily holds it out to her as a shield and an offering in one. "Takoyaki?"
"Hmph." She takes the bag, "I'll let you off this once." Opening the box, she spears one of the balls with the toothpicks and raises her eyebrow at him. "So what is it that you're treating me to supper for?"
Naruto beams. "Let's go in and I'll tell you."
They find seats in the teahouse and order some snacks and hot green tea. Naruto knows he is fairly bouncing in his seat, but he feels like he's about to burst and overflow with everything he wants to say.
Sakura's smile is amused. "So?"
"I thought about what you said and you're absolutely right and I've been thinking really hard this past week and I've come to terms with everything and I never knew how messed up I was before and now that everything's clear and I know what I feel it's the best feeling in the world!" he says excitedly all in one breath, the words tumbling over one another in his haste to get them out.
Sakura stares at him bemusedly. "Say what?"
He groans. "Sakura-chan…" But he obediently repeats everything again, more slowly this time.
Sakura continues to stare at him. "Okay, I got that. Now would you explain what the hell you just said?"
Naruto is too happy to let her My Ex-Teammate Is An Idiot look get to him. He hasn't felt this light in the longest time. "You see, Sakura-chan, I've been doing lots of physical repair work and it's so brainless that it really cleans my brain out. I thought a lot about the past, and our times together, and that idiot Sasuke. And I came to the realisation that I did love him… but I loved an impossible Sasuke. I fell in love with the glimpses of the person he could have been, if not for… everything, I guess. What?"
Her eyes are wide. "No, it's just… that's the most coherent and intelligent thing I've heard from you in my life."
He makes a face. "Don't be mean, Sakura-chan!"
She shakes her head. "Seriously, I'm impressed. Go on."
"Okay! Uh, where was I?" Naruto frowns. "Oh, right! Anyway… he probably loved me too, in his own way." His hand rises to his chest, where a lump is visible under his shirt. "He kept baa-chan's necklace, and he carried it with him during out last battle… I don't know. Even now, I still can't get my head around the relationship we had, and I don't think I ever will." He smiles. "I don't think I want to, either. It's over. I think I'm just going leave it like that."
Sakura smiles too, and while her sorrow matches Naruto's, so does the peace. "Yeah. I think that's a good idea."
They share a moment of perfect understanding. Then Naruto takes a deep breath. "Sakura-chan… in coming to terms with what I had with Sasuke, it made me re-evaluate the other important people in my life. And one of those people I thought a lot about… was Gaara."
Something shutters in Sakura's eyes at that, and Naruto presses on quickly. "I know you might find it a little weird, or disgusting, I mean, Gaara isn't Sasuke and you might not understand why I feel this way but I think I really… I think I love him." He tries to decipher Sakura's closed expression, and fails. "Sakura-chan… do you hate me now? I know it seems really fickle of me, but I'm serious about this."
"What? Oh, Naruto, that's not – it's not that." Sakura seems to wake from her daze. "I'm happy for you, Naruto, really I am. You've never really been yourself for years, but now you're as bright as you were before."
Naruto feels his heart ache a little. She sounds sincere, and genuinely happy, but… "Then why won't you look me in the eyes?"
Sakura glances up, but looks away just as quickly. "It's not what you think."
"Sakura-chan…" Naruto swallows, and the happiness he feels fades. "It's okay if you can't accept it yet. Sasuke meant so much to both of us, so you could probably understand my feelings for him, but Gaara's different, and… well, if you need time…"
He watches as Sakura nods, as if to herself. "Yes… time. I think – just a little –"
"Sure, no problem, take however long you need," Naruto says quickly. He doesn't understand Sakura's reaction – she's never showed any signs of being homophobic before, and before this he would have bet all his possessions that she would be happy for him – but it doesn't matter. He can't lose her, too. "Just… just try not to hate me, okay?"
"I could never hate you." Her reply is immediate, and she finally looks at him directly. "No matter what, Naruto."
He can only nod, his relief overwhelming.
"Naruto…" Sakura seems more weary and burdened than before. "I'm going to have to go on a… a trip, with Tsunade-sensei. We'll be back in a week, maybe longer. When I come back I'll have an answer for you. Okay?"
"You don't have to push yourself to –" Naruto begins.
"No, Naruto. I will have an answer." There is something painful in Sakura's eyes that he cannot read, and he feels lost. "One way or another."
He does not understand what's going on, so all he can do is nod again. "Okay."
She stands abruptly. "I'm sorry, I have to run. There's not much time left… it might already be too late – I need to find Tsunade-sensei immediately –"
Naruto barely has enough time to call a goodbye before she is gone, running out of the teahouse. He stares at the empty seat opposite him, and then numbly calls for the bill.
He loves her as much as he loves Iruka-sensei – she is a part of him, his teammate, his sister, his friend. They've been through everything together, and she is the only one who can ever really understand about Sasuke. But even if she opposes – even if her answer, when she returns, is rejection, he will not give up what he feels for Gaara.
He has finally found something good and pure in his life, and it is the most incredible feeling ever. Even if Gaara hates him now, he will not give up. He will do everything he can to win Gaara back to his side – because, even more than Sakura, Gaara is his friend, his confidante, his support. Gaara is the only one who can ever really understand what it is like to be Uzumaki Naruto, jinchuuriki of Konoha, demon-child.
Naruto remembers telling Kankurou, I like having Gaara in my life, but I think I can live without him. He wants to beat his stupid, ignorant past self up, because now the thought of not having Gaara in his life makes him feel all hollow and empty. He never realized how much he depends on Gaara, how much he thinks about Gaara all the time, how his first instinct nowadays is not 'I must tell this to Sakura' but 'I must tell this to Gaara'. He never realized how much he looks forward to the times he can visit Suna again.
So even if Sakura shuns him… Naruto will not give Gaara up. And he will make sure that the world knows it, and, above all, that Gaara himself knows it.
The next time I go to Suna, he decides, I'll tell him. I'll apologise, and grovel, and I'll tell him directly and I'll keep telling him until he gives in: I'll tell him that I love him.
Naruto knows that he has the most ridiculous grin on his face ever, but he can't stop himself.
Soon, he'll be able to see Gaara again, and everything will be alright.
"Hokage-sama! I'm sorry, we weren't expecting –"
"I need to see the Kazekage right away."
"Hokage-sama? What are you –"
"Kankurou! Bring us to your brother immediately, if we start now –"
"Wait, how did you know – Sakura! You –"
"I didn't tell Naruto, but I had to tell Tsunade-sensei, there's still… a chance… Kankurou?"
"…no. No, it can't be – not when Naruto finally –"
"Sakura… just stop. Please. Hokage-sama… thank you for rushing over here, We appreciate the honour you do us, coming here personally, but… but I'm afraid there's nothing you can do anymore. Gaara…"
"Gaara is gone."
"Mm… just a moment… ow! What the… ow! Damn! This is too early to be awake…" Naruto finally manages to make his way to his front door without tripping over anything else, and blinks when he opens it. "Sakura-chan! You're back from your trip? It's only been four days."
She doesn't even smile her usual greeting, and Naruto fears for the worst. Is she here to tell him that she cannot be his friend anymore? "Naruto…"
He realizes that he is gripping the wood of his door too tightly when it creaks under his hand in protest. Naruto quickly shoves his hand in his pyjama pocket and tries to laugh it off. "Sorry, sorry. Guess I'm too strong for my own good, huh?"
Sakura rubs her eyes. Come to think of it, they are red and puffy, as if she had been weeping for hours, or days. "Naruto…" she says again, but as before she cannot seem to finish her sentence.
Naruto takes a deep breath, and lets it out. "It's okay," he says, trying to smile. "If you can't… that's fine. You're one of the people I love the most, Sakura-chan, and I'd do anything for you. I'd even trade my life for yours… but I can't give up what I feel for Gaara. Only that, I can't give up. It's not like a competition between you or anything!" he adds hastily. "You're irreplaceable to me, you know, just in a different way –"
And then he blinks when she bursts into tears and throws herself into his arms, crying hard. He wraps one arm around her shaking body, and awkwardly pats her back with his other hand. "Sakura-chan…?"
Naruto looks blankly down at the pink hair. "What about Gaara? Did you go to Suna?"
Sakura nods jerkily, still crying.
A thought occurs to him. "Crap – please tell me you didn't tell Gaara about me! Or – oh no – did he say something about me? Did he –"
She tells him.
And Naruto breaks.
Naruto ran easily up the winding mountain path, chakra pooling under his feet to aid his balance – there were small but sharp rocks everywhere that would cause unwary travellers to slip and fall. His body adjusted automatically to the workout, leaving his mind free.
He had asked around the village that Neji had directed him to, and after he'd heard what the villagers had to say, Naruto couldn't help hoping that this was finally, finally it. The bastard had eluded him for eight years, and this was the closest he'd ever been. Surely a little hope was allowed?
It took him another ten minutes to find the small cottage tucked under an overhanging shelf of rock. It looked… cosy. There was even a tiny bed of bright flowers to one side, the first splash of colour Naruto had seen on his hike up the mountain. Everything else was either a stringy, tough brown-green, or the brown-and-grey of the stones and the ground.
All his skills and experience, accumulated and honed through eight years, came to Naruto's aid now as he silently moved towards the cottage, his presence – mainly consisting of his chakra signature – entirely masked. It was a skill that few could boast of, and Naruto was proud of himself for mastering it. It was how he had been able to take down many of those S-class nins.
From the chakra signature, Naruto could tell that there was only one person inside, and that the person was sleeping. All the better. He opened the door by tiny fractions, the thought of startling his prey away if he didn't use caution suddenly making his patience endless. When it was just wide enough to admit him, Naruto slipped through the gap between the frame and the door, and turned directly to the single presence.
And there he was.
Gaara's red hair was longer now, but looked equally soft. He was just one barely noticeable shade less pale, but he was thinner – and seeing that he had already been slim before, this fragile man before him was painful to see. Those terrible bruises from the last time Naruto had seen him, eight years ago, were gone – only they had never been simply bruises, Naruto knew that now.
They had never been simply bruises, because they had been meant to hide a poison that slowly ate at your chakra, a vital internal support that the body had grown used to. A slow, painful way to die, leaving you helpless as you did. Even the interference operation most likely to help had low chances of success, with a high risk of full-body paralysis. The most the Suna healers had been able to do without significant side-effects was to stop the spread of the poison. It had saved Gaara's life, but left him almost without any chakra at all, and physically so weak that even the simplest of tasks left him shaking.
Naruto had made sure that the man he'd hunted down six years ago, the man who had been the cause of Gaara's suffering, had suffered a long, slow, and painful death, too.
All that seemed long ago, though. Everything, all the memories and the regrets, faded away in the face of Gaara sleeping so soundly before him, covered in a thin blanket and sunlight. The love that had never really faded burst into full life again.
Eight years, and it had been worth every second.
Naruto's control slipped for a second, his emotions too strong to be contained, causing his chakra to pulse once. He quickly masked his presence again, but the damage had been done. Gaara stirred and began to wake.
Pushing away the slight regret, telling himself that he would have many chances to watch Gaara sleep in the future, Naruto moved forward, towards Gaara. There were so many things he wanted to say that he didn't know what to say first, but that was okay – because he wasn't going to let Gaara go anywhere until he had said everything.
He knelt by Gaara's side. As green eyes blinked open, he found that the smile he'd thought lost forever came easily to his face. "Afternoon, Gaara."
Gaara's eyes widened almost comically. He froze.
Naruto took a deep breath. "You're a bastard for leaving like that and I'm an asshole for everything I did but none of that matters now because I spent eight years searching for you and my feelings for you haven't faded one bit and if that's not love then nothing is, and you're never escaping me again."
He paused, and replayed the past ten seconds. He blinked. "Okay, that wasn't how I meant to say it at all. But that's the gist of it, Gaara, so… yeah."
Gaara stared at him. Then he sat up, and Naruto rose to his feet, too. They looked at each other.
"Um… so we're agreed, then?"
"I am a cripple," Gaara said very precisely, "or as good as one. I am weak, my reflexes and senses dulled. I have little chakra, and what is left is just enough to keep me alive. I have been practicing, building up my reserves, but physical activity tires me out extremely quickly, even now. I refuse any pity. I refuse to be a burden. That is why I left."
He looked up directly at Naruto, who found himself trapped in that determined, pained, weary gaze. "Perhaps you do love me. I would not know. But that does not matter, because I refuse your pity. I refuse to be your burden. I can look after myself." He closed his eyes, and seemed to slump a little. "So please leave, Naruto."
Naruto stared. Then he said, "That's an oxymoron."
Green eyes snapped open. "Excuse me?" Gaara's voice had not lost any of its sharpness, in the right situations.
Feeling a smile steal over his face again, Naruto shrugged. "If you can look after yourself, you can't be a burden, right? And you say you don't want pity, but this whole set up is pitiful, even if it is pretty cosy."
Gaara glared, and its intensity had not faded either. Naruto was glad to see that no matter how fragile Gaara might look, his strength inside was the same. "You have spent eight years looking for me in order to insult me?"
"No, I spent eight years looking for you to make you see sense." Naruto glared right back. "Look, hiding away here by yourself isn't the answer! I understand that you hate being weak, and you don't want anyone to see you like this. It's not just the pity, it's also the humiliation."
The glare didn't lessen, but there was no reply.
Knowing that Gaara's silence meant that he couldn't think of any way to argue, Naruto pressed on. "But no one sees you as weak and pitiful and whatever, Gaara! Is Temari weak, or pitiful? Do you think she's a burden?"
"Never," Gaara said vehemently without thinking. Then his eyes narrowed. "Uzumaki…"
"How about Kankurou? He hasn't lost a limb, but he's lost feeling in over half his body due to the burn. Is that pitiful? Is that weak?"
"I get your point," Gaara growled.
"I'm not done yet," Naruto snapped back. He gestured around him. "This place is pretty nice, but the whole idea of holing up by yourself… tell me, when you're hurt, which is the more pitiful option? Hiding away from the world to nurse your wounds in private self-pity, or saying 'to hell with you' and getting back up?"
"It's not the same thing –"
"Isn't it?" Naruto took a step closer. "The first choice is what you're doing. The second choice… Lee did it. Hinata-chan did it; she recovered from her psychological trauma and she's now head of her clan. Temari did it; she's still ruling Suna with an iron fist, Kankurou right beside her."
Gaara's fists clenched. "They still have chakra. They still have physical strength. I have none of those."
"You don't need to. You're not planning to take over Suna again, are you?"
"I am doing with being the Kazekage. You should know that."
"You're not planning on becoming ANBU, or a hunter-nin, or anything like that, right?"
"Get to the point, Naruto," Gaara sighed.
This was it. Naruto took a deep breath and held his hand out between them. "How much strength do you need to just stay with me? How much strength do you need to stay until you're convinced that I really do love you?"
Gaara's eyes widened again. "What….?"
His mouth was dry. Naruto swallowed. "You'll never be a burden," he said, trying his best to plead with his eyes. "And you'll actually help me if you stay with me. I've been told that I can't look after myself and that I'm an idiot. You can look after the both of us, and you can be my brain." He paused. "That didn't come out right, either."
And finally, finally, Gaara's lips quirked in a tiny smile. "You have just clearly demonstrated your point, Naruto."
He grinned, relief pouring through him. "See?" He wriggled his fingers invitingly at Gaara. "Come on… eight years alone is eight too many, and between the two of us that makes sixteen years!"
"Elementary math. I am impressed."
Naruto nodded solemnly. "Anything harder and I need you to work it out for me." He offered his hand again. "Gaara… I love you. This is the real thing, you know? Not like that obsession with Sasuke. I really, really am in love with you. And I'll be heartbroken if you reject me. As my best friend… as someone who loves me… you don't want me to be heartbroken, do you?"
Gaara stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, though Naruto wasn't sure how he could survive with his heart not beating for all that time. And then Gaara smiled, and took Naruto's hand, and Naruto could have sworn that he heard birds burst into song and rainbows spring into existence. He pulled Gaara into a tight embrace, revelling in the feel of finally holding the other man in his arms. He'd paid for his idiocy many times over, and now he was determined to do the smart thing and keep Gaara with him by all means, at all costs.
Gaara hesitated at first, but then arms wrapped around him in return, holding just as tight. In that moment, nothing else existed but Gaara in his arms.
He was never going to let go.
"So…I am a bastard?"
"Well, I called myself an asshole, so I think that evens out."
"Hmm. Where are we going to live?"
"Where are we going to live? Suna? Or Konoha? Do we stay here, or do we roam around?"
"You know, I haven't thought that far ahead. You're supposed to be the one thinking for the both of us, anyway!"
"Naruto… you really are an idiot."
"What if I say that I wish to remain here for the rest of my days?"
"Ask me later."
"Because right now, lying here in this bed and holding you is the only thing I want, and so I might actually say yes to you if you say you want to stay here."
"I love you too."
"Thank you for looking for me. And not giving up."
"You don't have to thank me for that… you've always been the first to find me, and you've never given up on me either."
"I almost did."
"But you didn't."
"…no. I did not."
"You see? I won't give up, either, even if you decide to run again… only please don't. I don't think I can survive another eight years."
"I do not think you have to worry about that."
"Good. So it's agreed then? We're never going to give up on this relationship, no matter what?"
"Yes. And we will always be the first to find each other."
Ashen | "It's not what you think."