This was written for a fic on demand lj community request, which just so happened to coincide with a fic bunny that had been running rampant in my head and prompted me to actually get up off my arse and write something. :)

Title: Not Heaven
Pairing: Naruto/Gaara
Warnings: present tense, one instance of the word "shit", MASSIVE FREAKING SPOILERS. Not kidding. Spoilers for almost every major event all the way up to manga chapter 246 (although beyond that it goes AU), which is waaaaaaay beyond where the anime is currently at. Takes place at some vaguely indeterminate future date when they're all growed up. No smut, because they weren't being cooperative. Mostly unbetaed, apart from having been gone over a couple of times by me.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. :sniffle: (Not that I'd actually know what to do with them if I did own them. . . .)

Also? I hate fanfiction (dot) net formatting. I really, really do. I even had to write fanfiction (dot) net in such a stupid manner just to get it to show up.

But anyway, on with the fic!

-

Not Heaven

-

It starts with a mission.

Tsunade gives him a scroll to take to the Hidden Sand village. He grins and mock-salutes her, telling her he'll be back before she knows it. She rolls her eyes and ruffles his hair, and he leaves, giving a jaunty wave.

Naruto is cautious on his way to the village, knowing that he's more likely to be attacked than welcomed. The Hidden Sand may have declared alliance to the Hidden Leaf after Orochimaru tricked them all those years ago, but that was mostly after some careful manoeuvring on Konoha's part – and, once Tsunade got involved, after a few well-placed displays of strength. So even though the Hidden Sand is technically their ally, it doesn't mean he'll be welcome.

He doesn't encounter any shinobi with a grudge against those from the Hidden Leaf, however, and instead it appears almost as if they're expecting him. The Kazekage certainly is, as Naruto is ushered straight into his presence, and the leader of the Sand shinobi takes the scroll from him without a word.

The Kazekage – who was appointed shortly after the body of the old Kazekage, Gaara's father was found (and Naruto thinks he doesn't even know what number Kage he was, and wonders what Gaara's doing) – breaks the seal on the scroll and skims it rapidly, before looking back up at Naruto. "I will need to discuss this with the village council," he tells Naruto. "You are welcome to stay until we have reached an agreement upon the response. Please find accommodation within the village."

Naruto bows (Tsunade having pounded into his head that manners were required for this assignment) and leaves. 'Find accommodation in the village', his arse – he's more likely to find a knife in his back. But you don't argue about things like that with the leader of a village who is supposed to be your ally, not when it makes you look weak.

So Naruto steps out of the building and wraps his cloak around his face, breathing through the cloth to avoid inhaling sand. The wind has been blowing almost continuously since he got there, and the resulting dust storm threatens to blind him as he makes his way through the streets. Naruto contemplates just digging a hole in the ground and hiding there until the storm has passed (since he doesn't think the Kazekage will have reached a decision before then – malicious bastard knows he'll be out in most of it) but refrains. Burying yourself in the ground in enemy territory is only a good idea if they don't know you're there.

So Naruto keeps walking, searching for somewhere he might get out of the wind for a bit, searches until the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and stand upright. He pulls the cloth around his face aside, sniffing the air, and all he can smell is blood-tinted sand – but then, that's all Gaara smells of anyway.

Turning, Naruto finds the other demon-boy standing not two paces behind him, in a completely calm space surrounded by the raging dust storm. He's not surprised that Gaara can keep the sand at bay, but he does wonder what the redhead is doing out in the middle of the storm.

Gaara stares at him silently from black-rimmed eyes, before stepping forwards. Naruto tenses, wondering if Gaara holds a grudge from that fight they had at the chuunin exam years ago – wonders if he can still beat the other boy, surrounded as they are by sand – and Gaara simply steps up next to him and stops, and suddenly Naruto no longer has to squint his eyes against the sand in the air, no longer has to hold his cloak up to his face to be able to breathe. Blinking somewhat stupidly at the younger boy, Naruto doesn't think twice about falling into step when Gaara moves off again.

Gaara leads him into a building a couple of blocks away, and even though they had walked in a circle of air undisturbed by the storm Naruto still sighs in relief as he shuts the door on it. Gaara says nothing, still, merely unbuckles the strap holding the large gourd onto his back and drops it by the door, walking through into another room without looking back.

Naruto quirks an eyebrow at the gourd. Gaara's not said a word about what his intentions are, but then that's not surprising – from what Naruto remembers, he didn't talk much unless he was ranting about killing people. And to be fair, surrounded by this much sand Gaara doesn't really need the gourd, but it seems so much a part of the other boy that Naruto is getting a headache just trying to figure out what Gaara meant by taking it off.

Of course, he could just take it off every time he comes home.

Snorting to himself, Naruto decides to take advantage of the time inside even if it does end up with him and Gaara fighting, and drops his pack onto the floor next to the gourd before untying his cloak. He shakes it out, and grins ruefully at the small pile of sand that forms at his feet.

With nothing else left to do, Naruto folds the cloak up and props it on his pack before following Gaara into the next room – which turns out to be a kitchen, of sorts. There's a stove in the corner and some counters dotted around, but all the food seems to be either out on the surfaces or kept in earthenware pots. Naruto's somewhat surprised to see that Gaara has a kettle, and even more surprised to see him using it.

Naruto hovers in the doorway, unsure of what to do, as Gaara fills the kettle up and sets it to boiling.

"I have tea," Gaara says, his voice making Naruto jump. The Leaf shinobi is sure he must look a little like a deer in headlights as Gaara half-turns to look at him, obviously expecting some kind of response.

"Um . . . okay," Naruto responds, and this seems to satisfy whatever Gaara was looking for, because he turns back to the kettle and starts pulling mugs out of a cupboard. Naruto takes this to mean that Gaara's not going to start a fight any time soon, and so cautiously eases himself into the kitchen and onto a chair at the little table in the middle of the room.

The kettle whistles, and Gaara carefully pours the boiling water into two mugs. He puts one mug in front of Naruto, as well as a carton of milk and a small bowl of sugar. Naruto stares at them for a moment, before glancing up at Gaara. He catches the barest flicker of – something, on Gaara's face, before the redhead turns back to his own mug.

Shrugging, Naruto grabs the milk and adds a little to the mug, before dumping about half of the bowl of sugar into his tea. Gaara's obviously trying to be a – Naruto hesitates to say 'good' – host, but he seems a little lost, so Naruto might as well just help himself. And hey, he's not going to pass up a free drink. It would be better if it was free ramen, but he thinks just getting out of that storm in the middle of the Hidden Sand is pushing his luck enough for one day. Even if Naruto's host is Gaara.

The tea is surprisingly good, warming his belly and relaxing him a little. Even if Gaara decides to attack now, while he's off guard, Naruto decides, it would be worth it for the tea. The thought of thanking Gaara for giving him a hot drink whilst in the middle of a fight is mildly comical, however, and he snorts.

Gaara makes some sort of aborted motion at the sudden noise, before sinking back into his chair and staring into the depths of his mug as though it holds the answers to every question he's ever wanted answered. Staring at him, Naruto realises that if anyone's going to break the slightly uncomfortable silence over the table, it's going to have to be him.

He finishes off the mug in one gulp, dropping it back onto the table. "Aaaahh, that was good," Naruto says. "Hey, thanks for getting me out of that storm," he adds, grinning easily at Gaara. "I couldn't see anything in that shit! It felt like I was just going around in circles."

"You were," Gaara says. "You passed my door twice."

Oh, great. "Sakura-chan keeps telling me I have the same sense of direction as a blind elephant," Naruto says, rubbing the back of his neck ruefully. With any luck, she'll never find out about this, and he can keep on pretending that she's wrong. "You wouldn't happen to know where I could find somewhere to stay for a couple of days, would you?" he asks Gaara hopefully. "The old hag sent me with a scroll to give to the Kazekage, and now he wants me to hang around for a few days while he decides on a reply."

Raising his head, Gaara stares at him in that strange, unblinking way of his. "I have a spare room," he says.

"Eh?" Naruto says, startled. "I – wow, that's really nice of you," he adds, hoping he's not misinterpreting. "But I already owe you for getting me out of that storm, and all, so if there's an inn or something around here then I'll get of your hair, and pay you back later—"

Gaara slams his mug down, tea sloshing over the side, cutting Naruto's words off. He seems to fold in on himself after this sudden show of anger, however, muttering, "You don't owe me anything."

Naruto forces himself to laugh, somewhat shakily, keeping one eye on the smaller man all the time. "'Course I do," he says. "You—"

"No." Gaara shakes his head emphatically, looking up at Naruto. "I'm trying to pay you back," he says, looking frustrated, as though Naruto just doesn't get it and he doesn't have the words to explain what he means.

Naruto wracks his brain, trying to think of what Gaara could possibly think he needed to pay Naruto back for, and comes up with a blank. But with the way Gaara's looking at him, like paying Naruto back is something he needs to do but he can't quite find the words to express why, frustrated and miserable and determined all at once – that Naruto responds to, and he finds himself saying "Okay" before his brain can catch up to the implications of it. He can't quite bring himself to regret it, however, as something like relief flickers over Gaara's face before Gaara gets up and walks away, pointedly waiting in the doorway for Naruto to follow.

-

The bed is strangely comfortable, seeing as Gaara was the one to buy the furnishings for this house and Gaara doesn't sleep. Naruto, by contrast, is still uncomfortable at allowing himself to rest in the middle of what he can't stop thinking of as enemy territory, especially when he knows that Gaara won't be sleeping.

He reminds himself that Gaara thinks he owes Naruto something, however, and for all of Gaara's rants about killing people when they were younger he seems to – well, Naruto can't actually tell if he's changed at all, but it looks as though Gaara takes any perceived debt very seriously. Naruto finds himself empathising with that, once more – so rarely had someone given him anything as a child that when he did get something, his loyalty was secured. Sometimes he thinks of what might have happened if a member of Akatsuki had realised that during his childhood years, and shudders.

Strangely enough, such a thought when applied to Gaara relaxes him to the point that he drifts softly into sleep.

-

When Naruto comes into the kitchen the next morning, yawning and stretching his arms over his head, the storm has died down – and Gaara has a mug of tea ready. After Naruto has downed about half of the mug, he notices that it was made with a tiny bit of milk and a large amount of sugar, and wonders why Gaara bothered.

Or why he even paid attention.

He finishes the mug without a word, however, and arches his back in a long, sinuous stretch. "Ne, Gaara," he says when he's finished, "do you know of any good ramen places around here?"

Gaara blinks at him, once, and Naruto takes this to mean he's surprised. Whether that's at Naruto's question or the fact that Naruto asked him at all, he's not sure, but he looks strangely cute when he's nonplussed.

"There's a ramen bar down the road," Gaara says slowly.

Naruto grins and hops to his feet. "Well, what are we waiting for?"

Gaara looks like he wants to question the 'we', but instead says nothing and buckles his gourd on, following Naruto out of the house. Now that the storm has died down, Naruto can smell the ramen on the air and doesn't even need Gaara to guide him to the bar, heading straight for his precious ramen without looking back. When he reaches the bar, he keeps his grin to himself as he hears Gaara come up behind him and hesitate for a moment, before taking the seat next to him.

The bar has grown quiet around them, but Naruto figures that's most likely because he's a Leaf shinobi in the middle of Sand country. Since Gaara's with him, they shouldn't have any trouble, but he takes pains to act as though nothing is wrong – hailing the bar owner as cheerfully as if he were in Ichiraku – and orders two bowls of beef ramen. The man is slightly hesitant to serve them, but he does so anyway, and Naruto pushes one of the bowls in front of Gaara before tucking into his own.

When he next lifts his face from his food, however, he finds Gaara staring at the bowl, his brows puckered as if in confusion. "It's good," Naruto says, encouraging, and grins as Gaara turns his head to stare at him. Naruto polishes his own bowl off quickly, calling for more.

Gaara eats slowly, and Naruto is on his third bowl before Gaara is even halfway through his first. He prattles on to Gaara about all the different types of ramen and how each of them is better than the last, more to fill up the silence than out of any real pressing need to talk. He keeps half an eye on the other occupants of the bar, however, no longer being the blissfully oblivious boy who had fought Gaara at the chuunin exams.

Far from what Naruto expects, however, the Sand shinobi ignore him completely, bar one or two glances at his headband – instead, there are far more looks sent Gaara's way, looks which Naruto knows all too well. The situation differs from what Naruto remembers of his own childhood, however, as instead of a growing belligerence among the onlookers, they slowly leave the bar – one by one, as though they don't want to draw any attention to the fact that they bar is emptying. The bar owner looks torn between annoyance at his customers leaving, and outright fear.

The fear continues to grow, until Naruto notices that the sand around Gaara's feet is shifting, making short, sharp, agitated movements. Rolling his eyes, he taps Gaara's leg lightly with his foot. When Gaara turns towards him, he says, "Relax," and grins.

There's an aborted movement of Gaara's mouth that might – almost – have turned into a smile, but he turns back to his ramen before Naruto can make heads or tails of it. The sand settles around Gaara's feet, though, and Naruto turns back to his own food with a smile. When he calls for more, there's a touch of awe on the owner's face, as though he can't quite believe that Naruto is still alive, and Naruto has never had such good service in his life.

It doesn't stop the bar owner pulling Naruto aside just as he and Gaara are about to leave. "Please don't bring him back here again," he says. "It's bad enough that you're Leaf shinobi, but you'll leave eventually. He won't, and if he eats here I'll lose the rest of my customers."

Naruto simply stares at the man, not quite daring to believe his ears. Even on his worst days back in the Leaf village . . . even then. . . .

He wonders if he has as much right to empathise with Gaara as he thinks he does, and leaves without another word.

Gaara is waiting for him outside, far enough away from the noodle bar that he won't automatically be associated with it. Naruto knows – knows – that it's deliberate, and is suddenly angry. Angry at Gaara's father, for forcing this situation on him, and angry at the rest of the Sand village for not having another Iruka-sensei somewhere within its walls. Gaara's standing alone, holding himself apart from the rest of the village, and it's at least in part because although they're passing him as though he isn't there, they're also taking care not to look at him directly, and not to get too close.

The worst part, though – the worst part is the look on Gaara's face. As though it doesn't even hurt any more, because he expects it. It stirs something inside Naruto that's angry and sad and hurting all at once, and without even thinking about he strides up to the younger boy and wraps an arm around his shoulders. Gaara starts, shrinking a little, before he straightens.

"Ah, that was good!" Naruto declares, grinning maniacally. "Where next, Gaara?"

Gaara blinks at him, slowly, and it strikes Naruto that Gaara really is fragile without his 'kill to be' policy. Then he reminds himself that he doesn't actually know that Gaara no longer abides by said policy, and realises that if Gaara can be treated like this by the rest of his village then he doesn't care.

Gaara gives a tiny shrug, so small that Naruto wouldn't have noticed it if his arm hadn't been around the other boy's shoulders. He keeps his grin fixed to his face as he moves forwards, sliding his arm off Gaara's shoulders and twirling around so he's walking backwards, facing the redhead. "Let's just go exploring, then," he says.

-

Word spreads quickly through the village about the crazy Leaf shinobi who's dragging Gaara all over town, and about how the shinobi seems to be able to control Gaara. As the day goes on, Naruto notices that the glances being sent his and Gaara's way alternate between hateful and curious, as though the apparent removal of at least some of Gaara's danger has let people both be able to show their feelings in full, and question those feelings. If you take away the fear when looking at Gaara, after all, he's just a short, pale boy with fatigue rings around his eyes.

The village of the Hidden Sand doesn't have much to show for itself by way of souvenirs for sale, but Naruto manages to find a couple of things to buy for his friends in the Hidden Leaf. A book on medical jutsu for Sakura (he thinks she might have this one already, but it's the thought that counts, right?), a couple of training weights for Lee, and if his fingers hesitate over a particularly well-crafted kunai, if his thoughts flicker momentarily to Sasuke, then it's only from a lingering sense of attachment to the children they both had been.

Naruto buys the kunai, though, and thinks he'll give it to Kakashi-sensei.

He and Gaara end up on the roof of Gaara's building, Naruto eating one of the many treats he'd bought that day while Gaara simply stares off into the sunset. After the storm of the previous day the weather is surprisingly clear, and the setting sun draws long shadows from the buildings around them. Even though he's in the middle of Sand country, Naruto finds it wonderfully peaceful.

"Why were you angry?"

Gaara's voice comes from nowhere, the simple sentence longer than anything else he'd spoken that day. Naruto controls his impulsive start, licking his fingers clean of sauce, contemplating the question. When his fingers are finally clean, he wipes his hand on his trouser leg, and asks, "When?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Gaara's hands clench on his biceps. "Outside the ramen bar," Gaara says, his voice toneless.

Ah. Naruto puckers his brow and thinks for a minute, wondering how to explain the myriad of reasons without giving Gaara his entire life story.

What it really boils down to, though, is just one thing. "Because you didn't get angry," Naruto says, and stops there because he doesn't quite have the words to express why that bothered – bothers – him.

Gaara is silent once more, his brows puckering in thought. Naruto thinks that it's strange how Gaara's hair can be such a deep, bloody red, when his eyebrows are so pale a blond you have to look hard to see them. He wonders if maybe Gaara dyes his hair, and then has to restrain himself from laughing aloud at the mental image of Gaara figuring out how to use a bottle of hair dye. The redhead has no reason to dye his hair that Naruto can see, none at all, and Gaara isn't the type of person to do something without a reason.

Well. A reason that Gaara accepts, anyway.

He sees Gaara draw in a breath to say something more, but they are interrupted before he ever gets to find out what it would be. A Sand shinobi he doesn't recognise drops onto the roof a few paces away from them, his eyes flickering to Gaara once before settling on Naruto.

"Uzumaki-san," he says, "the Kazekage has reached a decision. Please follow me."

Naruto stands and stretches, crossing his arms behind his head, on guard the way he hasn't been most of the day with Gaara, and wonders why Gaara puts him at ease but an unknown Sand shinobi with a message from the Kazekage makes him tense. He decides that it doesn't really matter, and turns to Gaara to say, "Guess that's my cue to leave. I'll see you around, 'kay?"

Gaara nods, silent once more, and Naruto thinks that at some point he's going to have to find out what Gaara would have said if they hadn't been interrupted. One doesn't keep the Kazekage waiting, however, particularly not in the middle of the Kazekage's land.

-

All the Kazekage does when Naruto sees him is to hand him a scroll and request that he deliver it to Tsunade. Naruto dutifully tucks it into his pack before setting off, wondering precisely what is so important in those scrolls that Tsunade would send him as an errand boy rather than anyone else. Unlike in his childhood years, his opinion of his talent isn't puffed-up bravado, but rather the confidence that comes of hard-won experience – and so he wonders precisely what this bit of communication is about, that the old hag would send him running errands. He doesn't think he's annoyed her recently.

When he hands the scroll to Tsunade back in the Hidden Leaf, she doesn't open it right away. Instead, she asks him if he had a good time. Naruto can read the undertone in it – did you have any trouble? – but instead grins broadly at her.

"I met Gaara," he says. "He made me tea, and showed me where there's a ramen bar."

Tsunade snorts and mutters something uncomplimentary about him and ramen. She flicks the scroll open and scans it while Naruto waits, and it's only because he's watching her closely (waiting for her to say something about how animals always bond together, and then he can call her an old hag and run away laughing) that he sees the sudden flicker of pure evil cross her face. There's no time to call it on her, however, as she scribbles a short note at the bottom of the scroll and seals it up again, handing it to him.

"Take this back to the Kazekage," she tells him, and if Naruto thought he had mistaken the evil look on her face before, he most certainly hasn't mistaken it now.

"Now?" Naruto stops himself just short of whining. "But I just got back! I have souvenirs to give to people—"

"If you were in the middle of Sand country and found time to go souvenir shopping, then you weren't working hard enough," Tsunade interrupts, never mind that his only job was to deliver the scroll and then wait for a reply. "The souvenirs waited long enough for you to get here, so they can wait a little bit longer, now."

Naruto scowls at her, then sticks his tongue out and leaves.

-

Naruto's relieved to see that the weather in the Hidden Sand is still relatively good by the time he returns. It's still far too hot, but at least there's no wind – he can deal with the weather, if it's just heat. Trying to breathe through a mouthful of sand, by contrast, is not fun.

He hands the scroll to the Kazekage, and sees the older man's eyebrows shoot up as soon as he reads Tsunade's message. As Naruto was expecting, however, he is dismissed until such time as the Kazekage can think of a response, and so he grins and decides to visit Gaara again.

It doesn't surprise him to see that the other demon-boy is at home, although it seems to surprise Gaara to see him there as he stands rooted in the doorway for a few moments, staring at Naruto. Naruto rubs the back of his head with one hand and grins.

"Tsunade's got me running errands," he says. "Mind if I stay here for a few days, again?"

Gaara says nothing, but he holds the door open for Naruto to enter.

-

Later that night, Naruto finds out what Gaara wanted to ask him on the rooftop, before they were interrupted.

"Why do you care?"

Naruto blinks at Gaara over his mug of tea (and he can't work out whether he should be surprised or not that Gaara remembers the way he likes it) and ponders this non-sequitur for a moment, before it clicks into place. He's definitely not surprised that Gaara can pick up a conversation from the last comment no matter how much time has passed in between, but he wonders how he can answer that question in a few words. Naruto has never been much good at expressing himself – most of the time, if people understood what he was saying it was because they were on the same wavelength as him to begin with – but this strikes him as somewhat important. There's a note of – frustration? Confusion? – in Gaara's voice that he feels he has to address.

Carefully, he puts the mug down on the kitchen table, and suddenly knows the reason why. "Because you're my friend," Naruto says, and it's the truth.

Gaara looks at him as though he's gone mad. "How can I be your friend?" he says. "I've tried to kill you. You barely know me."

Naruto shrugs and leans backwards, scratching his stomach. "You gave me shelter from a storm," he counters. "You made me tea and let me drag you around town for a whole day."

Gaara scowls into his mug, and mutters, "That doesn't make me your friend."

Naruto eyes him, and wonders when Gaara's going to get the point. "No, but it makes you mine."

Gaara jerks his head up, eyes wide. "But—" he starts, then hesitates. "How can you be friends with someone who isn't your friend?"

Naruto shrugs one shoulder and looks away, uncomfortable, and he isn't thinking of Sasuke. Really. "Sometimes, the other person is just worth it. Sometimes they've done something that makes them worth your loyalty. Sometimes you just like them. Sometimes it's all three, or something completely different." Turning back to Gaara, he raises his mug in a form of salute. "There's never any one reason for something. How do you know that someone doesn't consider you a friend, anyway? You've just got to decide, at some point, that they're yours." Naruto drops his gaze from Gaara's face and takes a gulp from his mug.

The kitchen is silent once more, for what feels like a small eternity. Naruto's just about to declare that he's going to bed and get up to drop his mug in the sink, when Gaara says, "If you're my friend, then I'm yours."

Startled, Naruto looks across the table at him, and smiles. Bed, he thinks, can wait a while – for now, there's always more tea.

-

It takes the Kazekage a lot longer this time around to reach a decision. Naruto ends up spending all that time with Gaara, as the younger man doesn't appear to have many missions – but then, Naruto doesn't either, because the ones they get are the difficult and high-paying ones. They don't really need to do any more than that to live comfortably.

Gaara appears to take his new status as 'friend' very seriously. More than once, Naruto wakes up to find that his clothes have been washed, dried, and pressed during the night, and that there's a mug of tea waiting for him downstairs. It's always hot when Naruto comes to drink it, which makes him think that Gaara knows of some kind of warming jutsu. He even mentions this to Gaara one morning, and gets a very odd look as the redhead mutely points towards the microwave.

Gaara also has his own peculiar way of making sure that Naruto is taking care of himself. Naruto got used to Kakashi-sensei randomly appearing through his window with a bowl of fruit and Iruka-sensei lecturing him on how just ramen isn't good for him, but Gaara's sneakier – he'll make ramen for Naruto, and slip all kinds of vegetables and other healthy things into the bowl. Naruto doesn't know how he does it without ruining either the ramen or the vegetables, but Gaara gets twitchy when Naruto even mentions that something he made was good, so the Leaf shinobi doesn't call him on it.

Naruto takes to wandering around the town during the day, with Gaara keeping pace by his side. Naruto swears he's bought something from every stall vendor by the end of the week, from odd little knick-knacks that catch his eye to a gift for practically everyone he knows in the Leaf village.

Gaara, meanwhile, simply stays by his side like a short, redheaded shadow. The people in the Sand village are wary of the two at first, but they quickly realise that nothing untoward ever happens when the two of them are around, and relax. Naruto finds the startled look on Gaara's face incredibly comical, the first couple of times he's the one addressed by a shop owner rather than Naruto.

Gaara doesn't seem to know anyone around the village, though, so Naruto's rather surprised when one day a blonde girl with a big fan that he vaguely remembers fighting Shikamaru in the chuunin exams drops by. She seems equally surprised to see him there, but reintroduces herself quite happily as Temari – and proceeds to start mothering Gaara. Naruto finds this utterly hilarious, but one dire look from the other boy keeps his mouth shut as Temari putters around the kitchen. She asks Gaara when he started stocking ramen, and both she and Naruto are startled to see Gaara blush. Her gaze flickers to Naruto and back again, and she says, "Ah."

Naruto wonders precisely what the 'Ah' means, but can't be bothered to work it out.

-

A few days later, the same messenger as before arrives to say that the Kazekage has reached a decision, and wishes for both Uzumaki-san and Subaku no Gaara to attend him. Naruto blinks at Gaara, wondering why he's included in the summons, but doesn't question it in front of the Sand shinobi.

The Kazekage hands another – different – scroll to Naruto, and addresses Gaara. "You will accompany Uzumaki-san back to the village of the Hidden Leaf," he says. "The Hokage will be expecting you both. She will explain what this is about."

Naruto takes the scroll silently, and leaves with Gaara. It takes almost all of his willpower not to open the scroll before they reach the village, but the seal is still intact when he hands it over to Tsunade.

Tsunade opens the scroll, and smiles. The smile turns distinctly evil when she looks up at them.

"Do you have any idea what this is about?" she asks.

"You're thinking up one more way to make my life a living hell, old hag?" Naruto asks.

Tsunade scowls at him. "You don't need any help in making your own life a living hell. You're a walking magnet for trouble." She sighs, and drops the scroll onto her desk, looking from Naruto to Gaara and back again. "The Hidden Leaf received a mission request that requires either a small number – one or two, say – of Hokage-level individuals, or a rather large group of jounin. Most of our jounin are caught up in other projects, and as the reward is for a substantial amount I decided to ask the Kazekage if he would be willing to join with me on this mission. He was of the opinion that it would take him away from his duties in the village for too long, and asked if there were any shinobi we had that might perhaps be strong enough to take the task on." Tsunade stands, leaning on her desk. "That's where you two come in."

Naruto blinks, startled. "You want us to do the mission?"

Tsunade nods. "Yes."

Naruto blinks again, and looks at Gaara. Gaara looks back, before shrugging one shoulder and turning back to his contemplation of the Hokage's desk. Naruto takes this as tacit agreement, and looks back to Tsunade. "Sure, what the hell," he says. "I was getting bored being your messenger boy, after all."

-

The mission turns out to be to do with Akatsuki, which Naruto thinks is at least partly why Tsunade had such an evil look on her face, since she just loves dumping him in the deep end to see whether it'll turn out all right. He wonders whether he'll come up against Itachi at all, and what Sasuke might say if he offed his brother first.

He and Gaara end up deep in the back end of somewhere, and Naruto starts thinking that (maybe) Sakura has a point when she harps on about his sense of direction. He's not sure that they're anywhere near where they're supposed to be, after all, and from the amused looks – well, amused for Gaara, anyway – that his companion keeps sending him, he thinks Gaara knows it.

They make it to their destination in good time, anyway, so Naruto takes that to mean that he can't have been too far off-course. The specifics of the mission mean that one of them is going to have to create a distraction, while the other one sneaks in. They're heading for what Tsunade thinks are the Akatsuki headquarters, so whoever sneaks in has to be very stealthy indeed.

Which instantly rules out Naruto, and he knows it. He's always been better at distraction tactics and bludgeoning his way through things than any form of finesse, while Gaara's control of his sand is fine-tuned down the very last grain. They sketch out a rough plan for the information retrieval – and Naruto can only be glad that it's not an assassination mission, even though he's a lot older and a lot stronger now than he was when he first met Itachi – and a simple code for both 'mission complete' and a call for help. Naruto makes sure that Gaara can beat a hasty retreat if needed (although from the look on his face as Naruto says that, he thinks Gaara would be more likely to kill himself with his own sand first.)

So Naruto starts his distraction, which consists of him pretending to try to sneak in. He actually puts a bit of effort into it, figuring that any member of Akatsuki isn't going to be so incompetent as not to notice him sneaking around, even when he's trying his hardest – and if he's actually trying to sneak, then it makes the distraction look that much more real.

They're in luck, Naruto thinks a short while after he begins his distraction attempt, as the shark guy is there but the rest of Akatsuki aren't. He almost panics when the shark guy attacks him, remembering that he and Itachi are often found together, but no red-eyed Uchiha steps out of the woodwork so he figures he's safe, because he knows how to deal with the shark guy.

The shark guy still has that chakra-sucking sword of his, but Naruto had long ago figured out his own unique solution to that problem – the sword will latch onto one stream of chakra only and leach off that, so he spreads a thin layer of his own chakra over the top of everything he does and starts relying on the Kyuubi's chakra instead. The sword leaches his own chakra off the top and doesn't catch on to the Kyuubi's, so the shark guy is more than a little surprised when Naruto's jutsu have real power behind them.

For an encounter with Akatsuki, it's going almost too well. Naruto's just wondering whether it would serve their purposes better to kill the shark guy or not, when a trickle of sand appears in the corner of the room. Grinning at the signal, he flips his hand in a jaunty wave to the shark guy, and leaves at a dead run.

Gaara appears alongside him at during his sprint away from the Akatsuki headquarters, and Naruto's having a hard time repressing his laughter at how easy this was. No matter how many times it happens, he loves it when he's underestimated – now even more than when he was a child, because then (no matter what he said otherwise) he knew that he got by mostly on dumb luck. Now it's skill that gets him through – skill that most people don't credit him with having.

Naruto's just beginning to wonder whether he and Gaara will have an easy run of it all the way back to Konoha, when there's a sudden hiss of sand past his head, catching four shuriken before they have the chance to bury themselves in his skull.

It turns out that leaving the shark guy alive was a mistake, because apparently Itachi wasn't too far away and once Naruto was no longer occupying the shark guy, he had gone to get backup. Naruto stares down at the pair of them, thinking, Shit, and not letting himself stop to wonder how Gaara had commanded his sand to move quite so fast.

He pauses to mutter at Gaara, "Don't look in Itachi's eyes," before diving headlong for said man.

Naruto's fight with Itachi is brutally fierce, and he can't spare a moment to look for Gaara even to see if he's still alive. It's the first time since his fight with Sasuke that he's had to draw on the Kyuubi's power so heavily that it's like the Nine-Tails is right there surrounding him, attacking with its own chakra. It's the only thing that seems to work, however, increasing his speed and being able to make two attacks at once – and Itachi can't dodge both if he wants to get in a hit of his own. Naruto wonders for an instant whether he'd be able to throw off the Magenkyou Sharingan when fighting like this, but he's not stupid enough to try it when he doesn't know what the outcome will be.

In the middle of his fight with Itachi, Naruto hears a sudden high-pitched screech of joy, and knows that Gaara has fallen asleep. He's not sure whether this is a good or bad thing, because if Gaara was driven to that then things can't have been going well – but having Shukaku loose can only help the fight.

It's what comes after that's the problem.

Naruto can't spare a moment from his fight with Itachi, however, though Itachi doesn't seem to be paying him much attention – instead, he suddenly vanishes from Naruto's line of sight, and, spinning around, Naruto sees him hefting the body of the shark guy over one shoulder. "We will continue this later," Itachi says over his shoulder, before darting away just as Shukaku slams one fist into the ground where they were standing.

Naruto can't help but be relieved that they're gone, but now he has to face the problem of Shukaku. As fast as the Kyuubi's chakra makes him, however, it's not a problem to run headlong up his arm and punch Gaara awake again.

The sand around them dissolves, but rather than being dumped ungracefully on the ground, Naruto finds himself cradled by said sand before it places him on his feet. Gaara stares at Naruto for a long, long moment, as though he can't quite remember who he is, before he sighs, and asks, "Did we win?"

Naruto tries to say, "You hurt the shark guy, and Itachi picked him up and ran off," but he makes the mistake of releasing the Kyuubi's chakra beforehand, and gets as far as "Yooouu. . . ." before slumping into unconsciousness.

-

When Naruto wakes again, he's in the hospital in Konoha.

It's an annoyingly familiar sight.

He sits up, and moans when this makes his head spin. He's not injured – he never is, really – but he thinks he must have really overdone it this time, to be so exhausted.

"So, you're finally awake." Naruto jerks his head around to see Tsunade sitting by his bed, mounds of her never-ending paperwork around her. He thinks that if anything would ever put him off his goal of becoming Hokage, it would be all that paperwork – but then, if he allowed anything to put him off his goal, he wouldn't be Naruto, so it's a moot point.

"Wha. . . ." Naruto begins, then coughs at the dryness of his throat. Tsunade hands him a glass of water, and for a moment Naruto almost thinks she looks concerned, before her usual expression of somewhat irritated superiority settles into place.

"You'd think that you'd be more careful with your own life," Tsunade says, mockingly, sitting down again. "I thought you were going to prove me wrong about that necklace being cursed."

Naruto gulps the water down greedily, ignoring her in favour of the coolness sliding down his throat. When he's finished with the glass, he scowls at her. "Not my fault Itachi showed up," he mutters.

Tsunade sighs. "What, exactly, happened?" she asks. "I've tried questioning Gaara, but he says he was asleep – asleep! Ha! – for the latter part of the fight, and doesn't know. He won't answer me no matter how hard I press him."

Naruto stares at her. "He won't answer because he can't," he says. "When Gaara falls asleep, it gives the sand demon free reign. He's got this jutsu that makes him fall asleep on demand, so he did that, Shukaku managed to at least knock the shark guy out, and Itachi decided to pick him up and run rather than keep fighting."

Tsunade gives him a look. "That's all that happened."

Naruto frowns at her, wondering what she's trying to drive at. "Yes."

"So the fact that Gaara says his sand keeps protecting you without conscious direction from him has nothing to do with this?"

Naruto blinks. "Is that what's been happening? Huh. I just thought Gaara was reacting fast."

"Apparently not." Tsunade picks up her pen again, and points it at him. "You need some rest. After that, I suggest talking to Gaara."

"What about?" Naruto asks.

Tsunade gives him an unreadable look. "About the reason why his sand protects you."

-

Naruto is up and about later that day – to the surprise of no one, hospital staff included – and he finds Gaara sitting on top of the heads of the Hokages. Gaara doesn't respond to his approach, but he doesn't move away when Naruto sits next to him.

They watch the sunset in silence, for a time.

"Naruto-kun, what is love?"

Gaara's voice startles Naruto slightly, but not so much as the question. Looking over at his friend, he sees that Gaara's shoulders are slightly hunched, as though he's expecting to be hit – and expecting it to hurt, no matter how thick a shield he puts up.

Situations like this, Naruto thinks somewhat grumpily, need someone who has a little bit more tact than he does. Still, he's the one Gaara has asked, so he flops onto his back and ponders it for a moment, then says, "It's a bit like what makes you friends with someone. There are lots of different reasons, and none of them make up the whole, but you can't explain it without them."

Gaara is silent for a moment, and when he speaks, his voice is so soft Naruto has to strain to hear it.

"So love is like making someone a mug of tea?"

The words take a moment to penetrate, and when they do, Naruto sits up slowly. His mind, so relaxed a moment before, whirs frantically and comes up again and again with a blank, so he takes a deep breath and says the only thing he can think of to say. "And love is like bringing someone in out of a storm?"

Gaara flinches a little at the words, hunching further in on himself, and a small voice in Naruto's head goes, Bingo. Naruto can't stop staring at him, the words tumbling out of him as he grows more and more certain – as the realisation hits him all at once, that this is where the past few weeks were heading all along.

"So love is like stocking up on ramen in case they come back, and slipping healthy things into their food when they do. And love is like going to sleep trusting that they can wake you up again." He pauses. "And love is like deciding to protect someone without ever even thinking of it, until it becomes just as instinctive as protecting yourself."

Gaara's hunch has almost turned into a ball, curving him so far in on himself that he looks like an abused child. Which, Naruto thinks, isn't so far from the truth – and even though he knows he would never hurt Gaara, he can't help but admire the strength it took for his friend (and maybe that's not the right word any longer, is it?) to expose himself to hurt in this manner, especially given what happened with the woman who was supposed to be taking care of him. So just as Gaara looks as though he's about to flee, Naruto jumps into the deep end with him and says, "So if love is like all that, then I guess love is like getting angry for someone because they won't."

Gaara's head jerk up, and he twists around to stare at Naruto, and Naruto can't quite take the weight of those eyes so he looks away, staring out over the rooftops of Konoha. He doesn't stop talking, though, because that would be more cowardly than he knows how to be.

"And love is like purposefully fighting someone you'd really rather not, so they don't have to. And love is like . . . love is like wishing someone was injured, just so they could stay a little longer."

It takes a great effort of will, but Naruto manages to make himself look back to meet Gaara's eyes. Gaara drops his eyes almost as soon as Naruto meets them, and before he can think about it Naruto leans forward and kisses him.

Gaara's lips are dry as sand but far more soft, and smooth – and when his mouth opens in something that might or might not have been a gasp, it's wet and warm and after a moment, Gaara's tongue moves hesitantly along his. Naruto shifts so he can thread his fingers through Gaara's fine red hair, and Gaara's hand fists in the front of his orange jacket, pressing their bodies together in a line from hip to shoulder.

And Naruto thinks this might not be heaven, but it's as close as two demons are ever going to get.

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END

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Thanks for reading this far:)