The desert was hot.

When he said 'hot,' of course, he didn't mean hot like 'oh, these noodles sure are hot.' Or even 'damn, it sure is hot today.' No, he meant hot like 'wishing the right amount of chakra could destroy the sun because it's melting off my face and I think I'm going to die a very dry and lonely death.'

Naruto paused for a moment, going down on one knee, bending his head to get the sun out of his eyes and hefting up his canteen. It was a lot less heavy than it had been this morning - dammit, he'd drunk too much. Tsunade'd warned him about that. She'd also warned him to travel at night, but he'd wanted to get to Suna quickly and that had seemed like too much work. Strike that idea. Best not to let the Hag know this had happened.

Naruto took a deep breath, knocked back as small a mouthful of water as possible, and took his time swallowing. He swished the water in his mouth, coating his teeth, wetting his tongue, then reluctantly pushed it down his throat. It tasted good, so fucking good, and now he had - he shook the canteen - about ten more swallows left.

"Okay," he said, tucking the canteen back into his pack. "Okay. No big deal. I'm only about two days away. That's five swallows a day. You're cool, Uzumaki. You're good. Just keep goin'."

He took a few more steps. This hot, it didn't even feel like his body was on fire - more like he was floating in a pool of something very warm. Naruto didn't know much about heat - Konoha was famous for its mild temperatures, for cool summers and warm winters - but he figured that was probably bad. This hot, the desert wavered in front of him, dunes shifting and falling in on themselves.

This hot, the desert was empty, sand smooth and unmarked like the ocean. The animals all knew to hide.

Naruto swallowed, grimaced. Even his spit was hot. Gross. "I'd better get a big fat bonus for this," he muttered, and, hiking his pack higher up his shoulders, started trudging through the sand.

Something prodded his ribs, and Naruto pulled away, sucking in his breath. The air he got was cold, and that was enough to make him open his eyes and blink past a curtain of fog.

Someone was talking. He blinked again. " - got this way." The voice was very exasperated, and for a second he thought it might be Tsunade. Then someone got an arm around his back, hoisted him up, touched something cool and wet to his lips. Naruto swallowed the water greedily, but they took it away too soon. "Stupid," they - she - said. "Drink too much and you'll get sick. Now sit up and talk to me. I want to make sure your brain didn't fry with the rest of you."

The arm disappeared, and Naruto sat up. He knuckled his eyes, wincing at how ragged and dry they felt, then touched his mouth. Skin flaked away beneath his fingertips and Temari, sitting across from him, made a sound of disgust. Naruto cleared his throat and managed to rasp out, "I don't know how you live in a place like this, sis."

"Don't call me that. And we live by traveling at night, you little fool." Temari looked at him closely. "Can you handle some more water?"

"Can I." Naruto grabbed her canteen and sucked at it, groaned at the taste, sending water bubbling past his lips. He caught it with his fingers and licked them clean. A few more sips cleared his head and left him feeling weak and shaky. He handed the canteen back to Temari. "Soooo," he said, "what're you doing out here?"

Temari thinned her lips. "There's an herb that grows in the desert," she said, capping her canteen and sliding it into the sun-worn pouch at her hip. "It's just a D-rank mission for one of our medics, but." She shrugged. "It's nice, at night."

"You're as crazy as your brother," Naruto said.

In her white face, the shift of Temari's eyes made it look like someone had spilled ink on her. She raised her eyebrows and the corner of her lip tilted up ever so slightly, smugly. "Is that so. What's with you, Naruto? You never come to our village. Get tired of winter?"

"Pshht, please!" His body was beginning to feel normal again, and with it all the aches and pains of walking for days were returning - deep bruises that hadn't healed yet, and a long strip of tender skin on his face. He touched his nose gingerly and winced away, then licked his lips and said, "Konoha doesn't have winter. We have fall and summer. You guys just have hell all the time."

"You're baked," Temari sighed. "Can you walk? Sunrise starts soon."

Naruto thought about it, then flashed a grin. "I could totally fly right now if I had to get away from the sun."

"Shut up and start walking then, smartass."

She turned away and started walking, and Naruto wished briefly that she hadn't taken to wearing that stupid shapeless black thing - he had it on good authority (drunk Shikamaru) that she had a great ass. Grinning, he pushed himself up, stretched briefly, and jogged after her. "Hey hey," he said, pitching his voice into a falsetto, "wait for me, sis."

She punched his shoulder without even looking. "Shut up. You're wasting energy."

Ow. Girl packed a mean punch. Naruto rubbed his shoulder, said, "Hey, I got plenty of energy. It's you who's gotta worry."

"Oh?" Temari arched an eyebrow, still not looking at him. "Is that why I found you lying face-down in the sand looking like a boiled lobster?"

Naruto frowned and touched his sunburn.

"Yeah," said Temari. "Boiled lobster." Her teeth flashed. "I wonder what Gaara will think if this story gets out..."

"Aw, no way! You wouldn't do that to me!" Naruto crossed his arms. "He'd laugh at me," he muttered. "Like the time I had gas in the middle of that one super-important meeting. Wasn't like I could do anything to stop it."

"Gaara doesn't laugh," she said.

"Sure he does," Naruto said, shivering as a hard wind blew. "With his eyes."

Temari grunted and didn't say anything else. Naruto had been hanging around the Sand siblings for years now, and while Kankurou talked about anything - girls, boys, farts, food, and porn - Temari still had a sore spot: Gaara. Putting his arms behind his neck, Naruto watched Temari's back as she picked up her pace, leaving him behind. Chouji said she'd started hanging around Konoha after the Chuunin exam, spending more and more time away from Suna, away from her brothers.

Kankurou liked Gaara; Kankurou liked everyone. Temari, though... Naruto couldn't quite tell what she thought of Gaara. He wondered sometimes what she'd expected of him when she was little, if she'd expected a baby brother she could hold and play with.

"Naruto," Temari called over her shoulder. She had her face tilted to the sky, where at the horizon a milky color was beginning to spread. "Hurry up, we're almost there."

Naruto jammed his hands in his pockets. "Yeah yeah, sure thing, sis," he said.

She raised a fist, but Naruto ducked away, laughing, and broke into a run to beat her to the gates of Sunakagure.

It was light when they stepped into the hidden village, and the early morning sun beat down hard on the ground. In the market, people wrapped towels around their heads; Naruto rolled up his sleeves, breathing slowly as Temari stopped to speak with one of the Sand nin. He looked around, squinting, at the villagers, at the nin who lolled around in the buildings' shade, at the dark-skinned children (how had Gaara and his siblings gotten so pale?) who ran past him, screaming and laughing. Two women in short sleeves and rolled-up pants strolled past him, speaking in low murmurs about the recent disturbances with Rock nin, the activites of the Akatsuki. A little girl pulled a bucket of water out of a well, dipping her hand in it and splashing the back of her neck before disappearing into the back entrance of a bakery.

Naruto scratched his peeling nose and cast a look around for Temari; she'd moved to one of the marketplace stalls. She bowed to the owner, then accepted a wrapped package from him, slipped it into her pouch and walked over to Naruto. "So tell me, Naruto," she said as she gestured for him to follow her down the streets. "Why are you here? You hardly ever come to Suna."

"Why are you here?" Naruto countered. "You hardly ever go back to Suna."

The package was a hunk of cheese; Temari unwrapped it slowly, frowning at it as if it'd insulted her, and tore off a chunk. She handed it to Naruto - it was spicy cheese, his favorite - then took a piece for herself. "The Kazekage ordered my return," she said, tone tight and formal. She rarely used Gaara's name when he had displeased her. "I had requested an official transfer to Konoha, as an ambassador."

Naruto whistled. That explained Shikamaru's recent temper. "He said no flat-out, huh?"

"Actually, I'm not sure." Temari shook her head and palmed the rest of the cheese into her mouth. "Two members of Sound recently penetrated our outer defenses. Akatsuki's been hanging around, too. Like sharks after the kill. The village is on tight alert and I haven't spoken to - Gaara since I got back." She stumbled on his name.

"What's Kankurou got to say?"

Her face tightened, voice lowering. "I haven't seen him around, either. He might be on a mission."

Kankurou and Temari had always been a pair. He'd hung around Konoha a lot, too, but in the end Sand had been his home - Temari requested jobs that took her to Konoha as often as possible, but Kankurou only came when he had nothing better to do. Naruto chewed his cheese slowly, then stuck a finger in his mouth to pick at his teeth. "Huh. Weird."

"Yeah," said Temari. "So now answer my question."

"Oh, right." Naruto stepped closer to her to let a gaggle of old women, wrinkled from the sun, pass by. "Uh, I actually came on a mission. I need to see Gaara."

"Tsunade-sama sent you?"

"Yeah." He grinned. "She told me to travel at night, but I got lazy."

Temari snorted and brought her eyebrows down, but he still saw the tilt of her smile. "You're absolutely hopeless, Uzumaki Naruto."

"Hey," said Naruto, making the V-sign, "are you kidding me? Everyone knows I'm number one, or I wouldn't be here right now, right? Right?"

"Maybe it's just that you're expendable." Temari paused by a well, reaching out to draw up the bucket with a thoughtful expression. "Your being here, the Akatsuki and the Sound, Kankurou being gone... strange, eh?"

Naruto perched on the side and crossed his arms. He frowned. "Can't it just be coincidence?"

"I don't believe in coincidences." She re-filled her canteen and splashed a handful of water at him, then grabbed his elbow and pulled him off the well. The bucket dropped to the bottom with a clanking sound as Temari shoved him down the streets. "Come on," she said. "Let's go see Gaara."

The pavilion of the Kazekage killed Naruto every time; it was a large dome with stairs leading to the top, and climbing them in the heat of the sun was enough to make anybody lose five or ten pounds. Temari jogged up them quickly and lightly; Naruto gritted his teeth and hoped he wouldn't have to use the kyuubi's chakra. He supported himself with one hand against the sand-colored building, sighed through his nose, and started walking.

When he got to the top, panting and sweating and cursing, Temari was speaking with one of the guards, who leaned over her shoulder to look at Naruto with a dubious expression. "Oh, for God's sake," she said impatiently. "Look at his forehead protector, would you? He's Leaf. Let him through already."

The guard shrugged - caution had probably gotten pretty lax around here since they had a Kazekage who was virtually unharmable. He stepped back and Naruto breezed past him into the air-conditioned cool of the pavilion, hoping it would dry some of his sweat. Temari stepped in after him and shut the door.

Gaara's father - or so Temari and Kankurou said - had wanted the job for prestige and power. He hadn't bothered to make the pavilion accessible to visitors. Gaara had let Kankurou revamp it, though, and now the inside sported a colorful array of tribal art on the walls, swirls and shears and circles crisscrossed by lines and triangles. Most of them were black, Kankurou's signature color; but the most prominent design was a deep shade of red. It was the kanji for love, Gaara's symbol, and bled into the wall behind the Kazekage's seat.

Naruto brushed through a group of feathers hanging from the ceiling and stepped further into the pavilion, toeing off his sandals and nudging them against the wall. The Kazekage's seat was at the head of a sunpit; a shaft of sunlight always illuminated it, while the four other seats encircling it sat in shadow.

The seat was empty now, but Naruto could see a shape in a shadow in the corner. He lifted his head and inhaled, and raised a hand in greeting when he smelled sand, blood and sweat. "Yo," he said. "Gaara."

"Kazekage-sama," Temari said, stopping at the desk behind the sunpit. She leaned on it and folded her arms. "Tsunade-sama has sent Naruto-kun here to speak with you."

In the dark, Gaara's head tilted; his greeting.

Naruto eased himself onto one of the pillows in the sunpit, stretching out and sighing as his aching back and legs protested. "So you gonna come out?" he asked. "'Cause I'll feel really dumb speaking into the shadows, you know. I mean. I should be used to it by now - I'm a ninja and all - but it still feels stupid to me."

Gaara's voice, when he stepped out of the shadows and into the light, was weary. "Get to the point, Naruto."

"Hey hey, that's no way to treat your friend you haven't seen in, like, five months!" It was, actually, exactly five months since they'd seen each other. Naruto reached out and patted the pillow next to him. "Don't you want to know what I've been up to?"

Gaara snorted softly as he sat down next to Naruto. "Not really."

"Aw. That hurts." Naruto tilted his head back to look at him. Gaara was paler than usual, the line of his back tenser; he hunched more. He'd been Kazekage for three years now, and every time Naruto saw him the shadows around his eyes were just a bit deeper, just a bit darker. Naruto cleared his throat. "So like... what's up? Temari's been giving me some bad news."

Gaara's glance flashed to Temari. She tightened her lips, then shrugged once, gave a disdainful look to Naruto, and put her back to them. Her geta clicked on the wooden floor like the tapping feet of Kankurou's puppets before the door slammed.

"Whoops," Naruto said, and gave a nervous chuckle. "Heh. Sorry about that."

"What bad news?"

"Oh, you know." Naruto shrugged, looking away from Gaara. "The Sound, the Akatsuki. Your usual run-of-the-mill bad guys hanging around." He hesitated, then glanced back at him quickly. Gaara was frowning down at the floor. "I, uh, I hear Kankurou's gone?" he said.

"Mission." Gaara looked back up, the frown wiped from his face. He popped his knuckles. "Nothing important."

"Oh," Naruto said. He couldn't tell if it was a lie or not. Usually he could. "Well, anyway. The hag gave me some papers, that's it. It's not really a big deal." He flipped open his pouch and drew out the little wrapped parcel, handed it to Gaara. "You need to cut your nails, by the way." They were almost as long as Sakura's.

Gaara didn't open the package; Naruto hadn't expected him to. They were friends, and they knew each other's blood too well to be shy anymore - but this was Sand business, and Gaara never shared that.

Still - couldn't deny he was curious. What if it was important?

A finger tapped his sunburn, and Naruto blinked out of his thoughts, seeing Gaara within arm's reach of him - a rare occurrence. Gaara's finger traced across his cheeks, then he drew back, tucking his hands into himself again. "You'll never get used to the desert," Gaara said.

Naruto grinned sheepishly and touched the sunburn, himself. It would heal soon, now that he was out of the sun. Probably by tonight. "Yeah," he said, rubbing at it. "Dunno how you guys do it, man... living here..."

"Don't scratch it." And the hand was back, knocking Naruto's away from his nose, before Gaara stood as if it had never happened. Naruto sat blinking as he said, "You've found accomodations?"

Naruto hesitated. "I dunno," he said. "Have I?"

Gaara didn't smile with his mouth, hardly ever did. But his eyes flashed in an almost warm expression.

Gaara had lived with his siblings until he was fifteen, when he'd become Kazekage. Now he had his own house - hardly bigger than Naruto's apartment, really, but with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living area. His brother and sister had decorated it, and there were shades of all three of them in the house, Kankurou's penchant for dolls and tribal designs, Temari's wind instruments - fans, little wooden flutes, and the color blue. Gaara didn't have any possessions other than what Temari bought him, but the house still felt like him. It was dark and shadowy and cool, the walls a deep earthy color.

Temari cooked them their meal; Gaara, she'd told Naruto once, wouldn't eat if she didn't. Dinner was ramen and curry and bland-tasting curry. She wasn't a good cook, and she made everything in a hurry. But she left coffee and tea and touched Gaara's head very quickly before she left. She couldn't stay angry with him for long. Naruto watched her slip out the door with a grin on his face; Gaara just snorted.

Naruto sat back in his seat, shoveling the ramen into his mouth, and watched Gaara pick at his food. "So what's up with sis?" he said around a mouthful. "Why didn't you let her take the assignment to Konoha? We could use her, you know." He grinned. "And Shikamaru's going crazy without her."

Gaara scooped up some noodles on his chopstick, then let them slide off. He pushed around his food and said, head bent, "She's more useful here."


"Are you saying I'm lying?" Gaara said, irritation deepening his voice.

Naruto shrugged. "Maybe not to me."

Gaara's brow furrowed; he stabbed the ramen with his chopstick as if it had offended him. A bit of sand appeared at his feet, rasping restlessly.

Naruto wasn't bothered. Gaara could control his sand better now and did; aside from killing and protection, most of the rest was for show. "Okay, man. I'm just saying, maybe you should give it a try. I bet she'd be a lot happier."

"I don't care if she's happy," Gaara said. "I care if she's working well."

What a liar you are, Naruto thought, but didn't say it. Temari had helped take care of Gaara when he was little, had taught him to walk and read and speak because Naruto had a feeling their uncle - that Yashamaru guy - hadn't really cared if Gaara learned any of that. Gaara never forgot things like that. "Okay," he said instead, slurping down the rest of his ramen. "I just hope she doesn't stab you in your sleep."

Gaara didn't deign to say anything to that.

"Akatsuki, though. Is it true they're hanging around?" Now that really had him worried, more than the Sound. They could handle the Sound, but the Akatsuki -

Gaara breathed out through his nose and pushed his ramen at Naruto. He ladled himself a tiny amount of miso soup and began sipping at it, eyes narrowing over the rim of his bowl. "Yes," he said. "Two scouts have reported sightings."

"Damn," Naruto muttered. "If they're showing their faces here, they'll probably show up at Konoha any time."

Halfway to his mouth the bowl stilled, and Gaara's face behind it. "Yes," he said, "unless they know you're here."

Naruto stared at him. "What's that mean?"

The bowl began moving again. Gaara took a tiny sip, then set it down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Think about it," he said.

Naruto tapped his chopsticks against his bowl, frowning. "Those papers Tsunade gave you - "

"A chuunin could have given me those. They're invitations to a conference that takes place in five months. They could have been sent by bird."

"Huh," was all Naruto could think to say.

"Your Hokage probably thinks we have a better chance together." Gaara was watching him intently. "The last time - "

"Last time they took us separately."

"She's right," said Gaara. "We're stronger together."

"Damn." Naruto pushed back his ramen bowl and rubbed at his peeling nose. "My feelings are hurt."

Gaara raised his eyebrows.

"Just kidding." It was the smart move, Naruto could admit that - he and Gaara had trained together for a year and tuned their combat to each other (at Tsunade's suggestion, no less; she said that it made for good relations with the Sand), and Tsunade couldn't afford another Akatsuki strike against Konoha. He wished the bitch had told him, though. What if they'd attacked him on the way here? "Hey, hey," he said, leaning onto his elbows. "What're we gonna do?"

"For now, nothing." Gaara was picking at his food again, all seriousness gone. He'd start ignoring Naruto soon. "I sent Kankurou to recon. Until we have more information, you should be careful."

"Me? Hey, maybe you'd better be - " Gaara slurped at his soup loudly, and Naruto rolled his eyes. "Jackass. Hey, put some salt in that soup, it'll taste better. I'm gonna go out for some air. Don't choke on it," he added, standing up and shoving his chair into place with his foot.

It was evening; the air was cooler, but heat still clung to the building. Naruto leaned against the railing of Gaara's balcony and gazed out at the sunset, the burning desert sun bleeding into the clear, cloudless sky and turning it pink. The colors spread out into the village, turning the drab buildings and streets soft and colorful. The desert rock that rose around Suna turned pink and purple, too, and cast multi-colored shadows onto the ground. The sunsets here were perfect, and at night you could see more stars than you thought even existed.

In Konoha, when he was little, he used to lie on the grass and stare up at the stars. He'd felt - a little better then, a little less alone. It was hard to feel lonely when you could see the stars and know you were a part of something so big and great. Naruto wondered if Gaara had ever done that. He wasn't sure; he wasn't an art appreciator himself, but Gaara had absolutely no interest in art or - in anything beautiful, really. He looked at the ground beneath his feet and the sky above his head, and that was about it.

Something rustled in the bushes, and Naruto turned his head to see a little desert lizard making his careful way across a branch and onto the railing. It was a tiny thing, no bigger than his pinky finger, but it had as many colors on its skin as Gaara did in his home. It blinked its black eyes at him, hesitant to see something so big; backed up a little, then changed his mind and scurried forward. Naruto pushed himself off the balcony to let it pass, and it breezed past him and was hidden in another bush in a cool second. "Good luck, little fella," he muttered.

The door to the balcony rasped open, and Gaara stepped quietly up beside him. He folded his hands on the railing and rested his hip against it. He didn't say anything, but Naruto was used to that by now, so used to it he could almost feel by the silence what Gaara would be saying, if he were so inclined.

"Are you scared?" Naruto asked, looking over at him. He'd trained with Gaara, watched his eyes and face and posture to suss out what he was thinking and what his next move would be. They fought against each other sometimes in that long year, but he'd never felt any fear from Gaara. He was like a big cat - like an animal totally sure of its dominance. He had felt pain only a few times in his life.

The sun was setting rapidly now, casting Gaara's face into shadow. He said, "What should I be afraid of?"

Naruto considered it. "Of dying."

"No." Gaara's response was immediate. "If I do die, I won't feel much pain. Only a few people can get through my defenses and it would be a killing shot. It would only last a few seconds."

"Jeez, that's nice," Naruto said under his breath.

Gaara shrugged. "You asked."

"So... so what about - " Naruto sighed, scratched his nose and cheeks. "I dunno," he muttered. "I don't think I'm really afraid of pain. Lots of things hurt, but they don't last very long. But Akatsuki, they don't want to just kill us, you know? They want to make us different people. I'm... I am afraid of that."

Gaara didn't say anything for a long time. He didn't seem to be looking at anything, either; his eyes were focused inward. "Why?" he said, finally.

Naruto rubbed the back of his neck. "Come on. You know why."

"Why?" Gaara repeated. "Maybe I don't mind if I become a different person. What I am now - " His words slowed, then stopped.

"I would care," Naruto said. He pushed himself off the balcony and glared at Gaara. "And don't say stuff like that, man. What the hell do you mean? Who you are is - is fine. I would be sad if they killed you. But I'd be sad if they took you away, too, and you came back not - " He flicked a bug off his shoulder, irritated. Irritated with the heat, irritated with the still air, irritated with Gaara and his stupid blank expressions and the way he tried not to care when Temari cooked him dinner and Kankurou brought him souvenirs. "Not you," he finished lamely, looking away.

That had happened to Sasuke. Orochimaru had changed him, Naruto believed that fiercely; had played with his mind, played off his fears about his brother, put that little dark seed into his mind - the same seed Gaara had, hell, the same seed Naruto had once, when he'd hated everyone in Konoha.

"Because our precious people are important?"

Naruto looked back to see Gaara gazing at him, face in shadow except for his eyes, intent like the lizard's were.

"Yeah." There was something in his throat that Naruto had difficulty speaking through. "If you stop caring about your precious people... if Akatsuki takes away our precious people... what have we got left?"

"Each other," Gaara said, voice steely.

Naruto swallowed and looked out at the sky again. He could see stars now, faint, like footsteps in sand. Gaara's gaze was heavy against the side of his neck, making his skin curl. "I'm afraid," he said, looking back at Gaara, "they'll take that away, too."

Gaara's eyes shifted, something in them moving like a cloud over clear sky. "No," he said. "They won't take that." He tilted his head and sniffed at the air. "It's going to rain," he said abruptly.

Naruto frowned, taken aback by the change of subject - then felt relieved that they'd gotten off such shaky ground. Best not to talk about things like that. "What are you talking about, sand boy? It doesn't rain in the desert."

Gaara gave him a look that said clearly said 'I am humoring you, moron.' "It's called a desert storm. They come sometimes. Mostly in the summer. Hardly ever in winter."

"Seriously? Weird." Naruto grinned, hoping he was giving a clear view of his wicked canines. (Jiraiya kept telling him to file them down, that he looked like a dog, but he thought they were awesome. So had the last girl he'd kissed.) "I must have brought it with me."

Gaara closed his eyes and snorted. For a second Naruto thought he was going to agree; then he opened his eyes. "Or shifting weather fronts." He glanced at Naruto. "You should file down your teeth." He pushed off the balcony and slid open the door; his footsteps echoed for a few seconds, then disappeared.

Naruto waited a few more minutes, skeptical. The sky began to turn gray and leaden, clouds blowing in from the west to cover the stars. Ten minutes later it was beginning to drizzle, and when Naruto went inside and began to drip everywhere, Gaara was waiting with a towel and a very smug quirk to his lips.

The door to Gaara's bedroom usually went unopened, its bed unused, sheets and blankets pristine. In the little bathroom, Naruto watched Gaara brush his teeth, then stole his toothbrush, brushed with too much toothpaste and opened his mouth wide to examine his canines. "Do you think they're too long?" he asked, running his fingers over them.

Gaara knocked his hand away and reached across him for the soap. "Shut up about them already," he said.

"Yeah." Naruto watched him wash his hands. He couldn't help saying, "They do look kinda weird, though. In the right light and everything."

Gaara rolled his eyes, dried his hands, and walked out of the bathroom. Naruto checked his teeth one last time - did they look weird? He'd ask Sakura when he got back to Konoha; she'd give him an honest answer - then followed him. Gaara was pulling down the sheets. Naruto threw himself on the bed and splayed out, letting out a loud sigh. "Ah-hh, this feels sooo good! Man, I'm beat, I've been sleeping on the sand for like days! You don't know how bad it is until you do it, and then you forget until the next time." He started pulling off his clothes and unwrapping his bandages, leaving his pants on.

Gaara didn't bother. He sat on the edge and grabbed the items Naruto discarded, folding them up absently.

Naruto kicked back the sheets and lay on the cold mattress, pillowing his arms under his head so he could watch Gaara. "What about you, buddy?" he said, wiggling a little - geez, this bed was super soft. "What're you gonna do to stay awake?"


"Well, I'm not going to sleep." Naruto aimed a pillow at him. "It's a slumber party, dumbass!"

"If you throw that at me, you'll regret it."

Naruto flashed his teeth, and threw. Gaara's sand went up and the pillow went flying to land in a grainy mess on the floor, and Gaara closed his eyes.

"Whoops," said Naruto. "Well, that sucks."

The corner of Gaara's eye twitched. "You should sleep. You need to restore your chakra."

"Naaahhh. Don't I always stay up with you?"

"Yeah," said Gaara. "And I always want to kill you for it. You're annoying at night."

Ooh. That hurt. And now he didn't have a pillow. "Well, fine," said Naruto, lying back down, "but you're gonna get awfully bored while I'm in here snoring away. What do you do at night, anyway?"

"Fantasize about removing your toenails." Gaara's eyes flashed.

"Hur hur hur." Naruto crossed his arms. "Go ahead, be bored and lonely. See if I care." He rolled over, affected a huge snore that hurt his throat.

The middle of the bed dipped with added weight, and Naruto craned his neck to see Gaara settling into bed. He looked unsure, as if he didn't even know quite how you were supposed to lie down on a bed. That was one thing Temari had probably never taught him, fearful of his falling asleep. Naruto opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. He scooted over instead, making more room for Gaara.

"The sheets are cold," Gaara said, voice loud in the still room.

Something warm heated Naruto's belly, and he let a grin curve his lips. "Yeah," he said. "But I know a way we can keep warm. Ehhh?" He reached out and ran a finger down the side of Gaara's neck. "How 'bout it?"

Gaara lifted his eyebrows. "On a bed?"

"Actually," said Naruto, "that's where you're supposed to do it."

"I thoughts beds were for sleeping."

His grin grew wider, and he rolled over to wrap Gaara's neck, ignoring the brief tension in Gaara's shoulders. It would disappear quickly enough. "Go figure, huh?"

He remembered the first time he'd touched Gaara like this: his sand had jumped and quivered, for the first time unsure whether this were a friendly or aggressive attack, before Gaara had made it rest out of sheer will. He'd been so tense under Naruto's touch he'd almost shivered, and his pupils had dilated to the point of nonexistance. Sixteen years old and nervous himself, Naruto hadn't thought there was anything that could frighten Gaara of the Desert - but ah, there was. He'd coaxed Gaara into not getting angry over touch, first in battle, then in more mundane things: an arm around his shoulder, a hand on his head. It'd been like coaxing a wild animal to feed out of his hand.

Naruto had kissed girls - Hinata had been his first - and boys - he tried not to remember who, but their pale face and darkness kept flooding his senses like a ghost. He'd fumbled around with Shikamaru, both of them so drunk they couldn't see the ground beneath their feet. But touching Gaara had been different. He'd coaxed him along nervously, fumbling a hand down his chest, into his pants, and later was almost afraid to hold him when it was all over. The kisses had been bad, too much spit and teeth, and Gaara, of course, hadn't known what the fuck he was doing and was pissed afterwards because of it.

But the next time had been even better. And the next, and the next, and -

"Too much washing," Gaara said. "It'll get in the sheets."

"So what, you want to do it on the floor? Come on, seriously."

"It's the natural place to do it."

"So you don't mind getting it all over your floor? Priorities, man, priorities!"

Gaara scowled. "Removing your toenails is sounding good."

"Obviously. Look," Naruto said, "sheets wash. If you're worried about Temari seeing, you can do your own damn laundry for once. But I'm horny and you're being difficult. This offer ain't gonna hang around forever, okay?"

Gaara pinched one of his nipples, and Naruto yelped. "Pushy," Gaara said.

He sometimes wondered why he even bothered. Naruto rubbed his chest and glared at him. "My ass is this close to leaving," he said. "Nipple-pinching when I'm not expecting it sucks. And I think you know it. As a matter of fact, I think I'll just leave right now, since - "

And then Gaara was rolling his eyes and grabbing him and pulling him forward, and his tongue was in Naruto's mouth, muffling anything else he'd wanted to say. Yeah, their first kisses had sucked, but Naruto had been a horny kid and Gaara a fast learner, and they'd managed to work through any difficulties. Gaara's breath was hot and fast in his, tongue slick and fast and sucking on his. Naruto made a muffled sound into Gaara's mouth and wrapped his arms around Gaara's shoulders, pressing them closer together. Fuck, he hadn't gotten any in months - fuck Tsunade's mission, he would have found an excuse to come down here anyway -

"Pants off," Gaara breathed against his lips. He was still tense - he'd probably always be, a little - but Naruto ran his hands up and down his arms, then down his spine, and he breathed out a little and seemed to even out. Naruto grinned, pleased, and reached down to untie the string at his waistline. He kicked his pants off.

"What about you?" he said, pressing his lips to Gaara's jaw.

Gaara just grunted, head tilting back - his jaw was a weak point. His hands settled on Naruto's upper arms, tensing as Naruto nibbled down the long column of his neck to his shoulderblades.

Naruto inhaled deeply, filling his nose, his enhanced senses, with Gaara's scent. The dryness of sand, the dustiness that seemed to fill Suna, and - a hint of blood, at the very edges of his nose. The rest was spicy and hot, like the strange herbs that grew in the desert. He touched his tongue to Gaara's shoulder and closed his eyes as that, too, brought an explosion of taste and smell to his senses. The blood was stronger, here on Gaara's skin, from all the times the shield had covered him. Naruto didn't like the taste or smell of blood, never had; he just had to swallow past it. He kissed Gaara's shoulder, then moved back up to his mouth, where any taste of blood was gone.

Gaara wasn't noisy - here, as always, he was efficient. He didn't like lingering, savoring, and, Naruto could tell, was annoyed when Naruto did. His kiss became a little less focused as his hand slipped down to grasp Naruto's erection and - oh, yeah, Gaara had learned fast. Learned what Naruto liked, what he didn't like, and could use either damned well to get what he wanted. Naruto broke off the kiss, gasped, dropped his head to rest in the curve of Gaara's shoulder. "Fuck," he got out, hips tilting up, hands grabbing Gaara's arms. "Oh, fuck, fuck - come on, faster - please - "

Gaara murmured something, he couldn't make out what it was. But he was stroking faster, clenching and unclenching his hand lightly, and the heat of the desert burned through Naruto's stomach, up his chest and out his fingertips, and exploded. He sagged into Gaara's arms, panting, not even caring that Gaara had tensed at his touch.

"Damn," he muttered. He looked up at Gaara. "You get better every time," he said with a crooked grin.

Gaara's eyebrows lifted high.

Grin widening so much it hurt his cheeks, Naruto pressed their mouths together again, nipping at Gaara's lips and then his tongue. "Hey," he said, lifting a hand to sift through the long hair at Gaara's neck, "can I do you now?" He settled a hand at the waistband of Gaara's pants, but Gaara caught him, stilling him.


Naruto pulled back, but Gaara's face was blank. You sure couldn't tell he'd just been giving a handjob a few minutes ago; wasn't even flushed. "You know," he said carefully, "you'd really like it."

Gaara shook his head. He gritted his teeth. "I don't," he said, and paused, getting out the rest of the sentence with difficulty. "It's too - close."

"Hey." Naruto stroked through his hair again, then rubbed circles on the soft skin above his spinal cord - this, too, always got Gaara tense, but he relaxed soon enough. There were just too many spots that Gaara viewed as vulnerable, even when he knew Naruto wouldn't hurt him. "It's okay. I get it, all right? It's okay."

He didn't know why, but he kept repeating it for a while. Repeated it as Gaara lay down and Naruto with him, curving around him and wrapping one arm around Gaara's chest as Gaara reached down to finish himself off. It ended like this every time, in this weird lonely way, and Naruto always felt silly but he tried anyway, tried to make it - less impersonal. He stroked down Gaara's spine as Gaara's breath quickened, as his hand sped up. "It's okay," he muttered when Gaara's whole body tensed, and said it again, resting his head against Gaara's back, when Gaara began to relax in fractions.

Gaara's breathing whistled through his clenched teeth. "Tell me about your precious people," he said in a low voice, and Naruto saw his eyes close tight.

"What about them?"

"Tell me I'm one of them."

Naruto brushed back a chunk of sweaty hair off Gaara's neck and held it to his lips, tasting the blood. He turned the words over in his mouth, mingling them with salt and sand and sun. "I'll do anything to protect my precious people," he finally said. "'Cause I told you, they're the ones who take me out of hell every day. I'd do anything, I'd even kill someone. And I'll protect you, too, even if you probably don't need it, because you're one of my - " He kissed Gaara's neck, the best way he could think of to apologize for whatever he was doing wrong. "One of my A-list, number one special people."

Neither of them slept. In the dark, Naruto couldn't see whether Gaara's eyes were closed or not, and he knew Gaara couldn't see that his were wide open. He suspected, though, that Gaara could tell from his breathing. He hoped Gaara understood what it meant.

He thought Gaara might.

There was a loneliness to the desert that Naruto hated. If he thought about it, that was why he didn't often come here, why he waited for Gaara to visit Konoha. In the desert, silence and solitude ruled.

In the morning, after he'd showered and eaten, he followed Gaara's scent to just outside of Suna where the desert began. High red cliffs rose to the north, to the south Suna, and all around them were the still sands and dunes lit and shadowed by the sun. Naruto came to a pause behind Gaara, watched him and wondered if he should say anything.

Then Gaara's head tilted, and he turned a little towards Naruto. He didn't say anything, but Naruto smiled and walked over to sit beside him, hiking his legs into cross-legged position. He watched Gaara, who turned his face back to the sand dunes. They were beginning to shift in the wind, changing shape and color.

"It smells like snow," Gaara said suddenly. A cloud blew up from one of the dunes, as if his breath had disturbed it.

Naruto sniffed, but all he could smell was dry heat.

"We've been getting a lot of storms this year." The sand at Gaara's feet made a skittering nervous noise - the sand, Naruto had learned, could tell you a lot about what Gaara was feeling.

Naruto sniffed again, and thought maybe, just maybe, he could smell what Gaara was talking about. A bit of cold, high in the air, coming from the south.

The sand stilled. Gaara said, "You must have brought it with you."

The next day Kankurou came back, and Temari's face had a happier light to it. They ate dinner together; Kankurou had spent all his money in a gambling town and hadn't eaten in two days. He'd brought his siblings gifts, though, and Gaara accepted his, little balls you rolled in your hand for relaxation, without comment. Naruto knew he'd never use them.

That night stormclouds rolled in from the south, deep and thick, yellow with dust. Lightning turned the air crisp and electric and thunder shook the bed, which made Gaara grumble; they sat outside on the balcony watching the storm roil its way over the desert.

In the morning, snow rested on the ground and blanketed the trees.