It's late, past sunset but still shy of the creeping midnight of this place, and all Naruto can even think is that the desert is an excruciatingly hot place; it is dusty and dry and very, very sandy. There is heat that seeps down into your skin and bones and leaves you baking and cracking and red; and there are sandstorms, or just wind on its own, and little grains flitting and fretting and crawling over your skin and face and beneath your clothing like a cruel lover or a particularly bitter ex. Naruto doesn't know what it's like to have cruel lovers or bitter exes, but he's sure that it would be like sand under your clothes.
The only thing worse than the desert in the day, which is Naruto's closely following second thought, is the desert at night. In a heartbeat, or the blink of his crusting eyelids, the sun sinks; the desert cools; and then the desert is very, very cold. It is still dry and still sandy and still very much an irritant; but now it is an opposite extreme, and even if you spend eleven hours in heat, by the twelfth you are quite acclimated to it, or at the very least find it tolerable; but then the thirteenth hour is sudden cold, a terribly cutting wind that tosses in through the balcony door he's left open, he's left coolly inviting any kind of breeze because he knows it will be so hot to sleep; but no, it is chilling and he wishes he still had his clothes on, sand and all, and pulls the small sheet he'd kicked down to the end of the bed up around his shoulders and shivers.
It is discomforting to know that even if he falls asleep, he will wake up terribly uncomfortable for the sun glaring in through the balcony he's left open. Through the window, too, which is just as inviting as the balcony and he will of course have cocooned himself in the sheet which will transform from a scrap that barely retains heat in the night to an overbearing, suffocating mass of general smoldering frustration, in the equally smoldering morning.
Naruto has come to the conclusion that he really doesn't hold any particular fondness or affinity for the Sand Country.
He tosses and turns. He is scritchy and scratchy from the sand granules that attack him beneath the limp cover like crumbs in bed, only there are millions of them and they are everywhere, not just where he'd eaten a sandwich or sloshed ramen.
Naruto, who refuses to fail, who fights and defends to the death, who is insurmountable always--he gives up and gets up. He looks around, with his arms around his torso and hugging himself and freezing, wondering why the Kazekage insisted that his Konoha guests stay the night to rest and, at the very least, recover a fraction of their strength for the journey home. Gai-sensei, and especially Rock Lee who never backs down from a challenge--as everything, to him, is a test, a builder of character and of strength--they had meant to race home almost immediately with their mildly chagrined Neji and exhausted Tenten. But sometimes it is good to have a level head among heroes, and Neji's logic won out; a three day journey, especially when expected to be completed in half the usual time, still requires energy. Tenten agreed and was relieved.
But, for Naruto, it is too cold and too hot and too uncomfortable and too alien to get a good rest.
He would visit Gaara; just thinking about their host ignites some strange dark pain that curls in his belly and rises to his ribs, sparking and expanding here and there in a terrible red nervousness that he can't quite stand.
He would call it despair, and still be at a loss because how can he despair over someone who is just down the hall?
These are the guest rooms of the Kazekage, and he shifts his weight this way and that, rubs his arms, snatches the cottony bathrobe off a hook and pulls it around his body. It is pale cream with a darker sand-colored trim, colorless grays and browns like everything else in this godforsaken place. How can this be luxury. But he remembers that he was not born with the body of a Sand Ninja; that he has not had the years of conditioning between chill and heat; and perhaps the room wasn't so gritty before he opened the door and window. He makes an effort to close them now.
He shuts his bedroom door softly when he leaves and tries his best to be silent; he was never the quiet type but right now he finds the empty soundless hallway to be almost refreshing; there is no constant sound of wind here. The floor is smooth and his socks slide across it easily; there's no soft stick when he lifts his foot to take a step.
The door is closed when Naruto is standing in front of it. It has the old scarred markings of Kazekage and the considerably newer inscription of Sabaku no Gaara; because even as Kage he will never be forgotten as Gaara the Monster, Gaara the Tanuki, Gaara of the Sand. He is well loved now, but there will always be a time when he wasn't.
The door is unlocked and opens inward when Naruto tries it. There is a gathered gloom that concentrates on the edges of the many furnishings, on the floors around the chairs and the bed and dresser, and beneath the wide window where the moon occasionally filters in through a cloud or two. For the greater part it is all shades of dark anyway, and the only real highlight is the curve of Gaara's face, markedly more noticeable for the heavy smears of darkness over his eyes.
It is strange to see Gaara sleeping off the effects of dying, of death, of resurrection; stranger still, even, when he has rarely ever slept before.
Naruto is still making a play at silence. He doesn't know what he was expecting--surely the Kazekage is a tremendously important person, and needs his rest while he can get it because he has been dead for a little while. He moves a little closer, just to check, just to see--it is a terrible thing, to have begged and pleaded and searched for and grabbed and held someone who was gone, gone, gone. No one is further from you than someone who is dead.
Naruto sits down on the bed, slowly, with his hands in his lap. It must be Gaara, but he doesn't feel as cold anymore; body heat has an enveloping quality. But then he shivers because it is not quiet enveloping enough.
And Naruto starts talking. It is quiet, and very soft; these are words he could just as easily think, and would have the same effect--Gaara can't hear him. He is somewhere deep inside himself, slowly spreading out within his own body, feeling all the little nooks and cracks and caves and holes; it must be a very quiet place now, gentle and easy and lights all around so he can see himself; there is no longer a hulking shadow that covers him and wages constant war against his soul.
A lot of things Naruto just repeats. He talks about every fight he'd had against Sasuke, every one that counted--all the little things, too, like dobe and teme and all the cruel things children say to one another. Lee, and his undying dreams; and Neji, the caged bird of the Hyuuga, and Hinata who was too shy and too sweet to realize how strong she was. Jiraiya, the Pervert; Tsunade-baachan who can hit harder than anyone he knows. He even mentions Zabuza and Haku, but only vaguely because that still tears at him when he thinks about it--ninja as tools, ninja who die and nothing changes. Sasuke before he realized he didn't hate Naruto, before his perfectly trained and perfectly controlled body moved on its own to save him, before his perfectly learned and perfectly brilliant mind ever considered keeping Naruto alive a necessity.
He talks about his childhood--the bad parts. It takes him the better part of an hour, people who never met his eyes in public, and the ones who did and scorned him, all the ugly glares, and parks with other children who, while not hating him outright, never made any large effort to include him; sunsets, the ends of days, and parents and families who came to get their kids and there was no one, ever, for Naruto. Almost an hour of all of Naruto's worst memories, and this is before he even starts into the good things; Iruka-sensei, who forgave him before anybody else, and who had the least cause to--who treated him to ramen and as a father would treat a son. Sakura, the first girl who'd ever made his knees go weak, the first girl to hit him upside the head, the first girl to say horrible things to him that hurt worse than anything anyone else ever said; and Sasuke, his first--
His first what?
Naruto pauses here, uncertain. He wants to say friend, but in the beginning it wasn't friendship so much as a quiet semblance, a connection, a part of their hearts that saw into each other and understood.
"Sasuke was lonely, too," Naruto decides. "But it was never like you and me. Sasuke is… higher, somehow, then I was. Separate." He doesn't want to put it into so many words, but he isn't angry; he's sad, really, and it hurts in a terrible place to talk about Sasuke this way, to Gaara, who is asleep; to the walls, who are the only ones listening. "He was always better than me. At everything. Even Sakura--and I don't think she even realized…"
And suddenly his eyes are burning and he quiets for a moment. There aren't tears, of course, but there is a lump in his throat and silence; and then he takes a shaky breath and continues. "With Sasuke it was always what we never showed each other that we saw. It was one mutual weakness--we were both alone. I think that, in some ways, Sasuke was more alone than I was," and suddenly Naruto understands.
"Gaara," he says in quiet earnest, as if the other isn't asleep and can perfectly comprehend his words, "You and me--we're the same. Sasuke was the opposite. I started out alone, when all I wanted was to be acknowledged. Sasuke… he had all that, family and friends, and it was taken away. After that, he never wanted people to see him they way I needed them to see me. And as we grew up, I had more and more people I cared about, and they were all that ever mattered to me. Sasuke always--he fought it, he fought friendships like they were dirt, he fought--"
"Uchiha Sasuke wasn't fighting you, Naruto."
Naruto's eyes go wide and now he's standing and looking sheepishly away, edging to the door. He apologizes. Scratches the crown of his head absently because it is late and he is definitely imposing and just because Gaara crying somewhere far away in his heart is a terrible, desperate image that Naruto can't forget, that has been in Naruto's head all night, that doesn't mean he has any right to come to the Kazekage's room and sit and babble about things that only matter to him.
Gaara watches him with expressionless eyes. He's leaning up and there is silence for a long time.
"Gaara, I'm sor--"
He folds back the covers and Naruto remembers that he is still very cold.
"He was fighting with himself. He didn't want your friendship, Naruto. He didn't want these bonds you made him forge. It is a painful thing to realize you care about someone you thought of as a rival, as an obstacle." It is a painful thing to look on the two people closest to you and realize they are more than tools, he thinks because Gaara does love his brother and sister and can understand why Sasuke would be shaken; why Sasuke would not want his teammates to die.
Gaara doesn't have a shirt on, and he must be getting cold leaning up and waiting for Naruto to lay down beside him where it is warm.
"I… didn't know you were awake, Gaara." Naruto lets his robe fall to the floor, abashed.
There's a soft sound from Gaara that takes him a moment to recognize as amusement; Naruto's boxers are blue with a ramen logo patterned across them; he notices this and flushes slightly.
"Naruto." It is an almost-smile.
The blonde jinchuuriki looks up and Gaara is still waiting.
He slides slowly beneath the covers. The bed is large and spacious and the sheets are cool at first but warm quickly, especially when their bodies are within a foot of each other.
They are on their sides, face to face, and Gaara has an elbow on the pillow to prop up his head. Naruto rests his own on his arm and his gaze is downcast and inward-turned.
"It is very difficult," Gaara is saying slowly, quietly, almost curiously, "to break bonds with you."
There is a stunned silence where Naruto wants to believe what Gaara is saying. He wants it with everything he is, and Gaara is looking at him like it's true.
So it has to be.
"Naruto," Gaara has moved closer, has linked their fingers so that their hands rest between them, under the blankets, and this time Gaara doesn't use his sand to join them. "Thank you." For the first time I saw you fight, for the first time you fought me, for saving my soul when you meant save my life.
It wasn't me, Naruto wants to say, because it was Chiyo-baachan, and he can't take credit for what he hasn't done; but Gaara has eyes that are infinitely penetrating and revealing, that can be startlingly expressive because Naruto is thinking again of running through the desert of Gaara's mind and finding him and bringing him back.
But anybody would've done it.
"Only another jinchuuriki, Naruto," only you, Naruto. It's odd, how closely their trains of thought run, how parallel and in the same direction; not opposite, not on the same track and about to collide, not like Sasuke, "because you knew me from the inside before you judged me from the outside." Because I wasn't a monster to you, Naruto heard him add silently.
"It isn't so hard to understand that kind of pain, Gaara." Naruto looks away and the hand that holds his tightens.
"It's easy for you to say that. You've lived through it too. That's why you understand." Gaara leans forward; Naruto stiffens, but then relaxes because Gaara doesn't frighten him or make him nervous. He is fluid and slow and as much a part of him as his hands because they are so similar on the inside.
As if they were a bonsai tree, and the tree had two branches--essentially they are the same, at the base; they just grew in different directions, separate gardeners molding them to separate paths; but eventually they pull back inward to each other, because you never forget your roots.
Their fingers lace like the last pieces to a puzzle, formed and cut to fit each other just so.
Gaara kisses him.
It is soft and dry and chaste and short; it is like they have been kissing this whole time.
Neither remember who initiates it, but suddenly they are in each other's arms because this contact, this closeness, is necessary; they've stood their spirits side by side, they've held each other in their hearts, but it is the physical touch that is crucial, the sure heat and the warm hands and Naruto is on his back and Gaara is gently pressing into the blonde's palms with his long, light fingers.
Naruto is leaving in the morning, and this will leave an imprint inside both of them to turn to on cold nights.
The transience makes it permanent.
Gaara's lips on Naruto's neck, slow and contemplative, Gaara's hands sliding down over Naruto's wrists, fingering the veins just visible beneath the skin.
Naruto's cold toes along Gaara's warm calf and both of them are breathless and smiling and whole.
There is not the slightest hesitation; they have never held each other separate from themselves, never in their own hearts.
They don't keep track of time because how long it takes doesn't matter. They are moving their bodies into same position of their souls; this is a smooth, quiet thing, this exchange between them, this sliding in and out and over and under and around and through. They are simply aligning.
Naruto makes stifled sounds that are harsh for the restraint, and Gaara is breathing in a short, clipped way that belies his assumed serenity.
They tense; there are a few bare seconds of waiting, of reaching out to an eternity that is beyond them and it is painful; and suddenly there is paradise, and a slow descent, an exhalation.
For the rest of the night they are as one person and embrace so tightly that all the world would mistake them so.
The sand has settled out in the desert, the wind has died down, and there are even stars that Naruto can see vaguely out the window moments before sleep takes him away.
They've been making love all this time, before they ever held each other as lovers do; and even if they go months, years without seeing each other again--this will never change because love never ends; it only expands, solidifies, and the ai tattoo means being Kazekage now, and it means his brother and sister and Hidden Village.
But most of all, right now, it means Naruto.