A/N: I'll start by apologizing profusely. It's been much much much too long since I updated. More importantly, I want to thank all those people who never forgot about this story and the many messages I've received. You all are the main reason I've finally returned to my writing. Yes, this chapter is shorter than my last but I gotta start somewhere right? Enough ramblings and on with the story! Please note that Chapter 26 is currently un-betaed.
End of Chapter 25
Gently, Gaara ran his fingers over the thin scars on Naruto's cheek. Nothing felt more right than being here with Naruto. There was nothing he wanted more than to be able to hold the blond like this. He lived for moments like this. Without Naruto, he no longer felt whole. Before he'd even realized it, Naruto had become his most precious persons.
Those dear words were said so softly, shrouded in awe and hesitance, but emanating with truth. Gaara's body was taut as he shivered slightly, almost as if he was waiting for something.
Naruto hugged the redhead tighter, trying to calm the small tremors running through the redhead after he'd uttered the words.
Naruto felt as much as heard the redhead inhale at the sound of his name.
This time when he spoke the words, the hesitance was gone, replaced by acceptance.
"I love you."
Naruto clenched his eyes shut at the repeated confession. He wanted to beg his lover to say the words to him again, but held himself back. He had no doubt in his mind they were true. Gaara loved him as much as he loved Gaara; and with an intensity that threatened to overpower them both.
It didn't matter what anyone else said or thought. They belonged together. They needed each other. And beyond all that, they loved each other.
Gaara sat leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees and his chin resting on his intertwined fingers. His pensive gaze was focused on the carpet.
"I'm not sure..."
Tenzo gave a slight nod of acknowledgment at Gaara's words.
"I did not expect this." Gaara said, lifting his gaze to meet that of his therapist.
"What did you not expect?"
"Yours or Naruto's?"
Gaara had to think about that. It was some days since his soft confession in the dark as the two men had lain intimately connected to each other.
"Both." Gaara responded.
The older man nodded in understanding as he continued to observe Gaara. There was a serenity and clarity to the redhead's eyes that he'd never seen before.
"What were you expecting?"
Again, Gaara paused. Slowly, the redhead lowered his hands to stare at them. He'd replayed that night in his head a thousand times in a matter of days. Every time he was overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotions associated with the event.
"...Rejection. I was afraid...terrified...of rejection." Gaara finally said after a lengthy pause.
Tenzo leaned back in his chair. He wanted to tell the young man that Naruto was the last person he should fear rejection from but refrained. It would do no good to bring his connection to Naruto into Gaara's awareness.
"And now?" Tenzo prodded.
The redhead took a deep breath.
"It's exhilarating." He whispered.
Gaara's gaze turned to his palms.
"A part of me is still terrified."
"Even so, you've made remarkable progress, Gaara."
Tenzo smiled at the young man. It was a small smile but it was sincere.
"I'm in love." Gaara replied, lifting his eyes to meet those of the older man.
The brush moved over canvas in delicate but firm strokes, spreading vibrant color in its wake. The room was quiet except for the faint sound of bristles against canvas as Gaara worked. Naruto was still asleep, exhausted from work the night before. Gaara had managed to sneak out to his session and return before the blond woke. As much as he missed the blond when they were apart, he was currently appreciative for the silence. The redhead paused in his work to assess his progress. It reflected none of the conflict he once felt but all of the calm he was currently experiencing.
His mind was awash with emotions and thoughts he'd never felt before and it was taking form on the canvas before him with every stroke. It was alien to him, as alien as the words he'd uttered a few days ago and repeated this morning during his session with Tenzo. Gaara resumed his painting with meticulous strokes.
He'd broken the most sacred vow to himself. Just like that he'd betrayed himself, went against everything he'd told himself. The scar that was testament to the promise he'd made to himself had gone forgotten in that one moment. Those simple words that were the embodiment of all he felt for Naruto. They were words the redhead never thought he'd say to anyone yet they had come so easily. And yet, somehow their utterance had left him feeling strangely complete even amidst the fear he still felt. It was as though those words were the missing cog in his relationship with Naruto serving to cement it in place. The fear he felt, the doubt that lingered had suddenly taken a backseat in his mind. Saying those words had suddenly brought clarity, illuminating his feelings for his blond lover. He loved Naruto. It was as simple as that. The complexity and confusion he'd felt had finally dissipated the moment he'd put his feelings into words.
Once again, Gaara's hand paused. It was true. He really was in love and there was someone who was in love with him. No. Someone who loved him. The redhead stared at the colors clinging to the end of the brush in his hand. Was this what he'd been denying himself all this time? This all-consuming feeling? Could it have truly been this simple? Was this what he'd been fearing his entire life? This love was nothing like what he thought he felt for his uncle. It was unassuming, undemanding. It didn't leave him feeling inadequate, didn't leave him feeling guilty, lost, confused or undeserving. Instead, it left him feeling breathless and whole.
The sound of soft knocking at the door pulled Gaara from his thoughts. The redhead turned to look at the door just as Naruto tentatively pushed it open.
"Hey, Gaara." The blond said, muffling a yawn as he made his way into Gaara's studio.
"Hey." Gaara responded, taking in the disheveled appearance of his lover.
Naruto was shirtless, clad only in his underwear. His hair stuck out at odd angles and his eyes were still hazy from sleep.
Gaara's eyes raked over his lover scrutinizing every detail of the other man, lingering on the still visible but fading marks adorning the tanned skin. Marks that were left by him.
A faint sense of satisfaction thrummed through him at the evidence of possession he'd left on Naruto, reminding him that Naruto was his and only his. The blond had chosen to give himself to Gaara completely and Gaara had done the same, given himself to Naruto.
Setting down his brush, Gaara made his way over to his companion.
"I can't believe you let me sleep so late." Naruto groused, yawning once more and focusing eyes bright from rest on the redhead.
"You were tired." Gaara said.
"It's almost noon."
"And you don't need to go to work today."
"But I promised to visit Iruka." Naruto huffed, turning to leave the room.
"Have you eaten yet?" The blond called over his shoulder, making his way to the kitchen.
"No." Gaara responded, following after his lover.
The blond nodded as he moved about the kitchen.
Gaara settled himself to watch his lover, affection flowing through him when Naruto released another yawn. This was what it was like. Being someone's precious person. This was what it meant to share your life with someone. This was something he never thought he'd ever be able to experience.
Naruto smiled softly at his lover. Gaara was probably unaware of it but for once his face was completely relaxed and unguarded.
In hindsight, maybe it was that open expression that led Naruto to ask the question that he did.
"So...where'd you go this morning?" Naruto inquired casually, pulling Gaara from his thoughts. "I woke up for a bit when I heard the front door...went looking for you but you were gone so I went back to sleep."
Naruto's words were light, not accusatory yet they immediately brought a heavy silence to the kitchen, a silence that pressed down on them and filled the spaces between the lovers.
Pausing in his actions, Naruto turned to look at Gaara.
The redhead was staring back at him, face completely blank, body still except for the slight twitch of his fingers.
Naruto knew that look.
"Okay." Naruto mumbled and returned to his task. "Forget I asked."
Gaara frowned slightly. There was that wince that disappeared just as quickly when Naruto thought he'd overstepped his bounds.
Like always, the blond man was withdrawing, refusing to push. He waited and he accepted whatever Gaara was willing to give, quickly retreating the moment he sensed the slightest apprehension from Gaara.
"Yeah...sorry." Naruto mumbled softly.
The redhead shifted in his seat, the twinge of his guilt and confusion making him uncomfortable. Why was Naruto apologizing?
Naruto turned once again to look at his lover.
"Gaara. It's okay." The blond said quickly, smiling at the other man. "You don't need to tell me. It's not a big deal. I was just curious."
Except it was a big deal. Naruto could pretend all he wanted.
"If you have any hopes of eating, come over here and help me." The blond cut it.
And just like that, Naruto diverted the conversation with a bright smile and beckoning fingers.
Gaara studied the other man through narrowed eyes as Naruto turned back to his tasks, taking in the easy posture.
It confused him. How could Naruto trust him so easily? Was this a result of the love Naruto felt for him? Or was this simply because of who Naruto was? But even with that trust, there were doubts. Gaara could see them in the tight grip of the knife in Naruto's hands and the rigid posture of the man's shoulders.
The redhead opened his mouth to say something. Anything. Yet he couldn't. He knew what he should say, what he needed to say.
"Coming?" Naruto asked, sending the redhead a reassuring smile.
Gaara studied that smile carefully before slowly rising to his feet and moving to his lover's side. He would tell Naruto.
He had to.
The afternoon was warm as Naruto made his way to visit his former guardian. He didn't really notice the weather. He'd almost pushed too much this morning. Once again, the blond felt his insides lurch at the memory of the look on Gaara's face. He was doing it again. Pushing too hard too fast. He knew he could be impulsive, especially when it came to the people he cared about.
God, he couldn't start pushing Gaara away. Not when the redhead had finally told Naruto how he truly felt. Hearing those words uttered to him like that. Naruto felt his body shiver and react to the memory. It was nothing like he'd imagined it would be.
Sure he'd suspected. No. He'd believed Gaara loved him even before he'd said the words himself but it had been impossible to brush aside the tendrils of doubt that lurked. Then Gaara had said it. That moment would forever be burned into his memory.
Naruto had never had someone say those words to him. Not like that. Sure, he knew Iruka loved him and so did Kakashi in his own demented way. His friends certainly cared about him and he returned their affections.
But this. This that he had with Gaara. He hadn't expected to feel so overwhelmed by it. Being with Gaara was nothing like he'd ever felt despite the whispers of similarity he'd experienced long ago.
The potential had been there. Despite how young they'd been. Then Sasuke had left, throwing it back in his face.
Naruto shook his head. That was a lifetime ago. He was different now. He'd given up chasing Sasuke.
He had Gaara now. Gaara who loved him and he was going to do everything in his power to keep that love. He couldn't lose the redhead not like he'd lost him.
Naruto was so focused on his inward musings that the collision took him by surprise. The blond stumbled backward releasing a yelp of surprise. A hand grabbed his arm to steady him.
Naruto looked from the hand on his arm to the person he'd run into.
"….Hey, Naruto." The other man responded softly, releasing his friend.
Naruto blinked at the greeting.
"Uhh...Hey?" Naruto answered uncertainly, eying the taller man suspiciously. This was probably the most normal greeting Naruto had ever received from the dark-haired man. Naruto hadn't seen or spoken to Lee since receiving the news of the breakup with Sakura, the same best friend he had thoroughly yelled at only a few days ago.
Time and other pedestrians passed the two men as they stood looking at each other awkwardly. Lee looked positively miserable and the expression on his face was almost indecipherable. He was staring back at Naruto in a way that was distinctly disconcerting to the blond. It was almost accusatory.
But this was Lee.
Naruto let out a soft sigh. Could this become any more uncomfortable?
Naruto found himself suddenly feeling guilty. This couldn't possibly be easy for the brunet. Naruto had to be a strong reminder of Sakura for Lee.
"So...uhh...How have you been?" Naruto asked, smiling weakly.
Lee blinked at the question before shrugging.
The blond winced. Lee was taking the breakup harder than he'd imagined.
Naruto scoffed at his own stupidity. Of course Lee would be like this. He'd loved Sakura since they were kids. He'd finally thought he was going to be with his forever person. And now their relationship and Lee's hopes were gone.
"Yeah...Sorry. Stupid question, huh."
The words came out barely above a whisper and sounded pathetic even to Naruto's ears.
Something flashed in the taller man's eyes that made Naruto swallow uneasily.
Naruto derided himself. God, this was hard especially with Lee looking at him like that.
"I'm sorry...I—I just can't, Naruto. I can't be around you right now. I know it's not your fault but—" Lee didn't finish before brushing past Naruto and hurrying away.
"I'm sorry!" The brunet called after his shoulder, refusing to look back at his bewildered friend.
Naruto watched his friend's retreating figure feeling utterly helpless and even more annoyed with Sakura. He knew he needed to talk to her soon. Their relationship was an essential part of his life and he hated having any of the relationships with his precious people be in jeopardy. Now in addition to their fight over Gaara, he'd need to talk to her about Lee.
"Lovely day this is." Naruto grumbled to himself as he continued on his way to Iruka's.
"Glad to see you remember we're still alive." Iruka chided lightly as Naruto entered the kitchen.
"I've been a little distracted, lately."
"Is that so." Iruka replied, clearly unimpressed with the excuse.
The blond had the decency to appear sheepish and apologetic.
"Where's Kakashi?" Naruto asked, sliding into a chair while watching Iruka prepare tea.
"Out on assignment. Just me and Mr. Ukki this week."
"That'll explain the lack of phone calls from him." Naruto mumbled to himself, wrapping his fingers around the cup Iruka set before him.
Iruka chuckled as he took a seat opposite Naruto.
"So? What's been up with you?"
Naruto fidgeted. "Things are good...Great, even!"
Iruka lifted an eyebrow.
The brunet kept his eyes on his former charge as he took a sip of his tea.
"Gaara said it...to me...you know." Naruto said softly, cheeks tinging pink at the memory.
A few minutes passed before Naruto broke the silence with a rush of words.
"Why do you think there's a but?"
Iruka lifted an eyebrow at the question.
"...I think Gaara's hiding something from me. Sakura and I are still fighting and I had the most awkward encounter with Lee today."
The words were followed by a sigh from the younger man as he set down his cup.
Clearing his throat, Iruka set down his cup as well, carefully schooling his expression into one of neutral interest.
"Who do you want to start with first?"
"I…Gaara..." The blond mumbled.
"Okay." Iruka said, voice soft and coaxing.
The older male studied his companion as Naruto described the basis of his suspicions, a tendril of guilt worming its way through him as he listened to the blond's worry.
"...I know he's not Sasuke and I know this is nothing like it was then...it's just...even now, after he's admitted how he feels, he still doesn't trust me enough to tell me what's been going on. He still doesn't believe in me enough to let me in."
"Sometimes it feels like I love him more than he loves me." The blond said quietly. "I know that's not really fair and I'm probably demanding too much from him too soon and I try to tell myself that he must have a good reason but it's hard to think what that reason could be when he's sneaking out of the apartment without even telling me that he's going out."
Iruka bit his tongue to remain silent, soft brown eyes reflecting concern. He knew what it felt like to love someone more than they loved you, to give them everything that you are and not have the strength of your feelings reciprocated. More importantly, he knew how to recognize the signs of unrequited love and that was definitely not what he saw between Naruto and Gaara.
Iruka studied the younger man. Naruto's eyes were focused on the swirls of his tea, a slight frown adorning his youthful features. Despite his melancholy, his eyes were still their brilliant shade of blue, no less vivid than they were when he was a child.
Iruka had tried his best to protect Naruto from the cruelty of the world but his best efforts had been futile. Besides, how was he to protect a child from something they'd already been exposed to? It was as though the boy he'd met all those years ago was destined to continue encountering immense heartbreak on his journey through life. Iruka had spent so much time on the sidelines watching Naruto shatter, only to continue watching as the blond pulled the pieces back together again.
Whatever happiness Naruto obtained was hard won. Iruka would be eternally grateful to Gaara for what he'd done. Naruto wasn't only saving the redhead from himself, in some ways Gaara was saving Naruto too.
And now, after finally finding love, his own sliver of happiness in the world, his past was continuing to cast a pallid shadow over it all.
In that moment, the brunet felt irritated at Kakashi. Irritated for having put him in such a position of knowing exactly what it was Gaara was hiding. He highly suspected that Gaara's behavior was somehow related to what was truly his darkest secret. A secret he was very much privy to. Regardless of his strong desire to tell the blond the truth, it was not his secret to share. Still, he felt like he was obligated to assuage Naruto's concerns. He would have to choose his words carefully. Naruto was nowhere near as dull as people liked to believe.
The young man looked up at the sound of his name.
"Sometimes...there are things, events, and circumstances in a person's life that are so painful that we try our best to keep those we love away from it. It's not because of mistrust or because we don't care or because of some selfishness. Sometimes it's simply out of fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of being abandoned. Fear of losing the love that the precious person has given. Other times it's because we're trying to protect them. Protect them from the darkness in our lives, from the pain we've experienced. It may appear selfish but we hide these things because of the strength of the love we feel for them."
Naruto remained silent as he studied the other man, brows bunched in contemplation of Iruka's words. Iruka watched, giving Naruto time to process what he was trying to say.
"...and you think that what Gaara's hiding...it's for those reasons…" The blond said, skeptically.
"Naruto. I'm not going to tell you that it's wrong or right to have secrets in a relationship. Nothing is ever that simple."
The young blond met Iruka's gaze.
"Naruto…" Iruka paused.
"It's obvious that Gaara hasn't always had it easy. In some ways, he reminds me a lot of you, except, he never had someone like me or Kakashi. He never had friends to pull him away from the edge. Not until you came along that is."
Naruto said nothing for a long time, his eyes shifting from his former guardian to the table.
"I don't have to tell you what that edge is like."
A few minutes of silence passed before Naruto spoke again.
"When I first met him, Gaara, he would have these "crashes." He doesn't have them anymore but back then he'd go days without sleeping and would barely eat. I asked him once why he did it. He said it was so he wouldn't have to experience the memories in his dreams."
Iruka nodded, listening carefully to Naruto's words.
"I won't tell you how you should deal with this, Naruto. You'll have to decide that on your own but I'll say this. Maybe you should have a little bit more faith in Gaara and his feelings for you."
Naruto flushed at Iruka's words and the knowing look the older man was shooting his way.
Wasn't that the same thing he'd repeatedly asked of Gaara? To believe in him? The blond sighed before taking a sip of his now cold tea. The grimace that appeared on his face made Iruka snicker.
"Here. I'll make us some more and you can tell me about this spat you're having with Sakura." The brunet said, taking Naruto's cup.
The young man nodded in response, lost in his thoughts as he contemplated Iruka's words.
"I'm glad you found him, you know."
"Who else? But don't forget he also found you."
Naruto stared, confused at the words.
Iruka laughed as he reached for the teapot.
When Naruto finally arrived home, he found Gaara staring out a window in their living room. The redhead didn't turn to look at Naruto as he made his way over to him.
"Hey." The blond said softly, reaching out to gently caress Gaara's arm.
Gaara turned fully to observe his lover. He didn't say anything, choosing to simply stand there and study the blond.
"I'm back." Naruto mumbled, taking a step closer to the other man. "Iruka said you should come visit him soon."
Leaning forward, Gaara dropped his head gently to Naruto's shoulder, arms still awkwardly at his sides. One hand slowly came up to bury itself in red tresses while the other arm wrapped around the redhead's waist to pull him closer to Naruto's solid presence.
The two stood together for a long while, Gaara breathing in Naruto's now familiar scent, the blond a comforting presence against him.
"Believe in me."
Naruto tensed at the muttered words. The redhead's voice was muffled by the fabric of Naruto's shirt.
"That's what you said to me...asked me. You asked me to believe in you." Gaara said, pulling away from Naruto to meet the blond's gaze.
Naruto nodded uncertainly.
"I...was unsure at first but eventually, now, I do."
"Let me finish."
Naruto snapped his mouth shut at the interruption.
"I don't know how to do this but I want to...because it's with you."
Naruto's brows furrowed as he tried to comprehend Gaara's words.
"...I'm not sure I follow."
"Us. This relationship. I've never had to share my life with someone. I never wanted to share my life with anyone. Not my bed, not my space….not me…"
"But you make me want so much. You make me want things I didn't know it was possible to desire. You've given me things I didn't even know I wanted. You love me. You love me!"
"...And now I love you."
"Gaara, I -"
"Believe in me...I want you to believe in me like I decided to believe in you."
Gaara stared at Naruto. His expression was earnest, pleading and his eyes shone with a vulnerability Naruto had rarely seen. The blond felt his breath hitch at the look being directed at him.
Taking a deep breath, Gaara forged forward.
"There are parts of me...things about me that I wish you never have to know. Never have to see. I was told that's impossible. Just give me time. I may not be ready now but for you, for you I'm trying to be. I just...I just need you to believe in me the way I chose to believe in you...please?"
Gaara was begging him. This is what this was. It was a plea for patience. It wasn't Gaara pushing him away, ignoring him. It wasn't Gaara trampling his concerns or deriding him for caring. They were nothing alike. Nothing alike. Gaara was nothing like Sasuke and more importantly, Gaara loved him.
The redhead was taking shallow breaths almost as if he was afraid to breathe too deeply lest Naruto refused his plea.
Reaching forward, Naruto gently wrapped his arms around his lover.
"Okay." Naruto whispered, tightening his hold. "I believe in you."
And when Gaara returned the embrace, everything was forgotten by the blond except for the solid presence of his lover pressed against him. His concerns about Lee and Sakura and his strained relationships with them dissolved in the presence of the redhead in his arms.