NOTE: This final part is exceedingly long at 20-some-thousand words. I would suggest reading maybe half, and then coming back to finish it, (or perhaps even smaller parts) but it's up to you. As previously stated, there is also a less explicit version of this part, which I can email directly to anyone who would like it. It's too large to post anywhere else. Thanks!


"Stand by [me]" – Part III

He avoided me for three days after that. Three days.

During those three days, I studied and went to classes like normal, opting to ignore his empty bed and the fact that he was probably with her. So much for talking about it tomorrow, although I couldn't exactly blame him. It wasn't every day you learned that you had slept with another man. Truth-be-told, I was glad for his absence. Having such things brought up again…and by him…it was too much. I needed some time away from him.

But three days.

He could've tried a little harder.

It was the mid-afternoon of that third day, as I sat writing a paper in the kitchen, when he showed up. I was so thoroughly engrossed in my reading that I didn't hear him come in, let alone become aware of his presence, until he placed a to-go cup of coffee before me, hand poised around the lid until I looked up at him. Again, no smile. I wanted to think I could get used to that.

"It's black," he said.

"That's fine."

He stood there for a few more seconds before pulling the seat out catty-corner to my own and hastily occupying it. Breaking eye contact, he popped the lid off of his own coffee and took a test sip before deciding it was still too hot.

"Okay then," he sighed.

"I'm writing—"

"Yeah, yeah, I know, so I'll try and make this quick." He curled his lips into a quirky expression, all the while staring down at his cup. "Sorry for disappearing without notice."

"It doesn't matter—"

"It does. But anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk about." He turned to face me. "I wanted to talk about…us." I stared at him and then down at my book. No longer than I had looked down, Naruto had pulled my book away, shut it, and sat it on the chair opposite me. My resulting glare was met with veiled blue eyes. I seemed to have taught him well. "Listen, I know you don't want to talk to me," he continued, "but we're not going to do this again. Frankly, I'm getting a little tired of you taking off whenever something comes up that you don't like."

I studied him carefully. He seemed to know what I was thinking, what I was about to say, because he said, "Okay, yes, I left this time, but I figured you needed some time alone…" He traced the lip of his cup, adding quietly, "And so did I." The silence that filled the room this time was thankfully not the stifling silence from three nights before. It was broken by Naruto's short, bemused laugh. "Funny thing is, I'm not any more sure of myself than I was to begin with."

"It's only been three days."

"Yes, yes," he waved his hand through the air. "It's only been three days, but I have a feeling that it wouldn't matter whether it was three days or thirty. We'd probably still be confused."

"Speak for yourself," I stated flatly. He looked at me with that broken smile, amusement barely lighting up his face, but still lighting it just enough.

"Are you trying to tell me you're not confused?" he inquired.

"No. I'm trying to tell you to speak for yourself."

"Fair enough." He took a short drink. Whatever amusement had been there was now gone. "For me, though, it's been…confusing, to say the least. Weird as hell, really. Not because we…slept together, but also because yeah, we…did. We did. We slept together," he said again, as if saying it aloud convinced himself that as much as he no doubt did not want to believe it, we had, in fact, slept together. "I just can't believe it. We had…sex. I gave you my virginity."

"Okay," I said sternly, nails biting into the paper of my cup.

"Sorry," he said, sucking on his bottom lip. Looking at him, I noticed that he appeared rather tired, as if he hadn't slept very well these past few days. That made two of us. "I just…why didn't you tell me? Things might've been different."

"What difference does it make?" I muttered.

"All the difference…No difference…Bah!" He flicked his now-empty cup, sending it careening off the edge of the table and out of sight. "Why…did we do it?"

"You just wanted to try it."

"To try it?"

"Listen, I'm not psychic. I don't know what was going on in your mind. You said you wanted to try it, so we did it."

Naruto was clearly surprised to hear so many words stringing from my mouth. His own mouth hung open a little before he closed it and sat up straighter. "And you agreed?"

My expression was quickly contorting into a glare. "You wouldn't shut up about it, so yes, I agreed. You don't remember, so I don't expect you to understand."

I let out a quick sigh and sat back, adopting his sluggish position and taking another sip of my gloriously-lukewarm coffee. How did we get here? Naruto wouldn't take his eyes off of me as I sat there, making sure to look away from him.

"Yeah," he said after a time, though I had no idea what he was saying "yeah" to. He sounded distracted, preoccupied. "I don't remember. I can't understand." Reaching under the table, he grabbed his abandoned coffee cup and stood, tossing it into the wastebasket before handing me back my book. Somehow, he had managed to save my place with a quickly-bent page. Leave it to Naruto to still care about saving my page in the middle of such a tenuous conversation. Still, it was little things like this that kept me by his side even now. "You're right, Gaara," he said. I met his gaze, which now seemed a little more at ease, a little more sure, a little less broken. That lazy smile followed soon after. "It was three years ago. Who knows what I was thinking. I certainly don't," he said with a quick shrug. "So we had sex…Okay. Fine. It's over and done with. It's in the past."

I had thought that what I was hearing now would be what I wanted to hear. Until I actually heard it. Instead of relief, I felt cold. I felt a harsh bitterness overtaking me as he brushed everything aside, as if, with a few words, he could neatly push it back into the past, in the realm of over-and-done-with.

"I know how weird this sounds," he continued, "but I don't want it to get between us. Besides, you certainly seem to have gotten over it, so I see no reason why we have to loiter around the topic. Agreed?"

"Agreed," I answered impassively.

"Okay," he rocked on his heels, looking from my face to the ground and back again. "We were close friends." He laughed as he added, "Close friends do stupid things."

"Yes," I said. "They do."

"And don't get me wrong or anything. I don't expect it to be all rainbows and butterflies from now on—" whatever that meant "—but you are my best friend, you know?" I looked at him skeptically. "You're my best friend, so I don't want silly things like this to come between us." Silly. Yeah. "Really, Gaara. You're giving me that look again, but I want you to know that I'm going to try my best. Really, I am. I'm going to try to be…a good friend."

I'm not sure how Naruto took my silence, but eventually he said, "Well, okay," before telling me he was going to go lay down and how Kiba's dog kept him up all night barking and how he really was extremely tired. At one point, I glanced down at my book, and he said, "Your paper. Right. Yeah, let me let you get back to that," with this awkward grin on his face. With a quick wave, he was off, jogging down the hall and disappearing into our room.

An hour or so later, I had to grab another book, and so I quietly slipped into our room, having mastered silent movements during the long, complicated course of our relationship. Naruto's back was to me as I picked the book up from my desk, and even in my silence, he rolled over and immediately awakened (or maybe he had already been awake) as our eyes caught, propping himself up on his elbows.

"Hey Gaara?"

"What?"

"I'm sorry for treating you like you know everything," he said, an expression of regret flashing across his features. "Sometimes…it's easy to forget that I knew more people than just you. I just assume that of course you would know anything there is to know about me, and that's…very inconsiderate."

"It's fine," I said.

"It's fine," he repeated. "Yeah, maybe." Without another word, he turned away from me and back toward the wall.

I wondered what he was thinking. Unlike three nights ago, I found it hard to simply come out and ask him. Why did it take a terrific amount of tension to do things like that?

/

Slowly but surely, things went back to normal. But it certainly took some time, and it was certainly a slow process. Even then, I wasn't sure what "normal" was for us anymore.

Maybe it was the gradual, week-long process of us both moving back into the living room to work, or maybe it was Naruto beginning the new tradition of a hot cup of coffee, which I woke up to every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Or maybe it was simply the steady repair of that smile, which seemed to take several weeks to perfect. The laugh took significantly longer, but its sparkling ring was soon lighting up the apartment.

I did notice two things which could really only be described as problematic. The first was Sakura. She stopped coming over, or maybe she came when I wasn't there, but regardless, her presence seemed to all but disappear. I saw her a few times on campus, and she smiled and waved, but I could see that, much like Naruto, something had broken inside of her—something she was trying to fix. I was not one to ask either of them about it, and so I didn't. Naruto never brought it up either.

The second had to do with us. Our relationship developed an element of physicality and touch that was not there before. Naruto no longer hugged me, but he seemed to come up with excuses for touching me. Always there was some kind of explanation. Whether placing a plate before me or changing clothes or washing dishes, there was his hand on my shoulder or on my arm for support or brushing against my own hand as he gave me a bowl to dry. Sometimes during these moments, I looked at him, but he remained unchanged, making me think I was imagining things. But then again, there would be his hand on my back as he walked around me in our bedroom.

Problematic, yes.

He didn't make it easy for me to bury my feelings for him. At this point, I was done lying to myself, for the most part. I found him attractive, yes—yes, I did, but anything else had died with him or was steadily in the process of dying. Anything else was just me lying to myself.

And if I'd cared to look, I would have noticed that the line had been warped. It was as if it had been thrown against a wall and scrambled, as if the code of which it was composed had been corrupted. What did the hand on my back mean? Friendship? Something else? Did the line even matter anymore when I seemed to be the only one minding it?

And could he really be so oblivious? Sometimes I wasn't so sure.

That glare, that pained expression of his, all but disappeared, except that sometimes it seemed to resurface. I could see it flicker across his face. And then it was gone. We never did talk about that again, which I think we were both thankful for. What more was there to say?

For him, it very well may have been in the past. Over and done with. Maybe I had done such a good job of presenting myself as unaffected, unchanged, that Naruto really did think that I didn't care, that I certainly did seem to have gotten over it. I looked in the mirror one morning and stared at my blank expression. How could anyone know what I was thinking, let alone Naruto? Although he used to know. As annoying as it was, he used to just know.

Why did I suddenly feel like I missed his sixth sense?

/

"What am I going to do for winter break?"

I finished washing my face, reaching out blindly for a towel. Naruto placed it in my hand. Our fingers touched. When I had finished toweling the water off, I looked up to face troubled blue eyes.

"What?" I said.

"For winter break," Naruto replied. He was wearing boxers, nothing else. I hadn't yet pulled a shirt on. Of course. "Where am I going to stay, I mean?"

"How should I know?" I said tiredly.

"No, I mean, really." He scratched his arm. "Who would I stay with? I literally have no idea."

I hung up the towel and stared at him in silence for a short moment. He looked genuinely bothered. "Iruka, I guess."

"Oh, yeah. Iruka…"

"Your foster father."

"Yeah, I know. I know." He shuffled in place, successfully blocking my only exit from the bathroom. Some sadistic part of myself took joy in the fact that he wasn't always so blithe, so carefree. Another part just wanted to leave the bathroom as soon as humanly possible. "Just…wouldn't it be weird? I mean, yeah, I talk to him and everything, but it's every couple of weeks. I don't really know him that well. I mean, I know him, yeah, I know him, but…but I don't want to intrude."

I ran a hand through my hair before bringing it to my hip. "Trust me. He won't care."

"But—"

"Iruka loves you. He won't care." Naruto was still giving me a helpless look.

"But winter break is a month long. I can't…I mean…"

"You've done it before, Naruto. It's what you've always done."

"Not always," he added, dejectedly.

I sighed. "No. Not always." I glanced around the bathroom as if the answer was somewhere in the walls. "What about Sakura?"

"No," he answered quickly. "No, not Sakura." He, too, seemed to glance about the walls before hesitantly meeting my eyes. "We're…I don't know…"

"You don't have to tell me—"

"Actually—"

"It's none of my business—"

"It is," Naruto cut me off, and I might've been mishearing things, but he sounded a little stern. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, his blue eyes bored into the towel rack before he let out a sigh and threw his hands up haphazardly. "It's as much your business as it is mine, anyway. Sakura and I…I don't know. I don't know what we are. It's…complicated."

Complicated, indeed.

"Really, Naruto, you don't have to tell me this."

"Why do you do that? Always, why do you do that? It's infuriating." He shook his head and poked my chest. "I want to tell you, Gaara. It's not like I go on autopilot around you and can't control myself. If I tell you something, it's because I want you to know."

I rubbed my chest where his finger had landed, and he watched my hand before slowly meeting my eyes. It was a weird moment, like a flint-induced spark. In a perfect world, he would've realized that that was where he had once given me a hickey. I really wished I had worn a shirt.

"Anyway," he proceeded, "I know you have class, so I'll let you go."

I nodded slowly, watching him smile and turn away. His shoulders hung. He was very good at this. I nearly smacked myself for what I did next.

"Naruto," I said.

He leaned his blond head in the door. "Yeah?"

"We could…talk later, if you want." I could feel the muscles of my face wanting to pull into the standard grimace. "Have dinner or something. Figure this out…" My voice trailed off.

He pulled himself back into the doorway, a confused half-smile on his face. "Okay. Yeah. That sounds great." My mouth started twisting into a leer, but Naruto came before me and held my face. "I know, yes, I know," he said with that smile. "I'm overreacting. Don't glare—don't glare. Gosh, you really are impossible." I watched his smile widen, accompanied by an arched brow, by that charismatic fondness. His thumb slipped slightly on my cheek and my mouth twitched. His hands were clammy. His smile faltered. I wondered if he was thinking about several nights ago when he had held my face in much the same way.

"Well, anyway," he dropped his hands, "I could pick you up after class today, if you want?"

"Fine," I said. I didn't feel like fighting with him.

"Fine," he repeated, that grin never leaving his face. After a time, I glared. Chuckling, he left the bathroom. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "I'll get out of your way."

/

I debated standing him up. For about five minutes. God, I was as bad as he was.

For the first time, it wasn't raining as I walked outside and saw him standing there, hands in his pockets and tilted head bearing a smile. That all this was for me frustrated me more than anything, but to avoid him would mean doing exactly what he expected me to do even when facing him meant playing right into his hands.

No. Naruto was certainly not stupid.

I remember times, long ago now, when other students would bring things up, when people like Sakura would bring things up, but they wouldn't be talking to Naruto. Even though he was sitting amongst them, some things were not meant for his ears. They were meant to pass right through. Things like scholarships and conferences and research projects—to them, Naruto was just an art student. Why would he know things like that? Why would he care?

He had surprised even me one night when I told him some of his friends were asking for him on the phone.

"Nah," Naruto shrugged from his bed. "I don't want to go tonight." Hanging up the phone, I stood in place and stared at him until he looked at me and said, "They're not talking to me." He had a sad smile on his face. "Only you talk to me, Gaara."

It was particularly odd for him to have said this, because it wasn't like I was having verbose conversations with him myself. Even when I did talk, it was because he all but forced me to speak. I didn't talk to anyone else, however. I usually just listened. The only person I reacted to was Naruto, whether in anger or annoyance. For him, I suppose, this was enough.

But his comments taught me something, something a little bit startling, a little bit sad. Naruto knew what people thought of him. He knew exactly what they thought. He could determine what they were saying from what they were not saying, just as easily as he could determine what they were not saying from what they said. But he never said anything. Forget the fact that, for some inexplicably-random reason, he could locate every single country in the world on a map, or that he knew entirely too much about quantum mechanics, or that he could capture a sunset in disturbing realism on a napkin using only crayons. People thought they knew him. And for Naruto, this was fine.

I asked him about it once, because it bothered me. For some reason, it really bothered me. He gave me the smile that said Why do you care? I remember glaring and leaving the room.

"What?" he had called after me, innocently. Even though I'm pretty sure he knew.

As soon as Naruto saw me come through the glass doors, he raced to my side looking far more excited than was necessary.

"I know the perfect place," he stated emphatically, looking increasingly disappointed as I stared blankly at him. "For dinner."

"I don't care," I said. As a weird look began to tint his expression, I said, "I don't care where we go."

"I could carry your bag?"

"I'm fine."

He pushed out his lower lip, adding to the long list of what could easily (and maybe only) be titled "Naruto's Awkward Faces." As always, I began walking and he quickly caught up with me.

"Are you mad?" he asked after a little bit.

"No." I trained my eyes on the sidewalk. "It's a long way to walk."

"Are you trying to tell me you're thankful for me picking you up?"

Irritation quickly crept into my voice. "I'm saying it's a long way to walk."

Beside me, Naruto laughed, and our shoulders bumped. He didn't seem to notice but I certainly did. "Anyone else would just say thanks. But not you, Gaara." He leaned over, hands hanging in his pockets as he grinned up at me. "That's why I like you."

"Whatever," was all that I could say.

/

Naruto's idea of the "perfect place" was a small Thai restaurant a few blocks from campus. I asked why we had to go so far when there were other places we could have gone. "I like to get away sometimes," he said. I dropped it.

We didn't really get to talking until we had finished eating. Naruto somehow cajoled our waitress to fix him a ramen dish, while I opted for spicy tofu. He tried a bite of mine, intrigued by the red peppers that he said matched my hair, but no sooner than he had swallowed it, he was downing both our glasses of water. Anyone else probably would have been embarrassed by him coughing up a lung, but the sadistic part of me took secret enjoyment in that moment, too.

"Yeah," he croaked. "Remind me not to try your food again."

The remainders of our dishes were placed in Styrofoam containers. Naruto debated a glass of wine but told our server we'd finish the meal with "the finest fruit juice they had." The poor girl looked at him in confusion before scribbling "2 apple juices" on her pad of paper. With a quaint bow, she left.

Only I knew what he was doing. He would feel bad having a drink when I couldn't. Not after what had happened the last time.

"I never really thought about it until now," Naruto spoke up suddenly. I looked across the table at him. "Before I knew it, it was almost winter break. I guess I picked a bad time to get in a fight with Sakura." When our eyes met, I could tell he was debating telling me more about her or not. There was a good chance he might not. We were close, but not as close as we once were. Things were not exactly like they used to be. This Naruto could not tell me things as easily, just as I no longer could. "At least we're talking again, kind of," he said with a weak smile. "I think everything just started getting to her. I think everything just started getting to everybody."

"Yes," I agreed.

"I guess I could stay with Sakura. I'm sure she wouldn't say no. It's just…I don't know what we are. I don't know if along the way…I got confused or something. I mean, I was so happy to wake up and see her smiling there, to see someone cry for me and tell me how happy they were that I existed, that I was alive. It made me feel…a little bit more than the nothingness I had become. I think I grabbed onto that and didn't want to lose it." There was that failed attempt at a laugh. "How pathetic is that?"

I stared at him. How had I missed this? Little tears were welling up in his eyes, and I could see that he was still one of those people who ignored the lump in his throat, who thought, If I ignore it, it will go away. "It's not pathetic," I said.

He smirked. "Yes, it is."

"I'll be here."

"Shut up," I said, expression and tone severe. "You're not pathetic. I don't want to hear you say that again. You have no idea what pathetic is."

Naruto's eyes had widened in slight shock, and thankfully our waitress cut in with our drinks. "Two apple juices," she said cheerfully. With a wink, she added, "From only the finest apples."

"Thanks," Naruto said with a grateful smile. He loved it when people played along with him.

"Together or separate?"

"Together," Naruto said at the same time I said, "Separate." Giving me a reproachful look, he said again, "Together." The girl scratched something on the bill before handing it to him and taking her exit. "Don't look at me like that," Naruto said, eyes scanning over the check. "I'm taking care of it. Don't even try stopping me." He closed the black billfold and tossed it on the table. It was not his current priority.

"You can stay with me," I muttered.

"What?"

"For winter break," I said. "You can stay with me."

"But…but it's a month. A whole month. I can't burden you like that."

"Fine. Stay with Sakura."

His mouth was hanging open again, just slightly. "You…I don't even know what to say to you right now. Are you serious? Really? I really can?"

"Yes."

"Well…well, thanks, Gaara. Really, really, thanks so much—"

"Don't," I cut him short.

"I know, I know," he smiled. "Don't overreact. 'It was nothing; it doesn't mean anything,'" he mimicked me. I felt my eye twitch, sitting there and watching him impersonate me. But soon he was laughing again, laughing at his own jokes, and I was just glad that he wasn't making that pitiful face anymore. Glad. Yes, I was glad. "You always know just what to say."

"Whatever."

"Whatever, whatever," he practically sang.

Despite my burgeoning irritation, it was times like this when I thought, Everything will be fine. We will be fine.

It was also times like this when I was wrong.

/

We loitered outside like two elementary school kids. It was nighttime now. The moon was a glowing orb and someone had punched holes in the sky for stars. I sat at a table in an abandoned patio and watched while Naruto jumped from chair to chair, nearly breaking his neck several times. The humid temperature in the air reminded me of his hands from earlier—not entirely unwelcome.

"Look at me," he said, hopping to the center of a concrete table top and punching his fists into the air. "I'm the king of the world!"

"You're going to wake up the neighborhood," I said. Naruto looked at me, considered this. With a graceful leap, he was back on the ground, walking a few steps before lounging in a chair beside mine.

"Did you mean what you said back there?" he asked, suddenly.

"Back where," I said.

"At the restaurant. When you said I wasn't pathetic. Did you really mean it?"

I faced him with a cynical stare, wondering why on earth he was bringing that up again. He looked back at me, equally cynical.

"Yes," I said.

Glancing toward the ground, I watched his face break into an awkward smile. "Thanks. It was nice of you to say."

Stop it. I wanted to say. I wanted to say that I didn't just say it, that I meant it. But I didn't.

Laughter erupted from somewhere nearby, and we watched as a couple passed by us on the sidewalk, holding hands and running into one another in their punch-drunk love. At one point, the young woman stopped, pulling on the man's hand so that he leaned in and kissed her. He started laughing halfway into it and she punched him rather hard, it seemed, in the abdomen, but as they continued down the walkway, tiny giggles spilling from their mouths, I felt something in me that could've only been a strange form of partiality.

"That's cute," Naruto said, emotion bared plainly in his voice.

"You should make up with Sakura," I stated point-blank.

"I should," he murmured reflectively. "Man, though, what if she wants to have makeup sex?" My face must have been completely mortified, because he took one look at me and started laughing. "Seriously, though, Gaara. I've never…" He caught himself. "I won't remember what to do."

Glaring, I turned away from him. "You'll be fine."

Silence descended upon the moment, and I could imagine Naruto sitting there casually as he pinned me with a contemplative stare. Drop it, I thought.

Of course, he didn't.

"What was it like…for us?" he asked. His voice had that weird quality to it—not exactly one, distinct emotion. Not exactly curious, not exactly sad. I closed my eyes for a moment as if, by closing them, I could will the moment away, will him away, will everything away. He seemed to come back to me stronger than ever then, and all I could think about was his face as he smiled down at me from my chest.

"I'm glad my first time was with you."

"Was it bad?" he spoke up again, concerned.

I opened my eyes and stared at the space in front of me. My voice came out a bit more miserable than I wanted it to as I said, "No."

"I'm sorry," Naruto said quietly. Time seemed to pass by in more silence, but it was not awkward silence. With him, it was never awkward. Eventually, he spoke up again. "Sakura told me…that I held onto your memories. She said I didn't want to let you go." I was startled when he touched my arm, his hand landing lightly on my bicep. "You were an important person to me. You are."

I could feel a headache threatening, realizing quickly that it was because my face had shifted into a consistent grimace. If he could've seen my face, he would've seen it all—that pain.

"You do like me, don't you," Naruto said. It was not a question.

"Yes."

I wanted to smile as he asked, helpless: "What do I do?" Sometimes he could be so very helpless.

"Nothing."

In that moment, I had never felt so weak, like I couldn't do anything, like nothing could be done, nothing.

"I'm not going to force you to talk about it," Naruto said, "but I think you should."

"There's nothing to say. Just forget about it."

"Forget it?"

How cruel. To ask him this, how cruel of me. But I wanted this. If there was one thing I wanted him to forget, to just leave alone, it was this. "I don't want to feel this way," I told him. "I wish I didn't like you. God, I wish…" I paused, swallowed hard. "I wish nothing had ever happened. But it did. And I'll live." Finally, I turned to face him with what I hoped was a firm expression. "I'll get over it."

It was so much easier than saying, "I'll get over you."

/

The air of awkwardness descended as we walked home. Finally, I thought.

Naruto didn't talk to me. He didn't fill the silence. He didn't comment on the cemetery as we passed it, or the sleeping dog in the backyard. We just walked. Though what was there to say?

I considered idly that if anything would tear us apart, it would be this. It would most certainly be this. Not because Naruto couldn't accept my homosexuality, or even the fact that I had feelings for him. What would hurt him the most, kill him inside, would be my pain. I knew this. He did not like it when people got hurt because of him. He hated it. It turned him upon himself.

"Maybe you should stay with Sakura," I said when we were both in the apartment.

"No," Naruto said. "I want to stay with you."

I looked at him, exhausted, and decided that I wasn't going to argue with him. He was looking at the couch, maybe trying to remember, maybe trying to forget. Suddenly, his face seemed to come to life.

"I have to go to the doctor tomorrow," he said. "I nearly forgot. Gosh, that could've been bad."

"Is Sakura taking you?"

"No. She's going to be in the lab. Sometimes I walk. But it's fine; I like walking."

He gave me a small smile, and I continued to stare at him before telling him to wait there for a moment—that I would be right back. I walked down the hall and opened up the storage closet. It was there. It was right where it had always been. Even in the dark, I could see it perfectly. The paint almost seemed to give off a faint glow.

Naruto didn't smile when I wheeled the yellow bicycle into the living room. He didn't express any sort of recognition either. He simply stared at the bike, and then at me.

"Here," I said, leaning it against the wall.

"For me?" he asked, clearly confused.

"It was yours." Arching a nonexistent brow, I looked from the bike to the floor. "Consider it a late birthday gift or something."

Naruto approached the bicycle as if any moment it would transform into a human-eating contraption. It was interesting to watch, his hesitation. His hand glanced from the handles to the body, to the seat, where it rested.

"It's really for me?" he said, faltering blue eyes locked on my face. It was one of the few things that had not changed about him—his absolute disbelief when people did things for him. It could have been as simple as picking him up a pack of pens on the way home, or as mindless as giving him a bicycle which had already been his. Either way, it didn't matter. For some reason, Naruto was always dumbfounded when people considered him. It was rather heartrending, when one thought about it.

"I won't say it again," I said, starting to walk off. I hadn't made it three steps before Naruto grasped my arm, causing me to turn and glare at him. He was making a strange face, his expression flickering somewhere in the realm of helplessness. "What?" I asked.

He continued to look at me like that, with that—that face, until my worst fears were realized. A hand flattened upon my back and the other curled around my shoulders as he pulled me into his embrace. His face was buried in my neck so that I felt his lips move when he told me, sincerely: "Thank you." The words trickled across my skin, and I almost shivered. It felt like one of those hugs one gives when something bad has happened. There is the initial hug, but then there is the tight squeeze tacked onto the end that blossoms perfectly into the moment. His hug was a little bit like that, and a little bit not. There was no initial, gentle embrace. It was intense to begin with. It almost hurt.

To think that after all I had done to avoid him, we were here again. I had resisted him with such a vengeance, and it was with that same vengeance that we came together. Our moment was still to come, and when it came, it came with the string, but we both sat back and watched as it was drawn out until it snapped, so that there was not one of us less responsible than the other when that happened. At some point, the embrace stopped meaning thank you and became something else. I realized this when his face turned ever so slightly and his fingers moved so that I could feel them on my waist. I felt his lips on my neck, his mouth, and the memory of those lips trailing across my skin was all too familiar.

I would think later that I caused it to happen, that for once in my life, I had willed something to happen and it had. I could feel Naruto's lips as they parted for speech, but he never did say anything as those very same lips pressed against gently against my neck. And then I did shiver. Why hadn't we turned on the lights? What time was it? Thoughts like these sprung into my mind and out again as I tried to concentrate, as I tried to level my voice, level my voice. No, I wanted to say. No. His hand was hot again as he shifted slightly, pressing it onto my neck so that my head tilted faintly as his lips settled again beneath my jaw. Careful. He was being so careful with me. It made me want to laugh, or cry. His lips grazed the spot beneath my ear, and I did bring my hand up then. It was resting on his hip before I even realized I had placed it there. Pulling back, Naruto faced me. He was close, his hand still positioned gently on my neck.

A moment, a smile. The falling away of that smile. Naruto as he leaned in, kissed me. The steady dissolution of that moment.

His lips met mine with an adolescent shyness. In my defense, I did not think he would. In his defense, I let him. I let him kiss me, his lips tentative at first, careful. It was what I wish my first kiss had been like, rather than the reckless mashing of lips that it was. The raw spot in me that I had foolishly believed to be healed began to throb then. I could feel some part of myself wanting to reach out and draw him nearer, and I know I scared us both when I pulled his hips flush to mine. The kiss changed then. Both of Naruto's hands found their way to my face as he kissed me again, and then again. I closed my eyes and gradually began to respond, knowing, knowing that I would look upon this moment with great regret later. I knew this. But later seemed so far away. Later was not now. Now was Naruto kissing me, softly, my hands on his back, my fingers wound in his shirt. Now was my own lips searching out his own, the heat of his body, his mouth. The building insistency of his lips, the building insistency of that moment. My foot moving and brushing the bicycle.

The bicycle. Naruto's yellow bicycle.

Naruto.

"I don't know…exactly how I feel about you."

Pulling back, I shook my head. The sudden movement seemed wrong, as if I had thrown something essential off kilter. "No."

"…No?"

"We can't." And there was my face shifting into a glare.

I had purposefully avoided his eyes, but that no longer mattered as I could hear it all in his voice. "We…can't?" he said slowly. "But Gaara…"

"No," I said again, tone strict. "You don't know what you're doing."

"I don't—" he started to repeat me, stopping himself. "Gaara," he said my name again. He really could be so very helpless. But I could not help him with this. Not me, not this.

I rubbed my face, starting slightly and pulling away when I felt his hands on my arms. "No," I said, glaring at him. He was frowning. He was sad. He was confused. Of course, he was confused. I was confused. How did we get here? He noticed me shuffling in my bag and asked, "What are you doing?"

"I have to go," I said.

This seemed to put some sense back into him, for he stiffened at my words. "You can't," he said. Ignoring him, I pulled out my keys. "Gaara, don't," he pleaded with me. "We should…talk. We need to talk about this."

"There's nothing to talk about. You overreacted; that's all. It doesn't mean anything."

I would've given anything not to have seen him in that moment—not to have seen his pleading blue eyes, his hand on the door, his face with those flickering expressions, not to have heard his last, helpless, "Don't do this, Gaara," as I disregarded him and slipped out the door.

/

Shikamaru didn't ask any questions when I showed up to his room. He was clearly dressed for bed with his baggy sweats and plain white t-shirt, and he might have even been in bed, but he let me in anyway. His apartment smelled faintly of smoke, and I glanced momentarily at the cigarette dangling from his lips, a faint orange glow suffusing the tip.

"Throw your things wherever," he said, pulling his hair up into a ponytail. I sat down on a flowery, hand-me-down sofa and said nothing as Shikamaru came in several times bringing something different—a pillow, a blanket, a heavier blanket—each time. Once, he stopped, standing still for a moment and looking as if he might ask a question, but he never did. It was not white—more of a puke-green—but at least I had a wall. At least I had that nothingness into which my thoughts could dissolve. My phone rang, and his voice was suddenly filling the room.

"Hey, it's Naruto, your favorite person ever! Pick up, Gaara. You know you want to…And yes, I've hijacked your phone."

At some point (who knew when) he must have gotten my phone and switched the ringtone to the stupid recording. I shut my phone completely off. A ways away, Shikamaru finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in a nearby ashtray. It wasn't long before there was a knock at the door, awakening the bitter reminder that even now, he could still find me. It didn't matter where I was. He would find me.

Sighing, Shikamaru walked to the door, opening it just a crack. "Yeah?" he said.

"Hey Shikamaru," Naruto's voice, surprisingly calm, spilled through the break. "Is Gaara here?"

"No."

There was a moment of quiet before the blond said, "Just tell him I'm sorry. Tell him it was my fault. Tell him—tell him I really need to speak with him. Please, will you tell him that?"

Shikamaru released a weary breath. "If I see him."

This must have been enough for Naruto, or he must have known it was all he would get, because Shikamaru closed the door, scratching his neck and shaking his head at me. "I swear. You two…" He pulled out another cigarette and leaned against the wall as he lit it. Taking a small inhale, he sent two streams of smoke out his nostrils. "You've got a thing for him or something, right?" I remained quiet, expression set. "It doesn't matter to me or anything, but you two are friends. Hurry up and make up so I don't have to start running a hotel." He took another drag of his cigarette and went to his room.

I didn't sleep that night. I lay there and tried to retrace my steps from this morning. From the bathroom to the restaurant to the apartment. From his smile to my mouth. From his hug to his kiss. From thank you to this. Nothing was making sense. Nothing. What had he done? Did he realize what he had done? And what had I done? I should've stopped him earlier—before it progressed where it did. I should've pushed him away. But he had this…he had this effect on me. For as long as I could remember, he was always making it so that I couldn't push him away. It didn't matter if he was straight and suddenly climbing on top of me in a car, his hand unfastening my pants, or if that hand actually made it into my pants just as he made his way into me. It didn't matter. I couldn't stop him. Something in me…something, some stupid, stupid part of me thought that it needed him.

I was so tired. I didn't want to live like this, to constantly pine after someone so oblivious and yet so aware. To have to be around such a person constantly…I was tired. My feelings really were deadening. I had done it before; I could do this. He didn't realize that I had done this before, that to keep functioning, to survive, I had done this. And before, it had been so much worse. Because of him, because he was doomed to forget, I, too, had to make myself forget. Compared to the last time, it would certainly not be easy, but it would also not be hard. If I just buried my feelings deep enough, things would be fine. They would. But this required certain things.

It meant that the next day when I returned to the apartment just as he was wheeling the bicycle down the front walk, I looked at him only to acknowledge him. It meant I immediately quelled any reaction to the helpless look on his face, the pain there. It meant I did not stop when he said my name calmly at first, and then more urgently. It meant I walked up to the apartment and shut the door, immediately going to my computer and ordering two tickets to La Suna. I would do this, but this would be all. I would not go back on what I had already said. To avoid him now would only prolong this. It meant I allowed myself to think about it one last time—the gentle pressure of his lips on mine—before I pushed it far away into the over-and-done-with and turned to my homework.

When Naruto returned, he did not bring it up. He said a quiet hello, and that was all. And he would not bring it up again, not this. I knew exactly what I was doing by spending the night at Shikamaru's. If we had talked about it…No. It merely mattered that we did not talk about it. Such a sensitive subject had a limited time in which to discuss it, and that time had passed. That time was gone. It was like the night when he held my face in his hands and stared at me. If we had discussed it then, if we had talked about it then…But we didn't. Those moments were dangerous. They were also gone. Naruto knew better than to bring it up again with me, and I knew him well enough to know he would deal with it in his own way. And he did.

Winter break was in two weeks. I watched Naruto's attitude shift in rather interesting ways over the course of those two weeks. Psychologists would've had a field day with him, though I could only imagine what they would've said about me. For the first few days, he didn't say much of anything to me, and some days he said nothing at all. I flat out ignored him. I could only imagine the thoughts swimming in his mind. He had kissed a boy, he had kissed me, and he was probably wondering what that meant. Then would come the reasoning, the endless reasoning. If there was one thing Naruto could do that I could not do, it was to reason things out expertly in his mind, making them okay, making them harmless. It was just like his suggestion to sleep with me—he was able to reason that it would mean nothing, that it was harmless, that we were friends so why should it matter? Even now, I could see in his steady change in behavior that he was expertly reasoning things out.

Week one was very quiet, slightly tense. The occasional hello, the rare goodnight. It was the development toward full sentences, to asking how my day was, to telling me how his was without my asking. It was him reading in the living room and me in the bedroom. It was a stolen glance toward him with the strange realization that I was still alive. It was the endless distance between us. I would be lying if I said week one was easy.

Week two was the madness of tests and papers, oral examinations. Week two was the return of Sakura laughing at him in the kitchen and the practiced reinforcement of his smile. I was gone for most of week two. When I was there, on the off chance that he was there too, he sent me his broken smile but rarely said anything. He asked how my exams were going. I told him. His speech with me was clipped, careful. Formulaic even. Forced. By week two, I was fine when he reached over me one morning from where I stood at the counter and grabbed a cereal bowl, his chest brushing against my back. I was fine when Sakura kissed his cheek on her way out the door. I was fine when he took the yellow bicycle out. Biking became his coping mechanism. Whenever he started to get that look his eyes, that half-helpless, half-frustrated look, he would take the bicycle out.

By the end of week two, he was smiling and laughing as usual. Only once did he falter when, arriving late one night and finding me working at the kitchen table, he told me that Sakura had said he could stay with her.

I looked him square in the eye, my face blank. "I already ordered the tickets."

If anything told him that what had happened meant nothing, that I did not care about what had happened between us, it was this. His smile, if it could be called that, was heartbreaking.

"Okay," he said.

/

The flight was long. No, it felt long. Much longer than it actually was. Naruto and I were seated next to one another, but we might as well have been on opposite sides of the plane. I kept my nose in a book, and he stared listlessly in front of him, thoughts lost in space. At one point, I placed my hand on the armrest, startled the find Naruto's hand already there, but he removed it without a word, allowing my own to take its place. I occasionally glanced out the window, watching as the clouds disappeared to reveal endless deserts and sprouts of green as the plane began its descent.

The airport wasn't horribly crowded, and we were able to pick up our luggage without incident and even catch a cab rather quickly, which Naruto paid for.

"Thanks," I said, placing a bag between us, anything.

"No problem," he replied. And the driver proceeded toward the address I gave him in silence. It was peacefully quiet as the cab sped through town, which eventually became country, sand and dirt indistinguishable from one another. At first, Naruto said nothing, but his curiosity soon got the best of him as he pressed his hands to the window and let out an amused "Wow." From then on, he was pointing everything out as if I had never seen it before. "Look at that mountain," he'd say. "Is that even a mountain? Or is that a hill? Wow," he continued, praising the landscape which I, too, loved. Eventually, he looked over at me with a smile and said, "It's beautiful here," in such a way that I was able to realize that as much as I still loved that smile, things were finally okay again. It wasn't long before his comments grew irritating, and I was soon telling him to shut up—that I was trying to read. His resulting laugh pulled the usual glare from me.

It didn't matter that, deep down, there was still a skewed part of myself that wanted to close the space between us, to take his hand into mine, or that I felt something weird when Sakura kissed him, or that I wanted his hands on my face, on me. No, it didn't matter. It only mattered that he was smiling and laughing, and that I could sit beside him calmly and not break down.

When the cab pulled up to the brown tri-level situated several miles from town, I realized nostalgically that it felt good to be back, to be home. Temari greeted me at the door, running her fingers through my hair with a small smile on her face. Neither of us were the hugging sort; it didn't matter if I hadn't seen her in several months. Affection was a thing that had always been rare at our house. She gave Naruto a less-warm gaze, but he just smiled at her, harboring enough warmth for all three of us.

"Hi," he said cheerfully. "I'm Naruto."

As if his excitement was somehow stolen from her, she frowned. "I know." They had met before—my freshman year—and after his usual coaxing, they had actually gotten along (although Temari would never admit this). There were few, if any, who could resist his charm. Even my brother, who told me after meeting him that he was "a pompous asshole," was playing cards with him or going out with him to parties whenever he visited. But that was before. When I had come home that dreadful summer, it was my siblings who observed my steady emotional decline, and it scared them. They hadn't thought me capable of forging any sort of deep connection with anyone, so to see me so dejected because of one person, and to be helpless to do anything about it, they were scared. One of them was always close by when I called him, although they always had an excuse prepared if I asked what they were doing. Even with them there, I couldn't stop from crawling into myself after I hung up the phone, his cheerful voice still echoing in my ears and making me wonder what small fact about me he might have forgotten that day.

"Are you okay?" they would always ask, and what scared them even more was the fact that I said, truthfully, "No." I had forgotten how much pain there was in this house. The very same house where, as a young boy, I had walked into my father's study and found him dead, the gun on the floor, the blood on his head. The very same house where, after Naruto finally forgot me, I considered killing myself as well. But only for a moment. The very same house where I was supposed to find a way to keep living with him gone, the bastard I had fallen in love with—where no amount of words from Temari or Kankurou could change the fact that, for a while there, I really was lost without him. And how strange to know that, even with him standing less than two feet away from me, I was no less lost.

"I'm Temari," my sister spoke up, skepticism plainly bared. She did not like him. One of the reasons why I respected her was that she never did hide how she truly felt. "You'll be sleeping downstairs in the spare bedroom. I'll show you."

As she passed me, Temari gave me a poorly-concealed look of concern before graciously leading Naruto out of my sight. I stood in place for a moment, took a deep breath, and then I headed upstairs to where both my siblings' rooms and my own were located. It was good that we would not be sharing a room—Naruto and I. I needed some time to myself, and even with him here, it would be easier for me to avoid him in the privacy of my own room. He had been to my house once before, during one of the school breaks, but he had stayed in my room. He had insisted and I did not resist. He had even slept in my bed with me. That was before I felt anything other than friendship or annoyance toward him, before I realized just what that annoyance meant.

I heard someone climb the steps and was relieved to find Temari in my doorway. "It's almost time for dinner," she said. "I can make whatever you like."

"I'm not hungry," I told her.

She accepted this. She would not push. But then she did push, just a little. "Naruto…he's changed."

My mouth felt dry as I said, "Yes."

"…But not completely."

I stared at the carpet. "No."

With a tired sigh, she checked one of her ponytails. "Well, I'll tell him you're going to bed early and not to disturb you. Kankurou will be back later. He's still at work. He might check in on you."

"Thank you, Temari," I said. She looked at me and nodded, closing the door softly behind her.

Kankurou was not as quiet when he stopped by later. I had fallen asleep after attempting to put away some clothes, suddenly finding myself extremely tired. I had left the light on, which he switched off, but it was the haphazard closing of my door that awakened me, however momentarily. I quickly fell back asleep. For the first time in a long while, I dreamt. In the dream, Naruto and I were back on the plane. When I put my hand on the armrest, surprised to find Naruto's already there, I didn't move it. I lay it flat on top of his. Soon, he turned his hand over and held mine as if it was completely normal. He stared into space while I read on in my book. The dream was especially weird because we never said anything. Everything was simply understood, as it often is in dreams.

/

I was glad to find that Naruto was gone the next morning, having taken Kankurou's bicycle and peddling into town "for exploratory purposes," as he termed it. Kankurou sneered as he repeated this, pouring us both a cup of orange juice and making me realize he was back to hating him. Even I knew this "hatred" would not last very long.

"Good riddance, I say," Kankurou said, taking a long swig of his juice. He looked at me and frowned. "How have you been?"

I knew what he was referring to but pretended like I didn't. "Fine," I said.

Unlike Naruto, Kankurou knew when to drop it. He patted my shoulder and rested his hand there. "It's good to have you back."

We finished breakfast mostly in silence, Kankurou punctuating it to tell me about the banality of his job and how Temari still had one week of school left and would be gone for most of the mornings. Eventually he left for his "mundane responsibility to the world," leaving me alone in the kitchen, which grew exponentially hotter as the morning wore on. Finally, I opened a window, appreciating the cool breeze that wafted into the room as I sat down with my book to read.

I suppose I expected him to be gone longer than he was, or perhaps I was drawn too deeply into my book, because I was extremely surprised when Naruto arrived, the storm door banging lightly behind him. He apparently didn't expect to see me either.

"Hey," he said, frozen by the door. When I didn't reply, he went on. "It's amazing here. The reception's not that great, but that's okay. I don't want to call anyone anyway." He stopped talking and I looked down at my book. He didn't take the hint. "Your brother doesn't like me, does he?" he asked, surprising me with the forwardness of his question. "And neither does your sister?"

"No," I said, glancing up at him for a short moment. I expected him to start whining, to ask "Why?" But he didn't. All he said was "Understandable," taking off his dusty shoes and carrying them downstairs to his room.

I didn't see him again until dinner, where he proceeded to annoy the hell out of Temari while she set the table.

"No, I don't need help," she said through clenched teeth, placing a folk, spoon, and knife on either side of a glass plate.

"Are you sure?" Naruto inquired, making that the tenth time he had posed said question.

"Yes."

Naruto started laughing then, and Temari looked at him as if he had completely lost it. "You two are definitely related," he said, looking at us both. Temari's glare mirrored my own, but only succeeding in making him laugh even more.

"Christ, you're annoying," she said, struggling to maintain the impatience in her voice. "Now hand me the bowl of salad—before I change my mind."

He had won her over. Neither of them realized it yet, nor were they even thinking along those terms, but I saw it. Kankurou was a little harder.

"You're in my seat, asshole," he announced when he came home from work. We had already started eating, as we usually did when he was running late.

"Whoops," Naruto said congenially. He moved to the other empty seat. "My bad. Sorry about that."

During that first week, Kankurou never called him by name, even when talking to me. Especially when talking to me. It was always, "The asshole did this," or "The prick did that," and there was real malice in his voice when he spoke. I wondered if maybe Kankurou could not be won over this time, but then, gradually, Naruto chipped away at his icy exterior, like the skilled artist that he was. It became, "You'll never believe what the asshole did this time," and soon it was, "Naruto is really getting on my nerves." Again, this was not a shift that my brother realized, but I saw it. I saw it all. I didn't feel bitter about either. It's not as if I wanted them to hate him, and I knew Naruto was not purposefully manipulating them so much as they could not resist the person that he was.

He helped Temari with dinner—with the small things that he could not mess up, and he sat back and watched as Kankurou played around with spare car parts in the back of the house until my brother started asking him, "Hand me that, asshole. No—that. I swear to god, Naruto…" And instead of being intimidated by either of them, Naruto always laughed. I'm convinced that this is what threw them off more than anything. He wasn't laughing at them, but more so at himself. How could they be mad at that?

There were times when they would look at me and remember, and real anger would creep back into their voices, but they were also confused by the situation. I had invited Naruto there, so what did that mean? Did it mean that I had gotten over it, over him? They weren't sure. And as long as they weren't sure, they weren't sure how to assess the situation. Naruto disappeared by way of bike nearly every morning, but he did talk to me when he was at the house, so he wasn't exactly avoiding me. And I didn't spend quite as much time as I could've in my room, opting to work in the kitchen at certain times during the day, so I wasn't exactly avoiding him. Nothing was happening exactly, and that was the problem. But they did not realize that this was good. Only when things happened did everything go terribly wrong. I was content to live in this strange limbo of things not exactly happening, of him not exactly looking at me the way a friend would, and me not exactly feeling toward him as one would toward a friend. As long as things did not happen.

But of course. They did.

/

I was at the table one morning when I heard Naruto jogging up the steps. I had thought he had already left on his ritual trip, so this threw me off.

"Hey," he said, lopsided smile on his face. He looked a little thrown off to see me there, too. Grabbing a red apple for the woven basket in the middle of the table, he took a seat across from me. "Did you eat yet?"

"Yes," I said, looking down toward my book.

"Good," he said, causing me to look at him suspiciously. His smile only increased that suspicion. "I need your help."

"With what?" I said unenthusiastically.

"I want you to show me the house. Well, I want you to bring me to the house. I know I could go into town and get directions, but it's in the opposite direction; I know that much. Plus, I'd get lost. I need a guide. I need you—," he peeled a blue sticker off the apple, "—to help me, of course."

I continued to stare at him. He was serious. Though I had to admit, I was not exactly surprised. It was only a matter of time before he found out about the house, and I knew his personality enough to expect the instantaneous infatuation he developed for strange things. This list included everything from kangaroo cats, to grapples, to me. It was only a matter of time before it came to include the house.

Three years ago, a tornado had torn through La Suna, wreaking havoc on the countryside. Tornadoes were not uncommon to the area, but this particular tornado was a bit more violent than all the rest. It touched down just outside of a small farming community, destroying everything. Its mission seemed to be ruin—annihilation. Nothing was spared, everything tossed up and thrown somewhere else. But in an odd twist of fate, there was one house that was picked up, the very foundation torn out of the earth so that it hovered oddly above the ground. It was not airborne for very long—less than fifteen seconds—but it landed very carefully. Disturbingly-carefully. Things inside were roughed up and mangled, but from the outside, the cream-colored two-story looked perfect. I'd seen footage, and it disturbed me that such things were possible, and that they did happen. Naruto, of course, was fascinated by it.

It took us thirty minutes to get there by bike. As much as I just wanted to tell him where it was, I didn't want him to get lost or killed by a coyote (contrary to popular belief, I'm sure). Because Naruto was the type of person to get killed by a coyote, just as I was the type of person to get blamed for it.

And I was also not going to take the car. I still hadn't fixed the headlight after our last little escapade. No, the car remained locked up in the shed out back. Out of sight; out of mind. Naruto seemed perfectly content with biking, though—maybe a little too content, but maybe I was the one overreacting.

He didn't pay very much attention to me at all on the way over. Sometimes he even closed his eyes for a short stretch of road, the wind ruffling his blond hair like an invisible hand. He was a person made for the outdoors. I was not. I considered physical activity to be arranging books on a shelf or reading. Naruto was the rock-climbing, mountain-biking, cliff-diving sort. I was the this is my corner, leave me alone and we'll be fine sort.

And it was hot. I had jeans on, which did not help, and the thin, gray button-up, though airy and short-sleeved, was still too much. It was a typical morning in La Suna—the sun beating down, really beating down, as if in defiance of the winter season. Today there was almost no breeze.

"You're lucky," Naruto said. He didn't look at me, but I could see the small smile gracing his features. "To live in such a place and have siblings that love you…you're very lucky." I stared down at the moving ground beneath my wheels, wondering where that comment had come from. "And to have me as a friend," he turned toward me and grinned, "you're doubly blessed."

I glared at him, and he laughed so that the sound seemed to get left behind as the house came into view. There was still a good bit of debris all over the place, but in the space where the house sat, one would doubt seriously that a tornado had been anywhere near the place.

"Unbelievable," Naruto said when we got there, hopping off his bike and leaning it against the front of the house. I did the same. When Naruto decided to venture into the house as I knew he would, I followed him, not wanting to deal with the scorching sun on my arms and neck.

The house was just a bit eerie on the inside. In a strange contrast, it was also tranquil in a calm-after-the-storm sort of way. There was little of anything left—anything of value having been salvaged or stolen long ago, so that only the flaking wallpaper and cracked furniture occupied the space.

"Be careful," Naruto said, the ground creaking beneath him. I ignored him, walking around him and making my way, steadily, down the hall. The staircase had completely collapsed in on itself, and a cloud of glittering dust seemed to hover in the air, everywhere. Several pictures, torn and dusty, lined the hallway floor, and several doors had been torn completely from the jambs. The house had the feeling of being from another time. I felt an odd inclination toward it.

A particular room caught my eye. It rested at the end of the hall to the right, and I noticed it because light seemed to spill out of it like milk, the dust sparkling lively there. When I finally reached it, having to climb over a fallen bookcase in the process, I was astonished to find that it was a small nursery. This room was by far the least damaged; I did not need to explore the rest of the house to know this. A wooden crib fit snuggly into one corner, and a rocker creaked lightly from the breeze that snuck in through the broken window. I recalled hearing that everyone had made it out in time, unharmed, and this sudden recollection relieved me for some reason.

Turning to leave, I froze when I saw that Naruto stood in the doorway. He was pinning me with a weird look, as if he knew what I was feeling about the room and felt that way too. It didn't make me feel any less cornered. I steadied my gaze, and Naruto's narrowed just slightly, as if he now knew how I felt about him—that I felt like the room had suddenly started shrinking. He was going to say something; I could tell. I watched his fingers curl around the doorframe, and I could see his jaw clench. I wondered if Sakura noticed such things, but, then again, he was not the same person with Sakura that he was with me.

His lips parted slightly, and I seriously hoped that my firm expression and unyielding features told him No.

For the first time in a long time, he dropped it. I could see his stance relax—concede, his blue eyes with that poignant blue in them as he stepped aside and gestured toward the hall. A kind of after you gesture.

We left the house in silence, grabbing our bicycles and wheeling them back to the road. Suddenly, Naruto was angry.

"Can we talk later?" he asked.

So he hadn't dropped it at all. Goddamn him. I gripped the handles and tried my best to remain calm. "About what?"

"You know about what." I looked at him and his face softened. "Please," he said, to which I looked away from him. "If you really don't want to, then we won't. Then I'll drop it. I'll never bring it up again—"

"Fine," I said.

"…Fine?"

"Yes."

"Yes," he repeated, as if he had expected me to say no. Hell, I had expected me to say no. "Okay…Okay." He didn't look ecstatic, or even happy that I agreed. That made two of us. Naruto got on his bike and told me to go back without him. He had things to do and would meet up with me later. I wondered if "things to do" meant meeting up with one of the many girls that had started coming to the house and asking for him—Sakura or no Sakura.

If nothing else, I would be able to take this opportunity to articulate to him that I did not want to have this conversation again and that I would be moving out of the apartment and he could stay there for all I cared. Because I cared. And because I didn't want to anymore.

/

What did later mean?

I pondered this as I rode back, and when I got there. Did later mean thirty minutes, an hour? Several? Did later mean dinner time, or after? Did later mean tomorrow? Never?

It was around one o'clock when I peddled up the drive, brown dust rising on either side of me so that I nearly lost sight of Kankurou. He was rummaging around by the side of the house, and when he spotted me, he brushed his hands on his pants and walked out to meet me.

"Whoa," he said, cracking a playful smirk. "I never thought I'd see you on that thing again." I gave him a baleful look, recalling a past time when, after first having my training wheels removed, Kankurou had pushed me down a hill. His smirk seemed to imply that he was considering the same situation. "Where'd you go?"

"The house."

"Alone?" It was kind of funny to watch his realization dawn, to see the hesitant Oh in his eyes, and the following seriousness there. "Where is he?"

Uncharacteristically, I shrugged, pulling the bike up to the house and putting it to rest there. Kankurou followed me.

"He keeps asking about you," he said. "Stupid things. He asked what you were like as a little kid, and if you always wanted to be a history professor." I glanced at him and he looked troubled. "Some of the questions, he's even asked before." Before. Before the world collapsed. "He's such an asshole." I could see that my brother was in pain. He had lost a friend too. "Anyway, I do have a surprise for you. Well, I guess it's not really a surprise since I'm telling you, but it's a gift nonetheless. At least it will be when it's done." After all that had happened to our family, my brother was unable to smile. He could only smirk, the expression akin to Naruto's broken grin. "I'm fixing your car," he said. "I know—it wasn't necessary and all that, but I had some free time. Plus, Naruto insisted, and as much of a prick as he is, it was a good idea." He gave me a careful look. "Maybe he's not so bad."

For a minute there, I considered telling my brother that Naruto really was nothing but a prickish asshole, before settling with the dubious "Maybe" that left my lips. Kankurou watched as I sighed and headed back into the house, wanting a shower but also just wanting to do nothing. Even a book seemed especially tedious. Everything seemed a weak attempt to block out the inevitable later. Later. Later.

I'd think about it all later. The air was hot, and I was tired. If Naruto showed up, fine, we'd talk, and if not, I could deal with pushing everything out of over-and-done-with to the later pile. Because later was not now.

Even my room was warm, nearly stifling as I opened the door. The ice in the cup of water I had brought up seemed to instantaneously dissolve. I took a few sips, placing it on my desk before pulling my window open. Though it was not cold, the air that pushed into my room gave the impression of coolness, and I was thankful for it. The early-afternoon light painted the room in golden hues that made it not quite seem like my room. My bed creaked slightly as I lay on it, my bare arms warmed by the hot blanket beneath me. That warmth lulled me gradually into a half-sleep, so that I was certainly not awake but could hear when Kankurou came in and out of the house, or when Temari came in to ask me a question or maybe to tell me something, pausing before slipping out quietly. Every once in a while, I would slip into my thoughts, so that it was not quite a dream and not quite consciousness as I thought about Naruto and his promise of later. His insistent later. His stubborn later. Stubborn, yes. And then I realized that someone was in the room again, or perhaps it was a dream. I could feel a presence, something, a voice which seemed to say Go to sleep. I didn't mean to wake you. Something. Something nice. One nice thing amidst all that chaos.

I must've finally fallen quite deeply into sleep then, because it was some time before I became aware of my room again, of that space. It was around 2:30, so the room was still lit in yellow-gold, except that now it seemed even richer. I sat up, feeling that post-nap funk that makes one wonder why they even took a nap in the first place, and deciding that a shower was definitely in order.

I couldn't have made a better decision. The warm water snapped me back to awareness, even when that awareness was an awareness of later. I probably still had time to tell him no, that I had changed my mind, but then I remembered when I used to actually want to talk things out with him, when I wanted that closure. Maybe I also wanted it now.

My hair was still damp and feathering up at the ends when he showed up at my door. I had (thankfully) just pulled my shirt on and was sitting on the edge of the bed. His face was contorted into another one of those funny little faces. A part of me loved those faces. The masochistic part. The claustrophobia I should've felt with him standing there seemed to meander about the edges of the room, not quite taking hold just yet.

"…Hey," he said. He attempted a friendly smile, but I watched as that plan failed miserably. It became one of those funny faces. "How are you?"

"Fine," I said.

He did manage a smile then, though it was small. "You say 'fine' a lot. But that's fine." I watched as he sort of moved forward before quickly pulling himself back. "Can I come in?"

"Yes."

He nodded and entered my room. He contemplated standing, his eyes on the spot beside me on the bed. "Sit," I told him, irritated. Irritated because he had told me that when I had finally confronted him on the couch, and because we hadn't moved much further from where we were then. I didn't have patience for his petty indecisions; any I had stored would be needed for more important things, for more important moments.

He gave me a hesitant look, but Naruto sat. I didn't look at him, but I knew he was playing with his thumbs without really looking at them, glancing at the carpet without really seeing it. Staring into space. "How did we get here?" he finally asked, voice conveying that futile resignation. He ran a hand through his hair and smoothed his shirt. "Please believe me when I say I know this hasn't been easy for you…but it hasn't exactly been easy for me."

I nearly laughed at that, at the triteness of his words. Instead I glared. "You don't know anything," I said.

Beside me, Naruto sighed. "I'm not going to fight with you…You don't even fight. No, that's the worst part. You do fight. You just stand there, but you're always fighting with me." The typical silence, like a piece of luggage, sat between us. I wanted to be mad at him for saying such things to me, but I couldn't. He was right. "You know what I find funny? No one knows me like you do. You. You, of all people. I've thought about that a lot. I've been thinking about it, about what it means and all that. About what it means about me, too, I guess."

I noticed, absent-mindedly, that the shadows in my room had deepened just slightly. It seemed appropriate. He continued.

"I think I knew for a long time…how you felt about me. You think you're good at hiding it," he laughed a little, "but you aren't. Any idiot could put the pieces together." There was a broken smile in his voice as he added, "Maybe I've always known. I just keep remembering your face when you first came to see me at the hospital. Sure, you don't have very many expressions as is, but that day you slipped. That day I was happy—you don't even know how happy, because you were happy to see me. You made sense. Out of all the craziness and the emptiness, you made sense. It sounds weird to say, but you sort of fixed some of that craziness and filled some of that emptiness. Even when things are crazy, even now, right now, I'm happy…because you're here." He paused. "You think I don't know how I feel, but you're wrong." He turned to face me and I met his staid, sapphire eyes. "You're wrong, Gaara. I'm not confused. I mean, I was, yeah, I was…but I'm not now."

The seriousness in his face scared me a little, but I brushed it aside, asking, tiredly, "Do you even know what you're saying?"

"I'm saying that I like you."

"…What?" I could feel the balance in the room tip. My eyes had widened a little, and it took me a while to remember how to make it so that my face revealed nothing. No, I couldn't remember.

"I like you, Gaara."

"No, you don't." It didn't sound as definite, as forceful as I'd wanted it to. Regardless, Naruto frowned, staring at me wordlessly for a small span of time. At one point, I had to look away so that when he stood, I thought he was going to leave. He didn't. He came to stand directly in front of me so that I had to look up at him, as usual. When he brought his hands up to rest gently on my face, I did not protest. I only said, "You'll regret this later."

"I won't," Naruto said.

I could feel my face softening, the anger, the frustration, the constant need to push against him dissipating. For a moment there, he became the center of the room. Maybe the center of everything. Until Kankurou came bustling in, throwing everything out of whack, as he usually did.

"Yo—" he said, freezing as he saw us. Naruto glanced at him, his hands falling to his sides nonchalantly as if our positions had been completely normal. His expression was the same one that had adorned his face when Ino had come upon us on the back porch. "Uh…Yeah," Kankurou continued. "I was just gonna let you know that I got a call, so I'm going to be at work for a few hours." Awkward silence. "So I'll catch you later then," he said, fumbling by the door for a second, before seeming to say to hell with it as he left.

As the front door slammed shut on the main level, the sound carrying up through the floorboards, Naruto turned toward me with a quasi-shrug of sorts. "Well," he said resignedly, "I'll be in my room." As usual, that broken, heartbreaking smile. Then—nothing, as I listened to his footsteps, one and then the next, on the stairs.

I sat in that very spot for a long time.

What he said was not an invitation. It was not, "I'll be in my room if you need me, which of course (wink-wink) you will," just as it was not, "I'll be in my room and I expect you there within the next five minutes." In fact, Naruto did not expect me. He left me with the disturbing impression that he did not expect anything from me anymore. He had tried, he had bared it all. He had told me everything. What more was there to do? Nothing. All of this, and nothing. When all along I had wanted nothing, why now did I feel that twisting up of everything inside of me, that terrible shifting and rattling of parts?

Naruto had given up. For the first time ever, he had actually given up on me. I had never understood the phrase, but now I could see what "earth-shattering" meant. I sat there, and I continued to sit there so that it was after four when I moved.

The house had fallen into one of those deadly quiets not even punctuated by the occasional groan of breathing walls. Oddly enough, my steps were quiet on the stairs. I soon found myself standing at the top of another, smaller set of stairs—the stairs leading down to the spare bedroom—the spare bedroom where Naruto was. Or maybe he had left. Or maybe I was trying to manufacture the perfect excuse not to go down there. Because if I went down there, everything would change. Everything.

Although, everything had been in the process of changing for a very long time. And how much courage must it have taken him to tell me those things, to tell me he liked me even if he really didn't. No, he did. Naruto did like me. He was not some child unaware of his feelings and prone to misreading them. To think I had done all that I could to prevent this moment—not for myself but for him. Because I wanted to do things right. Because I didn't want him to get hurt, least of all because of me. And yet, here he was—hurt—and most certainly because of me. This was not what I had wanted. Whether I liked it or not, his pain was also mine. There wasn't too much of my life that wasn't, in some way or another, intimately linked with him. It was frustrating as all hell sometimes. Sometimes. But most of the time, I was happy about that. Because Naruto made me happy, even if he thought he was funnier than he was, and possessed the unique ability to embarrass me in public places, and wore boxers with cartoon panda bears on them. Even if he forgot about me…Just being there, Naruto made me happy. Granted, it was a skewed type of happiness—one that didn't come with a smile or a laugh or a cheerful sigh, but it was happiness, nonetheless.

I felt this strange, fluttering happiness, like a bird's wings, as I walked down those steps. Fluttering, I suppose, because I was nervous, horribly nervous. Fantastically nervous. Terrifically so. Yes, terrifically. It was terrifying. I was terrified.

Naruto's door was cracked open slightly, and I dug my toes into the tan carpet before I knocked—another diminutive method of delay.

"Yeah," Naruto called from inside, voice sounding faraway, distant. I guessed that he was in the middle of something and thought it was someone else at his door. I was right. He was reading when I came in, his body half-tilted toward me as he hurried to finish a sentence. It was one of my books—when on earth had he obtained it? It had to have been earlier when I was sleeping. So he had been in my room. It was hot in his, light spearing in from two windows near the ceiling. The room itself was tidy for the most part, his outfit from the previous day located in various places on the floor. He turned toward me with a welcoming smile that faltered as soon as he saw me. He most definitely did not expect me. A question formed itself in his eyes, and I could see a weariness there, a sort of Why would you torture me like this so soon? He tried to conceal it, but failed.

"Interesting book," he said eventually. "I hope you don't mind that I borrowed it." I saw that he was about to embark on a diatribe regarding the text, but he stopped, studying me momentarily. "Did you need something?"

I backed up against the door to close it, giving him a measured look. He still did not understand. My fingers shook minutely as they rose and undid one of the buttons on my shirt and then the next. This was not part of the plan. I did not quite have a plan. Maybe it was best not to have a plan for such things. I can't even say with much assurance that I knew what I was doing or what I expected to happen. I simply knew that something would happen. As the last button was undone and I slipped my shirt off, dropping it to the floor, he understood. His face was very serious as I padded over to him, and mine was too as I stopped in front of him, much like he had earlier with me, so that he was looking up at me with those tired blue eyes. I don't know what he saw in my face, my own eyes, but he frowned and circled his arms around my lower back, pulling my hips toward him so that he buried his face in my stomach and held me tight. I felt something then, a sudden urge to cry which I dispelled with a deep breath. My hands slowly rose so that they hovered behind Naruto's back temporarily, before resting on his upper arms, before that was not enough and they smoothed around his shoulders so that I bent over and embraced him. We seemed made for each other, the way he so easily fit into my arms, my chin resting on his head so that my hair was in front of my eyes. Any trepidation seemed to rise off my skin and evaporate so that all that was left was the intensity of my emotions, and the rising swell of his.

I felt Naruto's face move, like it had on my neck, so that his lips were very clearly pressing against my belly. His arms shifted and I pulled back so that my hands sat gently on his shoulders. Glancing up at me again, our eyes locked, and he pulled my hips forward again so that I took a step and my knee knocked against the chair he sat in. He spread his legs a little so that I came to kneel on the seat of the chair, his fingers cupping my sides.

"Do you like me?" he asked, the suggestion of a smile tilting his lips. I couldn't exactly manage a glare, moving one of my hands so that it rested on his neck, my thumb brushing over his jaw. His skin was warm; I could feel the faint beat of his heart beneath my palm. He smiled. "I see."

I bent down faintly, as it was practical for me to be the one to move in such a position, and paused an inch or so in front of his face. He had one last chance to say no, to stop this before anything significant happened. He seemed to know what I was thinking, what I was offering, and I watched him contemplate it. Not once did his eyes leave mine. We seemed frozen like that, until he moved, bringing our faces even closer, our lips just barely touching but not yet meeting, until I closed the space and fulfilled the kiss. Again, there was that carefulness, and there was also a certain awareness. Awareness of his hands on my waist, of my knees between his legs but a safe distance from his crotch. Awareness that he might only want to kiss, and a more humble awareness that that would be okay. But most of all, a keen awareness of him, of his warm hands moving up to hold my face as the systematic shifting of faces began, as he pulled his face away and looked at me before kissing me again, as one kiss turned into two, three, ten, until I stopped counting. There was also an element of shyness at first as we both tried to figure out what exactly is okay?—as our lips met as if for the first time, each time. I was the one who screwed that up.

An attempt to reposition myself resulted in one of my knees sliding right into him—not forcefully but with enough pressure to be problematic. Though, any sort of pressure there at all probably would've been problematic. A little noise sounded from the back of Naruto's throat, and he pulled his mouth from mine. He gave me a very strange look then, a cross between contemplation and frustration—contemplative frustration; frustrated contemplation—before I attempted to move my knee, surprised to find one of his hands on the small of my back, keeping me there. His other hand curled around my neck so that he pulled me in for another kiss, his lips closing over my upper lip so that I felt his tongue. His kisses were different after that, but with a ghostly familiarity. There was a certain dominance to his kisses, but there was also an underlying deference, a sense that I was free to take over whenever I liked. But I liked him kissing me like that. That had not changed. The slowness of his lips, his tongue—the wet friction as his mouth moved from my mouth to my jaw to my neck where I had to close my eyes because what he was doing felt so good. I let out a shaky breath, and Naruto moved to kiss me again and I moved to reach him before realizing that this setup was not quite working.

He realized this, too. I watched him pull back, pushing me back just slightly so that I was standing, so that he could stand. He smiled at me when our faces were level, and I looked back at him blankly until he gripped my shoulders and took a step forward, so that I had to take a step backward, then another, all the while Naruto smiling and saying, "Back, back, back," with each step as he walked me over to the bed. I glared at some point, and he laughed, especially when the back of my knees hit the bed so that I had no choice but to sit down on it. Until I slipped my fingers into the front of his jeans and pulled him closer. He stopped laughing then. But still, there was that fond smile.

"You make the funniest faces," he said. "I love them." He continued to stand there, considering his next move, before I decided to help him. I brought my hands up and under his shirt so that I touched his skin. But that was all. He still had time to turn and run, for he was making that face again, that blur of contemplation and frustration, eyebrow cocking in a mildly-playful expression which seemed to ask, Is this what you wanted?, as he tugged his shirt up and over his head. There was enough confidence—enough cockiness in his face for me to know that he wasn't simply doing it because I had wanted it, but because he also wanted to.

Then things got really awkward, or should I say really annoying, as Naruto placed a hand onto my chest, leaning me back onto the bed before he gripped my shoulders and slid me back just a fraction as he climbed over me, grinning stupidly and scooting me back, back, back until my head fell on a pillow. His hands and knees were on either side of mine so that he loomed over me. He looked at me differently then. He looked at me with the knowledge that we were not just going to kiss, were we?, and so maybe he should put a stop to things. For a moment there, he looked at me as if I didn't know that this was so, before I could see the recollection that, oh yes, we had done this before. I loved to read him. I loved him. Yes…I loved him. Still. Again. Yes. He watched me for a small span of time, and then he traced both of my lips before leaning down and kissing me.

His hands began then to roam, to explore—never crossing the invisible line which seemed to exist above my bellybutton. Careful. But the touch seemed to set something off balance. Touching me seemed to ignite something in him that I felt in his kiss—a certain need. And I could feel that need intensify as I brought my hands up—one splaying on his back and the other beginning at his cheek and ending in his hair, because I had to touch him, because it didn't feel right if I didn't. He began kissing me very deeply, in a slow, concentrated, and sexually-frustrating manner. Frustrating, yes. Very. Especially when I felt the raw need to have him close, and closer. There still seemed to be an invisible barrier between us, as Naruto seemed to be very careful not to let his legs touch mine, or at least not for too long, and he still kept his hands in "safe" places.

Again, I ruined that. It was hot, and his skin was hot, and the hand on his back slipped so that my fingers slipped into the back of his jeans. I felt him tense slightly, wondering if he was going to up and run now, but he didn't. Instead, his hands finally crossed that line. His lips moved down to my neck again, and it was I who tensed when I felt his fingers on my jeans, his hands as they unfastened my pants, and my heart as it began to race. He pulled back then, shrugging my jeans off with a smile and dropping them beside the bed. I watched him take ahold of one of my feet, not bothering to hide my irritation as he wiggled my big toe. He saw my face and laughed softly, crawling up alongside me and brushing a few strands of hair away from my face. He ignored my boxers, but they remained a fact between us. So did the fact that I was aroused, and that he was too. Even with his jeans on, I could tell. And I knew how frustrating that could be. So, very cautiously and with that principal awareness, I reached my fingers out and onto his jeans. His smile somewhat waned, but his blue eyes were locked onto mine. He never did break eye contact as I undid his zip, making sure not to touch him—making sure of that, because we had still not exactly done anything. Not yet. He moved closer to me then, so that our faces were on the same pillow, and I closed my eyes as one of his hands traced the features of my face—the movement exciting and peaceful at the same time. Every once in a while, his lips pressed against mine with that careful, tender pressure, but nothing really happened until I realized that his other hand had moved into my boxers with more confidence than there had been the last time.

I opened my eyes then—uncertainty, I'm sure, revealed plainly in my gaze, but Naruto was the epitome of coolness. I couldn't quite handle it as he took me in his hand. Again, there was that urge to curl up, but I couldn't quite do that, and when his hand began to move, my face fell forward so that it slanted under his chin. He was warm, but I didn't care. I needed that closeness, and maybe he did too, because his free arm curled around my back, pulling me even closer. I sighed against him, one of my own arms snaking past his waist so that it came up, behind, and over his shoulder. My other hand slid between us and into his pants, his boxers, so that his own hand froze as mine began to slide, slowly, up and down. Naruto made another noise in the back of his throat, and I moved my face so that I kissed his jaw, once softly, and then more deeply.

My own experience meant that I knew what to do to make someone feel good, and my skills were not lost on Naruto. But still, even with my hand in his pants and his in mine, I still felt a certain shyness, a certain nervousness. I felt like we were two teenage boys at a sleepover who touched each other for the first time—hesitantly at first, and then with more assurance. But always there is that carefulness—not because one of them might change their mind, but because human beings can be so very fragile. Naruto was fragile, and I did not want to hurt him. But I was also fragile, because I did not want him to hate me.

I started to doubt was I was doing then, what we were doing, my own hand stilling, but Naruto did not allow me much time to consider anything as he proceeded to touch me, and I pressed my shoulder into him, shuddering, my own hand moving, each driving the other. It became very heated then, not simply the room, but our movements, our contact: Naruto's grip tightening on my back, just as mine did on his shoulder. Our clinging hands, our bodies which shook and shivered, sighed. His tongue in my mouth as he kissed me, and my languid reciprocation. The warmth on my hand as Naruto came, his body jerking and his hand tightening so that I came too, soon after.

The sleepiness that descends after such a moment. The silence. The faint awareness that Naruto had removed my boxers, balling them up and cleaning me with them. I opened my eyes, and he was lying next to me, facing me with a lazy smile. I tried to glare, to focus on him, and he laughed a little, telling me to go to sleep. My eyes drifted shut, and my awareness of the room, and of him, began to fade. I felt him put an arm around me, his fingers in my hair and on my scalp. I felt his heartbeat as he moved closer so that his chest touched my forehead, the steady thrum echoing in my thoughts and, later, my dreams.

/

Later on, when I awoke, there was not the certainty that there had been. There was only a sickness, a sickening awareness as I considered what we had done. I felt not affection for him, but disgust, and for myself even more disgust, as well as a deeper loathing.

It is strange how things can change, how one realizes that what had seemed like a good idea may, in fact, have been a very bad one.

Naruto's arm was still draped over me, he himself still deep in the throes of sleep. He did not stir when I slipped away from him, or when I quietly gathered my clothes that were everywhere, roughly pulling my jeans back on. I felt a bit sick then, as I realized that it was significantly darker outside, meaning that I had missed dinner—that both Naruto and I had missed dinner, and my siblings would be wondering about that.

I retreated to my room, where I remained for the rest of the night, and I was not bothered. My sleep, when it came, was troubled and erratic. I woke up several times, and I was still tired when I woke up the next morning for breakfast, but cognizant enough to know that I had to face him, and confidently. (Though what good was confidence now, after what had passed between us?)

Temari was at the stove, and she sent me a tired good morning. Kankurou was different. He sat across from me as if he was going to ask me a question even though he knew I would never answer it. After all, he had been the one to walk in on that odd moment between Naruto and me. His skepticism was nothing less than apparent.

And then he came in, Naruto, not bothering to avoid my eyes as I thought he might do. No one saw him but me at first, as he sent me a slow, calculating stare which I couldn't quite decipher. I could feel that disgust bubbling up, and I looked away, down, at my empty plate. Kankurou looked at my face and then behind him, and in my peripheral I saw Naruto smile and wave.

"Morning," he greeted, taking the seat beside me as he usually did at breakfast.

Kankurou narrowed his gaze. "Yeah…Good morning," he said slowly. Temari came to the table, dishing out eggs and bacon, and Naruto thanked her, striking up a conversation about her classes as she sat down beside Kankurou, so that I thought, Okay, this will not be very difficult; he is also willing to forget about it. And a sudden calm fell over me like a blanket, settling, slowly, around me so that the disgust began to ebb. And then I felt Naruto's hand on my upper leg, and I was very clearly unsettled. I dropped my fork, and it clattered across the surface of my plate, three faces turning toward me as if to ask what was wrong. Including him.

"Are you okay?" Naruto asked, a subtle smirk on his face. I nearly stabbed him. My face threatened to shift into a malicious leer, but I knew that would only cause confusion for the two across from me, and they were not so stupid that they wouldn't be able to figure out what was going on at that point. So I cleared my throat and ignored him, picking up my fork and proceeding to eat. Naruto continued with the conversation, as if his hand wasn't inching up my inner thigh, fingers pressing so that, to my own mute embarrassment, I felt my body beginning to respond. He was not going to let me forget.

I nonchalantly took hold of his hand under the table and moved it, and he let me move it, but he would not let go of my hand after that. He talked and talked like he always did at breakfast. Like his fingers weren't threading through mine, his thumb rubbing slow circles against the back of my hand. Like he wasn't aware that I was turned on. Oh, he was aware. He was most certainly aware. I could see it in his smirk that never quite faded for the duration of the meal. Goddamn him.

I had never felt so relieved when Temari stood, gathering everyone's plates, because that meant Naruto had to let go of my hand, which he did. And that meant I could leave without incident—or without further incident, as it would be more appropriate to say. Naruto followed me, as I knew he would, which was good, because it meant that I could tell him off (quietly) for his little stunt at the table, and that it was not funny at all, and that what had transpired on the previous afternoon would not be happening again in any way, shape, or form.

As I entered my room, I turned to begin my tirade, but it was cut short, preemptively, as Naruto shut the door behind him and came to me, taking my face in his hands and kissing me, hard. I pushed against him, and he brought me around so that my back was against the wall. It did not seem possible, but my brain was registering that his fingers were on my jeans, so that I did not quite realize what was happening until both my pants and boxers were around my feet and I felt his hands on me, remembering, mimicking what I had done to him. My mouth fell away from his after that, my forehead resting against his chest and arms secured around his back, all the while my mind buzzing with the realization that this was exactly what he wanted. He most certainly was not going to let me forget.

I came very fast, sighing violently against his chest and sort of heaving toward him, but he held me. And then he angled my face upward so that he could kiss me, slowly, and I let him, because what else could I do? I closed my eyes as he took my tongue into his mouth, until something like a moan passed through my lips even though I never moaned.

Naruto pulled back then, and I fixed him with a glare, but the expression was pointless.

"I'll see you later," he said with a seductive smirk, opening and then closing the door behind him.

I stood there, stunned, trying to figure out what had just transpired. What had just…What? As soon as I glanced down at my pants, I was angry. Stepping out of them, I picked them up and tore at them, as if trying to rip them apart. When that didn't work, I threw them across the room, grabbed a towel, and stomped off to the shower.

The shower. The one place where I could stay calm and think. Think. Where I could rid myself of evidence of what we had just done. Where I could rid myself of him. Where I could take a deep breath and think, Okay, so this is the situation. Except that I could not quite articulate what that situation was.

Naruto left for the afternoon so that I was able to sit peacefully in the kitchen and read. Well, at least I tried to read. I just kept drifting off, staring into space. I was staring into space when Temari walked in, carrying a bag of groceries.

"What is it?" she asked, sitting the bag on the table.

"Nothing," I replied, to which she somewhat smiled, placing a hand on my shoulder. "What?" I said, confused by her behavior, but she just shrugged, that smile still on her face.

"Nothing."

Later, much later, when I had turned off my light and slid under a thin blanket, I heard someone at my door. Correction: I heard him at my door, and I knew it was him. It was like I could sense him, like some part of my awareness was attuned to him. It was damn annoying.

Quietly, he opened the door, closing it and walking until he stood beside me.

"Are you still awake?" he whispered.

"Yes," I said, irritation nothing less than apparent. I heard him moving, disturbed to realize that he was undressing, before I felt him crawl onto the bed, and then over me, so that he occupied the space beside me. "What are you doing?"

"What do you think I'm doing?" There was a smile in his voice, as if he knew I was glaring at him even though he probably couldn't make me out too well. I felt his hand land of my arm and grope around until he felt my face. "Aha," he said. "There you are. And glaring, just as I expected."

"What do you want?"

"Can't I spend time with you?" His innocence was feigned. Even then, there was an underlying sincerity.

"You did," I said flatly. "Earlier."

Naruto laughed. "Yeah. Sorry about that—well, I'm not really sorry. I just wasn't going to let you get away with anything this time. I know how you are. Although, you weren't exactly complaining." My glare darkened as I pulled away from his hand, rolling so that I was no longer facing him. I heard Naruto chuckle as he moved closer to me, slipping an arm around my waist so that we were spooning. His warm breath brushed against the back of my neck as he moved his face even closer. "Hey," he said.

"What?"

"I like you." Naruto pressed a soft kiss to my neck, so that, even though I felt the urge to pull away from him, I could feel myself moving back toward him. He nuzzled his face against my hair, saying something about how I smelled good, before pressing even closer to me, the heat from his body radiating against my back. His hand searched and then found mine, weaving our fingers together. I looked back toward him and felt his lips at the corner of my mouth, slightly missing the mark before they fell again on mine. I closed my eyes, unable to see anything anyway, and my mind focused on Naruto as he pulled back shortly, before leaning in to kiss me again—slow, punctuated touches that persisted until he snuggled his face into my shoulder. I heard his tired-but-content sigh, and even as he drifted asleep, his body relaxing, his fingers remained firmly linked with my own.

/

Our relationship after that can really only be characterized in one word: volatile.

During those last fourteen days of winter break, I think there were only two in which we didn't do something either implicitly or explicitly sexual. Because there were ways of doing both, as I came to find out. It was predominantly physical between us, but driven largely by an assortment of emotions that collected and dispersed, some bouncing off of others but all of them driven by a magnetic urgency. It was not easy to explain—least of all to myself.

Anything and everything would set it off. It didn't matter if I had just come out of the shower and he was about to get in, because when our eyes met it was all over. In five seconds or less he had me up against the cool tile, hands unfastening my towel and pressing against me. It didn't matter if I was leaning against the foot of the bed on the phone, and Naruto came in to ask me a question, opting to wait—laying on the floor like a little kid and tracing the veins on my feet. I watched him until he felt my eyes and looked up, and suddenly he was crawling between my legs and pressing his mouth against my mouth. There was even a time when Naruto was downstairs on the couch reading, and I was sitting on the floor by his leg, so that when I leaned back, my face rested against him. Naruto's fingers played in my hair, and when I turned toward him, he sent me a soft smile, and there was something about that smile, something which I wanted, something which led me to undo his pants and take him into my mouth, feeling his fingers threading into my hair, so that Naruto was not the only one to blame.

There was something almost electric between us, something that caused us to react to one another, and to set each other off. But it was not entirely sexual. At first I thought it was merely a fascination, mere gratification, only to steadily learn that there was more to it—something else. Even when we weren't fooling around, something seemed to resonate between us, livening with a look or a touch. And there was something else—a warmth. Something like a sigh, something that made my pulse quicken simply by looking at him. Something that caused me to grip his shirt as he walked past me, so that he thought something was wrong. "Hey, what is it?" he had asked, taking my hand into his. When I said nothing, he pulled me into his arms. I came to know him almost as well as I knew myself, but in some deeper, metaphysical way. I knew the feel of his body pressing into mine when I woke up, and how his face would rest in the crook of my shoulder. How he would come up behind me and hug me. I knew his hands, his lips, his voice, where he liked to be kissed (his face), and his sensitivities (his shoulders and hips). And he knew me just as well.

But that was the extent of it. Every time I would start to think that it was over, there he would be, giving me that look again. We never did do anything more than that, which meant that we never had sexual intercourse. And we never discussed the situation, because I would not permit it. He looked at me very hard one night as we lay in my room, the area lit only by the light of the moon, and he asked me what we were.

"We can't," I muttered, tracing the outline of his body with my eyes. The light played off his skin beautifully, even though I knew every inch of him by heart. He looked sad.

"Why can't we?" he asked, solemnly.

I started to shake my head, to come up with some other excuse, but he pulled me against him and kissed me. He kissed me a lot during those last two weeks. Those last two weeks—both pleasant and painful. Painful, because the clocks wouldn't stop, and with each round of the second hand, we were drawn closer to the return and to the end. The end of whatever this was. Because there were our friends. And there was Sakura. People who would never understand. I found myself wanting to spend more and more time with him, but carefully concealing it with endless excuses. Always some kind of excuse. Of course, he saw through them all.

We went on errands, picking up groceries and other miscellaneous items for Temari and Kankurou. I know they had figured out what was going on. We weren't disappearing all the time and at the same time for no good reason. But they didn't ask me about it, and they didn't criticize me for it, which was their own form of a blessing, I suppose.

We started taking my car out so that I could give Naruto lessons on how to drive. This annoyed the hell out of me the most, because he was scared to death of the car at first, before he realized how to operate it, and then you couldn't get him out of the blasted thing. I had to hide the keys when I came out one morning to find him doing circles in the backyard because he "thought it was cool," all the while Kankurou cussing him out about how it would take days for all of the dust to settle. He certainly looked apologetic, but I saw Naruto bite his lip to conceal his smile, and I realized that I could never hate him. Even when Sakura called, I couldn't hate him. Even when there were those days when we could not help but be away from one another for a few hours, when he had to help Kankurou with a car, and I had to go into town for a book, and so I was finally alone with my thoughts and my self, thinking, What are we doing? Because it was not simply him, just as it was not simply me.

It was the worst when I was away from him. But I would have to start getting used to it. All of this would stop when we got back. "We" would be over. Over and done with. The thought sickened me and made me hate myself for engaging in acts that I would only look back on with resentment and a great degree of pain later.

After I returned from such moods, which became increasingly more frequent during the seven grueling days of that last week, Naruto merely had to look at my face, and he would drop whatever he was doing and hold me. It did not matter if he was helping Kankurou when I stepped out of the car, or if he was aiding Temari in dinner prep as I walked through the front door. He held me right in front of them, even when I told him angrily to let go, even going so far as to try and shove him away, which was all an elaborate (or maybe not so elaborate) pretense, because by that point, we both knew he wouldn't, and we both had an idea that "Let me go" was really code for "Please don't let me go. Ever."

/

It was the day before our return flight, a mild Thursday evening, when Naruto asked if we could take the car out for one last spin. I told him I didn't care.

I grabbed the keys from my desk, extending them toward Naruto when we were outside, and when he took them, his hand closed over mine so that when I looked at him, I thought, He's going to kiss me, because he hadn't yet that day. We had been busy packing, and so we didn't really see one another except for the occasional passing in the hall or in the kitchen. We had eaten at different times too, operating on our own schedules, so that it really had felt like forever since I had last seen him, which was problematic. I was supposed to be acclimating to life without him, rather than feeling troubled whenever he wasn't around.

When he didn't kiss me, I figured that he was allowing things to go back to normal, that he was finally understanding that this really wasn't going to work, and that he might even be driving me somewhere to tell me that this was all a mistake. Which I would understand. As awkwardly painful as it would be, I would understand that.

We spoke very little in the car. Naruto made some idle comment about being a great driver, but there was really nothing for me to say to that. There was really nothing for me to say.

I thought he was cruising aimlessly until I saw the house, surprised but not that surprised when he pulled the car off the road. He steered clear of the debris, showcasing some annoyingly-impressive maneuverability skills, before pulling the car to the side of the house where it could not be seen from the road, and parking it there. I glanced at him, but he stared straight ahead, hands draped by his sides on the seat. Even from such an angle, I could see his face flickering between contemplation and frustration. He was going to ask me something, and it could've been anything, a question of what would happen next, of what we were, of what he was supposed to do. Whatever it was, I said, "Don't."

He turned toward me with a curious smile and asked, "Are you psychic?" I frowned and turned away, looking out into the deepening dusk, and the stars which started twinkling here and then there. "Gaara," he placed his hand nearest me over my own hand nearest him. I did not like it when he said my name like that. "You know we have to talk."

"No, we don't," I said flatly. He laughed, and when I attempted to pull my hand away, he firmly held it in place.

"Don't get mad," he said softly.

"I'm not mad." I felt him squeeze my hand, and when I looked at him, he had that helpless look on his face. I could've smacked him. Instead, I leaned my head against his arm, and he wrapped that arm around my shoulders, pulling me toward him, until we both realized that seatbelts did not make things very feasible. He unstrapped us both, ignoring my glare that meant I was perfectly capable of un-strapping myself.

"Come here," he said.

"Where?"

My car was not some boat of a car possessing extensive space. It was not meant to be crawled around in, which is exactly what Naruto expected as he looked at me and said, again, "Come here."

Sighing audibly, I climbed over the drink holder between us, Naruto grasping my upper arm and pulling me onto his lap so that I sat facing him, my legs on either side of his.

"Isn't this better?" he asked, a teasing smile on his face. I made to move away from him, but he gripped my waist, his hands sliding under my shirt and onto my bare skin. It was certainly not to my advantage that he now had no qualms about touching me. Or perhaps it was. His hands smoothed up my sides and over my back, as I rested my own hands on his shoulders.

"We shouldn't," I said.

He made a strange face. "Shouldn't we?"

I was frowning even as he pulled my face down to his, his lips meeting mine always with that initial carefulness, that primary caution. As always, a heartbreaking tenderness there, in his fingertips and his mouth. Even when his kisses were not so chaste anymore, no longer so careful, though not careless. Always, his lips moved to my neck, where he brushed the collar of my shirt aside—where he decided to take off my shirt altogether. I ran my fingers through his soft hair, and he looked up at me with one of his funny faces.

"Can we?" he asked, and I hesitated. Almost instantly, I knew what he was referring to, and I suppose, to some degree, I expected it. But I was still surprised to hear him ask.

"We can't," I told him.

"We have."

I looked down toward his lap. "Yes."

"Yes, we have? Or yes, we can?" And then his hands were on my face, and he was looking at me with a concerned expression. "We don't have to…"

"Yes," I said quietly. "We can."

Naruto didn't smile or reveal any sense of triumph. He held me. There was something in his arms, something I was getting used to. A feeling of safety; a feeling of a home away from home. It was me who was starting to feel as if I might be helpless without him.

I pulled away from him so we could get all the awkward, preliminary stuff over and done with. Getting my pants off was the hardest part—never mind getting his pants off. Naruto laughed periodically the whole time, dispelling a little more of that awkwardness each time he looked at me and asked, "I have to do that?" And I glared at him each time, even though he always ended up saying, "No, let me do it." He knew my body now, and equally well. He was not embarrassed.

Regardless of how it's portrayed in the movies, it's extremely hard to have sex in a car. He stayed in the driver's seat, so that I had to lower myself onto him so we could do it that way. It was different this time, because it had been a long time. I had almost forgotten what it was like. I had also not been able to see Naruto's face last time. This time I was facing him, and so I saw it all. I saw his face sort of screw up, almost as if in pain as I gradually pressed down on him, and he progressively inched into me. I had to pause several times at first, because it really had been a long time and so this time was not without the usual pain, but it was also not unbearable. Naruto definitely helped things as I felt his lips press against my neck and then behind my ear.

"You're beautiful," he whispered.

I chose to ignore that, opting, instead, to move. There was still a sense of discomfort, but it was dulled, almost like it was not exactly happening to me. I started slightly when he pulled me toward him so that it was Naruto burying his face in the crook of my neck, which was usually what I ended up doing to him. In such a position, he was reaching me in new and different places, which was unexpected because I had meant it to be mostly for him. The car was warm and fogged with our breath, so that anyone who saw the car could figure out what was going on inside. But that possibility was distant. I focused immediately on Naruto, on his hands, on his nails which pressed into my shoulder. On his breath, slow, and then quick, labored. On my name, which he kept saying, differently each time, again, and again, and again, until I came, vaguely aware that Naruto was also coming, his body trembling beneath me. He slumped forward against me, and I singularly voted that it would be his undershirt that was utilized for cleaning purposes this time.

I did let him stay like that, his arms circled around me, for a little while. Eventually we both realized that we needed to clean up, and so we went about the usual mode of wiping up—something we were anything but new to at this point. I was looking him over when he pulled me into his arms, reaching into the back seat and grabbing a blanket, which he pulled around us. It was getting a little bit chilly with the sequence of night, as it usually did in La Suna. I wavered, and then I gave in, leaning against him only to find his arms holding me under the blanket.

"We'll take a shower together later," Naruto said, giving me an amicable squeeze, which pulled a dubious glance from me.

"Is that all you think about?" I asked, tone only slightly incredulous.

He gave me a funny face, asking, "What?" before realization set in, and he blushed. "I didn't mean it like that," he laughed, nudging me. "Your mind went there, not mine."

"I wonder why."

He chuckled again and pressed a kiss to the top of my head, too tuckered out to have a false argument with me. I rolled the window down, and we listened to the sounds of night as they floated into the car, to the crickets and to the wolves—the latter far off—and to the wind.

I felt Naruto move, one of his hands leaving the warmth of the blanket so that he could trace the various attributes of my face—eyebrows, nose, eyes, mouth—an eccentric little habit he was apt to do. His face was lit with a fond smile.

"It's over, isn't it," I stated more than asked.

Naruto bit his lip and looked out the window before meeting my eyes. "Is it?" he asked.

I glared at him and looked away. "Very funny."

"We should try it."

I faced him again, noting the seriousness to his face that sometimes found its way there. "Do you even know what you're saying?" I asked him, tiredly, not even sure if I knew what he was saying or what he was suggesting, and a little scared that I might be wrong—scared, too, if I was right.

"You always ask me that. Of course I know what I'm saying. Do you?" I nearly rolled my eyes, meaning—point taken. His fingers were cold as they ghosted over my cheek, settling there, but I didn't mind. "I don't remember a lot—almost nothing, really—but I know how I feel right now, about you. And it's not because I remembered your name, or because of what happened before and all that, or maybe it is, a little…" He stopped, embarrassed—a fact I was aware of, because whenever he bit his cheek like that, like he was doing now, it meant he was feeling self-conscious. He said, "I care about you, Gaara. I like being around you. I like being with you." What did it mean? What was he saying? I contemplated questions like these as he looked at me very seriously and said, "So we should try it."

I had this funny feeling that if I said yes, I would never get rid of him. Ever. An even funnier feeling was just how close I came, for the first time in a long time, to smiling.

/

It was hard to leave La Suna, to leave Temari and Kankurou—it always was. But I knew I would be back. They looked a lot more confident that I would be all right, that they wouldn't have to worry as much as they usually did about me, and about him. He gave them both a hug at the airport, which completely disarmed them both, so that I could see a younger version of my sister as she yelled at him and told him that he was not to do that again, and a less guarded version of my brother as he stood there, his arms drawn up in his total lack of expectancy where such gestures were concerned. It seemed to break something down in them, because they then came and each gave me a hug, so that I was left to awkwardly pat each of their backs as Naruto smiled warmly at me from behind them.

Because the blond idiot had kept me awake all night, I fell asleep on the plane, which was beneficial because then I didn't have to consider what I had agreed to on the previous night, and how Naruto still might change his mind. How he had not seen Sakura in quite some time, and didn't distance make the heart grow fonder? But I was prepared for this, and I think, to some extent, this is what I expected.

I woke up to the sound of the flight attendant's voice overhead, telling us we would be landing soon. I was surprised to find Naruto's arm around me, rubbing my arm, and my head tilted onto his shoulder, even with the old woman one row ahead who kept looking back at us over her glasses.

"I think she's jealous," Naruto said, sending her an amicable grin, and I pulled away from him with the usual glare. I was a little surprised that he didn't seem to possess any shame—though in a perfect world there would be none—but I decided that it was because the plane was not yet the university. We were still stuck in a warped sort of middle ground where we were, in many ways, safe.

I could feel the difference immediately on the ground. There was a space between us at the airport and in Shikamaru's car when he picked us up, though perhaps I was largely responsible for that. Naruto talked to him the whole time, telling him how great the break was and how amazing it was in La Suna. His emphatic inquiries were answered in the usual, apathetic manner by Shikamaru. At some point, Naruto began talking to me, to both of us, and when I ignored him, he proceeded to poke me in the side until I slapped his hand away and told him to stop it.

Shikamaru started looking at us very strangely after that, even if it was in his own, indifferent way. Especially when we got to the apartment, and I exited the car on Naruto's side, not expecting him to grasp my arm and help me out, his other hand pressing gently against my lower back. I sent him a warning look, which he ignored, hands moving away from me so he could lean into the open passenger window and say goodbye. I could hear Shikamaru mention something about a party, and when he drove off, Naruto told me that we would be going to another get-together, a new-year kickoff type of thing.

"You can't be serious," I said.

"Don't I look serious?" he asked, little chuckles escaping as he tried in vain to look serious. "Besides," his face relaxed into a lopsided grin, "it'll be fun."

I regarded him in silence before looking away. "Is Sakura going?"

Naruto sighed. "I would imagine."

"I really don't think it's a good idea—"

"Why not? You know what? Never mind. Executive decision—we're going. We're both friends with her," he said, opening the door to the apartment. I wondered if she knew that, or if Naruto would make it clear. He still had yet to see her—everything might change.

We put our things away in relative quiet, and I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't be moving out just yet. That is, until we got to the party. Again, there was an element of difference, of distance, when Kiba picked us up to take us over to his house where the event was located. The afternoon had been filled with Naruto's voice as he returned missed calls and caught up with everyone. We had very little interaction. I mulled over Naruto's words, finding numerous ways of interpreting them. What did he mean when he said we should "try it"? He had used similar terms when he suggested we sleep together some odd years ago, and we saw how swimmingly that went. Did "try" mean wholeheartedly, or half-assed? Did it mean we were public? Exclusive? What?

I thought about all this again in Kiba's car. Kiba was not Shikamaru, and so that meant that Naruto didn't play around with me as he had earlier. I was quiet on the way over, but that fact was nothing out of the ordinary. But still, Naruto kept watching me. I could feel his eyes on me the whole time. That alone seemed to reassure me in some arbitrary way, even though I had thought it would accomplish the opposite.

There were the usual greetings at the door and inside, as people gathered around Naruto and me. I began to get annoyed when they asked him questions about Sakura that they expected him to know—Where was she? How was she? Had they spent any time together over break?—and so I slipped away from the group unnoticed. But of course there was that expectation. What did I expect? What did I expect?

Kiba called me over to the living room where the usual group was steadily gathering together on couches. Ino, Shikamaru, and even Hinata were there, all of them sending me their own idiosyncratic greeting. I sat down in the seat adjacent to Ino, who told me that I looked different.

"Different how," I asked listlessly.

She tilted her head and smiled, even going so far as to shrug. "Different," she said again. "Just different."

"Man, I was thinking that myself," Kiba chimed in. "But it's definitely a good different. Not like you were bad before or anything," all the while Ino nodding emphatically, "but you look…I don't know, happier?"

"Exactly," Ino agreed. "He does look happier." To me: "You do."

"…Happier," I said slowly, eyes narrowing as I wondered just what it was about me that was giving off happy vibes. Because I was not a happy vibe person. At all.

"Ano, it's—it's not that you l-look happier," Hinata stuttered, pressing her hands together, "but that you seem happier. Or—or something!"

And that was supposed to make me feel better?

I did not like where the conversation was headed. Suddenly everyone made it their profound interest to try and figure out just what was different about me, and what in the seven suns could make Gaara—Gaara, they kept saying, though I was not meant to take offense—happy, if that is what I, indeed, was?

Shikamaru gave me a look, and I almost thought he was trying to tell me something, before realizing too late that that was exactly what he was trying to do.

"Hey, Naruto," Ino said, and I heard him say, "Hello, hello," behind me. And then I felt Naruto's hands as they fell upon my shoulders, and when I turned to glare at him, there was his face, close, and then closer. "And hello," he smiled, pressing his lips to mine for a quick kiss. Everyone in our immediate vicinity shut up immediately, watching as Naruto hopped over the back of the couch, occupying the space beside me and resting his hand on my knee.

The array of expressions on everyone's faces was priceless. Absolutely priceless. But they were very careful not to say anything, or at least, not to say the wrong thing—whatever that was. I was angry for his unscripted actions (he could have at least told me he was going to do that), but I was also, I don't know…happy? And I was also proud of Naruto, just a little bit, (though he'd never hear it from me), because it took guts to do that—that, and a large amount of stupidity—both of which Naruto had plenty of. I could feel the grip on my leg tighten, but to anyone else it would've been imperceptible. He was trying to stop his hand from shaking as the group stared at us in silence, and others came over to see what was up, only to see Naruto's hand on my leg and fall into their own quiet.

Ino was less subtle, and I would be eternally grateful for what she did next. Her jaw quite literally dropped as she said, and loudly, "What the f—" —(insert expletive of choice). She turned then to Kiba. "I told you, didn't I? Didn't I tell you?"

Kiba waved her off, stating that he "had known all along," way before she did anyway. Shikamaru smirked as he pulled out a cigarette, but then grimaced as Ino karate-chopped his head, berating him about how he was not going to smoke around a pregnant lady. And life moved on. Some people wanted to ask more about us, and some did, but we found surprisingly that we didn't have to answer any questions (not that I would have, mind you). When someone I didn't know asked Naruto how long "this" had been going on, Ino replied, crossly, "Uh, hello? It's been happening for a long time. Where the hell have you been?" And when someone else asked if Naruto was gay, Kiba looked at him with a leer, telling him, "So what if he is? If you have a problem with that, then get the hell out."

And that was the extent of the conversation. Naruto's hand relaxed on my knee, and I could feel him sigh. That meant he had not seen her.

I had. Disinterestedly, I excused myself, giving Naruto an I'll-be-back look, and following her. She had come in right around the same time that Naruto had come up behind me, but she remained some ways away as if she knew what was going to happen. Though she had most definitely seen Naruto kiss me, I couldn't read Sakura's face as she took a step back and into a nearby room. Normally, I never would have followed her. I did not follow people. I did not care. But Naruto cared about her, and I suppose, if I was forced to admit it, I did, too, in my own minute, disinterested way. She was one of the few people who had been there from the very beginning. She had stepped in and done what I could not do.

So, aside from owing her this, I also wanted to do this.

She had her arms crossed, but she was also holding her arms so that she seemed to stand folded when I came in. The wavering glow from the gas fire sent ripples over the room, like light reflected off the surface of water. This light rippled over her face as she turned toward me and then away.

"Why did I know it would be you and not him?" she asked.

Because I didn't know what to say, mostly because I usually exempted myself from conversations like these, I said, quietly, "I'm sorry."

"Don't," she said, shaking her head. I could see that we were just a little bit alike, particularly in how we felt about Naruto. "Just…just don't apologize, okay?" She tried to smile, but abandoned the idea. "I wanted to be upset, but…but I expected this. Of course I'm surprised, but I'm not that surprised. The only person he ever talks about is you." She turned to face me. "Even before, there was never any contest. That's why I almost felt thankful when he forgot everything, because it meant he forgot about you—not that it matters now. I know it's horrible; I'm horrible, but I really felt that way."

"You're not…horrible," I trailed off awkwardly. I was surprised when Sakura chuckled.

"So he's rubbed off on you, I see," she said. When I continued to stare blankly at her, she said, "You're trying to cheer me up." She saw my face and laughed again, until I realized that she was crying. "I'm sorry," she said between tears, "but it sucks. Don't get me wrong, I love you both dearly, but still…"

She sat down on the couch facing the fireplace and proceeded to cry, mumbling something into her hands about how Naruto was a "stupid idiot." I wasn't sure what to do at that point; I was not a person prone to having girls burst into tears around them. So I did what Naruto had done for me. I sat beside her and brought an arm around her. She leaned toward me, her face in her hands, and we sat like that for a short while, so that it stopped feeling awkward. I could not hate her—this girl who also had feelings for him. I had watched her grow up. We had watched each other grow up. We were friends.

"You're a really nice person, Gaara," Sakura said. "I know how much you love him."

I struggled not to glare and Sakura laughed, the door opening as Naruto walked in. He saw us and bit his lip, guilt reflected in his eyes. Sakura sat up when she saw him, looking particularly put-together at that point. Naruto stood at the door, before walking over in front of where she sat, a complex mix of expressions on his face. "I'm sorry," he said.

Sakura raised a brow, tossing a hand in the air. "Not you, too. I definitely don't want to hear that from you." Her expression was especially suspicious as he sat down in the empty space beside her, but it softened as he pulled her in for a hug, and I watched as she slowly returned the gesture. "You punk."

I looked away from them, my eyes drawn toward the fire as I tried to brush away the possibility that Naruto might still change his mind about me. But that was the reality. That had always been the reality. But still.

A warm hand on my arm jolted me back into the present, and I turned toward Naruto. He was facing me over Sakura's shoulder with a small smile on his face. I glared, and he smirked, and Sakura pulled away from him, getting to her feet.

"Get a room," she said, hands on her hips but a suggestion of her own smirk gracing her lips. Naruto looked at her innocently, and she shook her head. "I swear…I'm going back out there," she nodded toward the humming din. "And you know what? I'm going to have a good time."

"Good," Naruto grinned.

Sakura stared at him, and then she looked at me, and then she laughed a little and smiled as well. "Yes, well…I'll see you." At the door, she paused, saying, "Good luck with classes on Monday, Naruto." And then she sent me a warm smile. "And you too, Gaara."

I watched her leave, listening to the sounds from the main room as they swarmed into our smaller room when Sakura opened and closed the door. I liked the subsequent not-so-quiet. I felt Naruto's hand slide across my shoulders as he gently pulled me so that my head was on his lap. Normally, I would've stopped him, but this time, I allowed it.

I found it a little strange, a little scary that we were here—that we had made it all this way. For the life of me, I still couldn't figure out exactly how we had gotten here. How I had started out hating him, and now…Now.

"You could've warned me," I said.

Naruto knew I was talking about the kiss. "I could've," he agreed. "But where would be the fun in that?"

Glaring, I turned my face toward the fire, and Naruto tipped it back with his fingers. "Five more months," he said.

I felt my eyebrows struggling to meet. "Yes."

"Are you going to leave me?"

"What?" I said. But I knew what he was talking about. My doctorate. He had seen me applying to several Ph.D. programs; it was a fact that I might end up anywhere. He knew this. He knew this, and he was still giving me a helpless look. I could feel my frustration manifesting itself in my face, and, when I spoke, my voice. "They have a good program here," I muttered, "and they've accepted me, along with offering me a fellowship." I met his eyes with an unexpected earnestness. "I'll be here."

Naruto stared at me, silent. And then, all of a sudden, there was that fond smile. "You have no idea how deeply in like with you I am," he said.

I could feel my cheeks heating up, and a strange, quivering feeling that seemed to be born in my stomach. I could feel something within myself reaching out toward him, even as he leaned down to kiss me.

/

About him, about us, I was right. I never could get rid of him.

He was with me for the entirety of my doctorate, through the good and through the very bad times. Not surprisingly and a little annoyingly, most of the good times were with him. Like when I saw him earn his bachelor's and then his master's with that goofy, handsome smile on his face. Or when I came to his classroom to bring him his lunch which he had forgotten in my office, only to see the rapt faces of his students, their bald adoration as he explained the mechanics of oil painting. Or when, one night as I trudged into the apartment after a grueling night class, looking anything but enthusiastic, he looked at me with a small smile and told me that he loved me.

"What?" I said.

"I love you," he said with a startling clarity. "I love you."

Though it would be a while before I said it as freely as he had said it and would continue to say it, I loved him. I always had. And he knew that. That smile, that laugh. I loved it all.

When Naruto told my siblings that we were dating, I made sure to memorize their faces. Kankurou's blatant shock was a perfect complement to Temari's slack jaw. They were less surprised of the fact that we were going out than of the fact that he so freely admitted it to them. But they were happy—they were happy for me—even if Temari still yelled at him to shut up and let her cook dinner on her own for once, and even if Kankurou cussed him out if not once, then twice a day for getting into everything. It's just that Naruto loved them. And they came to love him, too.

Sure, he and I still bumped heads occasionally, but we'd argue only to end up in bed together. We even got into a fight when I told him that he wouldn't be able to have kids if he stayed with me. Of course, there were a lot of words leading up to this, but that fight was over as soon as Naruto heard this, breaking into a fantastic smile. "We can adopt," he said. I stammered out that he was crazy. He laughed and kissed me. He even held my hand in public—something which I protested. At first. I liked the feeling of my hand clasped in his, even if I scowled the whole time. I liked so much about him, it wasn't even funny. For Naruto, it was hilarious, because he had this crazy notion that he had me figured out. Which he probably had. I didn't think I would ever figure him out—not completely. But that was okay. That meant that there was always tomorrow, that I always had something to look forward to. I had him. We had each other.

Naruto never did remember anything else. There were little things, little flickers of memories that he could never quiet grasp, but that was all. And I was fine with that. I had stopped obsessing over the past. It was a beautiful memory, and it would always be—something I would always cherish—but that was all. It was the now I was concerned with, and I was sure to tell him that.

Sometimes I tried to picture what the old Naruto would think regarding what had transpired, and I could see him slumped over and upset, confused, his hands clasped tightly as he tried to understand how he could become such a person, how our relationship could change in such a way. But more often, I pictured him smiling in a silly sort of disbelief, sheer happiness shining through as I explained all that had happened. Every once in a while, his laugh would interrupt me, and though I couldn't hear it, I only had to look at him to know how thoroughly his laughter filled the air.

"Stand by [me]": The End


A/N: Well, there you have it. I'm kind of sad it's over. This story has hovered around me for quite some time, and now it's finished. I struggled mostly with how it was going to end. Some of you (Ugawa) really had me thinking about whether or not I even wanted Naruto and Gaara to end up together. It took me a week to think it through. It's been fun though. I've been challenged. And I KNOW there were typos I missed (Why didn't anyone tell me there were all these misplaced "f"s in the last part? XD)

If you have a moment, please let me know what you thought. I often wonder and worry about how people see SBM in relation to AR, and maybe some of you have problems with it, which is totally fine. Either way, I really would care to know how you felt about it, especially this final part, and questions are always welcome as well. And if you've survived through to the end, then you know the drill:

Thanks for reading. (And I especially thank you for your patience with this story.) Take care!

Fun(ny) facts about AR as a whole:

- AR was hilariously close to being a song fic. The song? Emerson Hart's "I Wish the Best for You." Beautifully sad song. Do look it up if you can. The lyrics are completely applicable: "You'll learn to forget me, / And I'll try, I'll try to forget / You."

- Sasuke never once shows up in this story. That was not intentional. Actually, if I remember correctly, there was going to be a small mention of him, but it got to be a bit too wordy, so I threw it out.

- I don't know where the heck it takes place. In my mind, it was this ambiguous area, so when it came time to figure out where Gaara was going to be from and I spent hours trying to find a place where it was warm in the winter and sandy and deserty only to realize that I didn't need to use a real place…yeah…Because I had a brilliant idea that Gaara was going to be from Idaho (as a tribute to the movie, "My Own Private Idaho")…but that did not work as far as the whole warm winter thing.

- When SBM was still in the planning stages, I was considering having Naruto slowly gain his memories back over the course of the epilogue. Obviously that didn't happen.

- SBM is twice as long as AR, which I find particularly hilarious because SBM was supposed to be a short epilogue. Pfft. Yeah…(AR = 24,413 words - 48 pages total; SBM = 42,537 words – 88 pages total). About that...