A/N: I got the idea for this early one morning when I was awoken by my dad playing loud music. I tried to get back to sleep with nice, peaceful thoughts, when suddenly I was thinking of one of my favorite fairy tales of all time: The Beauty and The Beast (some parts especially from the book Beauty). And then it got me thinking of this AkuRoku (AxelXRoxas) doujin someone drew once where Axel was a prince who was turned into a fox by the witch Namine and Roxas later took care of Axel as a pet, but at one point said, 'I love you, buddy', which made him turn into a (cough,NEKKID,cough) human. So then I got reminded of Naruto because of the whole fox thing (Kyuubi No Kitsune), and then my favorite yaoi pairing is NaruGaa (GaaNaru), so I thought of Shukaku and what a monster/beast he is, and then… well, you can guess the rest.
LONG EXPLAINATION, I know, but that's how it all went down. Now you know my demented sense of logic. Also, now you all get this extremely long oneshot to read because I have other fics to do (meaning I didn't want to make this a multi-chapter fic). SO ENJOY. Whee!
– And oh, this is supposed to take place in old-ish times like the original fairy tale, so people (even Naruto, heehee) talk all formal-fancy-like, or at least as close to it as I can get it. Possible OOC due to this fact.
Once upon a time, there was a rich prince that went by the name of Sabaku No Gaara, who grew up as a kind and harmless child whom only wanted to be like everyone else. He longed to fit in with the children his age, all of which were peasant villagers in place called Sunakagure. Suna was located as Konohakagure's closest neighbor, a village to the south east of Konoha's main gates. They were also the closest thing to the desert, being in an oasis on the outskirts of endless waves of sand. The desert heat dried the lips and evaporated the sweat of every villager in Suna, though no one complained for this is where they claimed their home. But this is also were they banished the people who were different, like the very prince they respected.
You see, the Kazekage of their land (which is like their emperor, their king) was Gaara's father, and he had many wives albeit three children who roamed his Great Tower's walls. Temari being eldest, she was the most desired young girl, having dark, alluring teal eyes and shimmering blonde hair that she kept in a session of intermingling ponytails and braids done by her servants every morning. Kankurou was the middle child, a handsome young lad with sharp brown eyes and medium brown hair that was constantly messy and spiky in every which direction. He was a master of sorts, spending his time on fiddling with puppets made by the great puppeteer Sasori. These two of the royal family were treasure and liked their somewhat worship-like treatment from everyone, though they had sympathy in their hearts and were not cruel.
Gaara, on the other hand, was the youngest of these three, and had a different mother who could not be saved after childbirth, and was the only of the Kazekage's wives to die, especially so young. She was beautiful, too, perhaps the most beautiful of any of his wives, and for this the tiny redhead was a fetching little boy with sweet aquamarine eyes, creamy pale skin (he didn't venture out into the blistering sun very often), delicate hands not made to do battle or work, thin pouty lips, innocent cheekbones and a smooth jaw line that was not too pointed nor too rounded. His hair was a brilliant bloody red, a crimson no other person had been seen to wear before or since.
Sadly, no one accepted the young prince, thinking he was too strange for having no eyebrow hair at birth and always asking questions. Which is what Gaara did: he inquired every sort of topic he could think of, forever directing his inquiries at anyone who was a passerby. He wanted to know everything, wanted to gain all the knowledge he could. Some of his reason was curiosity, some of it to know how to fit in with the other villagers, and some reason being that he could surpass his father and be the next Kazekage in hopes of having people respect and worship him as well.
But he never got any answers.
So in the end, he turned to books. Gaara loved books. He'd read fiction and nonfiction and scrolls about ancient warriors and files on the people around him, discovering who got married when an who bought what cottage and who had how many children, and what their birthdays were. He learned a great many things, partly fantasy and partly history. There were even the records in books made by the experimenting scientists at the time, people who began to disprove the existence of Element Magic and the sorcerers and witches that spun those spells. They were out to disprove the existence of demons as well, thinking there to be no such thing as a nine-tailed fox or whatever else was out there.
Gaara attained all of this knowledge by the age of twelve, and soon he wondered what he could do with the earth element of magic. There was so much sand around him that how could he not be inquisitive enough to try? The scientists of his village would protest, but nothing could stop the boy. He studied the most he could on sand techniques, and before long he was able to perform a great many of magic spells in sand. His father found out, however, and was disgraced by such an act. His son is a sorcerer? His youngest son who wishes to succeed him messes around with unproven arts? Blasphemy! Rubbish! And yet, to his dismay, it was true. The Kazekage was furious and ashamed, and secretly sent for a witch to punish his foolish child.
Elder Chiyo, a forgotten old woman who lived with her brother in a temple halfway to Konoha (they had been banished for doing such magical arts) were summoned to the palace at once. Unbeknownst to Gaara, Temari, or Kankurou, their cherished little brother was about to leave them. For on a night chilling by desert standards, so cold it would snow if there had been moisture enough, Chiyo slipped into his bedroom like a ghost's shadow and carried out her orders. She did not wish to bestow the curse of the beast upon such a child, but his father's word was law and she could not refuse. If he wanted someone dead, if he wanted his own child to become a monster, then it was so.
Weaving a chant of unholy Earth Magic, Chiyo called to the demon Shukaku to take this boy in his image, punishment that would lead to abandon and riddance. The villagers had never liked Gaara anyway, but now, after what Chiyo has regretfully done by royal command, they would shun him forever.
Looking down at her desert raccoon creation, the old woman wept and begged the gods to be kind to her when her time came. As a parting gift to at least hint to the sleeping thirteen-year-old (it was his birthday that night) as to how to break such a curse, she burned onto his forehead the symbol for love, a red gash of lines that read 'ai'. She dabbed away the blood and removed the sandman sleeping spell she had cast before doing her business. Prior to leaving, Chiyo set on Gaara's bedside table a large hourglass, one that held tiny crystals of black sand from the volcanic beaches millions of miles away. It ticked off with a thin tickle of sand when Gaara's time to break his newly formed curse. Then, with retreating footsteps, Chiyo disappeared into the night back to her forest temple where her brother resided.
The next morning, the Great Tower was abuzz with shock and horror, save for Temari, Kankurou, and their father the Kazekage. He knew what had been done, so the king was not at all surprised, merely acted disgusted and calm. And though they were scared inwardly, Temari and Kankurou did not scream or run like all the servants. They knew that the small, ai-labeled version of the feared legendary demon Shukaku was their brother, for he still held the same blue-green eyes, even if those eyes were now surrounded in black like a panda. Temari cried bitterly and clung to Kankurou, too afraid to embrace the creature that stood before them with a spiked, deadly tail and pointed ears. "Why? Why have they done this to you, Gaara?" she begged, looking at him as her tears slowed.
The youngest sat in fetal position, his knees hugged tightly to his chest as he rocks back and forth, claws on his hands and odd-looking feet curling at the toes. "I do not know, sister," he replied, tears streaming down his ugly, ruined face. "Perhaps the gods are angry with me for toying with the Elemental Magicks."
Kankurou shook his head, refusing to cry but looking very broken. "I do not think so lowly of the gods to punish you in such a way," he told his siblings. "I believe a witch did this to you, perhaps sent by someone who is out to destroy our family and wear us down to take our throne. A young prince will now be cast from the palace, on father's order; I heard the guards speaking to one another about it. But we will visit you in secret, brother, and help you to make a home for yourself. With your skills, you could create your own castle out of sandstone, and we will transport furniture to you through the black market delivery men. They will assist us if we pay them enough."
"Kankurou…" Gaara breathed out, looking up at his older brother. "Thank you. Why you wish to help such a monster is beyond me, but I am grateful."
Temari nodded in agreement as she wiped her eyes. She bent down and gingerly placed a manicured-nailed hand on one of her baby brother's claws. "There must be a way to break your curse, Gaara. You've read countless books… what have they said about such evil actions? And what about that symbol on your head? It's in a language I do not know."
"It's Japanese writing," Gaara told her. "I read about such a written language in one of my books. It is not practiced around here or much of anywhere no longer. Though many people still speak the language, they cannot write it. But I can read it from my studies and know nearly all the symbols by heart. In the mirror it was backwards, but I'm sure this one is 'ai'."
"What does 'ai' mean?" the brunette asked the young teen.
The three fell silent after that. They did not say much of anything, all too lost in figuring out what to do. They had very little time, for at dawn the following day their father declared that his son, Gaara, was a monster, and needed to be either killed or sent away. Due to his sibling's protest, Gaara was allowed to live but had to find his own way in the desert. And so he did, yet he did not do it alone. Like promised, Temari and Kankurou lent a hand and in no time a castle far into the desert where no one ventures was made and furnished. One item – the hourglass – was placed in a high tower of the new castle in a room Gaara claimed as his bedroom, though he dared not sleep. He was afraid of lashing out in his nightmares and destroying what was around him, and also needed to stay awake for the spell that hid his castle from wandering souls.
If you were like Temari and Kankurou and fancied a visit to the beast they refer to as miniature Shukaku, then you must get lost in the desert with no intention of coming out alive. If you are thirsty, tired, and weak, you will be allowed into the Sand Magic barrier of Gaara's sandstone castle, promptly let in through the front gates.
And this leads us to fifty years since Gaara had been cursed, after Temari and Kankurou had grown quite old though not too much so, and when a thirty-seven-year-old man named Minato came along. He was a Hokage-to-be of Konohakagure, nearly a king with his queen Kushina, whom was a gorgeous strawberry blonde and all-around loving woman, in spite of her fierce attitude. One day Minato was on his way to his wife and child, his bright yellow-blonde hair bleaching in the sun as he wandered through the desert, getting completely lost. He should have taken better directions. His mission had been to converse with the Kazekage, his neighboring ruler and old enemy. But in the process he had gotten lost for three days and three nights in the light brown haze of the desert.
This is when he stumbled across Gaara's castle, immediately glorified to have found somewhere to get direction from and rest and drink. Inside there were no people, but an ice bath and water and food and bed had been all prepared, and he took it as a token of true hospitality. Minato ate until he was stuffed and drank water until he wet his pants and slept a full day. Being rejuvenated, he walked to the grand staircase that lead to the upstairs and called out, "Who, may I ask, is my host? Who saved me from death and cared for me when I was lost?"
A great, deep voice sounded from the top of the stairs, hidden from lack of lighting and proper angle. "It is I, Sabaku No Gaara, ex-prince of Suna and a monster by curse. I have lived here for fifty years and seemingly not aged one bit, and I have grown lonely and cold. But, being the prince I once was, I aided you out of respect because I can smell you are of royal blood. Who are you, stranger? And how do you plan on replaying your life debt?"
Minato was puzzled by such a speech, though he took a moment to think it through before answering. "I am Namikaze Minato, forthcoming Hokage of Konoha, husband to Uzumaki Kushina, and father of a young boy named Naruto."
"How old is your son?" Gaara asked lowly, his voice growing soft.
"He is merely twelve, Your Highness," the man informed the other.
At this, Gaara's deformed body shuddered slightly, remembering that such an age was when he began magic and soon after had been banished.
Minato paused and then continued: "And he is not ours, though he looks to be ours and everyone thinks he is. But my wife and I came across him when he was a newborn, and discovered the whiskers on his cheeks and birthmark of a fox's paw print on his right shoulder blade, meaning he is one of the Kitsune Clan. I wished he were mine, however; his hair is the right color and his eyes nearly are, and his face looks nearly exact to my wife's. It is a wonder she did not birth him herself." This was all true, because how can he lie to someone who saved his life?
Though at the mentioned of the Kitsune Clan, Gaara's interest sparked and he did not care if the man was telling a lie or the truth, so long as it had something to do with the legendary spawn of Kyuubi No Kitsune, who is said to have a human form and an animal form. The human form must be the cause of such a child. "Have you thought of a way to repay the debt of your life?" Gaara asked simply.
"No, I'm afraid I haven't."
The beast contemplates this, calculating that his body must be at least fifteen years old. That gave the man three years. "Well, I have thought of a way. Since he is not yours, let me have your son as a companion and friend, though he will not be allowed to leave. You have until he is fifteen to decide, and after that I will come out of hiding to kill you to repay your debt. It's either his life in my castle or your life in my hands. But let him choose, for I do not want a companion who is forced to come only by his father's will and cowardice."
Minato swallowed hard, and tears sprung to his eyes. "But I have raised him since birth! I love him as my own! You cannot take my son away from me…" and he drifted off, for his tears became too much.
"It is not your choice," Gaara retorted frostily. "It is his. Now go; my sand will carry you home so you do not get lost once more."
With that the glum middle-aged man head out, finding his packs stuffed with canteens of water and food for the journey, most likely put there when he had been sleeping. He returned to Konohakagure safely within a week. He opened the door to his home and cuddled his wife to his chest. He cried onto her shoulder, and she frowned at this. "Minato, my love, whatever is wrong?" Kushina asked. She pulled out of the embrace and stared with worried eyes into his cobalt orbs, hungry for information. "Did something happen on your trip? It took you an awfully long time to get home."
"Something great occurred, I regret to say," he sighed. The blonde waded over to the couch. His feet shuffled the whole way and as he slumped onto the cushions Kushina made a face.
"Pray tell what," she demanded. She placed her hands on her hips to show that she was being utterly serious.
Minato sighed again. "I got lost in the desert and came across a castle with a host who saved my life, but asked for something in return that I'm afraid I cannot give. He says it's Naruto's choice to make, and I dread what he chooses."
Shock came to her eyes and Kushina sat down so roughly beside him that the couch shook. "What choice?! Tell me the details, Minato!"
Minato sighed for a third time, his gaze avoiding her own. "Since it was my life he saved, it's my life he wants in three years unless Naruto agrees to go to his castle and be his companion, since he is very lonely and has been alone for fifty years now."
Hands flew to her mouth as Kushina gasped, her brain trying to comprehend the state of affairs they found themselves in. "So… either you die or our son is taken from us. Oh, oh… oh my. It's frankly a lose-lose situation."
He nodded gravely. Then Minato leaned forward on his hands as he rubbed out all the stress. "I have until Naruto is fifteen. After that, Sabaku No Gaara will kill me unless Naruto chooses to go. But in order for him to go, I'll have to tell him that he is not our son so that he understands better, and can make a more reasonable choice. He already knows of the coldness the adults save for Iruka, Tsunade, Kakashi and Jiraiya direct at him, and I'm sure he feels the reluctance of the other children even if they do not quite know his origins. Still, as much of a reason he may have for leaving, I'd rather die than give him up. So I will not state a word of this to him until he is fourteen and a few months away from fifteen. I want as much time with him being oblivious about this as possible. Then, according to his decision, I will act."
"Act? Act how?"
Minato glanced up at his wife and grinned sadly. "I'm not sure, but I'll do something, Kushina."
Departure is Such Sweet Sorrow
Naruto walks through the streets of Konoha, his stomach pleasantly full of noodles and a grin on his face. It was sunny today and the birds were singing, the grass was freshly cut and smelled delicious, and everything was right in the young teen's world.
Until he heard what his parents had to say.
"Naruto, sweetie, could you sit down please?" his mother asks with a foreboding look on her features.
"What is it, Mother? Is something the matter?" Naruto questions as he takes a seat in the kitchen.
Kushina paces the length of the kitchen floor, Minato leaning against the stove. "Let me tell him, dear."
She nods and dabs at her eyes, though no tears could be seen. "Alright."
Naruto glances up at his father. The man lets out a long, low breath before launching into the topic he has been dreading for years now. "Naruto… there are a few things you need to know." The teen nods, awaiting his father's news. The Hokage fidgets in his stance and doesn't keep eye contact for very long. "First, we found you abandoned as a baby, you are not ours by blood. We love you as such, and care for you and forget half the time that you are not ours, but this illusion we can only keep up until we are remembered by the birthmark on your shoulder and the whiskers on your face that you are not Naruto Uzumaki, though you've been referred to this name since you were an infant. Naruto, your real name is Naruto No Kitsune, the tag we found on your ankle when you were left in the woods near Konohakagure. And I tell you this because some odd years ago I became lost in the desert. Clearly my life had been saved, but it was by a beast – a monster – by the name of Gaara. He asked that I either give him my own life in 3 years or send you to him to be his friend. But it is your choice to make, not mine, else I would have died rather than give you away. You are my only child, Naruto, and I love you even if you are not in my bloodline."
It took a lengthy amount of time for Naruto to take all of this information in and sort it out. When he finally had, this was what he had to say: "So it is my choice, now, to leave on my fifteenth birthday to this Gaara fellow or let him take your life. Am I correct?"
The older blonde nods, swallowing the lump in his throat. "Yes, son."
"Then of 'course I choose to leave. I will not have you be killed, even if you are not my true father. Mother needs you and so does Konoha, which I know never liked me much anyhow. So I will go, and I will befriend this so-called monster. If I am one of the Kitsune, then I am a monster as well, and I can empathize with this boy."
Naruto's words stung Kushina and Minato with a pain so strong in their hearts that the woman of the two fell to her knees. "Oh, my baby, my brave baby boy… I am honored to have raised such a brave son." She crawls over (too weak with grief to stand) and places her arms around his neck. "Naruto, I love you, and I will miss you so much. Once you leave you cannot come back, Minato told me, but I will try to visit you in secret."
"There, there," Naruto comforts, rubbing her back in small circles. "I shan't think it wise for you to visit me in the middle of the desert, because I do not want you to die. So please, stay here and merely dream of me, and keep our family painting close. I love you as well, and I will not let you down. I shall grow up apart from you and be saddened with homesickness and heartache, but I shall grow up strong. Someday, if Sabaku No Gaara allows, I will return and visit for a while, perhaps permanently. If so, I will be Hokage just like Father!"
The strawberry blonde smiles through her tears as she looks up at her adopted son. Being strengthened by his words, she is able to stand again, and Minato takes her in his arms. "You have two months to prepare yourself, Naruto. Tell all your comrades – Sakura, Sasuke, Shikamaru, Lee, Kiba, TenTen, Neji, Ino, Chouji, Hinata, Shino, and all your sensei's that you will be parting to live in Suna, which may be a lie, but at least they will think you are safe."
"Yes, Father. I will do so."
And he did. He told all of them the next week about his departure in a couple months. Sakura and Hinata seemed to be the most affected, Hinata turning red and crying and Sakura getting angry with him for deciding this all of a sudden. Sasuke acted as though he didn't care; when in truth he was just as hurt as Sakura and Hinata and all the others. Naruto was like his brother, and Sasuke cared deeply for him. So with each goodbye Naruto grew depressed and embraced each of his comrades, preparing him never to see them again.
As the time arrived for him to pack his bags for the mysterious castle, Naruto counted two nights prior to his fifteenth birthday. It would take him approximately a week to travel to his destination, and he only hoped that Gaara allowed enough time after that three-year mark for him to arrive before he sent out to kill the Hokage.
He hardly needed to worry about this, though; as he grew desperate and sick while wandering the desert, falling unconscious during a sandstorm, he was suddenly right in front of the gates of the great sandstone castle. Gaara's Earth Magic carried the limp body inside on a bed of sand, laying him in his new bedroom that Gaara had prepared in case the teen had decided to come.
Gaara noticed fondly that he was a true kit of the Kitsune clan, bearing the whiskered face as foretold by Minato and the purple-red birthmark of the Fire Element on his back. Being careful no to scratch the blonde, Gaara bent down and touched the mark with the rough pad of his palm, keeping his claws far from flesh. To his surprise, the sleeping face made a smile and a giggle sprouted from his lips at the lightness of the touch, and Gaara jumped back. He had not heard a sound like that since he was a child and would listen to the children playing in the streets of his village.
Immediately, the beast's heart softened and he found that this other boy could indeed be the one to break his curse if he gave him time. It may take years, but Gaara could wait.
Being gentle, Gaara cleaned the sandy residue from the blonde's skin while he slept and cooled his feverish body and wet his cracked lips with honey balm. He also poured water into the other's mouth, hoping some fluids would wake him from his dehydrated slumber.
Two days subsequent to Naruto's arrival, the nurturing worked, and Gaara came to visit from another insomniac night to find a blonde sitting up in bed, eyes open and blinking, as he took in his surroundings. Cautious so not to be seen, Gaara hid behind Naruto's open door. He was in the hallway and out of the blue-eyed teen's line of sight. "Good morning, Naruto."
Naruto looks to where the ornate voice had come from, his gaze falling to the door. "Good morning," he says brightly. The voice seemed kind enough, much too lovely to be a monster's, for it was deep and low, but soft in volume. "Where are you? I know you are Sabaku No Gaara, because my father had told me so. Are you invisible? I cannot see you. Come out, even if you are a known as a monster."
"I do not wish to frighten my companion away, so I will remain hidden," Gaara replies. In that moment he wanted nothing more than to have his curse lifted, at least to show Naruto how human he can be.
"I will not be afraid," the kitsune child says, pulling off his covers and resting his feet on the carpet below. "If you had been nice enough to nurse me back to life, then surely you are not so frightening."
"How can you say such a thing when you are prisoner to my castle? I am not as 'nice' as you make me out to be when I am the reason for you coming thus far and nearly dying."
"I do not blame you, Gaara," Naruto replies sweetly. "You only wanted a friend, correct? I was once alone, too. I could not see why, but after what my father has told me, it makes sense: like you, I am a monster, the spawn of a demon. No doubt you've seen the birthmark on my right shoulder blade; that is the mark of the Kitsune Clan, father says. The mark of the Kyuubi." He stands and tiptoes to the door, hiding on the opposing side of the wood. "So I can empathize, even if I would not have come if given the choice."
Gaara nods once, smelling that the boy was closer to him than before. Suddenly, the blonde tears the door from behind his host and shuts it, the two left standing in the hallway, staring at one another.
At first, there is only alarm and amazement in the kitsune's eyes, and Gaara looks down. "So now you see me for what I am, for what my curse has done to my once human body. Are you repulsed?"
Much to his surprise, Gaara feels a hand touching his face. His eyes dart to the blonde's face, which was now two feet away. "No, I am not. Albeit a tad afraid of what your claws and teeth could do, but I am not disgusted. I saw a picture in a book once of the demon Shukaku, and you look very similar to him, though your eyes – as emotionless as they seem – are gentler. I am not disgusted at all. If anything, I am curious. You skin feels hard like leather or sand-torn flesh, and your ears…" the hand drifts from Gaara's cheek and jaw to the top of his head there two pointed ears sat. "They remind me of a desert raccoon, only without fur. Strange, but intriguing."
"You are a very accepting person, Naruto," the beast breathes out, his cruel heart beating rapidly.
"I always have been," Naruto says in reply, taking his hand off the other. "And I'm always hungry. What do you have to eat, friend?"
"I have a large supply of noodles to make into soup, since they keep well out here," he mentions.
The teen's face lights up. "Perfect, I love noodles!"
And so the two ventured downstairs, and Gaara cooked (making quite the mess due to his clumsy claws) them lunch. Shaking slightly, Naruto sat down and ate, trying to hide all the fear he's been sensing ever since he laid eyes on his host. He didn't want Gaara to know how afraid he was; what if the other got angry and never let him leave? What if he struck the boy for being repulsed by his ugly looks? So Naruto put on his smiling default character, attempting to stuff his fear away and take on his other emotions, like curiosity (which he is indeed very curious).
While they ate, Naruto would every so often glance up to stare at the blood red scar above the other's left brow. Finally, at the end of their meal, he asked: "Gaara, what does that symbol mean? I have seen others like it before from sometime in my past."
"You would have; the Kitsune Clan is one of the few who keep up the old ways and write the Japanese language. If you must know, it is 'ai', the symbol for love. Whoever cursed me laid it there."
"I cannot tell you." Gaara sighs, and despite his appearance, Naruto liked the melodic breath that made up that sigh.
"It is against my curse to tell others how to break it; I have tried numerous times with my siblings since I figured out how, yet every time I go to speak my jaw becomes clamped shut and I can't." He explains, picking up their dishes and going to wash them.
"I see," Naruto replies dimly, disappointed that he cannot know. Realization stuck him. "Is that why I'm here? To break your curse?"
The Sand Sorcerer twirls around, blinking. "So you came to that conclusion already?" A twisted smile grazes his features, though it would be much more handsome is he were still human. In this body, however, it simply looked evil. Naruto involuntarily shudders, and Gaara's grin disappears. He clears his throat. "But yes, that is part of the reason why you are here: I hope you may break the curse. That is not my only intention, however."
The blonde nods. "I understand."
'Can you?' Gaara is about to say, but stops himself. In place of the question he asks another. "Do you love me?"
Naruto No Kitsune looks very confused for a moment, his charming teenaged face contorting with a puzzled expression. "I only just met you, Gaara, and you honestly make me uneasy. So my answer is: no, I do not love you."
Gaara nods, expecting this, but he had to ask. The sole method of breaking his curse is to have someone (a stranger) tell him that they love him, and are in love with him. Upon seeing this boy, Gaara's heart clenched and he fell for him, and even more so when he woke up to flash cerulean blue orbs and a smile, and more yet when the boy accepted his face and touched it, a feat even his sister could not do. The beast has not known such a feeling, yet he knew what he got within those short moments was love for the fox child. "I'm sorry to hear that," he tells Naruto. "Because I love you."
Oddly, a wave of red made a strip across whiskered cheeks and the bridge of his nose. "Wh…what?" he sputters, his face falling open like a blank, unseeing page. "How… how can you, when you do not know me?"
"I needn't know you to love you," Gaara replies gently. "I can feel it from merely seeing your face and feeling your hand on my demented flesh. A monster I may be on the outside, I bear a human heart on the inside, and after fifty years it has softened at the sight of you. Hence, I am already in love with you." He pauses, watching the multiple expressions that cross Naruto's face. Then, while walking passed the boy and heading back to his room in the highest tower, Gaara mutters: "But I can understand why you don't want to love me, and I am not angry. I am glad you told the truth as well; at least you are not so terrified that you would lie to not be hurt. I will never hurt you, no matter what you say or do to me. But if you leave, I will have to kill your father; his debt is still his debt."
And with that he is gone, and Naruto is left alone in the dining room, his thoughts racing at hurricane speeds. Does his lifting of the curse require my love, or is he simply saying that because it's true and has nothing to do with the curse? Yet the word love is etched onto his forehead… Can I ever love him? Perhaps as a friend, but can I ever be in love with him? No, I think not. But fate is unpredictable and cruel, so who knows?
Slowly, Naruto paced up the steps of the grand staircase, wondering if he should explore or return to his room (which he remembers is to the left and down a few doors, near a bathroom). In the end he chose 'explore', for he was interested to see what sort of secrets he could find.
In his wanderings, Naruto found an art room, a storage closet, another bathroom, a study, another living room with a fireplace, and the greatest discovery of all on the second floor: a vast library to the right of the grand staircase. It was an entire wing apart from a small laundry room, and it held shelves upon shelves of books, scrolls, and files. Another fireplace was in this room, along with some comfortable-looking chairs and some small kitchenette for making tea and something like muffins or sticks of pocky or cookies. Obviously this was Gaara's favorite room, and where he probably spent most of his time.
Up in a tower not nearly as high as Gaara's but in the same wing as Naruto's room, there was a greenhouse filled with real grass, mossy rocks, a waterfall, flowers and small tress, and same shrubbery. It was like a whole other world the way it sat so apart from the desert raging outside. It rivaled the library for greatness, for Naruto loved greenery over knowledge. Yes, this was certainly his most favorite place in his new home, and he expected to visit often. The only thing missing was butterflies and birds, but other than that it was like a slightly more humid version of home.
Living Amongst the Beast
This greenhouse room was where Gaara would come to if he needed to find Naruto when the blonde was absent from his bedroom in the weeks to come since that first full day.
One day, about five months since Naruto left home, Gaara found Naruto in the green room sitting up in a three, tying something. "What are you making, Naruto?"
The blonde ducked his head below the leaves of the small tree at the (technically, though not physically) older boy. "I am in the process of making a swing. I found some old wood and rope, and together I have created… this!" he tells Gaara with a grunt, sending the swing cascading down from the branch he sat on. A poorly made two-seater swing swung and bounced into being, looking a bit unstable.
"That's wonderful," Gaara smiles, but remembering how Naruto reacted to his first smile, and cut it off. He kept his voice light, however, to show his sincerity.
Over the passed few months, Naruto had gotten used to Gaara's strange appearance, as ugly as it was. He even was used to the questions, which Gaara asked every night. 'Do you love me?' he'd always ask. And, hesitantly because he knew it'd hurt, Naruto would say, 'no, I do not love you'.
"Would you like to swing with me?" Naruto offers, though it was out of being polite. As adjusted to his looks as Naruto was, he wasn't completely sure that he'd want to be so close to the monster.
"You… want me to?" Gaara clarifies slowly.
"Yes," Naruto smiles, though his teeth were not showing, which Gaara has come to learn as a sign that he was being soft and polite.
"Very well; I will swing with you, though I cannot guarantee that I won't break it."
"You're a lot less destructive than you think," the kitsune reassures, his smile still in place.
Gaara takes his long strides over the mossy rock stepping stones to the miniature oak, stunted in growth so not to get too large overhead or too deep into the sandy soil. Once he's ahead of the swing, he waits as Naruto climbs down onto it, testing his weight.
"It feels adequate enough… Here, Gaara, come sit." Naruto speaks so quietly that he's on the brink of whispering. He shuffles to the far end and pats the part of wooden plank beside him. "Because of your claws, perhaps you shouldn't grip the rope. We won't sail quite as high, but we shall be able to rock in place and swing idly."
The other nods and comes to seat himself, imperceptibly wincing at the creaking noise the handmade swing made. "I would hate for your work to come undone because of me. Perhaps I should…"
"No, Gaara, it's alright. Just swing with me," the blonde beams, reclining his head and pushing off the ground.
The ex-prince released his own grasp on the dirt and let his stocky legs hang, his tail whipping to and fro contently behind them like a dog. He looked over at Naruto, his stomach fluttering and his heart racing as he watched the other slide as the swing moved to bump thighs. If he were human, a blush would have formed on the contact. Instead, he squirmed in his own skin, a shudder creeping down his spine. Even if his curse was never lifted, Gaara was more than happy to spend whatever time he had with this blue-eyed beauty adjacent to him.
"You're cold," Naruto mutters as their legs meet in the middle of the seat. He slows their swinging to a small rocking motion. "Why is your skin so cold? It was noticeably cooler than my own when I first touched you months ago, but…" He looked to his keeper with worried eyes. "Are you feeling up to snuff? You aren't coming down with an illness, are you, Gaara?"
Gaara's brows puckered and his aqua eyes fell to the ground. "No, but I am dying bit by bit. Here, let me show you something in my quarters," he informs the other. "It's been five months now. You should know the whole story."
"Know what?" the kitsune panics, hopping off the swing as Gaara stands.
He does not reply, merely begins walking. Naruto jogs to keep up with his long strides, making an effort to stay in pace. They walk down the stairs and corridors to the opposing tower, the one where Naruto had been forbidden to enter. Gaara has no door on his room, the blonde realizes. Instead, a dark purple velvet curtain hangs from a brass pole, and as Gaara yanks it back, Naruto's eyes are filled with the sight of deep, rich colors and his nostrils are filled with the smell of desert roses, honey, pine, cinnamon, and faintly blood. It was a welcoming scent and Naruto inhaled a couple times, for a moment closing his eyes. Save for the swing, he had never been close enough to Gaara to catch his scent, and since he lacked hair it was hard for him to hold any sort of smell. But his room… his room was full of smells, and the way they melded together was heavenly.
The monster saw how the kitsune reacted, and another smile touched his pupiless eyes. "Over here," he says evenly, gesturing to his bedside table. Naruto follows his lead and is handed a heavy hourglass. He shifts it weight in his hands and frowns at the black sand within, and observes how it is halfway timed out. "It goes forever in one direction, no matter how many times I flip it over. It will flow the same path even upside-down, and even with all my Earth Magicks I cannot make the flow stop. I have calculated over the years that it is counting from 100, a complete century of life. Apparently, that is how long I have before I die in this form, least I break the curse and become human. At that point I will be but a few years older than when I had the spell cast on me in the first place."
"So… how old are you right now, Gaara? I am merely fifteen…" Naruto says, his handsome features in that frown from when he had been handed the hourglass.
"Since having this form I am fifty-two, but since birth I am sixty-four. No, wait, I am mistaken; the night I was cursed it was my birthday. January… so, I am sixty-five or fifty-three, depending on which you count. In body if turned human, I would be your age, though a bit worse for wear." Gaara explains, his monstrous face in a thoughtful expression.
Naruto blinks a few times. He sets the hourglass back on the end table and promptly scratches his cheek. "Gee, that is awfully old, and confusing… if you were human, you would be like me, but right now you're not. You could be my grandfather the way you are now."
"For the most part, yes."
Out of nowhere the teen begins laughing, and Gaara is taken aback. How is this amusing? He watches as the blonde bends down, clutching his stomach as he chuckles airily. He lifts his head when the laughter settles, grinning with his overly-sized canine teeth showing. "It's all so ludicrous! I never knew such a thing could be done! It's quite strange, but very intriguing."
Naruto nods, a truthful expression on his face.
"Humph; I've never thought of it that way," Gaara grumbles, not at all feeling like his curse was 'intriguing'. He sighs, looking at the setting sun on the horizon. "I'm going to stay here. Why don't you go back to the swing for a while?"
"Oh, uh… sure. Yes, I shall do that."
The kitsune child took that as his signal to leave, but as he was lifting the curtain, Gaara speaks again.
"Naruto… Do you love me?"
The blonde winces, for he was hoping Gaara wouldn't ask tonight. But no, he always asks. He makes a halfway turn, one eye peering over his shoulder at the ex-prince, whom was currently staring at him intently for an answer. "I cannot say tonight, Gaara."
This is new… it was something he had never said in reply until tonight. Gaara stares at him a moment longer, watching as tears form and seem to slip into the air off the tanned face as he turns and flees from the tower, racing downward with the clatter of quick feet.
It is hurting him, Gaara understands. In the past the question puzzled him, yet tonight it hurt him. He is regretting the question and not liking to have to tell me 'no'. If that is the case, then I shall only ask it on occasion now. Once a week sounds appropriate.
And he did. For the next four months, at the end of every week, when Naruto was about to go to bed, Gaara would ask the question. "Do you love me?"
The answers differed, each of them saying something that was neither 'yes' or 'no'. "I cannot say, Gaara." "I'm too tired, Gaara." "Ask me tomorrow, Gaara." "Please, not now, Gaara."
Finally, a year passed.
And a week after having Naruto in his home for the year anniversary, Gaara walked passed Naruto's room since he had not shown for breakfast. He knocks on the door. "Naruto?"
"Come in if you like," is the dull, dreary reply.
"Are you sick?" is the first thing the monster asks, coming to sit in a chair near Naruto's bed.
"Yes; I am homesick," he emphasizes, turning his gaze on Gaara to reveal puffy red eyes. He had been crying all morning, Gaara figures out with a sickening flip in his stomach. "I miss Mother. I miss Father. I miss Sasuke and Sakura and all my other comrades. I miss the cool breeze that would sweep through Konoha, and I miss swimming in the lake during the summer and I miss the snow that would come cascading down from the grey clouds in the sky. And I never thought I would, but I even miss annoying little Konohamaru and bossy Granny Tsunade and perverse old Jiraiya. I miss everything, and for it I am in grief."
If there was ever a time Gaara desired to embrace someone, it was in this moment with Naruto watery-eyed in front of him. And if there was ever a time when he desired to do something unusual, this was it. "Naruto…"
The teen looks up at him, blue orbs locking with cool seafoam. "What?"
"I love you, and because seeing you in pain hurts me, I will allow you to visit your home on one condition." Gaara says slowly, not once breaking eye contact. "And that condition is to return to me within half a year."
"Half a year? That long?" Naruto perks up, his voice sounding hopeful.
Gaara looked away finally. He puts a claw to his head, running it over his ears as if he had hair. "It will hurt me and run down my hourglass by a good twenty years if you stay the entire half year, but it is a chance I am willing to take, a risk I'm willing to stake, for you."
"…Gaara…" Naruto says gently, a tone to his voice the ex-prince has never heard. It was like that night (where his usual 'no' response changed) all over again. Gaara heard Naruto pull back the sheets and get off the bed, but he did not expect the hands that came around his left claw and fisted it, bringing the sandy-colored hard flesh to a warm chest. Under his monstrous knuckles, Gaara could feel a heart beating. His own heart sped up to impossible speeds, like a rabbit's while running through a flowery meadow. "Ask me."
"You haven't asked yet this week. Ask me the question."
Gaara grew puzzled. He knew what question Naruto meant. What he didn't know was why he wanted it asked at this very moment, or why the blonde had raised his fist to his bare chest. Once again the human emotion of blushing was denied the beast, though he knew he would be doing such a thing at this time. "Do… Do you… love me?" he breathed out hesitantly, his low, rumbling voice for once unable to make out the four simple words.
"I do, dear friend." The kitsune beamed. He truly felt it in his heart that he loved Gaara with the friendship sort of love that one feels for people close to them. Naruto cocks his head. "What's wrong? Isn't the curse broken now?"
The miniature Shukaku's head slumped and his answer came at a measured rate. "No, now there is a innovative question for me to ask, I regret to inform you."
The blonde's face falls. His eyes pool with tears since he did not save his friend yet and since the 'innovative question' may be worse (meaning more difficult to answer) than the last. Acting strong, Naruto poses: "I can handle whatever you ask, Gaara. What is the new question?"
"Are you in love with me?"
His grip on Gaara's claw falters and his arms fall limp and numb at his sides, along with his jaw. "I… I…" he starts, but sighs. The tears from earlier began spilling over as he closes his lids. "No, I am not."
Naruto hears a sharp breath be taken in, though not let out. He almost was about to open his eyes and force Gaara to breathe when he hears him speak. "I know." There is a pause in which Naruto feels his heart drop to his toes. Then his keeper is speaking again: "Why don't I escort you to the kitchen for a late breakfast? I'm sure you're famished. Tonight I will pack your bags and send you with a sand guide back to your place of origin. Remember to come back to me after half a year, Naruto. And if you come sooner, then I shan't ask you that second question ever again."
The trip took barely over a week. It was raining sheets of soft, cold droplets in Konoha when Naruto came walking in through the front gates. He tilted his head back and grinned with arms outstretched as the rain washed over his body, sending shivers down his spine. But it felt so cleansing and nostalgic that the blonde hardly minded.
The time came when he was outside his parent's front door. Indecisively he knocked, though he wanted to burst right in and squeeze his parents tightly. However, he simply waited as footsteps echoed and someone came to the door. "Hello, who –" his mother's voice said, but before she could ask who it was, she saw with her own eyes and gasped loudly, then started crying. "Naruto! Oh, Naruto! Naruto, you've come back to us!"
Kushina leapt into her adopted son's arms, shoving off his backpack and other miscellaneous items so that she may feel his increased height and toned muscles and breathing lungs and beating heart. "Mother…"
"Did that monster let you go, sweetie? What happened? What does he look like? Did he hurt you?" Kushina fired off, asking as many questions as her lungs allowed in one breath. Her tongue swelled in her mouth as she forced herself to not cry a second time.
The blonde smiled sweetly at the woman clinging to him. "Perhaps you should let me inside first and make some tea, Mother. And when Father gets home, I can answer any question you see fit to ask."
Kushina grins weakly, beginning to pull him inside. "Yes, yes; quite right, quite right."
An hour later, steaming mug of tea in hand and both parents awaiting answers, Naruto took a thoughtful sip and prepared himself. Minato, being a sort of king in this land, immediately pushed back all appointments for the next day, requesting – no, more like demanding – that he be home now that his son had returned. "Why don't you open with your reason for coming home, eh?" Minato says gently.
Naruto nods, finishing another sip. He wipes his mouth and licks his lips, and then tells the two: "I was feeling horribly homesick, and from the kindness in the bottom of his heart, Gaara bid me passage home for half a year, though I can go back to him in shorter time if I like."
The older blonde frowns at this. "Kindness? He is not very kind, Naruto. He threatened me and made you prisoner! He is a monster…"
"He is human," Naruto says lowly. "At least, he was. And I believe still is underneath the face he wears. Father, tell me: isn't the human race merely a pack of monsters in disguise? It has such disgusting, sinful properties, and I see nothing different if one person holds the look of what all our inner demons resemble. Or real demons, for that matter," he adds, referring to the Shukaku.
His parents sat in silence for a moment. "My, Naruto, you have matured a great deal," Kushina says after some time. "Your opinions are justified and very strong. I respect that, though I beg to differ. Human and sinful we may be, this Gaara is not like us any longer. And who are you to call upon the human race as if you are not apart of it? You're confusing me," she murmurs honestly with the shake of her head.
"Mother, I cannot deny the information Father told to me a year and some months ago when I was fourteen. I am not fully human, but one of the Kitsune Clan."
Minato nods gravely in agreement. "He has a point, love."
"I know, but we raised him like any other human, so I thought…" Kushina whispers. She was going vaguely into shock at how her son has changed from such a happy-go-lucky, innocent boy to this intellectual, serious sixteen-year-old man. Was this the beast's doing? And has the beast changed as well to something less heartless because of her son's doing?
Silence fell like a thick theatre curtain, and Naruto took this time to drink a third of his warm beverage.
The Hokage converses first. "Clearly Sabaku No Gaara did you no harm. I am glad."
"He would never," Naruto states rather oddly. His tone was unidentifiable to his parents, yet he kept talking in it. "He even told me so the first day. In addition, he has become my dearest friend. He is very knowledgeable, having read a vast count of books."
"I wouldn't have guessed," Kushina mumbles into her mug, which had been raised to her lips but not drank from. She pauses. "What does he look like?"
Naruto glances downward. "His body looks much like a teeny version of the Ichibi demon, though his eyes are human and he bears a red scar on his left brow in the shape of the symbol for love."
Naruto smiles faintly. "Indeed." His gaze revisits them at this point, and he continues. "Specifically, Gaara's monstrous flesh is the color of sand with dark purple designs like veins scrolled across. He has pointed ears on the top sides of his head, a long spikes tail and large clawed hands. His teeth are angular and sharp, his nose is tiny with slit nostrils, and he has too big of feet. But despite this, he walks gracefully and as clumsy as it is with his claws, he is able to cook and perform most any everyday task. His eyes are the most telling part of him, though: they are rimmed in black for he does not sleep, though the soft teal that makes up his nearly pupiless human eyes express all his emotion even if his tone of voice and facial muscles do not."
The pictures in the two adult's minds were strange; it both frightened them and made them wonder. The manner of which Naruto spoke… even he sounded a tad afraid, yet the majority of his wordless emotions seemed to be very fond.
"Naruto… you speak of your keeper peculiarly. You were held captive for a year and even now are being forced back in a few months, he has a body capable to lose control and wound you, and yet you say he is your friend!" Minato exclaims, his voice rising. To the village leader, this sounded like a case of Stockholm syndrome.
"Minato, calm yourself," Kushina hushes, laying her arm on her husband's forearm.
A deadpanned face covers Naruto's features. His mouth goes into a defensive, thin line as his brows pucker. "Father, you do not know Gaara; he is not as bad as you think! And he is not merely my friend or companion like he originally intended, but he is my dearest friend. He understands me in ways I don't think any of the others here have dared to try. It must have been fate that day; for I believe I was meant to meet Gaara."
"Don't talk like that," the Hokage snaps. "Clearly he brainwashed you. He is not kind, Naruto, else he would have helped me with no debt, or would not have threatened to kill me, or would not have taken you from us." He pauses. "However…" Minato breathes with an exhale. "You are here now. Please, do not go back, stay here and live out your life as if that year had never happened, son. Be here with us in your true home."
The blonde teen said nothing, simply sat and finished off the remainder of his tea.
Weeks passed, and Naruto said not a word concerning his permanent stay in Konoha. He instead would visit with friends, play games, go swimming, eat noodles from the restaurant he likes best, and do all the things he said he missed.
Time grew short. Weeks became months, and months became many. All the while Gaara sat cooped up in his room, staring sleepily at the hourglass as it sped up and counted the months. The black grains fell between a thin chasm of crystal clear glass, slipping down in a constant stream to the lower half, landing atop the particles that had fallen previously. It was a miserable, addicting, consoling, desperate act to merely sit and watch, but it was just about the only thing the ex-prince could do as he waited for his beloved to return to him… if he remembered, that is. And it was that sliver of hope that kept Gaara eating and alive. Although, with each passing day, his cruel heart ached a little more.
At the mark between four and five months, Naruto could take it no longer. Things here in his hometown… they were different, even the people. No one acted quite the same to him, as if they thought he had abandoned them. And his parents… they kept saying that this is where he belonged and where he should stay, but he could not leave Gaara forever. He knew part of that loneliness the beast held, for he had felt the same thing as a child before his first friends. And the blonde had not liked it at all. So who was he to neglect the dear person in the desert who loves him?
That night, the very hour between the aforementioned four and five months, the kitsune made a decision. He gathered his parents together and spoke softly, his cerulean blue eyes refusing to make contact. Fiery strawberry blonde hair and yellow-gold sat side by side on the living room furniture, but this is all Naruto could see. He did not peer at their facial expression nor listen to their protests. "I am going back to the castle with Gaara. I do not feel as welcome here as I used to, and I… I do not wish to leave him alone, not again."
His parents sit in silence for a few moments. His mother's demeanor around everyone but he and his father is strong, tough, and a bit cheeky if anything else. Yet here Kushina was, about to cry for the umpteenth time due to her son. But she understood from the bottom of her heart. Sniffing back her tears, she replies: "Yes, Naruto; if that is what you feel you must do, then I cannot stop you."
Minato sighs heavily. "I suppose I cannot stop you, either. Take care of yourself, my boy. We will miss you ever more, and pray that you will come back to us again someday."
Naruto submits to his urge to look into their eyes, and a bright grin like the sun graces his lips, reminding them of when he was a carefree child. "Thank you. I will pack my possessions tomorrow and leave the following morning."
So he did. Whatever it was he brought he took with him for a second time, and on that packing day he said more goodbyes to his acquaintances of every age. They were shocked to hear that he was leaving so soon, but nodded and smiled warmly as he parted ways with them.
It took over a week before Naruto was wandering, utterly lost, in the desert, calling out with a dry, coughing voice for Gaara in the middle of a blistering sandstorm. Precisely like the first time, the kitsune boy thought with an ironic smile. There had been a sandstorm the first time he came around…
Suddenly, and much unlike the first time (since he had became unconscious then), arms were around him, cradling him bridal style. Naruto peered up through the windy storm to see the horrid face of his cursed friend, though the look in his human eyes made Naruto unafraid, and instead incredibly appreciative.
Gaara carried the weary, dehydrated sixteen-year-old into the castle, setting him comfortably on the nearest couch, being vigilant with his claws so not to maim the other. "You came back early," the beast murmured softly in shock. He had not thought Naruto would do such a thing.
With a lopsided smile, eyes half-lidded from exhaustion, the kitsune replied with a hoarse voice: "And not because you promised to never ask that question again… But because this is my true home, now."
Gaara blinked once, staring down at the teen in wonder as he fell surely asleep. He cares about me, were the only words to form in his mind. The Sand Sorcerer collapsed to his knees, not realizing how much exertion he put on his body from hardly eating and moving for so long.
He watched with a peaceful gaze as he beloved slept, and wondered idly what to do when he awoke. I should have noodles and a hot bath prepared, he considers. That sounded sufficient enough.
After a half hour longer, Gaara stood and walked to the kitchen, whipping up a big batch of extra-noodle soup to keep warm over the stove. He then marched up the stairs to the bathroom near Naruto's room, setting up a relaxing bath for the poor blonde. Once his tasks were complete, Gaara revisited the sleeping form. Gingerly he raised a hand and brushed his knuckles across a whiskered cheek, a small sigh escaping his lips. Why did fate have to be so cruel as to give him an angel that he can do nothing for?
Tan lids flutter and blink, and Gaara jumps backwards in his own skin, pulling his hand away quickly. "You're awake," he states.
Naruto squints up at the voice, which sounded vaguely startled. "Gaara?"
The beast casts his eyes to the side, turning his head to the point where his kanji symbol is plainly seen, and not much of his other brow. "I made you food, and a bath, if you'd like them." He informs the other hesitantly, somehow feeling embarrassed. He wasn't used to the tone Naruto just used for his name.
The blonde grins tiredly. "That was very sweet of you. I'll take the bath first, please."
Gaara nods up the stairs. "It's in the bathroom near your room."
"You are not so distant now," Naruto remarks with a dry throat as he sits up, his worn leg muscles trembling. "Normally you would leave to your room by now."
A smile touches Gaara's black-rimmed eyes. "I missed you," he tells the blonde, as if that explained everything.
How He Changed the Beast
At Naruto's seventeenth birthday, visitors came. They were an ancient-looking couple of at least seventy years old, one a male with a bit of brown hair left in his silver and the other a fair blonde-silver female. They shuddered at the sight of Gaara but grinned nonetheless. Their names were Temari and Kankurou, royal blood from Sunakagure, and they were Sabaku No Gaara's siblings.
"Hello, it's a pleasure to meet you! I am Naruto No Kitsune." The blonde teen grins, extending his hand.
Kankurou gives a complacent smile. "So you are part of the famous Kitsune Clan, eh? I am not surprised. It takes something inhuman to befriend something inhuman, I suppose."
Temari, without missing a beat, smacks her younger brother on the back of the head with a closed fan in her shriveled hand. They acted young for their age. "Do not say such rude things, brother!" she scolds. Then she turns to Naruto. "Hello. I am Temari, and this daft man beside me is Kankurou."
From there on out, things went smoothly. Although Naruto noticed that Gaara acted much colder and distant to them than he did to the kitsune. If he ever doubted the monster's confession of love, he didn't now; Gaara must be in love with him to show such kindness and warmth around him and yet show nothing special towards these two whom were Gaara's own family. He merely sat there, blank-faced, as Naruto and his siblings conversed.
They were to stay a week prior to heading back to Suna, a fact which Naruto could tell Gaara both liked and didn't like, yet insisted on despite his companions conflicted feelings.
On the third day of the week, Kankurou entertained everyone with puppets, Temari chuckling and clapping, Naruto smiling and playing along. On the fifth day of the week, Naruto convinced them all – even Gaara – to picnic up in the greenhouse tower. It was then that he showed the two elderly siblings his swing from nearly two years prior, and pushed them while they sat side by side and Gaara observed their enjoyment from a distance. On the sixth day Naruto helped the two pack and they read poems aloud in the library. Gaara was coaxed into reading one, and was agreed to read them the best. Temari, looking sheepish, asked him to read another. She closed her eyes this time around, and to Naruto's surprise, silent tears slipped down her wrinkled face while she listened. To her, the kitsune guessed, it was like hearing her young brother as he used to be before his curse, or perhaps what he would be without the curse. She was most likely picturing a human body for him in her head, and was wrought with sorrow at the thought, knowing he may never break free of the sandy spell which bound him. And on the final day…
"Gaara, we did not want to tell you when we first arrived for we feared your reaction. But…" Temari began.
"But we discovered who cast that spell on you and why." Kankurou finished.
For a brief moment, Naruto shrunk back as he saw anger flare in Gaara's eyes, and he bared his teeth. Quickly it settled into his schooled mask of calm, but the moment it had been there it frightened the teen. "Who, then? And why? Tell me."
Temari inhaled deeply. "It had been Elder Chiyo, and she had been ordered by Father to do so. He did not like your powerful skills that you gained in Elemental Magic; he feared you would succeed his throne. So he demanded Chiyo cast an unbreakable curse upon you. And yet it is breakable, isn't it? She gave you a loophole, since her regret was immense."
The ex-prince nodded solemnly. "I understand. A lot makes sense, now. Chiyo knew no one could… me with my state, especially since no one had much in the past. So she granted me a chance to find true… but I could not speak it. That destined person would have to come to feel it on their own without my pressuring them, yet I feared I may have pressured them already." Gaara paused where the word 'love' would be, his tongue tying and making him unable to say it, as part of the curse.
But Temari comprehended what it was that made him pause, and she nodded. "Correct."
"And now," Kankurou says brightly, "We must leave. Good luck, Gaara."
Timidly, Temari takes Gaara's claws in her hands and strokes them, her old hands shaking. "Yes… good luck to you, little brother."
And then they were gone.
And Naruto is left puzzling over Gaara had said about the curse. Was he the 'destined person'? Could he honestly shatter the spell and save his precious companion?
One night, about eight weeks since the Sand Siblings departure, Naruto walks to the library to read when he can't sleep. He's surprised to find Gaara there. "Oh… I did not know you were here, Gaara. Pardon my intrusion."
"You are never intruding," the monster points out. "You live here."
Naruto grins and walks up a bookcase ladder to glance over a few titles, all fiction. He selects a book at random and slides down the ladder to the ground, his feet landing with a sharp thump on the rug.
Acting rather comfortable, Naruto seats himself horizontally in an armchair, his back leaning against one arm while his legs, bent at the knees, hang off the other arm. He opens the book and begins to read in the firelight of the cold desert night. Partway through the second chapter, the blonde looks up. "Gaara?"
"Yes?" the other replies, his eyes not leaving the page he was currently scanning.
"I do not mind it if you ask me that secondary question on occasion. I may answer differently every time, but hopefully, on asking, you may get closer to breaking your curse. I long to free you of such a burden, and do not care about the conditions." He was rambling, his drowsiness being the main suspect for such a speech, but it was very heartfelt.
This caused Gaara's head to shoot up with astonishment, his book dropping from his claws. "You mean that?"
"I do," Naruto smiles, looking his keeper in the eye. "Every word, I'll have you know."
For a millisecond, the monster is left speechless. A burning sensation comes to his eyes, though he cannot recall what it means. Oh, right: tears. He cannot cry in this state, but he would at that moment if he had his human body to do so. "Thank you…" he says inaudibly, rising out of his chair. Louder, Gaara adds, "I'm going to my room now. Good night, Naruto."
"I still love you."
In the firelight the blonde's face darkens, and Gaara takes the blush as a good sign, even if the teen is coughing into his hand uneasily and not replying.
Time passes, though not much. About a month later, Naruto is found one afternoon eating a midday meal on the swing he made so long ago, which has miraculously survived this long. Gaara, feeling somewhat bored and wanting to be with the blonde, comes up in search of him. The way the light came in through the glass windows (which were easy to make for the Sand Sorcerer; he merely needed to add fire and he could shape the sand into anything made of glass that he wanted) and illuminated Naruto's lightly sweating skin in small shimmers, the way he sat happily munching on his food, it made Gaara's heart melt a bit, and he dared take the kitsune up on his offer from the night in the library.
Naruto peers upwards at the ex-prince as he sits down beside him in the grass. "Good afternoon, Gaara," he says in a cheery tone.
Open-legged as opposed to Naruto's ankle-crossed manner of sitting, Gaara shifts his weight to twitch his tail as he looks thoughtfully at the ground. "Naruto, I have to ask: are you in love with me?"
He risked gazing into those beautiful blue eyes, and what the beast found was lovely but unsuspected. The expression in Naruto's eyes was uncertain but tender, and it caused a strange swelling sensation in Gaara's already too-fast pumping heart. "I've been thinking about that lately," Naruto admits slowly, wiping his mouth of any leftovers. "And I am not sure. I know I care about you deeply like a close friend, but there is something more…" Gaara is sad when Naruto's eyes leave his to give a fleeting look around. "There are times I look at you and shudder at the thoughts of what malicious things your claws and teeth and sand powers are capable of, but then there are times I solely look at your eyes and I see the human being lying beneath and shiver pleasantly. I do not know why, but when you tell me that you love me, I know it to be true and I can't help but flush. So I wonder… I wonder: am I in love with you? I wouldn't know for sure since I have never been in love in the past. And yet…" He shakes his head, messy blonde spikes of his medium-length hair dusting his neck and forehead. "I don't know. Ask me tomorrow. Tomorrow I will answer you."
Yet 'tomorrow' never came. Naruto came down with a nasty illness, and how he did neither boy will ever know. But he was bedridden with a cough, fever, congested nose, and dizzy head. He slept most of the time, and for his sake Gaara left him alone save to bring him soup or watch him sleep. The blonde twitched slightly in his dreams, a few tormenting emotions rising to the surface. He was having a nightmare.
"Naruto?" the beast calls gently, daring to come closer. Naruto's whiskered cheeks were pale, his forehead was sweating, and his jaw was clenched tightly, though his lips were open to breathe since his nose wouldn't allow him.
"No…" the kitsune whispers in his sleep, turning over onto his side away from Gaara.
Gaara silently wonders if he is the reason for Naruto's nightmares, and if he can help. "Naruto, you're dreaming. It's alright." He tells the other with the same gentle tone, though louder this time. He timidly lays a hand on the teen below him, but at the touch Naruto jerks and causes three red marks to well up with blood on his bicep.
"Ah!" Naruto yells and wakes instantly, sitting up and clamping a hand over his freshly made wound. Trails of crimson leak through his fingers and drip onto the bed sheets.
Horrified, Gaara begins a low chant. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry… you were having a nightmare and I wished to comfort you, but you moved… and I didn't mean to… I'm sorry, so sorry…"
Naruto grimaced at the blood and pain, coughing as his brain took in the situation. His first instinct was to yell at his friend to leave, but after hearing why he had been cut his heart settles and knows it to be true. The next instinct was to ask for assistance on treating the gashes, but his illness thought it better to cough and distress his sore throat. Steadily, the coughing eased, and Naruto reached with a bloodied hand to get a sip of water. The movement left his hurt arm numb. His eyes watered as a small tremor of pain shot down his arm. "I… understand, Gaara." He tells his keeper, willing a tiny weak smile to his mouth. "Help me, won't you?" he pleads, a tear or two spilling over from the pain.
Feeling sick inside, the miniature Shukaku steps out of the room to fetch bandages. When he returns, he finds his blue-eyed beauty rocking back and forth in place, nursing the agony with each rock. With his claws Gaara cuts the bandages and with Naruto's help, wraps them around his left upper arm. He then ties it up and walks over to the wash bin in the corner of the room, dipping in a sponge (which is one of the easiest things for Gaara to hold with his demented hands) to carry over and clean up with. The top blanket, splattered with blood, is pulled back and tossed carelessly against a wall.
"Thank you," Naruto murmurs as Gaara bends over to dab with the wet sponge at the blonde's hands. His warm, sickly breath from the two words graze Gaara's ear, and he discreetly shivers.
"Do not thank me," Gaara replies lowly. "I do not deserve it. I hurt you."
Naruto frowns. "It was an accident," he says in Gaara's defense.
"But I hurt you nonetheless. I am a monster, even when I do not mean to be. I'm sorry," he says again, and Naruto waves that aside.
"I don't care," he says softly. "And stop apologizing. I already forgive you."
The Sand Sorcerer looks away, pulling back to take the crimson-stained objects from the room. "Get well again soon. I shall see you later on." He departs, the tail behind him tapping fretfully against his calf. Gaara set the sheets and sponge to soak in hot, soapy water in the kitchen sink. He then retreats to his room.
Three days later, Naruto woke up feeling extremely healthy, and his wound was (oddly) wholly healed. Perhaps being one of the Kitsune Clan meant wounds healed quicker than the average human, even ones as deep as the three slashes created by Gaara.
Grinning now that he was restored to tip-top shape, Naruto strolled downstairs for a bite to eat. After somewhat filling his stomach, the blonde frowned to himself and wondered where Gaara was. There was something he needed to tell beast.
He wandered the hallways and stumbled into the library, not finding Gaara there. He went to the greenhouse room, and still he did not locate the ex-prince. The final place to look was his bedroom, though Naruto felt a bit sheepish, as if he would be trespassing on Gaara's personal part of the sandstone-crafted castle.
Sighing, he ventured up the long staircase to Gaara's bedroom, pausing when he was in front of the dark purple curtain. He smelled more cinnamon this time, along with all the other scents of the past when he first came to this room. His voice coming light and uncertain, Naruto asked entrance. "Gaara? May I come in?"
Initially there was shuffling as though he had startled the monster within. Then a clear voice rang out: "Yes, you may."
Briefly he kitsune smiled. He slid the fabric along the pole from which it hung and stepped inside. Gaara was presently sitting atop his bed, not under the covers but merely sitting, his legs pretzel-style and his tail curled up next to his right thigh. A book was in his meaty hands, the claws folded together along the leather spine. The hourglass at his bedside table stood like a looming shadow, an unwavering reminder of the time left for breaking the curse.
Naruto crawled onto the high mattress of the bed and sat facing his companion. "I'm well again, Gaara."
Over his book, Gaara's eyes smiled. "I'm glad."
The teen nodded vaguely. "And there is something I wish to say to you…"
"Oh?" the other murmurs, setting his book aside for a moment.
"Yes." Naruto props himself up into his knees and seats his bottom on them, scooting closer. He brings up a hand and lays it on Gaara's cheek.
"Your arm is healed; it's a miracle," the beast remarks as he notices which hand had been placed on him.
Naruto shrugs, showing that it didn't matter. His hand slides up the rough skin to the character written on Gaara's forehead. He traces it delicately, opening his lips to tell his keeper: "I no longer mind your appearance and do not care that you hurt me. I have seen your true nature and think you are no monster at all. When I went to Konohakagure I found it was not where I belonged any more. A few days ago when you asked that new question again, I was still sorting out my thoughts and feelings and piecing everything together. But during my sickness I had a nightmare where I never met you and was missing the part of my heart that you hold. And when I woke up bleeding, it made me realize that you hold my entire heart, and I would have a bloody hole in my chest without you." The blonde pauses. He pulls his hand away as he casts his eyes to the abandoned novel on the bed. "What I'm trying to say, Gaara, is that I am in love with you, and it took me nearly two and a half years to see it."
For a minute, Gaara was able to cry, overly salty, somewhat dry tears pouring from his human eyes in small amounts. And then there was a cracking noise, his monstrous flesh beginning to separate and leak dry sand that cascaded down like a rippling, golden waterfall. Naruto shrunk back, eyes wide, as he watched Gaara be covered in a rush of sand as his demented form shed from his skin. His tail exploded and the sun from the window caught it in a beam of light, making it sparkle like freshly fallen snow. Streams of flesh turned to sand and flooded to the floor, disintegrating into dust in the air.
When Naruto blinked and saw the last of the sandy display fall away, all that was left was a much smaller figure, naked (for the beastly Gaara had no need for clothes), and crying.
The curse was lifted.
Staring with amazement and affection, the kitsune took in the features of the human that had been lying beneath the monster all along.
Gaara, as a grown nineteen-year-old-looking human male, had wonderful crimson locks, pale milky skin a shade creamier than alabaster, thin and tone limbs with slim, regal shoulders, the same sleep-deprived black-rimmed eyes and 'ai' scar. Being decent, Naruto didn't glance lower than the other physically-appearing teen's navel, as tempted as he was to do so.
Smiling as a glowing feeling swelled in his chest, Naruto leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the ex-prince's neck, who was in shock and tense under the touch due to the transformation. "You're very handsome; who would've known?" the blonde whispers sweetly in the now-human ear.
His tanned cheek tickles Gaara's own pale one, and the tears stop coming down from his eyes. Gingerly, a dull-nailed, bare, human hand comes up to rest on Naruto's back, and Gaara smiles a breathless, real smile in relief, gratitude, and love. "You've actually done it, Naruto… you saved me. Thank you so terribly much; I can never repay you for what you've done for me. I love you… oh, how much I love you."
He was about to cry again, though he calmed himself. On his shoulder in their embrace, Naruto grinned broadly.
They were like that for the longest time, and then Gaara broke the silence. He asked another question, one he never tried on anyone. "Can I kiss you?"
The blonde pulled away, his cerulean blue eyes connecting with aquamarine. Naruto still could not get enough of how different Gaara felt under his fingertips or how wonderful he looked after the curse had shattered and fallen like a butterfly's cocoon. "You needn't ask," the kitsune says playfully.
And for the first time, lips met with other lips, eyes closed in the warmth and bliss, and neither abnormal boy was alone.