Naruto strolled through the Suna market place looking for potential souvenirs to bring back to some of his Konohan friends. He wandered beyond the vendors spreading out braided rugs to the racks of pottery and glassware that Suna was famous for. Naruto noted that he was shopping alone amidst groups of families and occasional couples; experiencing a sudden wave of self consciousness he tried to hide behind a feigned interest in the items he usually ignored.
Back in their guest quarters, Sakura had offered to go with him. He was tempted to take up her offer, but declined and encouraged her to spend their remaining time with Kankuro. He half hoped she would keep insisting, but she gave up fairly quickly. Perhaps she too noted the way Kankuro eyed him impatiently from the doorway.
Naruto's invitation to Sasuke had been brushed off with no more than a grunt before the ice bastard walked away.
Naruto tried to focus on the many shapes of tea cups and glazed pottery, or even the smiling old woman who sat behind her displayed goods, but his mind kept wandering to the cold expression on Sasuke's face.
Little had changed in the weeks since Sasuke returned. He was still an arrogant bastard as always; and it frustrated Naruto to no end that he wanted said arrogant bastard to notice him.
The old woman stepped up, dusting her hands on a brown apron before picking up the small tea cup Naruto had been staring at as he zoned out.
"You like it?" She held it up to him, turning it so that the small desert blossom depicted on the bottom became visible. "Shopping for your mother, dear?"
Naruto winced a bit and smiled bitter sweetly. "Just looking. Thanks, baa-san," he smiled before turning away. He continued walking absent mindedly when a chorus of giggles caught his attention. He looked down a dusty road, just beyond the next few stalls to see a small gathering of girls crowded around the apparent cause of said giggling. Naruto sighed, taking one guess at who was at the center of it all. He kicked his foot against the dirt road in frustration, debating whether to run to catch up to his teammate or run the other way, but as just as he decided to turn away he heard his name being called.
Naruto turned around, and the few girls parted to make way. Naruto's mouth dropped when it revealed, not Sasuke, but his dear friend, the Kazekage.
Naruto's eyes immediately dropped to the civilian clothing he had never seen Gaara wear before: he wore his usual long sleeved black mesh but wore a red t-shirt over and loose, comfortable looking black pants. He looked a little friendlier, a little less stern with the famed gourd missing. Naruto was still dumb founded, mouth agape at the unexpected casual demeanor of his friend. Gaara calmly walked up to him smiling.
"Are you enjoying the night market?" Gaara waited for Naruto's response, but Naruto was still confused by the fact that there were girls and they were looking at Gaara, and giggling about it.
"Since when did that happen?" Naruto pointed at the group of girls now dispersing hesitantly to either sell wares or buy them.
"What?" Gaara asked innocently.
"You have fans!" Gaara looked back at the village girls who continued to shoot him coy looks and smiles.
"They were simply offering me gifts. They probably want me to sample them and come back to buy their wares." Gaara held up small trinkets and packets of spices or dried herbs cupped in both hands. Naruto kept staring as Gaara stuffed them all into pockets as if this was a ritual habit.
"They were giggling." Naruto was still flabbergasted. "That means they were flirting." Gaara gave him a puzzled look. "And since when did you start wearing civilian clothes?"
"Even the kazekage needs a day off now and then." Gaara shrugged. "We're protected by the cliffs, but there's a severe sandstorm beyond the village walls. Nothing is getting through that tonight."
"But your gourd. Don't you feel… naked?" Naruto gestured vaguely with his hands. Gaara smiled, pulling up a few wisps of sand and sent them swirling around Naruto's head. It tickled his nose and Naruto batted it away. "Stop that!" Gaara let the sand fall.
"Even you should know I don't need that to control sand, or have you come to underestimate the Kazekage?" Naruto squirmed a little. "Now will you join me or am I to enjoy the night market on my own?"
Naruto closed his mouth and seemed to realize how silly he was being. He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry. It's just I've never seen you like this. It… surprised me."
Gaara started walking and Naruto trotted a few steps to catch up with him.
"Seen me outside my role of Kazekage, or seen me with girls?" He stopped at a booth to examine a glazed tea cup.
Naruto chuckled. "Both, I guess. I mean, it shouldn't surprise me you're popular with the girls and all that." Gaara inquired about the price kindly and Naruto watched as the woman's face lit up with admiration. Gaara praised her work and she waved away his comment shyly.
"Oh? Why do you say that?" Gaara turned to ask Naruto, smiling a bit.
Naruto cleared his throat. Gaara returned his attention to the middle aged woman and handed her a few coins for the tea cup. She thanked him and began wrapping it up. "Well… young leader, all powerful, protects the village and all that." He watched as Gaara accepted the bundled package, smiling. "That will be me someday!" Naruto's face slid into that familiar smirk that relayed his competitive edge.
"Is that it? They like me because I'm powerful?" Gaara continued walking down the market street. "The one you admire so much—you admire them because they're powerful?" Gaara said it so nonchalantly, but Naruto knew he had injured his friend with his comment.
"Gaara, that's not…"
Gaara ignored his comment, stopping in front of a fruit vendor. He held up two fingers, handing the man some coins and taking two sticks with a slice of skewered dark purplish fruit. He handed Naruto one and Naruto simply looked at it in confusion.
"What is this?"
"Prickly pear," he took a bite, mouth turning slightly purplish from the juices. "Be careful, it stains." Naruto held it away from his body as he took a bite. It was juicy, and not entirely sweet, nor bitter. It had a strange consistency not quite like any pear he had eaten before. Gaara continued walking off in another direction, but this time away from the market place. He seemed to be walking towards a building, but never entered, taking the staircase spiraling around it instead.
Naruto followed, drifting away from the scents of dyed fabrics and spices and followed Gaara to a location he had never been to before. It led them to a small balcony that seemed rather unconnected to the building, but it gave a rather good view of the market below.
"It's normally a guard post," Gaara mentioned, as if he read his mind. "But it only affords a view of the market and not the surrounding streets. Now the guards watch from higher locations so this post is usually abandoned."
"The market looks so colorful." Naruto looked out at the row of tented shops with its lines of pottery, exotic foods and unusual fabrics. He watched the people bustling about, even thought he spied Kankuro and Sakura. He noted, with some disappointment, that Sasuke was not there.
"I thought you'd like it." Gaara finished up his fruit. "I make it a habit of visiting the night market about once a week. I talk to the villagers, try their wares, and try to let them see me as something other than a monster. Now that Shukaku is gone, it's been somewhat easier."
Naruto suddenly felt ashamed. Gaara had been working hard to reach out to his village, to let them know him for who he truly was and he had insulted that. "Gaara, I'm sorry. My earlier comment… it was unfair."
Gaara continued to stare, watching over his village as a slight wind ruffled his red locks. He looked incredibly peaceful despite the weight of his earlier comments. "Do you value me because I'm powerful?" The words sliced through him. "If I hadn't been jinchuuriki, or even shinobi for that matter, would you consider me precious?"
"Of course!" Naruto protested. "I probably wouldn't have met you though…" He realized now ironic it was then that they had fought during the chuunin exams. It had been Sasuke's fight and Naruto had finished it, jinchuuriki against jinchuuriki and not even realizing it. "At first… I wanted to prove myself, prove my strength, but then I discovered how much you were suffering and I saw so much of myself in you it hurt."
"And now?" Gaara's posture never changed, he stood like a statue whose lips barely moved. "Now that I'm not jinchuuriki, has it changed?"
Naruto placed a hand on his shoulder. "Of course not. If anything, I know you better now." Gaara turned and smiled serenely.
"That makes me very happy." Naruto returned the smile. Green eyes slid back to the market. "Your words changed me, Naruto. That day we fought, and fell, and could hardly move, you crawled your way to me and spoke with such passion." Naruto, embarrassed, kept his eyes on the market. "I felt inadequate after that." A ripple of shock ran through him. "I had been defeated and I needed to feel worthy again. But I knew that what you said held truth and I knew that just killing would no longer be enough. And so I vowed to fight for this village, and to work hard so that they too might come to accept me. That maybe some day, you'd come back and acknowledge my efforts… acknowledge me…"
Naruto was speechless. He had no idea he had made such an impact on the other boy. Sure Gaara had changed after that battle, but to think Gaara was struggling to be acknowledged, chasing Naruto's back the way he chased Sasuke's.
Naruto laughed. "I'm just a genin. You're the freakin Kazekage and you're asking for my recognition?" He laughed at the sheer irony of it. "You're already recognized by more people than I am." That last admission came with a sting. To know it was one thing, to say it aloud was another.
"What if that isn't enough to abate the loneliness?" Gaara sighed. Naruto felt those green eyes watching him. He met his gaze, noticing the conflicted look and the small struggle seeming to take place.
"But I do acknowledge you, Gaara. You're one of my best friends—one of the few people that truly understands me."
"And that's why it hurts." Gaara's hand clutched the material of his red shirt. Naruto had never seen him make the gesture before. It bewildered him, to see the Kazekage, no, his friend look so vulnerable.
"What hurts, Gaara?" Naruto tried to understand what Gaara was saying, but he wasn't sure where he was going with this. He sucked in his breath when a look of hurt crossed those usually calm green eyes.
"As much as I acknowledge you, no matter how precious you are to me, it's not enough to make you happy."
Naruto thought back to his words in the ramen shop. Gaara had sat there so serenely, eating his ramen. He had no idea his words had caused such pain.
"Gaara… I didn't mean…" Naruto scratched his cheek. He wasn't sure how to explain this. The older boy meant a lot to him, but it was just different—different from the relationship he had with Sasuke. "I'm sorry about what I said yesterday."
Gaara shook his head. "You put a name to something I didn't understand before. Unrequited. That's what you called it, didn't you? The warm sensations you receive but can't return."
Naruto flashed back to the night beforeto the look of comprehension he had seen in Gaara's eyes—the look he had misinterpreted.
"What are you saying?" Naruto's head was reeling. Was Gaara confessing to him? Had Gaara harbored feelings beyond friendship without him noticing it?
"I'm asking you to acknowledge me." Both boys paused, staring at each other with conflicting emotions. "Not as the Kazekage, not as a shinobi of sand, but as Gaara, the person who has an unrequited crush on his friend."
Naruto staggered backwards a step as though the words themselves had hit him. He was completely and utterly speechless for once. Gaara looked at him imploringly, waiting for a response.
"You're serious?" He mentally smacked himself for that one, but it was the first thing that popped into mind. Gaara simply glared at him, daring him to question his sincerity again. "Alright, stupid question, I know!" Naruto frowned for a bit. This had completely taken him by surprise. He paced up and down the balcony for a bit, ruffling his blond hair all the while grimacing while he pondered what to do with this surprising bit of information.
"You have crowds of girls giggling after you and you're sure you want me?" Was the boy crazy? Wait, best not to answer that one. But when Naruto paused long enough to look at Gaara he only smiled and nodded. "But why? Why me?"
Gaara paused. He seemed to be considering this one himself.
"You were the first one to acknowledge me as anything other than a monster."
Naruto nodded. He didn't need any more explanation than that. Strolling over to the balcony again he rested his arms on the railing and leaned forward. He looked out over the market street below and wondered where Sasuke was at this moment. Would it be unfair to encourage Gaara when he was chasing Sasuke? Or would it be more unfair to not give someone who already meant so much to him a chance?
"You're thinking about him." Naruto was startled out of his thoughts. "Uchiha. I know he means a lot to you." Naruto nodded. "But I also don't plan on losing to him."
Naruto glanced at the red head in surprise. A smile slowly manifested itself and soon enough, Naruto was laughing.
"And they call me the number one ninja at surprising people." His friend smiled. Naruto laughed but it petered out into a sigh. Naruto still had his doubts, but he would work through them. He'd try. Gaara deserved that much.
"Hell, why not," he said with more confidence than he felt. He pushed away from the balcony and headed for the staircase. He stopped when he reached the top step, glancing over his shoulder. Gaara hung back, confusion clearly written in the way he scrunched his brow. "Well are you joining me or do I have to enjoy the night market alone?" He extended his left hand, fingers outstretched, waiting for a pale hand to grasp his. Gaara smiled, walking up calmly and placing his slender hand into his. "I'm starving!" He clasped Gaara's hand and slowly made his way down the stairs. "That fruit was pretty good, but no where near enough to fill me up! What are we going to try next?"
Naruto chatted his way the entire length down, leaving Gaara to only nod or offer small comments to his chatting. He realized then how little the other boy spoke simply because Naruto had always done most of the talking. He realized how unsurprising it was then that he had discovered he knew so little of the red head outside of his fighting abilities. It seems Naruto, too, had been unfair.
Naruto had taken Gaara's keen interest and quiet attentiveness for granted. His friend had been silently seeking his affection and Naruto had failed to notice. And now that he had, he felt surprisingly happy. Flattered for sure, but also happy.
Part of him still felt uncertain—the part of him that said he shouldn't give up and the part that said he was ignoring his other feelings. Cold black eyes floated to memory and he batted them away with the warm hand resting in his. There would of course, be lingering thoughts of Sasuke, but he would try to shift the people in his heart to different places and over time, he would learn to care for Gaara the way he deserved.
With a little resolve he would shift Sasuke back into the place of 'rival' and Gaara into the place of 'no longer unrequited crush'. Stepping back into the night market, beneath the glow of fires and paper lamps, Naruto held onto the shy hand trying to slip away. He chuckled at the light blush dusting the Kazekage's cheeks.
Yeah, Naruto thought to himself. Why not?