Author's Notes:

My first time writing Naruto fiction. This is a draft that will be reworked as I go along. Please let me know what you think. Might abandon the poor thing if it gets too draggy.

Disclaimers:

Characters. Not mine. Description of love from a quotation from Erica Jong.

Chapter One

Pale green eyes regarded the cooling desert city with an subdued pensiveness. Hectic days were best ended with long drawn sessions of nothing but the sound of the night air atop the roof of the Kazekage's abode. Slim fingers gripped the edge of the latest letter to have flew in through his office window.

154.

That was the number of papers of varying sizes sealed loosely in the box stashed in his drawer. One every 2 weeks for the past 6 years without fail. Jumbled scribbles speckled with the occasional misspelt word and doodle on paper rather obviously snagged from the nearest possible source, accounting for the number of letters haphazardly written on pieces of serviette or receipts. He wondered why the blonde boy even bothered writing to him.

He never did reply them anyway.

The 155th letter was different. A thin scrawl etching across the fine parchment in words desperately trying to look orderly, but failing miserably when the words "SIXTH HOKAGE" exploded out in unbridled excitement and a brash scurrying of the ink.

The two weeks in Konoha to attend the inauguration would be a pleasant reprieve from the endless amount of paperwork that seemed to only grow on his desk. Kankuro had spent a full 2 days to convince the young kazekage that the council would take care of Suna, but the absence of the burden of running the village felt alien to him.

And yet... It would be nice to visit Temari.

It took a whole of 3 months before he began to feel a strange sense of loss at the lack of her constant mothering. The occasional letter and picture reassured him that she was happier living in the leaf village.

Happier...

Wasn't becoming the Kazekage supposed to make him feel this sense of fulfillment and purpose he longed for? Wasn't he supposed to be happier? But after 4 years of protecting the village, there was an immense gap left unattended. It made him wish he never knew happiness to begin with. He felt addicted to the warm sensation of his hollow shell filled out. The slight rush he felt when greeted with the smiles of villagers instead of terrified whispers. The familiar tingle that came with the infrequent but obligatory visits to the over-excited children of the academy the siblings had established so long ago. The inexplicable swell of unidentifiable emotion whenever another terribly composed letter dropped on his desk. And for those few short minutes when his eyes scanned over the excited words, the mad rush of the world seemed to slow to a lulling halt.

Addictions were never good.

His fingers tightened around the letter again, slightly crinkling the edges, an action he regretted nearly instantly. Fingers quickly smoothed out the offensive bends, rolling up the scroll and slipping it cautiously into his satchel.

He rose to his feet soundlessly, hefting the gourd effortlessly over his travel satchel. Casting one final look at the sleeping village, he headed East.

--

The council's room was always dimly lit, the cold air clinging to the walls like scum. Cloaked figures huddled around the round table, conspiring in the looming shadows of the four Kazekage statues.

"And you are certain this will work."

A smirk went unnoticed from under the covers of the heavy white hood. "Certainly," a deep voice reassured. "And once he is gone, Sunagakure will once again be governed by the people who know what they are doing - the council. It is about time we wrestle control away from these arcane traditions and back into the hands of the future."

"You are sending but one man," another voice chimed, laced with undisguised doubt. "He would be no match for the kazekage."

"Just wait and watch, my fellow council members." he replied coldly.

"Just wait and watch."

--

The Village Hidden In the Leaves was no different from the last time he set foot in it. The maze of streets speckled with an unruly assortment of oddly shaped buildings and curious villagers even echoed a bittersweet nostalgia in his mind. Several familiar faces gave him a smile he was still unaccustomed to, receiving only a curt nod in response. The Hyuuga heiress even extended a stuttered offer to show him the way to Temari's apartment set in the heart of the convoluted city, an offer he politely declined. As politely as monosyllabic grunts went. His sister's apartment was not too difficult to find.

An annoyed looking Shikamaru answered the door after 2 rings, the scowl on his face overturning into a lop-sided smirk before being shoved violently away by his wife.

"Gaara!" Temari smiled warmly. "It's been a while."

"Hn." came the short reply. But his sister never needed long answers from him anyway. She showed him promptly to the guest room. It was not much, a far cry from the lavish interiors of the kazekage's quarters back in Suna, but it felt like enough. He set his gourd down in the corner, flinging the small pack he carried onto the futon laid on the ground.

Temari swiftly removed several articles of clothing from Gaara's pack, hanging some precariously on thin wire hangers in the cupboard. The redhead nearly smiled. He had missed her constant mothering somewhat.

"The sixth hokage told me he would want to see you when you arrived." she said without turning around, her sly grin evident in her voice. Gaara nodded, starting out the door only to be stopped by a hand pressed firmly against his shoulder.

"Gaara... Don't expect too much."

He raised a non-existent eyebrow at his sister before giving her a nod and leaving in a whirl of black silk and sand.

--

Calloused fingers drummed against the surface of the table, crystalline blue eyes furrowed in intense concentration at the formidable stack of papers in front of him. A thick silence filled the air like haze, dulling his thoughts even more. After a few tense moments, he let out a defeated sigh, slumping back into his seat.

He would never understand this.

Tsunade had already begun flinging stacks of her own paperwork at the upcoming Hokage, telling him it was her "training" for her successor. And this was by far the most miserable training the blonde had to date.

A soft rap on the door snapped him out of his paper induced stupor and introduced a masked ANBU into the room.

"Naruto-sama, the fifth Kazekage has arrived."

The blonde visibly brightened, waving ecstatically for him to show the sand nin into the cluttered office. Gaara stepped lightly into the room to be met with loud enthusiastic hollers and a jumbled mess of greetings.

"GAARA!" Naruto yelled eventually. He flung his arms out towards the taller man, contemplating a large hug for a moment before grabbing the redhead's hand instead and shaking it violently, much to Gaara's relief.

"Naruto." the slightly taller man acknowledged flatly, trying his utmost to squeeze the emotion out of his voice. There was a strange flutter in his stomach, much akin to the curious buzz he felt whenever his eyes scanned over those bimonthly letters. He shut out the niggling sensation from his senses.

Must be the effects of the long trip here.

His eyes fell on the mountain of papers behind Naruto.

"Having problems?"

Naruto sighed, finally releasing the kazekage's hand and turning a sad glance towards the towering amount of work on his desk. "Yeah. I don't understand any of this."

Gaara picked up the slim file on the top of the stack, his eyes glossing expertly over the page. Tsunade had not thrown him anything mind-bogglingly difficult yet. But from the scribbled responses on the bottom of the paper, Naruto obviously needed some assistance. And with the odd "DATTEBAYO" finishing off every other sentence, that assistance seemed to escalate to massive proportions.

A soft sigh escaped thin lips.

"Sit." he stoically commanded, sitting himself in the stiff chair opposite the blonde. "Pen. Good. We'll do this together."

--

The sun had already begun to set on the village of Konoha, and for the first time in weeks, Naruto could see the surface of his desk. He picked another file from the much smaller stack in front of him, running a tired but satisfied hand through his blonde locks. After a few pointers from his newest paperwork mentor, he set off on the work at a frightful pace, the room, at some point, filled with 7 other clones, each hunched over another file.

Gaara watched him silently from the corner of his eye, silently closing the file he had been looking through. It had been a good 4 years since he had last seen the other Jinchûriki. The blonde locks had grown out some, and spikier if at all possible, but still radiated in the last glows of the sun. He was taller, almost slightly taller than Gaara himself, the golden tan still glowing from his sun kissed skin. Pale green eyes offered silent thanks to whatever gods kept the eye-paralyzing orange jumpsuits away, though they spied a long bright orange coat hanging in the closet.

He was almost exactly as the redhead remembered.

He felt more at ease the longer he stayed around the infectious smile of Naruto's. Perhaps the holiday was exactly what he needed.

Naruto shut the last of the files, slapping it triumphantly on the tall pile on the ground next to his desk. He stretched out his work stiffened joints languidly with a near purr, oblivious to the eyes carefully running down his toned form.

"Hey!" he chirped, spinning around to face the blank expression on his friend. "Come on. I want to show you something."

--

The wind was always more chilly on the cliff atop the stone faces of the hokage. High above the bustle of the village, away from the sanctity of the forest foliage, completely and utterly exposed to the million stars above. Gaara had never been up here. There was never a need to.

Naruto leaned heavily against the iron wrought railing at the edge, unconscious of the thin trail of sand that weaved near his foot in the event he fell off the cliff face.

"I haven't heard from you in a while." he said. "I wrote you a few letters, you know?"

"A hundred and fifty five." corrected the calm voice.

"What?"

"You wrote me a hundred and fifty five letters."

A slight tinge of crimson crept up the future Hokage's face. He counted? The blonde boy had long lost count of how many times he had written to the ex-Jinchûriki, a practice that turned from a novelty to habit to respite from the crazed endless battles and trials. A slight nervous thrill shot through him knowing that the stoic young man had read the letters. Naruto wanted to ask why he never did get a reply, but instead fell into a sort of meditative silence.

"It's a strange feeling," the blonde started as the other figure rested against the support next to him. "Getting what you've always wanted, I mean. It's like the end of a long and tiring road home."

Gaara said nothing. Had he ever felt anything like that?

A smile slipped across the upcoming Hokage's face. It had been a tumultuous struggle all the way to this point. But none of it was done in vain. The smiles of his friends, the fact that he had friends. "Everyone's happy."

"Are you happy?"

Naruto started slightly at the soft mellow voice, then lapsing back into his usual grin. "Of course dattebayo! Why wouldn't I be? Everyone has their happy ending!"

The sand nin's eyes continued staring unblinkingly at the specks of lights now springing up across the village. "I don't know if I'm happy."

A quizzical look fell across the whiskered face. "Why not? Your people love you, your siblings love you, and I'm sure you have friends now!"

"I'm very busy." You're my only friend. "I don't have time to find out if I am happy." There's always something missing. "You're very lucky."

"Huh?"

"To recognize what it's like to be happy."

The bright smile slowly returned to Naruto's face. "You already know how happiness looks like." he said. "Take Temari for example! She's found happiness with Shikamaru."

"So I have to live with Shikamaru to be happy."

The blonde face faulted. "No. I meant her happiness was with Shikamaru. She found love! One of the strongest kinds of happy there is out there."

Gaara pondered the sound of the word in the air for a moment. Love. The word carved into his forehead, yet the one emotion that felt most foreign to him.

"How do you recognize love."

Naruto scratched his head. This was a tough one. "Love... Is that one thing that truly frees you. It's that tingle in you that makes you do crazy things, stupid things, brave things. It's the rush that fills you through and through, leaving you feeling completely empty when it leaves you. It's that little voice that tells you that as long as you're with that someone, the world is right somehow. It's worth fighting for, risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don't risk everything, you risk even more."

Green eyes widened slowly, taking in the words that hung heavily in the air. His words felt so familiar to him, slowly putting a name to the hungry emptiness in him. Things were often less formidable when labeled with a name. Yet he still felt the pang of trepidation. Love. It sounded painful.

"Have you... Ever felt love?"

Naruto beamed. "Of course! I love Sak-"

The name caught in his throat, refusing to leave his lips. Sakura. Why couldn't he say it? He loved her. He was always there for her. He saved her countless times. He wanted to protect her. He loved her. Right?

The flame he had burning for her paled in comparison with the fiery description he had just gave. He had never stopped to contemplate his feelings for her. It just felt like the natural thing to do, regardless of the endless rejection and assurances of the platonic nature of their relationship.

If it wasn't Sakura, what was this feeling in him...

"I'm hungry."

The soft firm voice snapped Naruto out of his dizzying spiral of self doubt, shaking him back to reality with an exuberant grin masking out the haze of confusion in his eyes.

"I know exactly what you need dattebayo!"

--

Thin chopsticks prodded suspiciously at the noodles swimming in the large bowl of soup with obvious distaste. Gaara cast a sidewards glance at Naruto who was already guzzling through his third bowl of ramen with insatiable gusto, fleetingly wondering how the blonde managed to breathe through the endless stream of noodles disappearing into his seemingly endless gut..

Oh, what the hell.

The kazekage twirled several thin strands onto his wooden chopsticks, blowing lightly at the steaming noodles before gently slipping them past his lips. That wasn't so bad...

Bright blue eyes paused, watching the redhead slowly progress through the large bowl of miso ramen in front of him. There was something innately captivating about the way the kazekage held the chopsticks, the way he chewed contemplatively at the noodles, the way his soft red hair fell in front of pale green eyes narrowed in concentration, the way his arm was resting lazily against the counter, the way...

Stop it Uzumaki! Why are you even checking him out?!

Naruto blinked quickly and averted his blatant stare as Gaara's eyes shifted towards the blonde, watching the whiskered face contort with self-berating. He could have almost sworn...

Nevermind.

The rest of the dinner was a quiet affair, punctuated by the odd joke from Naruto or question from Gaara about the recent developments in Konoha. The blonde then walked his friend back to the quiet and now darkened apartment.

Sandaled feet scuffed nervously against the polished wooden ground as Gaara fished out the spare keys Temari had given him. The door unlocked with a soft click and the redhead was about to duck inside before a voice stopped him.

"Are you doing anything tomorrow?"

--

Naruto picked his way through the dozens of sealed boxes in his apartment before flopping wearily onto his bed. People were going to come in a day or so to move his belongings to the Hokage's lodgings. He cast another prolonged look about the room. He never did bother to change any of the furniture here, most of it still singing with memories and becoming much too small for him as he grew.

Bright blue eyes settled on the one thing he had yet to pack into the boxes. He lifted the photo frame, allowing the scarce moonlight to grace the picture of Team 7. Sakura...

His mind wandered to the conversation on the cliff earlier that evening. Perhaps he really only wanted to protect Sakura. She was a manifestation of everything he held dear, and protecting that was the only natural thing to do.

If only Gaara hadn't asked me that...

Gaara. The red haired boy rarely spoke, and when he did, it was often questions that completely befuddled him. If he had received all of his letters, why didn't he reply any of them? A buzz of annoyance flitted through his mind before quickly being replaced with a slight inexplicable excitement.

He kept track of them.

An unconscious smile played across his lips as he slowly succumbed to exhaustion, a low mellow voice drawing him into the darkness of sleep.

--

The sun had barely risen when the annoying tapping started on the window.

At first, Gaara tried to ignore it. He had only begun to enjoy a true peaceful night's rest over the past six years and had quickly grown addicted to it, snapping violently at the staff members who had the not-so-admirable task of waking the young kage up in the mornings. He pulled the pillow over his head, snuggling his face deeper into the futon. Just a few more minutes...

The tappings continued.

Slits of pale green snapped open with groggy annoyance. Whatever was creating that infernal racket was going to be enjoying a mouthful of sand at the bottom of a desert for breakfast.

He flung open the window furiously, nearly knocking over the-

"Naruto?"

- perched outside the window sill.

The blonde stumbled unstably on the precipice momentarily before being unceremoniously hauled into the room by a bolt of sand. He rolled to a gentle halt, opening his eyes to find himself staring at a pair of bare feet. Attached to a highly annoyed looking sand nin.

"It's 6 in the morning, Uzumaki."

"We're going out!" Naruto grinned, ignoring the death stares Gaara was attempting to drill into his forehead. "Get dressed! And... Oh! Bring your gourd with you."

--

"What are we doing here."

"I used to train here when I first became a genin!"

The pair pushed their way past the thick undergrowth. The path to the old genin training grounds had long been left unattended to with the relocation of the training centre to accommodate more aspiring ninja. It left Naruto with plenty of free reign in the area, the sporadic large holes in the trees testament to his weekly romps into the forest to train.

They entered a small clearing next to the stream. It had barely changed since he first trained with Kakashi here 8 years ago. He spun around to the redhead following close behind him, now sporting a slightly bored look.

"Spar with me."

Gaara barely had time to question before Naruto leapt at him, kunai in hand. He easily sidestepped the bold swipe, sliding several feet back as sand began to spring out from the gourd on his back. An excited glint flashed in crystal blue eyes as the blonde charged again, vaulting into the air above the kazekage in a blur of movement.

"KAGE BUNSHIN NO JITSU!"

Sand swirled in a crazed whirl, shielding the pale boy from Naruto's combo attack. The sand retaliated with a viscous swipe, smashing all 5 clones into various trees with a satisfying poof of smoke.

What the hell is he trying to do...

Gaara's eyes swept across the empty clearing, scanning the area for signs of the loud ninja. It was unlike Naruto to go ducking through the forest instead of charging head-on into battle like a spiky battering ram.

As he contemplated, he failed to notice the 3 orange clad figures advancing from behind him.

"BEHIND YOU!"

Gaara spun around as the sand rushed upwards to protect him. A quick gesture of his hand sent a long spike lashing outwards at one of the clones, missing the other two that deftly dodged the column of sand, launching themselves at the sand nin again with a well aimed low kick.

"OVER HERE!"

The kazekage snapped his head to the right, eyes widening as a horde of Narutos began charging towards him. He grit his teeth, stifling a curse as he summoned all his sand with a large sweep of his arm, propelling it towards the incoming masses.

Naruto glanced out from his hiding spot just behind Gaara, watching him beat the clones senseless nearly effortlessly. They weren't meant to defeat him anyway. Just take his attention away long enough to...

"TAKE THIS!"

He sprung out from the tree, diving at breakneck speed towards the unguarded back presented to him.

There was a loud crash.

And Naruto found himself pinned to the trunk of a large tree, a thick cocoon of sand covering him up to his chest, a heaving Gaara glaring at him through narrowed eyes. His hand was planted firmly against Naruto, calling up the sand and dirt from the ground and encasing the Leaf ninja.

"You're not concentrating." he deadpanned between heavy breaths.

Naruto smirked. "Neither are you."

Gaara's eyes travelled downwards to the hand pressed against his chest, glowing dangerously with chakra. Somehow, the blonde had forced his arm through his sand prison.

That's impossible...

His eyes widened further as Naruto pushed forward against the sand, leaning towards the shocked Gaara as his concentration slipped and sand fell from around him in a cascade of yellow and gold. His heart thudded dangerously close to bursting as the blonde came closer, hot breath tingling against his cooled lips.

Then Naruto kissed him.

--