Their meeting, after so long, was strange; in any shinobi's mind, there was always a quiet assessment – am I better than the person in front of me? Is he better than me? And now two Kage stared at each other, assessing.
The tanuki-markings were as dark on Gaara's face as they'd ever been, but they were empty now, and looked it; in a way that had nothing to do with pigmentation and everything to do with weight, they looked lighter. Nothing more than skin, now, while the whisker-marks across Naruto's cheeks felt heavy, more like deep scars than simple pigment.
I'm the last one, he thought, looking at Gaara. There are no others. Besides him, Gaara was the only one who knew what it was to have that deep, insidious, thrilling power, but Gaara was no more than human now. Still a powerful shinobi, still quite worthy of his rank and the responsibilities that went with it, but he was no longer the awesome juggernaut of power and violence that had terrorized the long-ago chuunin exams. Power had been replaced with technique, when the whole desert would no longer heed his commands.
And yet, Naruto didn't feel superior to him for retaining the Kyuubi; pupilless blue-green eyes stared at him, and he felt small, young, as though he were only a pretender.
"You made it," Gaara said quietly, and there was inflection in his voice. His humanization had started well before Shukaku had been torn from him, but the process had become easier when he'd started sleeping, and now it was strange to look at him, so at ease in the blue and white robes of his office, and think that once upon a time, he had been little more than a monster in barely-human form. The voice that had been so hoarse and grating at thirteen was smoother now at twenty-three, and deeper; for someone who even at his full growth was not large, it seemed almost incongruous to hear that low rumble. But Naruto wasn't thirteen anymore either, and he'd changed too. It was the way of the world.
"I did," he said, and smiled brightly. No red-and-white for him – those robes reminded him too much of Sarutobi and the innocent times that went with them, and he chose to emulate the Fourth instead, jounin garb topped with a flaring robe that proclaimed him Rokudaime. "Took a little longer than I expected, but I made it." And he watched Gaara's lips curve in a smile – a real, honest smile – and wondered what it was like to be human. To exist without that quiet influence nibbling away on the edge of his mind.
He was not like Gaara. In relation to their unwanted guests, he'd been the opposite. Gaara was uncontrolled at start, controlled by the One-Tail's desires and moods as surely as his brother's puppets danced on their strings. And then, through loyalty and love that had nothing to do with blood and pain, Gaara became human. Naruto, though… the years that had passed, the demands he made of the Kyuubi, the dangerous places he'd found himself in, all had conspired to nibble away at the restrictions placed on the demon fox when the binding was written into him with death. As he'd grown, he'd lost the childlike wildness that had been only a product of growing up unsupervised, and had gained with his control and maturity a different sort of wildness, a small feral urge in the back of his mind that made everything… different.
He wondered if Gaara had found a mate, and immediately self-corrected, refusing to let the animal word stand. For himself – he had pulled away, refusing to let someone in that close. To reveal the urge that left him spending nights on the roof or out in the forest, away from the restrictions of walls and doors and furniture and humanity. So far, he had hidden it well from everyone; those close to him had no idea how he spent his nights, at least once a week. He didn't want them to know – they wouldn't understand.
Gaara would understand, he thought, and wondered again if Gaara had a mate.
Ultimately, Gaara was in Konoha on a state visit, congratulating the new Hokage on his accession to the title and renegotiating the treaty that bound them as allies. Naruto, never all that skilled on diplomacy, had talked to Shikamaru and his older advisors beforehand, going over the treaty that had been hammered out originally by Tsunade and Suna's representative, back in the days after the chuunin exam-turned-invasion but before Gaara rose to take the reins of the village that had once turned its back on him. That treaty had been later modified by Gaara and Tsunade together – made more streamlined and better able to withstand time and unforeseen circumstances. And now Gaara and Naruto would discuss their own version. Tradition, in a fashion, but Naruto trusted Gaara not to take advantage of him – even without the bijuu, Gaara was no politician, and while he guarded his village with the fierceness of a mother lion with her cubs, he would not go out of his way to weaken an ally with an unjust treaty.
They talked about all the things they were expected to talk about, and then they talked quietly into the evening, leaving behind the formality of the Hokage tower and moving their conversation out to the monument. Sitting on a stone head – the workers busily engraving Naruto's likeness into the mountain had gone home for the day – they talked about their lives, about the things that had happened in the past seven years since they'd seen each other. Gaara's voice filled with warmth as he talked about his village, the way the new daimyo who had come into power respected Suna far better than his predecessor – obviously so, because Konoha had stopped receiving mission requests from the capital of Wind, save for the odd joint mission where they collaborated with Suna-nin rather than replacing them.
Gaara said nothing about a mate, about any kind of personal life other than his relationship with his siblings – much improved, that, after so long. But no one else, and Naruto realized with a sudden flash of insight that while he looked at Gaara and saw someone who had rejoined the human race, Gaara still looked at himself and saw someone who was excluded from the mass of humanity, exiled by the demon that was no longer in residence but had left marks on his soul as surely as he'd left them on his face. It was a startling insight, and Naruto thought to himself, maybe we're not so far apart, really.
Then Gaara asked him the same questions, and he shook his head. Sasuke had disappeared into the mists, Sakura had grown up and begun dating – had gotten engaged to, now – a nice young medic-nin who would be a good husband to her, and Naruto felt rather alone in all of it.
Silence fell, but it was a comfortable silence, the two of them looking over the village – Naruto's village, his to protect and lead and look out for – and Naruto, for once in his life, had nothing to say.
"Sometimes I miss it," Gaara said abruptly, though with less inflection than the words should have had. He cast a sidelong glance to Naruto and added, "Shukaku. His presence."
As far as Naruto knew, Shukaku had meant nothing but isolation and misery for Gaara; he frowned in confusion. "You miss him? Why?"
"That feeling of power." Gaara touched his stomach lightly, the chakra center where everything was born. "The absence of limitation. And…" He trailed off, and for a moment Naruto thought he wasn't going to say anything more. "The excuse."
"Excuse?" Naruto didn't understand that. Barely understands anything of what Gaara was saying, really. "Excuse for what?"
"For not being human." A small shake of Gaara's head. "It was…" his hand came out in an uncertain gesture. "Easier, then. No one expected me to act human." His fingers returned to his stomach. "He's been gone for eight years." He stopped there, looking at Naruto.
The blond frowned. He'd learned a lot, growing up, and learning how to read into what people said and didn't say had become one of Kakashi's major lessons to him in the years leading up to his accession as Hokage, so he wasn't completely oblivious to the fact that Gaara was waiting for him to make a bridge from what had been said. But actually making that connection… "They're expecting you to, now?" he asked, tilting his head slightly.
Gaara nodded. "They are." And he turned to look at Naruto fully, eyes tracing Naruto's features with an intensity that truly wasn't human. Gaara's eyes were still those of a predator. "You, though… you understand." His hand reached out – didn't touch, but hovered over Naruto's own seal.
And in a flash of insight that took Naruto by surprise, he understood what Gaara was looking for. He took the redhead's hand, squeezing it lightly – no Sand Armor now, that technique had been draining even with Shukaku's energy, and was an impossibility without – and looked at Gaara directly. "I understand," he said with a nod.
Bijuu or no bijuu, Gaara would be a jinchuuriki at heart until the day he died, and Naruto was the only one left alive who could understand what that meant.