Title: Little Wonders
Rating: PG-13 (T) or thereabouts.
Other pairings: None intentional, though I guess one could read between the lines as they see fit (Naruto does have strong feelings for Sasuke and Sakura, however you choose to interpret his feelings).
Warnings: Some heavy petting and boy love. Shounen-ai.
Word Count: apprx. 12,000 words.
Summary: On the little wonders of life, and, through them, finding the humanity you possess.
Notes: Set after Sasuke leaves, but before Gaara becomes Kazekage, so maybe a little AT (alternate timeline)-ish. Let's assume that Kimimaro-era Gaara has already sufficiently moved on past his insanity, as he seems to have done, and let's assume that Naruto knows this, knows Gaara is a good person now, and considers Gaara a friend. In the manga canon, I'm not actually sure when Naruto became aware of the fact that Gaara had fully reformed, but he does seem to know this later, so I'm going to extrapolate and say it's not unreasonable for them to be building a friendship at the time period in which this fic occurs. With that long-winded explanation out of the way: enjoy!
Disclaimer: Nope, I don't own Naruto. Nor Gaara. Sigh!
On the fifth day, rain came.
Heavy, but slow; dragging rain that made the earth sigh. They drank it deep in their lungs and soaked in the smell. Straight into Konoha's pores and bones, these showers.
In the morning, everything was white, like sand floating in water floating in air.
By the afternoon, soil had softened, slicked to mud in places. Leaves washed into gullies; broken twigs stuck amid the red and brown.
It was everywhere—between the grooves of their shoes, their fingers. Dirty elbows.
Naruto sat in the doorway, staring out, his pants almost inaudible against the constant whisper of rain. Hands on his knees. He was torn, bleeding, but the healing ointment went unused. They both knew he wouldn't rest. Just getting started. Not even sunset yet, he said wordlessly.
Gaara looked on.
Someone once told him it had rained the night he'd been born.
Naruto indicated his hands. Bruised and burnt. He shook them in the air, wiggled his fingers, held them beneath the water from the sky.
Gaara's gaze shifted off to the side, to the background, to a sparrow in the wet leaves. Fluttering, beating its wings against the rain.
"You're going to train more in the night."
Gaara heard the smile. Heard the confidence, the bright joy that swelled from something deeper and more powerful than jutsu and kages and bijuu—an elusive love of life, never found in Suna, a tone like a song that played over Gaara's skin and tickled and soothed. Like sand. No, not sand. Better.
"I've finished my training for today."
They had been sparring for hours, since morning, and Gaara wasn't good at it. He had been created to be Suna's ultimate weapon; the existence of shinobi such as himself was meant to counteract the overall paucity of shinobi in Suna and its financial losses. Bred to kill in a single blow; that's how a shinobi such as himself was. He wasn't bred to spar.
"Aw. You're no fun. Come on, Gaara. What else are you gonna do? Just sit here and stare? I'll take you out for ramen afterwards. My treat. On me."
Gaara's gaze returned to Naruto in time to see a wink, a nod, and a wide, hopeful grin. It almost made him ache, sometimes. Sometimes. When he saw beneath the smile, when he heard the other concurrent tones that weaved through the words; hope, anxiety, doubt, eagerness. Eagerness most of all.
Eager to please. Eager to be the best. Eager to be Hokage, to save his friend, to train, to fight, to move, to talk to fill the silence; eager words to burn away the empty nights-black, red-tinged nights; darkness in a world without stars or hope or meaning or words that formed sentences—nights when those primal things churned, and the smell of blood—something there, alive, dead now, maybe, to hint, to remember—the feeling of being human-
Eager always to keep running. Stay one step ahead of the shadows.
One smile ahead, one laugh ahead, one more normal day to insist to himself that he wasn't a monster, one more attempt to make a connection; because if someone could touch him with their human fingers, talk to him with their human mouth, then perhaps their humanity might leak onto him, might fill him.
"Well ... not if it upsets you that much."
Gaara tapped the side of his mouth. He must have been making a face, he realized belatedly.
"No. It doesn't."
Konoha had taken growing accustomed to.
Sunlight filtered by leaves; dancing grey and black shapes on the ground. So much green that Gaara felt he'd grow drunk on it. Not that he knew how that felt, but he knew the outward symptoms: stumble, sway. Dizzying.
Mornings: eating soup with wooden spoons, from wooden bowls. They ate with earthenware only in Suna. Trailing Temari and Kankurou. Temari and Kankurou trailing him. Three, one by one by one, side by side. A unit of one. A team.
Faces, populous. Expressions in every direction, and Gaara wondered now, as he always wondered, were there eyes on him? And were those eyes he saw friendly or cold? And would those sweet eyes become vicious?
And there it was again: that cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Like swallowing the desert air on the coldest nights, in the winter, when the rarest precipitation birthed the rarest snow. Like swallowing a shadow itself.
It had been the thing he'd known in the Before.
Before, Shukaku had soothed him, taken the reins. That bellowing whisper inside Gaara's head, prying apart his sanity; a cruel parody of a mother, but who else would talk to him? Hold him? Protect him?
There had been no one else, no arms into which he could run, no hands to smooth away his tears.
And when this Fear returned, it was still tempting to give in, to flee, to let Shukaku handle it. It was still tempting to-
Gaara no longer needed the demon's imitation succor.
Naruto was here.
Staring at him with large, blinking blue eyes; eyes that were alive. Nothing like Uchiha's eyes. Nothing like Gaara's eyes had been before.
The whisker-like marks were up close now. Naruto had crossed the distance between them. One eyebrow raised, questioning. Lips slightly parted. Concern.
Gaara's eyes traced the whiskers, the messy blond hair. He wasn't wearing his forehead protector, so his drenched bangs pressed against his eyes and brow.
"Hey. Thanks, Gaara."
Smelled him. Sweat and pine needles. Their bodies had inhaled the rain, and Gaara smelled it through Naruto's skin. So strange. They seldom had rain in Suna.
"Thanks-" as if with difficulty "-for coming back to help me. Mm."
Naruto's eyes drifted away, then returned. He was close to Gaara, but not touching him. Gaara sat with his back against the wall, one arm draped over one raised knee; legs parted, the other lay flat. The gourd rested in the opposite corner. Sand rustled as if to make music with the rain. Gaara's back hurt. Stiff. Shoulders ached. Posture wasn't good. The way he sat, he looked slightly hunched, as if angry, but he was not.
They rarely spoke after training. They did not need to.
"Who knew you'd end up fighting alongside ol' Fuzzy Brows, huh?"
"He is a worthy shinobi," was all Gaara could think to say. To his own ears, it sounded like a worthless compliment. Shinobi. He had never asked to be one. But Naruto, Lee, boys like that—they cared about such things, so perhaps it was the right praise.
"So your sister helped Shikamaru," Naruto continued, as if to himself; dreamily, "man, do they have a thing or what?"
A thing? What thing?
Breath on his face. Warm. Their faces were close now, Naruto propped up on his hands, surveying his friend, worrying after his friend's loneliness, already focused on keeping him away from that loneliness. Even now, when Naruto's own loneliness must have been crushing him.
Gaara felt that welcome ache again, now a tingle at the base of his spine and in the soles of his feet.
"I never told him I was sorry. Lee. I never told Lee I was sorry."
Slight chuckle. "I'm sure he knows. You're a good person, Gaara. He told me all about how you saved him-said what an impressive guy you were, how he wanted to train to be an impressive guy like you. Actions speak louder than words, y'know? Though Kakashi-sensei says if I believe that, why do I always blabber so much? And I say-"
"Because you don't like the silence."
Pause. Somberness overtook the feline countenance.
"Because the silence hurts," Gaara added.
Gaara was not yet good at reading faces, but Naruto's eyes — the tight press of his mouth, the way he swallowed— he looked distraught, on some level, but not offended. Gaara watched as he pushed himself up off his hands and sat cross-legged in front of him.
And Naruto turned to the wall beside him, staring at it but not at it. The bridge of his nose furrowed. Irritation, but Gaara did not suppose it was directed at him.
Quietly, "Some rambling idiot I am, aren't I? Kabuto was right. Talk, talk, talk. That's all I ever do. Can't even save my friend."
Rain murmured in the background.
Naruto heaved a sigh louder than the rain, drowning everything for one moment. Lowered his head and shook it roughly. Slapped his knees with his hands and winced with the pain of the gesture.
Rasengan was a harsh jutsu. Unforgiving. He needed to bandage his hands, Gaara thought.
Twilight through the wet, rain-streaked windows; through the open door. If this were the desert, the sun would be fat and red now, but the clouds masked it today, casting the village in mixed gloom and pallor.
Then Naruto breathed in. As if that lone sigh from before had expelled the poison from his thoughts, the shine returned to his expression; more brilliant than the dusk outside. Like candlelight, the promise of a grin flickered over Naruto's features.
He slammed one fist against an open palm.
This time, a smile overtook the wince. Fangs bared, bit down. Gaara half-expected to see blood trickle from his mouth, so hard was he gritting his teeth.
"Well, I'll show them. I'll show everyone who ever doubted me. Tomorrow, I'm leaving to train with Ero-sennin." Another inhalation-like he was sucking chakra and energy and enthusiasm into his lungs from the misty air. "And I will save Sasuke. Sakura and I will save him. Together. I'll show everyone that I can save my friend, and that I deserve to be Hokage."
Who doubted him most, Gaara knew.
Gaara moved then, finally. He crouched low (the way he had as a small child, when the weight of the gourd had bent his spine, when the weight of his grief had caused him to double over and curl into himself) and tugged at Naruto's forearm.
Naruto turned his head to regard him. He blinked, bewildered, but did not resist.
Gaara took one of his hands. The rain had swept away much of the blood, but the wounds were still evident.
He felt Naruto tense in confusion as Gaara leaned down and slipped a finger into his mouth.
"Gaara? What're you doing?"
Forgetting. Remembering. Gaara wasn't sure which.
He let go of the finger; it released from his lips with the tiniest pah-barely even moist.
Under Naruto's awe-struck stare, Gaara reached down and began to undo the wrappings on his legs.
Gaara bandaged Naruto's hands, taking care not to let the material squeeze too tightly or restrict his movements too much.
When he looked up, the expression that rewarded him was enough to make the ache swell again. It thrummed through him, his body a drum to its reverberations.
"Thank you, 'ttebayo. You didn't have to."
Soft words honeyed by the Konoha dialect.
That open, guileless expression. Gaara had rarely seen it in his life, and even more rarely was it ever directed at him. Yashamaru, but no. That had been a lie. Temari used that face now, sometimes, when Gaara made the awkward efforts to lower his defenses—defenses different from and thicker than the sand that shielded him. Kankurou, occasionally, when he relinquished his sarcastic, dismissive veneer.
But Naruto was different.
Naruto looked at him like a unique thing. A special thing. Not because of the demon. Not in spite of the demon.
They looked at one another and they saw all that had grown up around the monsters, between the silences, amid the loneliness. The human skin, the human frailties.
And they cherished these little wonders.
They could bleed and feel and walk among the world of the normal. They could be stronger than the demons they carried. Strong enough to be truly vulnerable. They had survived this far, and someday, likely, they would even grow up. Gaara remembered a time when the prospect had given him dread. Now, he welcomed it.
"You embrace your destiny," he said, "but I've been running from mine."
He could tell from Naruto's face that he didn't understand.
Gaara shook his head gently. "Never mind. I know better now."
A finger—the one he had tasted—against his skin, and he startled, freezing.
"Sometimes, I saw other kids, and I wondered what it felt like. Heh."
Naruto's fingertip absently traced the kanji.
"I used to wonder what she'd look like, and if she'd smell like linens just off the line."
Gaara was silent for a long moment.
And then Naruto looked chagrined, like he hadn't meant to say what he had.
"But I guess-" He began to pull back, cheeks flushed.
"You wondered what her voice sounded like." Gaara looked up at the ceiling, and shivered. "You sat up at night because you couldn't sleep, and you tried to remember if you'd ever heard it sometime so long ago. You just wanted to hear some voice, any voice, to know that someone had carried you, once."
And once, someone had valued your existence, because how could you carry a thing so intimately and allow it, permit it, and not value it? And it was your only hope, if you could tell yourself this.
"All in the past," Naruto said suddenly. Blue eyes narrowed.
He jerked away and stood up, turning and grabbing his forehead protector.
"We can't live in the past, Gaara."
His grip on the forehead protector tightened.
"Sasuke said the past was all that existed for him. That's it. That's what took him from me—from us-" Gaara assumed Naruto meant himself and the girl, and Konoha. "The past took him. And now I've gotta save him. Gotta drag him back, like I did with you. I can't do that if I'm stuck in my own past. So."
He put it on, wrapped it, tied it behind his head.
"I promised Sakura. And Sasuke was—is-my best friend. My brother." Naruto looked over his shoulder and flashed Gaara a wide, glinting grin. "Someday, you'll understand. You'll know exactly how it feels. I'm sure of it, Gaara. Hey, look. You have a brother. A sister. I know you've never been very close to them or considered them family, but now that you're opening up and letting them take care of you ... someday, you'll be with them where I am with Sakura and Sasuke. I just know it."
Gaara considered this.
Did he want that?
"Come on. We don't have to train anymore, if you don't want to. We could just go eat ramen, or do something else. I'll let you pick. I just want to get out of here. It's stuffy."
Hesitantly, Gaara stirred and found himself walking over the creaking floorboards, gourd abandoned for the present.
In the tree outside, the sparrow fluttered once more and took to the air.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle.
Steaming hot, the food stood in stark contrast to the evening temperature.
On his first clumsy attempt with the chopsticks, Gaara landed a portion on the side of his tongue, scrunched his face at the flash of unfamiliar pain, but swallowed anyway.
"Jeez. Let it cool off!"
Naruto laughed. Gaara listened, thinking he'd like to hear that sound again.
It was wonderful, someone laughing beside him—not laughing at him so much as laughing for him, because he could not.
Naruto reached over, and, with his still-wrapped fingers, took hold of Gaara's chopsticks.
"I'll show you the way."
The words caught in his ears, buzzed in his mind. Naruto adjusted the utensils and Gaara's fingers, then closed the latter over them.
"There. Try it now."
The whole restaurant was warm; smelled of smoked meats. Soft lighting beamed down upon them, and some man behind the counter, likewise beaming, arms folded in... (satisfaction?) . Grease on his apron.
A song in the air from somewhere. Notes, strumming of instruments, vague laughter and echoing voices coming together, ferried by the night wind.
Gaara ate quietly, mostly, listening as Naruto made conversation with the man behind the counter. He liked to listen.
("-Oh, this is my friend, Gaara; he's from-
-she's doing better, yeah. Just started training with Old Lady Tsunade-
-pervy as ever, damn it-
-how's your wife, anyhow?-
-ah, that's good to hear, well, I-
-yeah, gonna leave to train tomorrow; excited? You're damned right, I am!")
Gaara perked at one fragment of discussion:
"Doesn't say much, does he?"
He blinked, looked up, then looked over at Naruto. Somehow, in spite of talking so much, he had already nearly emptied his bowl.
Naruto slurped down a noodle and smiled, mouth closed, looking more like a cat than a fox in that moment.
"He's a good listener, 'ttebayo. Don't you think I talk enough for the both of us?" And he nudged his friend's shoulder with his own.
Afterward, food paid for by one of Naruto's coupons, they walked down the streets. Filtered by the clinging fog, lamps like blurry yellow-white eyes regarded them.
The music was louder outside, though Gaara could not discern its direction.
"Tongue?" Naruto was saying, somewhere. "Are you serious? Boy am I ever glad I took you out tonight."
Gaara watched as his hands moved again and again. Fingers laced behind his head, then shoved roughly into his pockets, then fidgeted at his sides. Like they wanted to do something and didn't quite know what.
"And ground liver," Gaara added.
Naruto shuddered hard and kept walking, always a good many paces ahead, leading the way.
They had passed people. Clusters, sometimes. People coming together, talking to fill the night with words, fighting the silence with their mouths.
Once, they walked by a young couple who didn't look much older than they. Boy and girl—her with black hair, him with yellow—pressing their mouths together as if trying to configure new kanji, new words, with their lips and tongues.
Gaara slowed down, taken aback by this.
It was unexpected.
He knew, vaguely, that boys liked girls and girls liked boys and they touched each other in strange ways that sometimes looked gentle and sometimes looked vicious, but he knew this in the way that he knew of the names of countries he had never visited, and their kages.
He knew a little about male and female physicality because he had a sister, and even though he'd tuned her out most of the time, a little bled in, and he knew a little because everyone knows a little, because you can't be human (monster or not) without knowing a little about such things.
But the custom of Suna was not to be ... expressive.
In Suna, a man did not touch his wife if they were in the streets. Gaara had heard Temari criticized for how she dressed. There were quiet tsks, subtle pressure for her to wear something more modest—not that Gaara had ever pondered the significance of this. Now, he did so.
"Gaara," Naruto breathed in an aggressive whisper. In an instant, he was at his side, tugging Gaara's sleeve. "What're you doing? C'mon. It's rude to stare."
Gaara regarded him wordlessly.
Naruto must've taken his look for a question, because he went on:
"Trust me. I know all about being rude, 'ttebayo!" And the surprised, mildly tense look on his face faded, replaced with his usual eager smile, and Gaara felt like his lungs had gotten smaller. "Yeah, I can't have you showing me up as the troublemaker around these parts! Now, c'mon."
As ever, Gaara let himself be led onwards.
Naruto was always doing that—saying those energetic things that had a ring of truth but that he didn't actually mean in the way he said them. Gaara had already learned enough to know the expressions and speech patterns that indicated when he meant something versus when he meant it but didn't mean it.
They understood each other in silences, but when Naruto spoke like that, it was confusing. When Gaara spoke, he said what he intended to say, simple as that. These complex intricacies of words and tone and meaning confounded him.
Still, when his friend used that tone with him-and when he said those true-but-not-true things—Gaara felt something constrict his throat; his face felt tense, and he tasted warmth.
"I like it," Gaara said.
Naruto didn't seem to hear. He stopped and looked down, removing the wrappings from his hands.
"I like it when people don't turn to look at me."
Those not-true words in that not-real tone again.
"That's good, because I-"
Naruto looked up. His expression had become strange.
Gaara had pressed his wrist to his lips. The flavour of beef ramen still lingered on his tongue.
His lips were slightly wet from the fog and the evening drizzle. Beads of rain clung to his eyelashes and the tips of his hair.
"I wonder what it feels like," he said, by way of explanation. "Kissing."
"Different for different people, I guess."
"Have you ever done it?"
Awkward shuffle. "Yeah. Once. Uh. Um."
"Did you like it?"
"It was just stupid."
His musings on the subject had been too brief for him to feel any disappointment.
Naruto shook his head. "But with the right person, I bet it'd be great!"
Naruto looked back in the direction they'd come from, appearing to piece something together in his mind.
Gaara lowered his arm, then his gaze.
"I've never really thought to use that part of my body for anything but eating."
Well, Shukaku had thought to use it for biting things, but that didn't count.
"People seem to like it," he added.
Naruto emitted an odd sound that cut off quickly.
"I'm upsetting you."
"No, you're not! Not at all!"
They stood there like that for a few heavy seconds.
"It's just ... I don't know, Gaara. It's kind of ..."
Naruto scrunched his face up. "...intense."
"No! I mean, well, maybe, in the right circumstances! Gah!" His cheeks were turning pink. "I mean, that is, what I'm saying ... it's just that I've never really thought into all these things you ask about sometimes, Gaara. Makes me feel kind of dumb. I mean ... I've never really thought all that much about kissing. I just thought it was something I'd like to do with Sakura."
Sakura. Oh. That was The Girl.
"Is she the person you kissed?"
Naruto rolled his eyes. "No! It was Sasuke! Like I said, it was stupid!"
Gaara frowned. He didn't think he understood kissing at all.
"It wasn't a really real kiss." Naruto's smile was reassuring. "It was an accident. I'm not sure what it was. We're on equal footing, anyway, you and me, 'ttebayo."
"Do you want to kiss her? That girl? Sakura?"
Naruto looked down and swallowed. Breath went out; whoosh, like deflating, like a bellows, but quieter.
"It doesn't matter. She loves Sasuke. She always has. And I'm going to bring him back for her. For us."
Gaara fidgeted, crossing his arms and scratching gently at the skin on his upper arms.
A raised eyebrow.
"Will a girl ever want to kiss me?"
Did that mean his answer was no? "Does that mean-"
"Uhhh, I don't know. I don't see why not, Gaara! Do you want-"
Their eyes met, locked.
"-do you want to kiss a girl? Is that what all these questions are about?"
Gaara turned his gaze downward and away. Leaves filtered the light of the moon and the light of the lamps; swaying, leaves and blades of grass swept hard by the wind. Frogs sobbed - and it was odd to hear them, the frogs, because there were none in Suna.
In Suna, there was silence, but Konoha, like Naruto Uzumaki, was noise, always noise.
"I want to learn to be human."
He wanted – and there was that dizzy feeling again – to learn to hold that noise in the palm of his hand.
Because he had never been human.
He had never felt like a human – the boy whom no one wanted to touch, talk to, or see. He was not human and that was a truth he'd had to endure since birth, though it had confused him until he was six, until that night when he'd accepted the truth as he knew it at the time.
It burned, loneliness. It was like the desert sun in his veins every moment, burning and hurting, until his day of acceptance, after which all the nerve endings became ashes at last, and in a way, that had been worse than the pain, because how could he tell he was alive?
The weight on his back of the gourd they had given him when he was six, after That Day, was immense, and even though most of the time he barely felt it, it was a welcome burden, reminding him of what he carried, reminding him that he could feel something, that pressure which threatened to bend his spine.
In those six years, he had forgotten everything he might have ever known about how to be human.
There were still those vaguely human cravings somewhere in the darkness; hunger, thirst, (more recently) physical stirrings, various kinds of release, the need to be clothed against the elements. But mostly, the human thought processes died and blew away; connections gone, until Shukaku was at the forefront of his mind, talking with that primal voice as old and terrible as time, and Gaara's head had been filled with thunder, and pain.
And now, the thunder—the chaos—was quiet.
"Damn it, Gaara."
Naruto was looking down. Gaara saw only spiky blond hair.
And when Naruto did look up, Gaara's eyes widened.
It was like looking into a storm.
"Of course you're human. Don't talk like that," Naruto said in a voice that was low and dark and aching and nothing like Gaara had heard from him before. It was though his earlier words had touched something inside, broken it open and laid it bare, and Naruto's hands twitched.
"You're - we're-"
His eyes were horrible and magnificent. The heart of the storm.
"I look at you, and I see a thirteen-year-old kid, and not even a very big one ... not even a kid who knows much about kissing or ramen or anything like that, and you think you're some kind of monster? Sheesh, Gaara. And me, well. Look at me! Do I look like a nine-tailed fox to you?"
Gaara shook his head.
Naruto grinned. "Good. So don't talk like you're some kind of not-human thing again. 'Cause you're as human as anyone else. Anyone at all. I'll beat you up again if you don't agree."
Yet Gaara knew he was speaking in that not-real manner.
"Do you ... still want to spar?"
It was like the sunshine had come out again. "Hah! So you came around! But you don't have your gourd?"
"That's not a problem. I want to learn ... other ways."
Naruto nodded. "Good idea. Akatsuki."
He didn't have to say anything more.
"Huh ... no Rasengan, then." He said it like he was saying it to himself, and knuckled his eyes, and yawned once, then smiled again. "And I know just the place to take you, too, haha. I can't wait!"
Naruto turned, eagerly, and looked up, fist raised, grin firmly in place.
Gaara had seen the gleam of moonlight catch on his fang-like canines.
He could still taste the ramen on his tongue. Different, but not unpleasant.
Gaara opened his mouth to tell Naruto this, but before he could find the words, the other had already gone on ahead.
He watched him go.
He closed his lips and raised his fingers to them, running the tips across the line where top pressed to bottom.
Maybe one day he would learn to smile again.
Standing on the shoulders of giants.
Or, more appropriately, on their heads.
"They'll put the old lady's face up here soon, I guess."
Naruto heh-ed and knelt to touch the place where soil met stone, the area where the green patches tapered off to become the side of the cliff, grey and red and brown.
Gaara held back. It was nice up here, where the earth and the sky touched and the sky was so wide it felt like it was trying to swallow the trees and the stones and everything of wood and flesh. Above stone, below the clouds, on top of the rain-soaked world; and if another storm should come, there would be nothing between it and their bodies besides the endless openness above.
Gaara liked places such as these—high places. The world was brighter, near the sun and moon, and the air was clear and pure.
Whenever he sat in a high place, he felt he was closer to some greater thing, though he did not know what.
Naruto stared out, eyes keen and luminescent from the moon. A phantom grin stretched his features; phantom because it was a grin at nothing, at everything, at something only he could see.
There was determination there, and love—yes, Gaara recognized it now—and Gaara knew he was thinking about Uchiha, and about his promise.
"I come here to remind myself ..."
He glanced back, and Gaara heard the unspoken words. ... of my promise to her, to him. Of the sacrifices these men made.
But Naruto would never say those words, even if Gaara heard them.
Even if he was as sure of them as he'd ever been of anything.
" ... that I will be Hokage one day."
There was sadness there; a tinge in that never-ending smile. There were tears that sometimes glinted, then vanished; ghosts under the moon. Gaara did not speak of them, because Naruto did not, and he knew he was coping, in his own way.
But the sight made him awkward. Something stirred inside him a little.
Naruto had told him before that his friends had saved him from his loneliness. Gaara did not doubt that. He had fought for them; he had been prepared to kill, and even die for them. The girl—Gaara did not know her. Perhaps she did what she could, tried her best, but did she hear or see these tears? Gaara wondered. Perhaps her eyes had been too focused elsewhere.
And Uchiha ...
Whose eyes had burned with hate. Gaara had seen that. Hate and loneliness. He had seen a kindred spirit in Uchiha, before. That was all before.
I hope that you can save him, he wanted to tell Naruto, though it was for Naruto's sake.
He did not know the other boy. He did not know his history. They all had their personal tragedies. This was what Gaara had begun to comprehend.
They would spar here, soon.
Gaara crouched low and sat with his friend in the cool, damp dark. He let his gaze drift over the fog, over the electrical wires, the triangular and square and circular roofs, the apartments and lights of yellow and white and pale blue. If he were to walk to the end of the mountain and look down, just so, he knew he would see the fire symbol over the Hokage's office.
There was a whole world out there, Gaara thought, as he looked into the distance where Naruto was looking but not looking. A wide, intense, mysterious world. Konohagakure, Kusagakure, Amegakure, shinobi and jutsus and wars everlasting; secret organizations that would come for them, yes, for them, in time.
Gaara squinted, closed his eyes, and tried to put images to names.
He had been schooled, as all Sunagakure children were, in the countries of the world, and the shinobi villages, and the great heroes, but they were just names, so many meaningless names. What did names matter, when his own existence had been in doubt?
There were statues of the kages in Suna, as well. Not so unlike this place. Sandaime Kazekage, of the Iron Sand, and Shodai Kazekage, the first. From before time. They had lived, and they had died. Now, their memories were stone.
But Gaara thought of these stone things, for the first time, in a new manner. Who had such men been? What of their upbringings, their parents, their childhoods? Had any been born a child that others refused to touch? Had any, before birth, been cursed with a fearful destiny?
In all this wide, awe-inspiring world of fearsome shinobi, were there any others like himself and Naruto Uzumaki?
Gaara was closer than he had ever been before.
Closer to what, he was not entirely certain.
It was powerful, this. He felt like if he just kept his eyes closed a while longer, and inhaled slowly, and thought, then he would feel it. Outside of his body, larger than all else.
A great unity. A oneness. An acceptance.
These figures from the old world; they had suffered, surely, as he had suffered. He was not alone. He had never been alone. They must have had their ancient scars. They must have had their secret heartaches, the stories that schools did not teach children when they were busy insisting that they memorize names.
They were shinobi. They had loved. They had lost.
Perhaps some, like him, had been monsters, once, and corrupt, and perhaps some had salvaged their souls, or had their souls salvaged, and perhaps they had gone on to become men of rank and honour. These heroes, these epic creatures; they must have had their tragedies, and their shadows. They must have had friends, dear friends.
They must have hated fiercely, and loved with all the confused, violent passion a shinobi could muster.
And finally, Gaara understood, and it calmed him. Soothed his soul.
The mother he had never had—he, no, they; they were the children of their cultures, their fates, the curses they were rising above. The children of the wind and fire and leaves and sand, the children of the world and the sky and clouds, the rain and the moon and the stars and the endless sun.
They were not orphans in this place. And they were loved.
Gaara opened his eyes and looked at Naruto and he knew he understood this, too, in his own way.
They each made sense of the world, in their own ways-in their very different speaking styles and mannerisms-but they came to the same conclusions in the end.
Gaara knew this about Naruto, and he suspected Naruto knew it of him, too.
"I wanted him to look down from here, and see all this, and love it, and feel at home here, you know?" Naruto was saying, quietly. "That's all I wanted. For him to feel at home. To feel loved. I wanted him to acknowledge me, and I ... I thought at first I wanted to give him everything to make him happy, but I guess it's more like I wanted this to be enough for him. I wanted him to look at us and see a new family. I wanted to save him from his loneliness. I've still gotta find some way to do it."
To see the beauty of the things right before his eyes. Even with the Sharingan, he could not, Gaara mused.
Gaara continued to look at him. He hesitated a good while before his next words; dread took hold of his heart, but he knew he needed to say this, so he would. For Naruto.
"I too once had a precious person who ..."
It still hurt so much. He had not expected the extent to which it would.
Gaara held the side of his head, wincing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Naruto move as if to come to his side, but Gaara raised his other hand to signal that it was all right, that he could handle this.
Shukaku thrashed. Excited. Whispering. Gaara ignored it.
"I had a precious person who betrayed me. Attacked me. Hurt me."
He had never told anyone before. Not Temari, not Kankurou. Gaara supposed they, and most others, thought he had simply killed his uncle because he was unstable.
It was a likely enough reason. And in some bizarre way, it was more comforting than the alternative. Better for people to dismiss him as a monster, as they always did. Better that than to admit how hated he truly was. It was painful to speak of, even now.
"I thought I was precious to him. One night, under a moon like this, he tried to kill me. He was the first."
He heard Naruto swallow.
"Is he the one you marked your head for?"
"Huh. Well, you know what I think, Gaara? I think you put that there because you were trying to say that's what you really wanted all along." Naruto hugged his knees. "You were telling everyone what you couldn't actually say out loud, weren't you? And most of them missed it. Most of us missed it. I'm sorry, Gaara. Honest."
What was Naruto apologizing for? He had seen what no one else had seen. Truthfully, when Gaara had marked himself, he had not consciously thought of a reason for doing so. It had been a reaction. Nothing more.
He could still feel his body surge at the memory of the sensation; the blood dripping down to his eye. His body remembered all kinds of pain that his waking mind willed itself to forget.
"Sasuke's just ... misguided. He's convinced himself of all these things that aren't true, you know? He's convinced himself that he can't be happy. He thinks his whole life is in the past. Man, I don't know. I don't know what to think, 'cause I guess I don't understand it, entirely. I mean, I've never felt these things. He was right. I've never lost my family. I never had a family to begin with. But ... I feel like now, I have lost a part of my family. And this is nothing, compared to how he must feel. He must be lonelier than both of us right now. I'm going to save him from that loneliness. And then I will be Hokage."
Naruto was lonely.
It had been there all along, right before Gaara's eyes.
It had been the reason he had welcomed him so enthusiastically when he and his family had returned to Konoha. It had been why he'd insisted that they spar, walk around together, go out for ramen. It had been why Naruto had taken him to this special place.
Naruto's team-mates had saved him from his loneliness before. He loved them. They must have loved him, too, in their own ways—even Uchiha. And for a time now, they'd had him every day; had laughed with him, traveled with him, eaten with him, slept alongside him in the wilderness when on missions.
They had him in ways that Gaara knew he would never have Naruto in, because they had shared experiences with him as a team that Gaara knew he would never be privy to.
But Gaara was not jealous of their friendship.
His own team-mates, too, had him in ways that Naruto never would. Perhaps one person was not meant to be had only by another person. Perhaps love, in as little as Gaara knew of it, was a thing which was meant to exist in many ways, in many forms.
Naruto was far too much; he would never love exclusively or be loved exclusively.
Gaara touched the tattoo, lightly. The world was vast, after all. Love he had thought he would never know, never comprehend, but now it was plainly before him: in all the vastness of the world, there were many who would love him, could love him, if he let them; it was not exclusive, not a secret.
It would exist in many things, in many ways, and he would experience it many times in his life.
"I think ... I know what you wanted him to see," Gaara said.
Because he saw it.
Naruto grinned, eyes closed, then laughed—in that silly, over-enthusiastic way.
His way of thanking him, showing his gratitude.
"Naruto," Gaara began, slowly, uncertainly, "have you ever seen the ocean?"
"Yeah! I even went on a mission to the Land of Waves once. That was my first big mission! Not long before I met you, in fact!"
Beside him, Naruto flopped backwards. He laid down, pillowing his hands beneath his head and looking up with a contented sigh.
"Will you tell me about it? The ocean?"
The kunoichi, Haruno Sakura, and Uchiha Sasuke-his team-mates-may have had Naruto every day, for years, in overt ways, in conversations and taunts and play and supporting each other, fighting and dying for each other, perhaps, if Naruto was successful in retrieving his friend, but Gaara had him in these moments, these smalls hours that could never be undone.
Had they ever seen these sides of him? Had they ever seen the storm he could be? Would they ever see it? Naruto was Konoha. Not always gentle rain. Sometimes he was a gale, a flood, a tempest. Beneath the sun and the leaves, there were hidden hurts, scars that opened and flared. Gaara had triggered the old wounds when he had spoken of himself as something other than human; Naruto's anger and Naruto's words had not merely been for Gaara. How many times over the years might he have said those words to himself? How long had he raged in his own soul?
Maybe Haruno and Uchiha did see. Maybe they made sense of it, in their own ways. And maybe, through the sum of their differences, they could offer Naruto alternatives, new perspectives and views and a sampling of emotions that were apart from his own.
They expanded him, just by being different.
But through their sameness, Gaara touched his pain as no one else could.
Tonight, this was what they needed. To remember. To forget. To make peace with those precious parts of themselves, those little wonders.
"It's huge." Naruto's voice took on the cadence of a story-teller, swelling and reverberating, like a background hum, massaging Gaara's nerves. "Bigger than just about everything, I guess, 'cept the sky. Big and blue. Some of it is kind of the colour of your eyes, and some of it, farther out, is dark, almost black, and it looks like it goes on forever, but somewhere out there, it and the sky come together, and you just look at it, and you know better and all, but you wonder about that place where they're touching, and you wonder what it'd feel like to stand there, right there. Yeah. It's just like endless water, I guess. You look at it and you wonder how anything could ever get so big. Sometimes it's flat. Sometimes it rushes at you, in waves. It's surrounded by sand. I guess you'd like that. Or maybe you get enough sand in the desert, I don't know."
He paused and propped himself up on his elbows.
"Someday, Gaara, after I've brought Sasuke back and after I'm Hokage and all ... I'll take you there."
His voice was the most earnest sound Gaara had ever heard.
Gaara gave thanks, silently and inside.
"I'd like that, Naruto."
The universe was bigger than anything he could understand, full of deserts and oceans, and somehow, he'd found a boy like him.
On the fifth day, rain came.
Four days, Gaara had been here, and tomorrow, he would leave. Tomorrow, Naruto would go to train with one of the Sannin. Gaara would stand with Temari and Kankurou, and the desert would claim them all once more.
He stood, barefoot, sandals discarded. At this point, shoes would only make him slip in the mud.
Gaara held his hand up and bent two fingers inwards slightly, index and middle.
And at that, Naruto was on him again, all fists.
Always fists, Gaara thought, and crossed his arms before his chest as he was knocked backwards, toes curling while he tried to hold his footing.
A blow connected.
He fell backwards, grabbed Naruto's hands and flipped him as they tumbled together, and then Naruto was behind him, on his feet, and Gaara leapt to his feet again and spun to face him. Their sides had reversed.
Gaara wiped his bleeding mouth.
It still felt odd, being hurt. To feel his blood-
Naruto threw him a kunai knife, and Gaara did.
How a body could sing when in motion. No wonder Naruto liked this so much.
Gaara had barely swallowed a deep gulp of that cool, high air before he found himself shoved back again, trying to hold his ground again.
This time, the moon caught on the knife. It shone before Gaara's eye. He parried; alert, reflexes heightened.
Pressed together, blade to blade, and Gaara felt it all through his body. Starting at his wrist, the pressure; causing his forearm to shake, and his knees trembled.
The muscles in his legs strained; everything strained in those beautiful, impossible moments. Weight bearing down on him. Gaara opened his mouth, closed it. Grimaced.
And swung his leg forward, tripping Naruto.
They separated again, caught themselves again. It was this way every time, this dance. Swipes and feints and limbs, and the sand would not come to him now; the gourd was not here and the earth was too wet to yield any aid. But somehow, Gaara found that he liked this, this feeling.
They were careful with one another, in their own ways. They only moved as fast and hard as they thought the other could manage, never more.
Gaara flipped the knife in his fingers, wrapped and pocketed it, and ran forward, and this time it was Naruto's turn to go on the defensive.
Bare foot swung at his leg, connected with his knee, and Naruto started to slide backwards, but his feet stayed planted, forearm blocking Gaara's punch. Naruto turned in a partial arc and took Gaara with him, calf to calf.
Gaara had rolled his pants' legs up. Orange fabric brushed against his skin.
-the wrong movement, apparently-
Naruto's knee slammed into his gut.
Gaara heard himself make a noise like uuuuuhhhhhhhhhffffff, and then his arms were in the air, and he was stumbling, falling-
-down, with the moon and the sky above, right above.
He hit the ground, hard, and all air was gone.
Almost instantaneously, Naruto was crouching beside him.
"Gaara? Are you okay?" he heard. "I'm sorry. Was that too hard? Did I put too much force into it? Are you okay? Here, let me help you up."
Gaara took a breath, slowly.
As if from a distance, he was aware of the various feelings in his body; numbness, somewhat, shock from the impact. That clanging shock he'd experienced in the Chuunin tournament, as if a bell were ringing through him without sound, through his muscles and bones.
Dull ache, beneath the numb places and around them. Ache that would solidify into something deeper by tomorrow, maybe.
Gaara coughed softly as Naruto grabbed his arm and jerked him upwards. He'd already gotten one foot beneath himself, but the motion caused him to slip again.
It, whatever it was, seemed to dawn on them at the same time.
They looked at each other. Gaara looked at Naruto's messy hair, his wide, contrite eyes. His mouth, open a little, breath passing through.
Gaara was not used to being touched. His eyes must have reflected some strangeness, because Naruto let him go, gently, and stood up.
"I'm not good at this," he murmured.
Nearby, there were patches of tiny purple flowers. Even here, in this high place. The wind had that coolness to it again—-a promise of rain.
"You're fine. You're just not used to fighting without your sand, is all! Hell, I'd probably be even worse at taijutsu if I were in your position!"
Gaara was only half-listening. He pressed his lips together after his breathing had calmed.
Naruto turned, like he was going to walk away.
But he did not.
He did not, because Gaara had reached up and taken hold of his wrist.
It was a light grip, certainly not enough to halt Naruto if he had wanted to pull away.
In his chest. Something. It was almost painful. And his heart was beating so fast.
The moment was ... this must be terror, Gaara thought. But not a horrible kind, as he'd once experienced. This was like a terror of not knowing, but wanting.
"You always walk away."
A statement, not an accusation. At least, he hadn't meant it as such.
"Don't walk away."
He did not know quite what he wanted, but he didn't want that.
This time, there was no implied question that Gaara heard. His stomach roiled a bit.
A little dumb, he thought, parroting names this way, but they did not seem to have any other words at this moment, and Gaara's mouth felt dry as the sand, and his body was still singing. He'd never felt like this before. It was confusing. Upsetting, kind of. It made him almost dizzy and sick.
"Naruto," he said again, as if there was not another word in all the languages that existed. This time, he heard the tremor in his voice.
His name said in such a manner was all it took for Naruto to drop to a sitting position beside him.
Suddenly, awkwardly, they were twisting and shifting and facing each other and whatever Naruto saw on Gaara's face – fear, wonder, excitement; he must have really looked thirteen in that instant – appeared to give him concern, and there was breath, and Gaara smelled ramen on it, and he wanted something and he did not know what, but he wished Naruto would figure it out and tell him. He had said he would lead the way – he had said -
He gulped visibly. Gaara almost did as well.
"You can practice kissing with me," Naruto said, voice scarcely louder than a whisper. "I-if you want, that is. But promise not to tell anyone, all right?"
This time, it was Gaara's turn to make an incoherent sound, something like an "uaaawghhhh", very soft, but his mind only dimly registered this.
"Because we're friends," Naruto went on, "and b-because you wanted to know about kissing, and I kind of want to know, too, and I kind of want to try it, and I kind of want to be good for the girl I get with someday, and -"
Gaara's hand had moved, as if of its own volition, down from Naruto's wrist. He now felt himself desperately linking and unlinking their fingers, clenching and relaxing.
Did he want-?
He swallowed hard. Like a cloud inside, pushing out, and sand on his skin, tingling all over. This had been building all night, he suddenly realized. All night, all day, for all the days he'd been here. Maybe even before that. Maybe it'd started even back when Gaara had lain here, in this village, beaten and bleeding and exhausted.
He did not know. He did not know if he wanted to know.
He did know that he itched everywhere.
In an instant, his hands were all over the place. On Naruto's arms, squeezing, in blond hair, on his cheeks, briefly, tracing his collarbone through the fabric of his jumpsuit.
Gaara could not resist the instinctive flinch that came from being touched, and he squinted one eye, and he felt his nose wrinkle, because everything tickled. Naruto's breath, his nearness, his hair when they moved and bumped into one another, the night air, Gaara's stomach. Even his soreness was tickling him raw. It was nearly too much to stand.
Their noses brushed, and Gaara pushed himself backwards – wary – and Naruto grabbed him by the sash around his chest and lifted him forward, then slammed him back down.
"I want to kiss you," Gaara said.
"What the hell are you doing, then, Gaara?"
That was the part he didn't know. Squirming, apparently. He wiggled himself out of Naruto's grip and turned over, holding himself up with his hands and gasping harshly. It was just overwhelming, being touched. It was so nice and so awful at the same time. It filled him with disgust and discomfort, but left him wanting more. Gaara had never known anything like this.
Abruptly, he turned and shoved Naruto down so that he was atop him, hands on either side, looking down. A confused, questioning look passed between them. Suddenly, Gaara was on his side, then his back again. He rolled them once more.
Gaara pushed his head down on Naruto's chest and drove his knee into the ground as he maneuvered to shove as much of their legs and thighs together as possible.
The tickling was becoming ... something. It started in his stomach, like a tightness that was quickly knotting him from within. It flared in the small of his back, in his curling toes, in his small injuries, threading over and under and through the pain. It was like pain, but not.
From his own mouth, the most wretched sounds were emerging; strangled, choked, rasping, coughing but not coughing, half-sobbed.
Naruto wrapped his arms around Gaara's waist and lifted him.
He planted Gaara down again so that they were both in a sitting position, eyes level.
Now Gaara was afraid. Afraid of what, he didn't know, but afraid, generally, and his sand was not here, and it was too wet to make use of the soil. He shouldn't have left it behind. He'd always been more guarded than that; what was he thinking?
Gaara felt his friend's face move near his own. He was breathing in Naruto. Inhaling him, taking him right into the bloodstream. Gaara's hands, now on the ground, squeezed erratically.
The first kiss, such as it were, was a mess.
They kept their eyes open, actually staring at one another.
Gaara had never thought-
Crushing, killing; he could manage that. When the endless sand cracked bones and compressed people and the blood drained and mingled until he stank of it. Gaara of the Sand. And some days, he had thought (or Shukaku had told him, he wasn't always sure), he was the sand. Endless torrents of sand and malice, and there was nothing at the core but the body that housed Gaara, though his soul was in the sand; Gaara, he'd thought for years, was the desert, and the granules in the gourd.
But the gourd was not here, and the body of Gaara, "the demon who loved itself", had another body against it.
Naruto kissed him, moving his lips insistently.
Gaara had never thought he'd wind up like this.
He had never, not even in his craziest Shukaku-induced imaginings, supposed he might end up in a foreign village, doing something besides satiating the thirst for blood that had overtaken him. No, here he was, far from home, under light of the same moon that had witnessed his tears, his torment, his first murders.
Now he was with his first friend, the boy like him, and they were kissing. Quick. Slow. Mismatched. There was no rhythm to the way they quirked their mouths.
Gaara's lips were dry, sore from Naruto's fist.
The bottom lip had plumped from that strike. The bruise, if one formed, would be hidden by the sand. Naruto captured Gaara's aching bottom lip with his teeth, and Gaara could feel that he was trying to be careful, but it hurt. Naruto's tongue ran across his top lip.
"I think this is wrong," Naruto said suddenly. "Gah. We're doing it all wrong, Gaara!"
It definitely felt unusual to have someone licking him on the lip. Gaara wanted to file that sensation away in his memory, in case it never happened again.
"Repeat it," he said.
"No, we're doing it wrong, dattebayo. Open your mouth."
When he felt a tongue poking into him, he nearly jumped backwards. Naruto held him by the arm.
"You wiggle too much," he broke the kiss to say.
Their teeth clicked together. And then Naruto was shoving so much of his tongue into Gaara's mouth that he thought he was going to gag on it.
Was this what kissing was supposed to be like? Hitting your teeth and choking on someone's tongue? Gaara wondered.
"Damn!" Naruto broke the kiss again. He swiped the back of his hand over Gaara's chin, wiping away the saliva. "I think I'm still doing it wrong! Was that amazing for you? It wasn't for me, either! Man, I'm never going to impress Sakura—or whoever—like this!"
His eyes got a faraway look and he scrunched up his nose.
"I guess I'm just gonna have to keep kissing you until we're awesome at this."
It wasn't the kissing which had Gaara's attention, though. It was the press, though maybe that was not the right way of putting it.
There was a certain intensity to Naruto's body, a strong energy and aliveness; his scent - heavy and musky and boyish – washed over Gaara, and his voice was all over his skin; his breath warmed his lips and face and when he moved forward, roughly, they wound up pushing into one another, and this was the part where the sickeningly exciting feelings became powerful.
Not entirely comfortable. It made him hot and itchy, and his skin got moist enough that his hair stuck to his head and he felt the dirt in his pores more acutely, and when Naruto shoved him, Gaara felt like his skin was becoming something foreign, something far too sensitive. His clothes scratched him and everything, every inch, just tingled and hummed and parts of him were tickly and sore and throbbing and achy and sick, but it was all addictive, and he wanted more, but he wasn't sure if he should ask.
"That was better. Now you kiss back."
Gaara yanked his arm away and feverishly ran his fingers over Naruto's shoulder; he touched his pulse point, then threaded the tips of his fingers through his hair again. It was soft to the touch.
"I feel unusual," Gaara told him. His breathing was changing, too.
So was Naruto's, actually. In fact, he was panting.
During the next kiss, Naruto was less reckless and Gaara tried to find a harmony in the motion; they still weren't great at it. Battle was their specialty, and while teamwork was a part of that, teamwork of tongues and mouths had never been a part of training. At one point, something did slide the right way, and for a moment, Gaara felt a jolt at the base of his spine.
Naruto must have felt it as well. He stopped, looking blurry-eyed and red-faced and breathless.
Gaara had no idea if he wanted this to continue or not. There was certainly a part of it that felt wonderful; he was beginning to feel his body stirring and craving these touches, wondering how they might feel if the obstacles of their clothing were removed.
The thought made him dizzy with need.
On the other hand, this situation had begun to take on a dangerous feel; they didn't know what they were doing, what territory they were crossing into. Well, Naruto might've, but Gaara didn't think so. Gaara was hesitant. He'd never been this close to someone before. And dimly, somewhere along the way, he had begun to remember what he had heard about sex, and was this sex? Had he already had sex? He did not think he had, but Gaara remembered the borders of sex-as a definition-being confusing, and it was associated with many related behaviours, wasn't it?
He didn't really know if he should be doing something he didn't know well enough to know if he were doing it or not.
He guessed he probably shouldn't.
The only reason he even knew to place the word "sex" on the activity was because he knew that when his body got hot like this, it was because of sex, and puberty, and that he was thirteen and his trainers had informed him that nin, like any other boys of such ages, would have to face such discomforts, but as shinobi, they would have to suppress them with their will-power, because a shinobi child had priorities that took precedence, and Gaara had never had much trouble keeping his lust at bay.
He had been far too unhappy and too pained to have much of a libido; Shukaku had had too much control, turning Gaara's focus toward blood, and as a ninja, the "weapon" of Suna, he did indeed have priorities elsewhere. Stirrings did arise from time to time, but they had always been easy to ignore.
Now, there were no immediate priorities. Shukaku was quiet. And Gaara did feel pain, but of a different kind.
He had no idea how to handle this—what the "appropriate" response would be.
Then, he found himself without time to contemplate the matter further.
Naruto—who had somewhere along the way stripped himself of his jacket and top—tackled Gaara, biting at his ear and neck.
Gaara felt a hand on his chest, then lower, under the sash, and-
Under his shirt. On his abdomen.
In an instant, Gaara was on his knees and Naruto's arm was twisted behind his back.
Gaara released it before Naruto had time to protest.
"I apologize," he said quietly. "I had not meant-"
He had not meant to. It had been pure instinct. No one touched Gaara. They absolutely did not touch the skin of any sensitive places.
And his belly had been right where some of his most intense heat and tightness was pooling, and Naruto had touched it. The result was akin to being shocked.
"S'okay," Naruto replied, not looking too fazed. He was grinning and still looking twitchy, as if he might jump Gaara again, though he held back. "I should've asked. So you want to take care of it on your own?"
"Are you asking me to have sex with you?"
"Of course not! Only men and women can have sex. Don't be so naïve, Gaara!"
"I believed sex was complicated and difficult to define."
Gaara thought for a moment, then added,
"I thought only boys and girls could kiss, too."
"Well, only boys and girls kiss for real. It's different for buddies, like you and me."
Gaara was about to ask how, but Naruto interrupted him.
"C'mon. At least take off your shirt! It's gotta be miserable in those clothes. Aw, damn. I wish we had something cold to drink. I'm so..." He looked at Gaara and faltered. Suddenly, he did not seem at ease. "I mean ... is it okay if I talk about this? I just assumed, y'know, we're both boys and all ... we have the same parts ... I didn't figure you'd care if I talked about this in front of you, or whatever, but then I remembered you're all, uhhh, not used to some things and kind of innocent in your own way and wow, Gaara, I'm really sorry if I stepped on your toes! You want to just go back to my place and play games or something?"
Gaara looked away.
Below, Konoha was sleeping. He had never heard it so quiet before.
The only sounds in the vicinity were those of the wind blowing through the branches, and the dripping of water from the leaves.
"This," he began, "is why I believed sex to be complicated."
Gaara reached up, and, with great care, began removing his sash.
It rained again that night.
In retrospect, Gaara wondered if Konohagakure, like Sunagakure, had a season for the rains.
In retrospect, Gaara wondered many things.
He sat in the windowsill, closing his eyes intermittently. The gourd continued to rest in the corner. Every so often, he heard the whispering of the sand; it mixed well with the voice of the wind.
Looking out at the puddles covering the streets and the sidewalks, Gaara wondered if it had appeared this way in Suna thirteen years before. He wondered if it had been considered a good omen, or the opposite.
Something had been put to rest tonight.
It was not only Naruto, snoring softly in his bed, or Shukaku, resting on the fringes of Gaara's consciousness, eternal, dreaming the dreams of demons that eluded Gaara with the night. It was not Konohagakure, which never seemed to still entirely; there were still lamps sprinkling the Hidden Village with their light, and frogs and insects and trees and things whistling and rustling. It was not the sand, which had been peculiarly quiescent, seeming to sense that its master was placated.
Everything smelled of resin, pine needles, and thick musk—including, Gaara supposed, himself.
The moon and the stars etched his face into the glass; a soft, frosty glow of white and blue shadowed his features.
They had kissed until they could not breathe, until thoughts made of words melted and became only the kinesis of the body, which did not think, only knew. Somewhere in time, the roughness had ebbed, and movements became synchronized; a mysterious harmony, skin on skin, the best feeling in the world (Naruto had been right; such stuffy heat did feel much better to one unclothed), the best pain Gaara had ever known.
The rain came, hard and icy, and drenched them in a torrent.
Refreshment that rarely found its way into the desert: it washed the burn and left them soaking and shivering, the ache now muted and throbbing.
They grabbed up their discarded shirts and sandals and made their way back down the cliffs, barely speaking, their footsteps leaving small imprints in the soft dirt.
They did not discuss what had happened, or what almost had-almost because Gaara was sure there was something else, something more, some way two people, even boys, could be together, and in their need and desperation, he was sure they would have found it if time had allowed.
But they were not ready yet.
For once, Gaara did not want to ask any questions.
For once, Naruto did not want to ramble.
Gaara found himself in Naruto's shower, staring down at his feet.
Mud sloughed off. He picked the twigs from his hair.
Earlier, Naruto had touched it and commented that it seemed to be growing out.
He needed to meet up with his brother and sister again. Tomorrow.
He scrubbed himself until the smell of soap covered the other scents somewhat.
He felt like a stranger in his skin, and there were still things he wanted to ask, but now the questions were elusive and uncomfortable. Now, Gaara just kept stealing glances at things and thinking about parts of his body he had never paid much attention to before, and wondering why he was doing that. He wanted to pay his body more attention in general, but he did not entirely feel comfortable doing so, because now that the edge of lust has been taken off, he could not stop thinking of how in Suna it would be considered obscene.
He turned the faucet and stepped out. Lightly, he toweled himself off and regarded himself in the mirror, feeling the coolness seep into his toes from the tile flooring.
He wiped the fog away with the back of his hand.
The Demon who Loved Itself.
So his mother had wished him to be.
Then this was what it looked like. What would it look like when it got older? What would she have thought if she had seen it—no, him—now? Had she, even for a moment, considered his birth with anticipatory joy?
Tentatively, Gaara placed a finger in his mouth and pulled at his cheek, wondering if he would ever grow accustomed to making use of those muscles. Shukaku had, but he wanted to smile for reasons that had nothing to do with Shukaku.
"Remember, don't tell anyone," Naruto reminded Gaara in a whisper when he entered the bedroom. He held up the cover, inviting him.
"I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea about this, Gaara."
Gaara did not understand why Naruto insisted on this so strongly that he kept repeating it; some social etiquette that must have passed him by like so many other things, he figured.
"I don't sleep."
"Is this about sex?"
"Just get in! Jeez! And no."
Gaara considered this. He trusted Naruto.
"Y'know, you're as pervy as my sensei," Naruto said, once Gaara had climbed in with him. "Always asking about sex, and kissing, and thinking everything I do is about that. Next thing you know, you'll be stalking girls at waterfalls."
"Shouldn't you-" Gaara looked in the direction of the bathroom.
"Nah. I don't need to."
"You smell like you do," Gaara observed.
"Man, some friend you are."
"I was just kidding. Jeez. Now, remember, don't mention this, all right?"
He threw an arm over Gaara and nuzzled him.
"I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea," Naruto said. Gaara felt that sunny blond hair tickle his throat. Its smell was strong and earthy, but not unpleasant. "Don't want anyone thinking I swing that way, and don't want anyone thinking I'm some idiot who needs a hug or something. I'm not a sap like that. I'm a ninja."
But this, Gaara thought, made them feel less like wild animals.
He wished he could tell Naruto that now he thought he understood what it felt like to be human. When Naruto talked to him, took him places, sparred with him, kissed him; yes, even that. The flood of warmth, of covoluted emotions Gaara could not put names to; like humanity entering him with each touch, being kissed into him, until he could do nothing but hold on and let it take him, whether he willed it or not.
To be human was to not have all the answers. To be human was to feel difficult. Layered. Animals acted on instinct. Animals got rabid.
Humans said things they didn't mean and conveyed things they didn't say.
Humans could hurt you to the point of insanity or make you feel so good you would think you were dying.
Being human was tricky, and frightening, and many other things, but that was the point: it was many things, not a single thought, not something that could be expressed in a few adjectives and syllables. Gaara was finally beginning to understand that he could live a full lifetime and he'd never fully comprehend it, because the longer he existed, the more questions he would accumulate.
Maybe that was the point, too.
"Maaaaan. I hope the milk didn't spoil again."
"Trying to get me drunk?" Naruto yawned. "Can't believe I'm leaving tomorrow. Mmf."
"Will you miss it?"
Gaara shifted to look at Naruto. Large, sweet blue eyes blinked at him.
"Yeah. Yeah, I will. Not so sure it'll miss me, though."
"It will," Gaara said, and he didn't doubt this.
Strong hands made fists and kneaded his back. He relaxed and eyed the gourd.
Although Shukaku had rumbled throughout Gaara's stay in Konoha, the demon had never surfaced. The headaches were awful, some days, but tonight ... tonight, fighting it and keeping it at bay had seemed easier.
How do you hurt, Naruto?
"I want to be missed, someday," Gaara said.
Naruto smiled against him.
"Well, you will be. Soon as you leave tomorrow."
Gaara swallowed. "I meant ... more permanently."
He felt the smile fade.
"Just say you want to be remembered. Less depressing ..." Naruto yawned. "'Course you will be. Me, too. They'll tell stories about us. Think about that, Gaara. Someday, some old guy will be sittin' around telling some kids about these great warriors from years and years ago ..."
Naruto looked contemplative. "No. Heroes."
"Will tonight be remembered?"
"Hah! If I didn't know you better, Gaara, I'd think you were making a joke. Dattebayo. 'Course not. This stays between us. Makes you wonder what things all the people in the stories were hiding, doesn't it? They say the Fourth Hokage was so great. What'd he do in his spare time? Huh? Wonder if he had a friend he... well." Another yawn. "Mmf, nahhhh. Look, it's special like this, y'know? Our little secret. Just ours."
His eyes fluttered closed.
Ours. Gaara liked that.
"Someday," he said.
"Someday?" Naruto murmured.
Gaara shifted, carefully, so that his arm was over the other. It was still awkward, doing such a thing. The urge to jerk away remained, but he did not act upon it.
"I want to-"
"Shhh. I know."
After a fact, Gaara knew he did.
They did not have to say anything more.
Then Naruto was asleep, warm dead weight, and Gaara found himself up and in the windowsill, contemplating.
How did Naruto hurt?
Tomorrow, Gaara would leave. Tomorrow, Naruto would belong to his team-mates, and Konoha. The Hidden Village needed him. Uchiha Sasuke needed him.
More importantly, Naruto needed his rival. He needed to save people from themselves. He needed to be a hero.
And he would be.
This interlude – these small hours – were for him. To give him respite from his loneliness, as he had given Gaara. A final gift of parting before the long journey ahead.
For Naruto, that blissful sleep would end soon, and there would be hardships and starless nights.
But that was the way of the shinobi, the path of one who aspired to be a kage. Forming bonds meant protecting them, losing them, repairing them, and there were hardships, always.
For his part, Gaara knew what he needed to do. Naruto had shown him, without ever saying a word about it.
Their lives diverged now, but someday.
Gaara closed his eyes.
The ocean would wait for them.
Someday, he would see it, and he would believe it. Water enough to drown the desert.
He opened his eyes and looked up through the dark shroud of the evening-broken now by the first slivers of morning light.
The Fourth looked down at him with eyes of stone.
What secrets were they hiding?
Ever so slowly, he smiled.
Fate did not permit it at this instant, but someday, he would figure out that way people fit together.
Gaara turned away from the window, arms by his sides, and went to retrieve his gourd. It was nearing time to leave, after all.
(I KNOW GAARA SAW THE OCEAN IN THE MOVIE BUT WTF IT WAS CRAP AND MADE NO SENSE.)
Notes the sequel: I'd love to write more NaruGaaNaru sometime, such as a sequel or an unrelated story from the later time period in which they're older, or beyond that, or some NaruGaa-themed gen.
This was written for NaruGaaNaru day '08 - July 28th. I've only just now gotten around to uploading it to FFN. Previously and concurrently, it can be found at finnimbrun (dot) livejournal (dot) com.
For some reason, I kept imagining Gaara in his Chuunin Exam outfit in this fic, hence the part with the wrappings in the beginning. Well, I guess Gaara can change clothes as he sees fit, eh?
That's about it. Cheers, and thanks for reading.