A/N: I swear, I'm back in some kind of NaruGaa kick, lulz. And all because of the manga's recent chapters. In fact, the most recent chapter (474) inspired me so much, that I decided to make a fangirl's fantasy sequel to where the last relevant page left off. So I'm warning you now: there will be some mild spoilers, and then it will go into m own little thing. ;)
His world feels like it's crumbling around him.
He never had much of a world to begin with; it has always been derived from who his precious people are. Who his developed family is, since he doesn't have one left alive that's blood-related. He had to make his own. And his first solid family was – is – Team Seven, with Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke and Sakura and himself. He loves each of its members in a different way, but it is a love-made bond strong enough to formulate a family.
It's breaking apart. It has been ever since Sasuke left, but even then it was like a family with estranged spouses; it merely took time before it was back together again. Naruto felt, back then, that he could fight and drag home his brother and his family would be reunited.
But it's been years. And things have changed drastically. Not only is Sasuke an outlaw of every nation of ninjas across the land due to his partnership in the Akatsuki, but he has betrayed his own comrades. To the point where the girl whom loves him most must save him from himself and his craving for darkness by executing him herself. And that is just so messed up, because Naruto knows that Sakura would rather Sasuke run free and far, on exile, than be killed by someone. Although, Naruto supposes, it is better for someone who loves you to kill you than a stranger or someone you hate.
Through these thoughts, as blurred in passing as a cheetah at full speed, Naruto can hardly breathe. His head is swimming and throbbing. He holds it with one hand, and watches with painfully shut eyes as his family photo crashes and breaks on the floor of his mind.
His breath hitches and in its catch, the atmosphere seems to still. He hears Kakashi's hair rustle as the masked man turns his head towards the simultaneous sound of feet touching down on snow.
Slowly, Naruto lifts his head and glances to his left, where Kakashi's eye, he knows, he also gazing. He finds the three siblings of the Sand Village standing there, the young Kazekage in the center: Gaara. On either side of him, Temari and Kankurou stand with serious faces, their mouths in grim lines. Gaara appears as nonchalant as ever, but Naruto can read his eyes. He can always read Gaara's eyes. And at the moment, there is nothing but determination in their aqua depths.
Naruto cannot express how oddly relieved he is to see the redhead walking closer, step by step. He rights himself to face the trio, and ignores Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-taichou completely. The blond simply stares past the blonde woman and brunet man and watches Gaara with a slightly dazed expression. He feels oh-so tired, as sleepy as a child after a Christmas Eve party. He hasn't slept in days, and his heart is troubled to the point where all Naruto wishes to do is curl up in the snow and sleep.
The kitsune sniffs, his nose pink and numb with cold, and he blinks languidly. He listens with as much shock and heavy fear as he had when he listened to Sai as he does now while listening to the trio speak. Temari recalls how Sasuke attacked the 'Kage meeting, and what must be done about it.
Naruto isn't sure what he will do. He doesn't want to have to kill Sasuke, or watch Sakura-chan do it for him. Or watch anybody, for that matter. It was – is – a dysfunctional family, but he loves it. He doesn't want to lose his brother, someone who, through ancient ties, is related to him by the thinnest of blood ties, as Madara/Tobi had told him. Naruto knows it is foolish, but part of him still hopes that Sasuke has goodness left in him. And maybe, just maybe, Naruto can be the one to bring it out.
But no. He can't bring it out, because deep in Naruto's heart, he knows the truth. He will never admit to it, though.
"Naruto," Gaara says slowly, and it snaps the blond out of his thoughts. He connects his gaze with Gaara's eyes, and doesn't seem to notice as the redhead takes a tentative step closer. "This will be a war. And in this war, there are two targets: the Hachibi carrier and the Kyuubi carrier; in other words, you. And because of this… as Kazekage of the Sand and for the sake of the ninja world, I will guard you with my life. I swear that I will let no harm come to you."
Naruto blinks once, twice, in rapid motion. His gaze softens, and he lowers his eyes t the snowy ground. Everybody closest to the Hachibi and Kyuubi Jinchuuriki are going to fight to protect them. It seems strange to Naruto, because all of his life, he's always been the one protecting people.
Gaara goes on to say, "No matter what comes to pass, I will let nothing get in the way, not even Uchiha Sasuke. I will show no mercy."
Gaara never has shown mercy, except towards Naruto, and the blond knows this. He idly nods his head, but he can't take the stress. He doesn't like hearing all of these things pertaining to Sasuke; it sounds as though the raven-haired teen is going to die. And the thought of losing his brother makes Naruto sick inside.
The redhead steps even closer, and Naruto tries not to show how severely he is trembling. "Sasuke doesn't even see you any longer, Naruto. He spoke to me, and said that his only goal is in the darkness. You showed me the light when I was headed down a similar path, and I accepted it. But he refuses."
Naruto's head drops lower. That, he fears, is the truth he had been unwilling to accept: the truth that Sasuke will not come back. That he has no goodness in him any more, and if he does, he will purge himself of every last drop.
Gaara sighs almost imperceptibly, but Naruto can hear it with his demon-enhanced senses. Gaara is much closer now. "You told me that you would become Hokage. And I have become Kazekage." He's even closer now, and his hand is coming up to touch lightly and comfortingly upon Naruto's right shoulder. The blond glances up, finally, and stares hard into Gaara's black-rimmed eyes, eyes as bruised from insomnia as his own currently are. "If you are willing to bare the title of 'Kage, then you must do whatever it takes… as the Uchiha's friend."
Naruto's eyes grow wide, because, despite Gaara's talk of essentially killing Sasuke, he still understands Naruto's feelings. Gaara's face is close, and Naruto can smell him through the cold: warm like the desert sun, and dry and spicy like sand and cinnamon. And always, always laced with blood, because that's who Gaara was, and what every ninja is: a killer, tainted physically, but differing in purity soulfully.
The blond nods again. His voice appears to have left him. But he likes the contact, one in which someone has initiated instead of him for once. The kitsune forces a small smile as he reaches up his right hand to grip Gaara's, still placed on his shoulder. He leans forward instinctively, not caring that five other people are watching, and he rests his forehead against Gaara's. "Thank you," he whispers, his voice not as lost as he had thought. He squeezes Gaara's hand gently before releasing he redhead completely.
Gaara's eyes are soft, and his face is relaxed. "I will always be here for you, Naruto. To protect you, and support you. I know how troubled you are by how you are trembling."
Naruto's minute smile is genuine now. "I know you will be. And you have always been more perceptive than most, when it comes to my emotions," he states with a tone that sounds strange to him. But Gaara's tone had sounded stranger, because there actually had been a tone in his voice; normally, his voice is flat and uncaring. But just then, it had sounded… worried. Worried about Naruto.
"You look tired," the redhead remarks as he takes a step back. He must be uncomfortable with the closeness, Naruto thinks idly. "You should rest a while before we head out."
Behind him, nearly forgotten, Naruto hears his team leader's voice. "Yes, Naruto; you deserve some sleep. You've been overworking yourself," Kakashi says with a light-hearted tone. Naruto is almost tempted to call him the Hokage, because of what Yamato said earlier when they heard of Danzo's betrayal. 'We should go on as if you were Hokage, Kakashi.'
"Oh, alright," the blond sighs a tad dejectedly. "I'll try to get some rest. Just don't move on without me, dattebayo."
"We wouldn't dream of it," Kakashi smiles, or, at least, Naruto thinks it's a smile by the way Kakashi's eye is twinkling at him.
Yawning lightly, Naruto turns and heads back into the building, and isn't surprised to find Gaara tagging along behind him, his sandaled feet crunching in the snow a half-step behind Naruto's pace. The blond opens the door and murmurs, "You don't have to follow me in, Gaara."
The redhead steps inside anyway. "I promised you that I would guard you with my life, and that's precisely what I'm going to do. I can't afford to be caught unawares; what if someone attacks us to get to you, and I'm not near enough to protect you in time?"
Naruto is torn between laughing and crying due to his fragile emotional state; laugh at how ridiculously determined Gaara is, and crying over the thought that Gaara might get hurt, or worse, die again because he would be protecting the kitsune. The blond opts to smile gently instead. "Okay, okay, if you say so. Come in, then," he adds, even though the redhead is already halfway inside.
Shaking his head in the slightest, the yellow-haired teen shuts the door and pays no mind to the noise outside. He steps over to the futon on the floor, one he had been laying on what feels like days ago, but had only been hours prior.
Naruto exhales dryly as he sits on it, and watches in his peripheral vision as Gaara gracefully folds down into a cross-legged sitting position. The blond looks over at his friend with a lopsided smile and a raised brow. "Are you seriously going to watch me sleep?"
"That is my intent, yes," the young Kazekage relies with surety.
This time, Naruto does laugh a little bit. "You're one hell of a dedicated individual, Gaara."
"I'll take that as a compliment," the other retorts as he leans back on his palms to shrug off his gourd. He lays it against a wall and resumes his position as Naruto lies down and curls onto his side, facing his friend.
"Gaara," Naruto yawns, "What do you suppose will happen? When we meet up with Sasuke, I mean." He closes his eyes and licks his cold, dry lips.
Gaara secretly studies the movements, the flutter of eyelids and flick of pink tongue. He adverts his eyes when he answers, "I haven't a clue, but I know that it won't bode well. It didn't when I caught up with him at the 'Kage meeting, for example."
Naruto sighs. "Too bad. I wish… sometimes… that things were easier. You know… that Sasuke would, I dunno, surrender… or apologize… or something. I want the old Sasuke back."
The redhead frowns. "But why? I never understood him much. As far as I could tell, all he's brought you is frustration and grief."
"That might be true, but…" Another yawn. "He's still… my comrade. My friend. Like you, but… different."
"How so?" Gaara asks lowly, still confused on the blond's and the youngest Uchiha's relationship.
"Well," Naruto begins sleepily, his eyes ever closed, "Sasuke is like family. His bond, severed from me or not, is like… like a brother's. To me, he's kind of like how Kankurou is to you: sometimes you hate him, sometimes you love him. And either way, you're stuck with him, because he's family."
The Sand leader nods, finally comprehending the situation. So Sasuke is like Kankurou? It makes sense. "Then… what am I to you?" Gaara asks slowly, his voice brimming with curiosity.
"You're…" Naruto mumbles, but he doesn't finish. He is fast asleep.
Gaara grunts in irritation; he wants so badly to know what Naruto thinks of him, but it will have to wait. In the meantime, the kitsune is shivering, and needs extra covering. Without having to think twice about it, Gaara removes his beige cloak from around his neck and drapes it over Naruto's body. After a few minutes, his friend is no longer shivering in his sleep, and Gaara is satisfied with that.
And then there's nothing but to wait. Wait until the troubled teen awakens, is forced to wake and move out, or until attack. Hopefully, none of the latter will come to be.
An hour passes, and Gaara scoots closer to Naruto for warmth. He reaches out and touches the kitsune to brush away some stray hairs from his forehead. He wants to see Naruto's eyes, closed or not. Unfortunately, he's caught in the act.
"Methinks you didn't offer to protect him as your duty as Kazekage to the world," a voice says from the window, startling Gaara. They must have been extremely quiet and quick to sneak in here undetected.
The redhead looks up to find Naruto's silver-haired sensei standing in front of the window, his hands in his pockets. Gaara straightens himself and puts on a subtly defiant tone to his voice. "Perhaps not; perhaps I did it because I owe him my life twice times over. And perhaps I did it because he is one of my important people, like I am his."
"Oh, I don't doubt either of those reasons for a second," Kakashi remarks playfully, making sure to keep his voice low enough to be heard, but not loud enough to wake the sleeping kitsune. "But I know for a fact that there is another reason, a deeper reason, one linked to your previous statement about 'important people,'" Kakashi seems to smirk.
"I'm not following," Gaara frowns. He's irked by the Copy Ninja's roundabout speaking methods.
Kakashi's visible eye lingers while he blinks, signifying a wink. "Alright, then I'll come right out with it: I think, like a couple other people I know, you consider Naruto to be your most important person. Your most precious, in some ways more than your siblings."
Realization dawns on Gaara, but he doesn't show it save for a small flicker of understanding in his eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about," he denies.
The sharingan user chuckles silently. "If you say so. Maybe I should have Sai come in with one of his self-help books and explain it to you instead; something along the lines of, 'How You Know You Are In Love'?"
"Get out!" Gaara growls, and Kakashi waves his hands in surrender and disappears just as Naruto snorts out of sleep.
"Hmmn? Is s'mthin' wrong?" Naruto tiredly slurs.
His anger gone, Gaara relaxes and shakes his head. "Nothing is wrong. Go back to sleep," he whispers, and for good measure, touches Naruto's arm. The blond nods, fully trusting, and easily slips back into slumber. But while he sleeps, Gaara bites his inner lip and frowns in puzzlement over Kakashi's words.
The redhead clutches his clothing over his heart, feeling it drum harshly beneath his robes as if he had jogged a mile (which is a feat any ninja could do as easily as turn pages in a book, but it excites the heart nonetheless).
"He may be correct in his assumption," Gaara utters under his breath, "But whether he is or not doesn't matter. All I have to do is protect Naruto; my feelings for him are irrelevant."
Or, at least, he wants to think that they are irrelevant.