Summary: Christmas-fic! Last Christmas, Uzumaki Naruto's heart got broken. This year, he's hoping for something different.

Pairings: Gaara/Naruto, past Sasuke/Naruto, side Sasuke/Temari, mentioned others.

Disclaimer: GAANARU IS CANON. I BELIEVE IT. ;__; Based off the song Last Christmas – the Glee version! This, by the way, also doesn't belong to me.

Warnings: Yey for SLASH and HET pairings. There will be Sasuke-bashing because who doesn't love their holidays with a side of that? Also some angst with some unbearable fluff at the end because holidays should equal fluff. Maybe some OOCness on Naruto's part, and possibly some mature content (because Gaara can't keep his hands to himself) though at the moment it doesn't get much better than kissing (unfortunately). If you don't like it, don't freaking read it.

Author's Note: Okay, so I listened to the Glee version of Last Christmas and this idea popped into my head. I blame it all on that song and the fact that I love it when Gaara trumps Sasuke in winning Naruto's heart. Please enjoy! (Also, sorry for some faults in the style and line breaks; FF doesn't like me today, even though its Christmas, and was being something of a bitch.)

Last Christmas

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
And the very next day, you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears,
I'll give it someone special."

December 19th

Uzumaki Naruto stared up at the mansion with dull eyes. The wind that was whipping angrily around him was icy and cold, but Naruto barely noticed it. All he could see and think about was the mansion. Or, more specifically, he could only think about the people within it.

It had been a long year since he'd been to this place. Naruto's smile was a bit bitter as he remembered the person who'd entered that house all that time ago – that person had been naïve and young and stupid. Naruto liked to think that he'd matured since then – that he knew better now.

He hiked his duffle bag over his shoulder and started for the front door. If he was honest with himself, he'd debated coming back this year for a long time – ever since he'd received the invitation at the end of October. But in the end, he decided that it had been a long time since he'd seen his friends and it would be a long time until he saw them again if he didn't go. And, in the back of his mind, he longed to see him again. But he would never admit that to himself; those feelings were nothing but a terrible, horrible weakness.

Naruto knocked on the front door, amused by the loud, echoing sound it made. The Hyuuga Winter Mansion was really very huge; Naruto had never seen a bigger building that didn't belong to a company of some sort. He shook his head – he'd know through high school that Neji had money, but he'd rarely had such examples of it. Now, looking up at the massive building in front of him, he wondered why Neji had even bothered to befriend a poor little nobody like him.

They'd been best friends throughout high school, him and Neji. Naruto smiled; he still remembered the day that they'd become friends quite clearly.

Naruto had never been well-liked at their high school. In fact, he'd never been well-liked in the small town he'd grown up in – for reasons that he didn't learn until he'd grown up. As it was, Naruto was often bullied because the kids of prejudiced parents hated him. He'd been an outcast for most of his life, and friendless. Looking back at that existence, Naruto was still amazed that he'd managed his way through it. He thought it had a lot to do with Neji and the friends he'd managed to make after him.

The day that they'd met had been clear and bright and sunny; Naruto had just started high school and it had been in session for two weeks. He'd been walking home from school (as he usually did) and had been jumped; a routine that had been all too familiar to him. Naruto had learned a long time ago that fighting with them got him nowhere; he just ended up getting punished for defending himself while his attackers got off scot-free. So he'd let them beat him up and tried to make as little noise as possible so he wouldn't encourage them.

He remembered that, about half-way through the beating, Neji had arrived. Naruto hadn't recognized his voice (Neji had been a new kid back then, just transferred in from the big city) and he'd only been half-aware, so he didn't know what Neji had said to his attackers. Whatever it had been, it had called them off of him. He'd passed out after that (Naruto was pretty sure there had been a couple of kicks to his head and ribs) and woken up in his own ratty apartment, wondering if he'd dreamed the entire thing.

The next day there'd been whispers about the new kid defending the outcast, and Naruto had just gotten sick of it. Everyone knew that he got beaten up, but he didn't want anyone to think that he couldn't fight for himself if he really truly wanted to. He'd marched into Neji's homeroom and demanded that they have a fight, so he could show him that he could "fight his own fucking battles." Naruto still thought of that moment with amusement; Neji's face had been priceless.

As it was, they'd managed to have their fight. It had been long and hard and difficult, but Naruto had been teaching himself how to fight since kindergarten and he had a will of steel. Even though Neji had been clearly beautifully trained, he'd managed to scrape a win. Naruto remembered seeing Neji collapse and falling as soon as he was sure that the other boy had lost; that feeling of total triumph and success was a feeling that he looked back on with pride to this day. To everyone's surprise, they'd been close friends ever since. It hadn't been because of the fight . . . but because of the conversation that had followed, which Naruto had always held close to his heart.

"I understand why you did that," Neji said, face beaten and bruised.

Naruto bristled. "No you don't," he spat, angry that anyone would even think that could understand.

Neji regarded him calmly. "No, I don't," he agreed. "But I'd like to." And he held out his hand to Naruto, who had never had someone offer such a thing to him before.

They became the odd pair of their school, attached to the hip wherever they went. Even when they'd collected other friends, Naruto and Neji had always been the closest. And even when they'd gone to separate colleges after high school, they'd kept in touch through phone and email, making sure to update each other on what was going on in their lives. Because they were both so busy, however, they'd never had time to see each other in person . . . until last year.

Naruto was shaken out of his thoughts as the door opened to show Gerard, the old butler. Naruto grinned; Gerard had been Neji's butler for a very long time and Naruto had always loved to tease him whenever he came over. Gerard had developed the same long-since resigned attitude towards Naruto that many of his teachers had had after three years of having him. Naruto suspected that Gerard actually harbored a secret fondness for him. Naruto knew what Gerard would expect from him, and slapped on a large smile.

"Gerard!" he exclaimed. Gerard gave him one of his blank stares.

"Uzumaki-sama," he intoned. "It has been a long time since we have had the . . . pleasure of your company."

Naruto's grin didn't slip. "You know you missed me, old buddy!" he said, and slapped Gerard on the shoulder as he passed him in the doorway. When he looked back, the old man looked a bit scandalized. Naruto bit back a laugh.

"Where's Neji, Gerard?" he asked casually, looking around the elegant room with only a hint of awe.

"Hyuuga-sama is in the living room, with the other guests," Gerard said, his usual blank face back in place. "I will lead Uzumaki-sama there," he said as Naruto gave him a look and added, "You may leave your bag here; I will have a maid bring it up."

Naruto did so and followed Gerard through the twists and turns of the mansion. Naruto knew that the instant he tried to navigate anywhere on his own, he'd get totally and miserably lost; it had happened to him too many times to count. He was lucky this place got cell phone reception or he might have been wandering the halls until he died from lack of water.

"So, who else is here?" Naruto asked casually. Gerard didn't look back.

"Haruno-sama, Lee-san, Kiba-san," Naruto grinned at his disdain for Kiba, "Nara-sama, Yamanaka-sama, Tenten-san, Hinata-sama, Gaara-sama, Temari-sama and Uchiha-sama." Naruto's heart stuttered at the last name, and his smile slipped. Luckily, Gerard didn't look back to notice.

"Are they all staying for the entire time?" he asked, trying to keep his casual attitude. Neji had extended the invitation to last until the 27th, so that everyone would have time to spend time with their families on New Year's if they wanted to.

"I believe so," Gerard deadpanned. "Here we are," he said as they finally stopped in front of a door that Naruto recognized. He took a deep breath as Gerard opened it for him and then forced a smile at the man as he passed him.

The living room was mostly full when Naruto entered; it seemed that everyone had indeed been gathered there. Naruto beam became more natural as he caught sight of Neji, sitting on a couch at the far end.

"Oh Nejiko!" he cooed loudly. The room went dead silent for a moment as all eyes turned to him. Then, in a great roar of sound, almost everyone in the room scrambled to his side, shouting his name. Naruto looked past them all at the one person who remained seated and didn't bother to look up from his book; Uchiha Sasuke. Naruto felt a bit weak, and he wondered if he would collapse and make a fool of himself. He straightened his spine; he wouldn't be a weakling, not now. He just had to pretend that it didn't matter, that it didn't affect him. Naruto forced his smile back on his face; he was the master at pretending.

"Naruto!" Neji was pushing his way through their other friends, smiling as he finally reached Naruto's side. He was as handsome as ever – well-groomed dark hair hanging to his chin that made him look more elegant than rebellious, and his sharp aristocratic good looks made him look all the better. His pale blue eyes – eyes that some people remarked were as close to colorless as an iris could get – were warm and happy. "I'm glad to see you!" Neji swept him into a hug; unusual for him, but they hadn't seen each other for a year, so Naruto could understand. He returned it tightly, and a strange choked feeling rose in his throat. He hadn't felt this loved in for the entire year, and it felt so good to have someone hold him in affection. Naruto almost didn't want Neji to let go.

As Neji pulled back, green eyes filled his vision. "Idiot!" Haruno Sakura said affectionately; the name had become more of a nickname for them than an insult. "You look thinner," she added immediately, looking over his body in concern. Naruto scowled; she always mentioned how thin he was every time he saw her. He hated it; especially when he had been praying that she wouldn't notice his weight loss and bring it up in front of everyone.

"I'm the same weight as ever," he said irritably, hoping it would convince her, but Sakura frowned at him.

"Don't listen to her, Fox-Face!" Inuzuka Kiba leaned into the small circle, sharp teeth flashing in a grin that made him look decidedly wolfish. "You look as chubby as the last time I saw you!"

"I'm not fat!" Naruto protested, pouting and inwardly pleased that Kiba was as oblivious as ever. "And don't call me that, Dog-Breath!"

Kiba glared at him. "Only when you stop calling me Dog-Breath," he compromised. Naruto's pout deepened; he'd never stop calling Kiba that, and Kiba, damn him, knew it all too well. The dog-lover's grin had re-appeared.

"Naruto, I love your new style!" Yamanaka Ino had sidled up to them. "I mean, your glasses and clothes were . . . okay, but I'm so happy to see you've finally decided to come out of your shell!" Naruto hide a wince; he'd known they'd notice, but he'd hoped that it wouldn't come up. He'd even debated dressing the way he'd used to, but he'd decided that his old style just didn't . . . fit him anymore.

Neji looked down at Naruto in surprise. "She's right, Naruto," he told the blond. "You look much better this way. But I've been trying to get you to change your look for years, so why—"

"It doesn't matter," Naruto cut in quickly, almost panicked. Naruto had kept his over-large glasses and ratty, baggy clothes for so long because he'd never honestly cared for fashion; it wasn't until after last Christmas that he'd decided to forgo them for clinging jeans and shirts and contacts. He didn't want Neji to know it was so he could attract guys; he didn't want anyone to know that he was doing it to get back at him. That secret would go with him to the grave.

Neji looked concerned now, and Naruto cursed himself; he shouldn't have cut in. Neji would be suspicious now. Ino, bless her, cut into the awkward silence.

"Well, whatever the reason, you look fabulous!" she said, and patted Naruto on the head like a dog. Naruto rolled his eyes; Ino was very much a Drama Queen and you soon just became used to her patronizing ways. Secretly, he was relieved that she'd resolved the tension, because he really didn't want Neji to dig for an explanation.

"Maa, maa, Ino, you're so troublesome," Nara Shikamaru's tired voice said from Naruto's other side. Naruto instantly flung himself on Shikamaru in a tight hug; they'd been close throughout high school and if there was someone he missed the most other than Neji it had been Shikamaru.

"Shika!" he cried, clinging tightly. Shikamaru sighed and wrapped his arms around Naruto in return. Just like Neji's hug, it was warm and comforting, and Naruto had to swallow back tears again at feeling so loved.

"Troublesome," Shikamaru grumbled, but he didn't pull away until Naruto decided to do so. Naruto smiled knowingly at him, and he grumbled some more. Naruto turned to the group around him and noticed that some very key people were missing.

"Where's everyone else?" he asked, perplexed. "I mean, my old buddy Gerard said Lee and Tenten and Hinata-chan were here . . . and some people named Temari and Gaara?"

"They're all around the house somewhere. Gaara and Temari are Sasuke's guests, though," Neji said, missing the way that Naruto tensed at Sasuke's name. Shikamaru, however, missed nothing, and he gave his friend a scrutinizing look. "Temari is his fiancé, you see and Gaara is her brother."

Naruto's heart stopped. Temari is his fiancé, you see, repeated over and over in his head until his ears rung. He has a fiancé, Naruto thought, numb for reasons that he didn't want to examine. Maybe she's the one that he . . . he was talking about last year. She has to be. Naruto shoved down the pang of sadness and jealousy and pain; he'd worked through this, hadn't he? It had been a whole year; it was time to leave those feelings behind. But you know you haven't worked through them, a voice in the back of his head whispered evilly. You know that you're still as in love with him as you were last year.

"Oh really?" Naruto asked, trying for casual, but his voice came out a little sharp. He hoped that no one else noticed the edge. "I didn't know the bastard actually could have a relationship." He inwardly winced; he knew that had sounded spiteful, and he could only hope that his friends would attribute it to Sasuke and Naruto's dislike of each other.

"Dobe." Naruto's heart stuttered and he turned to see Sasuke watching him from over the top of his book, eyes as black and fathomless and blank as he remembered. Naruto felt something in him ache and he turned away quickly. He couldn't do this. Every time he looked at Sasuke, he saw him walking away from Naruto, taking his heart and breaking it into pieces so small that Naruto didn't think that he'd ever be able to fix them. The tears were quickly approaching again, and Naruto tried to breathe in deeply, hoping to stifle them until he was alone. He couldn't let anyone know how Sasuke affected him; he wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing how much he'd broken Naruto. Never.

"Teme," he shot back, hoping that keeping everything normal would keep them from noticing the pain on his face.

"Be nice, Naruto," Sakura admonished him, but her eyes were glinting playfully. Sasuke and Naruto's dislike of each other had become legendary ever since they'd first met last year. His friends had moved past trying to get them to see eye to eye ever since a certain incident that ended with a lot of broken furniture and a very violent food fight.

"Tch, the bastard doesn't need me to be nice," Naruto said, smiling woodenly. He hoped that his fakeness was too obvious; he really didn't need questions. In fact, all he really needed was some time alone so he could lick his wounds in private.

"Hn," Sasuke agreed from his chair and Naruto felt his throat tighten more at the familiar sound. He needed to get out this room – away from Sasuke. Every second being there, seeing him sitting in the chair looking as fucking perfect as he had last year . . . and so unaffected by what had happened. Naruto couldn't take it. He has a fiancé, he thought bitterly. Why would he need me?

"I think I'll head up to my room and settle in," Naruto said, false-bright. He didn't notice Shikamaru's eyes narrowing onto his face.

"Gerard can show you where it is," Neji said. "We're having dinner soon, by the way. We all know how much you like to eat," he added with a smile. Naruto was thin and short, but his appetite was enormous and all of his friends knew it. Naruto personally thought that he wasn't sure how much food he'd be able to stomach, seeing Sasuke with his fiancé, but he would have to try and put his normal effort towards food or risk someone realizing all was not right with him.

"I think I can remember where the dining room is," Naruto said, his mouth hurting from all the smiling. He couldn't remember how he'd done this all the time, effortlessly. "I'll go find Gerard then," he said and headed out of the room.

He didn't see the concerned looks Neji and Shikamaru traded, nor did he see the narrow, interested black eyes that honed in on his back the moment he'd turned around.

Naruto was lost. Again.

He should be used to this situation by now; he'd gotten lost in Neji's mansion so often last year that it had become something of a running gag for his friends. Naruto didn't find it funny, though; especially not when all he wanted to do was find his room and go to sleep.

Dinner had been much better than his arrival because of the simple fact that Sasuke hadn't been present. Neji had said that the Uchiha was with his fiancé (and God, didn't that make something in Naruto's stomach roll every time that he heard it?) because it was the anniversary of her mother's death. Despite how much he wanted to hate this girl, something in Naruto had softened upon hearing that; he'd never had parents, but he couldn't imagine losing Iruka or Kakashi or any one of his friends. However, not having them there had made it enormously easier for him to eat and talk and laugh normally.

Dinner had been full of conversation, but Naruto had contributed to it as little as he possibly could while still acting normally. He'd gotten a few questions on how life was going, and he'd smiled brightly and lied his ass off. He didn't want anyone in this house to know how much he'd broken since last year; how little of himself he recognized in the mirror these days. If none of them found out the heartache Naruto had gone through in the last 12 months, he would be happy. They didn't need to know; he didn't want to bring his bleakness to their happy lives.

He'd been glad to see Hinata, Tenten and Lee again. Tenten had always been more of Neji's friend, but Naruto had always had a healthy respect for her abilities as a martial artist and weapons expert. Lee and Hinata, however, he shared a more personal connection with, and he had been glad to talk with them again, no matter how brief it had been. He smiled slightly as he remembered Hinata's red face and startled eyes as she'd taken in his new style; they'd long worked past her old crush on him, but it amused him a bit to know that she could be so easily flustered by him still.

Naruto blinked as he came upon a pair of sliding doors that led outside to a deck. He frowned, wondering when the hell he'd gotten so turned around that he ended up at the back of the house, especially when his room was near the front. At least I know where I am now, he mused, smiling a bit. He opened the sliding doors and went outside; the night was chilly but clear, and the stars gleamed brightly overhead. Naruto's smiled widened.

He'd always loved wintertime. There was something . . . magical about it. Until last year, winter had always been his favorite season. Naruto's smile slipped; it was just another thing that Sasuke had ruined for him. Winter didn't hold the same appeal now that it was the season that had witnessed his heartbreak. He stepped further out on the deck, deep in his thoughts, and didn't even notice the second person outside until he bumped into a firm, warm body. Naruto flailed, nearly falling backwards, but a warm hand cupped his elbow and steadied him.

Naruto looked up into icy green eyes and blinked. The man in front of him was a few inches taller than him, with flaming red hair and a blank expression that reminded Naruto painfully of Sasuke. He was dressed in many layers of black clothes and Naruto caught a glimpse of a red tattoo on the side of his forehead.

"I'm so sorry!" Naruto gasped out once he felt the adrenaline rush leave his body. "I didn't realize there was anyone out here, or I would've been looking out . . . ." Naruto trailed off as the man continued to stare. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto," he added, rubbing the back of his neck in the gesture of discomfort Naruto had had for years. "Uhm, who are you?" He tried a smile, but he was just too tired, and he knew that it was only the shadow of the cheery grin that had become his trademark. Thankfully, this man wouldn't know that.

A pale, nearly invisible eyebrow quirked as the man contemplated the question. His head tilted to the side and he murmured, "Sabaku Gaara," in a voice that was low and gravelly. Naruto shivered.

He smiled again, false and bright. "It's nice to meet you." Pale green eyes stared at him unwaveringly, and Gaara didn't speak. "Uhm, I should probably get back inside. Beauty sleep and all that," he said, chuckling awkwardly. Gaara's stare was a little unnerving. "It was . . . nice meeting you Gaara," he added and then turned around, about to head back inside. He was stopped by a hand on his elbow. Naruto looked over his shoulder and caught green eyes once more.

"Likewise," Gaara told him solemnly, in a tone that implied that he meant more than he'd said, and then released him. Naruto blinked in surprise and then hurried inside, wondering what that had been all about. Gaara's green eyes continued to feature in his thoughts as he moved down warm hallways.

Sabaku Gaara, he mused, is a strange, strange man.

December 20th

The next morning, Naruto came down to find the dining room packed with sleepy-looking people still dressed in pajamas. Rubbing one eye, he hurried over to the buffet of eggs, bacon and pancakes stacked on the middle of the table. It was only as he was reaching over to grab a sausage that he noticed the woman next to him and froze.

She was extremely beautiful; her features were strong and proud, and her dark, burnished gold hair was cut into a short, page-boy cut. Her eyes were a very dark brown, and there was an attractive intelligent gleam in them. Her body was curved generously, and she was dressed in sleep pants that should've made her butt look big, but instead only managed to look perfect on her. Naruto swallowed; this could only be the infamous Sabaku Temari.

Temari seemed to notice his staring and looked over at him. She sent a low, dark smile at him; the complete opposite of Naruto's normal sunshine one. He swallowed thickly. "You must be Naruto," she said in a low rasp. "I've heard so much about you."

God, Naruto despaired, could this woman be any more different than me? Beyond their shared hair color (even that was different; hers was dark while Naruto's was light) they had nothing in common; she was tall and gorgeous and obviously confident, while Naruto was nothing more than a short, scrawny nobody with too many inadequacies to count. No wonder Sasuke wants her, he thought, and he almost felt like crying then. But he wouldn't. Uzumaki Naruto was not weak, and he wouldn't let this woman see him tremble.

Naruto forced a smile on his face. "Then you must be the infamous Temari," he told her, holding out his hand for a shake. Her palm was firm and warm beneath his. "It's nice to meet you," he added. No, it's really not, he thought.

"Ditto," Temari said, her smile crinkling the edges of her eyes a little. It highlighted the redness in them and Naruto sighed inwardly. He didn't want to feel any sympathy for her at all; she was the one the man he had loved (and loved still) was in love with, and that alone was reason for Naruto to hate her guts. But he knew what it was like to feel loss and sadness, how it felt to be all alone in the world, and he found that he couldn't be cruel to someone who was recovering from the anniversary of her mother's death. Naruto, even this new version of him, just didn't have it in him.

"I'm very sorry for your loss," he said finally. Temari blinked at him surprise. "Neji told me," he added and her smile turned sad.

"Thank you," she said. "Not many people would say that to stranger."

Naruto wanted to laugh almost. I have even less reason to tell it to you, he almost told her. It's because of you that I'm heartbroken and alone and miserable. But he didn't say it aloud; there was no reason to hurt her, not when he was sure that she hadn't intentionally caused him pain. That had been Sasuke, and Sasuke alone, and Naruto wouldn't punish someone else for what the black-eyed man had done to him.

"Naruto's like a puppy-dog," Kiba broke in, still chewing his food and grinning broadly. "He's friendly to everyone."

"If anyone's like a dog, it's you, Mutt-face," Naruto shot back, although he felt that the barb fell flat. Temari laughed and Naruto turned back to his breakfast, his heart aching, only to find green eyes staring back at him. He halted mid-grab and stared at Gaara, who had appeared so suddenly across from him. Unlike the rest of the party, he was fully-dressed and looked very awake. His staring, however, was as creepy as it had been the night before.

"Gaara!" Temari exclaimed. "I thought you said you were going to skip breakfast?" That's right, Naruto thought, he's her brother. He'd forgotten that last night. Naruto wondered if Gaara had been mourning his mother as well, last night on the porch.

Gaara didn't take his eyes off of Naruto. "I changed my mind," he said flatly. Temari paused, looking between her brother and Naruto with confusion. Gaara's eyes travelled down to Naruto's frozen hand and then back to the blond's face. He raised an eyebrow in what Naruto thought might be something like condescension. Naruto pursued his lips and narrowed his eyes and grabbed a piece of bacon, taking a defiant bite. Gaara's lip quirked in subdued amusement.

"Temari." Naruto's heart skipped a beat when he heard Sasuke's voice. His shoulders tightened, and he ducked his head, not noticing the way that Gaara's eyes narrowed in on him. He didn't want to hear him say her name, not in a tone that spoke of affection. That voice just shot daggers into Naruto's heart. "We should go."

"Right," Temari said, taking a last bite of eggs. "We're going shopping, guys!" she called to the rest of the room, and the couple got a chorus of goodbyes as they left. Naruto let out a long sigh of relief, tension unwinding as soon as Sasuke was out of the room. Maybe he could survive this day too, if they were gone for most of it.

When he looked back up, Gaara was still watching him. Naruto glared at him. "What're you looking at?" he snapped, tired of pretending to be happy and unwilling to do so with a person that didn't know him too well, but Gaara didn't seem perturbed or angry by his outburst. Kiba, on the other hand, stared at Naruto as if he'd grown three heads and a tail. Naruto winced; he'd forgotten that Kiba was standing there.

"What's gotten into you, Naruto?" he asked. He hadn't been kidding with what he'd said before; Naruto got along with everyone eventually. The only exception was Sasuke.

"Nothing," Naruto said, shaking his head and adopting a smile. "Just need some food to mellow me out," he added, knowing that it would soothe Kiba's worries. His prediction was right; Kiba relaxed immediately.

"You're such a garbage disposal," Kiba teased him and Naruto glared at him good-naturedly.

"I am not a garbage disposal," he said, adopting a mock-sniffy attitude. "I do have standards, you know. I wouldn't eat anything you made."

Kiba pouted, but Sakura laughed. "Neither would I!" she exclaimed. "Kiba's a piss-poor cook."

"I'll drink to that!" Neji said from the front of the room, chuckling, and everyone laughed. Kiba just looked sullen.

"I'm not that bad," he muttered. Naruto laughed, feeling a bit better after the banter, and turned back to his breakfast. He was surprised and pleased to find that Gaara had slipped out while he'd been distracted. Naruto wondered if he'd even come down for breakfast and he entertained the thought that maybe the red-head had come down to see him. He shook his head. No way, he thought. Why would he have any interest in me? We just met. Besides, Naruto wasn't sure that he even wanted anyone to be interested in him. Not after what happened last time.

Naruto had been in Neji's office the first time he'd met Uchiha Sasuke.

He'd been talking with his friend, deliriously happy to see him as they spoke about what had been going on for the last year in their lives, when the door had opened to reveal Gerard.

"Hyuuga-sama, an Uchiha-sama is here to see you," he'd said, stiff-faced as ever.

"Ah, yes, let him in!" Neji had said eagerly. He'd turned to Naruto and smiled. "Uchiha Sasuke is a friend I made at college," he explained.

"So he's one of those stuck-up rich boys then?" Naruto had teased.

"Hn," a voice from the door had said and Naruto had whirled around to see one of the handsomest men he'd ever seen standing behind him.

Uchiha Sasuke was beautiful; dark hair and eyes striking against his pale skin. Naruto had been attracted to him almost immediately; it was hard not be, with features as bold as that. But then Sasuke had smirked, and something in Naruto had sparked.

"What, too good to use a real word?" he'd taunted, ignoring Neji's surprised huff from behind him. Naruto had had the reputation for getting along with everyone, even back then.

Sasuke had looked down his nose at Naruto and his smirk had widened. "Hn," he'd said mockingly. "Dobes like you don't need better words than that," he'd added, his voice low and dark and sinful.

Naruto had bristled. "Bastard!" he'd exclaimed. "What gives you the right to—"

"Sasuke, I'd appreciate it if you didn't rile up my friend," Neji had cut in, sounding amused. "And Naruto, Sasuke is a man of little words," he'd told the blond. Naruto had huffed. "Uchiha Sasuke, meet Uzumaki Naruto. Naruto, this is Sasuke," Neji had added, sweeping a hand between them. Sasuke and Naruto had just stared at each other, intensity jumping between them so strongly that they had almost seen the sparks.

Naruto had thought back then that he would never like this bastard would was so condescending and cold, no matter how good-looking he was. Oh, how wrong he'd been.

Naruto didn't usually spend a lot of time in the library, but with everyone off doing their own thing he didn't have much to entertain him. Neji's library was as enormous as the rest of the house, and Naruto hoped that he could find a book that he would like, so he could pass the time until dinner. He perused the shelves, skipping over the large, intimidating books that had leather covers and golden writing imprinted on them in favor of the smaller, paperback ones. Naruto grinned as he saw a trashy romance novel stuck between Great Expectations and Moby Dick; Neji was so going to get teased for that one.

He felt more relaxed, knowing that Sasuke was out of the house and away from him. Just knowing that he wouldn't see the bastard for a while longer made him feel better.

He sighed, turning away from his current shelf and towards another one. He heard the door open as he considered several titles, but didn't turn to see who it was; likely it was Sakura or Hinata, both of whom had a great love for books and were probably hungering for a new one. However, when he wasn't greeted in a light, feminine voice, Naruto frowned. Maybe they hadn't seen him . . . he turned and came face to face with the very person he hadn't thought he would see; Sasuke.

"Wha—" Naruto gasped, but Sasuke moved closer, crowding him against the bookcase.

"Enjoying yourself Naruto?" he half-purred. Naruto shivered at the bedroom voice, but then steeled himself.

"What the hell are you doing, Uchiha?" he demanded, hoping that his voice wouldn't tremble. "I thought you were shopping!"

"Temari saw that I was bored and let me leave early," Sasuke murmured, hands coming to rest on Naruto's hips. Naruto resisted the urge to arch into the contact. "And what does it look like I'm doing?"

"It looks like you're cheating on your fiancé," Naruto said adopting a very false steely tone. "But we both know that would never happen, right?" He sounded bitterer than he'd wanted to. Sasuke drew back, black eyes focused on Naruto's blue.

"I still want you," he said bluntly. Naruto's heart leapt into his throat and it must've shown on his face, because Sasuke smirked a bit. "And you still want me, don't you?"

Naruto wanted to deny it. He wanted to shove it in Sasuke's face that he'd moved past what they'd shared last year and that he was strong enough to leave Sasuke in the past. But he couldn't do it; he still wanted Sasuke as badly as he had the first time they'd met. He wasn't sure if anything could ever change that. Sasuke seemed to decide that his silence was answer enough, and his head began to dip towards Naruto's face.

A cough made them freeze. Naruto pushed himself up so he could look over Sasuke's shoulder, paling as he realized Gaara was standing across the room from them, watching them with blank eyes. He looked up at Sasuke, who had stiffened and realized that whatever had been about to happen, this had broken it. Sasuke, always the quick-thinker, reached over Naruto to grab a book on the top shelf that he wouldn't have been able to reach on his own.

"There you go," he said, growling a bit, pressing the book into Naruto's hands. "Next time just find a ladder, dobe." Sasuke then turned, only then seeing who had interrupted them, and stalked from the room. Naruto watched him go, the book clenched in his fingers. He turned to look at Gaara, who hadn't moved, and felt a blinding wave of rage hit him.

"What are you doing here?!" Naruto half-yelled, unable to contain himself in his mask of happiness and grins when he'd come so close to having who he'd pined for all last year. Gaara just watched him calmly and that, more than anything, made Naruto madder.

"Well, I guess you're happy!" he cried out, almost hysterically. "Now he'll never come to me again, not when he thinks that he'll get . . . ." he couldn't quite say the word caught; it implied that they'd been doing something they shouldn't have, and Naruto didn't want to think about that. "Now we're really over; he'll go back to Temari and forget about this and—" Naruto broke off, turning away and breathing in sharply, realizing who exactly he was talking to. He closed his eyes, feeling tears welling up too fast and deep for him to swallow back. He felt the first drip of them on the back of his hands, and he hurriedly wiped them away. He didn't want Gaara to see this, and wished that the other man would just leave, because Naruto was standing on trembling legs and there was only a matter of time before everything he'd kept locked inside came rushing out.

"Please go," he managed to choke out, and he nearly sighed with relief as he heard footsteps. But then he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned, ready to punch the bastard in the face, but Gaara was just regarding him with a slight frown and bright, deep eyes.

"You love him," he said simply. Naruto blinked, feeling more tears fall.

"Yeah," he said, finally saying aloud what he had been trying to deny and shove back for so long. "I really do." He laughed brokenly. "Sad, isn't it? I love a man that's dating someone else . . . I love a man who broke my heart." He rubbed his arm across his face, feeling wetness soak through his sleeve. "I'm sorry," he said to Gaara with some exhaustion. "I know Temari's your sister. You probably want to punch me in the face right now for screwing with her happiness."

Gaara's frown grew more pronounced. "I'd rather punch Uchiha," he said firmly and then blinked in surprise, as if he hadn't meant to say that out loud. Naruto blinked up at him.

"Sometimes I'd like to punch him too," he admitted, with a watery smile. Gaara's frown softened and he cupped Naruto's chin in his hand. Naruto's mouth opened in surprise; he hadn't thought that Gaara was the type to go around touching people all the time. Why? He wanted to ask, but the words didn't make it past. There was something in Gaara's eyes . . . . Maybe a sort of kindness or sympathy, but it made everything that had been bottled up in Naruto break and he found himself sobbing out all the tears that he'd held back so he could seem strong and unbroken. He didn't notice Gaara catch him around the shoulders, or even the amusing panicked look that the red-head sported; instead all he felt was his pain, crashing around him like a sea.

After the incident and the events that followed, Naruto had never cried. He locked himself up in a tight, tight shell, never letting his emotions past to get the best of him. He'd never shed a tear for the love with Sasuke that he'd lost, and everything that he'd held back then was coming out now. He dropped to his knees, legs trembling, and clutched his head in his hands, sobbing into his palms. He was oblivious to the world around him as he finally let the tears wash away his pain and his heartache.

Eventually, they slowed. Naruto felt exhaustion creeping up on him and he shivered a little. He looked up to see Gaara staring down at him, a hand tightly gripping his shoulder, and smiled at him, feeling more content than he had for a year.

"Thank you," he murmured and then the world slowly faded out to black.

Sabaku Gaara stared down at the blond that was sleeping peacefully on the floor.

He didn't normally get himself into situations like this. Gaara was nothing if not calm and composed, and he usually avoided anything that came close to emotional; which included anyone crying on him. Gaara just didn't have the kind of empathy that his sister was always urging him to adopt to help someone who was crying; instead, all he could think was that the action was making their faces blotchy and their noses run.

But there was something about this blond . . . Uzumaki Naruto. Gaara wasn't sure what it was. The blond looked fragile; he had even when they'd met on the deck. Gaara had been intrigued then because Uzumaki hadn't made stuttering apologies for his loss and tried to edge away from him in fear; instead he'd looked him straight in the eyes. His eyes had held a deep kind of sadness; although it was only because Gaara had experienced such emotions himself that he was able to see underneath the very convincing mask Uzumaki wore. Uzumaki had awakened something of a curiosity in him; he found that he wanted to know about the blond in a way that he'd never wanted to know anyone before. It puzzled Gaara, and intrigued him.

That curiosity had strengthened when he'd seen the blond's reaction to Uchiha Sasuke. Gaara had never really been fond of Uchiha; he thought he was a little too arrogant and cocksure. He'd told Temari that when he'd first met him, but his sister had just waved him off, saying with a laugh that it was just Sasuke's way. Gaara had remained unconvinced, but he did love his sister, so he said nothing more against him. But he'd seen the way Uzumaki had tensed when Uchiha had come into the room, and the way he'd relaxed again as soon as he was out of it. There was a story there and Gaara wanted to know what it said.

He'd come to the library that day to find a book to read; Gaara wasn't much one for social interaction and he preferred reading to most anything else. Hyuuga's library was extremely impressive; Gaara would've been happy to just camp out there for the rest of his vacation. However, it was while he was perusing the shelves that he caught glimpse of Uzumaki staring at book titles. He'd been surprised; the blond hadn't seemed much for sitting still long enough to read a book. Gaara had almost decided to go over and talk to him (which would've been a miracle on its own) when he'd seen Uchiha enter the library.

Uzumaki hadn't turned until the last moment, when Uchiha was breathing down his neck. Gaara had frowned and moved closer as Uchiha crowded the blond against the shelves. Their conversation had made much clear to him; they'd been in a relationship, and it had ended badly. That had to be why the blond was so tense around Uchiha. The only question was . . . why was Uchiha dipping his head down to kiss the blond?

Gaara cleared his throat before he could even stop to think about it. Both parties had frozen and bright blue eyes had peered over Uchiha's shoulder to stare at him in shock. Gaara had watched, emotionless, as Uchiha had made some excuse as to why he was standing so close to the blond and then stalked out of the library.

Uzumaki's subsequent breakdown had stunned Gaara. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting from the blond; he'd half thought he would stutter a pathetic excuse and flee as the Uchiha had. But instead, Uzumaki had become angry and then so, so upset. Gaara hadn't been sure what to do when the blond had broken down crying; he remembered being rocked when he was little, so he'd reached forward awkwardly and tried to pull him into something like a hug. The blond hadn't even seemed to register that he was still there.

Staring down at Uzumaki's worn-out face, Gaara wondered what came now. There was the obvious answer of leaving the blond there, but something in Gaara squirmed uneasily at the thought of just dumping Uzumaki on the library floor after he'd completely broken down like that. He frowned slightly; he had no idea where Uzumaki's room was, which meant that if he was to take the blond anywhere, it would have to be a guest room or his own room. Considering that the blond would probably freak out if he woke up in a strange room alone . . . Gaara sighed and knelt down so he could take Uzumaki by the shoulders and underneath his knees. He still didn't even know why he cared.

He carried Uzumaki bridal style down the hallway, glad that Temari and his brother, Kankuro, weren't there to witness it; he'd get no end of teasing. His siblings had been on his case for years trying to get him to take an interest in someone, and if they saw someone sleeping in his arms as he carried them, then they'd get the wrong idea and think that he had an interest in Uzumaki. Which he did . . . but it wasn't romantic.

Although . . . Gaara's eyes slid down to Uzumaki's face. He was a good-looking man, when it came down to it. He was just a few inches shorter than Gaara, with silky-looking blond hair and very bright and clear blue eyes. His features were just as intriguing as his coloring; with all the sharpness of a man and the softness of a woman. And his clinging clothes left very little about his body to the imagination.

If Gaara was pressed to it, he wouldn't mind sleeping with Uzumaki. But there was a difference between sex and a relationship; Gaara had sex all the time, but he'd never once been in a relationship. They took too much work and effort and Gaara just honestly had never cared enough about his previous partners to try it out.

He wondered about Uzumaki though. The blond had touched something in him in the short time they'd known each other . . . . But he couldn't put a name to what it was. Perhaps it was his nearly non-existent compassion? Gaara snorted at the thought. But the lingering emotion was there, and no matter what he did, he couldn't shove it away.

He stopped in front of his door and kicked it open, glad that it hadn't been shut all the way. He shifted Naruto to his side so he could peel back the covers and then settled the blond in the bed, covering him up once he looked comfortable. Uzumaki hadn't made a sound yet, but as Gaara swung the covers over his shoulders, he whimpered and grasped the edge of the cloth tightly in his hands. Gaara felt something in him soften, almost involuntarily. His hand moved with a mind of its own, sweeping blond bangs from Uzumaki's forehead, almost tenderly. Gaara snatched it back as soon as he realized what he was doing.

Gaara was not tender. He didn't do tenderness, especially not with blonds he'd only met yesterday. What the hell has gotten into me? He wondered. He looked down at the sleeping blond. It's your fault, he accused Uzumaki silently, but the blond didn't seem to care much about that. Gaara sighed and looked around his room. He might as well make sure that Uzumaki didn't wake up alone and panic. He grabbed a nearby book, grimacing when he realized he'd already read it dozens of times, and then settled down in a chair to read until the blond woke.

December 21st, early morning

When Naruto woke, it was to quiet and darkness. He blinked rapidly and yawned, sitting up in bed. He frowned as his sleep-fogged mind realized he wasn't in his room at Neji's and then his eyes widened as he remembered what had happened before he'd apparently fallen asleep. Naruto looked around wildly and tensed as he stared incredulously at the red-head sleeping in an armchair at his side, book open on his chest.

Naruto felt a blush burning his face and hid his face in his hands. What was I thinking?! He thought miserably. It was bad enough that Gaara had witnessed that scene with Sasuke, but even worse that Naruto had yelled at him and then broken the fuck down afterwards! More than that, he'd done this in front of Temari's brother; the last person on earth he should be confessing his love of Sasuke to, right after Temari herself.

"I'm an idiot," he murmured, feeling extremely embarrassed and more than a little ashamed. And it wasn't even that he'd yelled at Gaara . . . He closed his eyes as he remembered what the red-head had interrupted. Sasuke had been so, so close . . . . Closer than he'd been for a year. Naruto hadn't realized how much he'd missed that closeness. To have it there, right in his grasp, and then for it to be snatched away and unlikely to ever return . . . He thought that was what had triggered his mini-breakdown more than anything.

But no matter how much he craved that closeness, he shouldn't have let Sasuke almost kiss him. Not only because the bastard had stomped on his heart, but because he was taken. No amount of longing on Naruto's part would change that, and even if Sasuke was a cheating son of a bitch, Naruto wasn't. Temari had seemed genuine and nice and Naruto found that he was reluctant to hurt her, even if it meant getting the man he loved back.

He started as Gaara shifted and started to wake up. Naruto tensed, ready to flee as green eyes blinked open blearily and Gaara sat up, stretching out undoubtedly sore back muscles. His eyes flitted over the room until they came to rest on Naruto.

"You're awake," he rumbled, his voice sleep-roughened.

Naruto blushed. "I'm so sorry," he blurted out immediately. "You can't imagine how embarrassed I am right now. I should never have yelled at you, and I'm so sorry you had to watch me cry my guts out—I swear, I'm not usually that weepy! It's just—" he paused and then swallowed. "It's been a hard year, and having Sasuke here . . . . Hasn't been helping. I'm just so—"

"Sorry," Gaara finished for him, and Naruto's eyes snapped up to meet his. They seemed as flat as ever, but as Naruto looked he thought he could glimpse of amusement in them. "I got it."

"Sorry," Naruto said again, sheepishly this time. "And, uhm, thanks for bringing me here? It would've sucked big time to sleep in the library . . . . But you could've brought me to my room—"

"I didn't know where it was," Gaara said with a shrug. He stood, stretching some more and then walked over to where Naruto was sitting. Naruto watched him approach warily. For a few moments, they just stared at each other.

Naruto eventually chuckled nervously. "Well, this has been fun but I should really, uhm, be going now—" he scrambled out of the bed and ended up getting tangled in the generous quilt and falling off the side of the bed with it wrapped around his legs like a life-sucking octopus. Naruto cursed loudly as he tried to get the damned thing off of him, his troubles and the awkward situation forgotten for a moment as battled life and death. Gaara stared down at him, vaguely amused by his antics. It had been a long time since anyone had been this lively in his presence.

Naruto sprang to his feet as soon as he was untangled, a blush highlighting his cheekbones. "Sorry," he said, almost nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'll just be—"


Naruto hesitated. "Yes?" he asked.

Gaara frowned and seemed to hesitate for a moment before he said softly, "Even if you love him . . . I do not think he loves you."

Naruto flinched as if he'd been struck and stared at Gaara for a long tense moment. His lips tightened and he finally looked away, looking just as hopeless as he had the night before. Gaara felt the strange urge to reach out and comfort him, but he resisted.

"Trust me Gaara," he said bitterly. "I know."

Naruto really couldn't say what irked him about Sasuke.

He supposed it was something about the Uchiha's attitude; the damn smirk he always wore seemed to say, "I'm so much better than you." Naruto had never been able to stand anyone looking down at him, and Sasuke seemed to do it all the time. What irritated him more was that Naruto wanted Sasuke to look at him with respect; Sasuke was smart and level-headed and someone Naruto could have been friends with easily . . . if it weren't for that damn smirk.

Naruto was sulking on the deck, staring up at the stars with a pout. He'd expected this vacation to be full of friends and fun, but he found that Sasuke always pulled things down for him. It was like just having the Uchiha there, knowing that he probably despised him, made him a little depressed. Naruto didn't really want to examine the reasons why he felt that way.


Naruto groaned loudly. "Why is it, whenever I want to be alone you show up?" he said, looking over his shoulder at Sasuke. He frowned when he realized that the Uchiha looked more serious than usual; no smirk played across his lips at he met Naruto's stare head-on.

They stared at each other for several long moments before Naruto couldn't take the tension anymore. "What?!" he snapped, turning to face Sasuke fully. The Uchiha blinked and then smirked, but it was a pale, lifeless version of the one he usually wore.

"Nothing, dobe," he said. "Just wondering what an idiot like you has to think about while star-gazing."

Naruto bristled. "I'm not an idiot!" he snarled at Sasuke.

His anger evaporated into confusion as Sasuke watched him for a moment and then murmured, "No, you're not."

Naruto watched as Sasuke strode forward and took a seat next to him, turning his eyes up to the starry sky above them as his breath made fog appear in the crisp, cool air. Sasuke looked ethereal in the starlight; Naruto's breath caught for a moment before he realized who exactly he was thinking of and shoved that thought deep into his subconscious. He decided that it would be best to just ignore the man altogether and turned back to look at the stars above him.

It took a while for Naruto to relax, but as he did he forgot that Sasuke was there. He felt dreamy and sleepy, even in the cold, and after a while he started to drift off. After starting awake for the fourth time, Naruto yawned and decided it might be best to head inside before he ended up sleeping outside and getting extremely sick. He turned and then started in surprise when he saw Sasuke sitting next to him; he'd forgotten about the Uchiha's presence.

Sasuke turned when he heard his gasp, and a small smirk played at the edge of his lips. "Tired, dobe?" he asked, making it more of a challenge than a question. Naruto instantly bristled.

"Of course not!" he said, false brightly. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't."

"I'm fine," Sasuke said smugly, as if he knew Naruto was lying. Naruto gritted his teeth; now there was no way he could go inside and give the bastard of the satisfaction of having won! What Sasuke was winning, Naruto had no idea, but he knew that there was something about this interaction that was a contest and he wasn't about to lose it, no matter if he knew what was going on or not!

He turned to face the front stubbornly and tried to ignore the jaw-cracking yawns he kept producing. After nearly ten minutes of said occurrences, he heard Sasuke sigh and looked at his companion out of the corner of his eye. Sasuke had turned to face him, so Naruto tilted his head slightly so that they were eye-to-eye.

Sasuke hesitated for a moment, which was unusual to Naruto, who had never seem him falter about anything. He opened his mouth several times as if he wanted to say something and then stopped himself.

"Just spit it out already!" Naruto finally said, exasperated. Sasuke's eyes narrowed at him. "Obviously it's eating you up inside," Naruto continued, oblivious to the danger his current words were leading him. "Just say it so we can get this—" He was cut off by warm lips against his own.

Naruto's mouth opened in surprise and Sasuke took advantage of that to slid his tongue in, exploring the depths of the blond's mouth. Naruto moaned, almost by reflex as his mind sought to catch up with these unexpected events; Sasuke was kissing him! It was . . . . unbelievably good. Naruto moaned much more appreciatively and he felt Sasuke give a hum of approval.

Rational thought abandoned, Naruto pulled the Uchiha closer to him, and felt Sasuke shiver under his touch. His fingers twisted in dark hair as their tongues entwined, and Sasuke's hands had dropped down to his hips, clutching the bones tightly enough that Naruto thought there might even be bruises, despite the layer of clothing. Naruto moaned again; Gods it felt so good.

Eventually, they had to draw apart. Sasuke remained close, staring Naruto in the eyes as their breaths mingled. Despite the cold temperature, everything seemed foggy and muggy to Naruto; he could still feel the shadow touches of Sasuke's tongue against his own and Sasuke's lips on his. He noticed that his hand was still entwined in Sasuke's hair and slowly pulled it away.

"What . . . ." his voice sounded husky and kiss-drugged. Naruto cleared his throat in embarrassment. "What was that?" He sounded much more normal then.

"It was a kiss, dobe," Sasuke growled, his voice lower and rougher than usual. Naruto felt a shock of arousal at hearing it. "Do I need to give you a definition?"

"No, but—I mean, you and I—You hate me!" Naruto blurted out.

"I don't hate you," Sasuke said, and his eyes softened a bit. "I like you." His hand went up to touch Naruto's cheek and the blond leaned into the touch before he realized what he was doing.

"I hate you," Naruto said, but his voice was doubtful and Sasuke heard it.

"No you don't," he said calmly. Then he smirked, and having it so close to his face after that amazing kiss did strange things to Naruto's libido. "You want me."

Naruto spluttered. "I—what—I do not want you!" he protested. Sasuke's smirk widened.

"You've wanted me since you first saw me," he continued smugly. "I know I'm irresistible, but that's new even for me."

"Why you arrogant ass—" Naruto started, but was interrupted by a kiss. "Wait a second, don't think that'll distract—" he was interrupted again and Naruto could feel his annoyance growing weaker. "Bastard—" he growled into another kiss, but then he didn't feel like arguing anymore. He drew Sasuke closer and felt a burst of happiness as the Uchiha accepted the intimacy easily.

"Do you really want this Sasuke?" Naruto asked when they drew apart. "I mean, I don't do one-night stands. If this is just sex to you . . . ."

Something flashed in Sasuke's eyes. "It's not just sex," he said firmly.

Naruto smiled with something like wonder; his track record with relationships was horrible, and they ended up just wanting him for sex. A small part of him wondered if that was all Sasuke wanted to, but in the end it was a very small part. It had been a long time since he'd been with anyone for longer than a month. Despite their differences . . . Naruto thought he could take a leap of faith. Just this once, he would trust and see where it took him. Sasuke was all he'd ever wanted in a partner, and they seemed to feel the same about each other. Naruto just needed . . . to have faith.

"Okay," he murmured, pulling Sasuke in for a kiss. "Let's go upstairs," he murmured against his lips and felt more than saw Sasuke grin.

Neji watched Naruto poke at his dinner sparingly, barely taking a bite out it. He frowned and looked over at Shikamaru, who met his stare boldly. They were both thinking the same thing; something wasn't right with Naruto. Shikamaru raised his eyebrows in question and Neji nodded tensely. He loved his best friend very dearly; he couldn't let this continue. Shikamaru stared at him for a moment before nodding back slowly in return.

They waited until dinner had finished. Everyone else had gone upstairs and Naruto was just preparing to leave.

"Naruto," Neji called. "Can we talk for a moment?"

Naruto looked at him with tired eyes. Neji's heart tightened; Naruto's eyes weren't meant to look like that. "I just want to go to sleep, Neji," he said plaintively. "Can't this wait until tomorrow?"

"No," Shikamaru said quietly. Naruto started, as if he hadn't noticed the brunet was still in the room. "We need to talk, Naruto."

Naruto stared at them both before his eyes widened with comprehension. A smile slid onto his face, but Neji knew that it was forced. "What is it guys?"

"Naruto . . . ." Neji started, unsure of how to say what he needed to say.

"What's wrong with you?" Shikamaru finished when it seemed like Neji was lost for words. Neji sent him a glare; he hadn't wanted to be so blunt about it.

Naruto gave them a perfectly executed confused look. "What're you talking about? I'm fine!" His fake smile widened.

"Naruto," Neji said gently, "you're not fine. We can both tell so can you please . . . drop the pretense?"

Naruto smiled at them for several more moments before it slowly dropped as he noticed neither of them were buying it. Without the smile, Naruto seemed much more tired and completely fragile. Neji hadn't seen him look like that since high school.

"What's going on with you, Naruto?" Neji questioned quietly. "You show up wearing that," he gestured to the new look, "not that it looks bad on you, it's just . . . you never cared about clothes before. And you keep wearing fake smiles and you never talk about anything anymore . . . ."

"Look, nothing's wrong, okay," Naruto said sharply. "I'm fine. Can't we just leave it at that?"

"We could," Shikamaru said, "if you were fine. But you're not."

Naruto ran a hand through his hair. "Can't you guys just leave it alone?" he asked angrily. "Why do you have to know?! It's none of your business!"

"You're our friend Naruto," Neji said firmly. "Of course it's our business."

Naruto stared at them for a long moment. Neji almost started to hope that he might actually share what was bothering him, but then Naruto's lips tightened and he looked away. Neji's heart fell; he knew that look. Shikamaru looked over at him; apparently he knew it too.

"I'm tired," Naruto said tightly. "I'm gonna head to bed now." He marched out of the door before either of them could stop him. Neji stared at the door with sad eyes.

"Why won't he tell us?" he murmured, sitting down heavily at the table. Shikamaru sighed.

"He doesn't want us to know," he said. "You know how Naruto is; he doesn't want anyone to be troubled by him. And . . . he might be ashamed."

"Ashamed of what?" Neji demanded. "I just want to help him. So help my God, if anyone's hurt him--!" Neji cut himself off, breathing out heavily through his nose as he tried to control his temper. He'd been Naruto's friend since he was fourteen years old, and his self-proclaimed protector for just as long; the thought of anyone hurting his friend was enough to send him into a protective frenzy.

"I think someone did hurt him," Shikamaru said thoughtfully. Neji's shoulders tensed.

"Who do you think it was?" he demanded. Shikamaru was a master observer; Neji had seen him make guesses on people's lives from the way they walked. If anyone could guess at who was making Naruto distressed, it would be him. Shikamaru paused for a moment, his eyes narrowing in thought.

"It's either one of the Sabakus," he said slowly, "or Uchiha. Remember when Naruto got here? He tensed around Uchiha all the time and then would force himself to relax. He . . . doesn't trust him. And he doesn't trust Temari and Gaara Sabaku either; he tenses around them too."

"He didn't even known Temari and Gaara before a few days ago," Neji said, "which would mean . . . ."

"Whatever's happening, Uchiha's involved," Shikamaru finished grimly. Neji's nostrils flared angrily.

"If he's doing anything to harm Naruto," he said lowly, "I'll kill him." Sasuke may have been his friend, but Naruto was like his brother. God help the Uchiha if he'd harmed a blond hair on his head.

Shikamaru didn't say anything to protest that. If anything, he looked rather like he'd rather do the same thing himself.

Naruto had retreated to the deck. That place was a source of pain for him, where memories haunted him everywhere, but it was always the place he went to when he needed to be alone. He sat on the wood and put his head in his hands. Why did Neji and Shikamaru have to know him so well?

He curled into himself; he couldn't tell them. What would they think of him, loving a man who was engaged? They'd be disgusted with how weak he was, letting Sasuke come in and take his heart and smash it under his foot without a protest. They'd be even more disgusted with how much he still felt for the man despite everything that had happened. Sometimes . . . . Most of the time, Naruto was ashamed of himself. He should be stronger than this; pining for an engaged man he couldn't have was something reserved for weak girls in movies. He wasn't like that.

But he couldn't change it. Sasuke drew him in, he would always draw him in . . . . And Naruto was powerless to stop him, whether or not he was engaged. But obviously, Sasuke didn't care for him anymore. At dinner he'd hovered over Temari, showering her with all the love and affection an Uchiha can show. Naruto had tried to ignore it, but his eyes always went back to them. He'd reflected bitterly on how nice of a couple they'd made; a couple in contrasts, despite their similar eye colors. Temari was beautiful and Sasuke was strikingly handsome, they were both smart and fairly wealthy and knew their way around a business; when they were married, they'd be a dream pair.

Naruto always wondered what it would been like if Sasuke had never dumped him. Would they have worked out? Naruto liked to think they would've, but what did he know? Maybe, in the end they would've broken up anyways. But then at least . . . he would've had a choice in it. He wouldn't have been dumped like yesterday's news without so much as a by-your-life. He wouldn't have been made to feel . . . .

"What, you thought I loved you? Please. You were a good lay, and that was it. There's nothing else to it."

. . . completely worthless. Worse than garbage. Naruto smiled bitterly.


Naruto uncurled himself and looked over at Gaara, who had appeared on the deck behind him. He found that he couldn't be surprised that the red-head had showed up.

"Gaara," he said flatly. Gaara knew . . . . he'd seen everything. Naruto didn't need to pretend to be happy, not in front of this man who'd already seen him vulnerable and broken. Naruto felt a flush build up in his cheeks at the very thought of everything that Gaara knew about him.

"Tell me something about yourself," he said abruptly. A pale eyebrow rose. "To . . . even the playing field," Naruto clarified. When Gaara didn't speak, his mouth trembled a bit. "Please," he said softly.

Gaara's eyes softened and he tilted his head to considering. "My mother died giving birth to me," he said a long moments of silence. Naruto had drooped, thinking that Gaara would never answer him, but he straightened in surprise at receiving this bit of news. "My father hated me for it."

Naruto's face softened in sympathy. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. Gaara blinked at him.

"Why?" he asked. Naruto frowned at him with confusion. "Why are you sorry?"

"Because it's a horrible thing, to have a parent hate you," Naruto answered immediately. "Why wouldn't I be sorry?"

Gaara considered this. "Then . . . I am also . . . sorry," he said word as if he was testing it, unsure of the weight of it.

"For what?" Naruto asked, puzzled.

"For whatever went wrong with Uchiha." Naruto tensed instantly, curling into himself a bit.

"Can we not talk about that?" he asked tightly. Gaara considered him for a moment.

"Alright," he agreed. He strode forward and took a seat next to Naruto. He looked straight ahead as he said, "What do you wish to talk about?"

Naruto sighed. "I don't even know," he said, a little tearfully. There was a pause. "Do you like Christmas, Gaara?" Naruto whispered.

Gaara considered this question seriously. "I am indifferent to it," he said finally. Naruto looked at him incredulously.

"You're indifferent!" he said. "How can you be indifferent to Christmas! Are you Jewish or something?" He eyed Gaara suspiciously. Gaara cocked an eyebrow at him.

"No," he said seriously, "though I do not see how that would affect my opinion of Christmas."

Naruto shrugged. "Well, I didn't figure you could be Christian and dislike Christmas," he explained.

"I do not dislike it," Gaara corrected. "I am indifferent."

"I just don't understand that," Naruto said. "Christmas . . . is magical. The hymns and the stories and the candles and presents and trees . . . . there's something special about this time of year, you know? It seems like anything can happen during Christmas . . . ." Naruto's eyes were dreamy. "I love this time of year. Not just Christmas, but winter in general . . . it's so beautiful. Icy but . . . ." He shook his head. "But you don't want to hear that." He sounded almost embarrassed.

Gaara looked down at him. "I must confess I did not think winter would be your favorite season," he said quietly. "I suspected summer."

Naruto laughed. "Because I'm so sunny, right?" he asked, a little amused. Gaara inclined his head. "Nope, sorry to disappoint."

"I am not disappointed," Gaara said. "Though I must confess I am partial to spring myself."

"Why?" Naruto asked, innocently curious.

Gaara hesitated, almost embarrassed to confess this part of himself. Gaara had kept his emotions so intensely folded in that spreading them out felt too intimate, as if he was baring a part of himself that he shouldn't. But . . . he'd seen Uzumaki Naruto at his worst and most vulnerable. He felt a connection with the blond and some small part of him whispered, it will be alright to share yourself with him. He will understand.

"Everything is new," Gaara said finally. "Things are born in spring. It is a time when life is at its strongest. I find myself . . . fascinated by that."

"You sound like you shouldn't be," Naruto commented. Gaara looked at him. "Fascinated by it," he clarified. Gaara's brow furrowed faintly.

"My father always told me to be emotionless," he said. "Emotions are for the weak."

"Bullshit," Naruto said empathetically. Gaara looked at him with surprise. "Emotions are power Gaara. They make us who we are, give us the strength to do things we wouldn't normally do . . . . A power of a mother's love is worth ten times more than any machine in existence. I believe that . . . and you should too."

"But why do you believe that?" Gaara asked, confused. "Considering . . . ." he cut himself off before he could discuss what Naruto expressly had said he didn't want to talk about.

Naruto smiled bitterly. "Considering where my love for Sasuke has taken me?" Something ugly twisted in Gaara's gut at hearing Naruto talk about his love for Uchiha, but he nodded. "Emotions can hurt you just as much as they can help you . . . . But I think the good outweighs the bad. I may be hurting because I'm in love with Sasuke . . . but I would rather feel this than nothing at all. No matter how much it seems otherwise some days," he added in, a touch wryly.

"Your friends are worried about you," Gaara said before he could stop himself. Naruto looked up at him with confusion.

"How did you--?"

"I . . . overheard your conversation."

"You eavesdropped?" Naruto asked, surprised and a little hurt.

"I was passing by the door," Gaara explained. "I heard voices and stopped to determine who was speaking. Once I heard the subject of the conversation . . . ."

"It made you stop and listen," Naruto finished bitterly. "I don't blame you; what's more interesting than a damaged freak like me?"

Gaara glared at him. "Do not call yourself such things," he said severely. Naruto looked down at his knees stubbornly.

"Why not?" he asked. "I am."

A hand caught his chin and forced him to look into Gaara's eyes. Gaara looked at his face searchingly. "You believe that," Gaara said and shook his head, releasing Naruto's chin. It felt strangely warm and Naruto rubbed at it thoughtfully. "You are many things, Uzumaki . . . but you are not a freak."

"Why do you call me that?" Naruto asked. "Uzumaki?"

Gaara's brow furrowed. "We have only known each other for a few days," he said, "it would be improper to call you by your first name."

Naruto smiled. "And are you always proper, Gaara?" he asked, a little teasingly. Gaara tensed and frowned.

"There is nothing wrong—" he started, but Naruto cut him off.

"Oh stop, I was just kidding. Look, you can call me Naruto, alright? Does it make it proper if I allow it?"

Gaara considered this. "Yes . . . . Naruto," he conceded. Naruto beamed up at him.

"Good!" Gaara offered a tentative lip quirk of his own. Naruto's smile brightened in response.

"I'm glad you're here Gaara," he said. "It's nice to have someone who . . . understands." Naruto's eyes drifted back to the stars. Gaara watched him.

"Yes," he murmured to himself. "It is nice, isn't it."

December 23rd

Snow was falling thickly outside, which meant everyone was stuck inside. In the morning, everyone had mostly stayed in the living room, talking and catching up. As the hours passed, people started to split up and move around the house.

Naruto was in the second floor ballroom, seated at the grand piano. He'd played ever since he was a child; it was the only type of art he'd ever been exposed to, growing up. He'd been an orphan ever since he was six months old and had mostly lived in orphanages until he was finally adopted at seventeen. The orphanages he'd stayed at had been ratty, old places with too many children and too little space, but one of them had had a piano. It had been a messy thing, falling apart, with many of the keys missing and out of tune but . . . it had been all Naruto had had. Every day, he'd sneak in there and plunk on a few keys, figuring out for himself what worked and what didn't.

It hadn't been until he was seven that he'd gotten a teacher of sorts. One of the men who worked at the orphanage had been a musician; he'd walked in on Naruto practicing one day and had offered to teach him the basics of it all. Naruto had found that he'd already known most of it, and his teacher had called him a prodigy. All Naruto had known was that he loved the music; that it drew away his troubles and left him at peace.

Naruto stared down at the black and white keys in front of him. He hadn't played for a while. The last time he'd placed his hands on a piano had been eight months ago. He'd gone up to his baby grand and opened the lid, and had proceeded to play the angriest and most mournful music he'd ever produced in his entire life. By the time the music had bled out of him . . . Naruto had just felt drained. That was the closest he'd come to crying for the entire year. After that, he refused to touch a piano. He didn't think he could stand having something that had brought peace to him produce only anger and hatred and loneliness.

But something in him had cleansed since his breakdown. He felt as if . . . the part of him that housed that bitter, cynical anger had been washed away, replaced by the acceptance Naruto had been seeking for a year and had never found. The only way to know for sure . . . was to play the piano.

Naruto place a finger on a key. The single note was pure and untainted and perfectly in tune. Naruto smiled; the piano likely hadn't been used for quite some time, but the Hyuugas would never let it become dusty and out of tune. He played another note and it rang as purely as the first.

Naruto ran through scales first, to warm up his fingers. He found that after a year of disuse they were creaky and clumsy; but after some warm-ups they were much better. The beginnings of a smile hovered around his lips; he could do this.

Naruto's hands hovered delicately over the keys as he contemplated what to play. He could play quite a few classical pieces, but he'd always preferred modern music; they just seemed to have more passion to them. He had a quite a few favorites that he'd memorized, but his mind wandered to a song he'd heard recently, on a CD he'd purchased only a few weeks earlier. Naruto smiled and started setting up the opening chords. He breathed in deeply, feeling unused muscles creak, and then opened his mouth:

"Life's been blinding me
From what I thought I'd see
Is there clarity in this insanity?
What's she want from me?

Roads in front of me
Taking me astray
Are you leaving me?
Or are you leading the way?
Can you hear what I'm saying?

I need to know
I need to know
I need to know
I need to know."

He'd liked all of the songs on this particular CD, but this song had touched him the deepest. The singer's aching, longing vocals had touched a particular chord with Naruto, who had felt that longing so deeply for the last year. He'd listened to the song on the plane ride to Neji's place and when he'd first heard it, all he could do was lean back in his seat, close his eyes and listen. Now, in front of a piano and playing it as achingly as he could, Naruto closed his eyes again and let the music flow out of him. The next lyrics touched particularly deeply with him.

"Feel like I'm trying to
Breathe under water
Trying to climb but I
Keep falling farther
Will you take my hand?

Feels so far away
I want to see your face
Are you even there?
Can you show me?
Can you make me believe?

I need to know
I need to know
I need to know
I need to know
I need to know."

When the last note filled the air Naruto breathed out slowly and then smiled widely. He could play again! His song had been sad and longing, but the anger and bitterness that had filled him for the last year had bled out of it. He didn't think it was gone, but he felt that he'd been able to accept it. Perhaps, in time, he would come to even not realize it was a part of him anymore.

Slow clapping filled the air. Naruto's eyes snapped open and he turned to see Sasuke standing in the doorway, dark eyes focused on Naruto's face. His heart dropped; he couldn't deal with him now, not just as he was working through everything Sasuke had put him through.

"Well done, dobe," Sasuke said, managing to make the compliment sound like an insult. "I didn't know you could play the piano." He sounded almost accusing.

"I've been playing since I was five," Naruto snapped out. "What do you want, Sasuke?"

"The same thing I wanted in the library," Sasuke said, striding forward. "I want you."

Naruto laughed. "Somehow, I don't think your fiancé will like that very much," he said. He found, to his surprise, that his desperation for Sasuke had diminished. He didn't feel as intense of a longing for the man anymore. Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"It won't matter to her," he coaxed. "Temari understands."

"Oh she does, does she?" Naruto snapped, angry now. "Did she understand last year?" Sasuke tensed. "Because, as I recall, last year she dumped you."

"What do you know about anything dobe?!" Sasuke snarled.

Naruto's grin was angry. "I've never forgotten what happened the day we were to leave, asshole," he nearly whispered. "Never."

Naruto was depressed. It was the 27th and soon everyone would be leaving to go home to their families for their New Year celebrations. He looked across the room at where Sasuke stood, talking lowly to Neji and felt his heart constrict; he didn't want to leave him.

They'd kept their whirlwind romance a secret from everyone else; Naruto would've been fine with telling the world, but Sasuke had said that it would be better to tell them when they'd been together longer and were surer of their relationship. Naruto loved Sasuke . . . . so he agreed to keep it that way. Now, though, all he wanted was to rush across the room and kiss his lover goodbye without caring about what his friends would think. The only thing that stopped him was the thought of Sasuke's reaction.

As soon as Sasuke was done talking to Neji, Naruto drifted over to his side. "We need to talk," he murmured and Sasuke nodded discretely. When no one was watching, they slipped out of the room and into one of the nearby empty bedrooms. Naruto sat on the bed while Sasuke leaned against the wall near the doorway.

"So . . . ." Naruto sighed. "You go to Neji's school, right?" Sasuke nodded, frowning. "I can come visit in a month or so, I think." He smiled a little at the thought. Sasuke eyed him thoughtfully.

"Why would you visit?" Sasuke raised an eyebrow. It was Naruto's turn to frown.

"Of course I'll come visit!" he protested. When Sasuke didn't seem to understand, Naruto's chest tightened. "I mean . . . . we're in a relationship, aren't we?"

Sasuke stared at him for a long moment. "No," he said flatly, "we're not. I don't know what gave you that idea."

Naruto shivered. "What're you talking about?" he said, feeling very hurt and extremely foolish. "We've had sex every day for the past two weeks, asshole! You said we were together!"

Sasuke smirked suddenly. "That doesn't mean anything, dobe; I said what I needed to say," he said. He watched Naruto flinch with blank eyes. "What, you thought I loved you? Please. You were a good lay, and that was it. There's nothing else to it."

"You . . . you said you loved me," Naruto stammered. He didn't understand this; they'd be in love! What was Sasuke playing at?

"That's what you wanted to hear," Sasuke said bluntly, "so I said it to keep sleeping with you. And it worked, didn't it? But I've gotten a little bored with you."

"Bored with me?" Naruto's confusion was starting to turn into anger.

"Yeah," Sasuke shrugged, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "I mean, the sex was great but you can only have so much of it with the same person before it gets a little . . . blasé." He smirked a little.

"You son of a bitch," Naruto near-whispered and then swung his hand at Sasuke's face. Sasuke caught it before it could connect with his cheek and drew Naruto in close in a cheap imitation of a lover's embrace.

"You're nothing more than a good fuck, dobe," he whispered into Naruto's ear. "And that's all you'll ever be good for."

"You're wrong!" Naruto shouted, shaking. "I can be loved. I . . . I know I can." He tried to shove down the years of being told how worthless and freakish and loveless he was and focus. "I can be loved," he repeated, almost as if to convince himself. Sasuke stared at him with pitiless black eyes.

"No," Sasuke told him, "you can't."

Naruto ripped himself away from him. "And what, you can?!" he shouted, angry at himself and at Sasuke. "You're nothing but a . . . cold, emotionless bastard! Who says you can be loved and I can't?!"

"You loved me, didn't you?" Sasuke smirked coldly and Naruto flinched. "Of course I don't love you back . . . But I do love Temari. She'll be my wife someday, once she comes to her senses and decides to end this break we've been on." Sasuke's face twisted into an ugly snarl. Naruto felt a sharp spike of pain in his heart at knowing that Sasuke loved someone else.

"What, so I was just a convenient hole while your girlfriend denies you?" he snarled, feeling more vulnerable than he ever had in his life.

Sasuke looked at him, and his twisted expression fell away to leave nothing but blank, dark eyes behind. "Yeah," he drawled, "Pretty much." He didn't sound regretful.

Naruto stared at him. "I hope you rot in hell," he whispered and then ran from the room to find a convenient place to cry and lick his wounds in peace.

"I wonder why she got back together with you," Naruto drawled, surveying Sasuke as if he was scum on the bottom of his shoe. "You're nothing but a cold, emotionless bastard." He wondered if Sasuke would remember that Naruto had spat those words at him a year ago.

"Shut up," Sasuke snarled and then grabbed Naruto by the nape of his neck and pulled him close. Naruto felt his breath hitch despite himself at having Sasuke so close to him. The Uchiha must have felt it, because he smirked suddenly. "You still want me, don't you?" he murmured. "You're so pathetic, Naruto. You always were." He drew Naruto in closer.

Naruto broke away before Sasuke's lips could touch his. "No," he said strongly and scrambled away from the Uchiha. "Just . . . stay away from me, Uchiha."

Sasuke looked angry again. "Why should I?" he asked.

"Because . . . I don't want you," Naruto said firmly, and for the first time he felt as if he actually meant it.

"Of course you do, Naruto—" Sasuke started, looking even angrier.

"I do not think he does," a voice interrupted from the doorway and they both turned to see Gaara standing there, looking as blank as ever. "Perhaps you should leave him alone."

If Uchihas ever let emotions beyond anger and smugness reach their faces, then Sasuke would've looked embarrassed right then. As it was, his features turned cold and impassive instead. "I don't see why I should listen to you," he said frigidly. "This is between me and the dobe."

Naruto just looked at him. Uchiha Sasuke, he was coming to realize, was a spoiled, rich kid. He got what he wanted, when he wanted for so long that anytime anything was denied to him he tried all the harder to get it because of that. That was the only reason he was even still pursuing Naruto; if he had slept with him in the library then they wouldn't even be having this conversation right now. How, Naruto wondered, did I never realize this last year? He's . . . not worth it. He's never been worth it. But Naruto supposed love was stupid as well as blind.

"You should listen to him because he's right," Naruto said and moved to walk past Sasuke. Sasuke grabbed his wrist as he went by.

"This isn't over dobe," he said fiercely, but Naruto just picked his fingers away from his wrist.

"Yes," he said calmly, "I think it is."

Gaara and Naruto went to Naruto's room in silent agreement.

Naruto spread himself over his bed and Gaara perched in the only chair in the room. Naruto could feel his eyes boring into the back of his head, but didn't turn over. Instead, he stared at the wall in front of him and began to talk.

"Sasuke and I had a relationship last Christmas," he started. "It ended . . . well, it ended really badly." He was silent for a long moment. "I grew up in orphanages," he finally added. "They were all pretty bad places; they had too many kids and too little space and . . . well, a lot of the workers didn't have much patience for kids. The place I was at longest was called Konoha . . . . that was the worst place. There were these two caretakers there . . . Orochimaru and Kabuto were their names. They hated me. I never even knew why until . . . . Well, until I was older. But they tormented me whenever they could." Naruto smiled bitterly.

"I didn't have any friends until high school; Neji was the first person who decided to stick by me. Part of that is due to Orochimaru and Kabuto . . . they made sure all the kids in the orphanage stayed away from me. They taunted me every day, always calling me worthless and unloved and a freak. They said my mom was a whore and my father was a drunkard who didn't know his ass from his head and that they had abandoned me because they didn't think I was worth raising." Naruto snorted. "I never knew anything about my parents, no matter how often I tried to find any information, so I believed them. And because what they said about my parents was true . . . I figured they had to be right about me too. I had to be worthless and unlovable and a freak." Gaara made a dark, growling sound, but Naruto didn't look up.

"High school helped only a little. Having Neji as a friend . . . it was so wonderful, Gaara. But still, I always worried that Neji would leave me behind one day; would decide that I wasn't worth the effort and ditch me. I couldn't shake the little voice in the back of my head that whispered how little I deserved affection and how worthless I was." Naruto shook his head sadly. "Iruka – he's the one that adopted me – tried to help. He brought me to some therapists and psychologists but . . . that feeling just persisted. Years of being told that, of having it ingrained into my subconscious . . . well, it made its mark." Naruto laughed bitterly. "Orochimaru and Kabuto would be happy to know how much they've affected me."

He was silent for long moments. "I'm telling you all of this so that you'll understand," he said, more calmly. "It wasn't just Sasuke that affected me so much . . . . He was the catalyst, I guess, although I'm only realizing that now." Naruto took a deep breath. "Sasuke repeated everything I've ever been told my entire life when he broke up with me. I guess it was . . . the final straw for me. Something just . . . just broke."

"I went to school and I decided that I would show Sasuke. I got angry and desperate and decided that I was worthy to be loved. I'd do anything I had to so I could find it. So I changed my look; I remembered Neji always telling me how much better I'd look without my old style. I attracted a lot more notice that way . . . . and I began to go clubbing a lot more. Eventually . . . well, it led to a lot of casual sex and a lot of broken relationships." Naruto shivered. "I always expected too much and they always left. They didn't want to be . . . tied down by my, I guess."

"It hurt Gaara . . . so much. It was like everything Sasuke and Orochimaru and Kabuto and everyone had told me was coming true; I was unlovable. No one bothered to stay with me; they all left. And day by day . . . . I think I just lost more of myself. I looked in the mirror and I couldn't recognize myself in it anymore." He breathed out slowly. "Eventually, Sasuke came to be a sort of focal point for me, I think . . . He was the last person I'd felt truly happy with. I think . . . I wanted to be with him again because of that. But now, it's as if those feelings . . . have been drained out of me."

The room was silent for long moments. Naruto felt drained and tired, as if exposing himself so thoroughly had been as physical as it had been mental. He wondered what Gaara thought of him now. He liked the red-head; he felt so comfortable in his presence. That was why he'd decided to let so much of himself out to Gaara . . . he felt that the red-head would understand in a way that no one really ever had, not even Neji or Iruka.

"Uzumaki," Gaara murmured and Naruto felt the bed dip as Gaara set next to him on it. "My mother died when I was a child; my father blamed me for it. I was shunned in my family until I was fourteen and not allowed to leave the house for any reasons outside absolute necessity. I did not attend school . . . I never had any friends. My siblings were fearful of me because they believed my father when he told them that I was mentally unstable. The only way I was able to escape was because Temari discovered her conscience and set me free. I have spent the last years of my life learning what others have known since they were toddlers." Gaara paused. "We are very similar, you and I," he murmured. "But I do not believe either of us is unlovable."

Naruto felt tears drip out of the corner of his eyelids as Gaara placed a warm hand on the middle of his back. "How do you know you aren't wrong?" he asked, his voice cracking in the middle of the sentence.

Gaara contemplated the question before he gently turned Naruto over onto his back. Naruto tried to shield his face and prevent Gaara from seeing his tears, but Gaara pushed his hands away and looked him seriously in the eye.

"For a long time, I considered myself as loveless as you seem to believe you are," he said quietly. "A few years ago I came to talk with a woman called Tsunade. She was a rude woman, prone to gambling and drinking but . . . I remember something she said to me . . . 'You . . . were created to be loved. So for you to live as if you were unloved is a limitation, not the other way around . . . Living unloved is like clipping a bird's wing and removing its ability to fly . . . A bird is not defined by being grounded but by his ability to fly.'" He smiled faintly. "It was a quote from a book called The Shack, written by William P. Young, I believe."

Naruto smiled a little. "That's beautiful," he said quietly.

"It is," Gaara acknowledged. "So I decided, after that day . . . that it didn't matter if anyone thought I was unlovable . . . because I wasn't measured by their opinions of me, but of the opinion I held about myself." Gaara looked at Naruto with measured green eyes. "When I look at you, Naruto, all I can see . . . is a bright, attractive man with a heart much too large for its own good. Whether or not you believe it yourself, you must believe me . . . you are lovable. I do not believe that you ever could not be."

Naruto was trembling, and he felt hot tears fall down his cheeks. He'd heard that from many people before . . . from Iruka and Kakashi, and from Neji and Shikamaru, the only other two people to know so much about his past. He'd never believed them. But Gaara knew. He'd . . . felt the same, had gone through the same uncertainty about his worth to the world and had come out stronger and better. And he was telling Naruto that he could be loved.

Naruto lunged forward and clutched Gaara in a tight embrace. The red-head stiffened in surprise, but almost immediately relaxed. His hands came to rest around Naruto's waist as easily as if he'd been hugging him for years. Naruto pushed his nose into the nape of Gaara's neck and inhaled soap, musk and the clean, sharp scent of pine needles.

"Thank you," he murmured. Gaara's hands tightened around his waist.

"Do not thank me," he murmured into Naruto's hair. "I am only telling you what was already there."

Naruto pulled away a little and stared into Gaara's eyes. Without letting himself think about it he darted forward and placed a soft, chase kiss to Gaara's lips. Green eyes widened. "Thank you anyways," Naruto murmured and then resumed his snuggling.

Gaara remained tense for several moments before he relaxed. "What are you doing?" he asked quietly.

"You understand," Naruto mumbled into Gaara's neck. "You care." He paused then added, almost shyly, "I like you."

Gaara shivered a bit. "Uzu—Naruto," he said sharply. "You need to think about this. Jumping into . . . something with me will just make everything worse—" Naruto tensed.

"Do you plan on leaving me?" he asked, drawing away. Gaara's arms tightened around him and pulled him back.

"No," he said, nearly growling. There was a pause and then Gaara sighed. "No, I don't, even though I have no idea why." Naruto smiled.

"We can try, can't we?" he asked. "I'm just not . . . . I really don't think I can work past this on my own," he admitted. "And you're . . . the only one that understands. I want your help, Gaara . . . I want you."

Gaara pulled back and tilted Naruto's chin up so that blue eyes met green. "I am not just a replacement for Uchiha?" he asked calmly, although his eyes flashed a little dangerously. Naruto nearly broke his neck, he shook it so vigorously.

"No!" he nearly shouted. "No, of course not," he said more calmly as Gaara's eyes softened. "Sasuke . . . well, he's an asshole. I don't want him anymore . . . and I'm not even sure if I really wanted him to begin with." He smiled a little. "No, I definitely want you on your own merits, Gaara."

"You realize that there is a distinct possibility that this will not work," Gaara asked calmly. "We have only known each other for a short time, and soon we will have to part." Naruto tensed. Gaara eyed him thoughtfully. "Although I am not currently attending a college and I could very easily come with you after this vacation is over," he added. Naruto brightened immediately.

"You would, really?" he asked, delighted. Gaara watched him for a moment before nodding.

"It would work out rather well," he said. "There are a few jobs in the city I have been considering."

Naruto eyed him. "How do you know where I live?" he asked curiously. Gaara froze and Naruto watched in astonishment as a light blush covered his cheekbones.

"I asked Temari to get . . . details about you from the pink-haired girl," he muttered. Naruto grinned.

"You investigated me?" he crowed. "That's adorable!" Gaara's deepening blush was even more so. Naruto couldn't stop smiling.

"I was just curious," he said, almost defensively.

"When was all of this?" Naruto inquired curiously, still smiling.

"After the day in the library," Gaara muttered. Naruto's smile softened.

"I never really thanked you for that, by the way," he said. "I really appreciated what you did for me . . . I don't think I could've handled waking up on the library floor alone."

Gaara shrugged uncomfortably. "I could not just leave you there," he said. "Not after . . . ."

They both remembered Naruto's breakdown and the blond shrugged. "Thanks anyways," he said starkly. "Whatever you say about it, you didn't have to do it. Sasuke wouldn't have done it," he added in angrily. Gaara's arm tightened around him.

"Uchiha doesn't do a lot of things," he murmured. Naruto huffed silently in agreement. "Naruto," Gaara prodded gently, "you know that this might not work?"

"Yeah," Naruto said quietly. "I realize it." He was silent for a long moment. "But I think . . . that if it doesn't, I'll be alright." Gaara looked down to see Naruto's brow was furrowed thoughtfully. "I don't know for sure," he added, "but I feel like I'd be able to survive."

Gaara gathered him close. "That is good," he murmured and pressed his face into Naruto's bright blond hair.

December 24th, late evening

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten,
And children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright!
And may all your Christmases be white."

Naruto smiled as he heard the carolers outside finish their song. He'd always particularly liked that Christmas song; it was simple and pretty and meaningful. He leaned forward in his seat, sighing with pleasure as the fire warmed his hands and knees. Neji's giant Christmas tree stood in one corner, decorated completely with countless glass balls and ornaments. Around him, his friends were gathered in a loose circle, talking freely.

Naruto glanced over at Gaara. They hadn't announced their relationship yet . . . . And some part of Naruto wasn't sure he wanted to. He just wanted to keep this new, fragile bond between them hidden for now until it blossomed completely and could withstand anything. He wondered if Gaara felt the same.

Sasuke and Temari sat across from them, and every once in a while Sasuke and Naruto's eyes would catch and the Uchiha would glare silently. Naruto just tried to keep his face impassive; he didn't want to ruin this Christmas for anyone. And so far, it had been a good holiday, filled with friends and good food and talk. For Naruto, it wasn't tinged with that haze that comes with new love, but he found that he liked it better when he was "sober", so to speak.

He watched as Temari bent her dark gold head to speak to Sasuke in a low tone. He wondered if he'd ever tell her what he did when they'd broken up last Christmas; or if he'd even want him to. He looked up as Neji re-entered the room from tipping the carolers and smiled at his friend. Neji's face looked strangely grim; it had all evening, in fact. Naruto's brow furrowed and he looked over at Shikamaru, who was the closest to Neji besides himself. He was surprised that his lethargic friend looked just as serious.

"I'll be right back," Naruto murmured to Gaara and stood. He motioned with his eyes at Neji and Shikamaru and then slipped out of the door. He knew that they'd follow him.

Naruto slipped into a quiet backroom and waited. A few moments later, Neji entered, followed closely by Shikamaru.

"What's up?" Naruto asked immediately, his brow furrowing in concern. "You've looked like someone died all night!"

They exchanged looks. "Naruto," Neji started quietly. "Have you given any thought to what we discussed yesterday?"

Naruto froze. He'd forgotten about that conversation; it had slipped his mind after his talk with Gaara.

"Not really," he said, trying for casual. He felt like he'd managed to work past a lot of things that had been haunting him for the last year, but he wasn't sure if he really wanted Neji and Shikamaru to know about his struggles. They were his closest friends but . . . . He looked them over closely and sighed when he realized that they both looked really worried. Maybe they deserved the truth. "Well, I was having some problems," he amended quietly, "relationship-wise. But I've worked through it. I'm sorry for worrying you guys."

"Relationship problems?" Shikamaru asked with sharp eyes. "With whom?"

Naruto hesitated; he had a feeling they wouldn't like the answer and he really didn't want a confrontation on Christmas Eve, especially not one that would probably ruin Temari's holidays. "Does it really matter?" he asked evasively. Neji's eyes narrowed.

"Who was it, Naruto?" he asked sharply. Naruto winced; he knew that tone.

"Look, Neji, it wasn't that big of a deal," he said, lying uncomfortably. "Let's just drop it okay? I'm fine now."

"It was Uchiha, wasn't it?" Shikamaru asked and Naruto couldn't stop his surprised flinch. Shikamaru's grim smile said that he'd read the truth. "I thought so. What did he do to you?"

"Nothing—Look guys, can we not do this today?" he pleaded. "It would make things really bad for Temari if this came out and . . . she's really nice and I don't want to hurt her, okay?"

Neji and Shikamaru watched him for long moments. "Fine," Neji said, sounding a little petulant. "But we can have a talk with him later on, can't we?" His face brightened and Naruto sighed; he didn't think he'd manage to end this Christmas season without Neji talking to Sasuke in some way.

"As long as I watch," Naruto instructed and Neji's face fell. "Now, let's head back—"

"You're with someone now, aren't you?" Shikamaru interrupted. Naruto groaned; damn genius friend!

"Yes," he said grudgingly, knowing Shikamaru would draw it out of him anyways. Shikamaru smirked.

"It's Sabaku Gaara, isn't it," he said, making it a statement instead of a question. Naruto didn't even gape; it was long past time for him to act surprised when Shikamaru went Sherlock Holmes on him.

"Yeah," he admitted. "We kind of hit it off." Understatement, he thought.

"You're sure he won't hurt you?" Neji asked with concern. "Do I need to talk to him too?"

"I can talk to people myself, Neji!" Naruto groaned. "I'm not a fragile little princess." He scowled in a very menacing and manly way. Neji smirked.

"I'm trembling in the presence of such manliness," he said patronizingly. Naruto lifted his nose in the air.

"Thank you," he said haughtily and then started to laugh. Neji and Shikamaru exchanged pleased looks at the sound of the bright, free laughter that they hadn't heard much of during their vacation.

"Go on back, you assholes," Naruto said, still smiling. "I'll meet up with you in a minute."

"Naruto?" Neji said with confusion as his friend pushed them out of the door. Naruto's smile brightened.

"It's snowing," he said and pointed out of the window to where thick, white snow was falling from the sky.

Naruto lifted his face to the sky and opened his mouth, feeling snowflakes fall and melt on his tongue. His lips curved into a happy smile and he twirled around, laughing out loud as he felt snow twirl around him.

"Naruto," Gaara's voice was welcome and unsurprising. Naruto turned to him and swung his arms around his shoulders happily.

"It's snowing, Gaara!" he cried.

"I can see that," Gaara deadpanned as his hand came up to cup the back of Naruto's head tenderly. Naruto sighed and leaned into the warmth.

"I'm glad I met you," he murmured after a moment. "It's nice to feel happy again."

Gaara's grip tightened. "I will make sure you are always happy," he promised solemnly. Naruto leaned back and stared into his serious face.

"Thank you," he said sincerely. "I'll try and do the same." He leaned forward and placed a warm, dry kiss on Gaara's lips. "We'll do alright, Gaara," he murmured against pale skin, "I know it."

Gaara's lips turned into a tiny smile as he pulled Naruto forward for another kiss.

Author's Note: HOLY CRAP. THIS IS THE LONGEST FREAKING ONESHOT I'VE EVER WRITTEN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Seriously, this thing is 29 pages. That's freaking long in size 9 verdana font! Wow! I mean, I had planned for this to be, like, 10 pages and then it just kept going and going!! I'm impressed with myself. Anyways, I hope you guys liked it! It didn't really turn out to be much of a Christmas-fic . . . and it turned out to be a lot more serious than I'd planned, but I actually like it better this way. Hopefully everything doesn't seem too rushed . . . I felt a little bit like that, but I don't have much time to change it so hopefully it works out well enough. Please leave a review and let me know what you think!

Big Note: I'm thinking about writing a few outtakes for this in the next few days when I have the time . . . probably one of GaaNaru's first time and maybe the first meeting with Kakashi and Iruka (who didn't even feature in this oneshot! I have to add them in somewhere . . . .) Maybe even that talk Neji has with Gaara (and Sasuke . . . .). Just thought I'd let you guys know.

One more note: The song Naruto plays is "I Need To Know" by Kris Allen and it is a fucking amazing song. Go out and buy his album people! He's got some serious talent. The song is all over youtube, so you should be able to find it easily enough.