Approaching the redhead who was so frightening everyone around them, Naruto and Hinata gave the boy a kind smile. "Hi there," Naruto greeted pleasantly.
The redhead finally focused his attention on the two people who were approaching him with no fear. "Are you talking to...me?" he asked uncertainly. Naruto nodded. "Who...are you?"
"I'm Naruto, and this is my friend, Hinata," Naruto replied. "And you?"
"My name is Gaara," the boy replied. "Why aren't you afraid of me? You do know who I am, don't you?" he asked after a moment when the two showed no sign of recognizing his name.
"Never heard of you," Naruto replied, somewhat blithely.
Gaara looked shocked by this, which prompted Hinata to ask, "Why should we have heard of you?"
"I'm the monster of the sand," Gaara said back, his voice sad. It had taken years, but after being told that he was a monster for so many years, he had eventually come to believe it.
Naruto recognized that thought, that feeling, all too well. "No you aren't," he said back, his voice showing no doubt whatsoever.
Gaara looked up in shock. "What do you mean? Of course I am. Everyone in town is afraid of me, and I've even killed people before. How could I not be the monster?" he asked.
"I know you aren't because I'm just like you," Naruto replied. "Everyone in my village ignored me and treated me like some kind of monster, but then I found out I'm not a monster, I just have one sealed inside me. I bet you do, too."
Gaara pondered this. "A monster sealed inside me?" he thought. "But then that would mean...Mother...is a monster? Could it be that that isn't my mother but...the monster everyone believes I am? This boy is saying he has one in him, too...maybe it's true." Turning his attention to the raven-haired girl who had only spoken once so far, he asked her, "You knew of this, and you're still with him?"
Hinata smiled and linked her hand with Naruto's. "He's my hero. I don't care what he has inside him, I'll always be at his side," she said back happily.
Gaara was surprised. "He's a monster, a killer, and you still love him?" he asked, his voice betraying how mystified he was. Hinata nodded. "But...why?"
Hinata sighed. "It doesn't matter to me what's inside him or that he's killed. I know who he is and why he does the things he does, and that's what matters to me. He would only kill if he had to to defend something precious to him, and the creature inside him doesn't change the fact that he's still Naruto Uzumaki, my hero," she said quietly but confidently.
"So...you mean I'm not doomed to be alone forever?" Gaara asked back.
Hinata smiled. "I'm sure you'll find someone someday, Gaara. Just don't let yourself turn to hate and anger. Be the best person you can be, and I'm sure someone will come to love you someday," she told him.
Gaara pondered this for a while, eventually deciding to simply tuck it away for the time being. "You said you're not from here," he said. "What are you two doing here, then?"
It took Naruto and Hinata the better part of an hour to explain what had happened to them that brought them to the Hidden Sand Village. They didn't tell him everything, leaving out some of the stuff about the Hyuga clan, since they didn't want to tell this boy exactly who Hinata was just yet, and not going into too much detail about their kidnapping, but other than that, they were as upfront and honest as they could be. "That's when we came here," Hinata finished. "We need to get some supplies for ourselves and our oxen so that we can continue our journey."
Gaara thought about all he'd been told. "I see," he said softly. "Well, if you'll come with me, I'll help you find the supplies you need. The villagers might be afraid of me, but that hasn't stopped me from learning my way around this place." Naruto and Hinata smiled and nodded, then followed as Gaara turned and headed toward the main street of the village.
For the third time in the last month, Jiraiya found himself pacing back and forth in his hotel room anxiously. He had received another message from his old sensei concerning his godson and the young girl traveling with him. This one was by far the most distressing of the messages he'd been sent. "Foundling's campsite found trampled. Foundling and baggage missing; current location and condition unknown." That's all the message said, but Jiraiya was fully able to read between the lines. Naruto and his companion had been kidnapped!
"Oh, Minato, Kushina, what am I supposed to do?!" he asked aloud. "I know you two would kill me if anything happened to that brat, but how can I help him now?" Resuming his pacing, the Toad Sage got a determined look on his face. "Okay, it's been a month now since he left. If I'm not finished with my mission and with those two in a year, I'll hand in my headband," he said to himself.
That determined, he set himself to glaring at every single detail of his mission schedule. He eventually noticed that there was a single opportunity to speed things up so that they would fit the new timetable he had set for himself. It was risky, and probably stupid, but if it meant he was with those two sooner, he didn't care what he had to put on the line to do it.
"There," he thought to himself. "If I can just stick to that, I'll be with them in a year, maybe even less. It's still not perfect, but it'll just have to do." That decision made, the man flopped onto his hotel bed and closed his eyes. It wasn't late, it was in fact early afternoon, but he was thoroughly exhausted. As he drifted toward sleep, his last thought was, "Please, just be safe until I can get there, Naruto." The man's dreams were haunted by the angry eyes of Naruto's parents.
The Third Hokage sighed deeply. He had just received a scroll stating that Naruto and Hinata had been spotted entering the Hidden Sand Village. One of his spies there had been on duty at the village's main gate when the two used their less than plausible story to get in, which is why they had received so little trouble. It was a huge relief to know they were okay, but this other information was rather odd. The two were driving an ox cart? That didn't seem to make much sense. Where in the world would they get an ox cart? Yet the man was strangely certain the two were who he said they were. He described Hinata's eyes and Naruto's hair and whiskers so well, the Hokage had to agree, this was them. Yet...an ox cart? Where in the world did they get that?
Still, it was a relief to know they were safe and apparently free. The man said it was just the two of them who entered the Sand Village, so obviously they had either escaped their captors or been set free. The former left the Hokage wondering how, while the latter seemed implausible, if not downright impossible. He was fairly sure the two had been captured as part of someone's attempt to profit from Hinata's Byakugan, so he found it rather unlikely that she in particular would simply be let go. And the cart was still baffling. All the same, he supposed he should just be glad they were alive and safe and that their situation had seemingly improved.
Sighing again, he picked up a brush and wrote a new message to his old student. Summoning a small monkey to deliver it, he handed the creature the scroll, then went back to his paperwork, all the while trying to figure out where Naruto or Hinata would have gotten a freaking ox cart.
Jiraiya looked up in surprise when a poof of smoke filled his room. When it cleared, there was a monkey there with a scroll in its hand, which it handed to Jiraiya before vanishing in a second cloud of smoke. Jiraiya opened it and read, "Foundling has landed in a sandy nest. Was seen with an ox cart. Shadow's desert eyes report Foundling is well."
Jiraiya read the message three times rapidly. The first and third lines made perfect sense to him: Naruto had been seen by a spy in the Sand Village, who reported that Naruto was doing well. That second line, though. An ox cart? After thinking about that for a few minutes, Jiraiya came to the conclusion that had to be code for something. After all, where in the world would two eight-year-olds get an ox cart? But if that was a code for something, what in the world was it? None of the spymaster's knowledge of codes or cyphers could make any sense out of that one. Eventually, Jiraiya had no choice but to accept that, for whatever reason, his sensei had written a single line that wasn't coded. But that brought him back to his original question. Where in the world would they get an ox cart?
"Naruto, what in the world have you gotten yourself into out there?" he asked the wall. "I just hope you know what you're doing. Please, be safe, Naruto. Please."
Naruto smiled in slight surprise as he realized that the cost of all the supplies he'd purchased hadn't even made a significant dent in his funds. He smiled as he thought of the box he'd kept in his closet all these years. "It's a good thing I kept that," he thought to himself as he paid for the last few things he and Hinata were going to need.
Turning to Gaara, Naruto said, "Thank you, Gaara, you've been most helpful. Now that we have our supplies, though, Hinata and I really should move on."
Gaara looked stricken at this. Turning to look at the sky, the redhead said, "Nonsense! You two will both join me and my family for dinner and spend the night at my home. Tomorrow you can make your plans and decide when to leave." Naruto was about to protest, but Gaara interrupted him, saying, "I don't know how many nights you've spent in the desert, but it can be absolutely frigid sometimes. It's going to be cold tonight, and I'm sure you'd be warmer and more comfortable in one of the rooms at my home than out there on the sand." The boy didn't know if it was going to be cold or not, but he was desperate to keep Naruto and Hinata from leaving just yet.
Naruto turned to Hinata. "He's got a point," he said.
Hinata nodded. "Yeah, and it would feel so good to sleep in a bed again," she said. Then, blushing slightly, she added, "Even if it is only for one night."
Naruto chuckled. Hinata was right. It would feel good to sleep in a bed again. He hadn't thought about it consciously until that moment, but camping out for a month straight could really make you miss the finer things of home. Turning his attention back to Gaara, Naruto smiled and said, "All right, Gaara. We thank you for your hospitality, and we'll be glad to stay with you for tonight. We really should move on tomorrow, though."
Gaara looked a bit depressed that they would be moving on so soon, but he wasn't going to complain about them staying for now at least. In truth, given how his father had been acting toward him of late, Gaara had to admit that the Sand Village was probably not the safest place for Naruto to be, given his burden. "Come with me," he said simply, not wanting to show how anxious he was. With that, he turned and led his two...companions? Friends? He wasn't sure what they were yet, but that's exactly why he didn't want them to leave yet. Regardless, he led them to his home.
Naruto was impressed by the sheer size of Gaara's home. It was obviously quite expensive, and it was the largest home by far they had seen since arriving in the Sand Village. "Nice place," he said, his voice full of awe.
"I am happy you approve," Gaara said sincerely. "My siblings should be here, so we can all have dinner shortly."
Hinata was taken a little aback by this. "You have siblings? You never mentioned them before," she said.
"Yes," Gaara said back. "I am the youngest of three. My older brother, Kankuro, and my sister, Temari, should be here. Come in."
Naruto and Hinata followed him into his home. Gaara left them to their own devices to take off their shoes and such and went on a search for his siblings. After removing their shoes, Naruto and Hinata looked around the living room where they found themselves. There was a long couch along one wall, and a large rug took up most of the floor space, while the center of the rug was dominated by a coffee table. On the table, they saw several books were laying about haphazardly. Naruto recognized one of them as the book he was reading the night he met Hinata. Hinata recognized a few as a series of which she herself was a fan. Then both of them saw an orange book laying in the midst of all the others. It wasn't familiar to either of them, but the orange cover made it very noticeable to both of them.
Hinata was considering picking up the odd orange book when Gaara returned, two people who must be his siblings in tow. Temari had blond hair tied up in four ponytails, a style which reminded Hinata of an odd version of the hairstyle favored by the Nara men, and she was carrying a fan with her. Kankuro was manipulating a small puppet as he walked around, making it do a rather silly dance, and was wearing a hooded outfit that made his head slightly resemble that of a cat. It was Temari who spoke first. "So, who are your visitors, Gaara?" she asked.
"This is Naruto and Hinata," Gaara answered, indicating each as he said their names. "They're not from here, and they needed some help getting supplies so they could continue their journey. I invited them to join us for the night so they could more easily plan their next move."
Temari and Kankuro both looked surprised at how...normal Gaara was acting. Temari turned her focus on Hinata. "Would you mind helping me in the kitchen?" she asked.
Hinata smiled. "Not at all, I'd be glad to," she answered. The two girls disappeared into the kitchen to get dinner started.
"I will get your room prepared for you," Gaara said before walking up the stairs.
Kankuro turned to Naruto. "You do know...what he is, don't you?" he asked, indicating where Gaara had gone. Naruto turned a blank look on Kankuro. "I mean...you do know he's a jinchuriki, right?"
Naruto snorted. "You mean that he has a monster inside him?" Kankuro nodded furiously. "Yeah, I know," he said simply.
"And you're not afraid of him?" Kankuro asked in shock.
"Why in the world would I be afraid of him?" Naruto asked. Then he added, "After all, I have a monster in me, too. And I'm pretty sure mine is bigger."
Kankuro was surprised. "You're...like Gaara?" he asked.
"Well, if you mean that we both have monsters sealed within us, yeah. If you mean that we've both spent most of our lives alone, yeah. If you mean that we're both homicidal maniacs, no. And I don't think Gaara will be, either, after this," Naruto said calmly. Gaara had told him and Hinata about the many times he'd had to kill to survive over the last few years. It was a little scary, but also very sad.
"I did notice he seemed...different," Kankuro said.
Naruto sighed. "Just treat him like any other sibling would want to be treated, and I really don't think you'll have to worry about him," he said.
Meanwhile, Temari had been asking Hinata much the same thing. "Yeah, I know about Gaara's...burden, and I know how he's had to kill so many times. He told us while we were walking around the village together earlier," Hinata said calmly.
Temari was surprised. Gaara had told them? They hadn't seen it? "And you're not...afraid of him?"
Hinata laughed. "Of course not. Naruto has a monster sealed inside him, too, and I'm not afraid of him, so why would I be afraid of Gaara?"
Temari was shocked now. "Naruto is a jinchuriki?" she asked. Hinata nodded. She had heard the term once before, and upon hearing about Naruto's beast, she had put two and two together. "How can you be so calm around him?"
"He'd never hurt me," Hinata said. "In fact, he's already killed to protect me. It was...actually really scary seeing the aftermath of what he did, but I know he did it for me, so I can't be afraid of him for doing it." Hinata finally allowed the true horror of having witnessed...that sink in and shivered slightly.
Temari wrapped an arm around the smaller girl's shoulders and gave her a kind smile. "I know how you feel. I still remember the first time I saw what Gaara can do...it's impressive, but scary," she said. "If he can just harness that power and be convinced to use it to protect the village, I don't think any of us will ever need to fear anything again."
Hinata smiled. "That's exactly how I feel about Naruto. The thing is, he's already determined to be Hokage and uses his power to protect the village. I just hope one day the village will see him as I do, as our hero," she said softly.
Temari smiled. "Wow. You've really got it bad for that goofy kid, huh?" she said, teasingly.
Hinata blushed scarlet. "What do you mean?" she asked, trying to feign ignorance. When Temari just gave her a knowing look, Hinata sighed. "Yeah, I do. How could I not, though? He's already saved me from becoming a prisoner of my clan and from being kidnapped, and I haven't even known him two months yet. He's my hero, and I'm the luckiest girl in the world just knowing him."
Temari smiled again. "I'm happy for you, Hinata. I just hope Gaara finds someone like you someday."
Hinata gave a slight giggle. "If he follows Naruto's example, I'm sure he will. Naruto found me, after all," she said back with a happy glint in her eye. "And I'm sure whoever it is, she'll be just as lucky to have Gaara as I am to have Naruto," Hinata added with a smile.
Temari sighed. "I hope you're right, Hinata," she said. That said, the two girls turned their focus to making dinner for everyone.
The next morning, Naruto and Hinata were preparing to leave the Sand Village with their cart and oxen. They had enjoyed their evening with Gaara and his siblings, but they realized that they had to move on. "All right," Naruto said once their team was hitched back up. "Are you ready, Hinata?"
Hinata nodded, a blank look on her face. She was already back in her "blind girl" persona they had used to get into the village. They had decided to use the same cover story to get back out so as to avoid raising suspicion.
Just before they could set their team onto the road that led out of the village, they got a surprise. Gaara came running up to them. "Oh, hey, Gaara," Naruto said pleasantly. "What's up?"
"Take me with you," Gaara demanded.