"I have to wear - WHAT? There's no way you can stay cool in all that stuff! I'll burn up! Hell, I'm already burning up!" Naruto started to unzip his jacket to prove his point, but stopped himself just in time.

Without thinking, Gaara licked his lips. "You will find you begin to cool off after you sweat through the first layer."

Naruto's eyes widened. "EEW! That's gross! I mean -" he stopped as Gaara's brow arched just a fraction of a centimeter.

"The under-robe is part of Sunagakure's daily dress, in all seasons," the Kazekage continued. "As a culture of desert dwellers, we know how to efficiently deal with heat."

Naruto crossed his arms. Although he was sweltering in his jacket and pants, the idea of wearing those ridiculous robes - not to mention the headdress! - did not appeal to him. "What about the head things?" he countered. "I thought wearing something on your head was supposed to trap in the heat."

Gaara suppressed a sigh. "You will find that the head covering is preferable to the heat of the unshielded sun beating down on you. Besides, the material is light."

Naruto glared. "Then why don't you wear one?"

Gaara returned the glare. He blinked slowly.

Naruto blushed under his tan. "Oh... right. The sand."

Gaara's eye wandered from the other shinobi's flushed face, down his neck, to the vulnerable curve of the join between his neck and shoulder. Helplessly, his thoughts raced to whether the kyuubi host would growl the same as he did during battle, if Gaara bit him there...gently. He wondered what his friend's sweat tasted like, what kind of sounds he would make if Gaara were to find out. Too late, he noticed a familiar throbbing ache beginning, followed by a rush of utter panic. Sea-green eyes widened for just a fraction of a second, then quickly narrowed. He looked down at the floor, then back up at Naruto with hardened resolve. He would master himself. He would get through this.

The Kazekage picked up the clothing and stalked forward. "Have I explained the matter well enough, or would you like some assistance in getting dressed?" His hands clenched the material for just a split second before he handed it to Naruto. Suddenly, he was aware of Shukaku's painful absence, like a pulled tooth. The demon had made it so much easier to just take what he wanted ... a path that he'd become used to denying himself as the leader of his village. The self-denial had become equally familiar, a kneejerk reaction to the bloodthirsty being who had shared his mind for as long as he could remember. The brief, blood-filled moments when Gaara had given in to the murderous desire had been mere drops in the burning desert of Shukaku's thirst… and as long as he could remember, the tailed beast's thirst had been indistinguishable from his own.

Naruto, never the most observant ninja, nevertheless couldn't help picking up on Gaara's tension. "No, Kazekage, I think I can manage," he replied quietly. "Thank you," he concluded with a formal bow.

Gaara didn't move.

Naruto began to sweat harder. How often had Tsunade drummed into him that he must treat Gaara with the dignity due his rank, and not presume upon their friendship? How often had he had to wrestle with himself not to push for more time with Gaara, not to hog the precious few seconds when they were within miles of each other? And despite the history, despite how hard Naruto had worked to develop his own skills and jutsu, despite the pain he shared with Gaara of being a jinchuriki, despite everything... he was no more than a foot soldier and Gaara was a king. And clearly, he had somehow insulted all of Suna by implying that their ridiculous dress was - well - ridiculous.

And because of the further ridiculousness of rank and formality and pomp, he couldn't just dismiss Gaara. He couldn't just leave, even though Gaara was clearly angry at him.

Finally the strained silence became too much. "I'm sorry, okay?!" Naruto burst out. "It's just, we don't dress like that in Konoha and it looks weird to me and I - I didn't want to be any hotter than I already am!"

Gaara's lips quirked upward. "I can hardly see how that's possible," he said wryly before he could stop himself.

Naruto's head canted to the side, exactly like a confused dog's. "Hur?"

The Kazekage was mortified. He was grateful for his sand armor which might help somewhat conceal the blood pounding in his heart and seeping into his cheeks. "Ah ... you're already sweating, Naruto. I don't know how you could get much hotter." The explanation did nothing for Gaara's embarrassment, nor for the throbbing between his legs which he found himself completely unable to control. He needed to get out of there, and quickly.

"Oh. Well, I dunno, Gaara. I'll give it a try."

"Let me know if you need any help," Gaara breathed. This is a friend, he repeated inside his head. A friend. You can't have him. He's my friend… In his inner panic, Gaara forgot he was no longer talking to Shukaku, but to himself. The beast inside no longer wanted to tear the flesh and maim the limbs and bathe in his enemies' blood; it wanted to tear his friend's clothing, hold that precious body, crush him so close to his own chest that the rush and surge of Naruto's blood was indistinguishable from his own. But in his inner frenzy, Gaara could not tell the difference.

Still oblivious to Gaara's dilemma, and feeling somewhat freed from the awful confines of protocol, Naruto placed the folded headdress and under-robe carefully on the floor and held the long outer robe up to his shoulders, measuring it against his height, a doubtful expression on his face. He lowered it to ask Gaara another question, but the words died on his lips. Gaara was no longer facing him, but staring intently out the window, arms crossed, fingers biting into the sleeves of his Kage robes. His whole body was shaking; tension bled from his shoulders.

With a shock like wet paper across his face, Naruto realized the last time he'd seen Gaara tremble like that was… right before he turned into Shukaku during their battle so many years ago. But Shukaku was gone!

"Gaara…hey. Gaara!" Naruto took an uncertain step toward his friend, then another one. He froze for just a moment before realizing that Gaara's sand was silent. If the sand doesn't care, it can't be THAT bad, he rationalized.

"Gaara!" He grabbed the Kazekage's shoulders, amazed as always at the narrowness and seeming fragility of Gaara's bones. He spun his friend around roughly to face him, and was further shocked at what he saw: familiar sea-green eyes wide as if in fear or pain, mouth hanging slack, skin a sickly white beyond Gaara's usual shade of pale. Was he sick? Naruto was drawing breath to yell for the guards when he felt Gaara's hand clench over one of his own. "Naruto," he whispered hoarsely. "I need you to go."

"Gaara," Naruto growled; and at the sound of his name spoken like that, in that most beloved voice, the Kazekage's heart kicked in his chest like a horse clearing a fence. "Tell me what's wrong. Do you need help?"

"No!" Gaara stepped back and again turned away from his friend. "I'm fine. I just need to be alone for a while." A glance downward revealed that the burning in his lower body had very, very visible consequences. The expansion of his body from inside wasn't something the sand perceived as a threat; he willed the sand armor to constrict him again and winced. That wasn't going to work. He couldn't bear it if Naruto saw. Or what if he already had? "Please. I'll explain later." Would he? He thought wildly. It didn't matter; the important thing was to get Naruto out of there.

The sand in Gaara's gourd began to rustle loudly. He's serious, Naruto thought sadly. Well, he's still standing. I'll just have to hope he's okay.

"All right," he replied quietly. He turned away from Gaara and strode deliberately out of the room, fighting himself each step of the way, the desert garments forgotten on the floor.