Naruto may not be the smartest guy out there, or the most perceptive, or the most observant, but when he saw the indifference in Gaara’s eyes, he knew something wasn’t right.
Death is not something you just get back from in a few minutes, and that’s what Naruto told himself at the time as he looked into Gaara’s empty stare.
At first, it was an unsettling feeling that seemed to have started in his stomach. He watched Gaara’s face as he helped him stand up, which was useless because Gaara’s lack of an expressive face was something all too familiar to Naruto.
Dull green eyes fixed on him, and Naruto remembers thinking back to the first time they met. When he had told him that he wasn’t interested in who he was.
“Who are you?”
When Gaara spoke, that was when Naruto realized. It wasn’t coming from his stomach, it was coming from his chest. The fear that you experience when you think it might be the last time you hold a kunai, or when you step on a broken branch and you think you might fall to your death, or in this case when you think you’ve lost a friend and you’ll never get them back.
The sharp rays of sunlight almost feel like a stab to the eyes for Naruto. If it’s not his brain reminding him of a painful memory that’s gonna start off his bad mood, it’s the blinding light from outside his window.
It’s been a year since Gaara died and came back to life. A year since Naruto left Suna. A year since the first time he begged Sakura to explain why it was only him that Gaara couldn’t remember.
Naruto shakes the sleep off his body as he zips up his jacket. He knows it’s already late and he knows Sakura is going to yell at him for missing their morning training. She usually tells him to stop annoying her on purpose, and he always laughs it off. This time, he doesn’t think he can offer her even a playful smile. Last night’s dream was tough for him and he couldn’t sleep the pain away.
Fortunately, there are more good nights than bad. He sleeps well and he knows it shows from the numerous “someone’s got energy” passive-aggressive remarks from Sai. He knows it shows because there isn’t a day that Yamato doesn’t end their training with a sigh of exhaustion.
Aside from the fact that Sasuke is still missing and that Gaara has no memories of him, he’s had a pretty good year.
Naruto kicks a tiny rock to the side as he jogs to the team’s meeting place. He would rather not think about the two friends he lost on a day that already started sour.
He sees the three familiar figures from the distance, standing and waiting for him by the bridge.
“It’s like 7 pm, Naruto.” Sakura greets him with a frown.
“Sakura, you have a problem with time,” Sai says as he stands up and shakes the dust off his pants. “It’s only 12, I think.”
A groan is what he gets as a reply. Sai is trying to be sociable, but Naruto thinks he can’t help annoying people. It’s funny, but only when he isn’t targeting Naruto.
“Alright, since everyone’s here, we need to report to the Hokage.” Yamato announces as soon as Naruto stops in front of him.
“You weren’t given the mission this morning?” Sakura asks.
“Change of plans, we’re going to be greeting visitors. I’m not sure who the visitors are, though.”
Another boring mission, but he’s not complaining. He’s not feeling too bubbly right now, and he’d rather not use his brain for a complex mission. It’s already hard enough to put all his energy in making sure no one suspects anything of his bad mood.
Sakura and Sai immediately look at Naruto with a tired but expectant look. He frowns at them.
“No whining or groaning about a ‘super simple genin mission’?” Sakura squints and smiles at him. It’s rare for Sakura to tease Naruto, and Naruto savors the moment.
“I’m a mature shinobi who never complains about the missions he gets!”
The laugh he gets out of Sakura is enough to boost his mood up.
“Can’t you do some chakra thing on his brain or something?”
After the rescue mission for Gaara, the Konoha shinobi were asked to stay in Suna for a little longer. It was mostly for Sakura to pass down medical knowledge to the local medics. During this time, Naruto didn’t leave her alone for a single second.
“It’s been days, and he remembers almost everyone. He even remembers you!” He followed her from room to room.
Sakura treated Gaara’s other injuries, and Naruto asked her to take that time to try and figure out if there was anything she could do to bring back his memories. Although it was obvious that extracting the tailed beast did a lot of damage, Gaara being alive was a miracle enough for Naruto to know that the memory loss wasn’t permanent. He wasn’t wrong about that, because he saw Gaara give a look of pained exhaustion. Temari told Naruto he remembered their father.
“Please, Sakura. I can’t lose another friend.”
Her eyes shone like glass and she avoided his. That was when Naruto knew what she was going to say before she even opened her mouth. He already felt like drowning before she spoke.
“I can’t do anything about it.”
“...safely around. Again, welcome back to Konoha.”
The creaking of chairs brings Naruto back to the present. He stares at the clouds behind Tsunade’s giant window, wishing he was floating aimlessly like one. Instead, he’s stuck in her tiny office and only a few feet away from the cause of his bad day.
“Thank you. We appreciate your generous hospitality.” He picks up Gaara’s low voice immediately, and it’s taking all of his being to keep staring at the clouds.
He’s a bit mad at Yamato for not warning him earlier, but he probably didn’t know that it was the Sand siblings they were going to greet. But Yamato should have known because it’s an important piece of information. Not for Naruto’s feelings, but for the mission. That’s right. It’s important to know who you’re greeting for a mission.
Naruto wishes his blind spot grows in that instant and blocks out Gaara from his view. It’s not that he can’t stand seeing him, but he’d rather not see him. Was that the same thing?
Sakura keeps glancing at Naruto, and it’s annoying because he knows what she’s thinking. She’s worried for him, but she’s being so obvious about it. He’d rather not know that he was being transparent and visibly upset.
The Sand siblings turn to leave. It was easier to avoid looking at Gaara when his back was facing him, but now all it takes is a few eye movements and they’ll probably meet eyes. Naruto stands straight and focuses on the wispy end of one of the clouds outside. It was like a dog’s tail or a broom. He’s in awe of the different shapes clouds can take. And how it’s up to the person’s interpretation. And how Gaara’s hair is longer now.
He dares himself to look lower, and glance at Gaara’s face. First, it’s his tattoo, and then his green eyes, and then his small round nose, and then his lips that barely moves as he speaks.
It hurts. It hurts to think about how he was too late to realize how much Gaara really means to him. Maybe it’s the intense training with Jiraiya, or maybe it’s the focus on Sasuke, or maybe it’s just Naruto being dumb. Gaara didn’t have to die for him to realize that he’s a precious friend.
The door closes, and the Sand siblings are gone. Gaara is gone.
Naruto’s sudden laugh makes Sakura jump.
“I know I’m technically still a genin, but did you really have to cancel a mission that was probably really cool just for us to greet some lame group?”
“Gaara is the Kazekage, Naruto. The siblings are his trusted advisors.” Tsunade answers without looking up, scribbling on a piece of paper with speed. “You shouldn’t call respected people names.”
“How come I can call you an old lady, then?”
“Naruto!” Sakura inches closer to him and pinches his sleeve. “Stop calling her that.”
“Look,” Tsunade sighs and places her pen down. “I know he’s important to you, and that it was probably insensitive of me to call for your team. But you were the closest team, and the Kazekage arrived a couple of days sooner than intended.”
“What? That’s not what…” Naruto trails off. He can feel Sakura’s look of concern piercing through him. The pinch on his sleeve turns into an anchor to hold him down, to keep him grounded. He realizes that even Yamato and Sai are tense.
“Why are you all being so weird?” He tries to say that to lighten the mood, but the tone sounds defensive. He hears it and it makes him feel worse.
It’s not that Gaara is a big part of his life. He saw him a few times after the chuunin exams, a few during missions near Suna, and maybe he saw him a few more times during his training, months before he became the Kazekage. A few conversations, and he’s this affected by Gaara not remembering him?
All he can do is leave, and that’s what he does. He leaves without a word because he’s scared he might say something that will really break him. He hears Sakura calling for him, but he doesn’t turn back.
The sky is already dark, and Naruto is still walking aimlessly around the village. He just wanted to get out of that tense room and not think about anything. He didn’t really plan where to go.
A familiar sound in his stomach makes him realize that his last meal was almost 20 hours ago. Checking his pocket for his frog wallet, and confirming that it feels thick enough to buy at least 2 servings of ramen, he power walks to his favorite place in the world.
The bright lights spilling through the white curtains invite Naruto in, and he’s grateful that there’s only one other person inside. He guesses whoever it is will leave as soon as Naruto shows up since avoidance is the only response that the villagers give Naruto. It should hurt, but if you keep pinching a wound it will turn numb eventually.
His usual greeting cuts short once he sees the familiar red hair.
Gaara turns his head to face him, and his small smile feels cruel to Naruto.
“Sakura told me I might find you here.” He looks down into his ramen.
Naruto takes a seat at the farthest end of the booth. “She knows me well.” He smiles at the thought. “The Kazekage shouldn’t wander around alone.”
“Well,” Gaara says. “I’m not alone now.”
Teuchi comes in and asks Naruto what he wants, although his order never changes. A few minutes of awkward silence fills the room as Naruto waits for his ramen. He doesn’t know what to say, and he doesn’t have anything to say anyway. He grins when his ramen is placed in front of him. When Teuchi excuses himself to get some supplies, Naruto starts digging into his favorite food.
“Do you want to run away together?”
Naruto feels like dying as he chokes at Gaara’s words. He forces himself to swallow the noodles and covers his mouth as he coughs. There’s also the problem of his heart racing, but what can you do about that?
“Oh, I’m sorry for surprising you. Are you okay?” Gaara asks.
“You don’t say things like that to strangers, you know.” Naruto answers, and he feels like he played himself with his own words. Naruto is more than a stranger to Gaara, or he used to be.
Gaara looks away. “That’s what you told me before.”
For a second he tries to recall a time when he said anything about being strangers to Gaara, but his mind takes him back to the question about running away. Immediately, he remembers a younger version of himself, bruised and tired and crying, running to the village of Suna.
It was a hard time for him, when Jiraiya forced him to complete a Rasengan without the help of another clone, as he spent Naruto’s money on women. He trained all night and thoughts of his weakness and inability to fulfill his promise to Sakura mixed with exhaustion overwhelmed him.
All he wanted to do was run away, and he didn’t care if he was branded a coward.
He met with Gaara that night, and he ranted all night while Gaara listened. He tried not to be too emotional since he didn’t want to burden Gaara with his own emotions. The redhead was a man of few words, but he also expressed his sadness on Suna’s opinion of him. Despite his efforts to be a better person than he once was, fear and anger from the village were still there. It was probably hours into the conversation when Naruto asked a question he sometimes still regret asking.
“I’m tired and you’re tired. Why don’t we run away together?”
That’s what he asked Gaara, but he quickly took it back with a laugh and an explanation for his unusual behavior. He apologized and told Gaara that the next time they meet, he’ll be strong enough to be the Hokage.
He thinks he’s a fool, because right now he’s still a genin and Gaara is the Kazekage.
“Was your sister spying on us that night? That’s how she knew about that, huh? Did she tell you about it?” Naruto feels the hope bubbling inside him. He tries not to think about it too much because he doesn’t want to be disappointed. He doesn’t want to think Gaara finally remembers him.
“No…” Gaara whispers.
Naruto looks up from his ramen and turns to Gaara. Maybe all of his memories are finally back?
“It was Kankuro, he told me about it.”
A laugh escaped from Naruto’s lips. He thinks he must have done something in his past life for him to deserve all this pain. His chest feels tight, and he almost doesn’t want to finish his ramen.
“Your siblings are weird.” It’s all he says about that.
“It’s not like I haven’t been trying. Kankuro keeps saying you were an important person to me, and I believe him.” Gaara stirs his ramen. “I just don’t know why...”
“Okay,” Naruto turns in his chair to face Gaara. “I’m not pressuring you or anything. It’s totally fine if you don’t remember me. I wish the Akatsuki took away your bad memories instead, but they didn’t. You’re alive now and you’re a great Kazekage, and that’s what’s important.”
He wants to say that Gaara’s being dumb, making all this effort just to tell Naruto things he already knows, that he still doesn’t remember anything about him. He wants to say that he’s being pretty cruel and kind of an asshole. He wants to say that he’s sorry he didn’t realize sooner how much Gaara meant to him.
He wants to say that he was the only one who understood his feelings of anger and rejection. That he was one of his closest friends. That he lov—
Naruto stands up. He looks down at his feet and wonders if he’s brave enough to say any of those things.
“Anyway,” he looks up and smiles at Gaara. “That’s all I have to say. Don’t worry about me!”
“No, it’s not right for me to for—”
“Please,” Naruto puts his hands up. “The Kazekage should think about more important things.” He gives him a thumbs up and a big smile, which surprises even him because it doesn’t feel forced.
“Naruto, are you angry at me?”
Warmth rises up to his cheeks, and Naruto thinks he’s almost at his breaking point. Gaara needs to shut up before he breaks down in front of him.
“Never! Why would I be mad at the Kazekage?” He sits down again.
Gaara looks at him with a sad smile.
“Then why haven’t you called me by my name?”
Decided to continue this, and I might end it at 3 chapters. Hope this is good enough for you to be interested in another chapter :( I will try harder!
Naruto has never been comfortable with silence. It is just an opening for the demons inside his mind to overwhelm him with unwanted thoughts. Of course, there is also the problem of the literal demon fox in him.
The faint whistle of the evening breeze is what Naruto focuses on to keep his thoughts at bay.
“Naruto...” Gaara calls out his name.
The Kazekage’s question opens up gates within Naruto that he has been struggling to keep close. Is he angry? He definitely is. For the longest time, he thought his anger was only directed at the situation, the Akatsuki, and everyone who has made it possible to store demons inside children.
He’s mad at him, and it’s not a new emotion. Naruto realizes that he is angry at Gaara, and he doesn’t know why.
Naruto doesn’t answer him. He doesn’t have the strength to speak.
The creaking of the chair snaps Naruto out of his internal crisis. Gaara stands up with his back facing him.
“I’m sorry,” Gaara whispers, still not facing him.
It’s an understatement to say that Naruto’s heart sinks at those two words. It feels like his whole body is being dragged down, and his grip on the table is barely keeping him up. The stinging in his eyes is unbearable. He knows tears and desperate shouts are struggling to burst through.
Gaara walks away from the shop silently. All Naruto can do is watch Gaara leave while he tries to get his own emotions in check.
He’s a coward for not telling Gaara that he has nothing to apologize for. He’s a terrible person for making him feel like he has to apologize. Why is he even apologizing? For what? For not being able to remember him, despite the fact that Gaara says he’s been trying? Naruto has no reason to not believe him.
Despite knowing that there’s no reason to be angry at Gaara, Naruto can’t shake away the rage inside of him.
Naruto walks out of the shop and into the almost empty streets. What he needs right now is a distraction. He doesn’t want to go home alone with his thoughts. So he heads towards the direction of Yakiniku Q in hopes of finding at least one of his friends there.
As soon as Naruto smells the smoke and spices in the air, his lips form a small smile. The cheerful yelling and laughter coming from inside the establishment sound almost melodic to him. His energy is suddenly back, and there’s a bounce to his step as he walks in Yakiniku Q.
It’s not unusual for the restaurant to be packed at this hour; too late for dinner and too early for sleep. Most of the customers are groups of friends, possibly just spending time together. He wanders inside the building, looking for familiar faces.
When he catches a hint of pink hair, he stops. Sakura almost never comes in here, mostly because she hates drunk men. So her striking hair color in the sea of dark hair surprises him. But there she is, laughing beside Ino. He approaches her with a grin.
As soon as their eyes meet, her smiling face turns into a concerned look for a fraction of a second. She quickly gives him a smile, although not quick enough for Naruto not to notice her change of expressions.
“Hey,” she nudges Ino and makes space for Naruto beside her. “Where did you run off to?”
Naruto fist bumps Choji and Shikamaru before sitting down. He whistles at the steaming hot meat in front of him.
“I was at Ichiraku, you know.” He answers as he grabs Sakura’s chopsticks. She doesn’t complain and keeps her eyes on Naruto.
“And you’re gonna eat again?” There’s a hint of teasing in her judgemental question.
“Well,” Naruto stuffs his mouth with meat. “I difn’t reawy--”
“You’re disgusting,” Ino cuts him off. “Can you eat your food first? That’s not even yours to take.”
Choji’s laugh makes Ino give him a look of disbelief. “I’m paying for this, in case you’ve forgotten.” She taps her fingers to the table with every word.
Naruto gulps down the meat and sticks his tongue out to Ino.
“Anyway, I didn’t really eat,” Naruto answers Sakura’s question. He grabs a few more pieces of meat and chews them slowly.
Sakura frowns and places her hand on his shoulder. The gesture makes Naruto remember that it was her that told Gaara that he would be in Ichiraku. He tries to give her a reassuring smile, but it doesn’t convince Sakura. She glances at the other three who are arguing about splitting the bill.
“Do you want to talk outside?” She says in a hushed tone.
Naruto doesn’t want to, but Sakura doesn’t give him a chance to answer. She’s already pushing him out of the booth and saying her goodbyes to Team Asuma. Before he can even swallow the food in his mouth, they’re already outside.
“Wow, Sakura-chan.” He teases her with the nickname. “You’re not just strong, you’re fast!”
Sakura smiles and pats him on the back once. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
There’s a seriousness in her statement, and Naruto feels the atmosphere changing. Sakura looks at him with dull eyes, and Naruto figures there’s no way to avoid the subject.
He looks down at his feet. “I talked to Gaara.”
It’s a simple sentence, yet Sakura’s gentle hand on his arm adds to the weight of his words. She guides him away from the noise of the restaurant and into the silence of the night.
He recalls the series of events to her as they walked aimlessly around the village. Sakura listens intently, nodding as he talks. Naruto pauses a few times to keep himself from tearing up again, and he thinks he must look pathetic to Sakura. Thankfully, the moonlight isn’t bright enough to light up his whole face.
Naruto finishes with an exaggerated sigh to lighten the mood. “That was a lot, huh?” He says with a smile as he turns his face to Sakura.
“It’s not his fault, Naruto.” Sakura mutters, looking straight ahead.
Naruto puts his hands in his pockets and shrinks into his jacket. He knows that and that’s what makes it hard for him to understand why he’s angry.
“I don’t blame him, of course, he can’t do anything about it.” His words are muffled by his jacket collar, and Sakura tilts her head to his side to hear him better. The fabric covering his face makes him feel safer, like he can say anything without judgment.
“But if he really wanted to remember me,” He frowns. “Then why didn’t he even visit me or something?”
Naruto feels lighter as soon as he says those few words. It feels like a confession that has been bubbling inside him. Embarrassment slowly creeps up to his face as he remembers that Sakura is listening.
There’s a brief moment of silence, and Naruto groans at it. His first instinct was to ramble about anything just to fill the silence. Maybe about how hungry he is. Or maybe ask her about why she’s been hanging out with Ino a lot. He parts his lips to speak, but Sakura’s small laugh makes him turn to her in disbelief.
“What’s so funny?” His face feels hot and he can’t tell if it’s from humiliation or anger.
Sakura walks in front of him and stops to face him. She smiles and flicks his forehead lightly.
“What was that for?” He rubs his forehead.
“Naruto, you’re so unfair.” She crosses her arms in front of her chest. “Did you know that Gaara has liked you for a long time?”
The sudden drop of questionable information makes Naruto squint his eyes. Was Sakura being mean?
“He visited a few times while you were training, and one time he kept talking about you and your selflessness or whatever.” She sighs. “Honestly, I didn’t even think someone could talk that long about one person.”
His breath is caught in his throat, and he feels his heart beat faster. Naruto knows she isn’t lying because she has no reason to. He doesn’t know what to say to her, and he doesn’t know how to feel about what she just said.
“But he worked hard to be a better person, and he worked hard to be your friend.” She looks at him with raised eyebrows. “So why does he have to do all the work again when he can’t even remember you?”
Naruto is flustered. He feels like Sakura is pointing a finger at him and it doesn’t feel friendly. Being blamed and accused of all sorts of things was something he’s already had enough of. Yet, Sakura’s words slice his heart in two. He knows she’s right, and he’s a fool for just realizing this.
It’s him who wants Gaara to remember, and it’s him who wants Gaara back. All he’s done is sulk and be irrationally angry and be late for training and be a person who goes against his way of life. For the past year, he’s done nothing, when he should be working hard for the people around him.
He sighs. For once, he thinks that maybe he knows what to do to be happy.
“So….what are you thinking about?” Sakura asks.
Sakura blinks at him. She looks bright even in the dark, and Naruto feels an overwhelming amount of gratefulness for her. It has always been the two of them for years. They’ve gone through so many hardships together. There’s so much to say to her, but he only offers her a smile.
The clouds part for the moon, and the streets are flooded with its soft light. Sakura goes back to his side and takes his hand.
“You don’t have to do anything you’re not ready for. This isn’t like….”
Sasuke. Sasuke leaving. Sasuke not coming back. Even without words, he knows it’s what she’s thinking of. It’s all they both think of.
“Anyway, as a payment for this motivational talk,” she starts walking and pulling Naruto with her. “I think you should walk me home.”
Naruto giggles. It wasn’t that funny, but he feels giddy and excited and relieved. Walking her home isn’t even enough to say thank you.
He squeezes her hand and starts walking at the same pace as her. The night starts to get cold and the clouds disappear into the night sky, but for the first time in a year, Naruto thinks he can finally get a dreamless sleep.