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The war ends, and Gaara feels lost. He starts running on automatic, signing new alliances and deciding what to do with the Uchiha Clan, with the remaining Bijuus, with Naruto. He doesn’t have time to think as he personally vouches for Konoha, desperately trying to convince Suna’s Elders of their alliance.

As days go by, Gaara starts feeling older and exhausted, but yet unable to achieve the wisdom everyone expects him to have. A month and a half after turning sixteen, the reconstruction is almost over and it leaves Gaara feeling unfit for his role.

There is no more war, and at the end of the day, Gaara is nothing but a warrior.

There’s a certain piece missing inside of him, a piece that he is unable to name. That’s the reason why one day he quits the Kazekage position, looks to the horizon, and disappears.

 

 

*

 

 

The first few days he just travels east, with no destination in mind. He doesn’t know where he’s going, he doesn’t even know what he wants. Deep down, he’s aware of his own stupidity, of how he should sit down and reconsider what he’s doing. Yet, he doesn’t want to.

When he crosses the borders and leaves the Land of Wind behind, he realizes something that up until now was only a notion in his head. They are no longer at war, yet the soldier in him doesn’t know what peace is.

Gaara halts in his journey and, surrounded by strange lands, comes to the decision that this is as good a place to start as any.

 

 

*

 

 

The Land of Rivers doesn’t hold the best of memories for him, but he settles down near Tanigakure anyway. The small country house looks like a shack at first. Time and disuse have not been kind to it, and the roof seems about to collapse. The owner says that she wouldn’t have put it on the market if she didn’t need the money, and then she apologizes profusely for the state of the house.

She is an old lady, small and wrinkly. She reminds Gaara of Chiyo, only kinder. Her last name is Owaga and she doesn’t recognize him, even though she might know he is a ninja. Gaara did try to blend in, but there must be something distinctive about a killer.

“The earth is good, though,” the woman says, “if you are into agriculture, that is.”

It’s isolated too, Gaara doesn’t say. That is a major feature for someone who wants to go unnoticed. He takes another look at the house. It needs repairing, but otherwise doesn’t seem so bad. Gaara doesn’t need much anyway.

“I’ll take it,” he decides.

The woman smiles, but Gaara knows she’s wondering what a boy like him is running from.

 

 

*

 

 

Although it takes time (and it wears Gaara’s patience thin sometimes), fixing the house proves to be satisfying. He goes to sleep every night with a sweet ache in his body, a numb pain he is not used to, but that he doesn’t mind.

He finds the situation ironic, for he was born to destroy, not to construct. Yet here he is, building himself a home (or, at least, trying).

 

 

*

 

 

When the house looks hospitable again, Gaara decides to put his siblings out of their misery and writes to Kankuro, telling him of his whereabouts. Gaara knows his brother and sister don’t fuss about what others might, and that includes Gaara’s safety. They know he is capable of taking care of himself, and he’s grateful for that.

He has just decided to give agriculture a go when his brother’s reply arrives four days later. Kankuro has always been a man of few words, most of them being rude. Gaara suppresses a smile when he reads thank fuck you wrote, the Elders are driving me insane in his brother’s sloppy writing. The letter continues with Temari ran like a coward; she’s an ambassador in Konoha now, and Gaara cannot say he is surprised.

He’s aware of the power he still holds regarding Suna’s political situation. That’s the reason why he writes back to Kankuro, allowing him to tell the Elders of his location, as long as it’s kept a secret from everybody else. He swears he won’t ignore Suna’s needs, and that he won’t become a missing ninja.

He sends his reply, and then tries to decide on which kind of vegetables to grow.

 

 

*

 

 

The gourd is forgotten in one of the closets. Gaara doesn’t know when he let his guard down, but he has this strange feeling of safety, as if he’s living in a sacred temple where he can’t be harmed. It’s a ridiculous idea and he’s aware of it. He is (was) a warrior, he has learned that violence knows no limits.

However, he rarely uses his sand anymore, and his skills only help him with the land, and the house. There are no enemies here, no imminent danger. He’s safe.

He’s free.

 

 

*

 

 

As days turn hotter, the crops start to grow. It’s just like magic, watching them spurt from the earth. Gaara is not used to the humidity of this land, so he sometimes sits near the fields and watches over them with the laziness caused by the weather.

He gets by with the little money he has left from his previous missions, and also thanks to the generosity of neighbor farmers who gift him with food or knowledge. They are old people and just like the landlady, they find him interesting. He doesn’t need to worry about them, though. They all let him be, occasionally greeting him while he strolls around the land. (He hears what they say. He hears the whispers of what a serious child, what a lonely boy every time they think he’s distracted).

Sometimes Gaara looks at his hands and finds the callouses there to be rewarding. It soothes him to know they are not the result of killing, but of quite the opposite. He gets water from the river to wash his clothes and clean the house, he spends entire mornings fixing the roof to prevent leaks, one of his neighbors teaches him how to make candles in order to save energy from his little generator. He tends to his crops, and cooks, and naps, and there are times when he stops and thinks who are you.

He begins a life (his life) and he doesn’t even have a plan for it.

 

 

*

 

 

He’s found out, eventually.

The summer is hot and sticky in the Land of Rivers, and the cicadas won’t stop singing. Gaara is by the river, soaking in the cool water and enjoying the almost non-existent breeze. He was going to get water for a bath, but decided to get in the river instead. He has never been much of a swimmer, so he just stands where the current is less strong and occasionally dives to wet his hair.

When the sun is at its peak, he gets hungry and decides to go back. He puts his clothes back on, damping them a little, and fills a bucket with cool water. He then heads back home, thinking about what to have for lunch.

The forest is quiet, except for the cicadas and the occasional bird, and the warm breeze caresses Gaara’s cooled shoulders, making him feel at peace. He reaches the clearing where his house stands, the little garden in front of it full of vegetables not quite ready for harvesting yet, and stops.

There’s a figure there, standing on top of the engawa and trying to peer inside the house. Gaara is not exactly unarmed, but he calculates how fast he can command his sand to attack from where he is standing right now. He takes a step towards the building, his right hand looking for the kunai strapped around his thigh, but the stranger turns then, and Gaara halts.

“Wow,” a voice way too familiar says, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Uzumaki Naruto looks just as surprised as Gaara feels.

 

 

*

 

 

Tamagoyaki, it is. It’s too hot for anything else, anyway. Gaara serves it with a bowl of rice and a cold glass of water, just as Naruto takes off his jacket and fans himself with his bare hand.

“This place is hell,” he groans. Gaara puts the lunch on the table and sits cross-legged on the tatami. Naruto downs half his glass in one go and sighs, “You didn’t have to, you know.”

Gaara shrugs, ignoring the heat and eating. It’s been months since the last time he saw Naruto, months since he left Suna after the reconstruction. Months since he actually talked to anyone related to his past.

“You look different,” Naruto says with a grin, “and less pale.”

“How did you find me?” Gaara asks bluntly because his heart is beating too fast for his own liking, and Naruto doesn’t seem to stop fidgeting.

There are thousands of things Gaara would like to speak with Naruto about, millions of thoughts he would love to share, hundreds of questions to ask, but this is Naruto, and Naruto has his own problems, his own thoughts, and Gaara doubts those are about him.

“Temari,” Naruto answers, “she’s scary, you know. Told me to pass on a message. I was on a mission nearby so...”

Temari. Of course.

“I see,” he says, finishing his meal. “I’m sorry you had to come all this way.”

Naruto sets down his bowl. Despite the shade inside the house, Naruto seems to glow so bright it may actually rival the sun’s own light. His eyes seem confused for a second, as if he’s gathering the courage to say something. Gaara waits patiently, refusing to feel naked under Naruto’s scrutiny.

“Why did you leave?”

Gaara wants to lie.

“I don’t know.”

 

 

*

 

 

Before heading back to Konoha, Naruto promises to visit as soon as he can. Gaara is touched by this, but doesn’t take it seriously. Tanigakure may be closer than Suna, but Naruto is a special asset to Tsunade. She won’t let him wander around as he likes.

Even after Naruto is long gone, Gaara can’t seem to calm his heart.

 

 

*

 

 

Temari’s message happens to be a small scroll. His sister’s handwriting is neat, but not exactly girly. She greets him, and asks him if he’s taking care of himself, if there is anything he needs. Gaara’s not sure whether his sister is faking it or if she has gone soft on him, but she sounds like a worried mother.

The cicadas' song soon turns into a lullaby and Gaara falls asleep on the engawa. He dreams of vegetables and rivers, of heat and surprises. He can almost hear Temari’s voice, mixed with Kankuro’s growls and Naruto’s laugh. He wakes up mid-afternoon, hot and sweaty, and with a terrible headache.

 

 

*

 

 

Food exchanges are quite common between farmers in Tanigakure, or so Gaara learns. He grows extra tomatoes, onions, and daikon, in order to exchange them for other vegetables, fruit, or sometimes, meat. He gets the rest from the forest, specially roots and wild berries. He hunts, and fishes, and when he needs money, there’s always day labor waiting for him in other farms.

Sometimes he finds himself drinking green tea, and not missing going on missions at all. He would laugh at the picture, a former Kazekage pretending to be a common country boy.

He also avoids going to the city, but there are times when he needs to buy soap, or diesel for his generator. Tanigakure is tiny, but people don’t ask questions and Gaara is very good at going unseen. His trips are quick and practical, and he’s always home by nightfall.

He suddenly comes to the realization that he might be hiding from the world.

 

 

*

 

 

He gets home one afternoon from helping Ogawa-san with her garden to find Naruto sitting on his engawa, his feet dangling from the short platform and his hands holding a giant watermelon in his lap.

“Finally,” he sighs with sun-kissed cheeks and sweaty hair, “I’ve been waiting for hours.”

Gaara stares at him, at his casual summer clothes and lack of his hitai-ate. Naruto is back three weeks after visiting for the first time. He’s back, even though Gaara though he wouldn’t be. Something flutters in his chest, but he ignores it. He rubs his left eye and decides to let Naruto in.

“You should’ve told me you were coming,” he chastises while he takes off his sandals by the entrance, “I wouldn’t have made you wait.”

Naruto is right beside him, kicking off his own sandals and taking refuge inside Gaara’s house. “It was supposed to be a surprise,” he complains, wiping his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. Gaara takes pity on him and shows him to the kitchen, where he takes a jar of iced tea from the fridge.

“Here,” he says, passing Naruto two glasses, and turning around to wash his hands under the kitchen faucet.

Gaara hears the soft sound of the watermelon hitting the small table at the corner, and the hiss of the iced tea when Naruto pours it. “I didn’t know you had running water,” he comments while Gaara dries his hands.

“Ground water current, I think,” he answers, turning to look at Naruto, “Though, I don’t like to overuse it.”

Naruto downs his glass and licks his lips. He then grins and points to the watermelon. “We are going to need a knife,” he says.

 

 

*

 

 

“How long have you been living here?” Naruto asks in between bites. That’s his fourth slice of watermelon, and Gaara wonders how he manages to keep eating something so sweet.

He takes a sip of his tea. It’s lukewarm by now, and he frowns. “Five months, give or take,” he answers. Naruto chews, contemplative. Gaara notices he looks a little bit tired and wonders if he’s been sleeping properly.

“How can you even stand this heat?” he groans, letting go of the watermelon’s skin and dropping it on a plate, “I mean, it’s annoying.”

Gaara shrugs, and a drop of sweat falls from his hair. “The heat, I am used to,” he explains, “The humidity, though... That’s new.”

Truth is, Naruto looks miserable. He glances at what’s left of the watermelon and pouts. Gaara thinks he hears him mutter ridiculous under his breath. Naruto is still as childlike as when they first met.

“I cool down by the river,” Gaara continues, not really sure if he’s making a suggestion, or an offer. Naruto’s eyes snap up, his pouty mouth red and distracting. “We could—”

Naruto stands up pretty fast. “Yes, yes, come on.”

Gaara sighs, as if it wasn’t his idea, and clears the little table. “Help me with this,” he orders, “And take it easy, you have to digest the watermelon before...”

“Oh my god, Gaara,” Naruto whines, “you sound like Tsunade.”

He doesn’t respond. Apparently, there’s still some Kazekage left in him.

 

 

*

 

 

Naruto’s body is wet and relaxed next to Gaara's, his feet playing with the round pebbles by the shore. There’s a happy smile on his face, making his lips soft and inviting. Gaara doesn’t dwell on it, and turns his head to look at the river.

“Are you here for a mission?” he asks, even though he knows better than to inquire about secret assignments.

The sun will set in a couple of hours, but the heat doesn’t seem to die down. Naruto stretches like a cat. “Yep,” he says, “I finished earlier than I expected, so I thought I’d drop by.”

Gaara runs a hand through his wet fringe, looking at his feet. “When does your team head back?”

Naruto rests on his elbows. “Solo mission, actually,” he corrects, “but I’m heading back tomorrow after lunch. Tsunade’s orders,” he explains. “Why?”

Gaara notices how the river reflects the last rays of the sun, while the cicadas keep on singing. This is a different type of quiet than in the desert. More alive, less suffocating.

“You could stay for dinner,” he suggests. He’s not sure if that’s what he wanted to say, but he did anyway. He glances at Naruto and waits.

The boy sits up, considering. “Sure,” he agrees. He’s suddenly silent, staring at Gaara with squinting eyes. Gaara has never felt self-conscious before, but there’s something about Naruto that is making him feel uneasy. Then, the guy grins, his whole face glowing. “You do look different,” he states.

Gaara averts his eyes. “Different how?” he asks.

Naruto grabs a pebble and turns it around. “I don’t know.” He throws the pebble into the river. “Happier.”

 

 

*

 

 

On the next day, Naruto comes by with instant ramen, and they both eat without paying mind to the heat. “You should learn to cook ramen,” Naruto says, as serious as he’ll ever be, “for when I come back.” It’s stupid, but Gaara feels reassured.

Naruto changes back into his normal clothes while Gaara prepares some food to give him for the journey. He’s finishing a simple bento box in the kitchen when Naruto comes in, knotting his hitai-ate around his forehead.

“Are you trying to get me fat?” he mutters.

Gaara doesn’t bat a lash.

“You don’t need me for that,” he answers.

“Hey!” Naruto cries, and suddenly he looks surprised. “Wait. Did you just crack a joke?”

Gaara throws him the bento box and Naruto lets out a laugh.

 

 

*

 

 

When it rains, Gaara sits down and watches the drops fall. He has always considered rain a blessing since Suna, and seeing it fall soothes him. The scent of wet grass, the sound of the water hitting the roof, the absolute quiet of the forest.

When it rains, his past matters no more, as if it had been erased by some major power. He’s the only thing left, not a killer, or a ninja, or a son. Just him. And the rain.

There’s something about this feeling that reminds him of Naruto.

 

 

*

 

 

The summer is coming to an end when he gets a new visit. This time, however, it’s Kankuro. His brother knocks on his door, face free of his kabuki make-up, and then proceeds to come inside uninvited. Gaara doesn’t remember a time when his brother felt so at ease with him before.

“It took me forever to find this place,” he complains and he sits crossed-legged in Gaara’s living room. “The humidity is ridiculous.”

Gaara sighs. “I know.”

Kankuro cocks his head, his eyes contemplative for a moment. Gaara waits for him to speak, but his brother ends up saying nothing.

“Would you like something to drink?” Gaara asks.

Kankuro drops on the tatami, spread out on the floor like a starfish. “Do you have sake?”

Gaara blinks.

“No.” He remembers Temari’s letter now. Kankuro is kind of a douchebag, lately. I think he has finally hit puberty. Gaara squints, “Why would I have sake?”

Kankuro yawns and scratches his belly. “You missed my birthday,” he says.

There’s no actual heat behind the words, but Gaara averts his eyes. He then goes into the kitchen to fetch some iced tea, returning with two glasses. He passes one to Kankuro, and then sits down next to him.

“Why are you here?” he asks.

Kankuro sits up, and then takes a sip from his tea. “I sneaked out,” he answers.

Gaara wants to argue, but decides not to say a thing. His brother sounds lonely and he can’t find it in his heart to make him feel unwelcome. They sit there in silence, drinking tea and listening to the cicadas.

 

 

*

 

 

“I never thought I’d say this,” Kankuro confesses in the dark. It must be around midnight and they can’t sleep, his brother spending the night something awkward after all these months. “But Suna is boring without you two.”

Gaara stares at the ceiling, hearing Kankuro’s endless tossing and turning in the futon. “I think,” he answers, voicing the words slowly, “that with the war over, we have to find our own way.”

Kankuro sighs. “Start our own lives, you mean.” It’s not a question, but Gaara nods anyway. “Is that what you are trying to do?” his brother continues.

Gaara turns to his side, looking at the moonlight filtering through the shoji. He has asked himself the same question thousands of times. He’s not yet sure of what he’s looking for. He may never find it.

“I think so, yes,” he ends up answering. He hopes it doesn’t sound like a lie.

Kankuro stays silent for a minute, even though Gaara can hear him think.

“Well, no offense,” he says at last, “but you chose the most annoying place to settle down.”

Gaara’s still smiling when sleep claims him.

 

 

*

 

 

His brother doesn’t stay for long. Baki won’t let me get away with it otherwise, he says. They don’t talk much, but Kankuro does brief him on Suna’s new policies, and on Temari’s latest news. “She scolds me by writing, can you believe that?” he complains.

The sun is not up yet when Kankuro gets ready to return. Gaara watches him check all of his equipment, before offering him something to eat during the journey. “Say hello to Baki for me,” he asks.

“Take care,” his brother says before disappearing into the forest.

 

 

*

 

 

With Kankuro gone, he’s back to his usual solitude. He starts reading again, buying used copies of epic tales from Tanigakure’s street market. He spends his afternoons by the river, reading haikus about life, about the soul. He even find himself smiling at little morals some fables try to teach.

The heat starts to die down and the leaves turn gold very slowly. The nearer autumn is, the warier Gaara becomes regarding the fields. According to Ogawa-san, he must plow the earth for new crops to grow, so that he’ll have food during winter. He also must get ready for colder weather, buying extra clothes, and maybe a brazier.

He sets his books aside, and decides to come back to them later.

 

 

*

 

 

Naruto turns up by mid-September. He finds Gaara on his way back home from the city, a paper bag full of new seeds in his hand.

“Hey, Gaara!” he greets, climbing down the trees to join him at the road. “I’m back,” he announces, even though it’s obvious.

Gaara only cocks his head in acknowledgment, although it’s been months since the last time they saw each other. “Mission nearby?” he asks, idly wondering what Konoha’s interest in Tanigakure is.

Naruto shakes his head.

“Nope,” he says. “I’m on vacation,” he clarifies with a wink. Gaara’s mind goes blank. Well, that’s definitely a surprise. It must show on Gaara’s face, because Naruto laughs and adds, “What? Didn’t expect me to come visit anymore?”

Missions ended earlier than expected? Yes. Courtesy visit? Of course. But Gaara would have never thought Naruto will be willing to spend his earned free time with him of all people. He doesn’t... He’s not...

Gaara sighs.

“A pleasant surprise, though,” he confesses, and Naruto’s grin grows bigger.

 

 

*

 

 

When asked how long he’s staying for, Naruto blushes furiously and mumbles something under his breath. Gaara gives him his best annoyed frown, as if to make him speak clearly.

“I didn’t catch that,” he half-warns in a monotone.

Naruto clicks his tongue, and then bites his lower lip. “I have a week,” he explains, “but I don’t want to be a bother, so if you’re busy I can just...,” he trails off.

Naruto clears his throat and the sound is followed by silence. Gaara is not really paying attention as he’s busy figuring out if he can actually host Naruto for a whole week. He’s thinking about the food, and the work he still has left, and the sleeping arrangements, and the water, and—not to mention putting up with Naruto, and all his quirkiness.

“Okay, I get it,” Naruto mumbles again, clinging to his backpack straps. “I didn’t mean to impose.”

His voice is so tiny that Gaara snaps out of it. “No,” he finds himself saying, “you can stay as long as you want.”

He didn’t mean to say that.

Naruto looks unsure at first, scratching the back of his neck.

“Gaara, you are not forced to...”

“No,” he says, commands. “No, please. Stay.”

He didn’t mean to say that either.

However, Naruto’s face lights up all of a sudden, and Gaara feels relieved. “We are going to have such a great time, I promise.”

Gaara tries not to sigh.

 

 

*

 

 

“Remember when I said we were going to have a great time?” Naruto grunts, “I wasn’t referring to this.” He’s resting on his elbows, a little straw hat on his head (Gaara has no idea where he found it), and a scowl on his face.

Gaara doesn’t pay him any mind, and he keeps on plowing the earth. He isn’t planning on growing a lot. He has talked with Ogawa-san and decided to plant whatever she’s not growing, so they can exchange food if necessary.

“This is how I get by,” he explains, “so I need to do it before winter.”

Naruto whines from the engawa, falling onto his back with a thud. Gaara wipes the sweat from his forehead, before continuing. The sweet burning ache on his arms is back, and he massages his shoulder every time he has to pick up the hand tiller. He wants to get this done with as soon as possible.

“Okay, this is ridiculous,” Naruto says, getting up from where he’s lying and walking directly to where Gaara is trying to break and turn up the earth. “Tell me what to do, and we will finish this quicker,” he commands.

Gaara leaves the hand tiller stuck on the ground. “You don’t have to.”

Naruto rolls his eyes and sticks his tongue out. “Don’t be stupid,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest, “I wanna help out. I have to pay you back for your hospitality, anyway.”

He looks so determined, Gaara can only sigh. Naruto has always been a force of nature after all.

“Okay, then,” he gives in, “you have to take out all the roots, and rocks, and debris in general.” He picks up the hand tiller again. “Once we do that, all that there’s left is to rake. We can plant the seeds tomorrow.”

Naruto grins. “Great,” he singsongs, “then we can finally have fun and stuff.”

Gaara wants to tell him he’s not exactly fun to hang out with, but Naruto crouches down and starts removing grass, and small rocks while whistling some song out of tune. Gaara averts his eyes and goes back to work.

 

 

*

 

 

Some days they work until noon, and then they explore the forest, or lie down by the river. Gaara takes Naruto to Tanigakure’s street market, watching him become distracted with every stand. Gaara even puts up with Naruto’s insane obsession with ramen.

They make a strange pair, or so Ogawa-san confesses to him while Naruto sleeps in one morning. “But it’s good to see you hang out with boys your age,” she says, and Gaara wants to remind her that he’s not her grandson, that she shouldn’t look out for him.

When Naruto is not sleeping or eating, he forces Gaara to keep up. He just won’t stop, doing thousands of things at the same time. Gaara wonders if it has something to do with the Kyuubi’s chakra. (“Kurama,” Naruto usually corrects, “that’s his name, you know.”)

It’s Naruto who suggests practicing hand-on-hand combat. At first, Gaara refuses, but then he realizes he can’t ignore his training any longer. When he agrees, he pretends he’s humoring Naruto, and not using the opportunity to learn a thing or two from his friend. Gaara is not exactly a fan of close range combat, after all.

They don’t use Gaara’s sand techniques, or Naruto’s extra chakra. “All this farming has gotten you slow, Gaara!” Naruto laughs at him. Gaara scowls and manages to hit him in the jaw.

Later, as they tend to their bruises, Naruto won’t stop chatting. Gaara notices then the nervous and superficial conversation, as if Naruto were trying to fill the silence.

That’s when it hits him. There’s something wrong with Naruto.

Gaara pays more attention, but says nothing.

 

 

*

 

 

He is watering the newly planted seeds when Naruto sighs deeply and pouts.

“My birthday is next month,” he announces like it’s a tragedy. Gaara lets down the watering can, and walks to where Naruto is sitting crossed-legged. He steps over the furrows, slowly making his way to the inviting shade Naruto is benefiting from.

“You don’t want to get older?” he asks, sitting down beside Naruto.

The boy snorts. “It’s not that,” he confesses. He plays with the wisps of grass under his fingers, silent for a change. Gaara looks up at the lazy clouds moving above them. “It’s just I don’t think I’ll have a good time.”

Gaara rubs at the soil stains on his sandals. “Why is that?” he asks very quietly, so as not to scare Naruto away.

Naruto hugs his knees, resting his head on them and staring at Gaara with big blue eyes. He seems a little sad, and Gaara feels his stomach knot uncomfortably. He doesn’t like that look on Naruto.

“I—” Naruto starts, but stops midway, sighing and averting his gaze. “This is stupid,” he groans, “I don’t want to waste your time.”

Gaara locks his jaw, trying not to spill the sudden emotions that fill his chest. He wants to tell Naruto to trust him, that he’s there for him. He’s dying to tell him he’s not wasting his time, but making it worth it. That he’s able to listen to whatever problem Naruto has.

Gaara doesn’t press the issue.

“There’s an onsen nearby,” he says instead, “we could go there.”

Naruto’s face lights up a little bit.

“You should’ve said that sooner.”

 

 

*

 

 

He methodically leaves his clothes in the basket, grabbing his towel and sitting before the showering stall. The onsen is not one of Tanigakure’s touristic attractions, so it’s almost empty at this time of day. He closes his eyes as he soaps his body, massaging his muscles and bruises. Naruto is in the stall next to his, his endless chatter the only sound in the place.

“This shampoo smells so nice,” he chimes.

Gaara nods, even though Naruto is not paying attention. He rinses, and repeats the process all over again, enjoying the washing ritual as some enjoy a religious ablution.

“Hey,” Naruto softly calls. Gaara turns to look at him, but the boy’s staring at his back.

“What is it?” he asks.

Naruto’s hand reaches out, but stops along the way. “What’s this scar?” he questions, pointing to Gaara’s middle back.

Ah, the souvenir. Gaara knows they both have little scars. Naruto, thanks to the Kyuubi, and Gaara, thanks to his mother. Yet, the one that crosses his back is the constant reminder of war, of shields that can be broken.

“Uchiha Madara did it,” he answers. He washes his hands in cold water and presses them against his forehead. “Another one of my fail attempts at dying,” he adds sourly.

Naruto’s cheeks turn a slight shade of pink. “May I?” he asks. Gaara shrugs, and suddenly Naruto’s hand is warm against his wet skin, tracing the texture of the scar so slowly Gaara has to close his eyes.

They do not speak of it.

 

 

*

 

 

After dinner, it gets chilly. Gaara closes the shoji and tells Naruto to sit by the irori while he makes tea. Naruto seems boneless after the onsen, so he complies, following Gaara’s orders. Gaara also notices he’s more silent than usual, and that makes him uneasy.

“Here,” he says, passing Naruto a cup of tea.

The boy accepts it and they drink in silence for a while. Gaara doesn’t really sleep much, so he takes great comfort in the little sleep he can get. Right now, he feels cozy and warm, relaxed enough to fall asleep for hours.

“I’m not really on vacation, you know,” Naruto whispers all of a sudden.

Gaara leaves the teacup on the little tray before him. Then he looks at Naruto. “I see,” he eloquently answers.

Naruto shrugs. “Tsunade thought I should take some time off.”

Gaara rests his hands in his lap.

“Is everything alright?”

Naruto opens his mouth, and then closes it. His gaze seems far away, thinking about things Gaara cannot begin to imagine. He stays silent, waiting for Naruto to take the lead. A couple of minutes later, the boy sighs.

“They are all different,” he mutters. “All of them. They have changed because of the war... I mean—,” he takes a deep breath, “I mean, they are still them, but different.” He looks at Gaara, as if searching for something. “Even you,” he adds.

Gaara understands, but doesn’t say it out loud. He thinks about his siblings, about himself. Then he looks at Naruto who still behaves the same way, as if he’s stuck in time.

“And then, there’s Sasuke,” Naruto groans, interrupting his musings. “He went to trial before the Elders, yes. But—well, he was pretty much forgiven to begin with.” He frowns, as if remembering something. “Sure, we get along. I mean, he speaks to me and all, but he’s not—,” he clears his throat. “He’s not the friend I once knew.”

Naruto’s eyes are devastated when he fixes them on Gaara. He seems broken, and Gaara feels the hopelessness caused by not being able to put him back together. He takes a steadying sip from his tea before answering.

“I guess,” he starts, choosing the words carefully, “that they all grew up at one point.” He tries not to fidget with his teacup. He has never felt this nervous before. And perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he doesn’t want to hurt Naruto. “War changes people, and your friends are no different,” he continues. “However, I don’t think you will feel this way forever.” He looks at his hands. “Maybe you haven’t finished growing up yet.”

Naruto is staring at him with half a smile when Gaara looks up. He seems better, and Gaara feels relieved.

“How is it that you know exactly what to say?” Naruto asks, scratching the side of his nose.

Gaara shrugs.

“I don’t,” he confesses. A bunch of thoughts crosses his mind in that instant, like little flashes of light. “I guess I feel the same way.”

That’s another thing he wasn’t supposed to say out loud.

“Gaara,” Naruto calls, and he’s suddenly closer, his face so open and sincere that Gaara feels like he’s drowning, “Why are you here? What are you looking for?”

He forces his voice not to waver.

“Myself.”

 

 

*

 

 

He wakes up before sunrise. He stays still in his futon, watching the dawn light filter through the shoji. Naruto is sound asleep a couple of meters away, sometimes mumbling out loud fragments of whatever conversation he’s having in his dream.

Gaara gets up eventually, going out to breathe the humid chilly air. He can taste the leaves, the water, the wind. He can taste life.

“It’s really early, Gaara,” a sleepy voice complains.

Naruto sits next to him on the engawa. He is wrapped up in the quilt, his face soft from sleeping.

“You don’t have to get up yet,” Gaara says.

Naruto ignores him. “What are we doing today?” he asks.

“I need to clean the house,” Gaara informs him, “but we can do whatever you want later.”

Naruto slurs a happy great, yawning a little bit. He then leans on Gaara, slowly resting his head on his shoulder. He’s warm and pliant, slowly falling back to sleep.

“Naruto,” Gaara calls softly, resisting the urge to touch him. “Why did you come here of all places?”

He has never been good at sorting out his feelings. He can discern between love and hate, happiness and sadness. He can identify pain, anxiety, arousal. Yet, when it comes to dissect those feelings, he’s lost. When does affection for a certain person qualify as friendship? When does it mean love?

Naruto nuzzles up against his neck, and Gaara breathes deeply, relaxing as much as possible.

“I feel calm here,” is the answer. “Here with you.”

Gaara looks up at the sky, and swallows around the lump of emotion in his throat.

 

 

*

 

 

On Naruto’s last day, he discovers a gigantic tree in the middle of the forest.

“Gaara! Get up here! You have to see this!” he exclaims from the very top, laughing like a little child. Gaara humors him, climbing the tree as fast as his feet can carry him. When he gets to the higher branches, he understands Naruto’s giddiness. “You can see Tanigakure from up here,” Naruto redundantly explains.

It’s a beautiful sight, especially when the wind blows and the lower trees move accordingly. From up there, they can see clearings, and rivers, and little towns. Flocks of birds fly near them, dodging dancing leaves.

“Konoha is that way,” Naruto points out, even though Gaara already knows.

“And Suna is in the other direction,” he adds.

They stay there for a while, sitting on a large branch and softly talking about nothing in particular.

 

 

*

 

 

Naruto says goodbye with a faint blush on his cheeks.

Gaara sees him off with sorrow in his chest.

 

 

*

 

 

Days turn shorter, darker. He doesn’t notice at first, trying to go back to the way things were before Naruto’s visit. (However, it’s impossible, isn’t it? Once Naruto enters your life, everything is changed forever).

Winter comes early. A cold November morning Gaara wakes up to a freezing bedroom, his breath condensing right before his eyes. He pads through the rooms, lighting the fire by the irori and putting a kettle over it to boil water.

Ogawa-san told him that it rarely snows in Tanigakure, but with a weather this cold Gaara is not sure he believes her. It’s not as if he can’t stand it. The problem is winter gives him way too much time to think.

 

 

*

 

 

New Year comes and goes without any fuss. He gets letters from his siblings and an invitation to attend to Ogawa-san’s New Year dinner party. He goes just to humor her, and the moment he sets his foot in her house, he knows there’s not much of a party as of mayhem.

All attendants are farmers. Some Gaara knows, old men and women to whom he sometimes chats. They give him the customary grunt as a greeting, and go back to complaining about everything old people like to complain about. Some other people introduce themselves, especially young couples with children who live farther down the river.

The kids run around them, playing and screaming, and Gaara tries to avoid everyone by hiding in the kitchen.

“Ah, so you came,” Ogawa-san smiles at him from where she’s cooking. “You don’t feel like socializing, I take it?”

Gaara shrugs, not hesitating to lend her a hand with the food.

“I’m not really good with people,” he admits.

Ogawa-san throws some mushrooms into the miso soup she’s making. “None of us are, dear,” she says, “but we try to.”

Gaara decides to ignore the slightly condescending words, and starts cleaning after the old lady. “They all stare at me,” he defends himself.

Ogawa-san tries her soup. “Of course they do,” she agrees. “You are a young man living by yourself. A foreigner, and a ninja.”

It’s the first time Gaara hears her say that out loud.

“Are they scared of me?” he asks, and he hates that he sounds like a little child.

Ogawa-san grins with her poorly preserved teeth.

“Not a chance, boy. We are tough people,” she winks. “They are just curious.”

 

 

*

 

 

January arrives like a freezing and unyielding guest. Gaara starts training in the forest just to keep his muscles warm when he’s not taking shelter by the irori. He hears villagers say this is the coldest winter in years, that they should all be careful.

One morning, all hell breaks loose.

Gaara wakes up to the sound of someone desperately knocking on his door. He pads to the entrance and opens it. There’s a young woman on the other side, looking frantic and with tears trailing down her cheeks. Gaara thinks he knows her from Ogawa-san’s dinner party.

“Thank God you are alright,” she says. Her voice trembles and Gaara’s training kicks in.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, maybe a little too forceful.

The woman doesn’t seem to notice. “They all started to feel badly, and suddenly my daughter complained about stomach ache, and when I realized...”

She doesn’t make any sense, so Gaara puts on his boots and steps out of his house.

“Take me with them” he commands. “Maybe there’s something I can do to help.”

The woman nods slowly. She takes a deep breath and turns to where she came from, Gaara trailing behind.

That’s when he notices it snowed during the night.

 

 

*

 

 

They are all lying down on Yoshida-san’s living room. Most of them are feverish, their bodies shivering under the blankets.

“We think it’s poison,” Yoshida-san informs Gaara the moment he sets eyes on him.

He’s not a medic-ninja, but he has some training about this. “We should lie them on their left side,” he says, “and give each of them a cool compress for the fever.”

Poison. In order to affect all these people, it has to come from a communal source. Did they inhale it, swallow it? He’s still trying to do some damage control when he notices Ogawa-san among the sick.

“Some of them have had seizures,” Yoshida-san mutters, his old frame bent over his cane.

“We need a doctor,” Gaara tells him.

The young woman is crouched by a small figure, a little girl who tosses and turns. “There are no doctors nearby,” she despairs.

Gaara doesn’t hesitate. His hands automatically form the seals, and in the blink of an eye, another pair of teal eyes are looking back at him. The ones tending the patients go silent, all of them surprised.

“Go to Tanigakure,” Gaara tells his clone. “Bring anyone you can.”

His Kage Bunshin nods, stepping out of the house and disappearing from sight. For his part, Gaara ignores the looks he gets and sits down by Ogawa-san.

 

 

*

 

 

In the end, it’s water poisoning. Apparently, a wounded animal tried to hide in one of the caves leading to an underground lagoon, dying there and poisoning the water. It wouldn’t have been a problem if half the farms didn’t use said lagoon as an underground source for their running water.

“Nature is a tricky thing,” Ogawa-san says, her small frame looking delicate next to Gaara’s. “But thank God you were there to save us.”

This is the third day Gaara has been looking after her. She was the slowest to recover due to her age, and he barely moved from her side. He doesn’t know when he developed such an affection towards her.

“I didn’t do much,” he corrects.

Ogawa-san takes a sip from her tea, shaking her head. “You did enough,” she chastises him, “and revealed your secret along the way.”

They weren’t scared of him then, and they aren’t scared now. Yet, Gaara feels like they behave differently towards him, treating him with more respect than he deserves. He still finds gift baskets outside his house from those families he helped save.

“I did what I could,” he says.

Ogawa-san ruffles his hair. “You are such a silly boy,” she calls him.

Gaara feels like a spoiled brat all of a sudden. “I’m not a boy,” he grunts, scowling. “I’m seventeen.”

The old lady looks surprised. “When did that happen?”

He sighs, realizing this woman is unbeatable.

“My birthday was two days ago,” he confesses. “But I was a little busy watching over you.”

Ogawa-san laughs, delighted. She wishes him a Happy Birthday and promises to buy him a present.

 

 

*

 

 

On the last day of January, Gaara comes home from the onsen and finds Naruto at his door.

“You seem taller,” Gaara says by way of greeting.

Naruto gives him a beautiful smile.

“And you need a haircut,” he responds. Gaara scowls and leaves the door open for Naruto to follow him. It’s a little bit chilly inside, the whole house silent and calm. “I can’t stay for long,” Naruto announces, sounding apologetic.

“Don’t worry,” Gaara replies. “Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Naruto shakes his head, following Gaara to the kitchen, where he pours himself a glass of water. By the time they sit down in the living room, the brazier has already been turned on and the house is slowly becoming warmer.

“The weather in this land is ridiculous,” Naruto complains.

Gaara entertains the idea of taking a nap, hiding under the quilt of his futon. “Mission nearby, I guess?” he mutters.

Naruto nods.

“We are staying in Tanigakure for the night,” he explains, not telling Gaara any further details. “I think one of Kakashi’s dogs may be spying on us.”

Gaara doesn’t bother with rolling his eyes. Naruto grins, though, trying to look as innocent as possible. He fails miserably.

“You should go back,” Gaara scolds him, his voice a monotone.

Naruto pouts. “But I wanted to see you!”

Gaara feels his face go blank. “Don’t,” he hears himself say. Then, he suddenly stands up, walking to the kitchen to prepare some tea.

Naruto has to stop doing this. Every time they see each other, there’s a warm feeling inside of Gaara that raises from the pit of his stomach to the center of his chest. It’s confusing, and Gaara finds that irritating. With his naive and warm attitude, Naruto isn't helping.

He’s filling the kettle with water when he senses an extra presence lingering in the doorway. He turns off the faucet and hears Naruto’s footsteps getting closer. “Go back to your team,” he orders, putting the lid on the kettle.

The house is silent for a moment. Gaara ignores the weird sensation in his stomach and goes for a teacup.

“But you see,” Naruto suddenly whispers, closer than Gaara expected. His body heat slips through Gaara’s clothes, almost tickling his back. “I don’t want to go,” he continues, and his scent becomes so strong Gaara feels dizzy. He turns around, and has to blink up at Naruto. Oh, so he is taller after all.

“What are you doing?” he asks, expecting to sound pissed off, but ending up whispering.

Naruto slowly rests his hand on Gaara’s hip, and leans in. “I just—”

The kiss is so soft he thinks he's imagining it. Their lips press against each other chastely, just a warm and intimate act that is so casual Gaara feels his chest constrict. Naruto has his eyes closed, but Gaara cannot seem to do the same. There are a million things going through his head and he...

Naruto ends it, resting his forehead against Gaara’s. The hitai-ate is cool against bare skin.

“Sorry,” Naruto whispers, his breath warm on Gaara’s cheeks.

He wants to feel angry, but he just can’t.

“It’s okay,” he answers, finally closing his eyes.

Naruto lets out a short laugh. “Can I do it again?”

Gaara nods, not trusting his voice. Naruto leans in again, this time kissing him with parted lips. They go slow, trying to figure out how to move their heads and their lips. Naruto sighs into the kiss and it goes straight to Gaara’s belly.

They aren’t even touching, their hands resting unmoving at their sides. Gaara really wants to touch, though. He doesn’t know where the urge comes from, but he needs to do it. That’s when Naruto traces his lower lip with his tongue and Gaara gasps. Shit, he hears himself say in-between kisses, followed by Naruto’s God, I...

A sudden and insistent barking makes them jump. It’s coming from outside, and when Gaara deigns to open the door, there’s a small dog sitting on the engawa. The Konoha symbol explains everything.

“Pakkun!” Naruto whines behind him. “Are you kidding me right now?”

The dog seems unimpressed. “Time to go back,” it grunts.

Naruto whines like a little child for a minute, trying to convince an unmoving Pakkun. Gaara is getting progressively annoyed, so he just orders them both the get out of his house.

“I’ll be back,” Naruto promises, his pupils dilated and his cheeks a shade of pink.

Gaara believes him.

 

 

*

 

 

The world seems different, oblivious to Gaara’s secret. The moment he’s alone, his mind wanders to several days later, to the scent of peppermint and the touch of soft, pouty lips. He’s unable to concentrate for long, fantasizing with golden hair and warm skin.

“You look distracted,” Ogawa-san notices.

Gaara spaces out, not sleeping or eating enough. He feels frustrated at himself, trying to figure out what exactly is going on with him.

 

 

*

 

 

Spring arrives really slowly, and with it comes his sister. She finds him planting new crops, his hands dirty and his forehead sweaty.

“When Kankuro told me, I didn’t believe him,” she says with a smirk. “You are very good at growing things, huh.”

Gaara stares at her in mild annoyance. “I won’t feed you if you complain,” he warns.

Temari laughs obnoxiously, a carefree sound Gaara hasn’t heard before. She has become a lethal and powerful woman, and Gaara realizes it’s been a whole year since the last time he saw her.

“Don’t be mean,” she teases him, just like Kankuro. Gaara is still confused with this new behavior, this trust his siblings are showing. “Come on, take a break. I brought you a present.”

Temari doesn’t wait for him as she walks into the house.

 

 

*

 

 

Unfortunately for Gaara, Ogawa-san pays him a visit the next afternoon and ends up meeting Temari. Gaara knows the moment they shake hands that embarrassing gossip will keep them entertained for years.

“Older sister?” Ogawa-san says. “He never mention anything about a sister!”

Temari shakes her head, playing her part so well Gaara scowls.

“I bet he didn’t mention our brother, either,” she sighs. “Such a quiet boy.”

That’s when Gaara decides to ignore them and goes read Temari’s new book by the river.

 

 

*

 

 

“I like the old lady,” her sister announces over dinner. He bets Ogawa-san will be Temari’s next informant, and that in itself is a little scary.

“She’s good to me,” Gaara agrees.

They eat in comfortable silence, until they get dessert and Gaara starts questioning his sister. She responds to some questions with the same uninterested attitude Kankuro is capable of. However, she blushes every time Gaara mentions Shikamaru.

“You like him,” he says, and it’s not a question.

Temari gapes at him.

“I do not...” She takes a deep breath, and Gaara recognizes the annoyed frown. He can feel her plotting against him. “You are one to talk.”

Gaara blinks.

“Excuse me?”

Temari goes in for the kill, a little smirk on her face. Gaara is already regretting saying anything.

“Ogawa-san has told me of your friend,” she comments like it has little importance. “Your very blond, very chatty friend.”

Gaara shrugs. He won’t give his sister the satisfaction of knowing she’s hitting the nail on the head. “Ah, yes,” he agrees, his voice a monotone. “He visits some times.”

Temari’s smirk gets nastier. “Have you confessed, yet?” she asks.

Gaara’s mind does go blank at that.

“What?”

Temari rolls her eyes. “You’ve had a crush on Naruto since forever.”

She’s teasing. He knows she’s teasing. However, a quite violent emotion settles in his chest. “No, I haven’t,” he grunts harshly. He glares at Temari and watches his sister physically recoil from his reaction.

She’s not scared. She’s surprised.

“Oh,” she gives in, “of course not. I was joking.”

She leaves it at that. They finish their dessert in silence, Gaara feeling guiltier by the second. He wants to apologize. He’s not really mad, but disappointed. Not on Temari. He’s disappointed on himself for not being brave enough to confess how he truly feels.

 

 

*

 

 

Temari makes him promise to take care of himself, to write more often, to eat more. Gaara nods, and grunts, and sighs.

His sister ruffles his hair and leaves.

 

 

*

 

 

“I'm bad at emotions,” Gaara complains to Ogawa-san. The flowers are in bloom, and they just sit before the hidden meadows of Tanigakure and watch them dance to the spring breeze.

Ogawa-san takes a sip of lemonade.

“Feelings are really complicated,” she agrees. “If there’s something life has taught me is that loving a person is not enough.”

Gaara looks at her. “What is, then?”

The old woman looks wistful.

“Oh, many things, my boy,” she whispers. “Many things. Respect, for starters. Support. A little bit of healthy anger sometimes.” She laughs, apparently remembering something from long ago. “But most of all, you have to accept and embrace the love others have for you.”

Gaara looks up at the sky.

“That sounds like a vicious circle,” he complains.

Ogawa-san closes her eyes.

“Love can be pretty vicious.”

 

 

*

 

 

He wonders what Naruto’s doing while he's here, tending to his garden and trying to sort out his own feelings.

He wonders if Naruto has gone through the same painful process of figuring out who he is.

He wonders if Naruto will kiss him again.

 

 

*

 

 

It doesn’t work this way, but Gaara takes all his furniture and belongings outside, and gets ready to undertake a big cleaning. He knows Oosouji takes place before New Year’s, but he has this urge to do it now.

He starts with every piece of fabric he can find, washing it all and letting it dry in the cool breeze of April. He airs the futons and the carpets to the spring sun, hoping they catch the scent of grass and pine trees.

Then, he opens every window and every door while he sweeps the place. The tatami is easy to clean, but he has a hard time with the bathroom and the kitchen, having to step aside a couple of times for fear of destroying everything on an angry impulse.

It takes him the whole day, but by the times he finishes, his house looks shiny and new. His body aches and he takes a short shower in his recently cleaned bathroom to take the sweat and grime away. When he later falls face first on his futon, he feels reborn.

 

 

*

 

 

He’s buying noodles and curry when he hears his voice. It’s slightly huskier than when they last met, but the intensity and the tag line are unmistakable. That’s Naruto.

“But you said ten,” the boy whines.

There’s a second voice, an old man’s. “I said fourteen.”

“Fourteen, my ass,” Naruto grunts.

When Gaara sees them, he has to control the urge to roll his eyes. Naruto is fighting a shopkeeper about a watermelon as big as his head. They both look ridiculous, shouting at each other’s faces.

“The watermelon is worth fourteen, kid,” the owner says. “Pay up or go away.”

“I’m gonna be late,” Naruto roars, his chakra flaring a bit, “because of your stupid—”

“I’ll pay for that,” Gaara interrupts. Both the owner and Naruto seem surprised, but Gaara stares at the old man, offering him the money with a mildly annoyed expression.

The shopkeeper accepts it and gives him the watermelon, slightly scared. Gaara then turns to a grinning Naruto and steers him out of the crowd.

“You weren’t supposed to pay for that,” he hears Naruto say, and he doesn’t have to look to know he’s pouting. “It was meant to be a present.”

Naruto’s hand is suddenly grasping Gaara’s.

“Do you have to be anywhere else?” he asks, an urgent feeling bursting in his chest.

Naruto’s lips are by his ear when he answers. “Nope. I’m all yours.”

 

 

*

 

 

The way back is too long and too short at the same time. There’s some sort of electricity between them, an eagerness like Gaara has never felt before. Naruto leans in at every opportunity, subtly touching Gaara’s shoulder, or his arm, or his waist. Gaara is thankful for the watermelon he’s carrying, so that he can keep his own hands under control.

He’s been dreaming about this moment, much to his dismay. He’s been dreaming about how Naruto’s lips will taste, about how his skin will feel.

The moment they reach the house, he turns around and practically grunts, “Wait in the living room.” He then goes (runs, hides) to the kitchen, keeping his breathing in check. He wonders if this is what other people—normal people—feel about the ones they like, this nerve-wracking sensation.

He attempts to cut the watermelon thrice before he actually succeeds.

When he gets to the living room, Naruto is standing by the open shoji, gazing at the garden outside. He looks handsome, lost in his own thoughts. The silly boy he met all those years ago still lives in Naruto, in his childish frown and impudent eyes.

Gaara leaves the plate of watermelon slices on the floor and forgets about it.

“Ah, there you are,” Naruto smiles shyly. “I—”

Gaara silences him with a kiss. He gets closer, stands on his toes and presses his lips against Naruto’s. He doesn’t make it last. He wants so much more right now. He breathes slowly, his eyes never leaving Naruto’s lips, pink and full.

Gaara” is the gasp he gets when he bites Naruto’s lower lip.

In the blink of an eye, Naruto is framing Gaara’s face with his hands, and kissing him so fiercely Gaara has to hold on to his waist. They end up pressed against the shoji, making wet sounds and shallow gasps, uncaring about how exposed they are to the outside world.

“Do that again,” Gaara whispers when Naruto licks his upper lip. Naruto complies, and then silently asks for permission before slowly parting Gaara’s mouth with his tongue.

He feels like burning, his body reacting without his consent. His back arches towards Naruto when their tongues meet, involuntarily bringing Naruto closer. His hands end up tangled up in blonde hair, casually pulling.

They break for air, and Naruto gasps, “I can’t stay for long.”

He’s going to say okay, but he comes up with, “Why?” and it sounds so petulant, Naruto laughs.

“Mission,” he sighs, before kissing him again.

The shoji’s delicate structure groans under their combined weight, but they don’t pay it any mind. “This one’s going to be a very long mission,” Naruto warns in-between kisses. He becomes distracted when Gaara dares to taste the inside of his mouth.

“Do they trust you with those?” Gaara whispers, his voice sounding huskier and strange to his own ears.

Naruto doesn’t seem embarrassed when he grabs Gaara’s ass and kisses his neck. “You are so mean sometimes,” he mumbles against skin. The way he can tear Gaara apart is annoying in itself, but the fact that he can put him back together makes Gaara want to burn everything to the ground. Naruto kisses him behind the ear and says, “I like you so much.”

Gaara’s hands turn into claws, clinging to Naruto’s clothes as if they were a lifeline. He feels every emotion he has been hiding bubble up in his chest. He’s bursting at the seams.

“Naruto,” he almost sobs, “I went to war for you.”

He’s breathless, and the look on Naruto’s face is so open, he might be breaking on the inside.

The kiss that follows is so desperate they actually manage to tear the shoji’s paper.

 

 

*

 

 

Naruto tastes like the five slices of watermelon he has eaten when Gaara kisses him goodbye.

“It’s probably going to take months,” Naruto apologizes. “I don’t know exactly when I’m coming back.”

Gaara shrugs, trying to pretend he doesn’t mind. He does, actually. He cares so much he’s worried about Naruto, about himself.

“I’ll keep myself busy,” he promises.

Naruto rests his forehead against his, breathing the same air before taking a step back. “Wait for me,” he says, the cheesiest line ever.

Gaara wants to say I always do, but he only ends up nodding.

 

 

*

 

 

It's a strange feeling. Since he was a kid, Gaara got used to only hoping for things, knowing that he would never get them. False hope was all he could afford. Now, however, he has a chance to actually get what he wants, what he has longed for. He's not sure if he's excited or scared to death.

The first weeks are okay. Sure, he occasionally gets distracted, but most of the time he tends to his garden, and carries on with his duties.

But then, he starts dreaming. Some dreams are nice, happy even. They are filled with colors, Naruto's laugh, and glorious summers. Some are manifestations of his longing, usually frustrating dreams where he runs, but never reaches his destiny. Some—and he will never admit it—leave him gasping and moaning, hard between the legs.

(Some dreams are frightening. They are filled with blood, and gore, and tears.)

When he starts getting angry at himself, he writes to his brother and asks for his first mission in more than a year.

Kankuro's reply arrives three days later, attached to it there's a message ordering him to report to Suna's headquarters.

 

 

*

 

 

Ogawa-san promises him that she will take care of his garden while he's away. Gaara tells her not to work herself to excess, and adjusts the strap of his gourd. It feels heavy on his back, but somewhat comforting.

“Take care,” she says, her voice dripping with concern.

Gaara pats her shoulder.

“I always do.”

Or, at least, he tries.

 

 

*

 

 

The trees become scarce and before he knows it, miles of deserted land make their appearance. It's been a year and a half since he left his home, and yet he still remembers the way back. The dry scent, the unforgiving sun, the taste of sand, all of these trigger his memory.

Suna stands among tall dunes and unstoppable wind. She has never been a particularly beautiful village, but she's the mother of thousands of warriors.

Gaara sneaks in. He's tired and irritable, so he'd rather avoid the fuss made by those who know him. The Kazekage Building is a circular construction in the center of Suna. It's not an appealing building, except for its size and the dome that crowns it. On the fifth floor, there's the Ninja Assignment Section to which Gaara has to report.

The thing about Suna's villagers—and especially, its ninjas—is that they do not gossip in public. That's the reason why everybody looks at Gaara as he enters the building, but no one utters a word. They will, later.

Yakku is the one behind the desk, and he makes a double take when he sees Gaara.

“Uh,” he eloquently says, “you are back, Gaara-sama”

Gaara shrugs.

“Not quite,” he corrects. “And drop the honorifics. I'm no longer Kazekage.” He doesn't turn around, but he knows he's being stared at. “I've been assigned to a mission.”

Yakku clears his throat and takes his time, occasionally glancing at Gaara. He finally finds what he's looking for: a small scroll with Suna's seal printed on it. Yakku forms a couple of hand seals and the scroll opens. The older boy blinks.

“It says here you have to report to the Kazekage.”

Gaara was expecting this. It doesn't make it any less annoying.

 

 

*

 

 

Baki didn't want the position. He didn't want the responsibility, and of this Gaara is certain. However, he accepted it with pride when Gaara asked. Kankuro has told him that Baki is a different kind of Kazekage, more lax and less resolute. Gaara replied that Baki was ruling under peaceful times.

“You wanted to see me, Kazekage-sama,” he salutes in a monotone. He used to address his father the same way.

Baki sighs, the Kazekage's robes funny on him.

“I wanted to say hello,” he grunts. “Because you didn't give me the chance to say goodbye.”

Gaara averts his eyes, hoping the gesture looks apologetic. The truth is he's subtly glancing at his old office, noticing small changes. There are no cacti, for starters.

“I'd really like to get on with my mission as soon as possible.”

Baki, just as Kankuro, is a man of few words. He's also one to understand when Gaara doesn't really want to talk about his life choices. He stands up, scroll in hand and walks towards Gaara.

“It's a low-ranked mission,” he explains. “Our A and S-Class missions are already being taken care of.”

Gaara doesn't mind. He only wants something to do.

“I'll take it,” he says.

Baki hesitates, searching Gaara's face, but he gives up and hands him the scroll.

“Good luck,” he smiles.

 

 

*

 

 

Jiraigakure is a tiny village in the north of the Land of Wind, practically in the border with the Land of Earth. They get by with the earnings they obtain from selling precious metals to the rest of the country.

One of their mines collapsed five days ago, trapping several workers inside. Jiraigakure does not have enough manpower to set them free, so they have hired Suna's ninja services.

It's not a fancy mission, but lives are at stake and Gaara never liked fancy missions anyway.

 

 

*

 

 

He does the job quickly. The rescuing part, at least. What he does take his time with, though, it's the restoration of the mine, so that the villagers can continue their work. He helps them build new foundations, making them stronger and durable.

When he's done, he realizes that one mission is not enough.

He reports back to Suna five days later and asks for a new assignment.

 

 

*

 

 

His summer is a blur of names and locations, lending a hand to villagers, escorting important businessmen, fighting low-ranked criminals. Kankuro offers him to work together in a S-ranked mission, but Gaara declines. He'd rather do quick jobs, those on which he doesn't have to dwell.

By the time he returns to Tanigakure—and a voice in his mind whispers home, to his dismay—, it's mid-September and he has to hurry with the new crops. Ogawa-san is waiting on his engawa, balancing her feet, and Gaara wonders if this old lady has some kind of sixth sense.

“I'm back,” he announces, although it's obvious. And he tries not to think about how much that sounds like Naruto.

Ogawa-san smiles.

“Oh, welcome, boy,” she greets him. “You've been missed.”

Gaara believes her.

 

 

*

 

 

Autumn turns to winter, trees standing naked under the earlier snow. Gaara watches the snowflakes fall, silently sipping his tea. New Year is less than a month away, and he has gotten invitations from both Ogawa-san and his siblings.

The forest is so quiet.

Gaara carries on, burying sorrow deep inside and reminding himself that ninjas cannot hope for more.

 

 

*

 

 

He walks slowly, despite the snow. It's not like he's in a hurry to get back home. He would've stayed with Ogawa-san, making sure she's taking care of herself in this cold, but the old woman ordered him to go back and stay inside. Yes. Gaara is walking slowly just to spite her.

His hands are freezing, and the hanten does little to protect him from the heavy snow. He can't smell a thing, his nose so cold he can barely feel it. He trudges carefully, and his boots sink deeper with each step.

When he reaches the clearing, he notices the figure on his engawa. The uniform is unmistakable; it's a Konoha ANBU member.

 

 

*

 

 

The first thing he feels is dread, like there's something inside his body slowly tearing it to pieces. Then he remembers there's no way he'd be notified if Naruto were to suffer any damage, and least of all by an ANBU ninja. That's when he becomes paranoid. His mind provides him with thousands of other explanations: assassination attempt, a personal missive from the Hokage, something has happened to Temari and they need him to come and see her.

He takes a deep breath and marches towards the ANBU. Under his hanten, he's armed, and in case of actual combat, well. He used to be a powerful ninja after all (he hopes he still is).

The other figure looks impatient, cracking his or her knuckles, and tapping his or her foot. The nearer he comes, the more certain Gaara is that he's dealing with a man. A slightly taller man who likes to fidget and who wears a fox mask.

His mind screams at him at the same time he reaches the house. He doesn't know if it's the fidgeting or the mask, but he feels stupid for doubting.

That's when the ANBU speaks.

“This fucking weather,” he says, a huskier voice than the one Gaara's used to.

He thinks, thank God. He thinks, why did you take so long. He thinks, I missed your sorry face. What he says, though, is, “Did you just blow your cover to a rival ninja?”

Naruto takes off his mask out in the open, and Gaara is half scandalized. He's ready to give him a lecture on why ANBU's identities are a secret, but Naruto takes two steps towards him and grunts, “I don't give a shit.”

Then, he proceeds to give Gaara a soul-searing kiss.

 

 

*

 

 

They fall to the floor in a heap of clothes and limbs, Naruto barely managing to close the front door. His lips won't leave Gaara's, desperately kissing the breath out of him. Everything feels hot despite the unrelenting snowing outside, and Gaara briefly closes his eyes when Naruto's hands start roaming through his arms and chest.

“This mission took forever,” Naruto breathes in between kisses. “And the only thing I could think about was...”

Gaara wants to scold him, to tell him how stupid he's being. But his body seems to come alive with Naruto in the room, instinctively looking for his touch.

“Don't tell me anything about your mission,” he grunts while framing Naruto's hips with his thighs, trying to keep him in place. “I shouldn't know,” he adds. “Missions are secret, you idiot,” he gasps, digging his fingers in Naruto's flak vest.

There's a laugh, and Naruto sucks on Gaara's neck. He has to bite down on his lower lip to keep in whatever sound his mouth wants to let go, embarrassing him further. “You taste good,” Naruto groans, his body involuntarily pressing against Gaara's.

And he... He feels like burning.

“I shouldn't even know you are ANBU,” Gaara complains before slipping his tongue inside Naruto's mouth. “Shit, since when?”

He shouldn't be asking. He doesn't even want an answer. “A year,” Naruto replies, his hand on Gaara's left knee, spreading it open and thumbing his inner thigh. “And I couldn't tell you. I—”

Suddenly, it stops. Naruto stops. Gaara grunts in protest, but the quiet moment turns his brain back on. That's when Gaara notices they are lying on the tatami floor, their shoes barely off, their clothes a mess, their lips red and swollen, their breathing out of control. Naruto's mask is probably broken in little pieces somewhere between the engawa and the entrance.

Naruto blushes furiously.

“I'm... sorry,” he whispers, ashamed of what Gaara can guess are his recent actions.

That's when he fully understands the feeling at the pit of his stomach. He grabs Naruto by the wrist, and presses that hand between his legs. He rolls his hips up, and sees Naruto's pupils dilate.

“Don't apologize,” he gasps.

It takes Naruto a second, and then he's pulling at their clothes.

 

 

*

 

 

It burns. It burns and it feels so good.

Gaara's thighs tremble atop of Naruto's. His back hurts from sitting straight, but he doesn't want to take his eyes off of the boy in front of him. There are a million thoughts going through his mind, but he can't focus on any single one of them.

Naruto leans in for a kiss, while his hand speeds up on Gaara's cock. “Like this,” he pants. His right bicep is bandaged, a minor scratch.

Gaara mirrors the movements, the sweat on his skin too hot. They move together in the dark, their hands on each other, and their mouths breathing the same air.

Naruto sometimes thrusts up into Gaara's hand, and the sight alone is enough to keep Gaara going. Ninja's are supposed to use their bodies to the fulfillment of their missions, whatever the situation, but he hopes nobody gets to see Naruto like this. The jealousy might kill him.

“Is this okay?” he asks, his thumb stroking the head of Naruto's cock, spreading the wetness all over it.

Naruto's response is to moan, half-nodding.

They are trying to figure out how to do this with another person, how to accept that they can be intimate with someone who loves them back.

Gaara feels a deliciously warm feeling taking over his body, and he stops thinking.

 

 

*

 

 

He can't sleep. This time, however, it has nothing to do with his insomnia, and everything to do with the sleeping human being on top of him. Naruto usually mumbles, tossing and turning, but tonight he's still as a statue, his head resting on Gaara's chest and breathing to the beating of his heart.

He never dared to hope for this moment. Not him, not the monster. He never hoped to feel as much as Naruto makes him feel, to understand as much as he understands now.

Naruto's thumb unconsciously caresses him over the ribs. It's so hot under the quilt that Gaara feels uncomfortable, but he doesn't move a muscle. Naruto hugs him tightly in his sleep, and Gaara holds him through the night.

He manages to fall asleep at some point, and when he wakes up, Naruto is making breakfast.

 

 

*

 

 

He's stalling his return back to Konoha. That's what Naruto confesses once he has stroked Gaara to orgasm. They are taking a bath, calmly soaking in the water.

“Stalling,” Gaara repeats.

Naruto gives him an apologetic smile.

“I may be taking extra time to, uh, complete my mission,” he says.

Gaara feels like murdering him. He crawls forward, sloshing the water so fast, some of it splashes on the floor. He corners Naruto against the tub in an intimidating manner, but the boy just grins.

“Your Hokage will end up killing you,” Gaara grunts. His body is slightly above Naruto's, and the absolute airhead seems to distract himself with the drops sliding down Gaara's chest.

“No, she won't,” he answers, licking a trail up Gaara's throat. “I'm way too good.”

Gaara refrains from biting his head off, and decides to take a different approach. “Are you, now,” he hisses in Naruto's ear. His hands disappear underwater, and Naruto moans against his lips. Gaara will make him beg.

 

 

*

 

 

Naruto promises to be back within the week. Gaara tells him he must, if he knows what's good for him. Later, Ogawa-san catches him strolling around her farm, and ushers him inside for a cup of tea.

“You seem happy,” she comments.

Gaara knows she wants a new piece of gossip.

“I think I am,” he whispers.

 

 

*

 

 

He's able to commit. He committed to his position as Kazekage, to the safety of Suna. Yet, he's unsure as to whether he's able to emotionally commit to another person. Gaara can be patient; not murdering Naruto is proof enough, especially after he brought back enough condoms and lube to promote safe sex among the entire population of Tanigakure.

“We are going to need it,” Naruto told him seriously.

So, yes. Gaara can be patient. He just wants to be sure he can commit. He's not as open as Naruto, not as capable of physical contact, of silly little words. He's afraid of hurting Naruto, of being too distant.

They are cleaning the house for New Year's, and Naruto is babbling about his friends, his sensei, his Hokage. He looks so happy and charming, Gaara has to avert his eyes.

“Naruto,” he suddenly calls. He wants to ask him to come to Ogawa-san's party, but what he whispers is, “Am I enough?”

The look he gets from Naruto is too strong to bear.

That night, they do it for the first time. Gaara closes his eyes as his hips roll down, taking Naruto deeper. Back to chest, moaning and panting, Naruto whispers low against his skin, repeating the same words over and over again.

“Yes, you are.”

 

 

*

 

 

As most things, the winter becomes colder before giving way to spring. Water freezes, snow falls, people get sick. At Naruto's fourth sneeze in a row, Gaara decides that's enough, and tells Naruto to go back home to a warmer weather.

Naruto whines, and frowns, and throws little tantrums. Gaara doesn't give in.

“The Kazekage in you is showing, you know,” Naruto grunts.

He goes home, and comes back two weeks later, the little piece of shit.

 

 

*

 

 

On his birthday, Naruto doesn't let him leave the bed.

 

 

*

 

 

He had always thought that loneliness was something he was kind of destined to. He understood later in life that solitude does not equal loneliness, and the mere idea of having friends is enough to light the darkest of nights.

He wasn't expecting company when he rented the house, and started building what he now sees as a home. Peace and quiet, those were his goals.

Now, however, he's never alone. There's an old lady who pesters him like a grandmother, siblings that drop by unannounced just to spite him, and his best (first, only, perfect, his) friend who no longer qualifies as a mere friend, and who kisses him behind the right ear as a greeting.

 

 

*

 

 

He takes a look at his life, and everything is completely different than expected.

Deliciously different.

 

 

*

 

 

The snow starts to melt, and they watch it from the engawa, wrapped in their quilts and sipping tea.

“I think Tsunade is favoring Sakura,” Naruto pouts.

Gaara rubs at his nose. “What for?”

Naruto plays with his teacup, swirling the liquid inside.

“The Hokage position,” he grunts. “I bet she wants Sakura to have it.”

Gaara sighs. “You earn the position,” he explains, even if his own case was special. “And I'm pretty sure you'll be chosen.”
Naruto makes a non-committal noise, and Gaara knows his mind has wander some place else. Sometimes it's difficult to keep a conversation with a guy whose focus changes constantly.

“If I were—,” he starts, and suddenly stops. He seems to think hard for a moment, before coming up with what he wants “When,” he grins, “I'm named Hokage.”

Gaara rolls his eyes. “What?”

Naruto stares at him in earnest.

“Will you come with me?”

Gaara's mind goes blank for a second in which Naruto laughs and informs him that he is blushing. Water drops from the small stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

“That would be extremely complicated,” he answers.

Naruto cocks his head to the side. “Why?”

Gaara likes him, but Naruto can be really slow sometimes. “To begin with, I am a rival ninja,” he starts, and just in case, adds, “That means I have a duty to my village, and me being with another Kage would rise suspicion.”

Naruto doesn't even seem near convinced.

“There's also the fact that we are both men,” he continues.

To that one, Naruto laughs out loud. “Yeah, like that would be a problem.” Gaara doesn't have time to ask what that's supposed to mean, when Naruto leans in and asks, “Will you come?”

He doesn't—

“I don't know,” he confesses. “It's not an easy decision to make.” He watches another drop fall from the stalactite. “You'd have to give me time.”

Naruto sighs. “Well, I can't say I didn't expect that,” he pouts.

It's disappointing, Gaara knows. But he can't lie to Naruto.

“However,” he mutters, fighting against his own defense mechanisms. “I... I will always be there for you,” he admits, frowning lightly at how hard this confession seems to be. “I'll always be by your side, no matter what.”

His voice dies, and he refrains from hiding inside his quilt. A long index finger suddenly pokes his cheek.

“Gaara,” Naruto begins with a shit-eating grin, “you are blushing again.”

 

 

*

 

 

They are still ninjas, and that's a habit they can't shake. They practice together sometimes, dancing among the trees, and secretly measuring their strength. When Naruto's away on a mission, Gaara takes care of his own. These aren't anything too serious, but they make him feel useful.

Also, sometimes Naruto's waiting for him when he gets back home.

 

 

*

 

 

Once, Naruto comes back from a mission with a bandage around his torso. A half-healed rib, he says. However, Gaara notices his downcast eyes and his sad smile.

That night, Naruto only says please, and so Gaara rolls him onto his hands and knees, and takes him apart with his fingers until Naruto is half-sobbing with pleasure. The house is silent as he fucks Naruto from behind. He doesn't know what else to do; he's not as good as Naruto when it comes to reaching out to people, to putting them back together. It's not the proper way to do it, but Gaara tries to make Naruto understand that he's there for him.

Later, when they are lying beside each other, Gaara softly whispers, “You don't have to force yourself.” He means to tell Naruto not to do what his heart can't take.

It's a good thing Naruto understands.

 

 

*

 

 

Less than a month later, Naruto announces he has quit the ANBU. He says he had the stomach, but he didn't have the heart.

Gaara secretly agrees. Then he helps Naruto make ramen for lunch.

 

 

*

 

 

They don't say the words. Gaara is extra careful because, even if he wants to say them, he doesn't want to rush and hurt Naruto. That's why he makes an effort in other ways. With actions, gestures, advice. Naruto smiles brighter when Gaara kisses him suddenly, laughs louder when Gaara cracks an acid joke, seems happier when Gaara lets him cuddle.

They don't say the words, but Gaara grabs Naruto by the wrist once and says, “Be patient with me.”

Naruto turns pink, and then gifts him with his goofiest grin.

“Whenever you are ready.”

Naruto's waiting for Gaara, that's the reason why he doesn't say them either. However, he doesn't have to. Gaara already knows.

 

 

*

 

 

Finally, this is what life tastes like.

There's still a long way to go, but he knows now what direction he wants to take.

 

 

*

 

 

There's an empty bowl of ramen in the kitchen sink, clothes that don't belong to the owner in the laundry basket, an extra futon placed right next to the usual one. The garden is in bloom again, the vegetables delicious and colorful.

The house is peaceful and quiet.

By the river, Gaara watches the clouds like Temari taught him to.

The cicadas sing.