crazy_toffee (crazy_toffee) wrote,
crazy_toffee
crazy_toffee

Naruto fic: "Haven 1/4" (Naruto/Gaara - mild SasuNaru, NC - 17)

Title: Haven 1/4
Pairing(s): Naruto/Gaara (unresolved SasuNaru in the back)
Warning(s): Angst-a-bundle.
Genre(s): … angst? Introspection?
Rating: NC - 17
Word Length: 22,500 (in total)
Description: Temari wasn’t entirely honest when she sought Naruto’s help. She said Gaara had been missing for a few days, but he’d been missing for a few weeks...


Written for fireun during the oh_shit_santa fic exchange.




Haven, by Toffee



The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.
-- Blaise Pascal


I. Years and Years Hence


Sand crusted over his sandals and the cuffs of his pants. He dusted some of it off, but sweat made it stick to his body, and he was tired of brushing it off. The sun beat down upon his head with midday ferocity and it made the landscape in front of him dip and swoon like images in a pool.

Naruto pushed his goggles down to shield his eyes from a gust of sandy wind. There was a salty tang at the back of his throat. The sand here was rich in salt and other minerals – Naruto wondered if he was close to the sea. He couldn’t hear the water or smell the humidity, but the flavor of the sand that crept into his mouth had changed.

No clouds in the sky, though.

How much farther…?

He’d been traveling for a few days already, gradually combing the desert in his increasingly frantic search. The ever-clear skies of this land no longer seemed appealing and cheerful, there was a flinty quality to each blue-in-blue day. When the sun rose above the zenith the sand reflected the light and it turned as white as milk. It was like walking in a land of boiling snow.

Naruto shuddered at the thought of having to spend another few days wandering around this area. The land was made of blank slates, the sun and the heat erased everything in swirls of hot, distorted air. Naruto licked his lips and reached for his canteen, drinking a few sips to ease his parched mouth.

I’m running out of water. I need to get out of here soon.

He hadn’t wanted to reach this part of the desert, so far from any stone outcropping or jagged ravine to offer shade. There were no shadows here, not even dunes, only the flat sun-struck expanse of salty sand.

But if he’s here, then here is where I’ll have to go.

Naruto breathed in to shout, but he ended up coughing. His throat felt raw already. He sucked in the hot air and hollered. “Gaara! Gaara! Are you here!?”

As before, there was no response.



* * *




“Gaara is what?” Naruto had demanded, incredulously.

“Lost in the desert, apparently,” Temari had confirmed, shaking her head. “Willingly, I presume.” There was a hard glint to her eyes that made Naruto’s skin crawl.

The Godaime Hokage sighed and crossed her fingers in front of her face. “I fail to see how this is related to Konoha, Temari-san. We have helped retrieve the Kazekage in the past, but we had a common enemy at the time. This --- “ She uncrossed her fingers and waved a hand in the air. “— is Suna’s issue.” Naruto gave Tsunade a look of disbelief. They were going to refuse to help Gaara?

“Indeed,” Temari agreed with the Hokage, face blank.

“Then why have you come here to commission the help of one of our ninja?” Tsunade insisted, visibly studying Temari’s reactions.

Temari gave Naruto a sidelong glance. “I did not come here seeking a Konoha shinobi, I came here in search of one of my brother’s best friends.” Naruto blinked, ill at ease. Gaara was a dear friend of his too, but, right now--- Then again, if he were allowed to leave, maybe he wouldn’t have to deal with any of Team 7’s current business. The thought felt cowardly.

Tsunade turned to him after this pronouncement. “Naruto? What is your standing on this?”

Naruto frowned, not sure of what to say. Why was she throwing the ball into his court, anyway? Gaara’s disappearance was a distressing addition to the many things that now burned and twisted in his head. “Does anyone know why Gaara left? It seems strange of him to just up and… disappear, like that.” Naruto envied him that freedom, all of a sudden.

Temari’s gaze was steady and cold. “I have my guesses, but they are only that. Of all the people in the world, only you could ever truly understand him.”

Tsunade sighed. “In the light of recent events, I’m of a mind to let you go, Naruto. You need a break.”

Naruto felt a mixed rush of panic and relief. He wanted to go; Konoha was full of encroaching shadows he didn’t know how to sort out. It felt cheap of him, to accept Temari’s request simply because he wished to get away and not because Gaara was missing.

But it’s the desert. If anyone is safe there it would be Gaara… right?

“Why not wait for him to get it out of his system? Maybe he needs some time… alone?” Naruto’s voice faltered when he caught the look of reproach in Temari’s eyes. His answer had disappointed her.

“I’m sure Gaara will be safe! Sand is his element.” He knew he was stating the obvious.

“Sand is his element, but not as freely as before. Not since…” She didn’t need to complete that sentence.

Not since he no longer is a Jinchuuriki.

“Naruto?” Tsunade queried again, amber eyes quiet and set. “I leave this one up to you.”

Naruto looked down at his feet. What if Gaara was in danger? What if he sensed an enemy and went after it? What if something went wrong and he went to the desert to… to… to what? Find Shukaku again? Lose himself in his motherland? Find himself there?

Why would Gaara…?

“I’ll go,” Naruto agreed at last. The relief of Temari’s face was palpable.



* * *




Temari wasn’t entirely honest when she had sought Naruto’s help. She said Gaara had been missing for a few days, but he’d been missing for a few weeks. Search parties had been dispatched and several shinobi believed to have spotted the Kazekage in the distance, though none managed to make contact with him. Gaara had gone out during a sandstorm as he was often wont to do, but he had not come back. Temari had avoided leaking news of the Kazekage’s disappearance for as long as she possibly could.

“So you know when he disappeared, exactly?” Naruto asked finally, as he shrugged on his backpack and adjusted the desert clothes around his body. They felt stiff and strange.

“It was exactly four weeks ago,” Kankuro supplied, carefully avoiding Naruto’s face.

Naruto frowned and stopped adjusting the clothes for a moment. Four weeks earlier--- No, no. He didn’t want to think about that.

Temari wouldn’t let him off the hook, however. “He left after we got news of Akatsuki’s defeat.”

“Oh,” Naruto replied weakly.

“Is it true that Uchiha Sasuke returned to Konoha after the battle?”

Naruto looked away, over the slopes of desert the spread beyond the high walls of Sunagakure. “It’s true.”

Both siblings were clearly waiting for him to elaborate. “And?” Temari pressed. “He hasn’t been executed for treason yet, has he?”

“No, but he’s in jail. He’ll probably stay there for a long time.” Naruto sighed, feeling the heavy shadows he’d sought to escape crawl back into his chest. “Because he helped save Konoha during the last attack, his case is being reviewed.”

(Moron… even now… you get in the way of my dreams)

(I didn’t do it for you!)


“You must be happy,” Kankuro muttered, snapping Naruto out of his thoughts. There was almost no inflection to his voice as he spoke. “Because that’s what you wanted, right?”

The hostile flatness in Kankuro’s voice and Temari’s eyes confused Naruto. He did not quite get why Gaara’s siblings seemed to resent him now, as if Gaara’s disappearance were his fault, somehow. But how could that be? Why would Naruto’s actions make Gaara flee the home he had made for himself? Why would Gaara choose to disappear on the day of Akatsuki’s defeat? Shouldn’t that have made him happy?

Shouldn’t Sasuke’s return make me happy?

In the face of Naruto’s lack of response, Temari held out a scroll. “Here’s a map of all the routes that have been searched already, plus the spots where you can find water, and the deep-desert oasis in this region.”

“There’s an oasis around here?”

“In the deepest part of the desert, near the salt flats in the west. You’ll find it on the map. We searched there already, though.”

Gaara? In an oasis? Naruto scoffed mentally. “Gaara will probably stick to areas with lots of loose sand. The dunes, maybe?”

“We tried that too. We tried everything, which is why we’re starting to think that—“ Temari trailed off, mouth hardening into a thin line. “Gaara must be waiting for something.”

“Something like what?” Naruto demanded, packing the map.

Temari shrugged. “I don’t know, Naruto. If I knew--- I would have him back already.”



* * *




Naruto coughed until his chest heaved, he then covered his mouth with a linen scarf. The salty wind chafed his nose and his cheeks. They were already rubbed raw, and they stung.

“Gaara!? Where are you, damnit!? Gaara!

Beyond him, the sand had become truly white. It was packed tightly together and it shone. There were a few cracks here and there, but it was mostly smooth. The heat that radiated off it was making him dizzy. Naruto shook his canteen and cringed at the small amount of water he had left. He had to find water, now. Naruto fumbled for the map and struggled to make it out, but the sun seemed to shine off it just as strongly as it bounced back from the sand.

Naruto covered his goggled eyes with a hand and looked up. The sky was blue like the inner curl of a flame, it seemed to fall upon him. The world was made of white and blue, and burning. His knees touched the sand and it seared him through his clothes. The heat licked his face.

There has to be some shadow somewhere!

He took a swig from the canteen and almost coughed it up. The map didn’t point out any nearby sources of water. There was nothing here.

But there was nowhere else to look…

Naruto breathed raggedly, wishing there was some way to cool down the air. Now was not a good time to realize he should have polished up on his water jutsu.

“Gaara!” he cried. “Where the fuck are you!?” He beat his fists against the sand and winced when the salt got into the abrasions on his fingers. “Fuck. Fuck!” He cursed, choking on hot air. Everything seemed to be twisting and loosing color, his very self wanted to drip and scatter onto the salt to burn there.

Gaara…

Naruto pushed himself off the ground only to find that his knees refused to hold him up. He swayed and ended up on his knees again. The map rolled in front of him, half open. The path back to Konoha seemed an eternity away.

And if I went back… what am I going back to?

(I didn’t do it for you!)


“Gaara,” Naruto whispered. Where are you?

Gaara was lost in this nightmare of heat and salt. No… no, he wasn’t lost. Gaara had left. Gaara had left on his own, and Naruto had to bring him back. He had to find Gaara. He had to find him and… He had to bring him back. He had to--- had to---

(I swear I will bring him back, Sakura-chan. You’ll see!)

“Gaara… I have to… bring…”

(You moron---)



* * *




“--- I didn’t do it for you.”

That was what Sasuke said to him, as he sat inside the containment cell, covered in wards and seals that bound and blinded him. Even with all those restraints he had recognized Naruto as he approached. The scowl on his face had been both fierce and desperate.

“Sasuke…”

“I didn’t. So if you want me to apologize for anything, you’re wasting your time.” A muscle jumped in Sasuke’s jaw; he wasn’t as indifferent as he seemed. Or so Naruto had hoped, from that little sign of weakness.

“Who said I wanted you to apologize, bastard?” The words just rolled off his tongue, it was like a puzzle piece sliding in. The tone was natural to him, it reeked of comfortable familiarity, even after all these years apart.

“Then why are you here?” Sasuke’s voice dropped on the last word, becoming harsh.

“Why do you think?”

“Idiot. How should I know why you’re here? It’s not like I’ve given you any reasons to come.” Naruto thought he caught an edge of frustration and pain in that statement, but he couldn’t be sure. Could Sasuke still feel sorrow, and could he feel it towards anything but his family and his dead brother?

“You’re my best friend.” It sounded lame even as he said it.

“I tried to kill you.”

“Still,” Naruto didn’t relent. “It’s what you are.”

“I tried to kill you. I left you and this village behind almost five years ago, to the date. Calling me your ‘friend’ just shows how much of an idiot you still are. Get this straight, dead-last: I don’t fucking care.” Sasuke didn’t swear unless he was truly pissed off. At least, that was the Sasuke Naruto remembered.

But the person I remember is a thirteen year old boy. This is…

This young man wasn’t that boy. Just like Naruto wasn’t the same as he had been when he was twelve. Sasuke had changed him. Team 7 changed him. Gaara and Haku and Neji and -- so many people! – had all changed him.

“If that’s true then--- then why?” Naruto demanded, heart pounding in anger and sadness.

“Why what?” Sasuke spat, hunching his shoulders like a distressed bird of prey.

“Why did you help us? Why did you help protect the hospital? Why did you save me? Why, Sasuke?”

Sasuke turned his face away. Naruto wished he could jump into the cell and force him to turn again. He wanted to see Sasuke’s face now more than ever; to see if there was evidence of any emotion there at all. To see whatever it was that Sasuke felt he had to hide.

“Do you even know why?” Naruto asked softly, wondering.

Sasuke didn’t say anything, and he kept his face averted.

“… Granny Tsunade says they may pardon you. Not right away but… at some point. I don’t think you’ll be court-martialed.” Naruto tried to make it sound like good news, but he wasn’t sure of it himself. He wondered what a life of imprisonment and controlled supervision would do to Sasuke. Would Sasuke stay under such conditions? Would he flee again, as he had already done in the past?

“They won’t kill me. They can’t.”

Naruto started at Sasuke’s rough-voiced declaration. “… can’t? Isn’t that kind of arrogant of you, bastard?”

“No, I’m just being realistic. They may not like me, but they love my eyes,” Sasuke face him again, and his smile was cold and cool. “They will keep me alive to breed and produce more Uchihas, so that the sharingan isn’t lost.”

Naruto wasn’t sure why his stomach clenched just so, when Sasuke spoke. To hear Sasuke speak of a family as a breeding enterprise… or simply the idea of Sasuke settling down with a woman and having children… something inside of Naruto stirred against it. He was sickened by Sasuke’s callous proclamation.

Naruto swallowed. “Wasn’t that part of your plan, anyway? To revive your clan?”

“Yes.”

“Is that why you helped us? So you could return to Konoha?” Naruto’s hands shook. Was that why Sasuke had saved him?

Sasuke’s eyes couldn’t fix on him because of the seals, but his unseeing gaze glittered with something unnamable. “Did you honestly think I did it for you?”

“I---“ Naruto faltered. He didn’t know what to say. This was not what he had expected. He hadn’t really known what to expect, but this wasn’t it. “I still care about you,” he blurted out, not knowing what else to say. As soon as it was out, he regretted it. It sounded stupid, and childish and--- too close to the truth.

He thought Sasuke would laugh at him, but his pronouncement only made him shiver and draw in a harsh breath. Sasuke looked away again. “What an idiot you are,” he whispered, and there was a confusing emotion hidden in his voice.

“Sasuke, I---“ Sasuke held up a hand and Naruto fell silent.

“Moron… even now… you get in the way of my dreams.”

Naruto blinked and held his breath. He didn’t even know how to interpret that. “What the fuck does that mean!?” Naruto cried suddenly, torn between anger and pain and utter confusion.

“It means that I want you to leave. Now.”

“But Sasuke—“

Leave!



* * *




Naruto opened his eyes after what seemed like an eternity. He squinted at first, thinking that – since he was on his back – the sun would pierce his eyes. He could see the outline of the sun, but not the sun itself. There was a canopy of white cloth stretched over him, protecting him from the blunt weight of sunlight. The cloth fluttered slightly, though it was bound to four poles that had been stuck deep into the sand in a square-shaped formation.

Naruto studied the precarious little tend, willing his brain to kick in. He tried to get up, but the world spun and he had to swallow hard to keep himself from throwing up.

“You’re awake.”

Naruto turned his head sideways as slowly as he could. The harsh light outlined a deep saffron shadow; green eyes peered at him, unblinking. “Gaara,” Naruto whispered. His lips stung as the dry skin was pulled around his friend’s name. “Gaara, I found you.”

“Rather the opposite,” Gaara deadpanned. “You were lost.”

Naruto was distracted from his monotone voice by the coppery glint of Gaara’s hair where the sun touched it. He blinked again, trying to focus on the figure that sat beside him, but his vision watered. Gaara was but a mirage made of blood.

“I thought you were lost,” Naruto mumbled. Between white sheets and white sand, had Gaara always been this red and cold? His clothes rippled, like water. “You’re… blood,” Naruto rasped out, reaching out to touch. Gaara pulled back slightly, like a disturbed animal. Naruto’s fingers closed on linen. “Not-blood, then,” he muttered to himself, and laughed out loud at the incoherency of it all.

“You have a fever,” Gaara’s voice was cool, like ice, the only true-blue thing in this hell. The sky had to be a lie. And if the sky was a lie, everything else could be a lie too. Maybe coming here was a lie, and the reasons for coming here were a lie too. A hand touched his forehead. Cool fingers from a cold shadow.

“I don’t have a cold. I’m not cold. It’s not a fever.” Naruto closed his eyes again, willing the world to sit still.

“Sunstroke gives you fever, fool.”

Anger surged, making him sicker. “I’m not a fool, bastard.”

Sand rustled as the shadow moved. Naruto looked up for an instant before shutting his eyes against the light. Someone loomed over him, dark against the white of the canopy. “Rest, I’ll go and get water.”

The voice was all wrong, it wasn’t the voice he thought he should hear. Lies, all lies, Naruto thought. But when he opened his eyes there was no one there, and he was alone. He struggled to get to his feet, but it was impossible. The world reeled and he staggered with it.

“Wait!” He called, trying at least to get his arms under his own body, to push himself up. “Wait!”

Don’t go! Don’t---

“Wait, Sasuke!

Don’t leave me behind again, you bastard…



* * *




“You, again?” Sasuke growled, fists clenched.

Naruto wondered why it was that, no matter what he did, Sasuke reacted as if Naruto were spitting in his face. They had always been rivals, they had always argued, they had even tried to kill each other… but Sasuke had never acted as if he hated Naruto.

Naruto wasn’t sure whether this was preferable to the blank indifference of Sasuke’s lost years.

“Me again, bastard,” Naruto agreed haughtily. “Surprised?”

Sasuke didn’t deign to answer. He twisted and looked out the window.

So they eased up on the seals, Naruto realized. Sasuke wouldn’t look out the window if he couldn’t look.

“Sakura said she might visit you this afternoon,” Naruto talked to fill the silence, wishing Sasuke would at least acknowledge what he was saying. “She was cooking something nice for you, but Kakashi and Yamato snuck in and ate it up. Well, okay, I snuck in too. You didn’t miss anything though, Sakura’s home cooking is far less tasty than I once imagined. She kind of sucks at it, in fact. It sure smelled nice though--- Hey, bastard, are you even listening?”

“Sakura said she’d come?” Sasuke asked suddenly, and something in his voice made Naruto tense.

“Well… yes.”

Sasuke was silent for the next few minutes. “She’ll do,” he said at last, quite out of the blue.

“She’ll do? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Naruto snapped, not liking the sound of Sasuke’s voice at all.

“If she was cooking me something, then she’s still interested… even if only moderately… or because she didn’t get over it,” Sasuke spoke slowly, considering each option as he said it aloud. “I had ruled her out.”

“Ruled her ou--- interested? Bastard, what the fuck are you going on about?” Naruto growled deeply, clenching his fingers around the chakra infused bars of Sasuke’s cell. The bars hissed and smoked against his skin, but he didn’t let go. “Sakura-chan missed you! We both did! And she wants to thank you for helping protect the hospital!”

Sasuke’s mouth twitched. “Good point. That might actually help me now.”

“Sasuke… what on earth are you talking about, please?” He was not above begging when it came to Sasuke. His voice sounded so coldly amused, too much like Orochimaru. It was as if Sasuke wasn’t Sasuke at all.

“I told you, moron. I want to revive my clan.”

Naruto’s mind buzzed for a few seconds before he actually pieced together the whole conversation. He almost threw himself against the bars. “Sakura-chan isn’t some piece of meat you can use like that!” Why was Sasuke saying these things?

“And you honestly think she wouldn’t like that?” Sasuke sneered, leaning back into a chair. “Moron.”

“You’re wrong. She’s not the overly-romantic girl you knew! She’s stronger now! And she might care for you, but she’s not obsessed with you anymore!” Naruto cried, rattling the bars.

“Is that the truth, or what you wish was the truth?” Sasuke’s eyes were lidded, calmly observing him. “You had almost four years to win her over, and you didn’t. Why make a fuss now? Or is it… than you don’t want me to have her?”

“It’s not about that!”

Who is this person? Who is he? This is not Sasuke! It can’t be!

Naruto stepped away from the bars, shaking with anger. “Sakura cares for you. Treating her like that… as if she were something you can just… pick up at the market… that---“

Sasuke laughed, once, and then fell silent. “Who’s overly-romantic now? Naruto… why does it bother you so much? Would you feel better if I promised to make her happy, and stay by her side, for richer or poorer, in sickness and---“

“Would you?” Naruto interrupted harshly. “Would you stay by her side? Even if she couldn’t give you children?”

“Of course not.”

Naruto drew in a ragged breath. “Who are you?”

Sasuke smiled, but his gaze was overcast. When Naruto chanced to look deep into his eyes, there was a shadow of anguish that made Naruto’s heart beat strangely. “I’m me, idiot. Who else? The Uchiha Sasuke, last of the Uchihas… for now, at least.”

It isn’t over, Naruto realized. Sasuke was still living and breathing his revenge against Itachi, even after Itachi’s death. His whole life, his children, his future family, his success, it was all about Itachi. It was all about what Sasuke had lost, and never about what he could have.

Naruto’s hands shook so hard he had to stick them in his pockets. And why do I care? Why was it important for Sasuke to be happy, in the end? It was his choice. And Sakura’s choice too, she could take care of herself. Naruto realized that it wasn’t even Sakura he was angry about. It was much sillier than that.

I didn’t bring you back just so you could do this. It had never occurred to Naruto that Sasuke would give up like this, on any chance of happiness, after Itachi’s death. Not again.

“Don’t you even want to try and be happy?” Naruto whispered, voice strained. Something dark and repressed flickered in Sasuke’s eyes before snuffing out, like a candle. Naruto edged forward, drawn by that small gust of emotion. “Don’t you?”

“Who says I won’t be happy with Sakura and a few children?”

“You talk about that as if it were a task. Will you really be happy with her?” Because if you are, Naruto realized, suddenly. I’ll let you be, I’ll even help you get her. Only if you are happy. Only if you---

Naruto blanched and stumbled away form the bars like someone burned.

“What’s wrong?” Sasuke asked sharply, as if Naruto’s reaction actually bothered him. Sasuke got up and walked up to the bars. “Moron, what’s wrong?”

Naruto struggled to keep his breathing even. His heart wanted to crawl out of his mouth. It’s not about Sakura. It’s about Sasuke. I’m jealous of--- He couldn’t even complete that thought, not without falling to pieces in front of Sasuke.

“Naruto!” Sasuke demanded, and his eyes were thawing to a sort of worried anger. “Stop fooling around, damnit!”

Naruto swallowed convulsively and managed to get himself back under control. He stared down at the floor, ashamed all of a sudden. “I’m fine.”

“Moron---“

“I’m fine!” Naruto snapped, and regretted looking up the instant he did it. Sasuke was almost touching the bars, eyes wide and focused entirely on him. Naruto saw himself in Sasuke’s eyes, how gaunt and terrified and hurt he looked. “I’m fine,” he repeated himself, in a whisper.

Sasuke’s lips parted, but he said nothing. The air between them seemed to thicken. Something grew in the silence and the short distance between their bodies, something that pulsed and breathed and lived. Sasuke lifted a hand and slowly drew it through a space between the bars. His fingers hovered, then reached out to Naruto. The gesture was so unwarranted Naruto couldn’t do anything but follow as he was pulled against the bars. Sasuke’s eyes burned as he studied Naruto’s face and then fixed on---

He’s looking at my mouth. It was an alien thought, one that made Naruto’s blood fizz. Sasuke is looking at my mouth.

Sasuke looked at Naruto as if he wanted to kiss him, and if he had, Naruto would have let him. But Sasuke let go of Naruto abruptly, pushing him away. Naruto stumbled, but didn’t fall.

Sasuke’s eyes were bruised and sorrowful, and growing colder again. “You’re in the way.”

Naruto knew there was nothing but a blank wall behind him. “Of what?”

“My future.”

(All of my dreams, lie in the past.)

“Sasuke… I…”

“Go away, Naruto. Just go away. I---” Sasuke stopped speaking and pressed his lips into a sad line.

Naruto stood there, shaking. Sasuke turned his back on him and went to stare out the window once more. It was a few minutes before Naruto realized Sasuke wouldn’t say anything else.



* * *




When Naruto opened his eyes again, it was dark outside. He looked up, expecting to find the little tent, but there was nothing but stars above his head. He looked at them for a few minutes and breathed in the cool air. His face still felt hot, as if the sun were sitting on it, and he was shivering.

I have a fever, he thought to himself, stupidly.

As his sight grew better he realized that he wasn’t lying in the middle of the desert either. The moon was cut in half by the jagged line of a palm tree. Exuberant fronds curled around one side of the white disk, like those ink paintings Sai loved so much.

I wonder if Sakura and Sai are very angry at me for leaving. I wonder if Sasuke… Naruto closed his eyes and turned to lie on his side, knees drawn up slightly.

He almost leapt out of his skin when a cold hand touched the back of his neck. Naruto struggled to turn around, getting tangled in his clothes. Or what was left of them. He was wearing only the light undershirt and linen drawstring pants. Gaara watched him quietly, his hand still poised. When Naruto stopped struggling, Gaara pressed his hand against Naruto’s cheek.

It was so personal and awkward Naruto didn’t know what to do. He could only stare as Gaara brought his other hand up to his own cheek and looked up at the sky, thoughtfully. “Your fever is going down.”

Naruto swallowed thickly.

Gaara’s head cocked sideways sharply, one of those animalistic traits of his that unnerved other people so much. Naruto could relate to them, but he had never noticed them before. Or was he noticing them now because he’d expected Gaara to lose them after he lost the One-Tail?

Gaara seemed to reach a conclusion. He twisted and fussed with something Naruto couldn’t see. Then he brought up a canteen. Naruto grabbed for it but Gaara lifted his hand out of reach. “No,” Gaara chided him. “You have to drink slowly.”

To hell with ‘slowly’! Naruto groused. He was parched and the very idea of water made his whole body arch towards it. But Gaara held the canteen for him and pulled it away when he thought Naruto was drinking too fast. In the end, he had to content himself with a few sips.

When Gaara took the bottle away, Naruto had to keep himself from whining. “Gaara, wait… I’m still thirsty.”

Gaara’s eyes were cold and measuring. “You’ll throw up if you drink more. Wait.”

Naruto’s head thumped back. It was only then that he realized there was a small pillow beneath his head, made of folded clothes probably. He was lying on a large white sheet.

The tent, he realized. “We’re in the oasis,” was what Naruto said.

Gaara nodded. “You passed out from the heat. This was the nearest source of water and shade. The air is colder here too.”

“You carried me?” Naruto muttered, not sure of how he felt about that.

“Yes,” Gaara answered, calm and straight-faced. “You’ve gotten heavier.”

“Hey!” Naruto cried in offense.

Gaara’s lips quirked into what might - might - be a smile. “You’ve also gotten taller.”

“Damn right I have!” Naruto growled irritably.

Gaara’s face was still blank, but his eyes softened somewhat. They were still outlined by deep-set shadows. By the light of the full moon, they looked more grey than green, and too big on Gaara’s face. Naruto stared up at him, feeling something that was a bit like a stitch in his chest.

“Why did you disappear?” Naruto asked him in a low voice.

Gaara gave him a long look. “When did you notice I was gone?”

“Temari came for me and told me.”

Gaara closed his eyes and bowed his head. His face was cast in shadows. “Ah,” was all he said.

Naruto felt frustration rise within him. “She was worried!”

“I know.”

“Everyone was worried!” Naruto insisted.

“I know,” Gaara repeated emphatically. His face was still hidden from Naruto.

“Then… why?”

(Why, Sasuke?)

Gaara did something very uncharacteristic of him: he shrugged. “I had hoped…” He trailed off and lifted his face to reveal a scowl. “… for something.”

“What?” Naruto asked, utterly confused.

Gaara shook his head and looked away. “It doesn’t matter now.”




End of part one



II. Two Roads Diverged

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