Pairing(s): Naruto/Gaara (unresolved SasuNaru in the back)
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.
I. Years and Years Hence
II. Two Roads Diverged
The next time Naruto woke up it was morning. Gaara had managed to move him without waking him, again. Naruto lay, on his back, in the shadow of a large rock. Palm fronds rustled in the soft breeze above his head. The oasis smelled of sand and something else, something exotic. It was probably a strange flower or fruit of the season. An eerily musical birdcall echoed through the leaves, helping Naruto wake up completely.
“Gaara?” He called, and found that he could get up without feeling too dizzy.
Gaara appeared in his line of sight. Naruto watched him in numb silence for a few seconds. He didn’t look like Gaara of the Desert. He was wearing a loose linen shirt and saffron pants. The pants were almost the same shade as his hair, which was a bit longer than Naruto remembered, and curled around Gaara’s face. It made him look younger than he was, and smaller, somehow. He held a small bowl of fruit and was currently munching on one himself. Gaara walked towards him and Naruto saw that – to top it all off – Gaara was barefoot.
Gaara crouched beside Naruto, balanced on the balls of his feet. He offered the bowl to Naruto while taking a bite. Juice dribbled down Gaara’s chin, he caught it with the back of his hand and licked it off. Naruto could only stare. It dawned on him suddenly that Gaara was sitting very close, close enough for Naruto to see that Gaara’s hair was neither blood nor copper-coloured, but both, with some odd black strands mixed in the middle. He blinked, once, as if to clear that image from his head.
Naruto pointed at the proffered fruit. “What are those?” He wondered if his voice was a squeaky as it felt to him.
Green eyes watched him, animal-bright in their intensity. “Apricots.”
Naruto took the bowl and grabbed a fruit. It was sweet, but not too much. He wolfed it down and grabbed another, discovering that he was actually quite hungry. Gaara seemed satisfied by this. He sat back on his heels and tossed the seed over his shoulder. Naruto looked at him over a mouthful of green apricot, wincing as the acid taste made his teeth ache. Gaara had never seemed this approachable before, Naruto realized. But he didn’t seem altogether happy either, there was an edge to his calmness that bothered Naruto.
“You’re staring,” Gaara informed him, though he didn’t seem offended.
“You seem different, somehow.”
Gaara frowned. “I do?” The uncertainty surprised Naruto.
“Yeah. Like…quieter inside, but still yourself. Only a bit more…” Naruto was going to say human, but it occurred to him that it wasn’t a smart choice of words. “A bit more centered.”
Gaara seemed to guess at his thoughts, regardless. “Odd,” Gaara murmured.
“Whah ish?” Naruto mumbled through a mouthful.
“I feel the same.” Gaara frowned and stared down at his hands. “I thought I’d feel different, but I don’t. Nothing changed inside,” Gaara’s voice was heavy with regret. Naruto shivered, too accustomed to hearing Gaara’s voice as nothing but a blank-slate sound. “I thought---“ Gaara scowled and didn’t finish his sentence.
Naruto swallowed a mouthful that suddenly felt like stones in his mouth. “What do you mean, nothing changed inside?” Is he talking about…? Even though it was a bond they shared, Gaara and Naruto had never actually sat down to talk about their bijuu, or life around them. Mostly because Gaara was positively hermetic, Naruto had the impression Gaara preferred to avoid the topic altogether.
Gaara’s face twisted into a troubled frown. He put a hand to his chest. “I thought, or rather, I always believed, that it was its fault. That it made me like this..” Gaara’s fingers clenched on his shirt and his frown became a grimace. “Now I know it was me, all along.”
That’s just wrong.
“But it has always been all you Gaara, we’re not… we’re not them. Just because they’re inside of us, it doesn’t make them who we are.” Naruto was aghast at Gaara’s line of reasoning.
Gaara shook his head. “Maybe for you. But the seal on the One-Tail was always fragile, it was made that way, so that I could bring it forth and control it…. Supposedly.” Gaara’s lips turned up ruefully. “It was always there, Naruto, in my head. There was never a time when it wasn’t. But now it’s gone, and I still feel…” Gaara breathed in shakily and got to his feet. His fingers were clenched into claws, but his eyes were flat. “… I thought I’d stop wanting these things. I thought I’d feel more human.”
“And now Akatsuki’s gone. At least when they were around, there was someone to hate, someone to be like this for.” Gaara closed his eyes and folded his fingers into fists. “I hoped had these thoughts were because it contaminated me. I wanted to believe that they were only there because I had it inside of me.”
“But Gaara… what thoughts? What are you talking about?”
Gaara’s eyes fixed on Naruto’s face and studied it carefully. “You have to know what I mean. What it feels like. To want to…” Gaara’s frown was terrifying. In those burdened eyes Naruto saw what Gaara meant and understood.
“To want to kill. To hate,” Naruto murmured. Oh, he understood. The treatment Gaara had received warranted all of that, and more. Naruto could easily understand how Gaara felt. “But Gaara… I don’t think that’s the bijuu’s doing. Those things are completely human. Not all humans are nice and good.”
I once wanted those things, not because of Kyuubi, but because of my life. Though perhaps the bijuu’s presence augmented a good portion of their more negative emotions. Naruto had no way of knowing how truly influential the One-Tail had been over Gaara, because their seals were too different.
“No, not all humans are good. But after I fought you in the chuunin exams, I decided that even if I had a monster inside of me, I didn’t have to be one, myself.” Gaara’s words made Naruto flush. It still surprised Naruto when people told him what an impact he might have had on their lives. Sometimes it was hard to believe. “Now I know better.” That pretty much put a damper on his buzz.
Naruto frowned, trying to piece Gaara’s logic apart. He knew it was wrong, but he didn’t know how to prove it to Gaara. “Gaara, you’re not a monster.”
“I thought you’d understand.” Gaara’s disappointment cut into Naruto like a blade.
“Gaara I… “A thought came to him, suddenly. “Is that why you… disappeared?” Naruto asked, tentatively.
Gaara’s head snapped up, green eyes fixing on Naruto with feline intensity. “No,” Gaara whispered. He seemed to want to elaborate further, but remained silent all the same. His eyes bored into Naruto, trying to convey a meaning that Naruto could not grasp.
Then Gaara got up and walked off, leaving Naruto to mull over his words.
Naruto spent most of the day resting in the shadow on the rock. Gaara moved in and out of his sight, amid the palm trees and the rocks. Naruto had the feeling Gaara didn’t know how to approach him after their last conversation. Naruto waited patiently, but Gaara didn’t even come within shouting distance. There was a restless quality to his movements that kept Naruto focused on him most of the day. By sundown he felt perfectly healthy, so he decided to get up and find him.
Gaara didn’t seem surprised when Naruto jogged up to him. He sat beside a small pool, dipping his fingers in and out of the water. Fat nacreous fish swam beneath the surface, watery visions framed in black. Gaara watched them in silence.
“So… there are fish in the desert,” Naruto couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.
Gaara snorted and gave him a sidelong glance. There was neither discomfort nor animosity in his gaze, so Naruto relaxed somewhat. “This pool connects to another series of pools in this oasis. There’s space enough for them to breed and feed.”
“Are they edible?” Naruto could have sworn Gaara was smiling now.
“Yes, but there are very few, so we tend to leave them alone.”
“Oh,” Naruto sighed, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Fresh fish seemed like a much better option to dried rations or weird fruits.
“If you are hungry, there are some apricots and dates over there.” Gaara pointed sideways, without taking his eyes off the fish.
“Hmmm…” Naruto hummed thoughtfully. He watched Gaara study the fish for a few more minutes before speaking again. “Are you having some kind of apiphany over the fish?”
Gaara’s mouth twisted curiously. “You mean epiphany.”
”Same thing, I mean, yeah, that.” Naruto felt his cheeks burn a little. So much for trying to seem smart and profound. “Well… are you?”
Gaara’s expression was one of restrained mirth. It made Naruto realize how different he was from that surly, murderous child he once knew. Surely Gaara could feel how different he was from back then. But I guess he thought a lot of what was bad in him, had to do with being a Jinchuuriki.
“What kind of revelation could I possibly have over a school of fish?”
“Ah, hell, I don’t know! You just seemed to be looking at them so interested and all… like when someone looks at the moon and says ‘ah, the moon is inconstant like my lover’ or some such crap.”
Gaara’s eyes had gone wider still, but his brow was twitching. “Inconstant like my lover…? Do you even know what that word means, Uzumaki?”
“Of course I do!” Naruto retorted, indignant.
Gaara’s expression was one of sincere disbelief. “Like apiphany?”
“Yes! I mean, no! Aww. Fuck this!” Naruto kicked a pebble into the water.
“Where on earth are you getting these words anyway? They don’t sound like you,” Gaara informed him in a bemused tone of voice.
Naruto felt a blush creep up his neck. “Ah… Kakashi lent me one of his books last month, to see what I thought. I just figured… argh, just forget it!” Naruto groused and flopped back against the soft sand around the pool.
Gaara watched him in quiet amusement for a while, but his expression slowly began to melt away. Something closed shut in Gaara’s eyes and his face went blank. It seemed as though the dark circles around his eyes would swallow his face. Naruto gulped, unsure of the reason for this sudden change in the mood. Without knowing why, his eyes were drawn up to the blood-red lines of scar tissue on Gaara’s brow, a kanji inked in his own blood.
The sun gradually dipped over the horizon; gold seeped out of the trees and the sand, and out of Gaara’s hair. Still, Gaara did not look away, eyes fixed on Naruto’s face. It reminded him of Sasuke, all of a sudden, and the memory made him wince.
“Is he inconstant, then?” Gaara spoke at last, in a tone Naruto had never heard him use before.
Naruto frowned and watched Gaara warily. The question rang odd bells in his head, he wasn’t sure what to make of it, or of Gaara’s mood. “… who is inconstant?”
Gaara’s blankness dissolved into a harsh frown. “Uzumaki…” He warned, and there was an edge of true violence in that tone. Sand rustled under Naruto’s fingers, nothing quite menacing, but a threat in itself. Naruto glanced down at the slow tide that flowed towards Gaara and felt sharp relief. So Gaara still moved the sand even unconsciously, that had to be good!
“Naruto,” Gaara hissed. “Answer me.”
That low sound brought Naruto back to reality, and the possibility of danger. But Gaara would never… “Gaara, I mean it. Who are you talking about? I don’t get---“ Naruto stopped himself. He realized that he knew what Gaara meant. There was only one person Gaara could be asking him about, in that disturbing tone of voice. But Naruto didn’t want to discuss that issue, certainly not with Gaara.
And how did Gaara…?
A fish broke the surface of the water and then disappeared again. It was a ghostly shape in the darkness of the water. Naruto stared deep into the pool, avoiding Gaara’s eyes.
“You won’t talk about it,” Gaara stated coldly.
“Gaara, that’s… it’s…” How could Naruto talk about something he barely understood himself? How could he even begin to explain how twisted everything was in his mind – and his heart – and how much he wished Sasuke had not come back. At least not like this. “I can’t.”
“I thought… that the Uchiha’s return would make you happy.”
(Because that’s what you wanted, right?)
Kankuro had said that to Naruto, as if Naruto and Sasuke were somehow guilty of Gaara’s disappearance. And here he was now, being questioned about Sasuke by Gaara, of all people.
“I am happy,” Naruto objected, sitting up and clasping his hands over his knees.
Gaara’s expression was frankly incredulous. “You look miserable to me.”
Naruto sighed and bowed his head. He didn’t want to talk about it, not now, not ever. He had decided to help find Gaara to avoid this issue, not drag it out in the open in a different setting. “Look, Gaara… it’s a bit like your thing, okay? I thought…that is, I hoped… or I believed things would be different than they actually turned out to be, okay? He’s… he’s not, or rather he is… different. Just different.”
“Gaara…” Naruto cautioned. “I don’t---“
“—want to talk about it, I can see that.” Gaara interrupted him. His eyes were fierce in the waning light. Naruto’s back straightened instinctively, it was like sitting beside a creature about to pounce. “But I deserve to know.”
That threw Naruto off completely. “You des… what…? Why?”
Gaara shrugged defensively, an even more confusing gesture. “Because I do.”
Naruto clenched his hands, feeling his lip curl. How dare Gaara put him in this position? How dare he corner Naruto like this, after he’d come all the way just to find him? If Naruto didn’t want to discuss it, then that was that. “It s none of your business!” Naruto cried, feeling anger creep into his belly.
“Maybe, but it’s the truth. I deserve to know, because you came here.” Gaara stressed the last word, and something wild wavered in his gaze. “Even if it’s not the way I had---“ Gaara fell silent and frowned, a quiet sort of pain appeared on his face. “You came here, so I want to know,” he repeated, this time in a cooler voice.
Naruto stared at him, long and hard. It was like a world gone mad! First Sasuke was acting completely off, and now Gaara had decided to become a completely different person as well. Why are you all doing this to me? Naruto breathed in shakily and studied Gaara’s tense little crouch. “Gaara… why the fuck did you disappear in the first place?”
Gaara shook his head, visibly angry. “Answer my question first.”
“Not if you won’t answer mine!”
Gaara shot to his feet, fast like a snake. His chest heaved as he looked at Naruto and there was anger and anguish and a brutal sort of helplessness there. “Why aren’t you happy?” Gaara’s voice was ragged. “Shouldn’t you be happy?”
( Don’t you even want to try and be happy?)
“I don’t know!” Naruto roared, feeling like a cornered animal. Gaara was all over the map, quiet one moment and violent the next. Why was he asking this now? Couldn’t he just lay off it? Why was it so important to him, anyway? “I don’t know…” Naruto said again, in a whisper, and felt powerless in the face of the truth. “I wanted Sasuke to return. That was the only thing I… it was what I wanted the most. He---”
“You’re in love with him.”
A strangled noise caught in Naruto’s throat. He opened his mouth to tell Gaara to go fuck himself, but he simply couldn’t. When he looked up, Gaara’s eyes glimmered strangely, anger mixed with something else.
“No, I’m not,” Naruto said, and his voice was thin little sound. “He’s my best friend, Gaara. My fucking best friend!” As he spoke, his tone grew savage. “I’m not in love with him! I just want him to be the person he used to be! The guy I used to fight with and rant at and spend time with! Not this fucked up…. thing.”
Gaara’s frown deepened, blatantly disagreeing. “You’re lying.”
“And how the fuck would you know!?” It was out before Naruto thought about what he was saying, and to whom.
Gaara jerked back abruptly, as if he’d taken a real hit. He took in one long breath and held it, eyes narrowed. Naruto could see him struggling for control, and he knew that it was himself that Gaara was trying to keep in check, himself and nothing more. Still, the wounded fury on Gaara’s face made Naruto’s blood freeze in his veins.
Naruto waited, on baited breath, counting the seconds until Gaara beat him to pulp. A frenzied itch spread over his limbs, something akin to relief at the thought of Gaara making a leap for his throat.
Fight me. Damnit, fight me! Naruto wasn’t sure why, but it was all he could think about now. Don’t just stand there… come on! Naruto clenched his fists, desperate for that instant when he would be able to---
Gaara let go of his pent up breath, and did nothing. He loosened his shoulders and watched Naruto out of bruised eyes. “You are hurtful when you feel cornered,” Gaara murmured. “I didn’t expect that.”
Anger roiled in Naruto’s stomach making him feel almost sick. How could Gaara just--- just--- let it go like that? Shouldn’t he have been angry? Why didn’t he lash out, after what Naruto had said…? Why… How--? “Fuck you!” Naruto roared, jumping to his feet like a scalded cat. “You have no right to demand anything, hear me? ANYTHING! I came here to get YOU, because YOU were lost! So you owe ME! Don’t fucking mess around with me!”
“I’m not. I’m glad you came.”
“Fuck off!” Naruto bared his teeth, feeling the seal over his belly burn in response.
Gaara’s eyes widened. “Naruto… calm down,” he cautioned evenly, unafraid.
“Why aren’t you fighting me!?” Naruto snarled, tongue caught around teeth and there suddenly too sharp and too big for his mouth. “Fight me!” He bellowed, baring his clawed fingers like a challenge. “You have to fight me!” He took a step forward, licking his lips aggressively, tasting blood, almost. If only Gaara would---
“No,” Gaara answered sharply.
Naruto thought he’d wail in anger and frustration. “Why the HELL not!?”
“Because I’m not Uchiha.”
It was like a bucket of icewater.
Naruto stumbled back. He stared at Gaara as if the man were a complete stranger. And maybe he was, just like Sasuke.
“Why do you--- how can---“ Naruto’s mouth snapped shut. He did feel cornered now, in the face of Gaara’s smoldering eyes. That gaze seemed to go right through him, leaving no stone unturned.
“I’m not Uchiha Sasuke, and I won’t be him for you either.”
Naruto wanted to scoff at the very concept, but he couldn’t work his throat to make a sound. Gaara couldn’t be Sasuke, not even if he wanted to. No one could replace Sasuke.
Except that… Sasuke isn’t Sasuke anymore. Not the Sasuke I was looking for… The person Naruto had been looking for wasn’t there, and might have never been there at all. He’d worn his heart on his sleeve for someone who was a complete stranger, someone who could dismiss him as if he were expendable. And save for that one moment, caught together-yet-separate through the bars of a cell, Sasuke acted as though Naruto meant nothing to him.
Naruto wondered if Sasuke had felt this towards Itachi, before his thirst for revenge took over; this angry futility, this crushing sorrow, this confused betrayal.
“Sasuke isn’t Sasuke anymore.” It felt strange to say it, and he wondered if Gaara even understood.
Gaara looked at him, whatever he saw in Naruto’s face made him flinch. “I’m sorry,” Gaara said. A ridiculous thing, Naruto thought, for Gaara to apologise like that. He made it sound as though Sasuke had died.
It feels like he’s dead.
“No you’re not,” Naruto rasped. He wondered where all that venom was coming from. Stranger still, Gaara hadn’t tried to bash his head in.
I wish he would.
Uncharacteristically, Gaara smiled. “Perhaps not,” he agreed. “But I’m sorry that it hurts you.”
Naruto snorted, feigning derision, and looked away. He didn’t know how to look at Gaara after this conversation. He felt like moron. The insensitive kind. “Yah… whatever.”
The silence stretched before Gaara spoke. “I’ll leave you alone, then.”
He was gone before Naruto could stop him. The oasis was silent, save for the hum of the insects in the dark. Naruto stayed beside the pool for a long while, trying to make sense of everything that had been said.
Naruto slept beside the stone, on the open canvas of the tent. When he woke up the next morning, the events form the previous night felt like a nightmare. It was hard to believe he’d said those things, and harder still to imagine Gaara - the Gaara hew knew – acting like that.
Naruto shifted and sat up, rubbing his face.
I’m an idiot.
It was always Naruto who did that to other people: jump in, pry into what was none of his business, and make them face their own demons. He did it for all his friends, when he thought they were running away from themselves. But no one had ever tried to do that for Naruto. Most of his bonds had been forged by chasing people down and worming his way into their lives.
No one had ever really tried to worm into his life, not like that.
Naruto squeezed his temples and sighed heavily. Why now, of all times?
I thought, after Sasuke came back, everything would be okay. Instead, things had just gotten a wholly different shade of worse. Naruto didn’t want to think about those things, or about Sasuke’s words and actions. He was running, and he knew it.
(Wasn’t that part of your plan, anyway? To revive your clan?)
(Don’t you even want to try and be happy?)
(Moron… even now… you get in the way of my dreams)
Thoughts and memories, shards of their conversations; they slipped over Naruto’s mind. He closed his eyes and found he could see Sasuke, sitting in his cell, half-crouched and burning with anger and pain. This new and different Sasuke who had finished his revenge, and got no peace out of it.
(You’re in love with him)
Naruto got up and walked to the pond. He splashed water onto his face and stared at his own reflection. Troubled blue eyes stared back up at him, mouth twisted down. It didn’t look like Naruto, not even to himself.
Am I in love with him?
And if he was, and even if Sasuke felt that way too--- which he obviously did, on some level - would it lead anywhere? Was it something that would make either of them happy? Would anything ever make Sasuke happy? Naruto had ranted at him over his fear of seeking something that made his life meaningful, but did he even know what he was talking about?
I didn’t look for him because I was in love. It wasn’t that kind of love. Is it really different now?
Sasuke wanted a family, he obviously did. Naruto wanted that too, but not for the same reasons. What Sasuke wanted, Naruto would never be able to give. Sasuke might be in love with him, but being with Naruto would never make him happy either. If Sasuke did that, he would be giving up on something he’d fought too hard to get.
What were the options? Sasuke finding a wife, and Naruto becoming a perpetual third wheel in that relationship? Sasuke choosing Naruto--- Would he? Was that even an option? --- And, finally---
What do I want?
Naruto cupped his hand and drank from the pond. The water was pleasantly cool. He flicked the moisture off his fingers and stood up.
If the choice were up to him, what would he choose? Gaara had growled at Naruto - Shouldn’t you be happy? – and there was a kernel of truth in his complaint. Naruto wasn’t sure of what he wanted, or of how he felt. Sasuke’s jumbled reactions had only confused him more, because he had simply never thought of Sasuke in that way until Sasuke had almost kissed him.
III. The One Less Traveled By
Gaara is fun to write, but awfully difficult. I think it's impossible for me not to make him slightly OOC, simply because it's very hard for me to picture Gaara romantically involved with anyone.
This Gaara was strongly inspired by maldoror_gw's and tonko's Gaara-centric fics. :) Kudos go to them for writing such involving stories.