Warnings: This is a YAOI FIC. Der. Possible lemon(s) in future. Also, contains spoilers for, well... >>;; almost everything? Especially post time-skip.
Disclaimer: Naruto is not mine, yadda yadda. The fic, however, is. No stealy!

/Chapter 2\
"I Want to Belong"

"This is BORING," Naruto complained from where he was leaning morosely against the windowsill. "Even the scenery is boring. Nothing but sand and brown buildings and a couple people all wrapped up from head to foot--"

"Put a lid on it, Naruto," Shikamaru mumbled from where he was napping on his bed. "Get some sleep. It's late."

"I already slept," Naruto retorted. He'd crashed for almost three hours after Temari had shown them their room, waking up to find a cold dinner and even colder bathwater awaiting him. Now it was nearly midnight, and he felt wide awake and restless. "I don't get why we're not allowed to leave the damn building and at least have a look around. Geez, look, there's lots of people still up. I wonder if they have a ramen shop that's still open this late..."

"We're in the desert, Naruto," Shikamaru sighed, eyes still stubbornly shut tight. "It makes sense that people would move around more at night when it's cooler. Now shut up, will you? We need to be up early tomorrow, and some of us didn't get a good nap earlier because of a certain monkey idiot snoring like a hog."

Naruto made a face at his reflection. "Huh. You're the one that snores. Why are they keepin' us locked up all night, anyway?"

"Go to sleep."

"I'm not tired." Naruto snatched up his coat, then put it back down again. It was cooler than it had been during the day, but still warmer than he was accustomed to.

Shikamaru cracked one eye open when his companion headed determiedly for the door. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"If I can't go outside, then I'm gonna look around inside," Naruto said firmly, tugging the door open. "It's a big building; there's gotta be something interesting to explore. Besides, if we're gonna be stuck in here watchin' Gaara's back or whatever, we should know the layout, right?"

Shikamaru hesitated, unable to find a solid argument for that. "Fine," he muttered, rolling onto his side. "Just stay out of sight, don't do or say anything stupid, and try not to offend all of Sunagakure while you're at it."

"Bite me," Naruto shot over his shoulder, closing the door quickly behind himself to cut off any response that might be forthcoming.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he glanced around the empty hall suspiciously. No one was in sight, however, so he shrugged off the feeling and began his exploration.

The bottom floor was mostly rooms for important guests. There was a kitchen, a bathroom, and not much else.

"Boooring," Naruto muttered under his breath, and took the stairs two at a time.

The first floor had been empty, but there were one or two people moving about upstairs, probably aids to the Kazekage. Naruto peered through the dim lighting for the ANBU that had been stationed outside Gaara's door earlier, and was a bit surprised to see he was gone.

"What the hell?" He padded down the hallway, feet scraping slightly against the sandstone. If everyone was so damned paranoid about their Kazekage's safety, shouldn't there be a doorguard twenty-four seven? He hesitated outside the door, but no ANBU appeared out of the shadows to challenge him. He knocked on the door loudly and waited, but there was no answer. A frown tugged at his mouth as he debated whether or not to enter. If Gaara was finally able to get some sleep nowadays, maybe Naruto shouldn't disturb him.

No, that was silly. Gaara wouldn't be asleep in his office, would he? Naruto wracked his brain, but couldn't remember if he'd seen another door in the office. He tried the knob, but it was locked.

Well, if Gaara was able to sleep, and his room was elsewhere in the building, that would explain the absence of the ANBU. He must be outside of Gaara's room. Naruto shrugged to himself and wandered around the rest of the floor, hoping to find something worth exploring.

A few sprawling meeting rooms and another bathroom. Nothing remotely interesting.

There was another flight of stairs, so he headed up them, wondering what they would keep on the third floor of such an important building.

He got two steps up, and felt eyes on him. Whipping around, he jumped in surprise on finding an ANBU standing just two steps below him. "Jeez!" he yelped. "Where the hell did you come from??" He squinted at the mask suspiciously. "Have you been tailin' me since I left the room?" When there was no response, he glanced over his shoulder towards the third floor. "Uh, anything I'm not supposed to see up there?"

After a moment, the ANBU finally spoke, voice inflectionless. "If you wish to go any further, you will need an ANBU escort."

"Uh... okay." Naruto hesitated, then turned around and continued up the stairs, trying to ignore his silent shadow.

All of the lights were off on the third floor, and he stopped on the landing, waiting for his eyes to adjust. The only source of illumination was from a window that was letting in the moonlight. He could barely make out a still figure further down the hall; another ANBU. There were only a couple of doors up here, but Naruto ignored them, heading towards the end of the hall.

The ANBU was standing in front of the last door, arms crossed loosely over his chest. His head lifted slightly at Naruto's approach, then lowered again; probably because of his escort.

Naruto looked from him to the door curiously. "This Gaara's room?"


"Is he asleep?"

The ANBU's head turned a bit towards his comrade, but before he could ask why Naruto had been allowed upstairs, the door opened, and he stepped aside. Gaara stood in the threshold, staring blankly at Naruto. He had removed his coat, but was still dressed.

"Sorry, man, didn't mean to wake ya," Naruto apologized with a quick grin. He waved an arm vaguely to indicate the building. "Jus' looking around, y'know, getting to know the place, see if there's anything interesting..."

"I wasn't asleep," Gaara said simply. He rubbed at his face briefly, and for a moment Naruto thought he looked almost tired. "Just because I can sleep now doesn't mean it's easy." He returned his unnerving stare to Naruto. "What do you want?"

"Nothin', nothin', I was just checkin' the place out," Naruto assured him. "I can't sleep either, I just wanted to look around... Hey, what's behind these other doors?"

The ANBU who had followed Naruto shifted slightly, but a glance from Gaara stilled him. "There is nothing... 'interesting' in this building," he said. "If you're bored, go explore the village."

"Huh? Temari said to stay inside tonight. She acted like it was some big deal. Practically threatened to whoop my ass with her damn fan if I put a toe outside."

Gaara continued to look at him steadily for a long moment, then abruptly turned and went back into his room, shutting the door behind him.

Naruto blinked, nonplussed, standing where he was for an awkward moment before turning away. He'd almost reached the stairs when the bedroom door opened and Gaara reappeared, this time wearing his coat. He strode over to Naruto and began descending the stairs, face still impassive as ever. Naruto grinned, taking it as an invitation, and hurried to catch up. He glanced over his shoulder once, but both ANBU had disappeared from sight, possibly out of the window to keep watch from the rooftop.

Naruto began talking about the harrowing trip from Leaf Village to the Land of the Wind, complaining about the heat, the rush, the arguments among the Genin, and how they could've made it to the village a day earlier if Hinata hadn't gotten heat exhaustion in the desert. Gaara made no response or indication that he was even listening as he led the way outside and onto the main street. He turned left, away from the buildings, and headed for the wall.

Naruto glanced over his shoulder longingly. "Hey, you guys wouldn't happen to have a ramen shop here, would ya? I didn't really get much of a chance to look for one last time I was here... Speaking of which, what's it like now bein' without a Tail?"

Gaara didn't so much as bat an eye at the abrupt subject change, turning at the gate and leading them on a slow walk of the perimeter. "Sometimes it doesn't feel any different than having one," he admitted slowly. "The only big difference is that now my chakra level is significantly lower-- about that of a Jounin. I guess I thought things would change-- that I would change --once Shukaku was gone. But all he seems to have taken with him is his power."

Naruto grinned. "Oh, man, I coulda told you that."

Gaara stopped and finally turned his head to stare at him intently. "Explain," he commanded shortly.

Naruto shrugged, knitting his fingers behind his head and using one foot to scratch idly at his calf where sand had somehow gotten into his clothes. "Hell, I didn't even know I had that damn Fox in me until I was twelve. But I was still a normal kid. Later I found out that I had nothing to do with him at all; I was just a cage. I mean, yeah, he can lend me his chakra sometimes, when I really need it, but other than that, it's like he's not even there. I think if I ever lost him, it wouldn't really change me much, except that I wouldn't be able to use his strength anymore if I ever really needed it."

Gaara was still staring at him piercingly. "Do you want to lose your Tail?"

Naruto wrinkled up his nose thoughtfully. "I dunno," he admitted finally. "A few years ago I would've given anything to get him outta me. I mean, hell, everyone treated me like I was the monster, even though I was the one keepin' the monster away from everyone else. But he's kinda useful. And I've got friends who know he's there, but know he isn't really part of me, yanno? I wouldn't go cryin' a river or nothin' if he was taken away, but I guess that would mean I'd really have to work my ass off to compensate for it fighting-wise..." he trailed off, squinting thoughtfully at Gaara. "Kinda like you're doin' now."

Gaara turned his eyes away, gazing off into the night. "Except I did let the monster out," he pointed out, a hint of steel to his voice. "You kept it inside like you were supposed to. Your friends realized they had nothing to fear from you."

"Hey, look," Naruto protested quickly, realizing he'd spoken without thinking. "You're different. You turned out the way you did cuz of the people around you; cuz of how they reacted to what was inside you." He hesitated, frowning down at his feet. "I coulda turned out the same way if I hadn't met Sakura-chan an' Iruka-sensei and-- Well, and all the others."

Gaara was silent for a long moment. His hand reached unconsciously for his shoulder, for the strap to a gourd that was no longer there. "There's still something... dark... inside. Sometimes I worry that they didn't get rid of him completely. But I know he's gone. Then all of this..." he paused, unsure quite how to explain it, "all of this anger still in me isn't him at all."

Naruto gnawed on his lip uncomfortably, realizing he'd just dug himself a deeper hole. "Uhh..."

"It's me," Gaara said quietly, still staring off into the distance. His expression was still blank, and there was no hint of sadness or even regret in his voice. "Shukaku wasn't the monster that everyone feared. I was." He abruptly began walking again, and Naruto had to jog to catch up. "That makes things more difficult," he noted dispassionately. "I assumed that the loss of Shukaku would eventually mean I would be as normal as Kankuro and the others."

"Look, dude, I didn't mean to, um..." Naruto cut himself off. He'd been about to apologize for hurting the other young man's feelings, but Gaara didn't look hurt, only vaguely contemplative. For a moment Naruto wondered if it was even possible to hurt Gaara's feelings anymore. He blew out a loud breath. "I am so not the right person for these kinda talks," he admitted. "I wish you coulda met Iruka-sensei. He really helped me when I found out about the Nine-Tails."

"No." Gaara turned his head slightly to regard Naruto. "You are the only one who understands this; unless you know of anyone else with a Tail, which is highly doubtful, since the Akutsuki reportedly have been collecting them. To my knowledge, I am the only one to have survived the extraction of a Tail. And that was because you were there."

Naruto decided to take that as a compliment. "You're welcome," he said with a grin.

Gaara looked forward once more, voice still matter-of-fact. "Though perhaps it would have been better if you had let me die. If the loss of Shukaku means I will still be the way I am, it's probably better for my siblings and this village--"

Naruto cut him off heatedly. "Shut up, will ya? Look, you really think I woulda bothered savin' your ass if I didn't think you deserved it? Besides, even when you did have the Tail, you tried to change. You almost got yourself killed by that freak Deidara just defendin' the village. That shoulda been proof enough that Shukaku has nothin' to do with who you really are. If you're really that determined to change, then just change already!"

Gaara flicked a hooded glance his way. "You speak as if this change is simple."

"No," Naruto hedged, "I'm not sayin' it is. It's gonna be hard as hell; but look how much progress you've made since the last time we fought! As long as you want to change, you can. Anybody can."

"Perhaps it is Uchiha you should be giving this inspiring speech to."

Naruto flinched violently at the mention of his former teammate. "I've tried to talk sense into that jerk," he muttered. "He isn't interested in listenin'. Even Sakura-chan couldn't talk sense into him."

"He is a lost cause," Gaara said in a monotone, following the curve of the wall towards the south side of the village. "Orochimaru has poisoned his mind and given him the lust for power; I can understand that desire to be stronger. You'll never reach him."

"He's not a lost cause, and I'm not givin' up on him," Naruto snapped angrily. "I didn't give up on your psychotic ass, so why the hell would I give up on Sasuke??"

Gaara came to such an abrupt halt that Naruto nearly ran into him. He turned to face Naruto, arms crossed over his chest. Naruto hesitated, eyeing him warily, wondering if he'd crossed the line. Kazekage, dumbass, he reminded himself with an internal wince. He's the Kazekage, now. But his pride and annoyance refused to let him apologize. He glared back mulishly when Gaara continued to stare unnervingly at him.

"Kankuro," Gaara said suddenly, "is of the opinion that your stubborness and your willingness to fight even for those that have hurt you stems from a well of stupidity that knows no depths. His words. Sometimes I think I am inclined to agree with him."

"Sticking up for your friends and trying to save people who are worth being saved isn't stupid," Naruto growled defensively. "An' he's a damned hypocrite, anyway. You bullied him your whole life, and he was still tryin' to crawl out of his sickbed to save you when the Akatsuki morons took off with you."

Gaara blinked.

Naruto's eyebrows lifted. "What, he didn't tell ya? Temari had to force him to stay in bed, even when he was dyin' of poison. All he wanted to do was find you. He made me promise to bring your ass back. He knew you could change; he wanted you to get the chance to show the village you could be a half-decent Kazekage. And hell, your whole village came to get you back, or don't you remember wakin' up and seein' 'em all there?"

"...These are these 'bonds' you spoke of," Gaara said slowly, with just the hint of an inquiry in his tone.

"Well... yeah." Naruto scratched at his scalp. "Once you've got people that actually give a damn about you, an' you'll fight to protect them..." he grinned again. "You were willing to die to protect your village before, and they saw that. You're already startin' to build relationships with people, man; you just don't seem to realize you're doin' it."

"These are not the same kind of bonds as you share with your teammates," Gaara pointed out. "Like this link between you and Uchiha." His mouth twitched into the shadow of a frown, and he cocked his head slightly, studying Naruto. "You are willing to help him, even though he has hurt you and does not want to be saved. You did the same for me before. Is this a similar bond?"

"Ummmm..." Naruto spread his arms helplessly. "It's a little different. Me 'n' Sasuke have been teammates for awhile, and..." he stopped himself, staring back at Gaara. Abruptly he smiled. "Yeah," he said firmly. "It is. Maybe it's a little different, and it's not as strong, but yeah. It's the start of a bond like that, if that's what you mean."

"That is the kind of bond I want," Gaara said slowly but firmly, as if still dissecting the concept in his mind. "If two people have a bond that means they will not give up on the other... or will die for the other... Then at least I will know that I belong here. And I will be more... 'normal'."

Naruto took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Gaara's way of looking at it was a bit odd, but Naruto understood him on some deeper, instinctive level. He had once wanted desperately to belong, to fit in-- to be 'normal'. Having friends, people he cared about, had made it so much easier just to get through life. Made him feel like he deserved to be alive, if only so he could protect his friends. "You'll get there," he said encouragingly. "Kankuro an' Temari could have those kinda bonds with you, if you'd let 'em. Hell, man, they're your family. They haven't given up on ya yet, have they?"

"...No," Gaara admitted quietly, eyes roaming restlessly. "They should have."

"But they didn't," Naruto repeated firmly. "An' neither did I, and there are plenty of people in this village that wanna give you another chance. All you gotta do is give us a chance. The whole world isn't out to get you, yanno." He smirked. "Even if it feels like it sometimes," he added dryly.

Gaara made a "hmph" noise under his breath and resumed his circuit of the village perimeter. Naruto lengthened his stride a bit until he was walking alongside the younger boy. "So anyway, you never answered my question before. Is there a ramen shop in this dump or what?"


"I thought I told you to stay inside until I came to get you."

Naruto sat on the edge of his bed, frozen in the act of pulling on his sandals as he stared blankly at the girl glaring at him from the doorway. Shikamaru was very carefully not looking at either of them as he shrugged on his Chuunin vest, obviously in no hurry to get caught in the middle of anything.

"Huh?" Naruto said intelligently, still a bit groggy.

Temari's eyes narrowed further, her voice hard. "Every nin on the walltop saw you taking a stroll last night-- with Gaara, apparently. From this information, I can only assume that you ignored my orders completely, woke my brother up from his much-needed rest, and somehow managed to weasel an impromptu tour of the village out of him." Her fingers were clenching and unclenching around her fan's handle. "For your sake, I hope there's a better explanation."

"Wha-- Hey, he was already awake!" Naruto protested indignantly. "He's the one who brought me outside! I even told 'im you wanted me to stay inside-- ask 'im yourself!"

Temari stared at him coldly for a long moment, then finally released her fan. It looked like it took a bit of effort to do so. "I asked you to stay indoors for a reason," she said slowly but firmly. "Everyone is jumpy enough as it is with the attacks. Until everyone knows what you look like and where and when to expect to see you, it's safer to just stick with us. Once everyone has become accustomed to your presence, there won't be any problem. You're lucky Gaara was with you; if you'd startled any of the guards on the wall, you could have gotten a shuriken in the back as a reward for your idiotic curiosity." She turned her glare Shikamaru's way. "Maybe if your roommate wasn't such an incompetent moron, he would have made sure you'd stayed put."

"Don't get your panties in a twist," Shikamaru muttered under his breath, too quietly for her to hear.

Temari arched a brow coolly. "What?"

"I said, how was I supposed to know the dope would go looking for the Kazekage? Anyway, after awhile you kind of expect Naruto to get himself into trouble. So are we gonna get any breakfast, or what?"

Temari gazed at him steadily for a long moment, then released her fan abruptly and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "You can eat in the kitchen area; after that, Kankuro will pick you up to show you around. Then you'll join your other teammates temporarily so that Yamato can brief you on your duties here." She shifted her gaze to Naruto, mouth tugging in a displeased frown. "But you are to go straight to the Kazekage's office after breakfast, so eat fast and don't keep him waiting."

"Huh?" Naruto hesitated in the act of securing his forehead protector. "What for?"

"Gaara's orders," Temari growled. "He was pretty specific about it. Don't ask stupid questions, just go stuff your face and get your ass upstairs. Perhaps if he's in a talkative mood he'll actually tell you why you're there. Now get your asses in gear."

"Why so cranky?" Shikamaru drawled, taking his time pulling on his sandals. "Wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?"

She slitted her eyes at him. "In Suna, we're up before the sun rises. That way we can get a few hours' rest in the afternoon, when it's hottest. So while you two were snoring away, the rest of the village has been up and about for the last three hours. I suggest the two of you reset your internal clocks." She was gone before Shikamaru could respond.

"That woman is going to drive me to violence before the week's through," Shikamaru muttered to himself.

Since his tone was at its usual uncaring best, Naruto wasn't quite sure whether or not to take him seriously.

Although, he conceded as they made their way to the building's kitchen, if there was one woman who could punch a hole through Shikamaru's infamous unflappable facade, it was the Kazekage's big sister.


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