Author's Note: Due to technical difficulties, this chapter may not load with the proper grammar. I also apologize for the false update's yesterday; the site only loaded half the chapter each time I tried, so I gave up and deleted it. I will attempt to fix this grammar problem when I'm less frustrated. Thank you for your understanding.
It took a week of careful surveillance of the Hyuuga household before Gaara felt ready to proceed with his plan. Through a combination of well-placed spying jutsus, and a couple brief forays into the complex, Gaara had learned as much as he could about the state of the Hyuuga security, the layout of the buildings, and the routines of the many family members.
As far as anyone in Konoha knew, Gaara and his siblings had returned to Suna a month ago, and hadn't been back since. Gaara knew Naruto would have let him stay at his apartment if Gaara had asked, but Gaara preferred that no one in Konoha knew he was there. It was not an easy endeavor, to remain undetected in the midst of a ninja village, but Gaara had come across an unused, slightly damp, storage cellar under a little shop, which became his base of operations.
During his weeklong surveillance, Gaara saw Neji only a couple of times. Neji spent most of the week in his room, coming out only on occasion for meals, not speaking to any of his family, even when they tried talking to him. Not that any of them made any more than token attempts at conversation; from their half-hearted efforts, it was clear that Neji had been like this for a while, possibly since Gaara left. Of all of Neji's family, only Hinata came to visit Neji in his room. Lee and TenTen came by once as well. Though Neji let them in, their concerned expressions when they left suggested that the visit hadn't been what they'd hoped.
It was hard, watching Neji from a distance, not even able to let Neji know he was there. It would only be a little bit longer, Gaara silently promised Neji.
Night fell. There was no moon, and the shadows were thick. Gaara approached the Hyuuga complex with the utmost care, a thin layer of sand cushioning each step to make them silent. From his observations, Gaara knew that that there were… gaps in the security of the complex. The sentries on the western wall ended their shifts shortly after midnight, and the replacement shift wouldn't get there for nearly an hour later. Leaving a brief span of time in which an intruder could get in, take a hostage, and slip out again.
It had seemed like an odd oversight to Gaara, practically an invitation. Hiashi's doing? Though Hiashi had been the one to suggest this plan, Gaara was not sure how much he trusted the Hyuuga. Gaara was not going to relax his guard just because Hiashi appeared to be helping him. If the other Hyuugas managed to catch Gaara in the act, Hiashi could just as easily claim to have no part in the plan, and let Gaara take the fall.
When the first sentry shift took their leave, Gaara slipped inside the complex. Gaara's investigations had revealed several hiding places to utilize, and crawlspaces in the ceilings that led to easy access to several of the rooms, which Gaara was quick to take advantage of. There were more security gaps within the complex, carefully timed windows of opportunity in which Gaara could proceed without being seen.
The room that was his goal was in the very midst of the main house. It took more time than Gaara liked to access it; he would have to hurry in subduing the hostage and getting them out before the next shift of sentries took their places on the wall. He slipped into the room at last, taking it all in at a glance; only one occupant, tucked into bed and apparently asleep.
Gaara had left the gourd behind, it being too bulky to fit through the many crawlspaces Gaara had gone through. But the sand had come with him all the same, flowing wave that gathered closely around him, making only the softest of sounds as it moved, hardly detectable. After his carefully crafted entrance, Gaara didn't expect to need the sand to fight, though it was handy to have if the unforeseen occurred. Its main purpose on this mission was for the capture and transport of the hostage. She may be just a little girl, but Hanabi was a Hyuuga, and well trained in the many skills of her clan. Taking her prisoner would likely be no easy feat.
The sand hissed forward toward the bed, almost touching the coverlet when Hanabi spoke. It was the barest of whispers, but the sand tensed all the same, preparing for a fight if need be.
"Lord Kazekage?" Hanabi whispered. She sat up slowly and looked at him. Her Hyuuga eyes caught what little light there was in the room, reflecting it back with eerie luminescence. "I was told to expect you."
"By your father?" The sand was shivering, tense and ready to attack if Hanabi were to raise an alarm. Gaara held it in check, watching Hanabi as carefully as she regarded him.
Hanabi nodded, her fingers plucking idly at her bedcovers. "You came to take me away, so the elders will be forced to give you Neji. And he would marry you, instead of me."
Gaara heard the question within the statement. "That was the plan, yes."
"Okay then." Hanabi pushed her covers away. She was already dressed in serviceable traveling garments, and had hidden a small satchel of necessities under the blankets as well. "Please wait a moment while I get my shoes on."
Gaara watched, feeling a little stunned, as the Hyuuga girl quickly and silently tugged her shoes on, standing and smoothing the wrinkles in her clothes. "All right then," she whispered. "I'm ready to go."
The sand swirled around her once before slithering to gather by Gaara's side, letting out the softest of rustlings. Gaara got the impression it was laughing. When he'd come here tonight, he had not been expecting a to find his hostage willing to be captured.
"Which way did you come in?" Hanabi asked.
"West wall," Gaara said.
Hanabi nodded, shouldering her pack. "That's good. I know a shortcut."
Gaara frowned at her, carefully considering the wisdom of trusting his intended hostage. She seemed genuinely eager to help, and if she intended to betray him, it would be easiest to do it here, while he was in the midst of her clan's compound. She had obviously known he was coming, and could have prepared an ambush if she so desired. That seemed not to be the case, and so Gaara finally conceded to let her lead the way. The sand carefully placed a scroll on Hanabi's pillow, and Gaara and his captive took their leave.
It was easier getting out of the building than it was to get in. Hanabi did indeed know a shorter route than Gaara had taken, and with her byakugan, she could spot and easily avoid any members of her family that happened to be up this late.
"You're just going to trust her?" Shukaku spoke up for the first time during this mission. "It would be so easy for her to lead you into a trap."
"If she were going to, she would have already," Gaara countered.
They were almost at the gate. Gaara paused when the sand hissed a warning, moments before Hanabi pointed to an indiscernible shadow hiding within a shadow.
"Father," Hanabi softly greeted, as the man stepped out of hiding.
The sand relaxed as Hiashi stepped out where they could see him, though Gaara was still on guard. As far as he could tell, it was only Hiashi out here, no sentries. And though Hiashi appeared unarmed, Gaara had been observing the Hyuuga household long enough to watch a few training sessions between the family members. None of those sessions included weaponry, but the techniques were no less deadly for lack of them.
"Ha," Shukaku scoffed. "Not so certain this wasn't a trap now, are you?"
"I'm still not used to trusting people."
Gaara watched Hiashi warily as the man approached. Hiashi's eyes gleamed with the same eerie luminescence as Hanabi's, and idly Gaara wondered if all the Hyuugas' eyes did that in the dark. The sand let Hiashi approach, but moved in front of Gaara and Hanabi protectively. Hiashi didn't attempt to pass it though, nor did he make any sort of move to attack.
"How nice to see you again, Lord Kazekage," Hiashi greeted, his voice low. "I assume my daughter will be kept safe while she is in your custody?"
"So long as she behaves," Gaara answered, just as quietly. He had no intention of hurting his hostage, of course. Unless it was necessary.
"Of course," Hiashi agreed. He smiled at Hanabi. "Be good while you're with Lord Kazekage, Hanabi. Don't get in his way, or pester his shinobi."
"I'll be a model prisoner," Hanabi assured him.
Hiashi nodded, then glanced over at the wall. "The sentries will be coming out here soon. I of course have seen nothing out of the ordinary tonight, but you'll want to hurry if you want the same to be said of them."
Though there was more that could be said, and certainly questions that Gaara wanted to ask, Hiashi was right; there was little time left. Gaara and Hanabi quickly took their leave of the complex, without even a glance back. The sand rushed along behind them, keeping guard in case they were followed. But no alarm was raised, and they encountered no one on the empty streets of Konoha. They stopped only once, at Gaara's cellar hideout to gather his gourd and small cache of supplies, before they were racing toward the village gates. Though Hanabi was younger than Gaara, she kept up remarkably well with his fast pace, and her skills at stealth were as admirable as one would expect from a Hyuuga.
They kept to deserted alleys and side streets until they reached the small side gate that exited out into the forest. The lone sentry nodded to Gaara and Hanabi as they raced past- the actual gate guard had been the first hostage the Suna army had captured, replaced with Kankuro's puppet to provide an access point for Gaara, and tomorrow, would allow Gaara's army into Konoha.
The forest was dark and welcoming, seemingly empty, even to Gaara's senses. The sand whispered with awareness, however; the Suna army was hidden all throughout this forest, and so far no one in Konoha had even noticed. It was hard to hide an army for long, however; luckily they only had to get through this final night. Tomorrow, there would be no more hiding.
A tiny hidden clearing served as a base camp, and Gaara didn't relax until he reached it. There was no camp fire, no light to give the camp away, but even in the darkness Gaara could pick out the slightly darker shadows of people. One such shadow stepped forward as Gaara entered the clearing.
"All went well?" Temari asked quietly. She looked from Gaara to the hostage, noting that Hanabi was not restrained in any way.
"We have our hostage," Gaara confirmed. "She came of her own free will."
"A pleasure to meet you," Hanabi greeted Temari. "I'll do whatever I can to help while I'm here."
Gaara couldn't see Temari's expression, but he expected she was smiling. "The best way you can help is to stay where we put you and keep quiet," Temari instructed. "If we're lucky, this will be over soon, and you'll be back with your family tomorrow. Go check in with the guards at the other end of the clearing; they'll look after you while you're here."
Hanabi picked her way across the clearing, her byakugan helping her to clear obstacles with ease, and spoke in hushed tones with the guards waiting there. Temari and Gaara watched after her for a moment, and when Temari was satisfied that all was as it should be, she turned her attention to her brother.
"I still can't believe we're doing this," she murmured. "Really Gaara, a war? Is this really necessary? This could completely destroy the peace between our villages. It's not too late to put the girl back and call this whole thing off."
"Did all units receive my instructions?"
"You're really set on this, aren't you?"
"I'm bringing Neji home with me," Gaara said. "They won't give him up willingly, so yes, this is necessary. Did all units receive my instructions?"
"Yes, Lord Kazekage, they all got your instructions. All units are set to storm the village as soon as you say the word." Temari blew out a soft sigh. "You know, when Kankuro and I suggested you get a girlfriend- or boyfriend, as the case may be- this is really not what we were expecting."
Gaara shrugged. "Return to Suna, if you don't want part in this. No one forced you to come."
"No one forced any of us to come," Temari said gently. "We all volunteered. After all, it wouldn't be much of a war if it were an army of one. We couldn't let our Kazekage take on all of Konoha by himself, now could we?"
"Get some rest," Gaara finally said after a moment of silence. "Tomorrow it begins."
Gaara decided it was lucky he didn't need to sleep, because the anticipation kept him tense and alert all night. He paced through the little base in the clearing, checked in with all the other hidden camps throughout the forest, and repeatedly returned to check on their hostage. Not that any of it was necessary; the base camp was secure, the army was prepared, and Hanabi slept peacefully through the night.
"Relax," Shukaku advised. "Tomorrow we kill people. It'll be fun."
"We're not killing anyone tomorrow," Gaara corrected. "Everyone here has had very strict instructions. All Konoha shinobi are to be taken hostage- no one is to die. With Hanabi and most of the village as our prisoners, the Hyuuga clan will have no choice but to give Neji over."
"You're so cute when you're stupid," Shukaku said. "The shinobi of Konoha will be fighting to kill. Your people will die if they don't do the same."
"My people will follow my orders," Gaara said. "No killing."
Shukaku huffed. "Ah well. All for the best, I suppose. If there's not going to be any bloodshed, I won't be so disappointed that I didn't get to participate."
"What are you talking about?" Gaara asked. "Tomorrow, I'll be letting you out to play."
Gaara's original plan had been to invade Konoha as soon as the sun came up. While this would have gotten the army in easier, and to their intended goal faster, there would be far fewer targets for the army to take hostage along the way. It would also give the Konoha forces more of a chance to surround and destroy the Suna army once they were inside of the village. So as eager as Gaara was to begin the war, the invasion was postponed until nearly noon.
There was more of a risk to wait; Hanabi's absence would have been noticed by now, along with the message Gaara had left, and it was possible the Hyuuga clan would send out shinobi to track down Gaara and his army. The instructions in Gaara's note were very specific, however; no one of the Hyuuga clan was to leave the Hyuuga complex, if they wanted to see Hanabi again. Gaara would come to make his ransom demands in person. Gaara didn't expect the Hyuuga's to completely obey his instructions, nor would it keep them from putting the rest of Konoha on guard. But they would be expecting Gaara to return to the scene of the crime. They would not be expecting him to bring an army.
Gaara spent that extra time sitting within a protective shell of sand, preparing. It had been a long while since he'd purposefully let out the demon. It was something of a time consuming process to do it right, especially if Gaara intended to maintain some form of control. Which he did. He had every move of this war choreographed, and Shukaku was going to play the role assigned to it, and nothing more.
It did not help that Shukaku was fidgeting like mad with anticipation, its excitement having the odd affect of making Gaara's head itch.
"If you're not going to settle down and behave, I can do this without you," Gaara said.
"You could, but you won't," Shukaku noted with glee. "C'mon, you can't blame me for being excited. You never let me do anything around here, and all of a sudden I'll be given free reign to maim and flatten and destroy anything I want. It's like Christmas!"
"It's hardly free reign," Gaara reminded him. "This is only going to be a half-transformation. To remind Konoha that I'm not- and never was- tame."
"Or entirely sane, for that matter." Shukaku sighed. "Do I at least get to break some stuff? Maybe bruise a few people? If you want them to fear the Kazekage and his big, bad demon, I ought to at least get to cause a little destruction here and there. Stomp on some flowers and spit on puppies."
"Well," Gaara allowed with a smile, "I suppose I can let you get away with a little mayhem."
He left Shukaku to its gleeful contemplation of all the things it would get to destroy, while he prepared for the transformation. He'd never really intentionally done a half-transformation before, and it was never really meant to be done only part-way. There would be a risk of Shukaku overwhelming him and forcing a complete transformation. But Shukaku had been just as adamant about Neji returning to Suna with them as Gaara was. Gaara expected Shukaku would deny it if asked, but Gaara was pretty sure the demon harbored some fondness for Neji. If Shukaku cooperated (and Gaara had to admit, it was a pretty big if), this might just be possible.
Outside the little shell of sand, Gaara could hear the preparations of his army. They were doing their best to be quiet of course; they were shinobi after all, and this was a war. But as skilled as they were, try as they might, it was simply impossible for so many people to move in complete silence through a forest.
It still surprised Gaara as to how many of Suna's shinobi came for this. They had all come; that is, all that could be spared from other missions, and the protection of the village. Anyone that possibly could, came. They came because their Kazekage asked it of them, and for Neji. Already they spoke of Neji as if he were one of them, a shinobi of Suna. They all viewed this as a rescue mission, to recover a comrade trapped in enemy territory. Not even Gaara's warning that there was to be no bloodshed dampened their spirits. Gaara had counted on their loyalty to him when he asked them to come, but he had not expected their enthusiasm.
"I think most of them just want to see the boy that has their ruthless and bloodthirsty Kazekage so utterly lovesick," Shukaku commented. "Still, Neji's going to get quite the welcome into Suna. If he still wants to come, that is."
"What are you talking about?" Gaara asked. He really shouldn't be letting the demon distract him while he was preparing a transformation, but Shukaku's words piqued him. "Why wouldn't Neji want to come anymore? He said he wanted to be with me."
"He did say that, but remember he wasn't really expecting to get the choice. He expected to marry Hanabi, and father litters of little white-eyed geniuses. Not be kidnapped by an invading Suna army and taken as the spoils of war. He might not look upon this whole damn mess so favorably."
"He said he loved me," Gaara said. "He said he would come with me, if he was given the choice."
"Oh Gaara," the demon said, as if it were addressing a small and particularly dense child. "Haven't you realized by now? People lie."
"What possible reason would Neji have for lying to me?"
"So he could have sex with you."
Gaara frowned. "Are you saying this because you hate me and want me to be miserable, or because you really think Neji would lie about loving me just so he could get sex?"
"Little of both, really."
"Ah. In that case, shut up and let me concentrate. Or I'm doing this war without you," Gaara said. "Neji loves me. He said so, and I believe him. Also, I think you're a cynical asshole."
"Gaara?" Temari's voice came soft and hesitant from the other side of the sand shell. "Everyone's in place, awaiting your signal. Are you okay in there?"
"Fine. How is our hostage doing?"
"Fine." Gaara could tell by her voice that Temari was smiling. "Last I checked, Hanabi was playing poker with her guards. The guards were in imminent danger of losing their shirts. Quite literally."
"…they do know that Hanabi possesses the Hyuuga byakugan, don't they? She can see right through their cards."
"Hmmm… I may have neglected to mention that, actually." Temari seemed to take great amusement from that, as well.
Gaara frowned but let it go; there were too many important things to think about now to waste time on wondering if the Hyuuga heir was cheating at cards. "Give me ten minutes. Then we'll begin." He heard Temari move off, and took a deep breath. He was as ready as he'd ever be.
"Alright, Shukaku," Gaara addressed the demon. "Make this look good."
"You got it," Shukaku agreed eagerly. "One half-mad rampaging demon, coming right up."
The sands too responded eagerly to the transformation jutsu. It had been a long while since he had done this, but he remembered the feeling well. The sand was smooth on his skin as it moved around him. People thought the transformation only covered his body, as it did with his shields. But to become the monster, the sand actually fused with him, becoming a part of his flesh, muscle and bone. It was a weird sensation, almost itchy at first, as his body was taken over by millions of tiny sand granules and made a part of it.
His left arm went first; he found it easier to start small, with a limb first, and adding the extra reach, bulk and strength to his arms before anything had served him well in the past. The tail came next; Gaara had to admit a tail came in useful now and again, and Shukaku was particular proud of his. The sand crept up his neck, over his face, forming a half-mask of Shukaku's snarling countenance. It was the transformation of the eye that was the most unpleasant, especially when Gaara was only half transformed. One eye would show the world as it was, while the eye transformed cast the world in blinding colors and sharp shadows. It was very disorienting.
The hard part was halting the transformation, willingly, half way. It left him a little off balance, one half of his body heavily weighted down with sand. After several minutes of intense concentration, the transformation held and stabilized. Gaara flexed his transformed arm experimentally, wiggling the long clawed fingers, satisfied that everything was working properly.
In a small flurry, the protective shell of sand fell away, and Gaara stepped out into the emerald-colored brightness of the forest. The commanders of his army all crouched at the ready before him, watching him with infinite patience.
"Go," Gaara growled, and they all leapt to obey his command.
The forest came alive with the sounds of movement, like a strong wind through the leaves, as the army mobilized. Gaara glimpsed them on his peripheral vision, streaks of color and movement that were shinobi running and leaping through the trees branches. Few of them passed Gaara as he stalked forward, however; he was leading this army, and he would be the first the enter Konoha and begin this invasion.
There were sentries and guards of Konoha scattered throughout the forest, around the perimeter of the village, but Gaara ignored them all. Any that stayed to face Suna's army were taken hostage, any that retreated to the village were let go. It didn't matter if Konoha had warning of the invading army. They would have no time to mobilize full-scale defenses.
Kankuro's puppet posing as the gate guard bowed politely when Gaara reached it, stepping aside politely to allow entry. Gaara paused on the threshold, listening as his army came up behind him, pausing as well for his command. If he'd changed his mind, now would be his last chance to turn back. He could end this now, return the hostage and retain the peace between the two villages.
But Neji was waiting for him, so it really wasn't much of a choice at all.
Gaara nodded once, entering Konoha at a run. Behind him, his army rushed through the gate, and began their sweep through the village. The sudden noise was deafening, as over a hundred shinobi yelled an enthusiastic battle cry. An answering cry rose up through the village; Konoha had a force of its own shinobi waiting for them. Gaara recognized a few of the jounin from his prior visits to the village, though saw none that would pose that much threat to his army. He suspected many of the better fighters were holding positions farther ahead in the village, in case the Suna army got past the outer defenses.
As expected, Konoha was not exactly unprepared for an attack, but they certainly hadn't been expecting this. Gaara had brought with him the best warriors his village had to offer, and faced with such an army, Konoha's first lines of defense crumbled. Gaara spared brief glances for the fighting as it broke out, satisfied that though the Suna shinobi were fighting to the best of their ability, none of them struck a killing blow. This oddly compassionate fighting was greatly confusing the Konoha forces. One by one, then more in groups, the shinobi of Konoha were taken hostage. Hostages had their hands bound and their weapons removed, then were passed back down the line of Suna shinobi, to the makeshift prisons they'd constructed within the forest.
Gaara ran on ahead, though the army was quick to catch up with him. The Konoha shinobi, though they stared at his misshapen, sand-constructed form, did not attempt to engage Gaara in battle. Several even stepped aside, probably instinctively, to let him run past. Shukaku was laughing at all of them, delighting in the fear in their eyes.
A thrown kunai embedded itself in the ground almost right at Gaara's feet. An intentional miss, Gaara guessed, more to get his attention than to do him injury, else the sands would have blocked it. Gaara halted his run, looking up at the weapon's source. Naruto leapt down from the rooftop, followed by Shikamaru. Naruto looked angry, and a little baffled.
"What are you doing?" Naruto demanded the instant his feet touched the ground. "What's with the whole Randomly Invade Konoha For No Good Reason bit?"
"Get out of the way, Naruto," Gaara commanded roughly. "This doesn't concern you." Naruto was a… friend, of sorts- at least, Gaara found him tolerable. The least he could do was spare Naruto the indignity of defeat and capture.
Naruto, however, seemed to have no intention of backing down. Gaara should have expected that. "You've brought an invading army into our village!" Naruto shouted. "Explain to me how that doesn't concern me!"
"We'll be out of here soon," Gaara said. "As soon as the Hyuuga clan gives me what I want."
Shikamaru blinked. "Is this about Neji?"
"They wouldn't let me have him," Gaara growled. "Neji said he loved me, but they wouldn't let him come with me. So I'm coming to take him. Every shinobi that gets in my way will be taken hostage, so they will have to give him to me."
"So…" Naruto frowned, clearly trying to comprehend all of this. "All this… you started a war… for Neji?"
"Yes," Gaara said. "So he can come with me. If he still wants to."
Naruto and Shikamaru glanced at each other, then they both held their hands up. "Okay," they said. "We surrender."
"Now this is my kind of war," Shikamaru remarked to Naruto as the two walked past Gaara and through the Suna army, which cleared a little path for them. "After they take us hostage, I think I'll take a nap."
"You'd do that even if this were a real war," Naruto said. "You go on ahead, I'll catch up." He waved to a few of his friends, who paused in their fighting to stare at him in bewilderment. "Oi, Sakura! C'mon, we're all gonna go hang out in the Suna prison camp! Bring everybody, we'll have a party!"
"Naruto?" Sakura shouldered her way past the shinobi. "What on earth is going on?"
"See, the Hyuuga clan won't let Gaara date Neji, so Gaara brought some friends and is going to… persuade them to change their minds. Shikamaru and I were gonna show them some support by letting them take us prisoner. You wanna come?"
Sakura brightened. "So that's what this war's for? Aww, that's so romantic… in a kind of creepy way. Yeah, hold on, I'll go get Ino. I think I saw her around here."
"Tell anybody else you see, too!" Naruto called. "See you there!"
And from there, word spread. As Gaara ran through the village, he saw that the fighting had tapered off, and the Suna army was moving forward unimpeded. Dozens of the Konoha shinobi went past in the other direction, leaving the city to join their friends as Suna's captives. Gaara recognized a few of them as they went past; Lee talking excitedly to Hinata and TenTen, waving as they passed Gaara, and Naruto's teacher, Kakashi, moving through the crowds easily, without glancing up from the book he was reading. The very best shinobi Konoha had to offer had elected not to get involved in the war, and were leaving the city in hands of the Suna army. Even those that chose not to join the hostages, seemed happy to stay at home.
"The whole city could be ours!" Shukaku said as they made their way toward the Hyuuga compound. "You can't honestly tell me we're not gonna take advantage of that."
"That's not what we're here for." Gaara said. "We're here for-"
The Hyuuga clan compound came into view, and it looked as though the entire clan were waiting for them. There were dozens of them, all watching the approaching army with solemn, pale eyes. Hiashi and the clan elders stood front and center, and while the elders all held the same expression of arrogance and anger, Hiashi was almost perfectly expressionless. Gaara thought he caught the tiniest hint of a smile, though.
The army slowed its approach as Gaara did. Though none of the Hyuugas held weapons, the Suna shinobi did not put theirs away. None of the Konoha clan moved as Gaara and his army came forward. The sand that formed Gaara's transformed arm rippled slowly, its gentle rush almost audible in the now tense silence.
"You've taken Hanabi, my daughter and heir to this clan," Hiashi spoke first. "You've taken most of this village as your hostages as well. You've brought an army to our doorstep. What is it you want, Lord Kazekage?"
"You know what I want." Gaara's voice was a growl, but heard by all. "The only one I want. If you give him to me, unharmed, and swear on the honor of this clan not to cause him any harm, even with the curse seal he is bound with, then I will return your heir and all the other hostages. My army and I will return to Suna, and there can be a continuing peace between our villages."
"It is regrettable that it came to this in the first place," Hiashi said. "But the Hyuuga clan will accept your terms. Neji Hyuuga will be exchanged for Hanabi Hyuuga, and all the other captives you have taken."
The crowd of Hyuugas parted, allowing Neji to step forward. Neji was dressed in simple traveling clothes, and he had a travel bag slung over one shoulder. He stood beside his uncle, silently regarding the invading army that had come to take him away.
He didn't look happy to see Gaara, though he didn't look unhappy for that matter. He said nothing, and Gaara was starting to get very unsettling feelings about this. Maybe a war had been the wrong way to go about this, even if no one had gotten hurt. Maybe Shukaku had been right after all, and Neji didn't want to come with Gaara.
"Oh come on," Shukaku said. "You never believe anything I say. Why start now?"
Gaara reached out to Neji, silently inviting him, urging him forward. Neji continued to regard him with the same unreadable, captivating gaze that had so intrigued Gaara from the beginning. Then Neji smiled, settling his travel bag down and stepped forward into Gaara's embrace. For several long moments, Neji just let Gaara hold him, before he returned the embrace. The sand shifted, fluttering gentle touches against Neji's skin, before the transformation jutsu was ended, and the sand swirled back into the gourd.
"I knew you'd come back," Neji murmured, soft enough that only Gaara could hear. "I just didn't expect… all this. Really, Gaara, a war?"
"Are you angry?"
"I think I'm flattered."
Neji pulled back from Gaara, untying his Konoha headband and letting it drop to the ground. Gaara handed Neji a Suna headband, and Neji turned to face his family, giving them all a glimpse of the red kanji overlaid on the curse seal, before tying his new headband on. Most of the Hyuuga clan wore carefully guarded expressions, though a few of Neji's relatives had a hard time hiding their anger.
And their humiliation, Gaara guessed. The pride of the Hyuuga clan would be badly bruised after this. Not only had Gaara and his army managed to kidnap the Hyuuga heir and invade the village, but most of Konoha had taken Gaara's side, supporting the Suna invaders rather than one of Konoha's clan families. While Gaara was reasonably sure that the Hyuuga clan would not retaliate physically against Suna or against Neji, it was likely that Neji would be disowned, and shunned by his former clan. Neji would bear the exile with quiet dignity, but Gaara didn't ever want Neji to start resenting him for causing it. A little damage control was needed here.
"Damage control in the form of some heavy flattery," Shukaku said. "That always works."
"How would you know?" Gaara asked. "You couldn't compliment someone if your life depended on it. You're far more prone to insult."
"Well, I wouldn't waste flattery on you," the demon said. "Though I could probably spare some for Neji, if the situation warranted it."
"If it pleases the honorable Hyuuga Clan of Konoha," Gaara calmly addressed Neji's family, "I would like to again propose an alliance. The Hyuuga Clan is well known for its many skills and talents, and in my observations I have been impressed with those abilities. I would like to suggest that a third branch of the Hyuuga Clan be formed in Suna, with Neji as its head. If that is agreeable to your clan elders, I would also like to take the name of Hyuuga, myself."
Gaara could sense Neji watching him with something like astonishment at this statement, but Gaara carefully kept his gaze fixed on the Hyuuga clan. Hiashi was smiling, as if he had been expecting this all along. Much of the rest of the class looked a little startled as well, and many of them talked in hushed murmurs amongst themselves, nodding agreement.
Hiashi looked to the other elders, none of which voiced any objections. Taking that as agreement, Hiashi nodded decisively and spoke. "Your proposal is agreeable. It is my pleasure to welcome you into our clan, Gaara Hyuuga."
The "hostages" were soon returned to the village, as Gaara had promised. Hanabi returned home, looking quite pleased with herself, and toting a pack stuffed with her winnings from her poker game with the Suna guards. Most of the returned shinobi crowded around Gaara and Neji, asking questions, offering congratulations, and demanding to know when the wedding was and if they were invited.
"Man, you and Gaara," Naruto said, clapping Neji on the back and earning a reproachful frown from the Hyuuga. "Couple months ago, I never would have believed it. I always kind of figured you two to be the sort that would die alone, you know?"
"How very encouraging," Neji said.
Naruto laughed. "I didn't mean it the way it sounds."
"I can't believe you're really moving to Suna," TenTen told Neji. "I mean, I can believe it, but… I'm really going to miss you. The team won't be the same without you." She smiled warmly at Gaara. "I really am happy for you and Neji. I'm glad you didn't take my advice after all. And if you ever hurt him, I promise I'll hunt you down and maim you."
"Ha! I'd like to see you try, girlie!" Shukaku said.
Gaara ignored the demon, and just nodded his acceptance of TenTen's well-meant warning. Neji and Gaara moved through the crowds slowly, Neji saying goodbyes to the people he knew, while Gaara mostly stood silent and watched. Plenty of people talked to Gaara and congratulated him, and while he tried to gracefully accept their sentiments, he was starting to get tired of the onslaught. The war was over and Neji was his, and now all Gaara wanted was to find somewhere private where they could be alone.
Twenty minutes into a teary-eyed farewell with Gai and Lee (Gai and Lee were teary-eyed; Neji was stoically enduring the impassioned speeches with the poise of one well-practiced in that sort of thing), Gaara declared it was time to go.
They stopped briefly once more at the Hyuuga complex, where Temari and Kankuro were working out the details of this little alliance Gaara had proposed. Gaara artfully ignored their thinly veiled suggestions that he stay and help finish up the treaty. He told his siblings that when they were done there, they could take the army and go on ahead; he and Neji would catch up.
Gaara and Neji deftly avoided the crowds, running through alleys and back streets on the way out of the village. The training grounds were all deserted, with most of the shinobi in the village having their impromptu celebrations. Still, neither of them relaxed completely until they were enveloped by the chilled shadows of the Forest of Death.
The sand spilled from the gourd with a happy sigh, collecting around them in a protective nest as they settled down at the base of a large tree. Neji ran his palm over the sand like he was petting a cat, and the sands shivered and purred under his touch.
"So… Gaara Hyuuga," Neji said musingly, testing out Gaara's new name. "I like the sound of that."
"I didn't mean to be presumptuous, suggesting that," Gaara said softly. Part of him, the part of himself that was so used to disappointment by now, still expected this to go wrong. Expected Neji to be angry, about the war, about being demanded as ransom for the return of Hanabi and the hostages, about being all but contracted into an arranged marriage with Gaara. Gaara knew he wouldn't be able to bear it if Neji hated him now.
"You're worrying too much," Neji proclaimed. "Really, it's a little late for second thoughts now."
"Too late for me, or for you?"
"I don't need to have second thoughts," Neji said. "A month ago you asked if I would come back with you to Suna, given the choice. I said that I would, and I meant it. Being with you is my choice, not something I was forced into, by you or anyone else." Neji leaned back against the sand's cushioning. "You don't have to believe it now. Since I am coming to Suna, I will have plenty of time to convince you. I can be patient."
Gaara considered that as he curled up against Neji, idly tugging out the tie that bound Neji's hair, running his fingers through the soft strands. Neji smiled at that, letting his fingertips trail up Gaara's arm, with a light tingle of chakra exciting the nerves. Gaara remembered the last time he and Neji were in this forest, and the other very interesting ways Neji knew how to use his chakra. There would be time enough for worries and insecurities later. For now, the war was won, and Gaara had his prize. He planned to enjoy it.
"I believe you," Gaara said, brushing a soft kiss over Neji's lips. "I love you. I'm just… not used to trusting people. This is new to me."
"We'll work on it," Neji promised, smiling.
"Later," Gaara said. "For now, I want… I want you to make me feel alive. Like last time. Will you?"
"I'll make you feel alive," Neji said, "if you'll do the same for me."
Shukaku settled back in its confinement, trying very hard not to call attention to itself. The last thing it wanted was to distract either boy from their delicious reunion. It was going to be a very long trip back to Suna, it reflected. But, depending on how much time alone the two got, an interesting one. It was a good day to be a demon.
Even if he hadn't gotten to kill anyone.