konpeitou: Posting early before completion to enter thatreevesgirl's/Lemon Drops' GaaNaru fanfic contest.

I adore Gaara and started this as a gift for my friend doragon (as is my usual reason for writing GaaNaru), but along the way it became a more Gaara-centric story than originally planned, so I just went with it and explored the character more while continuing with the original plot idea. I hope you enjoy o.o

A heavy, silent air filled the dim room with a mild discomfort that bordered on stuffy. Four figures, three standing while one sat, were bathed in a reddish glow from the setting sun directly outside the large oval windows. A simple rectangle desk separated the two parties, the elbows of the seated one resting on the smooth top, fingers laced casually together. The face was buried in shadow, back to the sun as it was, as it rested lightly against the arched hands and eyes closed to the room. Spikes of short hair seemed to flame in a halo in the dying light. The other three men, jounin all, shifted their weight in the lengthy silence.

"Kazekage-same, are you really sure this is wise?" one asked finally, shattering the silence into bits of dust to flutter slowly into nothing. Pale green eyes opened slowly over the lacework fingers to fix on the speaker for a long moment. A series of slow breaths filled the chamber that felt empty, though it wasn't.

"You know as well as anyone that this is necessary, Baki." Gaara slid his eyes closed again, a deceptively peaceful expression on his shadowed face. "What does it matter now anyway? Every village is already too committed to pull out now. Our shinobi were sent out a week ago, their replacements are already arriving. It's too late for doubts." A dim eye cracked open a slit to appraise the trio before him, but none spoke out again. He sighed. "Just leave the reports, I'll get to them myself. Dismissed."

The three jounin nodded curtly and turned for the door. At the last second the shortest and youngest paused, twisted enough to look over his shoulder at the Kazekage hesitantly. Neither moved for a long moment as the final light dipped past the dunes on the horizon. The shinobi opened his mouth as though to speak but closed it again without a word, shaking his head and closing the door behind him as he exited. Gaara did not acknowledge either his brother's hesitance or his departure.

Several more minutes passed before the redheaded leader of Sunagakure sighed imperceptibly and straightened in his seat. Soft hands unlaced themselves and settled on the desktop, slowly warming the cool material with his own body heat as the light green eyes stared sightlessly at the dark sandstone ceiling. What have we gotten ourselves into? Gaara wondered for what seemed like the millionth time since this featherbrained scheme was first proposed. This is either going to go very well, or very badly for all of us. The white and green robes of office shuffled quietly in the empty room as Gaara settled himself into a more relaxed position in his chair with his eyes closed to just think back on recent events.

The previous year had been hectic for all the hidden villages, except perhaps Otogakure for obvious reasons; they were too busy licking their wounds and now doubt plotting more assaults while recovering. Nearly two years had passed since the village's decimation, slightly longer since the supposed "destruction" of the Akatsuki that started the whole mess. Everyone knew that the Akatsuki wasn't really gone, that many of its elite members escaped to fight another day, but after a couple years of relative safety from both enemies the general paranoia was beginning to die down. The rest of the mess, however, was not so easy to get over.

The problem with having defeated the Akatsuki was that the elite organization had been kidnapping then murdering to obtain demons for a long time beforehand, one of such unfortunate victims had been Gaara himself. They had accumulated quite a collection, yet for some reason not all had been implanted into their members and instead were still imprisoned in the horrific containment mechanism that was used to take them in the first place. The Kazekage shivered reflexively from the unpleasant memory, even four years after the event. It had been one of the few times he had ever felt such pain. Or such fear.

Since some demons were still contained for whatever reason, the victorious shinobi found themselves in possession of them within the artifact. The problem with that had been that no single village had taken down the organization and instead a collection of allies had made the final attack that snapped their defenses, thus no single village or their country had claim to the demons. The resulting arguments over THAT had almost started a catastrophic war between nations. Things only got worse when people realized the depth of the Akatsuki's power-hungry greed. The organization had been very thorough in their research, because not only did they create the monstrous contraption to steal and house the demon spirits, they somehow made a link for them to be snapped back into the prison in the event of their host's death. Every shinobi village had been awed and downright baffled by the mechanism, but ultimately they ended up with most of the stolen spirits back in their position, save those still in the Akatsuki that had escaped the assault and following months of hunter-nin teams chasing the leftovers.

The prevalent opinion that the demons were powerful weapons reared its ugly head and the countries, through pressuring their villages, nearly tore each other apart trying to get their hands on the spirits for themselves. It had seemed like only the fact that three of the five Kage's fighting indignantly against their plans was all that kept war from actually breaking out. Gaara's own power was undermined by his history as a jinchuuriki but the support of both the Hokage and Raikage helped firm a base against their own lords as well as the other countries. It had been a very tense and grueling seven months of verbal warfare. It was the lady Hokage herself who finally proposed the brave plan to distribute them back to their original villages. The suggestion caused another uproar of its own as countries greedily tried to lay claim to more demons than they had originally possessed. Others didn't want theirs back in the first place, but none wanted others to take control of them either. It was really a headache of epic proportions for all those involved.

After another half-year or so of political bickering, and after over a year of seal specialists studying the soul sucking monstrosity, the demons were finally given back to their previous hosts villages. As head of the leading force of shinobi that had taken down the organization as well as a fuin specialist herself, the Hokage enforced her right to oversee the demon transfers. After all, she said, her village led the attack, took the brunt of the casualties, and it was her damn idea. The Kazekage and Raikage had backed her. The problem, though, with having a demon container the size of a building was that it made transportation rather difficult. They needed to be moved into new vessels, first.

Gaara shivered again, right hand subconsciously coming up to trace the scar on his forehead before slipping down to rest on the folds of cloth over his heart. The matter of new vessels for the demons had been something the Kazekage had not been comfortable with. He alone, of all the leaders involved, had a unique perspective on the matter. The Hokage and Raikage were sympathetic, as leaders that actually cared for and respected their jinchuuriki, but they couldn't fathom the nightmare that being such a vessel was for a young soul. Memories of his own lonely life urged him to balk at the suggestion. He wished his past on no one.

It couldn't be helped, the researchers had said. They didn't know how to keep up the wards on the containment, nor did they know how to destroy it. If they didn't remove the demons then they'd eventually break free to rampage again. Each had their memories of fighting against a demon but the thought of so many at once, bloodthirsty and likely screaming for vengeance after imprisonment, was not a pleasant thought. Yet again, innocents had to be sacrificed for the greater good and Gaara had been nauseas at the thought. He never wanted to subject someone to his own personal hell, yet as a leader he couldn't just let the demon run roughshod over his village and country. So he did the only thing he could do: Gaara volunteered himself to once again become the jinchuuriki for the Ichibi, Shukaku. He'd endured the whiny bastard for fifteen years, after all, who better to handle him? At least in that way, he consoled his protestors, he could save at least one innocent child. In Kumogakure the sister of the previous host volunteered to take in the Nibi, Nekomata. After such a display as others viewed as martyrdom for their countries, the other villages were subtly pressured to find fitting, and preferably willing, hosts for their own spirits, as well as to treat those brave souls with the respect they deserved.

It didn't work out exactly as hoped, but no one truly expected perfection. They did their best for the newest generation and prayed that they would lead happier lives. Fortunately many of the new vessels turned out to be old enough to actually understand what was happening to them, so they were spared a painful childhood of not knowing why everyone hated them. Gaara sincerely wished them the best.

Unfortunately, the whole fiasco was like handing explosives to children. Every country was suddenly suspicious of their neighbors for having regained their demons. No matter that they'd all had them before, now it was common knowledge and most of the new hosts were trained fighters. Everyone had a shiny new not-so-secret weapon and was watching nervously for someone else to make the first move. It was all quite frustrating.

With a sigh Gaara straightened himself in his seat and reached for the neglected reports on his desk while absently turning on a desk lamp in the now-dark office. The answer to all the paranoia had been offered up in the form of a shinobi exchange program: each village would, for a period of several months, send seven of their own shinobi to each foreign ninja village in exchange for one of their own. That had been another painful set of months arguing. He skimmed the files as he flipped through them, having already expected or been verbally told of the updates. In the end – after much grumbling, bickering, and sorting of minor details – the eight hidden villages had acquiesced to the proposal and a mere week ago had begun sending out their shinobi in trade. Sunagakure had received a medic-nin from Amegakure first – their jutsu were mostly useless and weak in this desert country, they logically claimed, so a medic-nin was sent and Gaara had sent a medic-nin to them in return. Shortly after a jounin arrived from Kusagakure. A day and a half later, this very afternoon in fact, found a hunter-nin from Iwagakure crossing into Suna territory to replace the one likewise sent to them by agreement. So far so good, the Kazekage thought absently, everything's going according to plan.

He closed the most recent files and placed them on the side of his desk atop the previous ones about the matter that were currently waiting for his attention. There were still four more shinobi expected to arrive; the representatives from Konohagakure and Takigakure were expected to arrive sometime the next day, given average travel rates, while the two from Kumogakure and Kirigakure would naturally take longer as they had the farthest distance to cover – several countries each, in fact. I really hope none of them are stupid enough to get killed on the way. Diplomatic incidents due to stupidity are not something I need right now – hell, none of us need that right now.

The nineteen year-old redhead decided to put off dealing with the file full of dutifully noted concerns. Frankly, the council had capitulated to this scheme and until something happened to validate the concerns over the foreigners then Gaara simply didn't care what people thought. The whole point was to build trust and get over the paranoia, not propagate it with incessant questions of 'are you sure we can trust them?'. Turning off the small desk lamp and actually taking a moment to lock the door – his guards were always complaining that he didn't lock up his office – the young leader led himself through the near-empty halls out of the large building and out into the darkened streets. He had a set of private quarters within the administrative building but he also still technically lived with his siblings in the village. It wasn't far away, not surprising since it had been their father's house before them and he had been the Kazekage predecessor before his… untimely death.

A few vendors were still closing up their shops as he strolled through the streets, most offering him small smiles and a bow of the head as he passed. A couple even went so far as to wave. Even after having been Kazekage for roughly five years Gaara still felt a bit awkward to be on the receiving end of any sort of friendliness. The three years he had spent without his demon had helped to calm the general fears, served as proof that he was not and never really had been his demon. It had been a weak and tentative sort of acceptance, but it was enough to hold them through the fear when he got the Ichibi re-implanted and finally realize that he didn't change – he merely got a power boost. So he inclined his own head and offered tentative smiles at the villagers as he passed, fighting his own awkwardness for the sake of their comfort and loyalty. Even for the ones who were still hesitant and scared of him.

"Good evening, Kazekage-sama," one shopkeeper called, a younger girl who quickly wiped her hands on her apron before waving genially. Gaara paused in his steps, confused by the warm beckoning of the teen but curious enough to heed the call and step towards the closing shop. The petite blonde looked to be only twelve or thirteen at best, looking up to him with a broad smile. "You're out late tonight. You must be busy lately, what with these new ninja coming in, huh?"

"Something like that," he murmured back slowly with a faint curl to his lips.

"Must be tough… Hey, could you wait here just a sec?" she asked suddenly, then bit her lip and shifted her weight unsurely, "I mean, I didn't mean to step out of place or be rude or anything but there's something I wanted to give you inside and so I was hoping you'd just–" she snapped her mouth shut abruptly when he raised his hand to forestall her rambling.

"I'll wait." Gaara assured her. She shuffled quickly back into the store and the taller redhead waited patiently, amused by her nervousness around him – not because she was afraid of him, for once, but the simple and ordinary reaction of the young around someone older and more powerful. A mere six years at least separated them, not much when you think about it, but enough that the girl was apparently unaffected by his violent and bloody past. It wasn't until she came back bearing a folded box that he realized the shop was a bakery.

"They're still fresh!" she squeaked hesitantly as she held the box out to the taller man. "We always make a last batch in the evening for late comers and the like." Gaara blinked owlishly, completely flabbergasted and touched by the gesture. The child blushed and looked away, shaking the redhead out of his momentary daze enough to take the offering. "I thought you could use a snack since you were working so late. There's some meat buns as well as a few sweets in there." She trailed off, scuffling her foot.

"Thank you." Gaara replied, smiling just a bit more at the pleased expression she turned on him.

"Sweetie, are you done locking up out there yet?" an older woman's voice called from within the shop before either figure could speak more. The girl squeaked in surprise.

"Almost 'kaa-san!" she called over her shoulder before facing the Kazekage again with a deep bow. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you Kazekage-sama. I have to go now, I hope you enjoy the pastries. Good night!"

"Good night…" he replied, but she was already scurrying back inside the shop to finish her chores. He waited a moment longer before continuing on his way back home.

It didn't take long, just a few blocks walked in pleasant silence, before he came upon the modest sandstone house of his family. Through sheer laziness he opened the door with his sand and closed it behind him with the same method; he got a perverse sort of pleasure out of shutting it loud enough to startle his dozing brother awake from the couch.

"Hey Gaara, you're back." Kankurou muttered the obvious as he rubbed his face – already washed free of its habitual kabuki paint – and levered himself into a sitting position. "Hey, is that food?" The younger sibling didn't bother to respond as he walked past the couch towards the kitchen to set the box down on the table so that he could get some iced-tea out of the refrigerator. By the time he turned around Kankurou was already sitting down and tallying up the contents. The redhead simply sat himself in another chair and pulled the box over, pulling out one of the meat buns like the two his brother had already claimed.

Beef, he noted at first bite, chewing the bit slowly as opposed to the puppeteer decimating them across the table, it tastes good.

"Say, Gaara…" Kankurou began as he ate the second roll at a more sedate pace, "I know the negotiations for this have been going on a long time and at this point we can't really pull out now without seeming suspicious, but was it really wise to be putting all these foreign shinobi in positions of power? Some of the trades are positions of high rank and security."

"It was necessary." Gaara said simply. He knew the concerns, very well in fact. It wasn't exactly a secret that most of his shinobi and even most of the council that had agreed to the proposal in the first place were wary of the amount of freedom being given to the foreigners. The medic-nin and hunter-nin weren't really a problem as far as they saw it – they worked with their own divisions and for the most part were trained with a universal code; medics healed and hunters hunted, borders didn't mean much to their kind. It was the jounins and other high-ranked shinobi that they worried over. Those would be receiving orders directly from the Kazekage himself and performing the same missions as any other Suna-nin. Ninja were trained to be suspicious and guarded so it made sense that the people feared sabotage or assassination, but logical or not Gaara was honestly tired of all the second-guessing. "Stop being paranoid," he muttered finally, reaching for another meat bun while his brother was already beginning on the dessert pastries, "Mass paranoia is the reason for this exchange in the first place, being paranoid about everyone is rather counter-productive. No one has managed to assassinate me yet," he slapped the other man's wrist lightly with a tendril of sand, both to for emphasis and to deter him from being gluttonous with the treats, "I don't think they're going to manage it now. I am also keeping an eye on them. I am not stupid, after all, so would you please stop questioning my judgment?"

"All right all right, you win," the elder conceded, reaching in to grab one last confection from the box as he stood. "Just… take care of yourself." He didn't wait for a reply as he walked out of the kitchen towards his room. Gaara didn't watch him go.

The really irritating thing is, he thought to himself in the silence, that I know they're right and have to convince them that they're wrong anyway. All it takes is one idiot or someone with a grudge to blow this all to hell. Not pleasant thoughts, but ones he much think anyway as a leader. He had been careful when he chose his own shinobi to be sent to the other villages, so he wasn't really too worried about one of them causing an incident, and he suspected the Hokage and Raikage were likewise as careful given their common opinions and struggles throughout the debates. It was the others he had to be wary of, and as much as he could watch the ninjas now under his command Gaara knew that there were seven other villages which faced the same dangers. With a nearly imperceptible sigh he reached for the neglected box to get one of the dessert pastries, only to find a single piece remaining and spared a moment of annoyance for his sibling. It wasn't that he was particularly fond of sweets so a little was more than enough, it was the principle of the thing. Greedy bastard.

The pastry was some sort of berry creampuff; sweet but not overly sugared. He nibbled on the treat slowly as he made his way to his own room, thoughts circling back in an endless cycle over the shinobi exchange. This time, it was with an air of anticipation that his mind thought of the coming warriors. Two more were expected to arrive sometime the next day, one of which a long-standing ally. The redhead finished off the sweet and absently brushed off any crumbs before changing and climbing into bed with a slight smirk. The morrow was likely to be very… interesting.

The Kazekage was in his office before any of the aides thought to check for him there, several hours before normal work time. He hadn't slept well; not a particularly rare occurrence admittedly, but he'd given up pretense early and come in to finish reviewing and signing reports. To hell with the Akatsuki, the true nemesis to a Kage was paperwork. By the time an aide came looking he had already finished up the neglected files from the day before and set them aside for the older chuunin to take away and file. Unfortunately, the number of files the man took away was less than the amount of fresh ones he left on the desk afterwards.

Never-ending paperwork from hell.

How was it possible for so much to accumulate overnight? Do I really have to approve every little acquisition my people make? Medics don't need me telling them when they need gauze and the botanists don't need me telling them how much care to give to the plants that they're growing for us all. Of course, he could just mindlessly stamp his approval on the requisition reports, but in early years he had found other things hidden amidst the files. Bureaucrats. Tedious as it was, and despite that it hadn't happened in the last few years, Gaara knew he had to actually pay attention to the damn things. He managed to put a hefty dent in the new pile by the time another aide came in three hours later and stifled a surge of annoyance at the prospect of more files when he saw who had entered.

"Good afternoon Kazekage-sama," the chuunin girl greeted with a smile. The redhead set the pen and folder aside and returned the smile with a small one of his own. "I thought you might like some tea." She raised the tray in her hands to show the kettle, cups and canister of leaves resting atop it as she made her way towards the desk.

"Ah, thank you Matsuri." Gaara murmured, relaxing back in his chair and watching the girl measure out leaves and prepare the tea. Matsuri wasn't very tall, a few inches shorter than his own rather diminutive height, auburn hair was pulled into a loose braid that draped over her right shoulder and the standard uniform beneath her chuunin vest was modified to be more open and feminine, sporting bared arms and a skirt over the standard mesh armor. A worn yellow bandana was tied loosely around her neck. Though not much younger than the Kazekage himself, she had yet to pass the rank of chuunin and so worked as his assistant – a post she had requested, and though Gaara didn't know why he was pleased by the fact; he knew to appreciate such gestures.

"Here you go." Matsuri's voice followed the steaming cup of tea she carefully placed before him, followed by a small plate with a few cookies on it, a nice contrast to the tea but not overly sweet. He took a cautious sip of the steaming liquid as she poured herself a serving in the other cup. Over the past year it had become common that she would join him for tea if he were not otherwise occupied. Dark eyes studied him over the ceramic rim as she took a slow sip. "So, how are you, Gaara-sensei?"

A barest twitch of the lips belied his amusement of the old title. She had not been his pupil long, nor was there much of an age discrepancy, but still she seemed to like to use the title as a familiar address. Rather than answer directly, he took another sip and idly turned a cookie in his fingers while he thought. How was he, hm? He was getting cornered daily by worries about the exchange, his subordinates and even council were wary and suspicious, he was repeating the same reassurances so often he was tempted to just make a recording to play, and he was getting buried under a mountain of paperwork every day. Gaara smirked and summed it in one statement. "I wish I still didn't have a conscience."

The younger girl blinked in confusion a moment before chuckling, catching the jest for the attempt at humor that it was even if she didn't quite understand the implication. Just as well, it probably wouldn't do to be telling his own people that he almost missed the days when he'd just as soon kill everyone for the frustration they were causing. Matsuri was old enough to have known the rumors but just far enough removed to have not experienced fear of him personally. "That was… elusive," she replied after a while as she reached for a cookie. "Has anything happened lately?"

The young leader let his head fall back against the chair and dark lids slide shut over tired eyes. "No," he answered quietly, "Just more of the same."

Whatever reply the younger chuunin might have made was interrupted by a knock on the door. With a purely mental sigh Gaara straightened his posture and called for the guest to enter, revealing a jounin man – one of the pass guards, if he recalled correctly. That would mean…

"Kazekage-sama, the group from Konohagakure has just arrived a few minutes ago. They are being escorted here now. The far scouts have also sighted the Takigakure group about three hours outside of the village."

Right, another arrival. Of course. He had left standing orders to be notified until all seven had arrived. Gaara dismissed the man back to his duties with an additional order to just bring the next group to him without an advance warning; this was well enough for a notice. Once he was gone Matsuri smiled wryly and began cleaning up the remnants of their tea time, ceramics clinking together in the sudden silence. "Take care, Gaara-sensei," she called gently as she headed for the door with her burden, "I'll go make sure the guest rooms are prepared." His quiet thanks followed her as the door closed.

The nineteen-year-old Kazekage didn't bother to get back to the neglected files, knowing it was only a matter of minutes until the Konoha troupe reached his office within the administration building. One robed arm moved to rest on the side of the chair and the teen shifted to let his face rest in the palm of that hand, mind wandering in idle curiosity over the possibilities of who might've been sent as his shinobi replacement. He knew who he wanted it to be, of course, but the likelihood of that was dubious at best. So, excluding that he tried to pull up any of the Leaf ninja of proper rank that could possibly fulfill the role.

That Hyuuga was a distinct possibility – though, admittedly, there was a decent chance that any of that clan would be equally fitting besides the one he knew as Neji. From what he remembered the heiress was leaning more into the medical arts than the usual standard of her clan which made her more unlikely. The dark and brooding one that commanded insects was also a likely possibility. He didn't particularly know either of the two shinobi but either would be a valuable asset. Preferable to the one with the dog, at any rate; Gaara sincerely hoped that that one wasn't ranked properly to be the replacement. There was that tall blonde girl, and though he vaguely remembered mentions of her as an espionage jounin specialist the irony would have been amusing. The shadow-user from her old team was also a very high possibility, one that Gaara knew fit the requirements for this trade, but if that was the case the Kazekage was going to be rather deeply irritated. The irony of that situation was simply too much, given that –

A subtle knock interrupted his thoughts and the redhead straightened in his seat before calling for them to enter. Baki himself lead the way into the room, followed by a group of three black-cloaked figures, each sporting red and white anbu masks over their features. They stepped up into a perfectly even line before his desk and remained silent. "Kazekage-sama," his old teacher intoned formally with a small bow, "the delegation from Konohagakure no sato." Introduction done, the elder unobtrusively removed himself from the office.

"Welcome to Suna, dear Konoha allies." Gaara welcomed politely into the sudden silence, surreptitiously studying the three masks while he waited for one to make the next move. The leftmost mask was that of some form of bird, mostly white with only a small red design on the forehead and a little around the beak. In the middle was an oddly nondescript mask that could have been a cat or any manner of animal, typical curls of red on the cheeks and forehead. That one was interesting if only for its commonness. The last though – Gaara almost gasped. Impossible! he thought against his first instinct, then shifted his eyes back towards the bird as he stepped forward and placed a message scroll on the desk.

"Kazekage-sama, a missive from the Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure." The deep voice that spoke behind the avian mask was distantly familiar, giving Gaara the feeling that he had heard it before but couldn't quite place to whom it belonged. "She sends her best regards and hopes you will use the anbu sent to you as you would any of your own." He bowed, followed a half-second later by the other two, then straightened and stepped back to his position in the line. Red spikes shifted slightly as the young leader inclined his head in response, hiding the small frown that was pulling at his lips. There was an undercurrent of… something around the three cloaked figures – amusement maybe. Yet it was strange that they had not introduced the trade subject in the preamble. Curiosity darkened the green eyes as they flicked over the three masks, lingering a moment on the last. It can't be

"I thank you for the courtesy," Gaara replied just as formally despite feeling slightly irked by the secretive identities. "Please take my regards with you to the lady Hokage and assure her that I will of course consider yours as one of my own, as I hope she will do as well." He stood then, crossed an arm across his midriff and bowed deeply and respectfully; an unnecessary gesture but one that he felt was right to make. The other three hastened to mimic the action and Gaara stifled a smirk at their surprise as he rose. "My assistant outside will show you to your quarters. Feel free to rest as much as you need until you are ready to return."

"Yessir." The three chorused together, too fast and too short for the redhead to discern the other voices, before heading out the door. He collapsed back in his chair instead, reaching for the message case and opening the latches to retrieve the scroll. Attention thus elsewhere he didn't see one of the foreign anbu pause at the exit, closing the door firmly behind his fellows without passing the threshold. He didn't notice the casual way with which the cloaked figure lounged against the closed door until a sudden voice broke through the room.

"Yo, Gaara."

The young Kazekage started in surprise, barely perceptible movement and only the slightest widening of his eyes betrayed him, but the other figure chuckled under his breath anyway. That voice-! Gaara straightened and replaced the scroll on the desk, unread, forcing an air of composure over himself and stubbornly telling himself not to get his hopes up. He said nothing in response, just scrutinized the figure before him – a little taller and broader than himself, hidden by the standard black traveling cloak of their anbu ranks, only a vulpine mask with six red stripes on the cheeks distinguished the form from that of the other ranks. The teen felt a twinge at that mask, the shape and the whisker-like stripe designs, but would not jump to conclusions just yet.

The anbu tsk'd quietly, pushed himself off the door and sauntered across the room until only the desk separated them. "Am I unwelcome, Kazekage-sama?" he asked, voice dropping in pitch and coated with amusement. Pale eyes narrowed further. Impossible, he can't be–

"Naruto." Gaara breathed slowly. He meant it as a question although it came out more as a statement instead, but the other man laughed and moved to sit on the wooden desk, one hand resting carelessly on a pile of folders while the other reached up to remove the mask. Black fabric whispered quietly as the hood fell back, displaced by the white-and-red disguise sliding over a mass of dark blonde spikes. The redhead inhaled sharply through his nose, a familiar feeling curling through his system at the sight of the blue eyes boring into him and the broad smirk curling at the lips, deepening the shadows on the scar-like stripes across the tan cheeks.

"The one and only," he replied cheekily, smirk then settling into a more sedate smile as he continued in a near-whisper. "Did you really think I wouldn't come, Gaara?"

He didn't answer, closed his eyes briefly against the image and the soft voice. He had hoped, yes, but honestly not expected that Naruto would be permitted to come. He still hoped, even at that moment, that the blonde was the replacement to stay, but better judgment spoke otherwise. There was no way the Hokage would send her village's only jinchuuriki into another village, that she would give up their "weapon" and in so doing double the power of another shinobi village, standing ally or not. That only left him as an escort, a short visit at best. Another gentle call of his name prodded the teen to open his eyes once more to the shinobi on his desk. The soft smile, small but honest, tugged at his insides and pulled up a series of memories that the Kazekage knew he couldn't afford to indulge in.

"I suppose I didn't," he answered finally, knowing he needed to speak but unable to bring himself to ask the questions that he really wanted to. Why you? Why are you here? How long will you stay? As well as another question that burned in him that he couldn't even put words to. The expression on the tan face softened further and before he knew it Gaara found himself reaching forward. Horrified, he jerked his hand back before it could move far and hid the action by weaving his fingers together and placing the clasped hands firmly on the desk. "Won't they realize you're missing?" he asked instead, changing the subject because he didn't like the direction his mind was taking; it was ill-timed, unfitting and inappropriate.

Naruto simply shrugged. "Kage-bunshin," he explained, "If they haven't figured it out then they will eventually." The blue eyes narrowed despite the nonchalant words, a silent promise to return to that unspoken and avoided topic from before even as he accepted the topic change. Gaara felt a shiver roll through him at the look and felt the sudden urge to stand, so he rose with as much dignity as he could muster given the way his stomach was quivering and moved away, around the desk and idly fingering at a potted plant because he had to escape the familiar figure across his desk, even if only a little. He didn't speak, couldn't bring himself to, but luckily he had a reputation for being quiet so nothing seemed strange.

"Gaara," Naruto murmured again, a hint of worry and exasperation warring in the tone. The sound of fabric as he moved up off the hard wood seemed loud and distinct and the redhead stiffened as he heard the other draw closer, but he did not turn around to face him. A small sigh and the taller shinobi leaned a shoulder against the wall, forcing himself into the Kazekage's line of sight. "All right, I guess I should be going," he said with false energy, a concession to Gaara's mood although it made the other torn between relief and regret that he was leaving so soon. "Neji's going to be pissed off enough at me as it is, I'm sure he figured out the clone by now."

"Right," Gaara agreed, still facing the plant but keeping the blonde in sight out of the corner of his eye. He fought the sensory memory that was struggling against him. It was always like this when they met again, a heavy awkwardness in the air between them. "I have reports to get to and another team will be arriving this afternoon." Naruto nodded and began replacing the mask and hood as he walked towards the door. The anbu paused a moment at the exit and Gaara tensed in preparation for something unpleasant to be said, but in the end he left without a word and the young leader shook in the solitude of his office.

Numb and aching, he made his way back to his chair and collapsed in it, burying his head in his hands on the desk. It was always the same with them, the nerves and expectancy was almost painful. It doesn't matter, he told himself although the words were a heavy lump in his stomach, he's going to be leaving within a day. This meeting doesn't matter, this time. It wasn't a consolation but it was enough to goad him into action. He buried himself in the work, went through the motions like a doll when the Takigakure group arrived in his office – another jounin from them – and then threw himself back into the work with fervor born of a desperate need to avoid something. It was well into the night before he guiltily remembered to read the Konoha missive. It was more than most villages sent, but that was common given their peaceful and allied history; a polite but personal letter from the Hokage, a few normal reports and then the personnel information of the newest temporary member of his anbu team. The file fell from suddenly numb fingers as previous emotions returned full force, a small maelstrom of feeling whirling around his chest. A pale hand moved to reflexively clutch at the fabric over his heart as if he could somehow crush the sensations, trepidation and anticipation and a dozen other things warring together at once.

A high, taunting voice echoed dimly from the back of his mind as the words echoed through his skull. Gaara screwed his eyes shut against the peals of laughter but knew he couldn't escape it.

"Shut up!" he hissed into the silence, trying to shove the chortles out of his mind until a spot of pain burned behind his eyes for the effort, but at last the voice faded back out. Oh how he hadn't missed that voice in those three years of freedom from the monster.

It didn't matter, the day's reports and files were all taken care of and it was almost time to be leaving anyway, so Gaara locked the foreign missives into his desk and left the rest in piles for an aide to take away in the morning. At the moment he just didn't want to deal with it anymore, not the work or his demon and definitely not his conflicting emotions, so left the office at a brisk walk with his personal sand trailing him in agitated tendrils – it wasn't worth the effort to reform it into the gourd, he was in no mood to go home so his quarters in the building were good enough for the night. Three floors down, through a hallway bridge to the east that connected the main building to a smaller one; mostly minor offices, storage spaces and a few vacant rooms. He had long since acquisitioned one of the spare rooms for a secondary bedroom, isolated away from most other people despite halfhearted protests at the time.

Originally he'd come here to escape his siblings, when he wasn't feeling quite capable of dealing with them or he knew that Temari was going to try to confront him over something. He'd come here to get away from everyone, really, and meditate in the solitude he was used to for most of his life. Then he'd been kidnapped and killed by having his demon painfully ripped out of his body, but upon his revival was the newfound ability to sleep without worry that the damned tanuki was going to kill the people he was finally beginning to care about. So as his body slowly adjusted he occasionally used the room for sleeping and had it furnished with a modest bed. What with all the worry from both the Akatsuki and Otogakure raising power there were many times where it had just been easier to stay within the building, never far from the endless work and emergency calls. By the time Shukaku was resealed in him, the use of the sparse quarters was too much by habit to stop, and even though the worst threats were passed and he no longer felt the extreme need to hide or the necessity to stay awake indefinitely, he still liked the room. But in every case, using the room rather than going home provided him with some solitude whenever he needed it. Thus when he entered the small room he was quite understandably surprised to find it already occupied.

Gaara hesitated only a moment as the door closed before narrowing his eyes in the dim light and allowing a frown of displeasure to pull at his features. "You've gotten good, to have been able to sneak into my private room." The blonde foreigner grinned broadly from his seat at the edge of the bed, blue eyes bright in the shadows following his figure as he slowly stepped further into the room. "If anyone else found you waiting in here they'd have tried to kill you, you know. An assassin in the Kazekage's room."

The grin widened a bit. "They could try but I wouldn't let them." Naruto answered back, which only made the redhead frown more.

"Killing them wouldn't be any better," he pointed out dryly.

"I wouldn't do that either. I'm not stupid or suicidal." Gaara quirked a brow at the last, because most people would consider sneaking into a foreign leader's bedroom a rather suicidal risk, but after a moment just smirked and began to unwrap the swathes of green and white robes. Naruto had already freed himself of both cloak and mask, as well as most of his uniform in general; he was now dressed casually in the uniform black pants and a dark burnt-orange shirt with a jagged red spiral painted on. He stood and stepped closer to redhead before pausing while he continued to remove the formal robes of office. "What took you so long? I thought you'd be done by now. Tsunade no baa-chan is always escaping as soon as she can."

Sea-green eyes flicked briefly at the intruder but he was surprisingly not really joking. "I had things to do and prefer not to put it off." Gaara murmured back, taking a moment to fold the robes up somewhat decently and setting them on a nearby chair. "How did you know I'd come here? I could have gone home."

"I didn't," he answered quietly, truthfully, "But I hoped."

It hurt, the proximity to the other teen. The pale skin beneath his clothes felt taught and overly sensitive to the presence by his side. The redhead wanted to step away, to step closer, so he stayed where he was and hated his insecurities. Tan fingers touched his cheek, sending a jolt of electricity across his skin at the contact, and turned his face slowly to the side until he had no choice but to face the blonde.

"How long has it been?" the darker teen asked quietly, but the blue eyes held another question.

"Over a year." Gaara answered just as quietly, closing his eyes and leaning into the touch – answer to the silent question – and suddenly the tension drained out of them both. They moved without thinking, closed the distance and pressed against each other and simply basked in the familiar scent of each other that they had both been denied for too long.

It was always the same, one would think they'd learn after so much time, but still every time they met there was the same awkwardness, the same hesitance, the same fear – always the silent question if they were still ok or if one had moved on, never sure if they could pick up where they left off, but it was always a relief when they could. Naruto tenderly cupped one pale cheek, guiding the other back enough so that he could place a light kiss on his forehead, right on the scar. Gaara turned a little then until his nose brushed the blonde's left cheek, following a single whisker line with a gentle lick and ending with a similar kiss. It was their own personal greeting, a kind of ritual, and when it was done and they stood with foreheads pressed together there were small twin smiles on both their lips.

"You're staying." Gaara murmured finally, slipping his arms around the other figure and burying himself against the strong neck so that the steady pulse beat against his nose. Even the weak grumbles in the back of his mind couldn't quite spoil the moment, not when he had waited and wanted so much to touch Naruto again.

"Of course I am."

It was said with such firmness, with overtones of chiding disappointment, that it denied the illogicality of the statement. Gaara didn't bother to point out all the reasons why it wasn't at all obvious, nor did he ask how Naruto had managed it so the blonde didn't bother to ask why Gaara expected otherwise. Neither wanted to bicker, not just yet, so it was easier to keep their thoughts on the matter to themselves for the time being. Instead, the tan anbu cupped the slightly smaller male's face in his hands, guiding him back and nuzzling affectionately a moment before capturing the barely parted lips in a kiss. It was sweet and gentle for perhaps a few seconds before more than a year's worth of pent-up ardor flared between them, a spark into a blaze, feeding off each other's need. Fingers clenched convulsively in soft tresses the color of dried blood, slender arms unaccustomed to the rigors of taijutsu and weapons training tugged urgently at black cloth, both insistent to get as close to the other as possible as their mouths worked feverishly against each other.

It had been too long, much too long since Gaara had been allowed to indulge himself in the sensations of the fox-boy, the taste and scent like a drug that flooded his system. Slipping through his mouth, filling his lungs, seeping through his pores with every contact… he was utterly addicted.

A part of him always marveled at this, at the quiet desperation which threatened to drown them at each meeting, at the strength and endurance of Naruto's reciprocated feelings. Their kiss was rough and almost brutal, a frenzy of nips and sucks as their tongues dueled, disregarding any pain or discomfort for the sake of the simple satisfaction of the moment. Even the pain on his scalp from the whiskered teen's tight grip on his hair was negligible, nor did that one particularly mind the way Gaara's fingers were digging sharply into his shoulder blades from where the arms were wrapped around his back.

They broke apart with a gasp when Naruto stumbled back into the bed, falling haphazardly on the soft furniture and pulling the redhead down with him. Ragged panting filled the air and Gaara took a moment to settle himself a little more comfortably straddling Naruto's hips before leaning down and picking up right where they left off. Back no longer an option since it was against the mattress, the Kazekage instead opted to run his hands over everything else available to him; the half-covered biceps, the strong neck and broad chest, but it wasn't enough and he tugged at the hem until he could slip a hand under, the other hand holding him popped up by necessity to provide the space to move. A simple carnal delight grew as the taut abdomen muscles jumped at his touch as he moved higher, splaying his hands over Naruto's chest and feeling the rapid heartbeat before mercilessly capturing a nipple and rolling it between his fingers, swallowing the moan that resulted. The calloused hands that had long since locked themselves around the redhead's hips tightened convulsively and tugged sharply so that they rolled together into each other, groaning – a deep instinctual sound that rumbled out from their chests – at the contact.

Naruto moved then, rapidly moving across the slimmer frame and frantically trying to loosen the buckles on the tanned leather vest. Gaara aided him in the effort by bowing his back to make space for the questing limbs, breaking the kiss so that he could bury himself against the tense neck and biting harshly on the thick tendon and delighting in the erratic pulse beating against his lower lip. Despite their rather drawn out affair the pair had never actually slept together – at first because they were mutually insecure and then more from a lack of opportunity than hesitance. A year was far, far too long and Gaara was more than willing to take as much as he could get, and the writhing figure beneath him wasn't putting up any objections.

Fate, though, found the boys to be particularly entertaining toys and decided there was no reason to deviate from the well-trodden path. Naruto suddenly swore. Loudly. Gaara raised himself up to gaze blearily at the blazing azure eyes, confused by the sudden change of mood.

"-dammit!" Naruto snarled finally at the end of a series of expletives. Seeing the confused green eyes aimed at him he sighed, curled one arm around the small of the redhead's back as he raised the other hand to gently cup a pale cheek. "I have to go. I got caught."

Now, Gaara had left his sand all around the room and guarding the door, none of which had been the least bit disturbed by another presence so the dumbfounded confusion on how the other man had gotten caught was written clearly across his face. He knew this, so he didn't bother to ask what exactly was meant by that statement, trusting instead for the blonde to continue and explain. He wasn't disappointed.

"I uhh… got distracted." Naruto continued, slightly sheepish. "I lost control of the clone for a minute and Neji caught on." His brows knit together for a moment and the eyes took on a slight glaze as his attention shifted elsewhere. He suddenly gasped and cried out indignantly/ "Ah! That bastard didn't have to stab me that hard!"

For a brief second Gaara was supremely tempted by the psychotic tanuki's ideas about that Hyuuga and had to remind himself that killing or maiming his allies was not a good idea. When Naruto snarled again and moved to get up, he wondered if the Hokage would accept a letter of apology along with a rather battered ninja. He'd even refrain from breaking anything. Much. Maybe. Damn, having a conscience sucked sometimes.

notes: Yes, I made his Kazekage robes green on purpose... because they're supposed to be green. Blue should be for the Mizukage, silly animator people. Water should be blue, not Wind.

Also, I find Shukaku extremely amusing so I couldn't resist bringing him back in. Love that crazy alcoholic tanuki!

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