Author's Note: This chapter brings this story to an end. Thanks once again to all of you who have read and enjoyed it. There will be a third and final installment in the Invitation series but I am not sure when I will begin it. Right now I think I will devote most of my energy to the other two stories I am writing. But sooner or later I always finish what I start.
The journey back to Suna took one day longer than expected. Despite being healed Kankuro found he could not travel at the same rate as he had. He was able to move as fast for short periods but then found his body failed him. He became exhausted and was forced to halt. The problem was solved when Baki hauled a humiliated and protesting puppet master onto his back. As they traveled through Fire country on the way home Temari would occasionally send a longing glance eastward. They all noticed, but none of them spoke of it.
At long last they passed through the long valley and the gates came into view. Kankuro loudly insisted on being put down so he could complete the last leg on his own. Upon checking in at the guard station they were surprised to learn that a message was waiting. The Council requested that Gaara go directly to the Tower to attend a special meeting. It was unusual, but Gaara accepted it without protest and headed to the Tower as the others headed to the mansion.
Upon his arrival the fourteen other members of the Council came to their feet. Their eyes were directed to him. Gaara noticed, but pretended not to. As he approached them the oldest member took a step forward. "Sabaku no Gaara, we welcome you home and congratulate you on your promotion to Chunin. It falls upon me to inform you of an important decision of the Council."
Gaara halted and eyed the man warily. "Do you speak for the Council Caulderon no Polido? Where is Sulamon?"
The other members looked at one another nervously. Polido focused only on Gaara.
"Sulamon is dead. He left on a secret mission over a week ago and has not returned. He left a message informing us that he is either dead or a captive and must be considered dead. With his tragic loss I have been elected as head of the Council of Wind."
Polido waited to see if anything more would be added. When nothing was he continued. "With Sulamon's passing certain… obstacles have been removed and the Council has been able to reach an important decision." Polido again paused.
"Yes?" Gaara asked patiently.
Polido took a deep breath. "Sabaku no Gaara, it is the will of the Council of Wind that you become the Fifth Kazekage."
Never blinking or showing any reaction Gaara responded. "I see."
Polido looked back at the other Council members who were looking nervously at him. Polido turned back to Gaara. "Do you accept?"
Slowly nodding Gaara answered. "I do. But only so long as all of you understand that I will not rule as my predecessor did. To me everyone in this village is precious, and I will do all that I can to protect every one of them."
Polido and the others nodded in relief. "Fitting sentiments for the Kazekage."
"I am to be Kazekage." Gaara announced in that painfully direct way of his. Baki, Temari, and Kankuro all congratulated him. He appreciated their thanks but quickly got down to business.
"The announcement will be made public later today but I will not actually be coroneted until the Winter Solstice in about two months time. Nevertheless I intend to begin making preparations. Baki…"
Baki bowed. "Yes Kazekage-sama?"
Gaara shook his head. "You do not need to call me that until I am installed. Even after that I would prefer you simply call me Gaara when we are in private."
Baki nodded. "And what can I do for you Gaara?"
"You can take Sulamon's place as Director of Internal Security and head of the Council of Wind." Baki opened his mouth to protest. "Please do not tell me you are not qualified as we both know that you are. I need someone I can truest in those positions and the only three people I trust in all of Suna are standing right here. Please accept as I truly need you."
Slowly Baki again nodded. "If you truly feel that you need me than I cannot refuse."
"Good." He turned to his brother. "Kankuro I ask you to be my Chief Advisor."
"What?" He asked in shock.
"What?!" Temari asked in shock and anger.
"Kankuro, when you chose to use it you have a fine brain and you are actually very perceptive."
"Gee thanks, but are you sure you want someone who likes to party as much as me giving you advice?"
"No," Gaara said flatly. "And if your priority is to spend your nights drunk and in some strange girl's bed then I cannot use you. I ask you to behave like a nobleman and not some drunken mindless adolescent."
Kankuro frowned. "You know Gaara you really have to work on how you ask people for help."
Gaara shrugged. "I cannot call you my Chief Advisor if you are seen getting drunk every weekend. I am asking you to make a choice. To set aside childish wants and become a responsible adult."
"Sounds boring, you want me to change who I am."
"I want you to become who you can be. It is your choice brother. But I need your help."
Frowning still he slowly nodded. "I don't like it but I'll try."
Nodding himself Gaara turned to Temari whose arms were crossed and who had a foot tapping. "Temari…"
"Why do you want Kankuro as Chief Advisor instead of me?" She cut him off. "I would make a much better advisor and you wouldn't have to worry about me embarrassing you."
"That is true."
"Then why?" She demanded. "It's because I'm a woman isn't it?"
"It is because I have another position in mind for you. One for which you are uniquely qualified."
She eyed him suspiciously. "What position?"
"I intend to reestablish the close ties we once shared with Konoha. To that end I will need someone there to represent me and Suna." The edges of his lips twitched a bit. "I am sending you to Konoha as my ambassador."
She just stared at him for an instant with jaw dropped. Then she let out a loud shout before leaping onto her brother and hugging him.
Gaara only got away by threatening to unleash his sand on her.
Ino headed to her favorite shoe store eager to spend her weekly check. As she walked in she came to a sudden halt. There were Chouji and Irmana. She hadn't even known he'd come back from his latest mission. The two of them hadn't really spoken since the night of the exams celebration. Had that really been a whole month now? He was wearing a red outfit now instead of his usual green. He looked kind of handsome. She stopped and did a double take. Where did that come from? He had told her he wouldn't go shopping with her anymore. But apparently he didn't mind going with Irmana. She's his girlfriend so different rules. That was true but she stomped down on the thought. The girl loved red she had probably gotten him to change for her. He never changed anything for me. She watched as the two of them laughed and as she put her hand on his arm. At the sight Inner Ino spoke up. He belongs with me. What? You heard me; Chouji-kun should be with me. I love Sasuke! She thought defiantly. Then why is your heart hurting? She couldn't find an answer for that. Inner Ino departed with her point made. Ino turned around and left the shoe store no longer in the mood to spend money.
Hinata sighed happily as she continued to write. She'd gotten another post card from her Naruto-kun. He wasn't much of a writer but every few days he sent her a post card or short letter. And this one had given her an address where he would be for a week. She could write to him! It would be a long letter with details about the past month and filled with her good wishes and hopes for him. She had started a scrap book for his post cards and letters. Whenever she started to miss him she would look through it and feel better knowing that she was in his thoughts. Along with the letter she would include a picture of herself so he could see what she looked like with longer hair. She hoped he would like it.
He sweated despite the cold weather. He kept punching the tree again and again willing it to break. The tree ignored his wishes and continued to stand.
"Working off a little aggression Sasuke?"
He stopped training for a moment and looked behind him. "What are you doing here Kakashi? I haven't seen you since I was taken. You're not here to suddenly pretend that you care are you?"
Kakashi took out his favorite reading material. "Care? No Sasuke, I'm not in the habit of caring about people who betray their friends and village."
"Hn, why are you here then?"
"Oh, just morbidly curious I suppose. Why have you started taijutsu training?"
"Because I can't do ninjutsu with this seal on me." Came the dry reply.
"You know what I mean." Ignoring him Sasuke turned back to hitting the poor defenseless tree again. Seeing he would get no further answer Kakashi shrugged.
"Toonana slowly slipped off her robes of state to reveal she had given her speech wearing nothing else. Jibaiya grinned at her. 'I thought you asked me here to discuss an emergency.' Toonana smiled and began to saunter slowly and seductively towards him. 'Oh but I did. The emergency is that I am consumed by a desire for your touch. Throw me on the floor and…"
"What are you doing?!" Sasuke was staring at him open mouthed and red faced.
"What?" Kakashi asked innocently.
"Why are you reading that trash out loud?"
"Does it bother you?"
"Oh… well if you tell me the real reason you are out here I'll stop.
Sasuke glared at him. "Fine, I'm trying to improve my taijutsu in the hopes that Tsunade will eventually reinstate me as a ninja."
Kakashi shook his head sadly. "You actually think that could happen?"
Sasuke shrugged. "She said she was willing to put me on probation."
"What?" This was news to him.
Looking a bit embarrassed Sasuke continued. "I went to her after I was attacked by Kabuto. It's pretty obvious that even if I could go back to Orochimaru there'd be no point. I told the Hokage I was willing to serve her and Konoha once again."
Beneath his mask Kakashi frowned. "Well that's certainly generous of you considering you have no better options."
Sasuke shrugged. "I've never denied that I wanted more power so I could destroy my brother."
"And what did the Hokage say?"
"She said I could be on probation until Jiraiya and the dobe return. She won't make me a shinobi again but she will assign me a bunch of D-rank missions that will help demonstrate my loyalty and willingness to follow orders. In the meantime I am free to train to my heart's content."
"I see." Kakashi said surprised.
Sasuke paused a moment. "I don't suppose you'd want to train me again would you?"
"Are you asking me for my help?"
Looking a bit shame faced Sasuke nodded. "Yes I am so will you help me?"
"I'm afraid I've already taught you just about everything I know about taijutsu." Seeing the look of disappointment he then added something he hadn't planned to. "But if you're serious about developing your taijutsu I can have Guy give you some lessons."
Sasuke looked interested. "Well seeing firsthand what he was able to do with Lee I wouldn't object. But he has his own team. Do you think he'd be willing to find time to train me too?"
Kakashi sighed. "He will if I ask him to do it as a favor." He sent Sasuke a sharp look. "Just so you know this will probably cost me having to go drinking with him and at least two all out sparring matches."
Sasuke sent him a small grin. "Thanks Kakashi."
He nodded and began to leave. "Sasuke, what about Sakura?"
He turned back to the tree and began hitting it again. "What about her?"
Sakura poured her chakra into reviving the fish in front of her. She smiled as it began to flap about. She was devoting all her spare time and energy to developing her skills. When she was busy she tended to forget just how much she missed the two of them.
Shikamaru picked up the letter from Suna and opened it.
Lazy, Gaara is going to become Kazekage. And guess who is going to be his ambassador to Konoha? If you guessed me then you really are a genius. I'll be with you in about two month's time. We'll get to spend New Year's together! Please share the good news with mom and dad and tell them I can't wait to see them. But most of all I can't wait to be with you again. All of my love. Troublesome
Shikamaru grinned. It looked like his life was going to become hectic and troublesome again. He couldn't wait.
"Why am I doing this again?" The young boy complained for the hundredth time.
His famed and honored teacher smiled and answered. "It's an excellent training exercise to help you maintain balance at all times." It's also punishment for ruining my research the other day.
As the two of them walked through the streets people laughed and pointed. "This is embarrassing." Naruto complained again.
"Naruto a ninja doesn't care about things like that." As two pretty girls walked past he grinned at them. They both laughed and kept going.
"Well if you're going to embarrass me like this in public then the least you can do is teach me a cool new jutsu. Everything you've been teaching me so far has been boring; codes, ciphers, etiquette, history." He made a sour face. "I thought you were going to make me a great ninja not bore me to death."
"There is much more to being a ninja than just working jutsus. An effective ninja must have a wide range of knowledge and skills. I talked to Iruka before we left. He said that while he considered you an excellent student the fact is you slept through a lot of his lessons."
"I didn't sleep through that many." Naruto grumbled.
"Oh really?" He eyed the boy with amusement. "All right kid I'll make you a deal. I'll ask you a simple history question. One every academy student would be expected to know. If you can answer it I'll teach you a new jutsu. If you can't no more complaints for the rest of week. Deal?"
"Deal! What's the question?"
"Besides the Shodai's family name the other six clans that originally founded Konoha."
"That's easy!" Naruto shouted. "Hyuga, Uchiha, Nara, Akamichi, Yamanka, and… uhm and…"
A grin suddenly lit his face. "Sarutobi!"
"Errrr wrong!" He smiled down at the crest fallen little Chunin. "The correct answer is Namikaze." Oh the bloody irony!
"Damn!"He jumped up and down in frustration. This of course caused the bucket of water on his head to fall over and drench him.
Jiraiya laughed. "You lost your balance kid."
The wet ninja glared daggers at him. "I hate you."
That earned another chuckle. "Come on we're almost there." They continued down the winding street until they came to a wide avenue. Down the avenue a ways they finally came to an open and unguarded gate. Through which they approached a large mansion made of white marble. At the front door Jiraiya knocked. The door was answered by a woman in a maid's uniform. She gave the two of them an odd look.
"Can I help you?"
Before Jiraiya could answer Naruto held up a letter to her. "We were invited here by Temari. She said we should come here to enjoy her family's hospitality."
The woman eyed the letter carefully. "I see, please wait here just a moment." The door closed and they were left to wait. When it opened again it was Gaara on the other side of it.
"Hey Gaara good to see you!"
A slight smile appeared on Gaara's face. "Uzumaki Naruto, Temari told me she'd given you an invitation to come and visit. I am very pleased to see you again." He turned to the older ninja accompanying him. "You must be the legendary Jiraiya who is acting as Naruto's sensei. We are most honored to have one of the Sannin." Gaara bowed to him.
Jiraiya smiled and looked to Naruto. "See kid this is the sort of respect you should be showing me."
"Yeah right!" He turned to Gaara. "You don't need to show ero-sennin so much respect. He's just a huge pervert."
"A pervert?" Gaara said. Jiraiya simply shook his head.
"Hey Gaara have you got any ramen?"
"If we do not I will have some especially made for you."
"Of course, now both of you please enter and enjoy the hospitality of my home."
Naruto had a huge grin. This was actually the first time he'd ever been invited to stay at a friend's house. "It's really great to have friends!"
Gaara nodded, pleased to hear Naruto call him a friend. "It certainly is Naruto, it certainly is."