To his credit, Neji only blinked hard and his hand merely paused in midair as he ate. He took his bite of food and chewed slowly and thoughtfully.
"Is this kind of behavior why you haven't proposed yet?" Tsume's question was loaded with explosions. He would have to take the next few moments very carefully.
Tsume and the canine company stared at him openly while Hana flushed slightly and was looking down at her own food. Part of her wanted to protest her mother's tactics and bluntness …while part of her wondered why it had taken so long herself. So she too waited anxiously for Neji's answer.
"She's Hana. Her behavior does not bother me." Neji replied smoothly.
The kunai thunked into the table next to his place with enough force to cause Hana's ponzu sauce to slip off and hit the floor, splattering everywhere. Not even the dogs seemed to notice or care as they all stared at the quivering weapon a hair's breadth from Neji's hand.
The Hyuuga looked up at Tsume and cocked one eyebrow over his pale-eyed gaze. "Your behavior on the other hand …" He let his voice trail off before casually dipping his chopsticks back into his shabu shabu. However, this show of coolness was all for affect. Neji wasn't at all sure what he would do when he took the next bite. His mouth was suddenly so dry he wasn't at all convinced he could swallow without choking.
Tsume's overt threat wasn't the issue however, it was the word. The one word. Proposed. He couldn't even pretend to misunderstand that the Inuzuka clan leader was asking about a marriage proposal. From him. He glanced at Hana surreptitiously even as he continued to face Tsume.
Hana. He took in her clean face and sleek hair. Nothing fussy for Hana, nothing frilly or simpering either. But rather than making her look plain, the lack of female stuff just made her …glow. The force of her personality drew him like a lodestone. She didn't need any products to make her beautiful. She simply was …and damn, but he loved her. Had for a long time now. But …crawly things invaded his skin as he put his hands down lest they trembled. One problem was that he was branch family, Hyuuga branch family. She was the Inuzuka clan heir. He knew she cared deeply for him, but …until this very moment he'd never even considered if Tsume would accept such a bond between he and Hana.
"You didn't seem too pleased with the thought of us marrying last year." He reminded her gruffly.
Tsume's eyes narrowed. "Eloping is different."
Neji shrugged and put his chopsticks down in order to pick up his tea. He was now sure that he'd choke if he tried to eat anything. Maybe something liquid would be better?
"Coward." Tsume groused, deliberately prodding at him verbally.
"Coward?" Suddenly his temper flared and he put down his tea cup without taking a drink. "Turn that gaze on your own blood, not me." Neji sneered.
From where she sat watching, Hana stiffened as her eyes snapped up. "Excuse me?" She glared at Neji as she frowned sharply.
Shino stared into the mirror and nearly felt like throwing up. What had he done? How stupid could a guy get?
"Who can last the longest?" He whispered and hung his head as he washed his hands. "Am I an idiot?"
Shino swallowed and shook his head as he left the restroom.
Kakashi stared after him, shaking his head. Whatever was bothering the bug-ninja, the boy had it bad. Whistling happily, he washed his own hands before heading out to join Iruka as they finished moving into their first apartment together. He grinned happily through his mask at the mirror. He'd waited a long time for this.
Lee's smile gleamed whitely, causing the girl to blink at how his face shined up at her, full of heart-felt emotion. She swallowed hard as tears pricked her lovely eyes.
Ayame's hand trembled and she clasped her hands together, only to have Lee take them in his own hands as he dropped gracefully to one knee. Ayame's breath caught as she waited anxiously for his words.
"Is the right knee better? Or the left?"
Suddenly she could breathe again. Her voice was a bit hoarse though as she answered. "Hmmm, let me think about it a moment."
Lee looked over at Naruto as the blonde perched on the tree trunk. "What do you think?"
"Yes, Naruto …what do you think? The left or right knee?" Ayame asked, casting a longing look over at her boyfriend. Wanting desperately for some clue as to how he felt about her …in the long term.
The blonde shinobi scratched his head and shrugged. "I don't think it matters much."
Lee started practicing his kneeling, first going down on his left leg, and then the right. Ayame ignored the green-clad shinobi as she glowered over at the blonde. "It doesn't matter? It doesn't matter?! How could you be so cold?! Your friend has asked for our help in making his marriage proposal perfect, and all you can say is IT DOESN'T MATTER?"
Helplessly, Naruto jumped up. "Sorry Ayame, of course I'll help!" He ran over to Lee as the two young men began practiced kneeling, completely missing her sour expression.
A harsh crunching sound startled the two shinobi long before the sound reached Ayame, but when they turned to watch the east, so did she. A moment later a pink-haired blur raced by them, a deep scowl on her usually pretty face.
Ayame looked startled as she gaped open-mouthed at the departing kunoichi. "Was that …Sakura?"
"Poor Kiba." Naruto intoned, then went back to his practicing.
Lee shifted from foot-to-foot, uncertain. "Perhaps we should …"
Ayame held up one hand imperiously. "You boys know all about ninja stuff. But this is wedding stuff, trust me …its better not to interefere."
Lee snapped to attention and actually saluted her. "Yes ma'am!"
"Now, which hand are you going to present the ring with?"
Naruto and Lee looked at each other and then both shrugged. Lee flushed in embarrassment. "I haven't thought of that, I was worried about which knee to kneel with first."
"Yeah." Naruto backed him up, nodding. "First the knee, Ayame."
The young woman sighed and shook her head. "Are you right or left handed?"
Lee looked puzzled for a moment, then grinned bright as the sun. "Oh, you are MOST brilliant! I will present the ring with my right hand, as I favor the right side, though only slightly as I can fight equally well with both …"
"Oh yes, right." The green-clad shinobi's smile grew in intensity. "So if I present with the right hand, I should kneel with the left!"
"You're brilliant, Ayame!" Naruto's smile was no less bright than Lee's.
"No. you should kneel with the right and present the ring with the left."
Both shinobi stopped and stared at her as if she'd lost her mind.
Ayame sighed and smiled gently at the two young men. "You present with your left hand, so that you have your better hand free in order to place the ring on her finger. You do not want to appear clumsy in that moment, after all."
Lee's eyes went huge as his mouth dropped open in shock. Then he laughed and threw back his head, dropping to his right knee and holding up his hands to mime the moment. "PERFECT!"
"Nice! Thanks Ayame!" Naruto grinned and put his hands behind his head, rocking back and forth happily. "You're the best!"
The best? She wondered. The best? Did that mean that he wanted to get married at some point in time? Or not? Ayame frowned, distracted.
"Oh beauteous Matsuri!" Lee began, kneeling on his right knee and holding up a small jewelry box with his left hand. "Psst …that's you Ayame!"
The young lady nodded, blushing as she'd forgotten her part. Ayame forced a smile and looked down at Lee, though she did peek over at Naruto in order to gauge his responses. She seriously hoped this romantic practicing of Lee's would give Naruto some incentive, some training …some idea! Anything!
Naruto caught her look and grinned at her, giving her a thumb's up sign, then pointed to his watch as if to tell her to speed it up. She caught her breath as the blonde shinobi then turned away and went back to his perch on the tree trunk, no longer watching the two of them.
Ayame looked back down at Lee, blushing furiously in embarrassment. Clearly, Naruto had no intentions of proposing anytime soon. Looking down into Lee's smiling face, it started to hurt to smile like she was.
Gaara stared at Ino, not sure where to even begin. "Purple hyacinth." He whispered. I'm sorry.
"Aloe." She told him, her voice barely audible.
"Grief?" Gaara watched helplessly as one lone tear fell slowly down her soft cheek. His muscles ached with the need to cross over to her. Pride stood in his way, and his uncertainty of her reaction. "Don't cry." Was the best he could manage.
Two more tears joined the first and Gaara swallowed hard. "I am sorry." He said plainly, not hiding it in their personal code.
"For not consulting me?" Ino asked, her voice thick with emotions that he could not fathom. "Or for not wanting children …with me."
"Not just you, anyone. It has nothing to do with you." Gaara spoke quickly, though not moving from where he stood. "I don't want children."
Ino nodded and looked at him. "Cyclamen." It nearly tore her heart out to say it.
The effect on Gaara though, was more visible.
Standing in her kitchen, Chiyo was sipping her tea and watching the dome of sand when suddenly, the sand wavered. Her tea cup half-way to her lips, Chiyo stared as waves of sand trembled and just as quickly firmed.
Just what was going on in there?
Tsume held up one hand, but it wasn't enough to stop a pissed off Inuzuka. Hana was already over the table and hauling a complacent looking Neji to his feet, his long hair swinging forward as she yanked on him.
"What did you say?" She hissed as her fangs grew and her fingertips sharpened to lethal looking talons as her temper flared hot.
The Inuzuka clan leader sighed and struck at Hana's hands with vicious looking talons of her own. Her daughter pulled away just in time, as it was Tsume only cut a few strands of Neji's long hair as her hands passed in front of him.
They all watched the three strands of black hair settle on the table. A long moment passed, then they all looked at each other cautiously.
Tsume cleared her throat and glared at the young Hyuuga male. "Did you just call an Inuzuka a coward? Much less my heir?"
Neji crossed his arms and stared down the two angry Inuzuka women as if he wasn't frightened in the least. It was a lie. Oh, he didn't fear bodily harm. Only the results of his next words. This could win him the battle …and every prize there was. Or lose him everything. As a spur of the moment plan, he just prayed to heaven it worked. Not to mention, it was how he truly felt.
"I love Hana more than I can express." Neji frowned as he poked a finger through his robe, wiggling it.
Hana flushed very slightly in embarrassment, as she'd poked those holes with her little tantrum. And his words had a burning effect on her blood. Suddenly she felt overheated.
"And I would be honored beyond measure if she would want to marry me." Neji continued. "But I can not ask her."
Both women frowned sharply and four nin-dogs stood and growled, baring fangs at the young man.
"I await her question." He said stoically, waiting on pins and needles for her response.
Hana shook her head in shock. "You expect ME to ask YOU? You're the male! It's your place to propose, not mine!"
"You're the higher rank." Neji reminded her softly. "You are the heir to your clan. I am but branch family."
Drawing back, Hana shook her head at him. He nodded at her. Tsume looked thoughtful, then shrugged. "He might have a point."
"And the Inuzuka are a matriarchal clan, after all." Neji continued, his voice controlled and even. "I had hoped that one day you might see me as a potential husband …"
"IDIOT!" Hana grabbed him and leaned in, kissing him for all she was worth.
Tsume grinned and looked down at the nin-dogs, who were looking royally confused. "At ease. All will be well."
Hana came up for air, gazing into the heated pool of Neji's pale eyes. "Will you marry me, idiot?"
Neji laughed and nodded, wrapping his arms around her lovingly.
Tsume signaled to the dogs to follow her and left the newly engaged couple to themselves. She whistled a jaunty tune as she grabbed a light jacket and headed over to see Lord Hiashi about some wedding contracts.
At long last.
So distracted was he in his morose thoughts, Kiba didn't sense her arrival first. That was left for Akamaru, who whimpered and dropped his tail between his legs and laid down at the base of the tree, hiding his eyes.
The Inuzuka male sighed and looked at his dog, then turned and searched with his chakra enhanced senses. He steadied himself for her arrival, the thought of running never even crossing his mind.
Sakura skidded to a stop just in front of him, dust and dirt blowing up in his face. Kiba blinked and flinched back as he waved one hand in front of his eyes. "Watch it!"
But the pink-haired kunoichi was too busy looking around the area until her vision cleared and reason reinserted it self. Inner-Sakura gave way to outer-Sakura and logic dictated her conclusion. "You're out here with just Akamaru, aren't you?"
Kiba nodded grimly. "Who did you think I was out here with? A whole club-full of strippers?"
Her face flushed beet red, reminiscent of Hinata at her most flustered.
Kiba drew up sharply. "You think so badly of me that you would think that?"
"No, of course not!" But her furious blush gave lie to her words. "Oh Kiba, I'm sorry!"
The shinobi sighed and leaned against the tree at his back, looking down at Akamaru, who still was hiding his eyes. "Sorry for what? Thinking the worst? Not trusting me? Ruining my bachelor night?"
Sakura bit her bottom lip and ran one hand through her hair.
"Or for agreeing to marry me in the first place?"
His words struck the breath from her lungs. "How could you ask that? I love you!"
Kiba growled and launched himself without warning from his lounging position, to square in her face. His snarl echoing in the clearing. "If this is how you act toward someone you love, spare me!"
Sakura pulled back, feeling hurt and unsure. Suddenly inner-Sakura poked her, hard. Temper flared once more. Her hand came up and she shoved him back hard enough that he struck the tree he'd most recently been leaning against. Bark and tree debris rained down on him.
"I thought you loved me!" Sakura yowled. "How could you go after that slut?!"
"You scared her off! I went after her to make sure you hadn't hurt her!" Kiba hissed.
Sakura drew back, hurt pouring from her eyes as they teared up. "I paid her off, I didn't hurt her! How could you think that of me?"
"You were acting all crazy!" Kiba yelled, then dodged as her fist connected with the tree behind him right where his head had been one second ago. He jumped out of the way as the tree gave an ominous cracking sound.
Both of them eyed the tree, but it didn't give way. Sighing, Kiba turned back to Sakura. "I would never betray you. Not with some stripper, even though she's actually a nice girl. Besides, Chouji hired her for my bachelor night, be mad at him!"
Pausing, Sakura backed up a step. "Chouji? Sweet, nice, married Chouji? He would never look at a stripper …"
"Men look. But you're right. Chouji would NEVER betray Hinata and touch the girl. And neither would I betray you for that matter."
"Chouji?" Sakura was still looking dumbstruck.
Kiba snapped his fingers in front of her eyes, drawing her attention back to me. "Yeah, Chouji. Apparently it was the same girl that Shikamaru hired for Chouji's bachelor night. At Hinata's suggestion I might add."
Kiba shrugged and nodded again. "The girl doesn't have any family, they died when she was young and she's trying to save up enough money to open her own vending stall in the marketplace. Hinata likes her."
"Hinata …knows a stripper!"
Kiba sighed and rolled his shoulders. "Try and follow along, will you? Hinata knows a SHOP GIRL. The shop girl does some …side work …trying to raise money for her own stall. Hinata cornered Shikamaru before Chouji's bachelor night and suggested this girl because she knew the girl isn't a slut and wouldn't do anything Hinata would be uncomfortable with. Shikamaru is no idiot, and hired the girl."
"And Chouji hired the girl for your bachelor night?" Sakura nodded, still feeling disjointed. "Why Chouji?"
"Because Shino had no clue about hiring a stripper and Chouji said he'd take care of it. Though I think it was Hinata who actually hired her for my party."
The tree that she'd struck earlier sway slightly as another cracking sound reverberated through the area. Both eyed the tree, again though, nothing happened. Sighing, they turned back to face each other. A long moment passed.
Quietly, Sakura looked down and dug into the ground with her foot. "You whistled at her."
Kiba winced. "I knew you were watching and I was angry you didn't trust me."
"You knew?" Sakura looked up, startled. "I used a different scent, suppressed my chakra, and …."
"Neji saw you."
"Oh." Sakura shrugged. "The Byakugan."
Kiba nodded and took a deep breath. "I asked him to check out the area. I …I thought you ….I'd hoped you would trust me."
"I do trust you!" Sakura looked up at him and caught his disbelieving look. Hurt, she reached out for his hand. "I just …a bachelor night! One last night to do anything with no recriminations! I …was …I was jealous. And when I saw the stripper, I …well, I saw red. Then you whistled at her, like she was hot."
"She is hot."
Sakura's face fell into mulish lines as she glared at him.
Helplessly Kiba shrugged. "She is hot! But she's not you and I love you. Besides, you're the one who makes my blood boil over." He paused and gave her puppy dog eyes. "The one I've waited over a year for. Waited. Me. ME, Sakura. For you."
"You don't whistle at me." She said plaintively.
Kiba growled and wrapped his arms around her, nestling her head in the crook of his shoulder. "I beg, whimper, plead, manipulate, pretend to be hurt …anything …just to get closer to you."
Sakura giggled. "That twisted ankle you pretended to get? Pathetic."
The dog-nin grinned, but didn't comment. He'd gotten her blouse off with that twisted ankle. He didn't regret it a minute. "I have fond memories of that night." He said gruffly.
Sakura pinched him, but only lightly. "Jerk."
"Marry me?" He asked, pulling back to look at her. Kiba didn't even wince at her reddened eyes or tear streaked face. "Please?"
Sakura caught her breath and tried not to melt at the look on his face. "You …you just want to have sex."
Kiba laughed and tickled her, his hands running up to places not allowed. Sakura blushed, but didn't push his hands away. "Are you marrying me for that?"
Sobering a bit, Kiba let his hands trail back down to neutral territory. Then his hands dipped down to her rear-end, pulling a squeal from her as he yanked her in tight to his body. Shocked green eyes stared into laughing dark eyes.
"I'll have sex with you any way I can get it. Marrying you is just a bonus. Besides, it's basically a way of marking my territory."
"Mark …marking your …territory?" Sakura's eyes nearly crossed as she felt the powerful evidence of his body wanting her. She clung to him, not sure that if he let go she'd be able to stand up on her own.
Kiba growled and dipped his head to nibble on her neck, pushing aside the fabric of her top to taste her collarbone.
Sakura's legs would no longer hold her and she fell against him. Without a wobble, Kiba picked her up in his arms. She looked at him and came to a momentous decision.
"I'd better get you back before …"
"Take me there." Sakura pointed to a small building off to the side of the clearing.
Kiba shook his head, but Sakura nodded.
The buildings were usually used for infiltration training, storming buildings and residences and such. But …the buildings were also not an unknown place for illicit romantic liaisons.
"You've kept me waiting for over a year. And NOW you decide to ….why Sakura?" Kiba's voice was hoarse with desire, but he didn't move toward the buildings. Not yet.
The pink-haired siren in his arms leaned in and licked his ear.
Kiba's knees wobbled dangerously. But still, he didn't carry her off. "Tell me." He whined. "Why now?"
"Because …" She nibbled on his ear, making him feel lightheaded. "I do trust you. Completely."
"You don't have to prove anything to me." Kiba protested, but his reluctance was waning fast even as he swiftly carried her over toward the training buildings. In fact, so eager was he that he almost started to run, even carrying her.
Sakura grinned and laughed. "I want to …because I want you." She breathed and giggled as he found the door to the building locked.
One foot kicked out heavily and the door was no longer closed or locked. In fact, Sakura looked at the broken lock and just knew it couldn't be repaired. She giggled again.
In the clearing, Akamaru raised his head and wagged his tail. When the tree behind him creaked again with a sharp breaking sound, he scrammed to the front of the building where Kiba and Sakura were. He stood guard at the open door and eyed the tree warily.
It continued to stand though and made no more sound.
"I refuse to let you say goodbye." Gaara growled low and angry, closing the gap between them. He didn't reach for her though, not trusting himself. "Take it back."
Ino shook her head. "Cyclamen. Resignation and goodbye." She quoted from the flower language book.
Her scent teased him as she gave him a tear-filled look. "I want children."
Gaara stared at her a moment, but then shook his head. Then suddenly, his eyes went really wide. "You were angry at me …but you didn't kick me out of our bed!" It was said almost accusingly.
Unsure of where this was going, Ino shrugged. "Did you want me to?"
"You're trying to get pregnant! Even knowing that I don't want children, you are deliberately trying to ….admit it!"
Ino stared at him in a cross of towering rage and deep amusement. "Are you accusing me of trying to steal a baby from you? What, like I'm lying in ambush trying to hijack your sperm? Are you crazy?"
When she put it like that, it did sound off the wall. But Gaara couldn't think straight right now. The threat of 'cyclamen' had him over the edge. Like hell she would leave him!
"Admit it! You want a baby!"
"I've already admitted that!" She yelled at him, ignoring the cold look in his eyes and focusing on the throbbing pulse in his neck. "I want a baby!"
"And you've been sleeping with me ever since you found out that I didn't want a child. Just to get pregnant!"
The slap startled them both. Gaara raised his hand to his face in stunned disbelief. She hadn't hurt him. Not with the sand armor, but she'd hurt him far deeper than the mere physical. He staggered back a step from the emotional toll of her strike.
"I don't need to do that." She whispered. "I'm already pregnant."
Chiyo screeched as sand burst everywhere and she caught a brief glance of her daughter and son-by-marriage before the sand dome reinforced itself. Shaking, she took a sip of her tea, then grimaced.
Dumping out the tea laced with sand, she frowned over at the dome of sand in her kitchen and prayed for the best. She raised one hand to her heart and was grateful that Inoichi wasn't here to see this.
"That was too much!" Naruto grinned from ear to ear. "Did you hear old bushy brows?"
"I was right there." Ayame sighed unhappily. It didn't look like Naruto was taking the hint and planning his own proposal. "And Lee was being extremely sweet."
"What was that whole speech about gardens and flowers about?" The blonde shook his head in wonder. "I don't know if Matsuri will even GET that he's proposing, he hid the words in a bunch of flowery nonsense."
"She'll get it. Trust me." Ayame said and stopped to stare longingly at a cloth merchant's shop. The store was closed now, but the silk on display was so lovely. Something befitting a wedding. "Matsuri is lucky." She whispered.
"Lucky how?" Naruto asked, puzzled as he looked to see where his girlfriend was looking. He didn't see anything special in the silk cloth though. It was too fancy for her to wear to work.
Ayame turned on him, nearly knocking into someone else as she spun. "Lucky that she has a gentleman who understands things! The way things are now I'll have to do the asking!" She walked away in a huff. Naruto staring after her.
"What in the world?" He muttered under his breath.
"Clueless." The voice had Naruto turning back toward the person that Ayame had knocked into.
"Oi. Temari." Naruto pointed after his departing girlfriend. "Did you understand that?"
"Yes." The Sand kunoichi grinned at him and shook her head. "But I'm not going to explain it. That's your job to figure out." She turned away and then spun back to face him. "Just …pay attention to her. Pay attention and you'll figure it out."
"Thanks Temari!" Naruto yelled and raced off after the departed Ayame.
The blonde smiled sadly, hoping SOMEONE would get it right. Because she was sure mucking it up pretty badly.
Temari was miserable. Yes, she could last longer than Shino, she was sure of it. But why deny herself? And why deny herself his company? She loved him! Why oh why was she being so stubborn? She knew she was being unreasonable, but pride stood in her way.
With a heartfelt sigh she touched the window of the shop, looking longingly at the wedding silks on display. With dawning of hope, Ayame's words came back to haunt her
"Lucky that she has a gentleman who understands things! The way things are now I'll have to do the asking!"
She WAS lucky to have Shino. And he DID want to marry her. In fact he was driving her crazy asking her. But she felt like she was losing the battle somehow. That if she submitted then she'd lose who she was entirely. Which was a total and complete crock and she knew it!
So. How to accept his proposal without looking weak? How to get him to marry her without saying yes to his proposal?
"Lucky that she has a gentleman who understands things! The way things are now I'll have to do the asking!"
Suddenly Temari went still as a one of the monuments carved on the cliff over Konoha. THAT WAS IT!
Gaara's face was closed to her. Cold, freezing cold in his expression. "You are what?" He said with deceptive calmness.
"You heard me." Ino swallowed nervously, her hands going protectively over her belly.
Gaara nodded. "Cyclamen indeed."
Shocked, the blonde trembled. "You can't mean that!"
The red-head shrugged. "You said it to me first."
"You would leave me and our child? OUR child, Gaara!"
"Your child." He responded coldly. "You knew that I didn't want children and deliberately set out to …."
"I was already pregnant on the journey to Konoha." She said, stopping him in his tracks.
He shook his head. She nodded.
The reason I was so damned angry was that I was going to tell you I was pregnant when I overheard you talking with your brother. Before that, I had no clue you didn't want children." She stared at him accusingly. "And it is our child, Gaara. It took both of us. And it was not deliberate."
Gaara stared at her, his heart breaking for the hurt he'd caused her already. And for the fact that he had no idea how to fix it.
"The reason I didn't kick you out of bed, was that I needed to have you near me. I needed to be close to you because I was feeling lost." Ino's tears were flowing freely now. "I turned to you and you were there for me, even when I was obviously mad at you and you didn't know why."
Gaara nodded, then shook his head. "I …I don't know what to say."
"Come find me when you do." She turned to leave, but found the sand dome still in place. One look from her eyes as she looked back at him had him lowering the dome reluctantly, not wanting to let her go despite his harsh words.
Chiyo watched the sand dissipate and drew in a sharp breath at the lost and hurt expressions on both their faces. "Ino? Gaara?"
"I'll be back." Ino whispered and left the kitchen.
Chiyo looked desperately back at Gaara. "Are you going to let her go like that?"
"I can't stop her." The red-head sounded miserable, totally miserable. Chiyo's heart broke for him.
"She's pregnant." Gaara said bluntly.
Happiness welled within her, but she didn't smile, knowing it wouldn't help the situation. "Congratulations?"
Gaara turned to look at his mother-by-marriage. His expression was the same as ever, but his eyes …the pale-jade gaze that was usually so cool actually looked empty. Lost, empty and …filled with fear the moment Chiyo started to advance on him.
Her arms were around him before he could decide what to do. The sand armor was in place, but it couldn't protect him from the emotional turmoil surrounding him.
As she held him, something curious happened. Gaara's arms rose of their own accord and were around her before he even knew what was going on. For the first time in his life, he felt what it was like to be comforted by a mother.
Matsuri looked overwhelmed as after dinner, by the light of the fire in the hearth, in the expensive restaurant where he'd made reservations, Lee slid gracefully onto his right knee. In his left hand he held a ring box.
"That was …interesting." Sasuke commented dryly as he finished watching Lee propose to his Sand darling.
Hanabi watched and tried to wipe her tears away without him noticing.
Sasuke groaned. "Don't tell me you LIKED that whole speech about flowers and gardening and love blooming eternally."
"Okay, I won't tell you." Hanabi sneered at him. "Just because you have no romance in your soul."
"I brought you here, didn't I?" Sasuke asked, a bit stung. "That's romantic."
Hanabi's eyes widened. "Is this supposed to be romantic?" She looked around at the candlelit table top and the scrumptious food spread out on the table.
He scowled at her and she giggled. "Alright, I'll admit …it is romantic. But I still don't know why you asked me to meet you here."
"Haven't you guessed?" Sasuke leaned across the table to look at her. His dark eyes glittering with the candle light. "I'm not waiting and this is our first."
"First what?" Hanabi leaned in as well. "Date? I thought that was when I braided your hair at the hospital."
He leaned back, irritated. "You make it difficult, you know that?"
"I try." She smiled, but inwardly she was shouting and jumping for joy. This really was a DATE! A real date! "Oh and Sasuke?"
The Uchiha looked up at her, tensed for whatever barb she threw his way.
"This is really nice. Thank you."
Slowly he began to relax.
Hanabi watched him and wondered about the rumors she'd heard about how terrible a kisser he was. Now. How to get him to use his Sharingan to learn how to kiss spectacularly? Because she certainly didn't want him to learn on his own. Through practice. Without her.
The next day was beautiful and clear. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping and it was the perfect day for a wedding.
Only there was neither bride nor groom.
"Are you sure she didn't say anything to you?" Haruna Tanshi looked frazzled as she paced up and down her small kitchen.
Ino drank her tea and shook her head. "No. But I'm sure she'll show up." She got up to rinse out her cup. "Thank you again for letting me stay over last night."
Tanshi nodded absently. "I was grateful for the company."
Ino nodded and leaned against the kitchen counter, her energy zapped at it was still so early.
"Are you trying to keep it a secret from your parents? Until you're ready to tell them?" Tanshi said baldly. "Because anyone who knows you, any woman who has been there before you will be able to guess rather quickly."
Ino smiled sadly. "Husbands don't though." Not even bothering to deny the guess.
"Oh." Tanshi nodded. "Is your Kazekage not happy about the baby?"
"He doesn't want children." Ino sighed. "Ever."
Sakura's mother looked shocked at that. "That's awful! Maybe you'd be better off staying here. Your mother and father would be thrilled to have …"
"He's not awful." Ino sighed wearily and sank into a chair. "His mother died giving birth to him."
Tanshi shook her head. "That is sad, I'll admit. But I thought Sakura told me that it was because the old Kazekage sacrificed her or some such."
Ino nodded. "For power. Gaara's father put the sand demon in him while he was still in the womb, but that always demands a living sacrifice. The Kazekage made his wife that sacrifice."
"Well. I certainly wouldn't want to carry on the line of such evil people." Tanshi sighed unhappily.
"They're not evil." Ino's temper was pricked. "The old Kazekage, sure. But not Kankuro or Temari and certainly not Gaara." She paused for a long moment, then had the grace to blush. "Well, not Gaara ANYMORE. He's not evil. He even started to change for the better before the demon was removed by the Akatsuki."
"What if your young man doesn't see himself as clearly as you do?" Tanshi said, having gotten Ino to defend Gaara, which had been her object all along. "What if he is scared of passing along the blood of his father?"
"He loves Kentaro." Ino said slowly, then realized that of them all, Gaara was the one who least held the small infant. And every time he did he acted like something horrible was going to happen until he could get someone else to take the child. She dropped her head into her hands with a wail. "I'm so stupid!"
Tanshi clucked her tongue, passed over the tissue box to the blonde and patted her shoulder.
"I was so focused on how betrayed that I felt, I wasn't thinking about his feelings! How scared he must really be about the whole thing!"
Sakura's mother nodded and comforted the young woman the best she could.
Sakura smiled as she listened to the heartbeat of the man lying under her. She knew the moment he woke. A second of disorientation, then his arms wrapped around her strongly. "Good morning." She kissed his chin.
"Yes, yes it is a very good morning." He sounded like a contented tom cat, bursting with pride and energy.
Sakura grinned and nodded her chin to their right. "Do you know when the tree fell on that side of the building?"
Kiba looked over to the side, shocked. The tree hadn't actually entered the building much. A broken window, a few branches poking inside that hadn't been there last night. Then he grinned. "I didn't hear that."
"Me neither." She admitted ruefully.
"I guess …the wedding is back on?" Kiba grinned at her.
Sakura smiled back, then blinked and sat up in shock. She looked out the window and groaned, grabbing the sheet. "THE WEDDING!"
Kiba rolled over and tried to find his pants as he too suddenly realized that they both had somewhere very important to be this morning. "SHIT!"
"Where's my …"
"Have you seen my pants?"
Sakura threw him one of his boots as she made a grab for her tunic.
"Have you seen my pants!" Kiba roared yet again.
Temari knocked on her own apartment door, then blinked in surprise as the door was jerked open by her own bare-chested brother. "Oh!"
The blonde nodded. "It is my apartment after all." She looked at her brother and saw the contentment in his face and nodded happily. "Things are working out?"
"Well, I've promised to watch Kentaro this morning so that TenTen could get ready for the wedding. Bring me my nephew!" Temari smiled brightly.
Kankuro smiled back at her. "I'm here, I can look after him …hey! What are you doing?" He looked down at the kunai suddenly in her fist.
"I said bring me my nephew." She grinned at him. "I get to keep him this morning."
"But you don't have to …"
"I want to." She assured him, then cooed at the baby as TenTen brought him to the door. "Oh there you are!"
"Thank you for doing this." TenTen handed a sleeping Kentaro to his aunt. "Here's everything you need." She said, handing over a small pouch.
"No problem, I've been looking forward to this. Haven't I?" She cooed to the still sleeping infant.
Kankuro rolled his eyes. TenTen elbowed him. "Behave. In a few years we'll be desperate for a babysitter, enjoy it while it lasts!"
Tsume looked at Hana's beaming face over the breakfast table. "I take it things went well?"
"They did." The young Inuzuka heir smiled happily. "We're going ring shopping later."
"Who's buying the ring? He made you propose." Tsume asked curiously.
"Neji wants to buy the rings." Hana grinned. "So …where did you disappear to yesterday? Not that I minded."
"Yeah, I'm sure you didn't." Tsume said ruefully "And I was starting the contract negotiations with Hiashi."
Hana straightened up. "How did he respond?"
Tsume frowned. "Surprisingly well. Almost like this is what he secretly wanted all along." She paused to think it over. "I'm going to have to watch myself in these negotiations, Hiashi is a master at these things."
"And she showed me the ring!" Ayame gushed over a late breakfast with Naruto.
"You saw the ring yesterday." The blonde reminded her. "Several times!"
Ayame smiled prettily. "It's not the same! This time it was on her finger!"
"It was too decorated." Naruto yawned and rolled his shoulders. "Not my taste."
Ayame frowned sharply at him even though he wasn't looking at her as he continued speaking.
"When we get married, I want something simple. Not plain, but defiantly more simple than the ring Lee picked out."
Ayame's face froze for a moment and it took her a good long minute to remember how to breathe. "W….wh …when …we …"
"Ayame? I have a question to ask you."
The girl eyed him like he was a wild animal she wasn't sure would charge or not. He'd just announced they'd get married one day, what question did he have now?
"Why were you upset yesterday? Did Lee hurt your feelings somehow? I'm sure he didn't mean it." Naruto blinked over at her, his blue eyes so earnest.
Seeing his expression, seeing him clueless but wanting to please, Ayame melted. She smiled at him and reached over to take his hand. "No. I'm not mad. Everything's fine."
Naruto smiled brightly at her. "That's good! I'd hate it if you were unhappy. I never want to see you unhappy."
Ayame smiled at him, more in love than ever. And she told him so.
Temari was carrying Kentaro when she spied Shino. He was standing in the street looking at a display in the shop window. She smiled as she saw what he was looking at and stopped beside him.
"I like the darker purple silks trimmed with the lilac and cherry." Temari told him as she too looked at the silks in the window.
"You'd look amazing in that." Shino said gruffly, he looked over at her, unsure of himself. He spied the baby and smiled. "Kankuro know you kidnapped his son? Again?"
"He knows." Temari smiled winningly. "He was over there. With her. Toghether."
Shino's eyebrows rose at the news. "Took her long enough to forgive him."
"He did something stupid."
"His reasons were sound."
Temari shook her head. "Those two just made up, let's not have their argument FOR them."
"Agreed." Shino said, then wondered if it would do him any good to propose again.
"Will you marry me?"
The soft words shook him to the very core. Shino turned to stare at her as if he wasn't sure that he'd heard her right. "What?"
"I asked you to marry me." Temari said, sticking out her chin pugnaciously.
Shino's mind raced, a thousand questions running through his head. Instead, he simply nodded. "Yes."
Temari frowned at him. "Just like that?"
Shino nodded again. "Yes."
"What about your pride? Doesn't it feel like you're submitting yourself to a woman? Doesn't it feel like …."
Shino put his hand over her mouth. "Shut up."
She bit him.
He grinned at her. "You asked, I answered and if you back out now I'll sue you for breach of promise and take Konoha to war against Suna."
Her eyes widened and she shook her head at him. He grinned and nodded at her. She scowled. His smile grew. "Well damn, to avoid war it looks like I'll have to go through with it." She mock pouted, but her eyes were gleaming with happiness.
"Let's go." Shino put his hand on her back, steering her away from the shop.
"To see your brother, of course!" Shino herded her along.
"I just left Kankuro." Temari protested. "Besides. We just got engaged, shouldn't we be alone?"
"You have a baby with you, alone time is a bit difficult with an infant." He nudged her with his hip. "Besides, wrong brother. You just said yes, I want to nail this down with Gaara before you weasel out of it."
"I DIDN'T SAY YES! You said yes!" She yelled.
"Doesn't matter one whit to me." He leaned in and kissed her forehead. "We get married, I get you, you get me and we get together. Then we can work on making one of these for you and me." He nodded toward Kentaro.
Temari's breath caught as she realized that she was engaged. She was still herself and her pride was still intact. This might work out after all!
Ino was about to leave when Sakura burst through the door, frantic. "Where have you been? Your mother was worried sick you'd miss your own wedding!"
"No time! No time! Oh …I need a shower! Shower first, make-up, dress …"
"Dress …then the make-up! If you put the dress on after, it might all smear …."
The two girls were talking all over each other as they rushed to get ready for the wedding. In the corner of the room, Tanshi offered a prayer of thanksgiving heavenward and ran to finish getting ready herself so that she could help the girls.
Yugao opened her door for her date, then paused. "You're not Iruka's friend."
"Yes I am." Shikamaru said blithely. "Iruka-san and I are on good terms, I assure you."
The blue-haired kunoichi frowned. "That's not what I meant and you know it. Iruka set me up on a date for the Inuzuka wedding with one of his friends."
"He had ...a change of plans." Shikamaru smirked, having been the author of those plans changing. "And now you get to go out with a different friend of Iruka's."
"Does Iruka know about this?" She challenged him.
Shikamaru shrugged. "He will when we get to the wedding."
She shook her head at him, but didn't protest further. Waiting to see how this went today.
"What was that again?" Gaara looked a bit off-kilter even as he ate the pancakes before him.
Temari watched in awe and wonder as Chiyo would casually brush her fingers over Gaara's shoulder, or touch his hair as she bustled around the kitchen happily. Since when was her brother comfortable with casual touch?
Gaara continued to stare at her until Shino nudged her foot. She looked at him, then back at her brother. "Oh, right. I asked Shino to marry me."
"I said yes." As if there would be any doubt, the Aburame reminded them both. "We want to start the contract negotiations right away."
"No need." Gaara waved one hand dismissively. "Go talk to the Hokage's office."
"No, Gaara." Temari leaned in. "We want to start the negotiations today. Shino's father is in town, you are in town …it's perfect."
The red-head leaned over his plate to look at them. "There's no need."
"I don't want her changing her mind."
"He threatened war if I did." Temari smirked.
Gaara paused at that. "You really want her that badly? She's' ill tempered, foul mouthed, prideful …"
Temari growled and would have struck out at her brother if not for the infant currently asleep in her arms.
"She's perfect." Shino intoned with total honesty from his point of view. "Perfect."
The blonde kunoichi gave him a sultry look that promised a reward later. Shino shivered in anticipation. He hadn't even told her he was wearing her underpants today, just to keep something of hers near him. Now he wouldn't have to tell her, hopefully she'd find out all on her own.
"So, get to work little brother!" Temari grinned. "We can all head over to the Aburame compound before Sakura's wedding and at least get the formal preliminaries out of the way."
Gaara sighed. "You don't understand. I've already met with Shibi."
Shino stiffened. "What?"
"We wanted everything ready to go when you two finally got it all together." Gaara yawned. "We just thought we'd start with the preliminary stuff, but it went so well that we went ahead and negotiated it all out."
"All of it?" Temari looked stunned.
"Well, not the date." Gaara looked at her pointedly. "That's the only thing we couldn't anticipate. Took you long enough. The contracts have been ready for nearly five months now."
Temari looked ready to explode. Shino leaned over to her. "It'll take a little while to get the contracts ratified by both the Suna and Konoha councils."
"No. Already done." Gaara pushed his nearly empty plate away in contentment. "Actually, the only thing you two need to do is set the date and get married. Everything else is in place."
Temari looked at Shino, he looked back at her. "Today?" She whispered.
Gaara frowned. "No, it needs to be a big wedding. So you'll need a few months to get the flowers and dress and such."
"You didn't." She turned on him, her gaze like daggers.
Gaara grinned. "One of the perks of being the Kazekage. I get to make the rules. This is a wedding joining Konoha and Suna more permanently together as allies. My elopement cheated the councils out of a celebration. And Kankuro …well, we had to rush that one. But you two get the big wedding."
Temari felt physically sick. "I hate you."
Gaara leaned back and grinned.
Temari narrowed her eyes on him. "Come on Shino, we have things to get ready." She pushed the sleeping infant into Gaara's hands and put a small pouch on the table. "Go to your uncle, Kentaro."
Gaara's face fell comically as he took the baby, lest the child fall. He tried to give him back, but Temari was already walking out the door. "Temari?!"
He looked down at the infant and then up at Chiyo in hope. She just grinned at him happily. "This will be good practice for you." His mother-by-marriage announced and swept from the room, leaving Gaara alone with his worst nightmare.
Kentaro stretched, yawned and blinked open his eyes at his red-headed uncle.
"Oh shit." Gaara stood there, barely daring to breathe in case the baby started crying.
Kakashi stared, stunned. "A kitten?"
Iruka smiled down at the furry bundle. "Shizune gave him to us as a house-warming present."
The copy-nin spread out his arms to show off their space. "This is an apartment, not a house."
Iruka nodded. "But it is OUR apartment, together. For the first time we're not sharing my place or your place, but our place. And this is our first present ….a gift for the two of us together. The two of us."
Kakashi paused a moment and nodded, his gaze melting a bit as he looked at the kitten swatting playfully at Iruka's hair. "I like the sound of that."
Ino rushed into the house, needing to hurry to get ready now that Sakura was almost done. Tanshi had her daughter well in hand now and Hinata had come over to help as well. Now Ino needed to wash up and change.
She was nearly ten steps past the kitchen when her brain caught up with her feet and she registered what she'd just seen. Backing up to the kitchen doorway, she looked in and stared.
Gaara snarled at her.
Ino walked in and looked at Kentaro as the baby sat in the pile of sand that wrapped around his body. She watched in awe as non-sharp sand spikes spiraled up for the baby to try and catch in his chubby hands. "Why?" She asked, pointing.
"Temari's a bitch." Was his dry response.
Ino nodded, though she didn't get the connection. "Why is he …"
"He likes trying to catch the sand spikes. Don't worry, they won't hurt him." Gaara's scowl grew deeper. "And your mother abandoned me to go help with the reception preparations."
Ino nodded again, though she'd still not asked her original question. "Why is his seat made of sand?" She finally got it out.
Gaara looked over at her like she was missing something elemental. "Because he can't sit up on his own. I tried that, but he was all …floppy."
The blonde bit her lips to keep from laughing out loud. "Floppy?" She nodded gravely. "So you made a seat for him?" She realized it was so her beloved husband wouldn't have to HOLD the baby. But she didn't say so.
Gaara nodded and winced. "And I can't use this sand ever again."
Ino gave him and odd look, then leaned over and sniffed the child. "Gaara! He needs to be changed!"
"I know." Came the grumpy response. "But Temari didn't leave me any supplies …" He stopped as Ino reached over and grabbed the small pouch on the table. "Don't bother, those are just hair ribbons. I think TenTen sent the wrong bag."
Ino shook her head in disgust and flipped the ribbon out so that it snapped and ran her hands down it. As she did, objects 'poofed' into existence as the ribbons were actually embedded with supplies for the baby.
Gaara groaned and sank into a nearby chair. "I'm not made to be a father."
Ino leaned over and with her new found insight, gave him a hug. "We'll work through this together."
He looked up at her, hope in his pale-jade eyes. "No cyclamen?"
"Clover." She smiled, "and forget-me-nots."
Gaara sighed with relief as she reached for the baby to change him, sand dripping down the boy's legs. And maybe something else too. Gaara frowned and gathered all the 'dirty' sand and sent it out into the garden post-haste.
"Good-luck and true love." He smiled to himself. Yes. He liked clover and forget-me-nots a whole lot better than cyclamen. Gaara looked over at Ino. "I don't know what I ever did to deserve you, but I thank heaven for it every day."
Ino stopped and stared at him, tears gathering in her eyes. "I love you too."
"Sakura isn't here yet?" Tsume growled low.
"She will be." Kiba gave a secretive grin where his mother couldn't see his face.
"I thought you two broke up?" Tsunade said as she stood in the temple, waiting for the bride.
Kiba shrugged and Akamaru gave a happy series of barks.
Tsume stopped frowning and stared at the dog. "House? Tree? What tree fell?"
Kiba whistled at Akamaru and gave him the signal to keep quiet. Some things just didn't need sharing with his mother.
Tsunade spied an hint of pink and watched as Sakura came down the street in her spectacular wedding kimono. Hinata, Temari, TenTen and Ino walked behind her to keep the train of the silk of the street surface.
Kiba grinned fatuously and Tsume rolled her eyes. "I just hope they don't have pink-haired babies."
Tsunade grinned. "I've already made book on it. The odds are decent. Want in on it?"
Long chapter, but yes ...the story ...and the Epilogue ...are finished. Sigh. THANK you for reading and reviewing and nominating and supporting ...yeah, thank you all!
BTW, there is a new poll on my account page. Which couple from this fic was the most odd at first, but you really were cheering for them in the end?