A/N: This is an idea that's been going through my head for a while. I hope you like it.
Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto, not me, however he kindly lets us play with his characters.
Chapter One: Making an Impression
Hinata daintily tasted the unusual looking chawan mushi. She rolled the delicate custard studded with pumpkin slivers around her mouth, her eyes closed in pleasure.
"Mmm," she hummed softly, savoring the way hints of black pepper and green chive contrasted with the sweet pumpkin and salty custard. She heard someone coughing slightly, and opened her eyes. She looked around shyly and was startled to see the Fifth Kazekage, Sabaku no Gaara, looking at her with a slight frown.
"This is really qu-quite delicious," she stuttered, blushing rosily. Oh, dear, she really hated to call attention to herself like this. The banquet Sunagakure was hosting for the Konohagakure delegation and the visiting merchant lords should have been large enough for her to be able to blend into the background. Whoever had decided to put her next to the Kazekage had to be a torture master of the first order. She looked around the room, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
She really didn't know anyone here in Suna, except for the Kazekage's older sister and brother, the Sand siblings, and their taciturn sensai, Baki. And she couldn't for the life of her think of any reason Temari or Kankuro would give a fig about her in any way. Her partner diplomat, Nara Shikamaru had been her friend since childhood, and was renowned for his studied disinterest. She doubted he would have taken the time to torment her.
That left Gaara, the Kazekage.
Which was absurd.
The Kazekage had paid her only minimal attention during her stay. During trade negotiations discussing a vender route proposed by various merchant lords of the Lands of Wind, Rain and Fire, he had not demonstrated much interest in her, listening politely and noncommittally to anything she added to the discussions.
She looked over at him with a little frown.
Gaara continued to study her, his flat aqua gaze unreadable.
A twinge of anger zinged through her. Really, was it so unusual to enjoy one's food? She certainly had not been impolite. If there was anything the eldest daughter of Konoha's oldest clan families knew, it was proper etiquette. Why couldn't he leave her alone and let her enjoy her meal in peace?
She frowned more deeply and studied him back defiantly.
The former jinchuriki had changed since those fateful Chuunin exams. For one, he was much taller, although still very slim. His hair was still an unusual shade of dark red, almost a burgundy color, contrasting starkly with his pale skin, and, although he was meticulously dressed, his hair sprang from his head in unruly locks, as if some wild part of him needed to be expressed. His large turquoise eyes were still rimmed with the black circles of insomnia, a legacy of the raccoon sand demon who had inhabited him, but they did not have the tortured expression that had been so frightening during those turbulent years.
Hinata had heard a lot about his battle with Naruto and how he had changed for the better since then. She had even spent some time with him and his older brother and sister when they had been observing the Hidden Leaf Academy, and had noticed that Gaara did not seem quite as homicidally inclined as he had once been. Since the Akatsuki had extracted the demon, the young Kazekage had also been rumored to be more tolerant of others and less likely to fall into an uncontrollable rage.
Still, couldn't he just mind his own business and eat his dinner without bothering her?
Hinata sighed inwardly, and pasted a smile on her face. She had worked hard to overcome her natural timidity. It was time to put her skills to good use.
"You are fortunate to have such a t-talented chef," she said, ignoring her tendency to stutter, "my father would enjoy this dish."
Gaara looked down at his own dish of the steamed custard as if he had never seen it before.
"Yes," he said, in his rather gruff, flat voice, "I believe he is very talented." He scooped up some of the custard and tasted it carefully. His eyes widened in surprise. He glanced over at Hinata, "It is good," he said, and continued to eat without further comment.
Hinata waited a moment to see if he would require more inane conversation from her. No, he appeared to be content with his dinner, thankfully. She turned her full attention to her own food.
The banquet was interminable, as such things usually were. Hinata managed to maintain a polite silence during most of it, smiling at appropriate moments and bowing when required. She frequently served as the Konoha representative for these kinds of affairs. Lady Tsunade, the Fifth Hokage of Konoha, had told her that her fine manners and lady-like ways gave any delegation an air of distinction. Hinata's secret opinion was that she was the only one who didn't refuse to go to the boring dinners. The Hokage had also said that she relied on Hinata's quick mind to pick up on any underlying political problems that might be brewing.
Fortunately for her enjoyment of the evening, nothing seemed off, except for the Kazekage, perhaps. But he always seemed a little off.
And, no wonder. He had been feared all his life. His father, the Fourth Kazekage, had instilled the one-tailed Racoon Dog sand demon, Shukaku, in his own infant son to create the ultimate weapon for Suna, without sealing the demon's vicious personality from that of the child. The tanuki sand-demon had taken over Gaara's young mind, driving him to murder and near insanity.
Hinata could not begin to imagine the kind of torment Gaara had endured, but she knew it had to have been terrible. She still vividly remembered witnessing the horrifying murders of the Rain shinobi during the Chuunin exams. Gaara had become one with Shukaku, crushing his victims in his Sand Coffin jutsu. Even then, sickened by his cold-blooded actions, she had spared a feeling of sympathy for the anguish he must have felt.
Perhaps that was why he appeared so flat and aloof. Perhaps any kind of emotion felt too much like the terrible rage and power of the monster he had contained.
She stole a speculative glance at him through her lashes and almost choked on the iced piece of melon she had started to chew.
He was looking sideways at her again.
The piece of fruit caught in her throat blocking off air.
She tried to cough it up.
Oh, Kami, she was choking!
She clawed at her throat in a panic, standing up hastily and looking about her wildly for something to lean over to force the food out of her throat.
She was suddenly grabbed from behind, strong arms wrapping around her and two fists under her rib-cage pulling in sharply several times.
The ragged melon ball shot out of her mouth with an explosive huff of air and landed in the center of the floor.
Hinata hung limply for a moment in the saving embrace, her eyes streaming with tears.
She contemplated her humiliation.
Not so lady-like now, eh, Hokage-san?
She was gently released and set on her feet. The arms unwrapped her, but hands stayed firmly at her waist. She was grateful for the support. Without it, she probably would have fallen flat on her face.
She turned to thank the person who had saved her and came nose-to-sternum with the solid, silent figure of the Kazekage.
The exclamations of the other diners faded as her ears filled with the pounding of her own heart.
She had a moment to notice how warm his hands were and how nice he smelled before she fainted.
Gaara debated his options.
He could lay the unconscious woman down on the floor.
He could signal to his ANBU guards to come get her.
He could pick her up in his arms and carry her out of the room and find somewhere quiet to put her down.
He chose option number three, scooping her small form up easily and walking out of the hall, ignoring the protests and stares and whispered comments of the people around him.
He was the Kazekage. If he wanted to carry a girl around, he would.
It wasn't as though he hadn't done stranger things, and much worse, in the past.
His lips twitched.
He had enjoyed watching the Hyuuga eat. Her expressive face had added spice to his own dining experience.
He often forgot to taste his food, generally eating enough to sustain him while he was working. Her hum of pleasure when she tasted the chawan mushi had been so sensual, it had awakened his own senses.
He remembered her from the chuunin exams. He had been scornful of her weakness then. It had surprised him as much as everyone else when she had somehow managed to keep fighting, even when her chakra had been so diminished and she had been close to death. There was something then about her tiny, brave figure that had interested him.
Later, he had largely ignored her when she helped at the Academy. She was irritatingly shy, always blushing and stuttering, but he also remembered that she had been unobtrusively kind and thoughtful. And he had been impressed by how competently she worked with the Academy students and how they respected and loved her in return.
Along with the Nara, she had made shrewd suggestions during the recent tricky negotiations, fulfilling her duties admirably if quietly. Even the most slippery of the lords had treated her with fatherly respect, won over by her gentle patience and soft suggestions. During those meetings he had come to realize that her seemingly submissive ways hid a determination as hard as iron. He was interested again.
Now he held her in his arms, enjoying the warmth of her body pressed against his chest. He strolled with her out onto the large balcony that connected the banquet rooms with smaller work rooms, thinking that the evening air might revive the girl.
Which would be a pity.
It would interrupt his observations.
She really was very pretty. Beautiful, even, with her pale skin and long, dark, blue-black hair, pinned back now with pearl and silver ornaments. Her long lashes brushed her cheeks and her curvy full mouth was open slightly. Her head had fallen back against his arm and he followed the line of her white throat down to the modest top of her kimono. It had loosened a little, revealing the shadowy folds of her under-kimono and tunic.
He sat down on a bench, juggling her gently so that she lay more securely against his shoulder. He didn't want to put her down. It was not often that he had an opportunity for human contact. His family was not comfortable expressing themselves through touch. Actually, anything physical that had been shared amongst the siblings had usually been painful.
Oh, there were the fan-girls and boys who followed him around when he walked around Suna. He had no doubt that if he had given a signal, any one of them would have been willing to provide him with physical touch. Kankuro had often told him that he was an idiot not to take advantage of all the possibilities offered to him. The thought was distasteful. He wasn't sure what it was that he wanted, but he was pretty certain it wasn't something any of the breathless youngsters and not so youngsters that fawned over him could provide.
He saw her eyelids flutter and heard a soft gurgling sigh. He jumped up and arranged her neatly on the bench, stepping back as she woke.
"Oh, my goodness," said Hinata softly, peering up at the night sky, "what -?" She sat up hastily, looking around her, clutching her kimono tightly over her chest. She put a shaky hand to her mouth as she saw Gaara standing quietly near her with his arms folded staring down at her.
"What h-happened?" she asked, hesitantly.
"You almost choked. Then you fainted," Gaara said, gruffly. He frowned when he saw how her face fell.
"I – I'm sorry," she said, sadly, "to be such a bother."
"Why should you be sorry?" he asked, curious at her reaction.
"I thought I'd gotten over my 'fainting' stage," she said, ruefully, "it seems n-not."
"Hnh," he muttered, "you very nearly choked to death. That would make anyone faint."
She chuckled, surprising him.
"I know lots of people who wouldn't f-faint for anything," she said, standing up carefully, "especially not a little piece of m-melon."
He put a hand out as she swayed a little, then folded it back over his chest as she squared her shoulders.
"You didn't need to leave your guests for m-me," she said, shaking her head at him and smiling.
"I was planning on leaving," he said shortly. He turned away and looked out over the nightscape of his town.
"Ah," she said, "I'm sorry again. Thank you so much for saving m-my life."
He turned to see her low bow.
"I will say good-night to you, then, Kazekage-sama," she said softly, bowing again, "and thank you."
Her smile was warm and sweet.
He watched her turn and walk gracefully to the door leading back to the hall.
He wanted to ask her to stay, but the words stuck in his throat.
And there was no one there to put her arms around him to force them out.
A/N: Well, this is the beginning. Tell me if you like it.
As always, reviews and constructive criticism are welcome.