Author's Note: New chapter! Yay! It's even a fairly long one too. This one is much lighter in tone overall and I hope you like it. I figured we could use a break from the angst though a bit crept in despite my intentions. Oops. Well, please review and let me know what you think! I'm feeling a bit disheartened though I do appreciate the reviews I have gotten on the last few chapters.

Sandstorms and Falling Leaves

Chapter 26: Gaara: Women are Strange

Gaara looked at the simple invitation that Hinata had handed her warily. "Ino...wants me to come sleep at her house? Why?" She asked slowly, not sure she had heard the blue haired teen correctly.

"Well...umm...not just you, but yes. That's what a sleepover is, ne?" Hinata said, smiling happily. "Haven't you ever been to one before?"

Gaara blinked. "No." She said simply.

Comprehension seemed to dawn in Hinata's violet eyes and she blushed. "Oh, right...I guess you wouldn't have...since people thought you were a boy, it's something mostly girls do. I really hope you'll come though. It'll be more fun with you there." The Hyuuga heiress always felt a little out of place among the more boisterous girls her age. At least with Gaara there, she would almost definitely still have someone to talk with if the other girls got out of hand.

Gaara tilted her head. Hinata's reasoning both amused and astounded the ex-jinchuriki. The reason she'd never been invited to a sleepover before was more likely because the other children had been terrified of her, and not without reason. Well, that, and because until recently she didn't sleep without a monster coming out of her to wreak havoc on the surrounding countryside. The redhead didn't bother to correct the logic though, sometimes she appreciated Konoha's residents more because they all seemed to have not only accepted her as a friend and ally, but many of them seemed also to have forgotten that she was ever anything but the person she was now. It was a truly remarkable feeling to be so totally forgiven for her past mistakes.

Hinata was smiling encouragingly at her, obviously expecting some sort of response.

"I suppose I have no reason not to go." She said after several more moments in thought.

"Great." Hinata beamed and Gaara found herself pleased to have made her friend so happy, though she was still feeling trepidatious about the event in question.

"Who else will be there?" She asked, still looking over the simple invitation like she expected it to disappear at any moment.

"Ino, of course." Hinata said, holding up fingers as she listed off the people she knew would attend. "Me, you, Temari, Tenten..." The girl thought for a moment. "That's probably everyone since Sakura is on a mission." Hinata frowned sheepishly. "Not that Sakura would have come anyway...she...well, um...she and Ino don't really...socialize very well with each other."

The redhead suppressed a smirk. From what she had seen, that was a massive understatement about the two rival leaf kunoichis.

"Anyway, I know Ino will be thrilled to hear you're coming." The shy girl said happily.

"Hn." Gaara said. It was an acknowledgement of her friends excitement, though she still wasn't sure this sleepover was a good idea. 'Especially when I only started actually sleeping by myself last week.' Her mind chimed in but she squashed the voice down immediately. 'Hinata really wants me to go, and Temari will be there too, so it should be fine.'

The following evening found the redhead and her sister outside the Yamanaka home.

"Are you sure about this?" Temari asked the younger girl for the tenth time that day. "I mean...Ino is nice and all but she's really nosy..."

Gaara's only reply to the question was to reach out and knock firmly on the door to the home above the flower shop Ino's family owned.

Ino darted down the stairs to the door as soon as she heard the knock. She had planned the slumber party because the younger kunoichis of the village hadn't had much time to hang out together in several months. At least that is what she told her friends. To Ino, a sleepover was an information gathering jackpot. She hadn't been able to really keep up with the gossip in the village with all the responsibilities she had taken on during the chunin exam, so this would hopefully allow her to catch up. She was even more excited about this particular evening because Gaara and Temari were going to attend. She had the feeling that the redhead had been actively avoiding talking to her but that was going to change tonight.

The blonde leaf kunoichi smiled brightly as she opened the door to find the very guests she was thinking of. "Welcome!" She chirped brightly. "Come on in. The others will be here soon."

The pair of sand ninjas followed the exuberant leaf up the short flight of stairs to the apartment she shared with her parents.

"Can I get you anything? There are snacks on the table in the kitchen and I have soda, tea, milk, or water to drink."

"No." The redhead said slowly. "Thank you." She added after a moment's hesitation.

"I'm good." Temari said with a smile to make up for her baby sister's lack of enthusiasm.

"Okay." Ino smiled back, not at all put off by Gaara's awkwardness. "Oh, before I forget, Temari-san." She pulled a note from her pocket and held it out to the older blonde with a sly grin. "From Shikamaru."

Temari blushed but took the note quickly. "That lazy jerk can't even come see me when he needs to talk to me now." She rolled her eyes to hide her embarrassment as she eagerly tore into the envelope and looked over the contents. Her look of feigned irritation faded as she read and she found herself smiling stupidly at the brief missive by the time she was done.

"Well...what did it say?" Ino asked, trying to look over the taller blonde's shoulder.

"He..." Temari's smile turned into a bright grin. "He's finally asked the Hokage to make him a jonin."

Gaara's eyes lit up with comprehension as she recalled the conversation she had overheard between the lazy leaf ninja and his large friend.

Ino blinked. "He did?" She was shocked that her teammate had not let any word of his intent to do so slip to her, but then she remembered exactly who they were talking about. Shikamaru might be lazy but he could be as sneaky as the shadows he wielded if he felt the effort was warranted. What the nosy leaf kunoichi couldn't figure out was what had made him put forth that effort.

"It's about time too." Temari groused, trying to cover her excitement with her usual attitude.

The corner of Gaara's lip twitched in the tiniest of smiles at her sister's poorly concealed joy. 'Perhaps I'm not the only one in the family who has been contemplating marriage.'

Ino seemed decidedly confused and slightly put out by that state but she quickly shook herself out of it, not wanting to spoil the fun she had planned for the evening.

'Besides, maybe I can get Temari to explain it to me later.' She thought with a smile as she ran to answer the door again, leaving the two Sand ninjas alone for just a moment before returning with a stammering Hinata in tow.

"Th-thank you again f-for inviting m-me, Ino-san." Hinata smiled sheepishly.

"Of course, Hinata-chan. Old school friends have to hang out every now and then. How else are we going to keep up with what's going on in each other's lives, ne?" Ino smiled, with just the tiniest glint in her eyes as she thought about all the gossip she was going to hear.

"Ano...I guess so..." Hinata nodded slowly. She seemed to take notice of Gaara and Temari for the first time and her smile grew at the sight of the redhead. "Gaara-chan. I'm so glad you could come, and Temari-san too." She nodded a greeting to the older girl and moved to stand next to the stone faced exjinchuriki, seeming to relax a bit in Gaara's presence.

Ino noted the interaction with interest. 'I knew Hinata was helping Gaara train but I didn't know they'd become such good friends.' She thought to herself.

The sound of someone knocking at the door sounded once again and Ino was forced to rush back down the stairs in order to let Tenten in.

"Well, that's everyone!" She announced with a grin. "Now let's have some fun, ne?"

Gaara suppressed the urge to shudder. 'I have the feeling I'm going to regret this.' She sighed slightly as her sister dragged her into the living room where the group arranged themselves comfortably around a low table set with various snacks and candy.

"So, I hear long hair is in style again." Ino announced happily after several minutes of chatter, unconsciously preening her long blonde locks. "Have you ever considered growing your hair out, Gaara-chan?"

The redhead blinked, having been content to listen silently to the other four teens babble on about colors and styles of clothing that she'd never even heard of. Still, the question was simple enough. "No."

Temari sighed and ran a hand ruefully over her own unmanageable tresses. "What my sister means to say, is that her hair is too wild to let it grow out. It'd be much too hot for home and it's a pain to take care of as well. Kankuro's is the same way. He used to keep a pet bird in there for a while when he was a kid...until..." She trailed off. 'Until father found out and broke the creature's tiny neck. Kuro hasn't let his hair grow out since.' The older sand sibling forced a smile and changed the subject. "Besides I think Gaara's hair is cute. If she'd just let me do something with it every now and then..."

Gaara frowned, she didn't like where this conversation was going. Recently her sister had become enamored with the idea of putting various accessories in her hair. Gaara didn't see the point of it. Her hair wasn't long enough to be in her eyes and she didn't think the clips and bows Temari kept trying to force on her were very attractive. 'Sometimes I think it was easier when Temari still thought I was a guy.'

Gaara blinked as she noticed that all four girls were looking at her intently. She had allowed her mind to wander and someone had apparently asked her a question while she wasn't paying attention. "Um...I guess so." She offered, hoping the vague response would be appropriate for whatever had been asked of her.

From the victorious look on her sister's face and the gleam in Ino's eyes, Gaara knew she'd made a mistake the moment the words left her mouth.

"Come on then!" Ino grinned and held out a hand to pull the shorter girl to her feet.

Gaara took the hand reluctantly and was quickly towed along to a room that looked more like a six year old girl should inhabit it, rather than a nearly seventeen year old. Lavender ruffles adorned the bed and window dressings and a mountain of stuffed animals towered in one corner beside a vanity table overflowing with cosmetics. It was to this table the pale eyed blonde lead her increasingly nervous guest. The other girls followed the pair down the hall and filed into the room.

"That's the spirit, Gaara-chan! You can't have a sleepover without doing makeovers, after all." Ino beamed.

"Make...overs?" Gaara repeated quietly, not really sure what she had agreed to.

"Yep. You just sit still and don't worry, ne?" Temari had joined the other blonde and they seemed to tower over the seated redhead as the other two teens sat back and watched from the bed.

"We're going to make you beautiful, Little Sis."

Gaara sweat dropped at the sight of the handfuls of hairbows her sister was clutching. 'I should have gone with no.' She decided as the eager pair of women descended on her with every beauty product in Ino's arsenal.

Three hours later, a transformed group of young ladies sat in Ino's living room. Temari's coarse hair had been painstakingly tamed into a sleek bun that made her look much more refined and mature than usual. Hinata's long blue tresses had been curled and swept up into a delicate looking arrangement on top of her head with a few artfully placed curls left loose to framed her pale lavender eyes. Tenten had been talked out of her usual style as well and now her curly brown hair hung to her shoulders, the frizziness tamed out of it with some elixir of Ino's and the curls carefully smoothed into ringlets and pushed back from her face with a ribbon headband.

Gaara's own hair had not been spared restyling, despite the fact that it was only about three inches long and curled in all directions. Twin hairclips shaped like little black bows sat just behind her temples, each holding a tiny curl back from it's usual position on the redhead's forehead. She seriously considered yanking them out while her sister wasn't looking but every time she tried, Temari seemed to somehow know to turn her way and the chance would be lost.

After a few minutes the redhead gave up, reminding herself that it was better to pick the battles she fought with her bossy older sister. Not that Gaara thought she couldn't win, but she did have to live with the other girl and Temari could make that prospect decidedly unpleasant if the mood struck her.

All five teens also wore varying amounts of makeup, with Gaara wearing by far the least since she had flatly refused to allow them to put anything other than blush and some sort of cherry flavored lip gloss on her after she had seen the way they made up each other.

Gaara had been relieved when Ino finally announced that the makeovers were done for the evening...

Until the blonde Leaf kunoichi said a sentence that made the redhead decidedly nervous. "Let's play truth or dare."

Gaara had played the game with her siblings during one of their ill fated attempts to drag their 'little brother' away from his work and the experience had not been pleasant. Temari's dares tended to be of the sort that would be both embarrassing and likely to cause an international incident now that they were no longer at home in Sunagakure.

Ino started off, turning first to Temari. "Truth or dare."

"Dare." The older blonde grinned. She always chose dare.

"" Ino thought for a moment, obviously wishing the foreign ninja had chosen truth. "I dare kiss Shikamaru on the lips." She finally finished with an evil grin, knowing the pair had been dancing around each other for years.

Temari paled, though she and the lazy strategist had tentatively acknowledged their feelings for each other they had never actually done more kissing than a quick peck on the cheek. "Right now?" She asked, hoping to get out of it. "He's not even here."

"Right now. Let's go." Ino stood.

Temari did so as well, seeming to steel herself. "Okay. Follow me." She darted out through the window and took to the rooftops as she headed for the Nara's estate outside the village.

The four well trained ninjas had no trouble keeping up with the blonde as she moved smoothly from the village roofs into the trees beyond. The group came to a silent halt just a dozen yards from the Nara home, stopping so they could keep the concealment of the bushes and trees.

"We'll wait for you here. Make sure you bring him out so we can see you before you do it or it doesn't count." Ino told the older teen in a whisper.

"Yeah yeah, I know." Temari brushed herself off and moved from the trees to the house with a confidence that only Gaara could tell was feigned.

The redhead could see her sister was a nervous wreck. 'Has she really never kissed him?' She thought curiously. It was hard to believe she had more experience with romance than her outgoing sister.

Shikamaru was sitting across the shoji table from his father. Neither had moved a piece in several minutes but that didn't seem to bother either of the Nara men.

"Maru-kun, you have a visitor on the porch." The sing-song voice of his mother interrupted the spiky haired teen's thoughts and he took a few moments to process the words again before deciding to see who would be coming to see him so late in the evening.

'It could be a mission, but Kaa-san's tone didn't sound right for fact she only uses that tone when she talks about...a girl.' He sighed. There were only so many women who'd seek him out and he was pretty sure he could guess which one this was. "Troublesome." He muttered as he stepped out onto the wooden porch that ran around the whole house.

"Wha..." The word froze in his throat as he took in the vision that was Temari in the moonlight. Her hair was done in a style that made her look less like an overgrown six year old and the makeup she was wearing highlighted her features without being too much. Even in her everyday clothes she was stunning to his smitten heart.

"You'll catch flies, Crybaby." Temari chuckled, hoping he couldn't tell that his reaction had caused a redness in her cheeks that wasn't all rouge.

Shikamaru snapped his mouth closed and took another few moments to collect himself.

Temari took the opportunity to pounce. "Walk with me a bit." She ordered.

The Nara heir sighed but walked over to the blonde and didn't protest when she nervously took his arm.

Temari had had a few minutes to think of how to fulfill the terms of the dare without alerting her prey to the game. She didn't want their first kiss spoiled by a silly dare.

Firming her resolve with a quick breath, she spoke softly, hoping the words wouldn't carry to the four kunoichi hiding in the bushes that were just coming into view as they rounded the corner of the house.

"I got your note."

Shikamaru tensed for a moment, the only sign that he might have been nervous as he shrugged.

"Does...does it mean what I think it does?" She asked, cursing her nerves for making the question sound a lot less cocky than she usually allowed.

"It means you are more trouble than you're worth." The lazy genius groused, more out of habit than feeling.

His attitude seemed to help Temari regain her confidence and she grinned at him. "Yeah, well you need someone to kick you into motion once in a while or you'd never do anything."

His silence was answer enough as he didn't bother to argue something he knew was pretty much true.

"I wanted" Temari shook her head, turning to face the outwardly apathetic teen with a huff. "Oh forget it."

Shikamaru's powerful brain deserted him as he watched Temari lean towards him. Then her lips were touching his and his eyes drifted closed after a few startled moments and he couldn't seem to help kissing her back.

Just as quickly as it had begun, the kiss ended and when Shikamaru opened his eyes he was alone on his porch. For an instant he wondered if the whole thing had been in his imagination but the taste of cherry lip gloss on his overly warm lips told him he wasn't going crazy.

"Very troublesome." He mumbled as he turned to go back inside. Still, he couldn't stop the crooked smile that crept onto his face as he relived the kiss in his mind. 'But...maybe worth it.' He added to himself.

The group of girls arrived back at Ino's house within minutes. Temari was still blushing and Ino was grinning like the cat that got the canary while Hinata, Gaara and Tenten wondered nervously who the embarrassed Sand ninja would choose to play next.

Temari shook off the thoughts of Shikamaru with some effort as the group settled back into the living room. She considered getting revenge by choosing Ino to take the next round but she couldn't resist teasing her little sister.

Gaara's eyes flickered with just a hint of fear as her sister focused her attention squarely on her.

"Truth or dare, Baby Sister?"

Gaara hesitated only a few seconds. "Truth."

Temari deflated a bit as Ino perked up in interest. "Hmm..." She already knew most of her sister's secrets and it wouldn't do for them to be shared with everyone else. "What do you have nightmares about?" She asked, genuinely curious since Gaara still refused to share her bad dreams.

Gaara blanched and the older blonde could tell she had made a mistake. The redhead's face became a pale mask as she tried to reign in her emotions at the memories that flooded her mind with her sister's simple question. "Don't...don't ask that." She said flatly.

Temari started to offer another question but Ino interrupted.

"The rules are that you have to answer whatever the person asks, or you have to answer a question from each one of us as punishment." Her inner Ino cheered. She had just made up that rule but no one could really call her on it since it was her party.

Gaara thought for a moment and then nodded. "Just...not that."

Ino grinned evilly. "Okay, Temari ask your question."

Temari frowned thoughtfully. "Okay..." She decided to go easy on the younger girl, as an apology of sorts for causing distress. "Who would you like to go on a dream date with and what would it be like?"

Relieved, Gaara couldn't help the tiny hint of a smile that toyed with the corner of her mouth at the easy question. "Naruto." She supplied easily. "Any date is nice with him." She blushed, unable to think up any really romantic ideas for a dream date. She'd never really considered the idea before.

"Really? Anybody in the world and you want to date Naruto?!" Tenten burst out, startling the others since she had been fairly quiet up to that point. "Why? What do you see in him?"

"That's two questions." Temari pointed out with slight amusement, ignoring the fact that her own question had been two questions as well, just worked into one sentence.

"Oh, um...sorry. No that isn't my" The brown haired girl scratched the back of her head sheepishly. "Um...Have you ever kissed a guy and if so, who was it?" She smiled, pleased with having worked the two topics into one question.

Gaara blushed but nodded. "Naruto...we've kissed." She admitted.

Hinata was next as Ino was too busy absorbing every scrap of information she could from Gaara's short answers.

"Ano...How did..." She blushed hotly but the question had been plaguing her for some time. "How did Naruto-kun's pants end up on your bed?"

Gaara flushed the same shade as her hair at what the shy girl was implying but she recovered quickly. She knew the only time Naruto had left his pants in her possession had been entirely innocent. "After the second stage of the chunin exams...when he got hurt." She shoved away the thought that he could have died. Naruto didn't know how to die. "I fixed them and washed them for him..." That wasn't entirely accurate. "Actually Kankuro fixed them." She corrected herself calmly. "I can't sew."

Ino frowned. 'Drat, that sounded like it might have been something juicy. Too bad.'

Hinata blushed but looked relieved as well. She didn't really think Gaara was the sort to allow half naked men in her bed. Even if Naruto and the exiled Kazekage were sleeping together, the blue haired girl was fairly sure all their clothes would stay on. The fact that Naruto was still alive despite his girlfriend having two violently overprotective older siblings was testament to that.

Ino took a few moments to decide on her question. This was her best chance to get some really good information out of the exiled Kazekage so she had to make it count. At last it came to her. "So, Gaara-chan, how serious is this thing between you and Naruto?" She asked incredulously, still unable to picture the hyperactive idiot she knew from school with the stoic young woman sitting before her.

The redhead's face flamed again as her mind replayed dozens of nights held in his arms and the few dates they had managed to go on, culminating in her whispered proposal and his sleepy affirmative answer. "I don't understand what you're asking." She said slowly, buying herself time to form an appropriate response.

Ino frowned. "I mean...I know you've been on a few dates and you say you've kissed him...and I know you called yourself his girlfriend when he was in the hospital. I guess I'm just trying to ask where you think the relationship is going."

Gaara blinked at how much the girl actually had managed to glean from hearsay and whatever other sources she might have used. She considered the revised question carefully for a moment before she answered confidently. "I'm going to marry him."

Temari grinned, pleased that the doubt that had plagued her little sister seemed to have been resolved.

Ino's pale eyes widened. She hadn't been expecting that. "What? Like now?"

Gaara shrugged, not minding the extra question since the girl's tone made her feel the need to defend her choice. "Whenever he asks me." She answered calmly, oddly eager butterflies settling into her stomach at the thought.

Ino sighed in relief, pleased to know she hadn't missed anything so grand as a proposal in her information gathering. "Hmph, good luck with that." She offered sourly. "Guys our age aren't ready for that sort of commitment." She snorted, pushing the image of a certain potato chip eating idiot out of her head with a burst of denial.

Gaara's eyes flickered with doubt for a moment.

"Yeah, well you might be surprised by some of them." Temari said cryptically, winking at the redhead.

Gaara blinked back, wondering if her sister was just trying to encourage her or if she actually knew something she wasn't sharing.

Ino took in that knowing statement with interest but had to file it away for later perusal since the game wasn't over. "Gaara-chan, it's your turn."

The redhead looked over the other girls for a moment deciding who to question. The game seemed to revolve around asking embarrassing questions or making the person do things they would normally avoid and she didn't really know Tenten or Ino well enough to do either to them. That left only her sister and Hinata, and Temari had already had a turn.

Aqua eyes turned to the nervous looking blue haired girl. "Truth or Dare?"

Hinata paled a bit and smiled nervously. "" The shy girl said softly.

Gaara thought for a few moments. "What happened on your last date?" She asked calmly. Hinata had told her about most of the dates she had shared with the insect keeper but she had been oddly silent about the last one and Gaara was honestly curious.

Hinata did her best to match Gaara's hair and she looked down at her hands which had begun to fidget nervously in front of her. " and I...He t-told me..." The girl shook her head to stop her stammering. "Shino t-told me he's in l-love with me." She admitted finally with a small sad smile.

"Good catch, Hinata-chan!" Temari grinned and slapped the younger girl on the back amiably.

Ino wasn't so sure. 'Shino is a bit...intense and let's face it, bugs living inside his body...that's downright disturbing even by ninja standards.' She shook her head. "What did you say?" She asked curiously.

Hinata's crimson cheeks made her answer clear before she managed to squeak the words out. "I t-told I think...I l-love him t-too." Again, there was a trace of sadness in her tone that Gaara didn't understand.

Gaara was happy for her friend. Shino was a nice guy and even the socially inexperienced redhead could tell he would move heaven and earth for the blue haired girl's happiness.

"Really?" Ino asked, unable to hold in her disbelief any longer. She noticed that Hinata looked somewhat offended by her tone so she hurried to clarify her meaning. "He's an okay guy and all, don't get me wrong. It's just that, of all the people you could end up dating, Hinata-chan, I never would've pictured Shino-kun as your type." She shook her head thoughtfully. "I mean, with your crush on Naruto, I'd have thought you'd be more likely to end up with someone like Kiba-kun or even Lee-san. I mean, Shino's so...different from Naruto."

Hinata relaxed as the blonde leaf ninja's meaning became clear. She smiled slightly though it didn't reach her eyes. " was time for me to stop hovering in anyone's shadow." She said slowly, thinking of Shino's kind words the day she had finally told Naruto her feelings and been rejected by him.

Ino nodded thoughtfully. True, Hinata had always gotten rather overshadowed by Naruto and the same thing would've happened with anyone like him. Maybe she and Shino were a good match after all. " it serious? Have you kissed yet? Are you going to marry him?" The questions poured forth in a rush of curiosity.

Hinata shook her head and stammered, unable to handle the flow of questions.

"Ino-san." Gaara's steady voice cut the blonde off mid word. "It isn't your turn." The redhead said calmly.

Hinata shot the exjinchuriki a grateful look as the reminder spared her from having to share more about her relationship with Shino than she was prepared to discuss. The redhead noticed that her friend's lavender eyes were glistening with unshed tears but it could have been merely relief.

Ino looked mildly put out but she covered it with a wry smile and a small bow to Hinata. "Of course, sorry Hinata-chan. Go ahead."

Hinata nodded, already appearing less distressed, and quickly chose Tenten to direct her question towards. "Truth or Dare?"

Gaara stretched out on the futon that had been provided for her on the floor in Ino's room. She was slightly nervous about sleeping with so many people around but she wasn't having nightmares every night anymore so she felt the risk was minimal.

As she closed her eyes, she thought of Naruto and began imagining the future they might share. She saw herself in her Kazekage robes, the loose garment tented by her belly swollen with Naruto's child. Naruto himself tumbling across the floor in a tangle of limbs with two older children, a girl with his distinctive yellow hair and her aqua eyes and a smaller boy with her crimson locks and Naruto's piercing blue gaze. All of them were laughing as she watched them play, or train as Naruto would likely call it.

Gaara wasn't certain when she fell asleep but she was smiling softly, contentedly.

The next morning the five young women said their goodbyes and went separate ways in good spirits. Gaara had slept soundly through the night, much to her relief and Temari's. The redhead and Hinata headed for their favorite training ground while Tenten and Ino reported for their assigned duties and Temari headed home to check in with Kankuro.

Hinata seemed lost in thought as the pair of teens walked and Gaara wasn't one to break a comfortable silence. Finally, the blue haired girl spoke up. "Ano...Gaara..."

The redhead turned her eyes to look at the shy girl expectantly.

"I...I was wondering...I know you and N-Naruto are pretty serious about each other..." The girl blushed. "Are...are you ever afraid...that it won't work out? I m-mean...I know p-people have to make s-sacrifices for a relationship s-sometimes...b-but what if that s-sacrifice is really huge..." The girl hesitated, obviously choosing her words carefully. "I if b-being with Naruto meant you had to give up b-being Kazekage?"

Gaara thought the question over for a few moments, it wasn't the first time she'd considered it. "I think, love is something worth fighting for. No matter what the personal cost might be."

Hinata sighed heavily, seeming to struggle with herself before she spoke again. "What if it meant giving up your family?" The violet eyed young woman asked sadly.

Gaara's eyes narrowed. That didn't sound like a hypothetical question anymore. Hinata's strange sadness as she talked about Shino's confession of love during the game came suddenly back into the redhead's mind. "Hinata, what's going on?" She asked sharply, not liking to see her friend so down.

Pale purple eyes blinked as if she hadn't expected the question and tears welled up as she finally admitted the root of the problem. "Shino asked my father for permission to marry me and he said no. Father has forbidden me from seeing Shino anymore." The girl sobbed.

Aqua eyes widened in shock. How could anyone be so cruel to their own child? "Why?" She asked after a moment, wondering if there was some reason for such a cruel ruling.

"I..." Hinata shook her head. "I can't tell you. I swore I wouldn't tell anyone. I can only say that there's a reason the Hyuuga's don't ever intermarry with the Aburame's."

Gaara nodded, she understood secrecy. She paused for a moment as Hinata struggled to get control of her tears. "Is that reason good enough for you?" She asked softly when the blue haired teen seemed to have gotten a handle on her emotions.

Pale eyes widened as if that consideration had never crossed her mind. "What?" She gasped.

"This reason that your father has for keeping you it valid?" The redhead elaborated carefully. "To answer your earlier question, in the very real likelihood that Suna's council might try to use my relationship with Naruto to keep me from taking my title back, I would fight them. I would try to convince them they were wrong." She said slowly. "However, I would give up my place in Sunagakure before I gave up Naruto." It was a strange relief to say the words aloud and the redhead was amazed that she had finally figured out a satisfying answer to that question. She loved her people and she would defend them to her dying breath but she didn't have to be Kazekage to do that. Naruto was more important to her than the title and respect she had worked so hard to earn.

Hinata blinked back her tears. "Fight? Fight my father?" She paled at the thought. She had spent her whole life seeking the respect of her father, acknowledgement from him that she was good enough, strong enough. 'And he's never once given me hope that that will ever happen.' She admitted to herself. She had done everything he had ever asked of her, because she wanted him to be proud of her.

Gaara waited patiently for her friend to think the idea over.

" it okay if I skip today's training." The Hyuuga heiress finally asked, wiping her eyes to clear away the last of her tears. "I have someone I need to go talk to."

Gaara nodded, a small smile pulling at the corner of her lips.

Hinata answered that ghost of a smile with a blinding grin that would've made Naruto proud. "Arigatou! I'll see you tomorrow."

The long haired girl darted off and Gaara was left alone. She considered going home but decided instead to continue on to the training grounds on her own.

'Good luck, Hinata.' She thought fondly as she approached the sandy area she had created over many weeks of practice.

The redhead began to move the sand around her with small gestures, not wanting to exhaust her chakra supply and pass out. She was unaware of the cold eyes watching her from the trees.

To Be Continued...

Author's Note: Finally! This chapter got stuck for a while but watching some Naruto got me moving again. I hope everyone enjoyed it. Next chapter: Naruto finally heads home but who's stalking Gaara and what are their intentions? Will Naruto make it back before they act? Also, I'm going to be working on a Shino/Hinata sidestory to this one because they've got a lot going on that I haven't covered in this story and I thought you all might want to know.