Author's Note: Sorry for the wait. I ran into some trouble with the end of this chapter and it took me forever to get something decent worked out. I hope you all enjoy it. Please review and tell me what you think. Thanks for your patience! Also, I know I have published a few short chapters recently. I would like everyone to know I don't write short chapters to tease (or be sadistic as one reviewer claimed). I wrote short chapters because of where the story seemed to break naturally to me; and it also helps to lessen the time between updates. I'm sorry if that bothers anyone. I assure you I am working as fast as inspiration will allow. Thanks for your time. On with the fic!
Sandstorms and Falling Leaves
Chapter 30: Question and Answer
Naruto paced the open air hallway, having arrived at Gaara's door several minutes early. That was after he spent over an hour fidgeting nervously in his apartment; and after he had showered and dressed in his nicest clothes. He brushed a hand over the black pants and bright orange dress shirt for the hundredth time, smoothing imaginary wrinkles in the soft fabric. He'd forgone his hitae-ate (shoving the treasured headband into his pocket, just in case) and his yellow blonde hair stood out around his head in a golden halo. Gaara's sand flower necklace hung over his shirt while Tsunade's pendant was tucked out of sight.
The leaf ninja had raised his hand to knock half a dozen times and he was just doing so again when the door was jerked open by an irritated looking Temari.
"Would you come in already!?" The older blonde nearly ordered, shaking her head in annoyance. She huffed out a breath and pointed to the couch. "Go sit. Gaara will be out when I'm done with her."
Without further hospitality, the pigtailed woman disappeared down the hall and into her little sister's room.
Naruto hadn't told anyone exactly what he was planning for the evening. Sometimes being able to have half a dozen of himself around at once was really handy, especially when trying to surprise someone. He'd told Gaara that he wanted to do something special to celebrate his return from his mission and asked her to wear something nice.
'And that apparently prompted her to turn herself over to her sister's mercies.' The leaf ninja thought with a sympathetic grimace. Temari seemed to take great pleasure in making Gaara do all the girly things the redhead generally seemed inclined to avoid; like shaving her legs, wearing makeup, putting effort into choosing her clothes.
He fidgeted nervously for several minutes before the older girl reemerged, towing a slightly aggravated looking redhead by one arm.
Gaara shook her sister's clutches off with a brief glare before she sheepishly looked towards her date.
Naruto found himself truly appreciating the sacrifice Gaara had made in giving her elder sister free reign over her appearance for the evening. The redhead was always striking but Temari had a real talent for accentuating her sister's feminine features while still letting Gaara look like, well Gaara.
Gaara's short hair had been tamed into gentle curls; with a pair of tiny green barrettes to keep it out of her face. She wore a simple pale green sleeveless dress that flared gently to a halt just above her knees. The fabric was embroidered with a delicate tracery of leaves and vines in a darker green and it was accented at the waist with a sash in the same crimson as the sand user's fiery hair. A dusting of makeup and a pair of black flats finished off the effect and Naruto found himself momentarily at a loss for words.
He rallied quickly. "You look great, Gaara." He managed to blurt out after only a small hesitation, grinning happily as his date blushed at the compliment.
"Um...so are you ready?" The chunin asked after an awkward silence; as Temari stared at them expectantly.
A firm nod was all the answer he needed to galvanize him into motion. He held out a hand and caught Gaara's smaller one in his before leading her from the apartment. The pair made their way down to the street hand in hand.
Naruto paused just outside a familiar imposing gate and pulled the cord to alert those inside.
'This is Hinata's home...' Gaara noted curiously to herself.
A minute later, Hinata herself emerged from the gate. "Here you go. I hope it turned out the way you wanted."
"I'm sure it'll be great, Hinata-chan." Naruto grinned as he took the large covered basket she offered him.
Hinata smiled shyly at them both before waving and ducking back into her family's compound.
"Naruto...?" Gaara began.
"It a surprise." The leaf chunin interrupted with a grin. "Do you trust me?"
The sand user didn't even have to think about the question before she nodded.
"Good. Then just wait a little longer and everything will make sense." The blonde reassured her as he tugged her gently back into motion.
Gaara recognized the path he led her to as the one that would take them to the cliffs above the hokages' stone images.
A few minutes later, the pair rounded the final curve in the path and the clearing at the top came into view. The sun had set during the leisurely walk and the village stretched out beneath the cliffs was now a sea of twinkling lights.
Gaara's eyes widened as she finally got to see what Naruto, or more likely several Narutos, had been up to all day.
There was a tablecloth spread on the ground near the cliff; with a couple of extra blankets to one side, in case they got cold while enjoying the breathtaking view. All around the clearing were lit candles, in all different shapes and sizes. The redhead suspected Naruto must have scrounged them from everyone he knew to have so many.
The effect turned the clearing into an extension of the sparkling city below and Gaara took a moment to simply appreciate the beauty of the scene the leaf ninja had created for her.
Said ninja was now shuffling his feet nervously and watching her face carefully for her reaction so she felt compelled to offer him some sort of response.
"It's lovely." She said softly, not wanting to break the peaceful scene with her voice.
The blonde grinned and pulled her over to the blanket where he deposited the laden basket he had been carrying and sat down to unpack it. Gaara settled herself on the blanket as he pulled out plates and bowls and spoons and chopsticks as well as glasses and a thermos that smelled of tea when he opened it to check the contents.
"Close your eyes for me." He said as he reached into the basket once again. "Please?"
Gaara cocked her head at the curious request but did as he asked. She listened to him shuffling for a minute or two; the dishes clinking softly, the blanket rustling.
She caught a faintly familiar smell as she felt him move in front of her but she couldn't quite place it. She was still trying to figure it out when her date cleared his throat nervously.
"Okay, you can open them now." Naruto said, sweating a little despite the cool evening.
The redhead complied and looked down to see her dinner carefully laid out before her. "Is that..?"
Naruto nodded. "Cactus soup and grilled lizard." He grinned. "I hope I got the right recipe." He added nervously.
Gaara was both touched and astounded by the effort that must have gone into the meal. She picked up her chopsticks and caught one of the bite sized chunks of meat; bringing it to her lips under Naruto's watchful gaze. The scrutiny made her a bit self-conscious so she closed her eyes to better focus on the flavor.
It was good, smoky and chewy as she remembered; drizzled with brown sauce that was sweet and spicy and savory. She turned her attention to the soup, and was pleased when the familiar flavor of Suna's summer soup flooded her mouth. It was a bit tangier than she preferred but not overly so, and Gaara felt a small smile spreading across her face as she turned her eyes back to her date.
"How?" She asked in amazement.
Naruto flushed. "There's a specialty food shop that carries most of the ingredients. I ordered the rest when we headed home from our mission." He scratched his head sheepishly. "I got the recipes from Matsuri and Hinata did the actual cooking because I'm pretty terrible at it." He laughed nervously. "So how did I do?"
"Our first date." Gaara said slowly, remembering. "It's wonderful, but why?"
Naruto felt his mouth go dry, all his carefully prepared romantic words leaving his mind in a rush. "I...I wanted to do something special...to show you how important you are to me." He managed after a few moments of scrambling mentally to get his thoughts back in order. He paused and took a deep breath.
Gaara waited patiently for him to continue, her food nearly forgotten as she watched the blonde.
"This meal...that date in Suna..." He gestured at the food spread in front of them. "That's where everything started for me. That's when I fell in love with you." He blushed at the utter sappiness of what he was saying, but it was true and he wouldn't take it back. "I've cared for you as a friend for years, but in the last few months you've become so much more than just my friend. When I'm away from you it feels like an important piece of me is missing and I can't relax until I find it again."
The leaf ninja moved so he was sitting right beside the redhead, taking her hand in his. "I don't ever want to have anyone tell us we can't be together." He said hurriedly, his heart pounding loud enough in his ears he was shocked that Gaara couldn't hear it too.
The redhead opened her mouth to speak but he beat her to it.
"I want to marry you." He said in a rush, half afraid he'd never get the words out if he let her speak first. He tugged the necklace he had made for her from his pocket and let it dangle between them. "That's my answer to the question you asked me a few weeks ago. I would have asked but you beat me to it." He grinned nervously.
Gaara flushed almost as crimson as her hair as she realized he hadn't merely been talking in his sleep when he replied to her that night. "But...we can't...my brother..." She stammered; thinking of how hurt Kankuro would be if they ignored his rights and got engaged without his blessing.
"I already asked him." Naruto's grin grew wider. "He threatened to kill me...again, but we've got his blessing."
Gaara's aqua eyes widened at the news. She had been under the impression that Kankuro didn't really want her seeing Naruto at all. With that concern soothed, she reached for the dangling pendant with trembling fingers and tugged it from Naruto's hand to get a better look at it in the dim light.
It was a simple wooden disc; strung on a green ribbon and carefully carved and smoothed into an oblong shape, about three inches long and an inch or so wide. On one flat side was carved the hourglass emblem of her village; the same one every Suna ninja bore on their hitae-ate. On the other side, as she turned it over to examine the back, was carved the familiar leaf symbol of Konoha.
"Open it." Naruto said softly.
Gaara blinked at the words and ran her finger along a small crack in the edge of the pendant, one she had at first mistaken for a simple decoration. The locket swung smoothly open on a tiny hidden hinge and revealed the contents.
"A key?" She asked as she pulled out the innocuous looking object in question.
Naruto nodded. "That's a key to my apartment, my home." He explained carefully. "I know that it's not much and it won't be our home forever...but it can be for now; if you say yes. Everyone said that an engagement necklace should be special; that it should mean something." He continued nervously. "So that's why I put both our villages' emblems on it; so you would know that as long as we can be together...here or in Suna or anywhere else. The place doesn't matter to me." He tapped the key with one finger. "This is so you know my home will always be yours...and wherever you are is home to me." The blonde was blushing profusely but his gaze was steady as he waited for the sand user's reaction.
Gaara took a moment to absorb the sentiment behind the plain looking necklace as well as the enormity of what he was offering her. If they married it could very well end up costing him his dream of becoming hokage. Choosing to tie his life to hers could mean leaving his friends, his home, everything he had ever known for an indeterminate amount of time.
'He would do that for me...' She thought in awe. '...and I'd do the same for him.' The realization melted away the last of her doubts.
"Yes." She said simply, closing the locket over the key with shaking hands and slipping the ribbon over her head.
Naruto let out a whoop of pure joy and wrapped her in his arms, kissing her soundly. Gaara responded in kind, leaning into the embrace and deepening the kiss.
"Ow!" Naruto pulled back suddenly, rubbing his head and looking around.
"You aren't married yet." A voice drawled from the bushes at the clearing's edge.
"Kankuro!" Another voice hissed.
Gaara flushed, partly in embarrassment and partly in anger. "Go home." She ordered sharply.
Temari stood from the bushes with their brother in tow by one of his elbows. The eldest sand sibling looked only mildly sheepish at having been caught spying on their baby sister. Kankuro on the other hand looked entirely unrepentant for the small rock he had thrown at Naruto's head in warning.
"Sorry." The eldest Suna sibling offered with a grin. "It isn't everyday my baby sister gets engaged. I just wanted to watch."
Kankuro huffed. "I just wanted to make sure he didn't try anything." He muttered.
"Go home. Now!" Gaara snapped, dust swirling angrily around her feet as she stood.
The two sand ninjas were gone in a blur and Gaara waited only a moment or two to ensure they were really gone, before settling back down on the blanket with a small snort of indulgent aggravation.
Naruto meanwhile had been watching the whole exchange with wide eyes. He reached out to touch the redhead's arm cautiously, not sure of her mood.
"I'm fine." The sand wielder said quickly. "Sorry."
Naruto grinned, even suppressing a small chuckle. "It's okay. They love you too. I can't fault them for that."
Gaara shook her head and smirked. "I'll deal with them later." She said with a note of threat in her tone despite her smile. "Let's eat."
"Yeah. Let's eat." Naruto agreed with a small kiss on her cheek before he grabbed his plate and brought it over so he could sit beside her as he began to enjoy his meal.
The redhead scooted closer to the hyperactive blonde and they ate in companionable silence for several minutes; Gaara watching the twinkling lights of the village below and Naruto watching Gaara.
"Are you really sure about this?" Gaara found herself asking softly, barely aware of the doubts swimming through her head until they poured from her lips.
'Is he just doing this because of Suna's laws? Or is it because he heard me ask him that question?' Her thoughts were racing as she struggled for words she rarely felt the need to use.
"I mean...I know my family made a big deal out of Suna's traditions and if that's why..." The redhead trailed off, never terribly skilled with words in the best of circumstances and especially not so good with them when the love of her life was looking at her in utter disbelief.
Naruto smiled and shook his head. "You really still don't understand how special you are to me, do you?" He suppressed a laugh at her wide eyed expression. "Gaara, I love you; more than anyone else I've ever known. Your village's laws have nothing to do with me wanting to marry you; and while your brother and sister can be scary as anything I've ever seen when they put their minds to it; I'm not really afraid of them either. I asked you to marry me because nothing in the world would make me happier than to have you beside me for the rest of my life."
Gaara blinked at the honesty and intensity in her new fiancee's eyes. Sure, he had said things like that to her before but there was a small part of her that still had trouble accepting the idea that anyone could love her so much. It had taken her siblings years to convince her that they cared, and she still doubted them at times; despite her more logical mind telling her how stupid she was for worrying the way she did. Naruto expected that same level of trust when they had only been dating a short time.
'Has it really only been a few months?' She thought to herself, startled at how quickly her life had changed. Everything before the Akatsuki attack seemed like a lifetime ago.
"I love you." The redhead was amazed at how easily the words spilled out; words she would have never imagined from her mouth just a few years ago. "However...I just don't want you to rush into this...and regret it later." She finally managed to reply haltingly to the blonde's expectant look.
"The only thing I can imagine regretting...no, the only thing I know I would regret...is wasting any more time alone that I could be spending with you as my wife. I know we're young and I know it isn't going to be easy..." He held up the tiny vial of sand flowers she had given him, offering her a small smile. "But just like I told you on our first date...I'll fight for us...for you."
Gaara found herself answering his smile with one of her own rare ones. She reached up and covered his hand with her own. "Then we need to get ready; because you've never fought a battle like this one, Naruto." She told him seriously.
"What do you mean?" Naruto's smile faltered for just a moment.
"Politics." The redhead said ominously.
To Be Continued
Author's Note: I'm not completely happy with the way this chapter turned out but I am tired of fighting with it and I'm sure you all are tired of waiting for it. So, here it is. The end didn't come out quite the way I had expected but it does give you a better idea of what to look forward to in the next chapter or possibly several chapters. I hope you enjoyed it. Please review and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading, and thank you for your patience with my sporadic updates. I'm working on the next chapter and I will get it published as soon as I finish it.