Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, nor any characters, places, things, or ideas therein. The aforementioned belong to Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, and Shonen Jump. I am writing this piece for entertainment purposes only, not monetary gain.

Summary: Perhaps it is possible for two broken hearts to heal each other, and to find love where before it did not seem to exist. GaaHina, NejiTen

Rating: K+

Warnings: Mentions past character death

Pairings: Gaara/Hinata, Neji/Tenten, briefly mentions Naruto/Sakura, past Gaara/Tenten and Hinata/OC

Series: related to my Eyes Like Open Doors story chapters Nothing (chapter 27), Anything (chapter 28), Everything (chapter 29), and Sanctuary (chapter 32). It would probably be best to read those first for best understanding of this fic.

Author's Note: In a review for Eyes Like Open Doors, rallybabe89 asked for a follow-up story to the Nothing/Anything/Everything/Sanctuary storyline that detailed what happened with Gaara and Hinata. So I wrote this piece, which is one of four storylines I eventually plan on expounding on from the originals in ELOD (I'm just sorry it's taken me so long to get it finished and posted!). Thank you, rallybabe89, for asking for this piece, and thank all of you for taking the time to read it! I hope you enjoy!

*~Desert Rose~*


Hinata always visited the grave when it was sunny. She did it to remember the good times she'd had with Toshiyuki, and coming on beautiful days made that easier. The sun also helped her forget how cold and rainy it had been on the day she'd buried him.

Sometimes Tenten would come, too, to offer her friend support. Hinata had always appreciated having the older girl with her, but today she had turned down the kunoichi's offer to accompany her. "There is someone else I need to bring with me today."

As she had expected, Hinata found Hotaru with her cousin Hizashi, who treated the two-year-old girl like his little sister. After promising her nephew that she would bring Hotaru back later, she propped her midnight-haired child on her hip and carried her to the private Hyuuga graveyard located at the very back of the estate.

Hotaru sat quietly on her mother's lap, perhaps sensing Hinata's somber mood. For one so young, she had an uncanny ability to sense when those around her were unhappy, shifting her own mood to match.

"Hotaru, this is your father. His name is Toshiyuki." In truth, Hinata didn't expect Hotaru to understand what was going on. But she knew it was time that she began to accustom her child to the fact that her father was never going to be there for her.

Her daughter's pale lavender eyes studied the stone for a long time. Then she crawled off Hinata's lap to kneel with her head against the carvings, little fingers tracing each impression intently. The Hyuuga clan leader knew Hotaru couldn't actually read the inscriptions, or understand their meanings, but nonetheless she hoped that somehow, this experience would bring the girl closer to her father.

Returning her gaze to Toshiyuki's name, Hinata sighed. I know you wanted me to find happiness with someone else - you told me so. But still ... I miss you. He hadn't lived to see his daughter born; his wife become clan head and mostly overcome her insecure stutter; or the cadet branches of the Hyuuga clan be freed, something in which he had completely supported her initiative.

Ducking her head, she swiped at her tears. The ghost of her dead husband's smile - the lopsided tilt of his lips, the way his bright eyes crinkled at the corners - lingered in her mind, bringing her mingled peace and sadness. Above all else, he'd always told her, he'd wanted her to be happy. Life as a shinobi was difficult and dangerous, which meant that they needed to grasp the few, precious times of happiess they could.

Even as those last few horrible, rattling breaths escaped him, Toshiyuki had asked her to find someone else, someone who she could love, and who would love her. Who would make her happy again. Hinata had found that concept inconceivable at the time, but now...

It had been a little over two years since his death. Hinata had been kept busy by Hotaru and her own clan duties, which was a blessing in disguise. It had allowed her to heal quietly, taking the bite off the pain she had originally thought would destroy her. Now she realized that the time of healing she'd been taking for granted was helping her move on. She would never, ever forget Toshiyuki or her love for him, but she would try to honor his final wish.

She would find happiness and love again, if there was indeed someone out there with whom she could share it.

"But I want to go home!"

Gaara still found it difficult to believe that his sister, several years his senior, could still find ways to be as whiny as a child. "You did not have to come to Konoha with me."

Temari slumped sideways on her brother's mattress, glaring across the room at him with cold blue eyes. "It's not like you can come by yourself," she pointed out. "You're one of the five most important people in the world. Can't have you be attacked somewhere on the road between here and home and be unable to defend yourself."

Another thing that Gaara found difficult to believe: Once Shukaku had been removed from him, Temari and Kankuro suddenly started seeing him as a child unable to take care of himself. And if there was one thing he hated more than being looked down upon, it was being treated like a child. "I have found little difficulty in doing so for several years."

Kankuro decided to interject his opinion without moving away from the window. "Your business with the Hokage is through. What other reason could you possibly have for staying?"

"You are more than welcome to go home without me," Gaara stated flatly. "But I will remain here for at least another day." Reaching into the pack propped up against his desk, he withdrew a scroll and reached for his pen.

"At least? At least! Ugh, Gaara, why are you being so difficult? You've got duties at home."

"We are currently in a time of peace, and I have left perfectly capable people in charge during my absence. I do not see the cause for concern." Was it too much of him to ask for a little bit of time to himself? To pursue his own interests and find some release from the pressures of being Kazekage? To - dare he think it? - have a bit of a vacation? Gaara was a serious person, but he wasn't a machine. He did need some rest every now and then, and Konoha seemed as good a place as any to find such relaxation. Perhaps even better than some other places, now that he thought about it.

Temari rolled over so her face was buried in a pillow. "Stubborn," she muttered.

"Naruto invited us to dine with him and some others tonight," Gaara said, attempting a change of subject. "I accepted the invitation, and I expect both of you to be there, as well." His tone implied that he also expected them to be on their best behavior. He was the youngest, but he was also the most responsible of the three of them. It was his job to keep the other two in line sometimes, he felt.

"We couldn't reasonably start back to Suna tonight, this close to dark," Kankuro mused. "Okay, sure, I'll come."

"Fine." Temari lifted her head from the pillow long enough to utter the word before returning to her former position.

"Good." Gaara turned back to his scroll. "We are to be at the Hokage tower by sunset."

His siblings took the comment as the dismissal it was, leaving his room to go ready themselves for the evening. Letting out a soft breath of relief, Gaara pushed away the work he couldn't really concentrate on and went to the window. He knew Temari and Kankuro weren't going to let the subject of their staying go that easily, but he'd bought himself a brief respite, anyway.

In truth, he had more than one reason for wanting to remain in Konoha longer. For the past two days, he'd been so busy talking about business with Naruto that he hadn't had a chance to spend any time with his friends ... or, if he were being honest with himself, one friend in particular. He had long ago accepted that Tenten was a Hyuuga, and would always be in love with her husband Neji. He'd been able to get over his own feelings for her, and now they were close friends. In fact, he almost felt like she was another sister to him. One that wasn't quite so loud, overbearing, and bossy as Temari. He had hoped to spend some time catching up with her before he had to leave the Leaf Village.

Perhaps she would be at the meal tonight, and he could arrange a time to meet her and Neji somewhere tomorrow. Yes, Gaara decided as he went to change clothes, that should work well.

Cautiously, Hinata accepted the gentlemanly arm Neji held out toward her. His other was already occupied by his wife, who looked lovely in a kimono that almost hid her second pregnancy.

"I don't understand why Naruto had to schedule this dinner," Hinata stated. "This isn't a holiday, and there are no important matters of state to which must be attended."

Tenten leaned around Neji as the three of them left the Hyuuga estate behind, bound for the Hokage tower. "Gaara and his siblings are visiting," she said. "Naruto wanted us all to be able to spend some time with them before they had to go home. It's so rare that they get to come visit us."

"Besides," Neji continued, "now that most of us have families, it's hard for us all to find time to find time to meet like we used to. This gives us a chance to spend time together and catch up."

Unable to find a reasonable argument to counter that logic, Hinata nodded and then lapsed into silence. After her graveside decision earlier in the day, she'd hoped for some time alone to think things through. The sudden invitation to dinner had stolen the opportunity from Hinata, and she felt a little upset at the interruption of her plans.

Naruto and Sakura were standing at the doorway of the formal dining hall in the tower, greeting everyone as they arrived. From the looks of things, Hinata, Neji, and Tenten were the last to get there. Those who had already come stood in groups, talking and laughing, creating a comfortable, welcome atmosphere in the room.

"Just in time!" Naruto declared cheerfully. "I'm glad you three could make it."

Sakura nodded in agreement. "It's been so long since all of us had some time to get together like in the old days. Tonight is going to be great, I just know it."

When it was just "the gang," as Naruto put it, hanging out together casually, he waved off any formalities that had arisen since he'd taken over the post of Hokage. Although they'd been friends for years, Hinata still found it strange calling her superior by his given name instead of his respectful title.

"Thanks for organizing this," Tenten said, drawing Hinata from her thoughts. "Neji and I were just talking the other day about trying to put something together, but I think this has worked out better."

Grinning, Naruto waved his hand at the older ninja. "Eh, when you're Hokage, you can make things happen." A call from behind him drew his attention, and he quickly excused himself to converse with Kiba.

Sakura sidled up to Hinata and tucked her arm through the Hyuuga's. "Excuse us," the pink-haired medic said to Neji and Tenten. "But it's been forever since I've talked to Hinata, and I want to catch up."

Reluctantly, Hinata allowed herself to be towed away. "How are things at the hospital?"

"Great! I think." Sakura bit her lower lip. "Lady Tsunade is this close to retiring-" her thumb and forefinger indicated a very small amount "-and I'm starting to feel the stress. Plus..." She shot a quick glance around and leaned a little closer. "Can you keep a secret?"

Hinata nodded once, curious. Besides Ino, Sakura was the most outspoken of the four kunoichi in the Konoha 12. She wasn't used to secrets from the girl.

The woman quickly lifted her left hand, flashing the palm so Hinata glimpsed the beautiful ring on her finger, jewel turned inward to keep from drawing attention. "I'm doubly stressed since I'm planning the wedding." Her voice was hushed but excited, her cheeks the same color as her hair. "We're planning to announce it tonight."

Five years ago, Hinata would have been heartbroken at this news. But now, excitement stirred inside Hinata as she quickly embraced her friend. "I'm so happy for you," she whispered, smiling genuinely. Sakura was the last of the four close kunoichi friends to marry, and the arrangement had been a long time coming.

"Thank you." Sakura shook her head, hand lifting to her face. "I would say it's taken him forever to propose, but ... in the end, I think I was the one holding things back." She smiled again. "But now I'm completely ready for this, and I know there's nothing I want more."

Hinata hugged Sakura again. "I'm so happy for you. When's the wedding?"

"Three months. I know it's not a lot of time, but we figured that we've waited this long, what's the point in waiting longer? It would have been even sooner, but I wanted to wait until Tenten and Neji have the baby so she can be in the wedding. Will you ... I mean, you'll be in the wedding, too, right?" Sakura bit her lip, looking uncertain.

"I'm honored you asked me," Hinata whispered. "I will stand up for you in yours, as you stood up for me in mine."

This time Sakura was the one to hug Hinata. "Thank you, friend," she whispered.

Someone cleared their throat behind the two women, and they both jumped in suprise. Hinata spun around, hand going to the neck of her kimono out of nervous habit.

Out of all the people gathered there, Gaara of the Sand was the last person Hinata had expected to be the one trying to get their attention. His gaze shifted from her to Sakura, and he bowed slightly. "Excuse me for interrupting, but I ... need to talk to Lady Hyuuga, if possible?"

Sakura, still grinning, executed a quick bow of her own. "Of course. Good evening, Lord Kazekage. I'll talk to you later, Hinata." She squeezed Hinata's arm and winked, then scurried off before Hinata could even think to say anything to her.

Now Gaara's entire focus was on Hinata, and she felt her old, familiar shyness returning with a vengeance. "G-Good evening, L-Lord Kazekage." Firmly shoving away the urge to fidgit uncomfortably, as she used to when Naruto was around, she quickly executed a bow. The last time she had seen Gaara was when she and Neji had visited Suna to retrieve Tenten and Hizashi, after she had freed the cadet branches of the Hyuuga clan.

His eyes, focused and intense, met hers for a long moment before his expression softened slightly. "We all meet as friends tonight," he said quietly. "Please, I am Gaara."

"Very well, G-Gaara." Smiling hesitantly, she tugged at the sleeve of her kimono nervously. "Then I-I am Hinata."

They stood in silence for a while, just gazing awkwardly at each other, before Hinata gathered the courage to say more. "You said you needed t-to speak t-to me, Lo- G-Gaara?" She bit her lip, angry at herself. Why all of a sudden had her old speech impediment decided to return to her? She had been having so few problems with it since she took over leadership of the clan.

"I have not had a chance to speak with Tenten and Neji since I arrived," he replied. If he noticed her stutter, he did not react to it. "I was wondering how things are progressing with the agreement made within the Hyuuga clan."

The anxious knot in her stomach eased a little. Hinata wasn't sure what she'd been expecting Gaara to want to speak to her about, but compared to the awful things her mind could have come up with, his request seemed rather mild. "Very well, thank you. All members of the cadet branches have now been freed from their curse marks, and future children born into the Hyuuga family will never know that pain." She was proud of herself for regaining control of her voice and keeping her stutter at bay once more.

Gaara didn't quite smile, but Hinata was sure that the softening of the area around his mouth was as close to one as the man ever got. "You lead the Hyuuga clan with a gentle heart and sound mind," he remarked.

Heat raced up Hinata's neck and into her cheeks, and she was unable to form even half-words as she desperately groped for a response to his unexpected praise. "I-I ... th-this i-is a-a..." She gave up. "Th-Thank y-you." At least she managed that without too much stuttering.

"How is Hotaru?"

Hinata blinked. She had mentioned her daughter to Gaara only once, in passing at that. It surprised her that he even remembered her little girl's name. "I-I ... she is quite w-well, th-thank you. I-I took her to her f-father's grave for the first time today. I-I'm not sure i-if she completely understood wh-what I-I told her, but at least she knows a little about Toshiyuki." She managed a smile. "Hizashi has taken her under his w-wing. Hotaru th-thinks of him as her big brother, and I-I'm sure they will do well helping each other in the future as ninja." Talking about her daughter was helping her calm down again, to ease her embarrassment, and she wondered if Gaara had known that would happen.

Gaara looked like he was beginning to say something else, but Naruto called for him from across the room. A flash of some strong emotion - annoyance? anger? frustration? Hinata couldn't quite tell - briefly lit his features, but then his calm mask returned. "Excuse me, please, Hinata." He bowed, then swept away in a swirl of red and black.

She hadn't even realized her hand had been shaking until she lifted it to touch her still-hot face. I've not seen him for almost two years, and he's barely crossed my mind for almost as long. So what is wrong with me? Hinata did not fear him, not the way she had when she was younger. She knew he had changed, become a completely different man than the jinchuuriki boy who had terrorized the other chuunin exam applicants, and who had killed three foreign ninja (and taken great pleasure in it) before her very eyes in the Forest of Death.

No, she did not fear Gaara at all. Instead, Hinata was almost sure that she was intrigued by him. But that was ridiculous.

...Wasn't it?

Gaara rolled over for the seventh time in the past twenty minutes, trying to find a comfortable position in bed so he could fall asleep. His objectives at dinner had been completed - he was set to have tea with Tenten and Neji the following afternoon - and he'd managed to delay Temari and Kankuro's irritated ramblings to him about their staying longer until at least the morning.

After being released from Shukaku's influence, he'd found it easier and easier to sleep, now almost comfortable in the practice that everyone else took for granted.

So what was his problem tonight?

Hinata. The name sprang immediately into his mind. A mental image of her face flew to the forefront of his memories: midnight hair, lavender eyes, delicate features. He would be lying if he said he hadn't thought of her often since the last time she had come to Suna. She had changed so much from the severely shy girl he'd barely taken notice of in the chuunin exams. In some ways, she seemed like a completely different person. When he had talked to her earlier in the evening, she had stuttered some. He realized only later that that was only because he'd embarrassed her, made her uncomfortable.

Giving up on sleep, at least for the moment, Gaara climbed out of bed and went to the window. He shoved it open, leaning against the sill as he stared out at the dark, silent village that lay beneath and before him. The nights in Konoha did not have the same chilly edge that those in Suna possessed, and he found the difference pleasant. A light breeze ruffled his hair, and he tilted his head into the flow of air.

He liked to think that he was a meticulous person, thinking out every detail and possibility of his actions before he committed himself to something. But his actions after the meal, when he had cornered Hinata in the atrium and asked to see her again tomorrow, before he visited Neji and Tenten, had been nothing short of impulsive. She had stared at him for a long time, her face flushed, soft lavender eyes wide, lips slightly parted in shock. Then she had nodded once, so vigorously that the silver pins in her shining hair had slipped, spilling strands around her face and over her shoulders.

If Gaara didn't know better, he'd think that his attention toward her was bordering on obsessive. He had been hyper-aware of her at the table, sitting two people down from him. Every time she spoke, he had unconsciously listened harder, not wanting to miss a word she said. Each gesture her soft, slender hand made had captured his attention, completely mesmerising him until Temari had kicked his leg under the table. He could only hope no one else - especially Hinata - had noticed.

Maybe his staying longer was a bad idea. First thing in the morning, he could make his excuses to Hinata, Tenten, and Neji, then get Temari and Kankuro and head back to Suna. If they hurried, they could make the trip in two, maybe two-and-a-half days. Then he could immerse himself in work and pretend like last night never happened.

...Who was he kidding? Gaara was absolutely desperate to see Hinata again, even though he had no idea why. The last time he'd seen her, in Suna, he had admired her for her tenacity. She had almost single-handedly changed her clan, had lost the stutter he remembered from her childhood, and there was something noble in the way she'd carried herself. When he'd seen her last night, little had changed physically (save for a reappearance of her stutter) about her, yet somehow Hinata seemed to be an enitrely different person.

He was definitely going to see her in the morning, and maybe then he would be able to figure out what was different about her that drew him. Or, if not, he would make as concentrated an effort as possible on getting her out of his mind. Gaara wouldn't be able to go back to Suna and work as long as he was distracted with thoughts of the beautiful Hyuuga.

Hinata brushed out her daughter's dark hair, making sure every strand lay perfectly before she transferred her attention to her own. "A very important guest is coming," she said. "The Kazekage of Suna. His name is Gaara."

"Gaa," Hotaru cheerfully repeated. She touched the soft petals of the flowers Hinata had tucked in her hair, gazing at her reflection in the mirror.

Laughing, Hinata kissed the little girl's cheek before lifting her off her lap and setting her gently on the floor. "Gaara," she corrected. "He's a ... friend of mine, and your Aunt Tenten, too."

"Gaa!" Hotaru repeated. "'Zashi too?" Her lavender eyes widened hopefully.

"No, Hizashi won't be there. But you'll see him later, I promise." Hinata stood, gathering Hotaru's hand into her own in the same motion. "But for now, we are going to have tea with the Kazekage."

"Gaa!" All smiles, Hotaru gazed up at her mother proudly.

Hinata sighed, but despite herself, she chuckled. "Yes, Gaara," she said. "Now come. It is time to meet him."

A fresh pot of tea, steaming hot, was brought in the moment Hinata and Hotaru entered the room. The elder Hyuuga female paused in surprise when she noticed that Gaara was already there, nearly causing the hastily-exiting servant to run into her.

The Kazekage got to his feet, bowing at the waist. "I hope I am not too early." His gaze drifted from her to Hotaru, expression softening.

"N-No. I-I apologize for being late." She and Hotaru returned the bow, then all three settled down on the cushions surrounding the low table in the center of the room. "You have not been waiting long, I-I hope?"

Gaara accepted the cup of tea Hinata offered with a tilt of his head. "Not at all."

Hotaru snuggled up against her mother's side, gazing across the table at Gaara curiously. "Gaa?" she whispered to her mother, tilting her head toward the chestnut-haired shinobi.

Hinata tried not to choke on the drink of tea she'd just taken. "Yes."

Apparently Gaara had heard the little girl. He blinked once, seeming surprised, before setting down his cup and focusing on Hinata's daughter. "You must be Hotaru," he said softly. "I have heard many good things about you."

Giggling, Hotaru hid her face against Hinata's sleeve. What part of her face that wasn't hidden was bright red.

I wish Hotaru had not inherited my shyness, Hinata lamented silently. She gently pried her daughter off her arm. "What do you say, Hotaru?"

"Th-Thank you," she whispered.

Gaara's eyes turned toward the gourd of sand he'd left sitting by the doorway. "A proper guest is supposed to have a gift for the people whose home into which he is welcomed," he murmured. "I think ... ah, yes."

Both Hotaru and Hinata gasped in surprise as two thin trails of sand exited the mouth of the gourd, floating across the room to stop just before each of them. Delicately cradled in each stream was a fragile white flower.

"Th-Thank you!" Hinata gently extracted the bloom offered to her, lifting it to her nose to draw in its spicy scent. Hotaru mimicked her mother's actions, an enchanted smile on her face.

The sand withdrew, settling back into the gourd as Gaara resumed sipping his tea. "You both are welcome." Though his mouth was hidden, his eyes glowed with what Hinata thought might be a smile.

Still cradling her flower, Hotaru got to her feet and went around the table to sit down next to Gaara. She stared up at the Kazekage with her bright lavender eyes for a long moment before gently resting her head on his arm. "Thank you," she whispered again.

Once more Gaara looked startled, his entire body stiffening in shock at Hotaru's unexpected movement. Hinata started to call Hotaru back to her, but her guest's hand quickly came up to stop her. A genuine smile, soft and hesitant, curled his lips as he gazed down at the little girl leaning against him. His raised hand slowly lowered, dropping to brush over Hotaru's soft midnight hair.

Hinata felt the same strange warm, tingling sensation in her stomach that she'd experienced the night before make a reappearance. I never knew this side of Gaara existed! He's so gentle. So ... perfect.

For most of his life, Gaara had been deprived of human contact because of his connection with Shukaku. Even after he'd been freed from the one-tail, he had continued to shun as much human contact as he could, finding the attention alien and uncomfortable. When he'd started courting Tenten, he grew a little more used to it. She had helped accustom him a little, and after he let her go, he would occasionally shake hands with his brother, or let his sister give him a hug.

Never before had he had someone come right up to him and ... snuggle against him without waiting for permission or invitation. And the way Hotaru was looking at him, trustingly and adoringly, shocked him. Even now, he was used to people being wary around him, having had too many years' worth of experience with him ready to snap at them at any moment to trust him so blindly, so completely.

At first, Gaara really wasn't sure what to do. He sat, stiff and frozen, with Hotaru cuddled up against him and Hinata staring at him with eyes that mirrored his startlement. The heiress started to move or speak to recall her daughter, but Gaara snapped up one hand to stop her. His own movement surprised him, but he felt it was right. He ... liked that someone trusted him enough to get this close to him.

When he was sure that Hinata understood his motion, he dropped his hand to brush over Hotaru's hair. It felt soft beneath his calloused palm, like the petals of a flower or an animal's fur. The little girl made a soft purring sound, her smile widening as she gazed up at him adoringly.

All of this because Gaara had offered her a flower. He had seen the fragile blooms on the road between the inn where he and his siblings were staying and the Hyuuga compound, and plucked two of them to offer to Hinata and her daughter. He didn't know what they were or what they meant, but they had looked pretty, like something he thought Hinata would appreciate. He'd planned to retrieve them from his gourd of sand, where he had placed them for protection, before Hinata and Hotaru entered, but had not had time. They'd seemed to like the sand delivery method, though, so perhaps not all his effort was wasted.

Hotaru sat up and away from him, reaching up to tuck the new flower into her hair with the others already there. "Thank you, Gaa," she said, smiling.

Gaara, feeling oddly empty without the little girl's weight against him, smiled. "You are welcome."

Hinata cleared her throat softly. "If you wish to go find Hizashi now, you may be excused." Her hand smoothed across the sleeve of her kimono in a nervous gesture.

"But Mama-"

"Go, Hotaru." Her voice was gentle, but firm.

Standing, Hotaru leaned over to press a kiss to Gaara's cheek before she reluctantly shuffled toward the door. "Yes, Mama. Goodbye, Gaa." A quick wave of her hand, and then she was gone.

"Goodbye, Hotaru." Gaara's words were spoken to the closed door, though, because the little girl was gone before his voice caught up with his mind. Turning back to Hinata, he picked up his tea again and sipped. Orange blossom, if he wasn't mistaken. My favorite. How did she know? "Hotaru is a very sweet girl. It seems I was correct in my assumption last night. You are a good mother to her."

Hinata's cheeks blushed as pink as the cherry blossoms on her kimono. "Ah - th-thank you." Her soft eyes dropped to the flower she still cradled in her hands. "I-I apologize if her actions bothered you. She's usually n-not so ... affectionate with people she does n-not know well."

"It surprised me, that is all. It did not bother me." Again, he was surprised by the truth in that statement.

Abruptly, Hinata set her flower aside and snatched up the teapot. Leaning forward, she poured some more tea into Gaara's cup, then her own. The rattle of delicate china tattled on how violently her hands were shaking. "H-Have you been enjoying your stay in Konoha, Lo- I-I mean, Gaara?"

He nodded approvingly. She remembered without me having to prompt her again. "Much more now than before, I believe. There is little enjoyment to be found in meticulous meetings and matters of business. The meal last night was ... nice, though." And today seems quite promising. Gaara couldn't quite find the courage to voice that thought.

"G-Good. Are you planning to stay much longer?" Hinata cradled her cup in her hands, but did not drink, he noticed.

"I want to." Again, his own words surprised him. When he'd woken this morning after a fitful night's sleep, he'd been determined to start back to Suna first thing tomorrow. But now he found himself wanting to stay longer, to spend more time in the Hyuuga compound with the puzzling, beautiful Hyuuga clan head. There was just something about her that was drawing him in, making him want to learn more about her.

Hinata blinked rapidly. "K-Konoha is a nice place. B-But from what I've seen, S-Suna holds its own sort of beauty, t-too," she said diplomatically.

Gaara didn't find it difficult to believe that this woman had talked the Elders of her clan into agreeing to release the branch members. It was often said that no one could please everyone, but he believed that, for Hinata, that goal was not an impossibility. "It is not just Konoha. The people here are very welcoming." When Hinata's eyes widened and her cheeks flushed again, he hurried to add, "It is not often I feel so genuinely welcomed in a place. I value every friendship that I hold here in Konoha." Especially yours, Hinata ... maybe even more than anyone else's.

Clink. Hinata's cup shivered into place on the table, refill untouched. "I-I hope Hyuuga House is j-just as welcoming to you as the rest of the village." Her fingers twitched toward each other, then curled into fists and dropped into her lap. "I-I am honored you chose to grace us with your presence th-this morning, G-Gaara."

At one point in his life, Gaara had seen Hinata as pitiful and weak because of her timid nature and unfortunate stutter. But now he realized just how strong she was, even then - after all, a weakling would never gain leadership of as prestigious clan as the Hyuuga. He had sorely misjudged her, and now...

He had not felt so strongly toward someone (and so suddenly, too) since Tenten. Does this mean...?

Before he could finish the thought, the door slid open. One of the servants stood in the doorway, bowing deeply. "I apologize for interrupting, but Lord Neji and Lady Tenten are ready to receive Lord Kazekage."

Gaara had been so caught up in his thoughts and feelings toward Hinata that he had completely forgotten his arranged meeting with Neji and Tenten. He opened his mouth to reply (although he wasn't entirely sure what exactly he was going to say), but before he could speak, Hinata practically bolted to her feet.

"Thank you," she said. "P-Please tell them that he will be along shortly."

The servant bowed once more, then slid the door shut. A few moments later, his soft footsteps receded into the distance.

Hinata turned back to him, and he finally remembered to stand. She bowed, her hair falling over her shoulders to hide her face. "Th-Thank you again for coming to see me," she whispered. "I-I hope you found your visit satisfactory, and will return upon y-your next visit."

It took three long strides to bring Gaara around the table. Some inexplicable urge had possessed him, and he couldn't stop himself from gently grasping her upper arms to straighten her bowed body. "Come see me in Suna," he whispered. "I-I want to see you again. Soon."

He felt the tremors in her body, but he wasn't sure if it were nerves, surprise, or fear that caused them. He hoped it was not the last. He wasn't sure if he could stand it if Hinata was afraid of him, though he knew deep inside himself that she had more than enough reason to. More times than not when she'd seen him, he had been ... frightening, and he knew it.

Hinata's hands lifted to grasp his elbows. "I-I..." Her eyes darted away from his, anxiously gazing toward the door behind him.

Disappointment seized him in a surprisingly powerful grip. It seems she does not wish to see me again. Gaara forced his fingers to unlock, releasing her as he stepped back. Unable to meet her eyes, he nodded once. "Very well, then, Lady Hinata. Thank you for the tea, and the conversation." He bowed once, quickly, then turned toward the door.

Hands curled tightly around his upper harm, halting him. "D-Don't go yet, p-please." Hinata hesitated, then breathed, "Gaara."

She had not stuttered or stumbled over his name. She had prevented him from leaving. Did that mean...?

"I think I would like to ... come visit you, in Suna. Soon." Hinata's voice was hesitant, but once more, she spoke without her stutter.

Gaara felt a rare smile curl up the corners of his lips. "I think I would like that." He hesitated for the briefest of moments, then leaned forward to kiss her forehead before he lost his nerve. Hinata's fingers loosened around his arm in surprise, and he turned to escape before he could regret the action.

You have bewitched me, Hinata. Somehow ... you have helped me regain what I thought had been lost forever. As he ascended the steps to the upper portion of the mansion, where Neji and Tenten kept their rooms, he touched his chest, right over his heart. You've helped me find love again. And this time, I think it might be true.

*~One Year Later~*

Hinata smoothed her hand over her kimono to erase nonexistent wrinkles. With the same motion, she tried to keep the slender appendage from shaking and giving her anxiety away. She didn't know why she was so nervous - it wasn't like this was the first time she was addressing her family.

To her right, Neji watched her curiously. "Are you nervous?"

"No." The denial was immediate, but she knew her cousin would never believe it. "Yes. Perhaps a little." On the other side of the sliding door before them, the entire Hyuuga clan, plus the Sand siblings and her must trusted friends, waited for the announcement she'd told them she would make today. Only Gaara, Neji, and Tenten knew the details. "Are you?"

Neji's lips twitched, then flattened. "Nothing like this has ever been attempted in the history of our clan," he pointed out. "It would be foolish of us not to be ... cautious."

A giggle escaped her control. "I have complete confidence in you, Neji. There is no doubt in my mind that the others will, too." Drawing in a deep breath, she stepped forward to open the door, all seriousness now. "Come. It is time."

Her cousin allowed her to precede him, and the moment Hinata left the security of the doorway, she felt the weight of every single gaze in the room upon her. Clenching her hands into fists beneath the cover of her roomy sleeves, she forced herself to meet each person's gaze one at a time as she spoke. "When I became the head of this clan, I promised that there would be no more division between main and branch families. All my life, I have hated seeing my family in pain, being smothered from their true potential because of outdated laws." She was proud to find that her voice didn't shake, and was able to inject a little more confidence into her next words because of it. "I promised that, as long as I was clan head, there would be no more separation among the Hyuuga. But ... I wish to propose to you an idea, one that I think will strengthen our clan, and its ties to our allies."

A nervous rustling passed through the crowd, and Hinata saw more than one pair of eyes glance toward where Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro were sitting silently with the other non-Hyuuga members of the audience.

"When Toshiyuki died, I did not think I would ever find someone to love again, even though he had told me that he hoped I would. I admit that I was bitter about that for a while, angry that he thought I could so easily cast off his love for me and find someone else to offer my affection. But then ... I realized something. Were our roles reversed, I would not want Toshiyuki to mourn me so much that he could not find happiness again. I would want him to find someone else to love." Unbidden, her gaze slid to Gaara, who was looking at her with eyes full of confidence, warmth, and - oh yes - even love. "I will never stop loving Toshiyuki. But I have found someone else who makes me happy, whom I love no less deeply." This would be the hard part, where any potential problems would make themselves known. "The Kazekage of the Sand, Gaara, has asked me to marry him. I have accepted his proposal, and we shall be married within the month."

The earlier murmurs escelated into frantically shouted questions, but Hinata held up her hand. It took a few moments, but finally the crowd stilled to hear her next words. "This means that I will be moving to Suna with him after the wedding. However, I do not plan to abandon you as clan head. I wish to propose to you today a second branching of the clan. Not as we were before, with curse seals and mistrust. I want the Hyuuga clan to settle some roots in Suna as well as Konoha. I will remain clan head of the Suna branch, and my cousin Neji will become the head of the Konoha branch." There was nothing more for her to say now. This was the moment of truth, when she would find out how everyone felt about her idea. Would anyone follow her to Suna? Or - worse - would they all try to follow her, abandoning Neji in Konoha? Her heart hurt at the thought.

Behind her, she felt Neji tense. In the audience, she saw Tenten with Hizashi, baby Hana, and Hotaru, her expression determinedly showing support for her husband and friend. Gaara was physically leaning forward in his seat, completely focused on her. She could feel the confidence and support he was feeling, and it helped her feel a little less anxious.

"I support Lady Hinata's proposition."

Who said that? Shocked, Hinata scanned the crowd, searching for the person who had spoken. Slowly, a figure at the very back of the room stood, shoulders square, head proudly erect, usually severe expression soft with rarely-offered respect.

Everyone turned to face the former clan head, silently gauging the truth of Hiashi's words before they committed one way or another.

Next to him, another figure stood, this one shorter and feminine, but no less proud and supportive. "As do I."

Hinata felt tears prick her eyes. Father... Hanabi...

One by one, the other Hyuuga clan members stood, following the courageous example set by the first two. Hinata reached out and grasped Neji's arm, feeling her knees suddenly go weak with exhaustion and relief.

And then Gaara was there, strong arms wrapping around her shoulders as he pulled her head to rest on his chest. She could feel the happiness, comfort, and love in his touch, making willingly lean into him. "Thank you all!" she called as Tenten came up to join Neji.

Gaara's chest rumbled against her ear as he spoke. "Suna is honored to accept the Hyuuga clan into our borders," he said. "We welcome you as deeply honored guests, and long awaited family."

As excited conversation ignited around the room, Hinata gazed up at Gaara. He was staring out over the crowd, eyes warm, face relaxed, a small smile playing across his lips. Unable to find words to express everything she felt, she instead lifted herself onto her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his jaw.

He turned his attention to her, expression softening even more into the one only she got to see. His hands lifted, cradling her face as he leaned down to kiss her, heedless of who would see. "I love you, Hinata, my desert rose," he whispered against her lips.

Hinata closed her eyes as she sensed their future stretching out before them, just waiting to be embraced. "I love you, too, Gaara, healer of my heart."

*~The End~*

Author's Ending Notes:...Yes, I know, cheesy ending is cheesy, but I thought they deserved a bit of a fluffy happily-ever-after, considering everything they went through to get here. Ever since I started shipping Gaara/Hinata, I've thought it would be interesting if the Hyuuga clan branched, with Hinata remaining the leader of the Suna bunch, and Neji becoming the leader of the Konoha branch. (I've always thought he would make a magnificent leader of the family.) And I also want to say that, if either Gaara or Hinata seem out of character, a long time has passed between where we are now in canon manga-wise, and the events of this series. Both Gaara and Hinata have been changed by their separate experiences, and then by their experiences together. I tried to keep them close to their original personalities while at the same time growing them as characters, and I hope that translated well in the last thing to clear up any possible confusion - Hinata did marry outside of her family, but she retained her last name of Hyuuga since she was next in line to gain leadership of the clan. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoyed it!