Kishimoto owns Naruto.

Chapter 1

Gaara leaned back in his chair and sighed, resisting the urge to stretch his legs. He eyed the paperwork still stacked on his desk contemptuously. He got so tired of all the paperwork, the signatures, the meetings, sometimes. This week was especially taxing, since the chunin exams were coming up and they were being held in Sunagakure.

Ever since the relationship between Konoha and Suna had solidified nearly twelve years ago, after Orochimaru's attack on both their villages and his first chunin exam, the cities had taken turns hosting the trial, the first of the year in Konoha, the second in his own. It was a true show of friendship and trust, unlike the old days of the exam when it was held only for the purpose of avoiding war.

Normally Gaara looked at the chunin exams with only mild interest, curious which village, if any, would produce the winners and the stronger ninjas. Of course, the arrival of the exams always meant more work, more sleepless nights, travel and meetings and playing dignitary, and he was usually so exhausted that he could hardly keep from collapsing by the end of it. He never did, of course; under the watchful eyes of his siblings and council he maintained a cool demeanor, an indifferent façade, until he was finally able to relax in the privacy of his bedroom.

This time, however, he anticipated the chunin exams with an excitement he hadn't felt in years. He was eager to get the paperwork out of the way, knowing if he didn't finish up by evening he would regret it sorely; he would be forced to pull an all-nighter if he didn't.

The Hokage was expected to arrive the next morning, along with a small entourage of ninjas that would help prepare for the upcoming exam. The ninjas actually participating in the test wouldn't arrive until the end of the week, two days before the start of the exam. Fully aware of the attention and time playing host for a week would require, Gaara wanted to get all the details out of the way before the arrival of his friends.

He stared down at the pile of papers, willing himself to pick up the pen and finish signing so he could read through the binder of exam participants before dinner. Staring at the young faces of genin surrounded by stats and scores and predictions, Gaara's memory was forced back to a time he loathed remembering. He could picture his own statistics profile, a question mark next to his abilities (people weren't supposed to know he was a jinchuriki), a note about his unpredictability and penchant for violence underlined in red so the proctors were sure not to miss it.

He marveled that that same boy—the short, volatile redhead—was the same man sitting at the desk. Back then, he had never imagined what it could be like to have friends, to have peace in his heart, to look with a love that he hadn't known existed on the people of his village, and on those who had taught him there was a better way.

He had spent more than a decade of his life in blackness, without anyone to lean on and turn to, and now, he thought wryly, he had spent more than a decade in light, on the complete opposite of the spectrum, with more people than he could count who cared about him. He had one person in particular to thank for the development, and admittedly had never been more happy to have his ass handed to him in a fight in order to achieve the current results.

Gaara smiled, the memory tugging the corners of his lips into a grin (he could look back on that fight with fondness, though at the time it had hurt like hell), and he lowered his head in case anyone walked into the office. He was often pleased, but he rarely let others see his feelings, save for those occasions where Kankuro managed to elicit a response from him (good and bad).

Gaara sighed again, finally picking up his pen and signing the documents that would finalize the preparations for the test. He was scanning them now, not giving them his full attention, scrawling his signature lazily at the bottom of the page. He hoped he wasn't approving anything too ridiculous.

Half an hour later, after he was certain his hand had permanently cramped into the utensil, a soft knock sounded at his door. He grunted approval for entry and his assistant stuck his head inside.

"Kazekage-sama. The Hokage is here."

Gaara looked up sharply, almost letting a grimace of displeasure pass over his face before he tempered it into its usual schooled, nonchalant expression. They were too early.

"Send them in, I suppose, Taki-san."

"Yes, Kazekage-sama."

Taki shut the door and Gaara finally did scowl down at his papers. It seemed like the stack had gotten no smaller, and now he would have to spend a sleepless night finishing everything up. While he was no stranger to sleepless nights, he had gotten awfully possessive of that sweet, empty feeling he could indulge in every single night now that Shukaku was gone and his head was free of the demon. He hated to give up sleep for any reason, having had to purposefully deprive himself of it for so many years. He supposed it couldn't be helped. It was just like the Hokage to show up unannounced before the expected arrival time.

Damn it.

Gaara set the stack of papers aside, closed the binder, and laid it atop them. He capped his pen, stuck it in the top drawer of his desk, and folded his hands in front of him. He waited. And waited. And waited.

Just as he was preparing to grab the paperwork and start signing until they finally came in, rudeness be damned, the door flew open as a startled Taki uttered a loud protest ("Well, really!") and was waved aside by the Hokage, who was followed by a group of ninja that were all more or less well-known to him. Into his office came Rock Lee, the taijutsu expert, in his trademark green jumpsuit, along with his long-time teammate Hyuuga Neji, chief medic nin Haruno Sakura, and her fellow medic Yamanaka Ino. He also vaguely recognized a young Sarutobi man, who he had heard was appointed as the Hokage's new apprentice, standing next to the Hokage.

He frowned, surveying the group. Someone was missing.

The Hokage bowed low, over-exaggerated, jacket billowing.


Gaara scowled, not caring how bad it looked. He inclined his head, annoyed at the overt display of respect that he absolutely did not deserve or expect from someone equal to his station.


The Hokage looked up and grinned, smile reaching ear to ear.

"Come on, Gaara. Don't look at me like that. It's been months. I know you're happy to see me."

A blond eyebrow cocked in expectation. And Gaara couldn't help himself. He grinned back.

"Naruto, you're such a bastard."

The peals of laughter in the Kazekage's office died down as Naruto finished telling another story from the three-day trip to Suna. Lee had fallen into such a deep sleep after overexerting himself on their first leg of the trip (he had insisted on traveling the entire journey by walking on his hands, to reach new heights of strength and glorify the springtime of youth) that some prankster (and Gaara had a shrewd idea of who) had managed to move the young shinobi, sleeping bag and all, to the top of the tallest pine, nearly a mile from their campsite, after all the others had fallen asleep.

For his part, Lee only fell halfway down the tree before catching himself, still asleep, on a wayward branch.

"But Naruto," Neji began, still smirking a bit, "you never did tell us how you managed to pull it off. Even if Lee was asleep, he would have woken up after being carried half a mile. Even he's not that terrible of a ninja."

"Hey!" Lee protested, his smile quickly disappearing. "You know that I—"

Naruto cut him off, still grinning. "Now, Neji. I never said it was me." He rocked back on his heels, hands crossed over his head.

Neji and Sakura gave him deadpan looks as Ino and Konohamaru's (that was the Sarutobi's name) mouths opened in incredulity.

"Please. Of course it was you!" Ino said. "Who else would it have been?"

Everyone looked at Naruto expectantly, but he simply kept smiling at all of them.

"Well?" Gaara prompted. Naruto straightened.

"Okay, fine, it was me," he conceded smugly. "But I can't tell you how I did it yet."

"Why not?" Sakura grilled, her mouth pursing in distaste. "What's the big secret that you can't tell us." She spread her hands wide, indicating the room. Naruto smiled more widely.

"I'm not sure I have it completely worked out yet. Moving Lee was just a test. But I will tell you something interesting."

The Konoha shinobi leaned closer to him, curious. Gaara tried not to look too interested. His sand was sneaky, but not that sneaky.

"The jutsu belonged to my dad." Eyes widened.

"You don't mean you figured out the hir—" Neji began.

"Don't say it!" Naruto all but shrieked. "I'm not sure I've got it quite yet, so nobody go getting their hopes up." He was grinning all the same.

A sense of awe settled over the room. Neji didn't have to say the name of the jutsu for everyone to know that he was talking about the Yondaime Hokage's famous teleportation technique. No one before or since Namikaze Minato had discovered how the trick worked. If Naruto had unlocked the secret to the jutsu, that not only put Konoha at a huge advantage tactically, it also pretty much confirmed without a shadow of a doubt that Naruto was the best Hokage since his father had served.

Naruto had come a long way from the orange jumpsuit-wearing youth he had been, and it was moments like this that made them all realize just how impressive their new Hokage really was.

Kankuro found them all standing there, smiling stupidly at each other as the idea of someone teaching themselves the famed hiraishin sunk in.

Kankuro's gaze whipped back and forth between Gaara and Naruto, obviously confused as to why two kages were looking at each other grinning like idiots.

"Something you need to share with the class?" he asked, a smile tugging at his lips.

Gaara quickly smoothed his face into nonchalance. He opened his mouth to ask what had taken his brother so long (he had summoned him a good fifteen minutes ago), but was cut off with raucous cries of "Kankuro!" from Sakura and Naruto.

Gaara watched their reunion in fascination and displeasure, finally interrupting his brother's hug with the medic, which was lingering just a little long for comfort. Kankuro had no business holding the petite kunoichi so tightly, in his (not-so) humble opinion.

Just as Kankuro's hand drifted lower on her backside, he yanked his shoulder away from her tiny form. The puppet master stumbled and shot him a dirty look, which Gaara ignored.

"Naruto," Gaara began, all seriousness. Anything to distract Kankuro. "I wanted to ask you something earlier. Shikamaru isn't here. I was looking forward to seeing him." Gaara him a pointed stare, and Naruto smiled knowingly.

"You were just hoping he'd bring Temari along and you'd get to meet your new nephew," Naruto smirked, but Gaara wouldn't take the bait. He simply stared, silent, until Naruto let out a long-suffering sigh.

"Oh, all right, fine," Naruto conceded, grumbling something that sounded an awful lot like "fuckin' sourpuss" under his breath. Kankuro smirked at this and Gaara scowled at him.

Naruto continued, "He's coming at the end of the week. All three of his students are taking the exam, and he wanted to finish out their training before heading off. They'll all be here in a few days."

Gaara exhaled a barely-recognizable sigh of relief; he had hoped he would get to see his sister. Being Kazekage, it was difficult to find time to visit anyone for anything other than political reasons, and it had been almost a year since he'd seen Temari. She had given birth to her first child two months ago, a healthy boy named Eiji.

When Temari had announced she was getting married to Nara Shikamaru and moving to Konoha, Gaara had not taken it well. It was a difficult decision for her, to leave her city and her brothers to raise a family with the man she loved, but Gaara had understood her desire for companionship. She had been spending her time split between the two cities as it was, acting as emissary for Suna, and he knew it wouldn't be long before she was forced to commit to one or the other.

But it was hard for Gaara, who had come to rely on her expertise, her social skills, her political maneuvering to help him run the village. She had been sorely missed at first, but over time Kankuro had managed to fill her role, and anything he was incapable of doing was passed on and split up between council members and political aides. Gaara looked forward to seeing her and, he supposed, his nephew, though he had no idea what to do with an infant.

"Speaking of the exams, Naruto, perhaps we should discuss the reason you actually came. But everyone doesn't need to be here for that, and you should settle in before we meet. Kankuro will show you all to your rooms."

Naruto grimaced at this, his mouth turning down and his eyes squeezed into little slits. "Aw, come on, Gaara, we have plenty of time to meet tomorrow. We're gonna go out tonight and you're coming with us."

Gaara scowled in distaste as his brother and the Konoha shinobi perked up at this news, muttering and smiling at their good fortune. Gaara noticed Sakura looked just as displeased as he did at the announcement.

She spoke up, "Naruto, I'm sure the Kazekage is much too busy to spend the night with you in drunken revelry," she grumped sarcastically. "For that matter, so am I. And we're all exhausted from travel. As a medic, I can't possibly advocate consumption of alcohol in copious amounts when—"

"Aw, Sakura, take the stick out of your ass." Naruto cut her off with a good-natured grin, and her fists tightened into little balls. Gaara shot her a look of gratitude all the same.

She smiled at him, her dangerous hands relaxing (much to the relief of all present—Gaara had no desire to redecorate), and he caught himself thinking how wonderfully pretty she looked when she smiled.

"You're coming," Naruto said with finality. "And you're coming, too, whether you like it or not," he was looking at Gaara this time. "I'm not gonna let you two be sticks in the mud the whole time we're here. Deal with it."

Before either of them could argue, Naruto swept out of the office, cloak billowing, obviously expecting everyone to follow despite the fact that he had no idea where he was going. Kankuro glanced apprehensively at Gaara before grabbing Sakura by the arm, immediately engaging her in a lively conversation about poisons, and the rest of the leaf ninja trailed behind. Lee gave Gaara a smile and a wave, which he did not return, and then they were gone.

Gaara found himself staring at the closed door long after they left, his mind wandering to the way that his older brother had pressed his hand intimately into the small of Sakura's back and the way her entire face lit up, a pretty blush staining her cheeks, when she talked with him. Gaara wondered how he might make her look at him the same way, before shaking his head forcefully, as if it would help his thoughts scatter.

The Kazekage did not think about things like women and how beautiful they looked when they smiled.

The Kazekage did not think about how much he wished he could be the one escorting lovely kunoichi to their rooms with his hand on the small of their backs.

The Kazekage absolutely did not think about things like how soft those lips that curled into a pretty smile might be against his own, that pink hair (pink!) spilling down onto her shoulders and hiding their faces from view, her hands tangled into his own rough red locks, her breath puffing against his mouth in a way that felt absolutely delicious...

Gaara stared harder at the doorknob, willing his errant thoughts away. Instead his traitorous brain conjured the slightly more incriminating image of her chest and legs pressed intimately against his own, her foot stroking his calf in a way that was...

Gaara could see that this might become a problem.

Sakura smiled up at Kankuro, only half-listening as he prattled on about a new poison he had developed that he wanted her to take a look at and possibly develop an antidote for. He had already shown the others to their rooms, but he was taking his sweet time with her; it felt like they had already walked the entire length of the mansion twice. She was positive she recognized that potted plant in the corner.

"This new poison is really neat," he was saying, hands waving animatedly. "Instead of being plant or metal based, it's engineered to react specifically to a person's chakra network and chemical makeup. Much harder to remove if you don't already have an antidote prepared."

Normally she wouldn't have minded the chatter, but she was dead on her feet after their three-day journey, and from the sound of things Naruto wasn't about to let her rest for the evening just yet. She liked Kankuro's company a lot, but she could only handle so much Exuberant And Charmingly Loud Boy before she needed a break, and she'd just spend three days with Naruto.

"And I'm thinking we should make an antidote soon. You know, just in case," he went on, "cause you never know when I might stick myself, or my dumbass assistant might stick himself, or when I might lose it and stick Gaara on purpose."

This last possibility startled her from the daydream of her comfortable bed and how many pillows it would have. "What?" she shouted.

"You have to be prepared for these things," he told her sagely.

Sakura stopped in the hallway, hands planted on her hips, mouth struggling to stay turned down into a frown, while Inner Sakura actually kind of wanted to laugh. "You would not poison your own brother, who is also, if you've forgotten, the leader of your village. It just isn't done."

He looked at her doubtfully, though she could see the laughter in his eyes. "No, I suppose not," he agreed. "The temptation is unbelievable sometimes, though, let me tell you."

She hummed at this, forcing herself to keep a straight face, puckering her lips and staring at the floor so he couldn't see her face.

Sakura actually liked Gaara—it was nice to be around a man who wasn't loud and obnoxious, wasn't taking his social cues from library books, wasn't perpetually late with a penchant for porn, and who actually seemed know what he wanted. But Kankuro didn't need to know that.

"I suppose I could make you an antidote tomorrow," she told him. And then she did break into a smile. "The likelihood of you poisoning yourself is rather high."

Kankuro looked offended, despite the fact both of them knew that not only had he accidentally poisoned himself more times than they could count (Sakura had treated him at least half those times), he would also probably poison himself on purpose to test the effects of his concoction firsthand.

Which meant she had better be damn sure the antidote worked.

"Look," he said, suddenly serious, "this poison is relatively sensitive. I've only done lab testing so far, and I'm pretty certain I've got it worked out. But to be honest, I'd like your opinion on the poison as well as the antidote. I have this idea for tying the effects of the poison to my chakra, so the chemicals react to the person's body but I can control the speed the poison spreads and the level of pain they feel."

Sakura raised her eyebrows skeptically, though she was impressed with the level of thought he had put into it. Usually Kankuro's poisons were second thoughts; wham, bam, thank you ma'am inventions that were simply tools for his real babies. But this was taking it a step further.

"I know, I know what you're thinking," he whined, "but I really think this could work. The only problem I can think of is that if the poison does effectively tie to their chakra, if they run out, then the poison won't work as well. Well, that and the fact that if it's tied to my chakra, the antidote might also need to tie to my chakra, if an antidote can even be developed. Okay, and that when I test it if something goes wrong someone might die, namely me, since I test all my poisons on myself and if I'm controlling it with my chakra and it's effecting my chakra..."

He trailed off, leaving the potential consequences to hang heavily in the air. Sakura opened her mouth to speak when he suddenly started in again.

"It's just, I've been working on this idea for so long and I really, really, really want it to work. I know you probably think I'm crazy for all this, but will you please help me, even if it's just to take a look? I promise I won't poison you, or make you try it, or tie it to your chakra, or anything like that. Will you help me?"

He looked at her hopefully, a pout already forming on his lips as if he expected her to say no, regardless of his pleas. She let out a huff of laughter and laid her hand gently on his arm.

"Kankuro, slow down. I'll help you," she reassured him, and he broke out into the biggest smile she had seen yet, though it was made slightly creepy by the theatrical paint highlighting his eyes and mouth.

"Really?" he asked, positively gleeful.

"Of course. I don't want you to die because I didn't help you and you went on with it anyway."

Sakura smiled as he let out a whoop. Leaning down and clasping her hands tightly in his own, he looked deeply into her eyes and for just a moment she thought he was going to kiss her.

"Sakura-chan, you are the best, most wonderful, most amazing girl in the whole world," he told her earnestly.

A blush bloomed on her cheeks and she tried not to look so pleased at his compliment.

"Oh, pshaw," she told him. "Just don't do anything until I get an antidote—a confirmed antidote—ready."

He nodded eagerly and let go of her hands, walking at a fast pace down the hall before stopping in front of a door that looked very much like all the other doors in the corridor. It opened with the turn of a key and he ushered her inside, hanging against the frame and peering at her as she laid her small travel pack down on the bed.

"Well, thanks for everything, but I should probably shower off all this dust and change before we go out tonight," she said, back still turned. When she didn't hear the door click shut, she turned to find him still staring at her.

Sakura looked at him expectantly but Kankuro didn't move, a glazed look cast over his eyes. Sakura frowned and moved closer to him, waving a hand in front of his face.

"Kankuro? You ok?" she asked, suddenly concerned. He jerked at the sound of her voice and she was certain his face was flushed.

He nodded quickly, but she moved closer, pressing a hand to his forehead, leaning in to check the dilation of his eyes. His eyes widened.

"You don't seem to have a fever," she said softly. "Do you think maybe you should stay home tonight?"

A magnificent blush bloomed on Kankuro's cheeks and he grunted, pushing her away with a swat of his hand. He chuckled nervously and she smiled back, uncertain.

"Are you ok?" she asked again.

"Yeah! Yeah, sorry, I'm fine. I was totally just spacing for a sec."

The blush stayed firmly present and he cursed under his breath.

"Shit. I'm fine. I'll let you get to that shower." His voice sounded a bit strangled. "I'll see you tonight, Sakura."

"Sure," she agreed. "See you tonight."

She moved to shut the door, giving him a weak smile that he didn't return, and he walked slowly backward as she slid it shut. He stood outside the door and he could hear her moving around inside the room, humming and rustling around.

He heard the shower turn on, the water sputtering a few times before coming down full force.

As soon as Kankuro heard what he was sure was the sound of fabric hitting the floor, he turned and ran down the empty hallway, a blush still settled high on his cheeks, his heart pounding in his chest.