Author's Note: Thank you for being so patient with my slow updates. I've had a hell of a time these past months, culminating in my father's death one week ago. Things have been crazy. But through it all, I've missed writing and reading fic more than I can say. I hope you enjoy the final chapter of this fic!

"Kazekage-sama!"

"Gaara, open up!"

The words were accompanied by an urgent pounding – not polite knocking – at the door to Gaara's chambers.

Instantly, Gaara was awake and out of bed, Naruto not too far behind him. Shinobi training did not allow for a wide margin between sleep and wakefulness. While Naruto clumsily pulled on his pants, Gaara judged the urgency more important than modesty and simply tore the blanket from his bed. Rushing to the door with the blanket at his waist, he noted absently that a good deal of sand had already escaped the gourd and was hovering near him in a cloud, as if unsure whether it would be needed.

He opened the door to the sight of Kankuro frowning at him – in full makeup, no less. A guard stood by warily. "What is it?"

"The captive has escaped." Kankuro gestured impatiently at the blanket. "You might want to get dressed."

"What –" Gaara began, when behind him Naruto let out a savage yell. Pushing past the Kazekage, he stabbed Gaara's brother right in the heart.

Gaara became aware of three things simultaneously: One, that Naruto had somehow moved faster than his sand; two, that his sand was rushing toward Kankuro, not toward Naruto; and three, the person that Naruto had just stabbed was in no way Gaara's brother. Even as "Kankuro's" skin turned white and his face molded into something oddly segmented and featureless – wildly reminding Gaara of a puppet – the sand covered the white form completely , tightening instantly into a rock-hard shell.

Luckily, Naruto had withdrawn his kunai a microsecond before. Something clear and green coated the blade. Not blood.

"Gaara, it's that thing," Naruto panted. "It got loose. It's still alive in there. You have to crush it."

Gaara risked the briefest of glances at Naruto. Some distant part of his mind, one not related to what was going on in front of him, noted that Naruto's eyes looked different. Somehow familiar, but different…

Any hesitation the Kazekage had about executing the thing that had worn his brother's face was obliterated at the sight of Kankuro – without makeup and with no puppets – rounding the corner and racing down the hall toward Gaara's chambers like a bloodthirsty hound. Temari, with her fan, was just barely at his heels. Both of their expressions were beyond murderous.

"KILL IT! KILL HIM!" Kankuro bellowed.

"Gaara, do it!" Temari shouted.

Gaara needed no further encouragement. "Sand funeral," he hissed.

The sand obeyed.

"Where in all the hells did Naruto go?" Temari rasped. She and Kankuro were both so out of breath that they hunched over, hands on their knees, panting.

Kankuro straightened up and gestured vaguely toward the other end of the corridor. "Chasing the guard."

"I'm guessing that was no guard." Gaara stood quietly, arms crossed. His sand assured him that the … remains… were not able to come back, but just in case, Gaara willed the sand to take a few extra precautions. He could feel it scattering, dispersing, cleansing itself far out in the desert. "I think Naruto may have saved my life. All our lives."

"We were right on its tail," Kankuro replied defensively. "It was fast."

"We were there when it broke out," Temari replied angrily. "It looked like the guard was trying to stop it. But if he was in disguise as well – "

"This is what comes of not accepting the assistance of a warrior with the Byakugan," Gaara growled. "Neji offered – "

"Gaara," Temari countered tiredly, "All Neji could tell us is that it wasn't dead. His Byakugan didn't pick up the substitution, either."

"What about the guard?" Kankuro spat.

Gaara stepped in. "Remember, Neji fought with Suna earlier today. Even a ninja has to sleep sometime."

"Brother, sister – " Kankuro looked incredulously into his siblings' faces – "What the devil are we up against here?"

The slap of a footsole on stone made all three turn their heads in that direction. Completely void of any subtlety or grace, Naruto dragged himself along the corridor, accompanied by the captain of the guard, Neji, and several Suna warriors.

"We lost him," Naruto reported tiredly.

"Who?" Gaara asked, and instantly regretted the question.

"The puppeteer," Naruto half-growled. "The fake guard. He's the one behind all this! Kyuubi wanted him. He led us on this wild bat chase and we almost had him, and then he just – " Naruto gestured upward – "winked out. Like a candle. No… that's not it…" Konoha's loudest ninja was at a loss for words.

"Not a substitution jutsu?" Now Gaara looked at Neji.

"No," Neji replied, his face like a stormcloud. "No substitution. No normal transportation jutsu, either. It was almost like a mirage. There was a waver, and he slipped into it."

The other warriors were silent. No one's eyesight bested the Byakugan.

"Naruto," Temari intoned quietly, "What else can you tell us about him? Anything?"

For a long minute, Naruto stood in silence, eyes closed, his hand on the wall as if he were almost too tired to stand. When he opened his eyes again, Gaara realized, with a mild shock, the difference he had registered just before he killed the intruder: those expressive eyes were sky-blue no longer, but slitted red. Naruto's spiky hair had a cast of red-orange, too… and the whisker marks were deeper, almost charcoal-burned into his cheeks. Tired as he was, Naruto looked … savage. Like he would give anything, anything in the world, to have caught –

His prey, Gaara's mind whispered. The fox must get hungry sometimes. He wanted his prey.

"This guy is so full of hate," Naruto replied at last. "So full of hate… He was the source."

"Will he be back?" Kankuro queried.

"Not like this," Naruto answered. When he looked up at Gaara, his pupils were rounder, but his eyes were still reddish – a weird purply maroon, slowly fading to blue. "I'm not sure though… it may be worse. He wants more. More than – than all of this."

"The Akatsuki?" The captain of the guard was quick to place blame.

"Maybe," Naruto said. "I don't know."

Gaara had a private word with the captain of the guard. Between the security detail, Kankuro's puppets, Naruto's fox-sense, and the fact that all his best warriors were on the alert and now far too wired to go back to sleep anytime soon, Gaara saw no need to alarm the general population of Suna. Gaara's father, the Fourth Kazekage, was often quoted as saying that the hardest part of leadership was not choosing what to share with the people, but choosing what not to share.

The four of them stood in the hallway and talked and talked, running through every possible scenario that the next day might bring until Gaara caught Naruto sagging against the wall again. Kankuro rushed to help Naruto sit down, and Temari started off to find a chair or a floor-cushion, when Gaara reasonably pointed out that they might as well just go back to their own chambers. "We should rest while we can," he said. "We won't get that chance tomorrow, I can assure you."

"I don't know how much rest I'll get," Kankuro countered – then abruptly surprised himself with a yawn.

Temari laughed all the way down the corridor. Kankuro grumbled "Good night" and sauntered off.

Gaara turned to Naruto. "Well?"

Wordlessly, Naruto led the way back into Gaara's darkened chambers.

For the second time in recent memory, Gaara woke up in total darkness. This time, however, he was not alone.

His lover's limbs were still entangled in his own from last time; Naruto's head was pillowed on the Kazekage's chest. Gaara gently stroked the spiky locks he could only feel rather than see; he heard Naruto's breath catch and felt him stir.

"Where are we?" Naruto whispered sleepily. "Is – is it still night?" A hint of fear crept into his voice. Gaara realized how disorienting the sand shell must be for … well, for anyone who wasn't Gaara.

"No, I imagine it's daylight by now," he answered soothingly. "My sand must be feeling protective again."

"It protected both of us." Naruto yawned. "Does it always do that?"

Amused, Gaara asked, "Do what? Protect my lovers along with me?"

Naruto drew a sharp breath. Obviously, he was more wakeful now. "Um, I meant put the shell around you while you're asleep." His tone was guarded.

"Oh." Gaara sheepishly explained that the sand did sometimes act without his direction. During the awkward paused that followed, he realized he needed to address the question Naruto had not asked, but which was obviously on his mind.

"And I wouldn't know whether it protects my lovers. I've … never had one before."

Naruto breathed a sigh of what sounded like relief. "Ah. Neither have I."

Four hands found each other in the warm darkness; four lips united in a kiss that neither wanted to end. They took their time this time, the demon host and the one person who could understand him better than anyone else in the world; they said little, but expressed more than words could ever convey. And only when they finally collapsed again, entertwined, panting and sweating but completely at peace, did the sand begin to dissolve, letting harsh daylight into their private world.

"Agh," Naruto complained, shielding his eyes. "I know they say all good things must come to an end but… couldn't it have waited a bit longer?"

Gaara just smiled and leaned in for another kiss. "Naruto, nothing can end as long as you know there will be a next time."