Credits to Kishimoto Masashi for the characters. The story is mine.
The next day, Naruto stood in front of Sakura's house, knocking at the door until the pink-haired medic nin answered.
"Come in," Sakura ushered him upstairs to her room.
"Hi, Ino," Naruto said, noticing the blond kunoichi seated on Sakura's bed.
"Take off your clothes," Ino said without greeting.
Naruto blinked. "What?"
"If you want this to be perfect, you're not going to look like you just walked out of a war zone," she told him, looking over his dirt- and grass-stained outfit with a critical eye. "Actually, you should shower first. You're all sweaty and dirty."
"You know where the bathroom is," Sakura said, handing him a pink towel.
After a speedy shower, the two kunoichis fussed over his appearance, looking positively excited at the prospect of a blooming romance. Sakura made him wear one of her father's old yukatas; it was a simple dark navy blue with a white sash. They gave up on trying to tame his wild blond locks and stepped back to admire their work.
"Not bad," Ino commented, looking him over. If one overlooked his boisterous tendencies and he sat still, Naruto could actually be considered very handsome. Even the blond kunoichi felt a slight regret that he wasn't interested in anyone besides a certain redheaded Kazekage.
"You look great, Naruto," Sakura smiled genuinely, a little surprised Naruto could clean up so well.
"Thanks, Sakura, Ino," Naruto said warmly.
"Anyways," Sakura coughed. "You should go pick up Gaara. We'll get ready for the festival and meet you guys there."
Naruto nodded and took off. If everything went well, the first two nights of the festival would be spent wooing the Kazekage, leaving the last night for the confession. His enthusiasm couldn't be contained, and he grinned the entire run over to the inn where Gaara stayed.
Kankuro opened the door when Naruto knocked, looking him up and down.
"Yo," Kankuro grunted as in a way of greeting before he paused and added, "Stop smiling like that; it's creepy."
"You look…different," Naruto commented when he took in the second eldest sand sibling's appearance, ignoring Kankuro's words.
Rather than his standard black attire and face-paint, he wore a dark blue yukata with a black sash. His brown hair stuck up like he'd just gotten out of bed. He looked surprisingly like a normal everyday man rather than the dangerous puppeteer nin Naruto knew him to be.
"You're looking dolled up yourself," Kankuro replied, stepping aside to let Naruto enter.
"Where's Gaa—" Before Naruto could finish, he found himself slammed to the closed door, face to face with Kankuro, the older man's fist bunched up in the collar of his yukata.
"Just so you know, I'll make sure you regret it if you hurt my little brother," Kankuro said calmly, looking every bit as deadly as Naruto had earlier thought him to be, but Naruto's surprise quickly cooled when he registered Kankuro's words.
"I won't hurt him," Naruto vowed, his resolute stare unwavering.
Kankuro studied him for a minute before he nodded once, the deadly look vanishing as he stepped back. Turning away, he walked into the spacious common room and knocked loudly on one of the doors to the right while Naruto smoothed down his wrinkled yukata.
"Hey, Temari, you ready yet?" he called. "Blondie's here!"
"Just a second!" Naruto heard the muffled reply through the door. "There! All done!"
The door opened, and Gaara stepped out with Temari, but Naruto barely even noticed her. He gawked at the redhead, his captivated gaze sliding down the slim form. Aside from his maroon-colored hair, black-lined jade eyes, and bright red tattoo, Gaara wore a deep, burgundy yukata embroidered with a gold design Naruto recognized from Gaara's gourd. Rather than the high-collared tops the sand nin favored, Naruto was granted the sight of a slender, pale neck. A gold-striped sash was cinched tightly around Gaara's narrow waist, emphasizing his slight build. Naruto noticed a small gourd – undoubtedly filled with sand – hanging from a cord tied around his waist. Simple wooden sandals adorned his feet, finishing off the outfit.
"Earth to Naruto?" Kankuro waved a hand in front of the dazed blond's face. "Are ya done ogling my brother yet?"
Naruto snapped out of his daze and flushed a bright red. He swatted the hand waving in front of his face away.
"Wh-what are you talking about?" he squeaked, quickly glancing at the redhead, who stared back at him curiously.
Kankuro just chuckled, exchanging a look with his older sister. Temari smirked, eyeing Naruto with a decidedly evil look in her eye.
"A-anyway, are you ready to go, Gaara?" Naruto hurriedly asked in case the two elder sand siblings decided to tease him.
Gaara nodded, blissfully unaware of the exchange between the three, following Naruto towards the door.
"We'll meet you guys later. Take care of him, Naruto," Temari told the blond sternly.
"I will!" Naruto called back, taking ahold of Gaara's sleeve and pulling him out of the inn.
"Slow down, Naruto. The festival will still be there when we arrive," Gaara said in his usual monotone, gently sliding his sleeve out of Naruto's grip.
"Oh, sorry," Naruto apologized, slowing his half-jog to a walk.
Gaara accepted his apology with a slight tilt to his head and walked side-by-side with the blond. This side of the village was quieter, the boisterous sounds of festivities nearer to the central part of the village. The evening was cool, and the moon shone brightly high above them. Naruto quite suddenly realized it was almost like a romantic walk in the evening. It wasn't until then that it finally sunk in to Naruto what he had planned for the next three days, and for the first time since he'd known Gaara, he felt unexpectedly nervous being alone with him. He couldn't help but worry. What if things didn't go as planned? What if he did something stupid and made Gaara think less of him? Even worse, what if Gaara rejected him?
Once they reached the festival, Naruto's worries were soon forgotten as his childish urges kicked in, excitedly pulling Gaara to play the games and stop at various vendors, nearly squealing in joy when he discovered Ichiraku had set up a small stand as well. Gaara, on the other hand, was content to watch the blond's antics rather than participating, but he quietly enjoyed himself nonetheless.
The evening seemed to end all too soon, however, and Naruto found himself standing at the entrance of the inn facing Gaara.
"That was…fun," Gaara spoke first, testing the last word out like he'd never used it.
"Yeah," Naruto grinned, remembering he'd almost gone overboard with the goldfish catching game before Gaara had stepped in to calm the situation down. He glanced down, smiling to himself when he saw the little goldfish swimming in slow circles in the small plastic bag Gaara held, along with the other assortment of prizes Naruto had won for him.
The two stared at each other for another minute. Naruto noticed Gaara was staring at him rather contemplatively, as if he wanted to say something, but he apparently decided against it when he stepped back.
"Thank you for tonight. Good night, Naruto."
"Good night, Gaara," Naruto said softly as the redhead disappeared into the inn.
The next evening went very similarly to the first. After Naruto picked up Gaara, they headed to the festival and went from vendor to vendor. This time, however, Naruto noticed Gaara kept staring at him with that mildly thoughtful look before it would turn back into his usual stoic mien. Naruto was beginning to worry Gaara had somehow found out. Did someone let it slip? Did he let it slip? He'd been trying to act normally over the last couple days, and he'd thought he was doing pretty well until now.
When he walked Gaara back to the inn, again Gaara paused as if to say something, but like the other night, he merely thanked Naruto and bid him a good night before returning to the inn.
By the third evening, Naruto was worrying himself sick. What if Gaara knew? Was he trying to think of a way to gently reject him? Sakura tried to console the distraught blond as best as she could, convincing him to continue with the plans for this evening when he tried to call it off.
When he arrived at the inn, he was a nervous wreck. Tonight was the night. He couldn't mess it up. Everything had gone eerily perfect so far – thanks to his friends who he was eternally grateful for – and he knew if he didn't confess tonight, he wouldn't only be letting everyone supporting him down, but himself as well.
"I'll do it!" Naruto promised himself, slapping his cheeks and wincing at the sting before marching into the inn.
Knocking on the familiar door, Naruto expected Kankuro to answer like the other nights, but was surprised to see the redhead himself answer.
"Gaara?" Naruto said dumbly, unexpectedly thrown off course.
"Kankuro and Temari left earlier," Gaara explained calmly, stepping into the hallway and locking the door behind him.
"Oh," Naruto said, feeling his nervousness return tenfold now that he was standing next to the object of his affections, who was innocently staring at him, completely unaware that Naruto was internally melting under his beautiful jade eyes. "S-so why don't we head out?"
Gaara agreed, still having not commented on Naruto's increased stuttering in the past couple days. The nerves only served to make Naruto into a chatterbox, and even he didn't know half of what he was saying. Gaara, however, seemed to not notice as he was lost in his own thoughts.
Once the pair arrived at the festival, several pairs of eyes keenly watched their progress into the crowds.
"The targets have arrived," one of them said into the device attached to his neck.
"Roger. Keep an eye on them; don't lose them in the crowds," another ordered.
A chorus of acknowledgements rose. The pair walked through the festival for the next thirty minutes, seemingly unaware of the eyes following them.
"Drunk man at two o'clock. Haruno, take care of it," the leader of the group spoke.
"Got it," a feminine voice sounded in the device.
Perched on a balcony overlooking the festival, the leader watched as the pink-haired medic nin smoothly intercepted the stumbling drunk man before he could crash into the unsuspecting blond, sneaking away before he noticed.
"Ino, four o'clock, toddler," the leader commanded.
"Safe," the disguised blond kunoichi replied, catching the toddler before he could trip and spill his sticky treats all over the Kazekage's yukata.
After several similar incidents, the pair remained unscathed and oblivious of the eyes following their every move.
"Inuzuka, another drunk at six o'clock," the leader said, watching as the dog nin disguised as a vendor turned the drunk around into another direction before he sighed. "How troublesome. Can't he even walk without finding trouble?"
"It's Naruto. What did you expect?" Sakura chuckled.
There were several varied agreements over the device.
"You have company, Nara," a deep male voice noted.
Shikamaru turned, alerted by the Hyuga's warning, and spotted a smirking blond kunoichi standing behind him, hand perched on her hip.
"How long have you been standing there?" the shadow nin asked, slouching back into his position overlooking his troublesome blond friend and the Kazekage.
"Long enough." Was the reply. "I just wanted to see how things were going with my little brother."
"Troublesome," Shikamaru lazily replied.
"Huh," Temari snorted, striding over to stand by him. "I thought so."
Ignoring the sarcasm, Shikamaru squinted down, having lost the pair in the crowd. "Location?"
"Yosh! I am following our two youthful friends at a ten meter distance! They are at the beanbag tossing vendor at the moment!" an enthusiastic voice answered.
Shikamaru winced at the volume. "Lower your voice, Lee. You'll give us away."
"My apologies! I will now follow our youthful friends as silently as a lamb!" came the equally loud reply.
Rolling his eyes, Shikamaru located the pair standing in line at the beanbag tossing vendor. It wasn't long before the short attention span of the blond caused him to pull the Kazekage away to go elsewhere. "Chōji, they're approaching your stand."
"I see them," his long-time friend murmured before addressing the blond and his companion. "Oh, hey, Naruto. Hello, Lord Kazekage. Are you enjoying the festival?"
Satisfied things were going well, Shikamaru glanced at the crescent moon softly glowing high in the dark sky. It was time. "Naruto should be taking the Kazekage to the designated location in ten. Lee and Ino, return to your original positions. Haruno and Inuzuka, continue tailing them. Hyuga, Sai, and TenTen, take your positions. Hyuga and Aburame, is it ready?"
"Y-yes," a nervous feminine voice answered after the others replied.
"It's ready," Shino replied in a much calmer tone.
Meanwhile in the crowded festival, Naruto glanced at the sky and smiled at Chōji. "I'll see you later, Chōji. Let's go, Gaara, I have something I want to show you!"
Chōji waved to them as they left. "Targets are departing."
"Good, we're prepared for their arrival. Take your position, Chōji."
Grunting an agreement, Chōji left the stand.
"Where are we going, Naruto?" Gaara questioned as he followed the energetic blond.
"You'll see," Naruto sent him a quick smile and continued through crowded streets.
Gaara soon recognized the path they were headed towards. The Hokage's residence, towering over all of the other buildings in Konoha. Why would Naruto take him there?
"Come on!" Naruto urged the curious sand nin to hurry.
Gaara obliged, briefly wondering if they were breaking the rules as he followed Naruto to the rooftop. It was too late to regret it, however. He slowly approached the rails where Naruto stood.
"Look! The view from here is great," Naruto exclaimed, arms swinging out to emphasize his words.
Gaara looked over the rails and was immediately impressed. Below them, the lights of the festival shone brightly, lighting the buildings around them. The rest of the village was shrouded in the shadows with only the occasional light blinking from a random building in the distance. Konoha certainly was beautiful, but for Gaara, Suna was the only village he could fully appreciate.
"It's beautiful," Gaara commented softly.
"Yeah," Naruto agreed, staring at Gaara's features illuminated by the lights rather than the village. Facing the festivities, Gaara didn't notice as Naruto quickly flashed a small object in his hands.
"Signal received. Targets are in position. Commence operation," Shikamaru ordered from where he sat on the balcony, sharp eyes glimpsing the signal Naruto had flashed, reflecting the lights of the festival.
Within seconds, a projectile was fired into the air, and the dark skies were suddenly exploding with color. Gasps sounded from below before the citizens of Konoha shouted with awe.
"Fireworks," Gaara murmured, eyes trained on the explosion of colorful lights in the skies. The loud din had startled him into thinking they were being attacked, but he had quickly relaxed upon seeing there was no danger.
Smiling, Naruto gazed at the oblivious redhead. This was it. This was the moment. Naruto swallowed thickly, wiping his suddenly sweaty palms on his yukata. He was nervous and afraid, but he was determined.
"Gaara," he began, heart fluttering when the redhead turned his head to look at him. "I…"
"Lee, watch out!"
"What's going—" Shikamaru demanded, startled into alertness at Neji's shout over the device.
"Neji-nii-san!" Hinata cried out, and suddenly Shikamaru glimpsed an object in the corner of his eye.
"Shit!" Temari voiced his thoughts next to him when she saw the projectile heading straight towards the Hokage residence where the two figures stood.
At the same time, Gaara spotted the object flying towards them, his sand automatically shooting out of the small gourd at his side. Not enough sand! He realized too late just as Naruto finally noticed the projectile.
And then the skies were illuminated with sparkling colors everywhere.
Naruto groaned, slowly blinking awake. He stared blearily at the ceiling before turning his head to the side, taking in the unfamiliar room.
Where am I? He wondered fuzzily. Where's Gaa—Gaara! Where is he? Suddenly jolted into consciousness, he shot up before falling back at the pain in his head and wincing. Noticing the bed he was on and the bandages on his body, Naruto took a better look at his surroundings.
"The hospital?" he wondered aloud, confusion evident in his tone. How had he gotten here? And why was he here?
Suddenly, the door was opened, and Naruto's personal redheaded angel stepped through, looking unharmed and still dressed in his yukata.
"You're awake." Gaara looked relieved as he walked towards the bed.
"Gaara?" Naruto croaked before clearing his throat. "What happened? Why am I here?"
Gaara frowned. "You don't remember?"
"No, I—" Naruto faltered as a memory struck him. "There was an explosion, and then lights…The festival! What about the festival?"
"It's over," Gaara told him, wondering why the blond looked so crestfallen.
"How long?" Naruto asked, dread filling him. The plans had been ruined!
"Only for a few hours," Gaara replied carefully. "After the Hokage's rooftop was destroyed, they put a stop to the festivities."
"Temari informed me Lee-san accidentally tripped over a firework device and set it off. Hyuga Neji attempted to stop it, but was unable to do so," Gaara answered before suddenly asking, "Would you care to explain why your friends were spying on us for the past three nights?"
Startled at the sudden question, Naruto squawked and fumbled for an answer before settling with, "You noticed?"
A short nod. "I figured this incident has to do with it, and it seems you are in on it as well."
Unable to deny it, Naruto looked down at his lap. Gaara would surely reject him now. The thought scared him more than he wished it to.
"Naruto?" Gaara asked when the blond stayed uncharacteristically quiet. "Do your wounds hurt?"
"No, I—" Naruto stopped, the question bringing memories of the last time Gaara had asked.
"Naruto?" Gaara questioned again, coming closer, concerned about his friend and discarding his other questions for now.
Naruto suddenly looked up, and Gaara was inwardly surprised at the resolute expression held in his blue eyes. The blond shifted to sit at the edge of the bed, looking up at the sand nin.
"They hurt," Naruto said, staring Gaara straight in the eye. The plans he'd carefully constructed with his friends were ruined, but maybe he still had a chance. "Can you make it better?"
The redhead appeared confused before a look of understanding crossed his face. A very light blush adorned his cheeks, causing Naruto's heart to nearly stop at the sight. He waited anxiously for what felt like a lifetime as the sand nin silently considered his request.
Naruto's hopes expanded like a balloon at the softly spoken word. He couldn't stop the smile from spreading.
"Here," he said, holding out the same arm he'd carelessly injured six months ago. A new bandage was wrapped around the healing burns now, but the significance of the action was not lost to both nins.
Stepping closer, Gaara gently held the arm like he'd done before, leaning down and pressing his lips softly to the injured limb. He lifted his head, eyes never leaving the blue ones trained on him.
Naruto smiled. "Not yet."
The room was quiet except for Naruto directing the sand nin over his healing burns. Once Gaara pulled away from where he had kissed Naruto's cheek, both were blushing. A bright red stained the blond's cheeks, but a light pink was dusted over the redhead's.
"One last place," Naruto whispered, drawing the sand nin down, giving him time to decide to stop.
Gaara allowed himself to be pulled closer, subtly relaxing when their lips touched almost innocently. Remembering the last time as Naruto licked the seam across his lips, begging for entrance, Gaara opened his mouth, shyly touching his tongue to the blond's. Naruto was delighted, murmuring his pleasure and wrapping his arms around Gaara's waist. Gaara placed his hands on the blond's shoulders, hesitantly looping his arms around Naruto's neck.
Naruto was the first to pull away after another minute, both lightly panting for breath. Gaara stopped himself from leaning down for another kiss and gazed into the other's eyes, surprised at the seriousness and gentleness looking back at him.
"Gaara," Naruto said before the redhead could speak. "I love you."
Gaara's eyes widened when he registered the words, and he stiffened. When he didn't react any other way, Naruto worriedly looked up at the blank-faced sand nin.
"Gaara?" Naruto asked anxiously. He wanted a reaction of some kind at least! No response was worse than a rejection.
"Naruto…" Gaara finally spoke, slowly removing his arms around Naruto's neck, but Naruto frantically tightened his hold around the redhead's waist. Gaara didn't seem to notice from where he stood unmoving, staring down at the blond with a carefully expressionless mask.
"I-I love you!" Naruto blurted out, if only to put off Gaara's rejection for another minute. He feared Gaara's rejection the most, and since Gaara now knew of his feelings, he wanted to ingrain them into the sand nin at the very least. It was selfish of him, he knew, but he didn't want to lose his most precious person. "For a long time now. I've tried to hold myself back all these years because I wanted to be a good friend, and I knew you weren't ready, but I couldn't help myself! I don't want to lose you. You're everything to me—"
Naruto was stopped when a finger softly touched his lips. He stared wide-eyed at the sand nin, heart thumping wildly in his chest, near to begging the redhead to stay by his side even if he had to shove aside his feelings so they could remain friends.
"Naruto," Gaara said gently, removing his finger when he was sure the blond would stay quiet. Gaara seemed to carefully choose his next words, his blank mask crumbling slightly as a pained look appeared in his eyes. "I…I never expected—No…love is…a painful topic for me, ever since…"
Naruto waited, watching as the redhead hesitated, recalling the painful memories that had changed him so drastically.
"But you changed me," Gaara continued, forging on, determinedly raising his gaze to the blond's. "If it weren't for you, I would still be mindlessly killing. I wouldn't be Kazekage; I wouldn't have found my precious people. And I wouldn't…I wouldn't feel these feelings for you."
Naruto felt like his lungs constricted, and he suddenly couldn't breathe. Did Gaara mean…?
"I don't know if it's love," Gaara confessed. "But I know you're my precious person. Not like Temari or Kankuro or the people of my village. You're different; these feelings I feel towards you are different. Sometimes…it's even painful."
That's love, Naruto wanted to say, but he didn't. It was close enough, though, and the happiness spreading through his body encouraged him to squeeze his arms around his Kazekage. Gaara gazed down at him, for once allowing the stoic mask to slide away, exposing his pain, confusion, and unbreakable resilience.
"I love you, Gaara," Naruto repeated. "And I always will. I'm not good with fancy words, but I just know I want to be with you. Your pain; I'll take care of it so you don't hurt anymore."
Gaara tensed very slightly when Naruto reached up and pushed the collar of his yukata to the side, but allowed the blond to do as he pleased. Naruto exposed one creamy shoulder and the left side of Gaara's chest. He leaned forward, pressing his lips over where Gaara's heart lay, the organ beating as heavily and excitedly as Naruto's own.
"I'll take away your hurt," Naruto vowed as he pulled back, looking up at the surprised jade eyes.
Gaara gazed down at him in silence before a tiny, tremulous smile appeared, and Naruto was awed at the sight. It made his redhead glow; it made his heart stutter with happiness. Standing, Naruto carefully encircled the smaller frame into his own, smiling when hesitant arms wound around his own waist before tightly clinging to him.
"Will you take the pain away?" Gaara peered up at him almost fearfully.
Understanding his request, Naruto obliged, tilting up the sand nin's face and pressing their lips together in a gentle kiss. The redhead melted against him, pressing up almost desperately.
Breaking away after a few minutes, Naruto grinned softly. "Feel better?"
Gaara blinked, a tiny smile appearing again, pulling him back down for another kiss. "Not yet."
Unbeknownst to the two nins currently enamored with each other, a crowd of nins and the Hokage were piled on each other in the hallway, peering into the room with great interest. Several giggled at the sight and others merely smiled.
A/N: It's a day late, but Happy New Years!