DISCLAIMER – I do not own Naruto. I am back to regular updates and I have an upcoming trial shift for my favorite restaurant. So it's not all bad.

Rated 'M' for sexual situations and violence, lemons and of course, bad language.


Vindicated,

I am selfish, I am wrong

I am right, I swear I'm right,

Swear I knew it all along, and I am

Flawed.

But I am cleaning up so well,

I am seeing in me now, the things you

Swore you saw yourself.

- Dashboard Confessional, Vindicated


Three months later

Aimi's POV

"Okay, so we've got kunai, shuriken, medical kits, food kits, hygiene kits, identification... And then, over here, all Kankuro's clothes are packed up for the movers... Gaara's are ready too... Do we send over the flatware and the kitchen stuff?" Temari muttered from the living room, more to herself than me. "Aimi, is there anything else we might need that I haven't already said?"

I walked into the living room clutching the midnight green dress that Temari had left on my bed in a bundle. "Are you sure I need this? Are you sure we even need to go to Kumogakure? We're busy enough."

Temari looked up from where she was surveyed four bento boxes and shot me a dark look. "Aimi, you know what this is about. I know it's a struggle trying to organize it all, especially with the guys having been away so long, but it's our duty."

I sighed heavily, trying not to roll my eyes, knowing she was right.

"And don't hold the dress like that, it's delicate, and it's unlikely we can get you another new dress now that'll match the palette of the Kazekage as well as this one," she chastised, much more mellow this time. She probably empathized with me since both of us were experiencing the same change and consequential stress at the moment.

Temari and I were currently at home in Suna, in the apartment that we would not be calling home for much longer. The date for Gaara's ascension to Kazekage was set for eight days from now. And in that time, Temari, Gaara, Baki and I were all due to attend a daimyo assembly in Kumogakure, accompanying the Land of Wind's daimyo.

Baki had recently been appointed to the head of the elder advisory council and Temari was due to be appointed as a diplomat and one of Gaara's advisers. Gaara stated he felt it necessary that he, Temari and Baki formally introduced themselves into the political community of the daimyo and the Raikage. Kankuro would accompany us too, as the other adviser to the future Kazekage and as future head of the Suna forces.

And to top of all that off, we were preparing to move out of our home as we left for Kumo, and into the Kazekage building as soon as we returned.

It wasn't as mentally intimidating for the Sand Siblings, since the Kazekage building had once been their home, until they were forced to move out by the Fourth Kazekage, whom had stated he wished for them to become more independent as soon as they hit adolescence.

However, the elders had made it very clear to both Gaara and myself, that they fully expected - as the "Kazekage no Hanayome" - me to share the master suite with Gaara. They had sent over color palettes and catalogs spilling with various kitchen appliances that could be fitted, if I or Gaara so wished, and had even asked if I wished for the dimensions of the railings on the staircase to be changed.

The only thing Gaara and I had requested were alterations to the master bedroom, to make it more homely.

"Our bedroom," I thought wryly to myself, feeling a grin spread across my face.

In a way, it was kind of exciting, the thought of us sharing a room. It seemed real to me now, that the two of us would be living together, that Gaara was about to become the leader of Sunagakure. And it had been so long since we'd been able to have any time together, so much preparation needed in so many aspects of the village for all of us, so many fragile and crucial transitions that needed to be handled so meticulously.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to me. 'He should be getting home about now.'

He and Kankuro had been away for four long weeks with the Suna jonin and chunin on a boot camp he and Kankuro had devised, to strengthen the ties between the Suna shinobi - including between Gaara and Kankuro, and the forces. Additionally, he was ensuring that the standard of the shinobi in the village was as high as it could be, and that their potential was fully acknowledged and encouraged.

It was things like this that over the past few months had cemented Gaara firmly into the hearts of Suna citizens. He was loved and respected amongst the villagers and shinobi alike, as was I, our love story becoming a facet in Gaara's reputation as a revolutionary in international co-operation and an inspirational reformer of Sunagakure's system and village in general.

I was proud of him.

He had worked his ass off, pouring so much time into connecting with the people of the village, and he was being acknowledged.

Just these past four weeks, he had spent all that time out in the desert with the Suna shinobi, and taken the ANBU with him, not for protection, but to create a personal bond with them, as oppose to an aloof relationship of forced respect.

He would have been roughing it out in the desert with them, no luxuries allowed, just time with the Suna ninja and kunoichi.

His inauguration ceremony was tipped to be one of the biggest parties Suna had seen for a long while - and this in aid of a man who not long so ago was feared and disgusted, objectified him as nothing more than a monstrous weapon.

At that moment, as I stood there pondering, I heard a key turn and the front door downstairs was opened to the sound of two sets of footsteps hurrying upstairs. "Man, I am so beat! I think I smell like a pack of wet dogs, ugh! I call the shower first. I only have a few days left until you're the boss."

Kankuro sounded extremely good-natured, if not exhausted, as he entered the living room looking a little worse for wear, his purple war paint slightly smeared down his face.

"Hey!" Temari greeted him, standing straight up and giving him a toothy smile that was somewhere between bemused, amused and affectionate.

"How was it?" I asked, grinning too, at the sight of how dishevelled he was, his clothes slightly torn and visible bags under his eyes that demonstrated his fatigue.

"Talk about survival one-oh-one!" Kankuro joked, wiping his brow and walking straight past us to get to the bathroom, just as I heard Gaara enter the living room.

I turned, genuinely anticipating seeing his face after so many weeks. And just as always, it was no disappointment, his jade eyes boring into me. He looked tired, but rejuvenated somehow, as if being away with his men had done him all the good in the world. He looked luminous, his eyes shimmering with a peculiar contentment.

I went straight to him, my hand cupping his cheek automatically, the feel of his skin seeming more real to me in the moment. He was as striking as always, his hair quivering as I ran my fingers through it, and he leaned down to brush his lips against mine, and then pulling back a millimetre or so. His warm breath, washed over me, one arm snaking around my back and pulling me closer. It was enough just to feel his breath on my face, to smell the amber and musk scent, the familiar touches in familiar places.

"I missed you," I whispered, taking care to trace his features, to restore the memory of him sharply in my mind. I took note of the scarlet scar on his forehead, the depth of the bags around his eyes. At closer inspection, he too looked much more disheveled than I had originally thought. His eyes were fatigued and his hair was much more unkempt that usual, speckles of sand littering it. His clothes were rumpled and torn at the hemline of sleeves and the bottom of his coat. Patches of dirt covered his clothing, and his movements were slightly sluggish.

"It's not like you to be this tired," I commented as he pulled away with an apologetic smile and merely collapsed on the sofa, throwing his head over the back of it, his whole body going limp.

"Hey, Gaara," Temari said, a hint of amusement in her tone as she surveyed her baby brother's motionless body with a grin. When he didn't respond, his blackened lids shut, she sighed heavily. Still, Temari gave him a sentimental smile and brushed his porcelain forehead lightly with her dainty fingers, a tiny sign of affection as she walked by, heading for the kitchen. "I'll get started on dinner. You look like you could use some gizzard."

As she left the room, I went over to the sofa and placed myself gently next to Gaara, taking care not to disturb him by jostling him. However, he opened his arms to welcome me into his lap, too tired to greet me with his eyes. I crawled into his lap and straddled him, his head still thrown back over the sofa. "Did you work really hard?"

He hummed the affirmative; his blood red bangs swept back making his kanji more visible. "We all worked hard. They're up to speed now."

"For what?" I asked, cocking my head.

"For being shinobi that are capable of protecting this village and each other." He sighed then. "It was difficult. But I'm glad."

I shifted so that I was much closer to him, to better study his face, the black markings on his eyelids looking darker and deeper than ever before in his fatigue. I cocked my head at him, as a thought occurred to me. "Why are you glad? Isn't it difficult for you?"

He opened his eyes then, an incredulous look in them. "What do you mean difficult?"

I paused then, immediately regretting my words. But this was Gaara, and I had no need to hesitate with him about what was on my mind. "It's just... there must be people in the forces that you trained with today that made you feel... so bad." I cringed then, shutting my eyes, trying to block out the image of the little Gaara I'd seen in photographs, alone on the streets of this village, ignored and feared.

I felt him shift beneath me and he sat up straight, so I opened my eyes to see his reaction. I had no need to fear it, as one of his hands went up to push a strand of my hair behind my ear and the other caught my right hand. He curled his own hand over mine, engulfing it, demonstrating how much larger it was, the warmth from his palm seeping into my knuckles.

"You know, there was a girl there whose ankle I once broke, when I was six years old," he commented. To someone else, it may have seemed passing, but I caught the undertones of reason underneath his faux nonchalance.

"How did that happen?" I questioned, watching him watch our hands, as he slowly revolved them this way, and that, as if to study every single angle.

He sighed softly, a sigh that sounded like resignation as he prepared to delve into his past. "I really wanted to play ball," he said simply.

I waited.

"I really wanted to play with them, to have friends. But no one would go near me. It was like I didn't exist. They'd refer to me as 'that Gaara' to their friends, as if I wasn't one of them, as if I wasn't enough to be human. But I wanted to be. One evening, I was sat on the swing where I would watch them play, and their ball got stuck up a wall, so I brought it down with my sand."

He paused then, releasing my hand only to re-capture it open and trace the lines of my palm.

He was searching for a distraction from thinking about it too intensely in his own mind, or from looking at the conflicted expression on my face and being forced to think about it intensely.

"I tried to give it them back, to ask if I could play... to ask if they could please not flee so easily, if they would just stay. And when they ran, I just..." It was at that moment, I noticed it hit him, the emotions he had felt as a child, as his brow furrowed, and he clutched my palm with both hands like a life raft.

"I just wanted someone... anyone," he whispered, looking down into his lap. Neither of us spoke for a few moments then. I had nothing to say that I was sure would not offend him on behalf of his people - and I was certainly angry with them.

He looked up at me then, a shadow of a smile playing about his lips. "But it doesn't matter now. Right now, I am a very lucky man to be surrounded, wanted and needed by the people of this village."

I felt the anger boiling up inside of me, at the thoughts of it, the thoughts of all those children snapping nasty retorts at a little boy lost, the people who feared such an innocent child in the past now acting like he hung the moon, listening to every order and relying upon him, as if they always had, as if they'd always been there.

It was at the moment that I lost it a little, slapping my thighs in frustration. "How can you say it that easily, like what they did to you was okay? Like what they did wasn't disgusting and vile? They are the ones who should feel lucky and if they would have just tried when you were younger, maybe-" But I tailed off at the sight of him raising his eyebrows at me, in surprise at my outburst. I let out a grunt, an attempt at a small apology and a release of frustration.

He didn't speak for several moments before he said in a measured tone, seeing through my emotions, "Aimi... how long has this been coming on?"

"Since you said you wanted to be Kazekage," I declared immediately, folding my arms, uncaring of the fact I looked like a petulant child.

He exhaled heavily. I immediately felt guilty, as if I had disappointed him, for not understanding fully, for being petulant and immature, unable to rise above it as easily as he could and had.

He surprised me, the look in his eye reverent as he captured my gaze. "Aimi?"

"Yes?"

"I love you," he stated sincerely, moving his face closer to mine and leaning up so that I could feel his words washing over me. "I always will, and I always have, ever since you sat on that roof one night and told me I didn't scare you."

I tried in vain to fight the smile off my face, and he moved to unfold my arms gently, breaking down the barrier between us.

"But can you tell me honestly that the families of those I killed who now have to work under me are lucky? The people whose homes I destroyed on a rampage are lucky? The girl whose ankle I broke was lucky she had to postpone her graduation from the academy?"

"YES! Well..." I stopped to think. "But they didn't try to understand! They didn't try! And if they'd have tried!" I felt tears spring to my eyes at the thought of him all alone. "You were alone! For so long, don't they care? They're so lucky you even graced them with a chance." And I collapsed on his shoulder then, sniffling and trying to fight back tears and failing.

His arms wrapped around me then, the irony of him comforting me about this, not lost on me. "Maybe we're all lucky," he suggested, his voice steady.

"What're you talking about?" I sobbed, grasping my arms around his body, holding him as tightly as I could, trying to protect him from something that was long gone.

"Maybe, when we grace each other with chances, first, second, third, however many, we can all be lucky." I didn't know what to say, or quite where he was going with this, and if it would change anything.

"I need nothing more than inspiration from you, Aimi, to remind myself why I hold nothing against those people."

I said nothing, continuing to weep into his shoulder, anger and frustration seeping through my body, imaging the little boy with the stuffed bear, alone.

"Your grace, your warmth made it possible to see beyond that. I never once gave you a reason to open yourself up to me on that rooftop and I nearly killed you, your friends and your brother. And yet still you pardoned me. You pardoned me and opened me up to a world in which I am blessed, where previously everyone else had seen I was a monster."

"But I chose to see past that and to think deeper than the label even you had created for yourself, let anyone else. People are more than just skin and bone and you have to choose to look past that and to choose to learn about someone," I growled, sitting up and staring him dead in the face.

"Exactly," he murmured, a nostalgic smile on his face. He must've noticed my confusion, because he continued. "Of all the things I have learned in my journey to becoming Kazekage, I learned that what breeds fear and hatred in this village is not a monster or more than one monster, but the ignorance and resignation that someone is a monster.

I have spent the last three weeks out there, not just teaching the Suna nin about ninjutsu or strategy, but about the importance of compromise and effort when it comes to understanding other people. In order to value each others' existences, we must first come to know each other's journeys, the decisions that led to each person becoming who they are. People are more than just skin and bone. People are very important and deserve to be valued. And I learned that from you.

The people of this village too have chosen finally to forgive me for the decisions I made based on my perceptions of my experiences that led to people suffering needlessly, just as others did to me. But the beauty of this journey with the people of Sunagakure is that this experience has taught us all compromise and it has taught us all to think beyond our immediate perceptions. And that makes us stronger - as a village.

There are people I took into the desert whom I nearly killed when I was younger, and I was lucky enough to gain those people's respect and friendship by choosing to fight for it. People are much kinder than perhaps they are given credit for. You taught me that, you and Naruto, people who chose to fight for me. And now there are many citizens of this village who choose to fight for me to rule them.

You brought me redemption. And that is why I am lucky. Because I am vindicated."

I understood then. "I don't know what to say, I'm sorry," I murmured sincerely, a sheepish expression on my face, blood rushing to my cheeks, telling of my guilt.

"It's okay. I'm glad you understand now. Perhaps I should have explained it sooner myself to you. I'm sorry too."

I smiled, letting him know it was forgotten by changing the subject. "Will the people in the village end up liking me and respecting me like they do you?"

He chuckled softly, his eyes twinkling good-naturedly as he processed my question, a question which exhibited my feelings and desires plainly. "They already do... Kazekage no Hanayome. I've had a lot of questions about you these past few weeks."

I perked up, able to glaze over the nickname a little better than usual when it was spoken in Gaara's low tone. "Really? You have? Like what?"

"Mostly questions about how we met, how I feel. Some of the kunoichi asked me what your daily skin routine was though," he answered, his brow furrowing at the end, demonstrating his confusion.

"Did you tell them what it was? 'Every day, she has skin.'"

He gave me a small beautiful smile, leaning up towards me and meeting my lips with a long soft kiss, his hands in my hair, twisting thick strands of it around his fingers, tracing his fingers through it. I was surrounded me by his scent, his skin, him.

He pulled away suddenly, not quite managing to stifle a straining yawn.

"I think it's bedtime for you, Kazekage-sama," I surmised wryly, watching his black eyelids droop.

"Aimi, you know-"

"I know, I know, no sleeping or you'll give Shukaku an opening. Jeez, you think I'd forget that?" I teased, winking at him and grinning, so he knew that I was joking. "I just think you need to get in bed and rest a little, okay? You must be tired."

"I can't, we're going away tomorrow. We need to be prepared," he protested, his words quite at odds with his actions, as his body sunk further back into the couch, his grip on me softening further as he went to rest his hands on my waist laxly. He mumbled, "You still have to go to the hospital... And get that thing."

"Already taken care of," I responded, immediately recognizing that he was referring to the matter of contraception that had been such an issue over the past few months - due to the fact we hadn't yet needed it. I couldn't quite figure out whether or not he was too tired to elaborate or whether it was embarrassment. In any case, I had taken care of it once again last week, under the direction of the elders, and had another contraceptive injection that I was told would be effective by the time Gaara became Kazekage and not before.

We'd struggled with the idea of sex ever since it had become a possibility for when I'd had the first injection. It had caused several crossed wires, as both of us tried to voice something we were both thinking without hurting the other one.

That we both wanted to wait until he was Kazekage.

It wasn't for any particular reason of purity or morality as one may have thought if they'd have known us. God knows neither of us were innocent.

It was simply that there hadn't been a time where either of us had a space free of distractions, free of Temari and Kankuro or preparation commitments. We barely had time with the four of us where we could do something leisurely recently, since we still had to contend with going on missions, training and other people.

In reality, it had been frustrating to a level that it had caused friction between Gaara and myself, as I found myself rounding on him one evening in the kitchen as a few of Temari and Kankuro's soon-to-be former students came round for a farewell party and they prepared to become chunin in the upcoming chunin exam, some of them preparing to become teachers themselves.

"Is this what it's going to be like when you become Kazekage? Will we have any time for us to even be in a relationship? What's the point if you won't make time?" I had hissed, regretting my outburst almost immediately as I had seen his face fall at my words.

It had taken a long time to fix that one, a lot of time to realize that we were on the exact same page – we were stressed out, exhausted and we couldn't find more than five minutes alone enough to make our first time as special as we both wanted it to be, without someone calling around, something needing to be done, someone even bursting in as Kankuro did frequently when he felt something needed to be said, however trivial.

And for that reason, we had agreed to wait.

Practically, it was a good idea. Whilst neither of us was particularly moralistic when it came to sex, both of us wanted it to be special, and the majority of our sexual escapades seemed to be rushed or hasty, in an attempt to steal a few moments here and there.

However, it was difficult to wait.

"That's good," Gaara mumbled at the moment, breaking my far-off thought processes and bringing me back to reality.

"Come on, you, let's at least get you in bed for meditation or something." He was about to protest, so I cut in, "No arguments! I'll tell Temari you need to get to bed. She'll understand. Besides, I've missed you."


The next morning was a flurried rush, as we hurried around, trying to prepare to leave for Kumogakure and yet to prepare for moving out simultaneously. It took us hours of discussing whether or not to take the vacuum, how much equipment we'd need on a mission of diplomacy and trying to communicate with each other around the movers spilling in and out of the living room.

Eventually, I gave up trying to help the movers and retired to my room, making sure I was fully prepared to leave as soon as was required.

"Do you think I should take the hat?" Gaara asked, walking into my room without announcing himself, holding the fern green Kazekage hat, as I strapped my shuriken holster to my left leg.

"Well, yeah. That's what you're going for, isn't it?" I responded nonchalantly, misjudging how stressed he was about it due to the unreadable expression masking his features as he surveyed the hat in his hands, holding it up, as if it was about to reveal some answers.

"Because I'm not the Kazekage yet and I don't want to come across as above my station. At the same time, I don't want to appear..." He looked at the floor then, but I caught him gritting his teeth, his brow furrowing and his hands clenching.

Recognizing the turmoil he was trying to disguise immediately, I turned to give him my full attention. I placed one hand on my hip and grinned at him.

"Stand up straight, baby," I told him earnestly. "This is the start of your era. So maybe don't wear it but take the damn hat and show them what you're made of."

The corner of his lip curled upwards at my words and he nodded.

"Godaime Kazekage." I sighed the words to myself, and though they seemed foreign, they wrapped around Gaara's form perfectly.

He walked over to his gourd, leaned up against the wall, tying the hat to the back of it and he took a step back, as if to admire it. I could not judge him for it - it certainly looked right.

"It looks better there," Gaara stated, yet he turned to me with a look in his eye that requested an opinion.

"I agree. I would not like you hiding away all that gorgeous hair underneath it. And you don't even like wearing hats anyway."

"That's true."


It took us until noon until we were finally ready to leave our empty apartments, after moments of, "Oh, look! I found this puppet I had when I was a kid in my closet. C'mon Temari, this has gotta go too. I'll just ask the movers to take it with them!" and moments of, "Hey, do you think we should take this peach tea? ... Well, you never know! I might come home and really want some peach tea and it'll be right there. I think it's a good idea."

Noon was not an ideal time for us to leave since the sun was at its highest point, making it most difficult to travel due to the sweltering heat. Additionally, we knew that Baki's party of himself and his ANBU guard would now be way ahead of us, some way into the desert. They would have left early this morning, before the heat rolled into Suna and the cool night air still misted over the village. Most likely, the daimyo would all have left several days ago, taking with them their processional parades to enter Kumogakure in the grandest of styles.

Regardless, it had taken us far too much time to leave, and, as Temari reminded us, we could not afford to be late - it would make as an extremely bad first impression on Gaara's part. Running through the desert in such heat would not be comfortable and it would drain a lot of chakra for us all to keep a pace that would catch us up today. However, it would most likely have to be done, regardless of the inconvenience of the situation. The poor time-keeping was our own fault.

Temari was the one to lock the door as we left and the four of us spilled out into the streets of Suna, under the glaring sun.

None of us paused in sadness to lament in our farewells to this apartment, a strange buzz of excitement about us as we stepped forward into the next chapter of our lives almost immediately, heading straight off to a conference.

At that moment, three male jonin walking by noticed us, and hurried over in a gaggle of masculinity, all rugged features, bandages and shoulder guards.

"Gaara-sama! Kankuro-taicho!" they exclaimed, bowing deeply to Gaara in particular.

Their eyes found Temari and me then and they bowed too, avoiding our eyes, possibly a little embarrassed by their dramatic greetings towards Gaara and Kankuro.

Noticing our extra baggage, one of the men, wearing a piece of cloth over his mouth. "Gaara-sama, m-may I just thank you for the boot camp y-you set up... for us all these past few weeks." he stuttered, bowing once more. "I just wanted to say... I thought it was excellent. And I am... very glad it happened. It really helped me."

Gaara offered him a small smile, his eyes glistening with joy. "Thank you, Ikiro. You did very well."

"T-thank you, Kaze-... Gaara-sama," the man named Ikiro spluttered, seemingly losing his cool in front of Gaara, nearly about to refer to him as Kazekage. It was very sweet.

"Jeez, Ikiro! Could you be any less cool?" One of his friends grumbled, elbowing Ikiro sharply in the ribs. "My apologies, Gaara-sama, Kankuro-taicho."

Gaara's smile grew, Kankuro letting out a hearty chuckle. "Hey, Jun, I wanna see that shurikenjutsu when I get back. Keep practising, okay? You'd already be an ANBU if you'd learn how to aim," Kankuro joked, grinning at the man named Jun. "What I saw out there in the desert was a hell of a lot of potential."

Jun's eyes widened, filling with something like affection and he bowed deeply, almost as if it was to cover up his embarrassment and simultaneously display a deep gratification towards Kankuro. "Th-thank you, Kankuro-senpai!"

"Anyway, we need to be going," Temari ushered discreetly in a hushed tone, waving to the three men and bidding them farewell. We all followed her, giving quick good byes to the three men.

"Good bye, Kazekage-sama! Hanayome-sama!" they yelled after us, waving enthusiastically from behind us.

As we headed for the village exit, ready to begin a very long and difficult journey. Gaara edged a little closer to me, taking my hand as we walked under the sun. "Do you see it now?" he murmured, so that only I could hear.

"U-huh," I replied nostalgically, remembering the sincerity of the respect the men offered us, the open warmth they displayed to the four of us, the trust and adoration in their voices for Gaara and Kankuro specifically. "I see it now. We are lucky."


Author's Note: Oh, hey, everyone! SatS is back! I am back with regular updates for you all and I am very excited.

Just a few notices since I'll now be updating frequently.

I am now writing using some Japanese in things like techniques and the village names for the Naruto-world. I know previously I've used the English Dubbed format, but from here on out, we're going all Japanese. If you want, I'll leave a little key down here

This is partly because I have applied for a place to do a degree majoring in Japanese and History with a year abroad to Japan at college – and I shall be starting in September!

Also, I have a trial shift at a big sushi conveyer belt restaurant chain over here on Friday and I am so excited. However, I have never waitressed before – if you guys have any tips on how to behave on a trial shift, that would be great.

I think that's pretty much it.

I have a Tumblr account btw and my handle is "thefifthkazekage" – I blog exclusively about Naruto, so follow me and I can follow you back?

Okay, now that's it.

Make sure you review and let me know if you like the update!

What do you think will happen at the Kumogakure conference? Do you think the daimyo will like Gaara and Aimi? Do you think Kankuro will no longer burst in after they've moved out, since he'll get his little puppet hideout hut? (I hope so, for the sake of future lemons!)

Until next time, REVIEW!

P.S. (what was that chapter today and how come Naruto spends more time alone in his room practising turning into naked boys than an A ranked ninjutsu that could save everyone?)