Art of Seduction

Gaara tries to resist.

There are no surprise attacks awaiting him the next day, and Gaara spares a moment to be thankful. After breakfast, when he dresses himself, he pulls out clothes that he does not often wear and has not worn for a long time. Over those go the Kage robes, the hat ignored – in Kage meetings, the hat is superfluous.

Then, feeling warm, he heads to the meeting.

A blast of wintry air greets him as he enters the room, and he nods his approval at Jirou, standing in one corner and watching him discreetly for acknowledgement. When Jirou smiles, Gaara looks around and is satisfied to see that the other Kages and their ANBU are not present. It is five minutes past the arranged meeting time, and for them to not be here can only mean…

"They came, but they left to change into warmer clothes," Kankurou says, slouched comfortably in his chair and warm clothes. Temari just rolls her eyes, dressed similarly. Gaara already sent guards earlier in the morning to warn his siblings and those of his own guard on visible duty, so all of the Suna-nins came prepared.

Gaara smirks, and takes his seat in between his siblings.

"Actually, I expected Naruto to just use a warming jutsu or something," Temari remarks. "He never backs down from a challenge."

Kankurou frowns. "You know, that makes sense."

"But Naruto also knows when to stop pushing things," Gaara says, surprised that they do not realize. "This room is a clear message that I will not tolerate any further similar incidents."

His siblings exchange a look. Temari says, "You two have the weirdest relationship, little brother," while Kankurou nods agreement.

Gaara is confused. "But –"

The arrival of the Tsuchikage does not allow him to ask his question, and while the old man looks a little put out that he had to change, he nods once at Gaara to show that he understands why this came about. Gaara inclines his head in return.

Naruto arrives, for the first time in days fully covered in his Hokage robes, and takes his place. He shoots Gaara a 'This Is Not Over' look, but then turns serious. "Alright," he says. "Let's get down to business."

They have a very productive meeting, and when it ends Gaara is in a good enough mood to nod at the Tsuchikage's assistant, who was very helpful in soothing his Kage when the old man was being difficult. Most of the time the other Kages are too diplomatic to have problems with Gaara's and Naruto's young ages, the two of them have found, but sometimes when issues are being contested they can practically see the resentment rising. Especially when Naruto and Gaara are in the meetings together, because more often than not the two of them instinctively band together and stand as one.

The Tsuchikage's assistant stays behind as everyone else leaves the room, only Naruto, Gaara, and two of the Suna guards remaining. He approaches Gaara, who rises to greet him. "Kazekage-sama," he says in a low murmur of a voice. "Please excuse our Tsuchikage's temper."

Gaara tilts his head up to look at the taller man, and smiles. "Conflict is unavoidable, Ume-san," he says. "I myself would like to apologise for –"

"Does only the Kazekage merit an apology?" Naruto's voice interrupts them, sounding friendly, but there is a subtle edge. They turn to look at him, reclining like a cat – or a king – in his seat across the table. His blue eyes glitter. "Should I be insulted?"

Ume bows to him. "I approached the Kazekage first as he is the host, Hokage-sama, but rest assured that I was going to offer my apologies to you next."

Naruto rises from his seat with a sinuous grace that is different from his normal artless one. He begins strolling around the table towards them. "Is that so? Ume-san… is it? You have already apologised to the Kazekage, have you not?"

Ume turns to face him, and executes a perfectly respectful bow. "And now I apologise to you, Hokage-sama, for our Tsuchikage's temper."

Naruto's eyes narrow. "And what if I –"

"Naruto, stop picking fights already." That impatient voice makes everyone in the room halt, and turn to the door. "You're our Hokage, so don't embarrass us by embarrassing yourself."

Gaara's fists clench. He notices, and forces himself to stop before anyone notices.

Uchiha Sasuke stands in the doorway.

Naruto rounds on him, planting his hands on his hips. "What are you doing here?" he demands, and while there is irritation in his voice, there is also welcome. "Didn't you just get back from Kiri?"

"Yeah, and the moment I arrived in Konoha I had to go off again because of this mission." Sasuke scowls. "After the cool climate of Mist, this place feels like a damn oven. No offence, Kazekage-sama," he adds, looking over to Gaara and giving him an obligatory bow.

"No offence taken," Gaara says neutrally, because it will not do to be less than polite to Naruto's – friend, now, only a friend. But Gaara cannot bring himself to believe this, because there is no hostility in Naruto as he bickers familiarly with Sasuke, no bitterness, no hurt feelings. It can only mean that Naruto has made up again with Sasuke, or that they have never broken up at all.

Gaara wonders what the past few days have been all about, then, but his thoughts are jumbled by the sudden sharp ache in his chest.

Ume touches his arm gently, fingers lingering, bringing Gaara out of his thoughts. "Kazekage-sama," he says softly, "I will take my leave now. Shall I deliver the first draft of documents to you later this day? Perhaps in the evening?"

"That would be good, thank you," Gaara replies, trying his best to ignore the Leaf-nin. "And as I could not complete my apology before, let me offer it again to you now. My actions yesterday were regrettable. I hope I did not cause you any injuries."

"I would not be where I am if I could not save myself from a fall," Ume says lightly, smiling. "And I did speak out of turn in the first place, after all."

Gaara feels his lips quirk in a smile. "That was rather more than a fall, Ume-san."

Ume's smile turns into a grin, and his formal speech relaxes into something lighter. "I'm from Iwa, Kazekage-sama. You should see the height of the rocks that are everywhere. Trust me, in Iwa terms, that really was a simple fall."

"That sounds… dangerous."

"It's actually pretty fun." Ume shoots him a look that Gaara cannot interpret. "The next time a Kage meeting is held in Iwa, I can show you some of the games our shinobi have developed to make use of the landscape."

Gaara nods. "I would like that." The last meeting held in Iwa had bored Gaara out of his mind.

"Then it's agreed." Ume gives him a quick grin, and then bows formally. "I will see you later, Kazekage-sama."

Gaara inclines his head in acknowledgement and dismissal, and watches Ume leave the room, bowing to Naruto and murmuring his good-byes as he passes the Leaf-nin. As he leaves, Gaara becomes aware of Naruto's stare. He steels himself before meeting that gaze.

Naruto's eyes are cold, for some reason. "You seem pretty friendly with the guy," he remarks.

"He is… easy to talk to," Gaara answers cautiously, unsure of what it is that he has done. He does not like the feeling of uncertainty. He does not like being unable to read Naruto, something that he has done easily for a few years now.

"I see." Naruto's voice is neutral. Suddenly he turns and grabs Sasuke's hand, pressing close to the dark-haired boy; Gaara's teeth grind. "I'm going to catch up with Sasuke. I'll see you later."

Gaara watches Naruto yank Sasuke after him, leaving the Uchiha only time enough to bid Gaara a quick requisite goodbye. Again there is the sense of loss, but this time it is stronger than ever, and it feels more… permanent.

Naruto is Sasuke's again, and Gaara cannot compete.

"Kazekage-sama." That voice is Seiji's, one of his personal guards, and Gaara looks at him. "May I have permission to say something that it might not be my place to say?"

Gaara is curious, and he nods his assent.

"I'm not sure if you noticed, but… that Iwa-nin is interested in you."

"Interested?" Gaara says blankly.

Seiji nods. Across from him, Gaara sees his partner, Ren, nod as well.

"But… he is from another village. And I am the Kazekage. There is no point in his being interested in me, nothing can come of it." Gaara really does not understand.

He supposes that his confusion must be clear, because Ren says, "To some people, if they like a person, such barriers are only there to be overcome."

"But… I am me." Gaara does not know how else to say it, but the expression in his guards' faces tell him that they understand.

"Kazekage-sama, please believe us when we say that once people get to know you, you are very easy to like." Ren speaks earnestly, and he clearly believes in his words.

"And you're actually pretty damn hot, if you'll excuse my phrasing," Seiji adds, a wicked light in his eyes. He and Tsuki are brothers, and their penchants for teasing people are similar.

Gaara can only stare, amazed.

"You really are, Kazekage-sama," Ren says firmly, mistaking the look for disbelief. "You're considered the ultimate catch in Suna."

"Just look at Akiko and Rie, and all the other girls," Seiji points out.

Gaara winces at the mention of Rie. "I… see," he manages. Pulling himself together, he eyes his guards. "All that was just said is not to be repeated, understand?"

Ren nods vigorously while Seiji salutes him with a smirk. "Understood," they chorus.

With a last warning look at Seiji, Gaara leaves the room, thoughts whirling. Ume-san… interested in him? What a strange concept. Perhaps throwing a man out a window is some sort of Iwa mating ritual. Gaara cannot imagine anyone normal (which automatically, in his mind, excludes the entire kunoichi population of Suna, and a good bit of the rest of the female civilians as well) liking him in, well, that way.

Bright blue eyes and a cheerful smile surface in his mind.

He will drop by the academy, Gaara decides, changing his destination abruptly. Helping out with the students and seeing the awe in their eyes – they are too young to remember the Gaara of the past, and know him only as their beloved Kazekage – always cheers him up.

All things considered, Gaara is very proud of his self-control.

Naruto is sitting very close to Sasuke. Naruto's knee is pressed against Sasuke's. Naruto keeps stealing food from Sasuke's plate like he's done it all his life, and Sasuke is letting him even though his expression is annoyed. Naruto keeps leaning into Sasuke when he reaches for food. Naruto keeps taking food for Sasuke. Naruto keeps bringing up things that apparently only he and Sasuke know, and then cutting himself off with a laugh and a 'Sorry, Gaara, inside joke'.

This last item is particularly trying.

Even so, Gaara's sand has not even so much as twitched. Admittedly Gaara himself has twitched a few times, but that is normal behaviour for him when Naruto's in one of his moods, so that's okay. And moreover, Gaara has been managing a very civil conversation with Sasuke for the past fifteen minutes, Naruto throwing in comments from time to time. Neither the urge to kill nor the sharp ache in his chest – an old friend by now – has gotten the better of him.

Gaara thinks that if this does not merit sainthood, then if there is a heaven, it will be saint-less.

Naruto suddenly jumps to his feet, startling both Sasuke and Gaara. He heads towards the door with a purpose, calling over his shoulder, "I'll be back in a second," before disappearing into the next room. Gaara blinks after him, shrugs, and then returns to eating his food.

He swallows the mouthful of rice and looks at Sasuke, who hasn't resumed eating. Rather, those cool eyes are looking him over. "Is there a problem, Uchiha-san?" Gaara says politely.

"You like him," Sasuke says bluntly, watching him closely.

Gaara keeps his calm admirably, taking another mouthful of rice with egg. He swallows the sudden lump in his throat along with the food, and says evenly, "You have no cause to worry. Naruto seems very devoted to you." He chooses not to mention the previous days' behaviour, because Sasuke does not need to know.

Sasuke's reaction is unexpected, however. He lets out a snort of laughter, and shakes his head. "I can't believe I'm doing this," he mutters to himself, while Gaara watches, mystified. "Two of the most powerful shinobi in the world, and they're this stupid…"

Gaara stares. He wonders whether Sasuke's days with Orochimaru, before he and Naruto killed the man together, have driven him insane. "Uchiha-san?"

"Yeah, sorry." Sasuke takes a deep breath, and sits forward, looking at Gaara intently. "Okay, look, the thing is, I kind of promised the moron that I wouldn't say anything, so I can't say it directly, but –"

"Sorry for the wait!" Naruto says cheerfully as he bursts back into the room, striding over to them and accidentally kicking Sasuke in the back. As Sasuke grunts with pain, hand going to his back, Naruto drops back down into his seat and hands Gaara… a scroll?

"The first draft of the documents," Naruto says, nodding at the scroll. "I happened to meet the Iwa guy while I was coming back from the bathroom, and I said I'd pass it to you."

Gaara looks down at the scroll in his hand, and then up at Naruto. "The bathroom is just behind you," he says blankly.

Naruto twists in his seat to look at the door. "Oh, so it is! Why didn't you tell me earlier? You could have saved me a trip out."

As Gaara stares at him some more, Sasuke elbows Naruto hard in the ribs. When Naruto glares at him, Sasuke glares back equally venomously. "You kicked me in the spine," he hisses.

"You were going to break your promise!" Naruto hisses back.

"I was not!"

"Yes you were! I could hear you from outside!"

"Then you'd have heard me clearly saying that I wasn't going to –"

Gaara interrupts, a little annoyed. Trying to keep out of their affairs as a couple is one thing, but this clearly involves him somehow, and he hates being left in the dark. He has had too many years of that already. "Can either of you tell me what is going on?"

Naruto jerks, startled, and then laughs a little too loudly. "Ahaha, no, it's just this thing between me and Sasuke –"

"Okay, that's it," Sasuke declares, rising to his feet. "I'm not doing this anymore." When Naruto opens his mouth to protest, he shoots a glare at the blond. "I'm not going to say anything and break my promise," he says sharply, "but I'm not going to play your silly games."

"Sasuke…" Naruto says ominously.

"Oh, just shut up and open your eyes, Naruto!" Sasuke snaps. Then he looks at Gaara, who knows that he has a completely lost and confused expression on his face but cannot seem to do anything about it, and the scowling expression softens a little. "Naruto's an idiot, Gaara-san," he says. There is a calculating look in his eyes as he adds, "I don't see how you can stand him for days on end. I certainly couldn't, and I'm not going to try ever again."

"Sasuke!" Naruto growls, eyes narrowed dangerously. He stands to face his former teammate down.

Gaara is trying to work out Sasuke's words. Did he just imply…?

"Whatever, dobe." Sasuke waves a dismissive hand at Naruto, gives Gaara an ironic little bow, and says, "I'm done here. I'll be heading back to Konoha early tomorrow, Gaara-san. Thank you for Suna's hospitality."

"You are always welcome back in Suna," Gaara says automatically. Yes, Sasuke really did imply that his relationship with Naruto had ended… there was no other reasonable explanation. And he was trying to tell Gaara something else, too. But what…?

"You can't do this, Sasuke," Naruto is saying, leaning in close to Sasuke, an urgent message that Gaara cannot read in his eyes. "You can't just –"

"Get over it, dobe." Sasuke rolls his eyes, turning and heading for the door. "This would never have worked, and I should never have agreed. See you later."

"Wait –"

The door shut.

Naruto is still staring after Sasuke, his mouth opening and shutting a few times. Then he throws a wary look at Gaara. "Uh…"

Gaara looks up at his friend, and sees the embarrassment and the mortification, and he finally understands. He knows what Naruto was trying to do.

He can feel the tears burning in his chest, but he knows how to keep them from spilling.

"That wasn't – Sasuke's just being stupid, he doesn't know what he's saying –" Naruto is fumbling to explain, all the time shooting Gaara those worried, chagrined looks, like he is afraid of Gaara's reaction. "Just forget you ever heard –"

"Stop," Gaara says quietly.

Naruto stops.

Distantly, Gaara thinks that he finally understands what it means to have your heart breaking in your chest. Temari once used that phrase, and Gaara thought it ridiculously exaggerated at the time. Now he knows better. He closes his eyes, and tries for calm. "I know already, Naruto," he says finally, when he is sure his voice will come out neutral and not like he is breaking. "You do not have to hide it anymore."

"…oh. Um. You… don't mind?" There is such hope in that voice that Gaara cannot bear it.

"I am sorry." He says it steadily, trying not to choke on the words. "I cannot… I cannot let this go on."

There is silence.

"You are my friend, Naruto," he continues, forcing himself to say it. "But even at the risk of our friendship, I cannot… I…"

"It's okay." Naruto sounds like he is breaking, too, but struggling just as hard to keep together. "I understand. You don't have to say anymore."

Gaara bows his head. "I'm sorry," he whispers.

"No, it's okay, you don't have to be!" There is a forced cheerfulness in Naruto's voice, which is so very wrong, because Gaara firmly believes that there should never be anything false in that voice, and it should always sound happy. "We're still friends, right?"

Trust Naruto to be so forgiving. It is more than Gaara can hope for. "Of course," he says, hope steadying him. "Always."

"Yeah? Cool. Okay." Naruto takes a deep breath. "Um… you don't mind if I… there's so much food left, but –"

"I will take care of it."

"Okay. Great." There is the sound of Naruto standing, of Naruto walking to the door. Just as it opens, Naruto's oddly subdued voice says, "We're still friends, right?"

"Always," Gaara says, and means it.

He hears the door close, and then there is silence.

And in the silence, Gaara finally opens his eyes, the light stinging them. He finally allows himself to feel the emotions he has been keeping at bay, and his breath suddenly shortens. His throat burns. His fingernails cut into his palms, as he curls them into fists so tight that his knuckles are white. The hollow in his chest aches so badly that it feels like it is tearing him in two.

He should have known better than to get his hopes up, Gaara thinks despairingly. He should have known. He has always known of Naruto's feelings for Sasuke, and he should have seen it earlier. Of course Naruto would try to win Sasuke back when they broke up. Naruto is strong, and determined, and he would never just give up that easily, especially not on the people he loves.

But even though Gaara wishes that he could help Naruto, he cannot let himself be the third party that Naruto uses to make Sasuke jealous. Even if the plan is working – hearing of Naruto's efforts so far had clearly made Sasuke give Naruto another chance, hence the dinner – even if, by letting himself be embraced by Naruto, Gaara will help to finally make Sasuke so jealous that he will see what is before his own eyes, Gaara cannot do it.

It will hurt too much.

Ignoring the slowly cooling food, Gaara stands and makes his way to his bedroom. His footsteps are heavy, and with every step he feels like he is splintering further. He fairly collapses on his bed, and lies there unmoving.

And even as the world turns, Gaara wishes that it would stop, so that he will not have to get up in the morning, so that he will not have to face the new day.

A day that will herald a future without any hope of Naruto's love.

It is Temari who ventures into his room the next morning, when Gaara does not stir.

He hears whispers from outside the door, before it opens and Temari's presence slips into the room. He can sense her pause, taking in the block of sand covering the window, blocking any light from entering. He understands her well enough to know that she is debating turning the main light on, before deciding against it.

She closes the door, throwing the room into complete darkness again, and makes her way to the bed. Gaara still does not move as she fumbles in the dark and manages to turn the bedside lamp on. Soft light glows behind his eyelids, and then is blocked by a shadow, and the bed dips as she sits beside him.

"What happened, little brother?" Temari says softly.

Gaara doesn't answer. He wants her to leave, but he cannot bother telling her to.

There is some hesitation. Then a hand gently rests on his hair, warm and comforting. Gaara wishes that the hand belongs to someone else, and toys with the idea of pretending it does, before dismissing it as a foolish dream.

"Gaara," Temari says, "please tell me what's wrong."

She will not leave unless he gives her something. Gaara knows that much. So he says, without moving anything else but his lips, "Nothing that you can fix."

Temari thinks about that. He can sense her worry, and curiosity, but worry wins out. "The Kage meeting is supposed to be in ten minutes," she says. "Do you want me to postpone it to this afternoon?"

He wants to cancel it and kick all the Leaf and Rock nins out of Suna this instant, but he knows that he will feel very stupid if he does, because he has already promised Naruto that they are still friends, and that means that nothing can change between them. Except that things have already changed so much. "Yes," he finally answers his sister. "Please."

"Alright." There is a pause. "Is there any excuse you want me to give the other Kages?"

Gaara cannot stop the humourless, short laugh. "Naruto already knows," he says bitterly, and immediately regrets the impulsive, thoughtless words as Temari stiffens. She is smart, very much so, and Gaara knows this – just as Kankurou helps him handle the military side of affairs, Temari helps him deal with all the politics – and so he knows that she will very easily put it all together.

And she does. "You confessed to Naruto?" she says, sounding stunned. "And… he rejected you?"

There is incredulity and anger and a dark vengeful tone to those last words, and Gaara knows that if he does not say anything, Naruto will shortly find himself being hunted down by not only one very merciless kunoichi, but also the very merciless kunoichi's brother. "I did not confess," he mutters. "He still has no idea about my feelings."

"Oh." Temari calms down, and the killing aura subsides. "Then what happened?"

Gaara struggles to find words. "It was… simply made clear to me," he says at last, "that Naruto can never return my feelings."

Temari thinks about this. "Are you sure?" she says after a while. "Because I really thought…"

"I am sure."

She sighs. "Oh, Gaara…"

He feels his lips quirk in a smile – how amazing, that he should still be able to smile. "As Kankurou would say, you are giving in to your girly side."

She ruffles his hair. "If I had my fan, you'd be feeling it hit you right about now," she says lightly, but the worry is still clear, only this time she is clearly at a loss what to do.

And Gaara remembers that his life is not his own. He is the Kazekage, and he cannot seem anything less than strong. So he begins the painful process of pulling himself back together. "Temari…"


"Please do not say anything about this to anyone. Anyone at all. Do you understand? I do not want anyone to know."

"How about –"

"Kankurou is fine." Gaara thinks about this, and then adds, "And you are not allowed to give Naruto a hard time. It is not his fault that my feelings are one-sided."

Temari is silent. He can sense her reluctance.

"I want you to promise me, Temari."

She sighs, a frustrated huff. "Fine, fine. I promise that I will try not to give Naruto a hard time. Alright?"

"And I want you to promise to make Kankurou promise, too."

"Yes, alright, I get it." She pauses. "I'd better go tell the guards to send to the other Kages and tell them the meeting's postponed until this afternoon. Or do you want to just make that tomorrow?"

"No. I will be fine by the afternoon."

He hears her snort. "I very seriously doubt that, little brother. But afternoon it is." She pats his hair one more time, and then stands. "Do you want me to wake you for lunch?"

Gaara considers, and then nods.

"Okay. I'll be back later." He hears her walk to the door. Before she opens it, she says softly, "It's okay to cry sometimes, you know."

He smiles tiredly. "I am afraid I have forgotten how, Temari."

She does not answer, but he knows that the look on her face is pained. Quietly, she leaves.

Gaara takes a deep breath, and another. Then he sits up, carefully opening his eyes against the lamplight. He has done nothing but brood the whole night, and he still has that first draft to go through before the meeting. This behaviour is unacceptable.

Standing, Gaara heads to the bathroom. He will clean up, and then work on some documents. It will serve to clear his mind, and help him compose himself.

He will need all the composure he can manage.

So it is that when Temari comes for him, he is properly dressed and ready for the meeting after lunch, his notes on the proposed treaty neatly penned. He follows her into the dining room, where they have a quiet lunch, discussing each of their views on the treaty. He can sense Ren and Seiji nearby, which is odd, because they are usually good at hiding their presence. It seems that he is not the only one in a bad mood today.

When lunch is done, they head to the meeting room. Their walk is uneventful, except that every one of the Suna ANBU that they meet seems to bow deeper than normal while avoiding his eyes. Gaara wonders why, and then decides that he is in no mood to bother asking.

There is no one there yet, except Tsuki and Omi, stationed in one corner each. They, too, exhibit the odd behaviour, but Gaara ignores them. Ren and Seiji materialize in the other two corners. Kankurou comes in soon, and while his eyes hold empathy and worry, all he does is greet Gaara normally. But he ruffles Gaara's hair as he passes by on his way to his seat.

Gaara knows it for the concern it is, and so gives Kankurou a half-hearted scowl as he tries to neaten his hair again. Kankurou grins at him.

The Tsuchikage arrives, and nods to Gaara. "Are you feeling better now, Kazekage-sama?" he enquires politely.

"Much better, Tsuchikage-sama," Gaara answers, equally polite. He avoids Ume's gaze when the other man tries to catch his own. "Thank you for the concern."

"There must be a flu bug going around," the old man remarks. "One of the Konoha guards also came to me this morning to ask for the meeting to be pushed back. Apparently the Hokage is feeling ill, too."

"I see." Gaara manages not to react at the mention of Naruto. "You should be careful yourself in that case, Tsuchikage-sama."

Then Naruto arrives, and Gaara suddenly understands the reason for his ANBU's conduct today, because the moment the Hokage steps into the room, looking as worn as Gaara feels, the killing intent spikes from all four corners.

Gaara suppresses a grimace. How in the world had they found out? He eyes Kankurou and Temari, who studiously avoid his stare. Very well, he would force some answers out of them later.

Even the Iwa shinobi, and the Tsuchikage, stiffen in their places. Naruto does not seem to notice, however. He gives a general nod to the room, and takes his seat. "Shall we begin?" he says, looking at the Tsuchikage.

The old Kage looks consideringly at Naruto, but wisely chooses not to comment. "Of course," he says. "Now, I believe you would have seen the first draft of the treaty by now…"

It is the most awkward, tension-filled meeting in the history of Kage meetings, outside of war times. Gaara and Naruto avoid talking to each other if they can help it, and when their eyes meet accidentally, they immediately look away. As the meeting progresses, Temari ends up taking over the talking for Suna, and Shikamaru for Konoha.

When dusk falls, the meeting is adjourned for the next day. They agree that the second draft will be handed out by the Suna nins by ten o'clock, latest, and then people start to leave. The Tsuchikage and his party are the first to go, followed by the Konoha shinobi – Gaara watches resignedly as his four ANBU drill holes into Naruto's back with their stares. Naruto does not react, even if there is no way he cannot have noticed.

But Neji and Shikamaru react for him. They stop following Naruto, and turn to stare back at the ANBU. Shikamaru is not wearing a mask, and so his sharp, narrow stare is piercing, even as he slouches, hands in his pockets. Even behind his mask, Neji's glare is intense.

Naruto pauses, but does not look back. "Neji, Shikamaru," he says quietly, but there is an edge of steel in his voice. "Let's go."

With one more belligerent stare each, the two Leaf-nin turn and follow Naruto out. The door closes behind them.

Finally. Gaara turns in his seat to glare at Temari. "Who told?" he says sharply.

"I only told Kankurou," Temari says defensively.

Kankurou holds up his hands when Gaara's green stare turns on him. "And I didn't tell anyone," he says quickly.

Gaara considers this. Then he says, "ANBU. Come here."

The four of them move to stand facing Gaara. He eyes them. "Who, and how?"

None of them answer.

Gaara's stare turns into a glare. "I want an honest answer now."

There is a flurry of silent exchanges. Tsuki and Omi are together, as are Ren and Seiji, and Tsuki and Seiji are brothers, so their silent exchange is fast, as they are familiar enough with one another to almost read one another's minds. Finally, Tsuki steps forward. "Omi and I overheard Temari-sama and Kankurou-sama talking," he says crisply.

"Why do all the ANBU seem to know?"

"It seems that some of the other ANBU heard us telling Seiji and Ren, and… spread the word."

Gaara thinks about this carefully. Then his eyes narrow. "Where, exactly, did this exchange of information take place?"

Busted. Gaara can practically taste that feeling in the air. There is some uncomfortable shifting, before Tsuki finally admits, "In the ANBU break room." Where there is always a number of ANBU relaxing. In other words, if there is something you want the entire ANBU to know, you simply have to mention it in their break room.

Gaara then turns to his siblings. There is a resigned look in Temari's eyes, while Kankurou has his 'Oh, crap' expression. "And where did the two of you talk, that Tsuki and Omi heard you so easily?"

Kankurou sighed unhappily. "In my living room." Where any ANBU pair on guard will have no problems listening in.

Gaara opens his mouth to – not yell, but something close to it – when Omi beats him to the chase. "I won't apologise for knowing about this, or for being upset at the Hokage!" he says fiercely. "The Hokage deserves us being mad at him, because if he doesn't know how to appreciate you then he's too stupid to live anyway!"

Tsuki places a gentling arm on Omi's, but looks directly at Gaara, and the normally teasing, devil-may-care light in his eyes is gone, to be replaced by a serious, angry glitter. "Omi's right, Kazekage-sama," he says, voice strong. "And he speaks for all of us."

"Forget the Hokage," Seiji agrees. "You're too good for him anyway."

"You have Suna, and you have us," Ren says. "Please let us be your strength."

Gaara stares at them all, taken aback by their overwhelming faith and love. This is why he fought for the job of Kazekage, he remembers; this is what he has always hoped to achieve. He smiles slowly, feeling some of the pain ease, and one by one they smile back.

"Thank you," he says softly, meaning it. "You are shinobi that any Kage would be proud to lead, and serve."

Kankurou clapped him on the back. "You've come a long way, little brother," he says cheerfully, but Gaara can tell that he too has been touched by their words, and the pride that he has in Gaara is clear.

Something occurs to Gaara, then. He frowns. "Please tell me that when you said that the Hokage deserves your anger, you did not mean that you will be doing anything to appease that anger?"


Gaara sighs. He does not need this, and says as much. "I do not need more trouble on top of everything. Please spread the word that no one is to try anything with the Hokage or his guards, alright?"

They agree reluctantly. Feeling completely worn, Gaara stands. "Shall we have dinner in my rooms?" he asks his siblings.

Kankurou shakes his head. "I have to talk to some captains about training."

Gaara turns to Temari, and the thoughtful look in her eyes is worrying. "I have some things to do, but I'll join you soon," she says. "You can head back first, get a head start on your work. I'll bring dinner up for both of us."

"If you have anything suspicious planned," Gaara informs her, "you will be very very sorry."

She smiles sweetly at him. "Would I do anything to hurt my own little brother?"

Even Kankurou eyes her at that. "Suspicious," he agrees.

Temari kicks him. "Shut up."

Gaara knows that whatever she is up to, she will not reveal until she is ready. He gives her one last warning look before she leaves.

He just hopes that whatever it is, it does not involve Naruto.

To be continued...

Ashen | "We're still friends, right?"

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