Takes place three years after the timeskip and diverges in a couple of places; Gaara is not Kazekage, Temari is not hanging around with coughsexingupcough Shikamaru, Neji is still a genin, and the Akatsuki haven't started hunting down demon vessels yet.

Apologies in advance for the grammar breakdown in the Gaara scene; this fic is just one bizarre experiment for me. Warnings for abuse of language, both English and Japanese, general potty-mouthedness, eventual yaoi involving as many combinations of the syllables Naru, Sasu, and Gaa that you can think of, and excessive gore. (I have this thing about eyeballs...) Nothing is mine, and there are notes on the language at the end of the chapter. No sex for a while yet; hopefully by the time it comes up in the story, I'll have gotten over my aversion to writing lemons.

Blindsided: Chapter 1

In which Naruto is a brat, Gaara is more Zen than thou, and Tsunade plays cards.

Naruto relaxed into the steaming waters of the hot spring with a sigh. He'd grown to appreciate Jiraiya's love of hot springs over the years, even if they both enjoyed them for completely different reasons. He could hear Jiraiya behind him, indulging in his own form of hot spring appreciation by the fence. "Hey, old pervert!"

"Quiet, I'm researching!"

Naruto snorted softly, stretching out sore and aching muscles. They'd been training hard lately, and now Jiraiya wanted to take a break to get "research" done. He was glad for the break, but he sometimes wished his teacher were a little less predictable.

"I'm supposed to be training, pervert. And you're supposed to be training me, not peeping into the women's bath," Naruto reminded his teacher. He glanced back at the old man, who was glaring at him.

"Fine, you want training? Here's your assignment: infiltrate the women's bath and bring back proof- visual proof." Naruto had turned around again, but he could feel Jiraiya's leer.

"Are you always thinking about sex, or is it only when I'm trying to ask a question?" He closed his eyes and leaned back in the hot spring, listening as his teacher settled into the water nearby.

"Heh. I don't know what you're talking about. A good shinobi always avoids the vices of drinking, gambling, and women."

"No wonder you suck, old man."

Jiraiya opened his mouth for an outraged retort, but thought better of it. He smirked, instead. "You worry me sometimes, brat."

Naruto opened his eyes lazily. "Huh?"

"Sometimes I wonder if you're not a little..." Jiraiya waggled his fingers, grinning. "You know."

"What!" Naruto flailed in Jiraiya's general direction, splashing water everywhere. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean!"

"You're sixteen, but all you care about is training, ramen, and being annoying. Not natural, if you ask me. Never once have you expressed even the slightest interest in helping me with my research. Before, I thought it was just because you were too young, but now that's no excuse. I thought Kakashi and I taught you better. Why, when I was your age-"

"Just because I'm not some sort of super pervert who chases after everything with breasts doesn't mean I'm...!" Naruto made an incoherent noise and glared at Jiraiya, who was laughing uncontrollably now. "Shut up, asshole," he grumbled. "Just 'cuz I've got other things to think about...it's not like it matters, anyway, and how would you know?"

Jiraiya thunked him on the head with a fist, still chuckling. "Thought you could take a joke better than that, kid."

"Yeah, well, if you're jokes weren't so fuckin' lame...!" Naruto slumped a little lower in the water and glowered. Jiraiya shook his head and grinned.

He pointedly ignored Jiraiya and blew bubbles thoughtfully. The old man's teasing didn't really bother him; he knew he liked girls just fine, and if he occasionally found himself liking boys on a similar level, well, it wasn't any of Jiraiya's business, was it? Naruto considered it a point of personal pride that he'd managed to conceal his personal collection of dirty magazines from his teacher for so long. It was a stealth exercise, one he'd gotten very good at through months of practice and intensive training.

Thinking of training, though...he remembered what he'd originally wanted to ask. "Jiraiya?"

"What now, brat?" Jiraiya had lit a pipe at some point and was blowing smoke rings into the sky.

"When are we going home? I mean, it's been ages since I've had a decent bowl of ramen. There was that one place in Earth Country that was pretty good, and that little stand in Water Country that did that really great thing with the fried noodles, but Ichiraku is still the best, especially when Iruka-sensei is paying, and if I have to go much longer without good ramen, I might shrivel up and die from deprivation, so we really ought to start heading back, don't you think?" Naruto tilted his head back to watch the path of Jiraiya's smoke rings as he spoke. "Right? Jiraiya?"

Jiraiya took a long, slow drag off his pipe, eyebrows creasing slightly. He blew the smoke out the side of his mouth with a sigh. "Look. When he was your age, Yondaime had created no less than four completely original jutsu. One of them was the rasengan, and two of the others are now requirements for Anbu members. All you've done is find new and perverted ways to use kage bunshin. When you've developed an original technique that's worth using, we can go home."

Naruto bristled at the implied insult to his Sexy no Jutsu, but he knew Jiraiya was right. Still, no worries. He vaulted out of the pool and gathered up his things. "That's all?" He squinted up at the setting sun. "Better pack your bags tonight, old man, 'cuz we're going home tomorrow!"

Jiraiya watched his student leave, silhouetted by the setting sun, and chuckled softly to himself.

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The rising moon sat on the horizon like a fat, lazy cat, its stark light coloring the desert in harsh blues and blacks. Below it, three figures crept across the sand; two of them left bloody footprints as they went. One of them left no footprints at all.

The three ninja struggled over the dunes (two of them struggled; the third slid over the sand like the wind); Temari bit back another curse as she stumbled again, feeling a sickening lurch in her stomach as Kankurou's weight slid against her shoulder. The last time she'd tripped, he'd made a noise. It had been a horrible, wet, bloody noise, but at least it had been something. She couldn't tell if he was even alive anymore; enough of the slick wetness between them was her own blood that she couldn't rely on its warmth to say whether or not her brother had died on her. Kankurou might as well have been one of his own puppets, slung over Temari's shoulder with his strings cut. Temari resisted the sudden urge to vomit at the thought.

The mission hadn't gone well.

Technically, it was a success; the vultures would eat well for weeks, and Suna's trade caravans would no longer be bothered by that particular clan of dessert raiders. The goal had been to maximize the body count to discourage further raids; they'd done one better and wiped out the entire clan- or rather, Gaara had. She and Kankurou had mostly just stood on the sidelines until Gaara ran out of things to kill. That wasn't really out of the ordinary; they'd received plenty of wholesale slaughter missions as genin and chuunin. They were rarer now that the three of them were all jounin, but occasionally someone just needed a large number of people dead, with minimum hassle- and there wasn't anyone better at that than Gaara of the Sand.

Temari and Kankurou hadn't even needed to go; Gaara could have taken care of a bunch of non-shinobi, camel riding savages in his sleep- the catnaps he took to stay relatively sane, not the jutsu-induced sleep that usually resulted in massive property damage. But they had been there, and now, successful mission or not, her brother was dying while her other brother-

Gaara had stopped moving; Temari slowly crested the dune they'd been climbing to stand beside him. The landscape before them was dotted with lopsided monoliths, and in the distance the faint twinkle of Suna's lamps could be seen, nestled in the craggy embrace of ruins older than the desert. Temari could have wept from relief, but she knew better than to waste water.

"Gaara?" Her voice was a broken whisper; blue-black bruises dappled her neck like a choker.

He raised a hand slowly, and looked at his sister. In the moonlight, his eyes were holes in his skull. "Home," he said simply.

Temari let her gaze drop to the blood that was slowly seeping down Kankurou's arm, onto her sandals. Gaara had been outside of himself since they'd been assigned the mission; the fact that he seemed aware of his surroundings now was either a good sign, or a precursor to him burying the entire village beneath a mountain of sand in a fit of- of whatever it was that gave Gaara fits. It was hard to say, sometimes.

"Temari?"

She looked up at him, and was struck by the sudden, absurd realization that she'd let both of her baby brothers get taller than her at some point. Bastards- never mind what that said about her own parentage, they were both bastards. And Gaara had always been such a cute little thing, too; she'd always thought his growth had been stunted by excessive evil and homicidal tendencies, but apparently she'd been wrong. Then again, he'd been doing so well lately, until the mission...

The sand was soft and fine grained against her skin; it wrapped around her in a supportive cocoon. "Temari? You're bleeding." Gaara sounded confused. "So is Kankurou."

The last thing Temari heard before everything went dark was the hissing of sand around her and a very frustrated, clearly articulated, "Shit." She let out a soft sigh and dropped off completely. Someone had taught her baby brother to curse. It sounded kind of cute.

\\\\\\\\\\

Gaara glared at the moon and cursed himself and the demon currently sharing space in his head once again. The full moon made Shukaku restless, hungry; he should have known better than to take a mission during this time of the month. (Kankurou joked about that, sometimes, when he knew Gaara wasn't feeling particularly homicidal.)

Of course you should have known better.

Shut up. Gaara stared at the moon and felt the world tilt and shift into a different set of tenses; he clung to vaguely remembered theories and explanations like a lifeline in the jumbled mess that was his mind. The concentration of demonic energy (...of evil, voices whisper) in so small a container had the unfortunate side effect (one of many) of distorting the host body's temporal perceptions...

Gaara reads the world like a textbook, which will be scrawled across pages and pages of blank sand in blood. He is not always able to understand (present indicative infinitive, which was often so much like Shukaku, presently indicating the infinite measure of his pain, suffering, because he always had to be dramatic, the bastard) the things that were being written- imperfect passive, much like himself when the demon howls (is howling, will be howling, screams) for blood.

Your brother's blood tasted sweet. Shukaku has always preferred the perfect tense, being vain and full of himself. Your sister's, bitter. Good together, the two of them. I hungered. Of course, the limits of the language that Gaara hears him in prevents accuracy in conveying the true essence of his meaning; Gaara prefers the present tense, for reasons the demon may never understand. Something has labeled the unsteady construction of walls and a roof behind him home but he is not sure who or what or how and was never particularly sure on the "why" of anything. Creating a codependency between human and demon (participles were always confusing) has always been likely to be responsible for a number of inconvenient symptoms of instability. Will he be an inconvenience, then?

Go back to sleep, old man. You've done your damage for tonight. Gaara had not regretted his actions (pluperfect, as awkward as it ever sounded) but he was never in need of regret to feel anger. It had been unfortunate that anger and the demon do not translate well. The world and his memories are being shifted, sideways, translated, moving in a lateral direction. He could remember: words in neat vertical rows on a page, lying open on his father's desk. Typical indications of instability are insomnia and disassociate behavior characterized by lack of emotional response. The subject may evince socio and psychopathic symptoms and should be put down at the soonest convenience.

His fingers were itching for a paintbrush. Shukaku will have been laughing the entire time. With his death, the demon was free; there will be no seals to keep him in place as life slips away. But that wasn't yet. Wouldn't be yet. Death does not come easy to demons, no matter how unstable they will be becoming.

What was now? Now was the moon, the bodies in their beds, bleeding beneath the hands of healers, the kunai in his hand, the kunai through his hand, that jolted the demon back into the prison in Gaara's head, and jolted Gaara back to the proper tense.

Gaara tore his eyes away from the moon and stared at the wound on his hand. The cut was fairly shallow, but it bled freely. Physical pain was negligible to Gaara (nothing physical could compare to the pain of twelve years of hatred, betrayal, and isolation), but it always startled Shukaku. The sand never protected the demon; the automatic shielding reflex was his mother's doing, and wasn't related to his parasitic freeloader. It was the only way he could get away with bleeding; when Shukaku tried to take control, his perfect defense slipped, and the demon didn't know how to deal with self inflicted injuries. The last three years had taught him a great deal about bleeding.

He could hear the healer nins in his siblings' rooms, doing their best to ensure that Suna's "Legendary Three" didn't reduce to a Legendary One. Gaara ignored the sudden, stabbing pain in his chest and head and stepped off the porch, leaving a set of dark footprints on the wood. He was still covered in blood, having not bothered to clean himself off before summoning the healers. Temari would kill him for dirtying the floors when she woke up.

Temari didn't have the option of not waking up; she would have to wake up very soon so Gaara could tell her that. Kankurou, too; Gaara didn't want either of his siblings to think that their lives were their own to throw away as they pleased. The sand beside the house swirled around him, forming a shallow depression beneath his feet. He knelt and let the blood weep freely from his hand, turning the pale grains of sand beneath him dark and gleaming in the moonlight.

Mother, a gift for you. Temari and Kankurou had been so still, so pale. Gaara hunched over the now-bloody sand and let his tears mix with the blood. A gift. A sacrifice. Sand slid from the gourd on his back and curled around him, warm and protective. His mother's voice was much softer than Shukaku's; it was a wonder he'd had them confused for so many years. After his run-in with that boy, though, he'd learned to distinguish them. Mother was soft and quiet and did not thirst for blood the way Shukaku did; she never asked for anything more than his love, which was much harder to give than blood, but he was learning.

For Gaara, blood and love were inextricably entwined, anyway. He gave his love the best he could; in blood and tears beneath the moon. Mother, I bleed for you. He could feel the energy welling up from the sand- if he had to describe it, he would have said it felt windswept and lonely, as opposed to Shukaku's power, which was just bloody.

From within his shell of sand, he could feel his siblings' chakra like points of light and warmth some distance away; they were faded and weak. As his blood soaked into the sand, the chakra points pulsed with steadily brightening light until they were self sustaining- not entirely whole, but no longer in danger of going out. The sand fell away, and Gaara looked up at the moon again. He flexed the fingers of his now healed and cleaned hand, and smiled.

Gaara of the Desert did not smile often. Thank you, mother. The healers were waiting for him when he returned to the house, somber in dark gray.

"Your sister and brother will recover completely, Gaara-sama." Their fear cast a faint, metallic scent over everything. Gaara nodded and walked past them; they could find the door perfectly well on their own. He stopped by the kitchen to fill a shallow bowl with water and went to see his siblings.

Kankurou first, because Kankurou would have died- he couldn't remember much, but he could remember that, the delicious sound of his brother's scream as an arm of sand crushed his ribcage. Kankurou was often prone to making strange noises for no reason at all, just as he was prone to painting his face and playing with dolls, but Gaara had never before heard him make that particular noise. Shukaku had enjoyed it too much; therefore, it would not happen again.

His brother's room was covered in pieces of puppets; limbs and bits of faces hung from the walls like ghoulish body parts. The other items of Kankurou's trade- the paints, stone and wood carving tools, bolts of multicolored fabric- were piled and stacked and tossed haphazardly across the floor and the tiny desk in the corner. The single, low bookshelf was full of drama scripts and cookbooks; Gaara had "borrowed" and read them all at one point or another. There was a small, ornate box on the bedside table that was filled with half-finished stone and wood carvings. Gaara knew this because he'd checked, and had felt surprisingly guilty afterwards.

Kankurou raised a hand slightly in greeting as Gaara slipped through the partially open door and stood by the bed. "Hey."

He could have been worse, Gaara decided. There was some sort of breathing apparatus strapped to his face, and the healers hadn't bothered to clean off all the blood- it clashed with the smudged remains of his face paint. He was as wrapped in bandages as his puppets, but he was awake now, and no longer bleeding. Not-bleeding was, he'd discovered, quite conducive living.

"Healers said I'd be down for a week. You'll have to feed yourself for a while." Kankurou grinned, the expression distorted beneath the tubes and thinly veiled pain. His voice was indistinct and his eyes cloudy; Gaara didn't want to think about the painkillers his brother had been injected with. (The sand did not take well to the presence of hypodermic needles, and drugs, no matter how tempting, were too dangerous to risk.)

"Brother." Gaara rolled the word around his mouth, finding its flavor unfamiliar. He didn't use it often, but this situation probably warranted it.

Kankurou smiled again, a real smile this time, and let his eyes close. "Aa. I'll be fine. Don't worry about it," he muttered. "Wasn't your fault."

"Even so, it won't happen again." Gaara kept his voice low as he knelt beside his brother's bed. He took a piece of cloth and wet it; slowly, carefully, he began wiping away the blood and paint from his brother's face.

"Don't make promises you can't keep, Gaara-kun." Kankurou's voice was fading as Gaara cleaned his face.

"I don't," he whispered fiercely, but Kankurou was already asleep. Gaara left the bowl of water beside the bed when he finished and shut the door behind him as he left.

Temari's room was nearly spartan; her walls were mostly bare, save for the collection of exquisitely crafted tessen she'd picked up in her travels. Kankurou sometimes hypothesized that she had girly things hidden somewhere, possibly in the back of her closet or under her bed, but Gaara had never dared to look. Temari looked too much like his mother.

Right now, though, she just looked pale, and there were bandages around her neck that disappeared beneath the collar of her nightshirt; he could dimly remember the tendril of sand that tried to strangle her. In a way, he was proud; his siblings were too strong and stubborn to let themselves be killed.

She smiled a tiny smile at him when he stepped through her door. Four years ago, the room would have reeked of fear, but now there was just a faint, bitter medicinal smell, commingling with the scent of blood.

"Alright now?" she asked.

He sat beside her on the edge of the bed and stared at his hands. "I think so. For now."

"That's good. I was a little worried- it looked like the end, you know?" Her lips quirked in her typical smirk. "All I could think was how cute you'd gotten."

"I," he enunciated very clearly, "am not cute."

"No, of course not," she agreed. "I was hallucinating. You were never cute, not even when you were little and shorter than everybody else, when you had those great big eyes and that little bear-"

"Temari-neesan, don't make me regret not killing you." He remembered not to smile when he said that, because he'd been told his smile was perhaps his most frightening quality.

"Sorry." She didn't look it.

He touched her face and marveled at the warmth of her; when she wrapped her fingers around his hand, he marveled that her warmth could spread so far so quickly. "So am I."

"It's okay." And somehow, it was. Her grip tightened for a moment, and then she let go, her hand falling back to the mattress. "You should report to Baki."

"I know." She didn't need to say that he shouldn't have lost control. That much was more than apparent to both of them. "In the morning."

"Good. You should also get some sleep."

He ducked his head and scowled. Temari had taken to the role of nagging older sister far too well. "Maybe later." He didn't want to sleep now, not when Shukaku was so close to the surface of his consciousness. If he listened, he could hear the demon laughing quietly. "You need rest more than I do."

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Whatever." She waved her hands to shoo him away. "Wake me when you go out in the morning."

"Aa." He half wanted to stay in her room, but he knew Temari would never allow it. He would just have to distract himself from the loneliness and the voices in his head some other way; clinging to his sister wasn't going to solve anything. "Goodnight, Temari-neesan."

"Goodnight, Gaara-kun."

If he were anyone else, he wouldn't have heard her whisper, "Thank you," as he closed the door, but his hearing was better than most. His sister's simple acceptance of everything he was eased some of the ever-present pain in his chest; he leaned against her door for a moment, savoring the feeling.

His own room was lined with paper; calligraphy scrolls and paintings, all worn to a matte finish by the ever present particles of sand in the air. There was no bed, only a series of low tables and seat cushions; when he slept, which was rarely, Gaara preferred to do it sitting up. He propped his gourd by the door and took a seat at one of the tables.

More blood and sand tonight, little one? Shukaku's voice was a quiet whisper in the back of his mind.

Gaara glanced up at the older calligraphy scrolls and smirked. He'd come a long way from mindlessly scrawling the kanji for "blood" and "death" over and over again to distract himself from his own self-loathing. Maybe. He unrolled a blank scroll across the surface of the table and set out his brushes and ink stone. After a moment's consideration, he uncovered his paints as well. Go to sleep, old man.

Hmph. You should have let them die. You saw their fear, their hatred. You could smell their lies. Your sister looks pretty when she's pretending to care. It was an old game between the two of them, to see who would lose patience first.

These days, Gaara usually won, despite the swirling miasma of violence and lust lurking in the corners of his mind. The other day Temari said we needed a new teapot. I think I'll pick one up tomorrow. A tiny smile fixed itself on Gaara's lips as Shukaku hissed in impotent rage. He was calm now, and the demon had no hope of gaining control.

He pushed all thoughts of Shukaku and the full moon away, concentrating on the feel of the brush between his fingers, and the texture of the paper beneath the brush. He let his mind go completely blank and let his hand move as it wished; through the window, the moon slid closer to the horizon, glowing with a soft light.

\\\\\\\\\

Tsunade squinted at the impending sunrise on the horizon and wiped a line of drool off her cheek. She hadn't meant to fall asleep at her desk again, but her mind was much clearer for the few hours of rest she'd grabbed. She unrolled the scroll on her desk once again and reread it for the seventh time; this time, her only course of action seemed clear.

"Sakura."

Her apprentice grumbled something in her sleep from the couch against the wall, then roused herself. "Yes, Tsunade-sama?"

The piles of scrolls and paperwork were shoved to the side, clearing a space on the desk. Tsunade brought out a pack of cards and smiled sheepishly at her yawning trainee. "Game of poker?"

The pink haired girl gave her teacher a look of flat disbelief, and yawned wide enough to crack her jaw. Tsunade could almost hear the wheels turning in her student's head, and they weren't making very complimentary noises. "I'll make some tea first, Hokage-sama." Her words were polite but her tone clearly implied that she would much rather be sleeping, or shoving splinters under Tsunade's fingernails.

Tsunade's smile turned grim; she'd done a good job as a teacher. She shuffled and cut the cards while Sakura made the tea, her hands firm and steady despite the troubled lines between her eyebrows. Her eyes settled on the calendar on her desk as she shuffled the cards again and again, mindlessly. Three years...we're running out of time.

A teacup slammed onto the desk, jolting Tsunade out of her reverie. Sakura sat down, looking moderately more awake and slightly less violent as she nursed her own cup of tea. "Have you come up with a reply to those messengers yet?"

"Maybe." Tsunade took a sip of her own tea, pleased to recognize the taste of one of her own herbal stimulant brews. She would be needing the energy. "You shouldn't have slept on the couch, you know. You could have gone home." She offered the cards to Sakura

Sakura shook her head and cut the deck. "It's easier to just stay here- your office is closer to the hospital."

There was no point in commenting on how necessary it was to have as many healers as close to the hospital as possible these days; three years of war hadn't treated Konoha well. Tsunade dealt the cards quickly; Sakura looked at her hand and snorted. "If I win, you owe me a raise."

Tsunade hadn't looked at her cards yet. Her eyes strayed to the calendar again. Definitely running out of time. "Done. I probably owe you one anyway." She picked up her cards.

A sick feeling settled in the pit of her stomach as she turned them over. Four aces stared up at her, mocking.

"Tsunade-sama?"

She set her cards down, and willed her hands not to shake. "Send in the Anbu on duty, then call the emissaries from Sound. Tell them I have an answer."

Sakura leapt up without question and hastened to carry out her orders. Tsunade unrolled the message scroll one last time and began writing her reply. Outside, the sun had broken over the horizon, bathing the five faces on the mountain in pale golden light.

And that was chapter one, which shouldn't have been this long, and would've been even longer if I hadn't cut out a third of it.

I don't speak Japanese, so I have no excuse for screwing with it. However, I know plenty of people who do speak the language, so I've picked up just enough to be obnoxious with it. I know the verb tenses don't parallel English verb tenses, so Gaara's mental breakdown isn't really possible in Japanese. I'll apologize for that again- all I can say is, it made sense at the time. Just pretend he thinks in English and writes in kanji, and I promise it won't happen very often (if ever; this is all experimental) in the future. sheepish

I'll be abusing Japanese to make up new technique names, and I'll provide translations for them as they appear in the story. But aside from the techniques and the honorifics, I'll try to avoid using fangirl Japanese. I'll also tend to avoid making English plurals out of Japanese words, so every time you see ninja instead of ninjas, or shinobi instead of shinobis, it's intentional, because I am a snob with what little knowledge of the language I do have. XD

Anyway. Thanks for muddling through. Comments and criticism are greatly appreciated, particularly on characterization; the characters all make sense to me, but I'm a freak, so I'm curious as to how they translate to other people.