Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, and possibly never will. Whatever transpires below is purely my imagination gone rampant.

Takes place some time between Chapter 252 and 253, thus beware of possible spoilers.

Before the Storm

"Oi, Temari…"

No response.

"Temari!"

"Gyaah!" she screamed and jumped out of her seat, her fan half opened to attack.

Temari blinked once. Nothing changed.

Blink, blink… still the same.

"Damn it Temari, what the hell you did that for?" Naruto huffed, justifiably annoyed at the sudden outburst from his erstwhile peaceful companion. After the numerous ordeals he went through today (trying very hard to forget) landing on his butt and drenched with tea – which he was serving to the attacker, no less – was not really a welcome ending to an aggravating day. And they were having such an uncharacteristically good time a few minutes ago too.

"Geez, if this is how you treat people who give you tea…" he pouted.

"Can it, Naruto."

He quirked his eyebrows at that and gave her a pointed look.

God, this is embarrassing. Slacking off when I was supposed to be on the first watch! Arrgh, I hate this…way to go genius. There goes my reputation…

"… Sorry. Didn't mean to do that," she mumbled, eyes averted.

"Heh, you're welcome. It's not so hard, is it?" he grinned as he began unzipping his jacket.

"…" Temari squashed the overwhelming urge to wipe off his grin with the business end of her fan; instead, she busied herself with picking up the metal cup she knocked out and surreptitiously glanced at the blond. Thankfully he was in the middle of wrestling with his damp clothes to notice the covert looks.

She was surprised by the changes in him since they last met. Somehow, the idea of him growing up like the rest of the Konoha genin never crossed her mind. Perhaps it was because he never quite looked his age before, unequivocally trailing after his year mates in every aspect, be it in stature or talent; being in the same team as the illustrious Uchiha heir didn't help matters either. Perhaps, it was that child-like aura emanating from him, not withstanding the blistering-and-anatomically-impossible repertoire of expletives in his vocabulary, some of which were being used in his current battle of dominance with his pants.

Suddenly, Temari came face to face with an eyeful of said blond clad only in his boxers (insanely cute purple froggies slurping bowls of ramen), wiping all remaining innocent thoughts only to be battered with… not-so-innocent ones.

For all the things Holy… My. Gods.

Blink.

He blinked back at her, face confused.

Blink.

Slowly, as if in the presence of a high-strung wild animal, he turned his head around, scanning the campground. Nothing. Crickets and frogs continued their nightly concerto without interruptions.

Fucking. Head. MOVE!

Somehow (thank you God!) Temari managed to wrench her eyes away from his body but unable to stop the on rushing assault of blood to her face.

"Na. Ru. To." She practically tore the name from her throat.

"Y-yes?"

"Get some clothes on, you bastard!"

He stared at her like she had grown another head. Bewildered, he looked down at his nearly naked body.

Then, it registered.

Temari. Girl.

Not Jiraiya across the fire.

"Eeeep!"

Blushing, he sprinted to his pack (stumbling on a rock in the process), grabbed some clothes and quickly vanished behind a bush to change.

Now, Temari was in no means an innocent little girl. Living in semi-domestic harmony with her brothers had more than inured her to the accidental glimpses of naked male flesh. That and the fact that Kankurou owned a sizable 'secret' stash of unmentionables tucked away in a 'secret' hideout underneath the floorboards of his closet.

Which she had stumbled across in the fourteenth year of her short life.

Unbelievably, she found out that Gaara too, on occasion, joined said brother on an all-weekend fest with said restricted material. She could always tell when it took place, for Gaara would disappear for a whole day and came back reeking with blood and towing a week's worth of game – some of which were mangled beyond recognition – and always followed by reports that a part of the Hidden Sand territory was suddenly devoid of rodents and wild animals alike. Good thing that Kankurou's fests started after Gaara's little brush with Naruto, or they would've faced the task of cleaning up civilian casualties instead of pests.

All those traumatic experiences meant that there was nothing on a male body that she hadn't seen before.

However, Naruto was… unexpectedly attractive. Not beautiful in the way of the Uchiha or the Hyuuga genius, but in a sort of primal, earthy manner. His cheeks were still a tad rounded and body in the stages of growth, but the muscles were evident, all of which his clothing previously obscured. He was like an art piece in progress, a bit raw on the edges but showing the undisputable sign of growing into a fine specimen. A very fine specimen. It was a body that had survived training and battle, but still retained hints of unmined potential and remnants of teenage awkwardness. But the scariest thing was his skin.

It was perfect.

The velvety golden tan skin wrapping his taut muscles was nothing short of extraordinary. It was ungodly smooth and blemish free, a virtual impossibility for a ninja. Heck, not even normal civilians are blessed with such perfection.

The only abnormal marks he sported were the three lines on each cheek. What, where, when and how the marks came to be was still a mystery to her.

Fuck, it's not fair! No boy should have that kind of skin. Hmmm… I wonder if he's tanned all-over… Erk.

Temari fumed, cursing at the cruelties of Fate and somehow at the same time drooling at the memory of the luscious bronze skin. That's not all, where the Hyuuga and Uchiha were the embodiment of cool, ethereal and sculpted beauty, Naruto was planted in the here-and-now, all rugged charm and untamed elements. She drooled again.

By the time Naruto came out from the bushes and she had schooled her face into a mask of indifference.

"Yo. Heh, heh, heh… Sorry about that," he smiled sheepishly, "Being on the road with the old pervert all the time made me get used to traveling without girls around. Sakura would've bashed my head if I did that in front of her…"

"Hmm…" she answered noncommittally. A thought suddenly occurred, and she looked closely at the blond who was currently making another pot of tea to confirm her suspicions.

"Hey Naruto, what happened to the cut on your hand?"

"Oh, that…"

Long pause. Obviously he was stalling.

"Could you answer me sometime in this century?"

"Umm… I heal fast."

Right. That was helpful.

"How about the gash on your leg when you fell down from the rotten branch?"

"Almost gone. Wanna see?" Naruto hiked up his pants, revealing a beautifully proportioned calf at her. It was true; all she could see where the gash was supposed to be was a thin line of slightly puckered lighter skin. The area surrounding it was just a tad red. She nearly grabbed the enticing leg he was flashing at her.

She frowned; this was getting too surreal for her taste. Who knew she had fangirl mentality?

"What about that bump on your head when tripped and crashed into the boulder? Or the scratches from when you jumped into that thorny grove? And let's not forget the bruised knee and wrist you got when you were running away from-"

"Hey, I didn't run away! Uzumaki Naruto never runs aw-"

"Fine, when you were attacked by the squirrels," she rolled her eyes. "What happened to those?"

"Aww, are you worried about me? That's so sweeeeeet…" If truth be told, his emphasis on the word was grating on her nerves.

"No, not really. Makes me wonder what kind of shinobi you are, getting into all that trouble in one day. And chased by squirrels no less," she answered smugly. Two can play this game. Let it be known that no boy will win a verbal fight with me.

"HEY-"

"Shhh… not so loud! You want them to kill you?" she cut in and pointed to the sleeping forms of Kakashi and Sakura. "You still haven't answered me."

"Geez, alright! Keep your pants on. They're gone, or nearly. I'm fine. Happy?" he threw his hands in the air in annoyance.

"That's impossible. Those wounds couldn't be-"

"Want me to show all of them to you? I can strip again," he quipped, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively and blue eyes alight with mischief.

Damn it, is he flirting with me? To her credit, there was only a slight blush staining her cheeks.

Cheeky bastard.

"I have a fan and I'm not afraid to use it, buster," Temari ground out, internally mortified that he was able to tease her that easily. Even Kankurou had trouble getting to her, and this blond made her blush not once, but severaltimes tonight.

He laughed good-naturedly, knowing she meant what she said. Taking several logs, he replenished the fire.

"Don't worry too much about Gaara. I've promised you I'll find him."

Temari looked at Naruto in surprise. She thought she hid it well.

"I never go back on my word. That's my Ninja Way," he smiled softly at her, blue eyes reflecting the blazing fire in front of him.

She suddenly recalled the first time she heard that, back during the first Chuunin Exam. His eyes were burning with the same fire back then, only this time it also held a hint of melancholy that spoke of his trials since.

They were no longer the eyes of a boy.

"Temari, tell me more about Gaara. What's he been doing? When did he get to be Kazekage? I just came back and didn't get the chance to hang out with anybody at all. Wasted five frigging days doing nothing because the old pervert insisted on stopping at that last hot spring town. Damn it, Gaara made it earlier than meeeeeee…. Not fair at all!" he whined the last sentence, jumping from one topic to another and pouting at the thought of the red-haired shinobi supposedly besting him.

"Life isn't fair, you of all people should know that by now."

"Humph. Never figured you to be one of those cy… cyclical? No, cylinder… Cynclical?"

"It's cynical, idiot."

"Yeah, yeah. Cynical people. You're a blonde, you know."

"What the fuck do you mean by that? Plus, you are blond too!"

He only looked at her like she was the dumb blonde, not vice versa.

"That's why I'm not cynical. I'm a normal, happy blond."

Twitch.

Temari knew that the vein in her temple was visible to all and sundry. Evidently conversations with the hyper ninja only lead to brain damage. She wasn't even trying to decipher his skewed logic.

"Nope, don't tell me how your brain came to that conclusion. But why the sudden interest in Gaara?"

"Well," he rubbed his head absently, blushing a little, "He's already Kazekage and he's what, still my age? You know, he might have some… er… advice for me… ha ha."

Twitch.

"Bloody ask him when you see him. Why the hell are you asking me?" she hissed, and another popped vein appeared on her normally smooth forehead.

"I think I will," he smiled, a smile so utterly happy that Temari began to question his sanity, and hers as well for that matter. "See? You're opter… er… optimistic too, just like a blond. So don't worry, we'll find him."

A tick appeared in her right eye. Counting to ten, she managed to calm her temper and took a sip of tea. She would have smiled at his attempt to console her, except that he managed to piss her off at the same time. Huh, who would have thought he could multitask?

"I am assuming that you are a natural blonde?" The statement-question made her splutter incoherently into her teacup, earning her another amused grin from the annoying genin.

She had half unfolded her fan, ready to literally sweep him out of camp, and then suddenly changed her mind.

Maybe it was because he proffered a package of newly opened mochi as a peace offering. The really good, expensive type. It so happened that mochi was one of her secret vices, like dango.

Maybe it was because she saw the sincerity in his eyes.

Maybe it was because he looked so angelic, with his soft, corn-hued hair and huge glistening twin pools of azure eyes (she swore that there were shoujo-like flower petals falling down in the background), yet at the same time oozing a magnetism that made him incomprehensibly irresistible. She was sure more than a few hardened ninjas had crumbled under the onslaught of that look, so who was she to break the trend? He was one tricky ninja.

All thought processes came to a halt as she (internally) drooled again.

When asked later, after she regained control of higher brain functions, she would insist that she took the diplomatic route in dealing with the fox-boy and accepted his apology at face value. It had nothing to do with his hotness. Nope, the notion never crossed her mind. What was the thought again?

They shared the mochi in silence, wrapped in a comforting symphony of the nocturnal inhabitants of the forest. Above, stars glittered like handfuls of diamond strewn across the black velvet of the sky, a silent but constant companion to the residents below.

"Gaara's well. He's taller than me now too. That's hormones for you."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, and never thought I'd see the day he'd get so serious about anything other than combats. You really changed him, you know."

"Of course, since I'm going to be the greatest Hokage ever!"

Apparently he didn't know the meaning of modesty either, amongst other things.

"For fuck's sake, I'm being serious, Naruto."

He had the gall to look scandalized. "Me too. I am serious."

Temari shook her head, realizing for the umpteenth time that Naruto might be cute and sometimes more perceptive than anybody she knew but that didn't mean he wasn't a ditz. She sighed.

"Why? He was trying to kill you and your friends, you know."

Naruto gave her a sad smile. "It was too painful."

"…" Incomprehension and a little frustration flickered in her eyes.

"A tool, that's all he was."

She bit back an angry remark because she knew better than to deny the fact in all its sordid and tarnished glory. She wondered why that after all these years she still couldn't say it as plainly as this genin, this foreigner who knew absolutely nothing of the history or the reasons or the situation or the people of Sunagakure or even Gaara for that matter, but yet able to say it so easily. Instinct called for immediate retribution, to rage and rant and hurt him for the blasphemy he dared inflict upon the honor of the Sand. But she didn't, because above all, she believed in the truth, however unpalatable it was.

It was bad enough that she had, for so long, turned a blind eye to it.

Sometimes she hated it, this forced ignorance she kept herself under because she knew to admit it would decimate all the principles she believed in. She hated it even more that it was this blond, blue-eyed loudmouth of an outsider that unflinchingly pointed out the thing she had denied for so long.

"To look underneath the underneath, that's what Kaka-sensei told us," he said, cutting through the stillness. "A ninja should always see beyond the obvious, ne? Best thing that pervert ever taught me, I reckon."

She frowned at that, but kept quiet. Call it gut feeling or whatever, but she was sure her companion hadn't said all he intended to say.

"Fat lot of good it did for Gaara and me, even surrounded by ninja as we were. That's what I call fucking ironic," he smirked. "What else you think I should do? Leaving him alone like that is just… not right."

"I-" Honestly, she didn't know what to say. What could she say anyhow?

"I bet that Gaara isn't exactly the easiest person to talk to. All glares and silence, right? Mean bastard, treating his big sister and brother like that. Man, I wish I had sisters and brothers. Then they could make me ramen! He really doesn't know how to apprecia-"

"Fuck that, we weren't the best siblings to have either. I should've been more… I dunno, protective? Sisterly?" she interjected. The idea itself was laughable, as if Gaara needed her feeble help for protection. But she knew there were ways to hurt people beyond the physical. "We didn't get to see him that much as kids, usually surrounded by guards and all… I used to be so jealous that he had his own room too, right on top of the tower. Twice the size of my room and Kankurou's put together. He always did get the best toys; and you know how it is with kids, toys being the biggest currency."

"Heh, that is something I have no experience with." She looked at him askance, but didn't press the subject. "You know, even if we can't change the past, we can make the future better," he replied simply, before standing up and refilling his cup. He was failing miserably if he planned on being sympathetic, but that's just the way he was – a little tactless but straight to the point. On some level, she was comforted by his candid behavior. "But you do care. You wouldn't be here with us if that wasn't the case," he grinned foxily at that. "Gaara's lucky that way."

She smirked slightly at that. True, as she grew older, she realized that she loved Gaara, demon or not. She couldn't help but remember the quiet little boy with the huge eyes silently looking at her and Kankurou playing, glimpses of the always trailing teddy-bear not-quite hidden in the shadows, the horrible sounds in the middle of the night when he was taken to the training room or when he lost control of Shukaku; and comparing him with the boy who developed a frightening bloodlust by the time he was six, who killed without remorse…

He was one who had seen too much in too little time.

But with time and the right nudge (more like a good punch and a face-plant courtesy of the foxboy himself) in the right direction, even Gaara changed.

As Kazekage, the last unshakable defense of the Sand against enemies, Gaara found that he too could make something out of his existence. Amazing how her littlest brother now bore the title with determination.

She swore she'd be the best sister he could ever ask for, even if it killed her (with him you just never know). She may not have the common male bonding type thing Kankurou and Gaara shared, with their porn and God knows what else, but she wasn't the brains of her family for nothing. With time, even the unshakable monolith that was Gaara would crumble under the onslaught of her coddling.

Fufufufu… ah, now I have two (TWO!) brothers to play with…

Naruto was, understandably, quite concerned when he spied the sadistic smile on Temari's lips and the calculating look in her eyes. He sat as quietly as possible, lest he attract her attention. A small part of him was curious at what triggered the slightly unhinged look, but since he (mostly) didn't possess suicidal tendencies, he let the sleeping dogs lie. He liked his body parts where they were, thank you very much.

Companionable silence reigned once again. She was so lost in thought that she nearly missed his words.

"Better future huh?" he whispered, eyes locked at his cup of tea. The golden-haired genin didn't realize that he spoke aloud. "Sasuke, I'll bring you back, just wait."

Temari was surprised. What little information she knew through Shikamaru about the blond's tie with the Uchiha, was that their relationship was, at best, tempestuous. However, he also believed that beneath the prickly rivalry lays a deep bond between two outwardly polar-opposite personalities. She was well aware of the pains Naruto took to dissuade the Uchiha from defecting years ago, but now she knew it was not borne only through the blond's loyalty to Konoha. The fact that he was still thinking of bringing the other boy back after all this time proved that was not the case. After all, most of the other Konoha ninja have long ceased to believe that Uchiha Sasuke would ever come back. It was harsh, but then life was like that, and she couldn't just let him remain hoping for something that was, for all intent and purposes, ultimately hopeless.

"What makes you think he wants to?"

Naruto started at her voice. Finally noticing that he had said his thoughts out loud, he sighed resignedly. "I just know. He was… confused."

"Really?" This was said with an untold amount of disbelief.

"You don't know him."

"And you think you do? Come on Naruto, wake up will you? He chose to leave."

He looked at her, really, really looked at her then. He smiled, and she felt the weight of too-old wisdom clawing behind eyes that shouldn't have known the burden that comes with it. Unwittingly, she shivered.

"Ah, but people make mistakes, even Sasuke. I will bring him back. I made a promise."

"You're a fool."

She waited for his indignant cry. It never came.

"So I've been told," he replied without rancor, the full lips transformed into a lopsided grin.

Silence reigned again.

"Hey, you still didn't answer my question."

"Wha-?" he looked up, startled. Even the little wrinkle between his eyebrows was cute. Damnit.

"The wounds. I haven't forgotten yet," she smirked.

He shifted slightly, contemplating on whether to field the question or vice versa. He settled with the truth.

"Remember what I said earlier, when we first started the trip?"

She nodded faintly, recalling the conversation.

Kyuubi.

"Gaara has the sand right?" he said, "I have fast healing, most likely because of the Kyuubi. He gets protected while I get patched up, so more or less the same thing. I'm just a little luckier that my protection isn't as obvious as his… so I can still pass as normal, or as normal as I can be," he added softly, as his eyes darkened at some distant memory.

They both returned their gazes to the campfire. After a while, Naruto sighed and stood up, threw the remaining contents of his mug and stretched. He winked at her and said, "Well that was some good mochi. I'm taking a piss, don't wait for me!"

"Geez, you don't have to announce it to the whole world, Naruto! Go already!"

Naruto put his hand on her shoulder as he walked past her.

"It hasn't happened yet, so don't break down now when there are still things we could do to save him. I'll bring him back and then you can curse me for the rest of my life 'cause you have to take care of two crazy brothers. Again."

He stuck his tongue out and grinned cheerfully before disappearing in the underbrush.

Temari flipped the finger at his retreating figure and exhaled. A smile lingered on her lips as she sat back and stared at the sky, admiring the vast infinity.

Death.

Ninja.

Those two go hand in hand and she had long accepted that. However, it was hard to grasp the possibility that Gaara could very well be dead. She just couldn't. But Temari could admit it was easy to forget that before one becomes, lives and breathes as a ninja, one is first a human. So perchance there was another thing that went hand in hand with the two too.

Hope.

Nobody said the three concepts were mutually exclusive.

Even if reality was like the night sky, dark and forbidding, then humans will be the scattered stars.

Because after all, those seemingly tiny stars were suns in their own right – huge, radiant, burning gaseous orbs – that heated everything within millions of miles.

Look underneath the underneath, he said.

Yeah, that's a good code to live by. A genuine smile etched her face. Thank you, Naruto. Even if you're a pain.

High above, the stars twinkled a little brighter.

FIN

A/N: Thanks to the people at Naruto Betas, namely annethecwaman, matsutake, nosesonapole and glanceinward, for lending their time to beta this fic. As usual, I fiddled with the fic more than I care to count, even while in the process of beta-ing. Had to stop myself from further butchering the fic, or it'll never see the light of day. Reviews and critiques appreciated.