Author's Note: For daflippnay, over seventeen months after it was initially requested. I do get things done, even if it does take this side of forever.
Spring in Konoha was not the same as spring in Suna. This was only to be expected. Leaf Country was different from Sand in every conceivable way, so it was logical that their seasons would vary so greatly. It was still enough to make Gaara itch for the heat and dryness of Sand. The air in Konoha made him feel unpleasantly damp, even through the Sand Armor. Too cool. Too green. Too alien entirely. Gaara had spent the last spring in Konoha, but his feelings remained unchanged.
Before Gaara had come to Konoha for the Chuunin Exams, he had never before seen a tree. His prior missions had always been limited to locations within the Country of Sand, as if proximity to his home village would make him easier to control. Being in Konoha had made him feel strange, as if the ground was shifting under his feet. When he had related this to Temari, later, long after everything was over and done with, she had told him that he had been imagining it. That most people felt sand to be far more unstable, far harder to stay balanced and upright on, than the hard packed ground of Konoha. But the sand had always obeyed Gaara. Had never let him fall. The Konoha's ground offered him no such assurances.
Before Gaara had come to Konoha, the only vegetation he had ever seen were the small scrubs that dotted the more habitable areas of Suna, where moisture wasn't immediately taken from the soil by the overbearing sun. The trees of Leaf Country had seemed wrong. They limited the line of vision. They offered too many places for enemies to lie in wait. At least in Suna, Gaara could see his assassins before they came too close.
The trees still bothered him. They loomed above him, blocking out the sun. It was almost unconsciously that he sought out the tallest hill at the outskirts of Konoha, above the forest line, where he could see someone long coming before they saw him. His last visit to Leaf he had spent in the village with his siblings, making plans for their departure. His siblings weren't with him now, and he had no reason to be here. It was likely that if a Konoha ANBU patrol came upon him, they would inquire as to his presence. They would ask questions. Leaf and Sand had renewed their alliance over a year ago, but there was still distinct tension between the two villages. That tension would be heightened by his being here, Sand's greatest weapon. Gaara made no effort to hide himself, but neither did he wish to be discovered. He had come here for one person, and that person was the only one he wanted to see. Naruto.
Gaara knew he wasn't normal. His brother's words before he had left confirmed this. That only a nut job would go to a village to meet someone who wasn't there. That had left several months ago, and would not soon return.
Two years ago, he would have killed Kankuro for saying so. But two years ago, Kankuro wouldn't have said anything at all. So maybe there had been progress, after all. Even if it was sometimes hard to see.
Temari had been less critical. Gaara liked to think it was because she understood, though he knew it wasn't true. Her field of sight was just larger than Kankuro's. Expected for their specialties. Temari had to see everything, gaze upon all her whirlwinds would reduce to shreds, while Kankuro needed to focus only on the puppets dangling on the ends of his strings. Not so much personality differences as it was changes forced upon them by the weapons they wielded. Sometimes, Gaara thought that was why he so rarely saw anything beyond himself. His weapon surrounded him, protecting him, but also forever obscuring his view.
The only thing she had told him, except to get back in time for the meeting the council had requested he attend, was to try sitting on the grass at least once without his Sand Armor before his return. "It's different from sitting on sand, Gaara."
"Will I like it?"
Temari, as he recalled, had shook her head. "No. But you should anyway."
Gaara considered his sister's request as he stood atop the hill, looking down upon Leaf Village. Now was as good a time as any. He placed his gourd carefully beside him. It took a conscious effort to make his armor recede, and he ended up feeling as he felt normal people might when they went outside unclothed. Exposed. Vulnerable. The cork popped off his gourd, sensing his unease and reacting predictably. Gaara took a breath, then released it. Then he looked at the gourd. "No." He watched the trickle of sand that had escaped return to its confines. He would do this. He would do as Temari had asked. Without the sand.
He sat down.
She was right. He didn't like it. The blades of grass were damp from the dew of early morning, something Gaara had only read about in books before coming to Konoha for the first time. They were cold, the wet seeping through the fabric of Gaara's pants. The texture was odd. It was too different from home. Like the rest of this place.
Gaara only ever came to Konoha for Naruto. This time was no different, though Naruto wasn't here. And he wouldn't come again, until Naruto's return.
He let the Sand Armor advance back over his skin, and pushed himself to his feet. Only after he had pulled his gourd over his shoulder and felt it settle into its usual position did he feel normal again, by his own standards if by no one else's. Gaara wondered what Temari had hoped to accomplish before quickly dismissing that line of thought. Likely if he knew, he still wouldn't understand.
"Ah… excuse me. Gaara-san?"
Gaara didn't visibly flinch, though his eyes narrowed in displeasure, for once self-directed. So distracted he had been by his sister's request that he hadn't even noticed this girl's approach. He had been unprotected. Even remembering how ineffectual she had been when they had come to blows almost two years ago, Gaara couldn't help but think that if the whim had struck her, she could had killed him. The realization was disquieting.
Still, she displayed more sense than the last time they had met. She stood a discrete distance away, far enough that it was unlikely that he would strike her on instinct, in a stance that was neither confrontational nor open to attack. Her eyes were wary. But she wasn't afraid. "I didn't know you were in Konoha, Gaara-san."
The way she said this made it very clear that if she didn't know he was in Konoha, she doubted anyone else knew either. Either she had a very overdeveloped sense of ego or had moved up in the ranks in the past year. She was still looking at him. Evaluating. "Why are you in Konoha, Gaara-san?"
Gaara wondered if he should answer. He didn't owe this girl anything. Even if she was precious to Naruto, even if out of everyone in Konoha, she ranked in the top five of people to startle him most, being beaten out only by Rock Lee, Lee's sensei, and Naruto himself, Gaara still didn't feel anything about her.
He didn't owe her anything. But he did owe Naruto, and in the blond genin's absence, Gaara couldn't help but feel that perhaps he should give her an explanation in her teammate's stead. "Looking for someone."
Sakura, for that was her name, looked surprised, if the widening of her eyes and slight slackening of her muscles was anything to go by. But Gaara couldn't be sure. He never was, when it came to normal people. "Oh."
There was silence. Gaara could only speculate as to whether it was the uncomfortable sort or not.
"Did you find who you were looking for, Gaara-san?"
"No." She was still waiting. "I will come back when I know where to look."
She tilted her head, still looking at him, but he didn't continue. Finally, she nodded. "Alright."
Gaara nodded back, and started down the hill.
"You should come back in two years, Gaara-san. Naruto will be back by then. Probably before."
Gaara nodded again, before realizing that with his back turned and the angle of the hill, she couldn't see the gesture. So he tried something else. Something he had only done once, and hadn't anticipated doing again. Especially within range of the recipient's hearing. Different from last time. "Thank you." The words felt strange on his lips. Almost as strange as everything else in Konoha.
The forest shadowed his passage back to Suna, as it always did, blocking out the sun. However, this time, some light filtered through, muted, colored green like the leaves. So unlike the sun of Suna, where the light came down golden and harsh on the sand.
Gaara preferred Suna's light. But he had learned to tolerate the light of Konoha as well.