3/16/08

Disclaimer: the characters in this fic such as Gaara, Matsuri, etc. don't belong to me, although if they did, then quite frankly, Gaara would not have any time to sleep because he'll be spending all of his nightly hours with Matsuri. Playing chess, of course. Cough.

Dedication: God, my parents, my fans, Masashi Kishimoto for creating the Naruto series and giving us these colorful characters, and especially to my beloved friends, especially Zero-Nightmare, Musashi Sanada, Francisco, Ariescelestial, Kzdatgurl, T. A. Raskelt, Ashley-san, emocloud, Caitlin, and all of you other wonderful readers!

Special dedication to: Caitlin, because she likes friendship fics, doesn't hate Matsuri, and for being the first yaoi fan that has been so nice and open and tolerant of me. XD

Naruto: One Small Step

By Tiger5913

There was a clearer view of the full moon that loomed over Konoha, for the wind did not blow tiny grains of sand about the place, and the ethereal glow upon the streets shone strong and bright, basking in surreal splendor.

The lone observer remained silent and still as pale turquoise eyes locked onto the enormous star hovering far back in space, staring intently as if looking away for a mere second was an impossible task. Short tufts of dark crimson hair swayed listlessly in the cool night breeze, and a few stray strands followed the current by swooping down to graze across his forehead, causing an uncomfortable tickling sensation. Mildly irritated, he brushed it off the presence with an absentminded wave of the hand, and then casually adjusted the thick white strap on his shoulder that was tied to the large gourd hanging upon his back. The village was peacefully asleep and unaware of his intense gaze that darted all around the environment, both in wordless curiosity, and to pass the time; from his elevated position, he could see almost everything, never mind the shadowy areas.

To be the only person awake while everyone else was deeply embedded in the serene state of blessed slumber… it made the nights just as long as the days for him, the hours seeming endless with his peculiar situation. After thirteen years of being an insomniac, and willingly for that matter, he had gotten used to staying awake under a dark sky, but strangely, he was unable to let go of the mild envy clinging to him. All of these people could sleep without any inhibitions or fear of a sordid monster hidden within their bodies, and they had dreams, which was an experience elusive to his grasp, for he could never be unconscious long enough to have one. Even though the Suna ninja had sustained injuries earlier in the day and almost exhausted all of his chakra reserves, he still refused to sleep, only allowing himself to idly rest in order to regain his physical strength and spiritual energy.

Indeed, what a trying day it had been; he figured there might be a few hurdles to overcome with Suna opening their version of a ninja academy for the first time, but to have so many things happen in such a short period… He had watched the dawn rising from the high dunes of the Sand Village early that morning and now, he was sitting atop the roof of the hospital in Konoha, waiting for his siblings and his student to recover. Or rather, the young Sand Genin that had been kidnapped on the account of her relationship to the demon vessel; he genuinely doubted she would want to remain his student after the danger she was forcibly subjected to. His elder brother and sister were well-trained and highly sufficient, perfectly capable of taking care of themselves in spite of their low ranks, but the girl… with the limited time they knew each other, he had barely taught her anything.

Matsuri…

Even though he truly believed their bond would soon be severed, the pensive redhead was still shocked that she had chosen him to instruct her in the fighting exercise that afternoon, unlike the other Genin that quickly went to his siblings. Logically, he supposed her decision was sensible – the timid girl was obviously weak and needed someone much stronger than her to make up for the difference in skill and power – but his brother and sister could have sufficed as well. Truthfully, the sand wielder had not expected anyone to seek his instruction or guidance, due to his dark reputation in the Sand Village, and also because of the havoc and carnage he used to wreck on those whom aggravated him. Since his defeat at the hands of a certain blond Konoha ninja, however, the young redhead head decided not to cause unnecessary bloodshed any longer, but the villagers still regarded him with fear, and it was possible that their mindsets would never change.

So what had made her different from the others? Why did she approach him when everyone else had kept their distance with abject terror in their eyes? Was she unaware of the sinful acts he committed in the past because of the horrendous sand demon that dwelled within the recesses of his soul?

Deeply engrossed in those baffling thoughts, he suddenly acknowledged the light shuffling noises that were skittering along the side of the building, and his head instantly whipped toward the direction with narrowed eyes. ..Hmm?

"Ahhh-!" The short cry was abruptly cut off when the sound of something scraping the wall suddenly reached his ears, and then he caught the glimpse of a thin, long rope stretched out over on the other side, a considerable distance away.

Aside from having his curiosity roused, he recognized that particular entity of length, and so the redhead languidly stood up to cross the rooftop with slow, steady strides, and then he stuck his head out over the edge to gaze downward. Through the shadow-induced darkness, he could see a petite figure struggling to climb up along the wall, using a rope dart as leverage, but the process did not seem to be going so well, judging by the angle and location of the body. Even with the change in clothing, he was able to quickly recognize the person – the Konoha hospital staff liked to make sure their patients wore very drafty and comfortable attire while they were resting and recuperating. The young sand wielder had to wonder what she was doing out here at the current time of night, however, and why spend so much effort trying to get on the roof, but it was likely that going at this rate, she would lose her strength fairly soon.

He decided to aid the girl before she made a mistake and fell, further impeding the process of her healing; the cork dislodged itself from the opening in the gourd on his back, and then sand began to spill out, rising into the air with fluid ease. At his command, the tiny grains flowed along the light current of the wind, agilely dipping down toward the bole-haired Genin and gathering together underneath the soles of her feet to form a sturdy platform for support. Carrying her lightweight frame upon it, the floating mass ascended back up to the rooftop with the girl turning her head in all directions, her widened eyes and erratic behavior clearly indicating surprise and awe. When she stepped off the platform onto the dark-shaded tiles of the building, the piece of land dissolved into scattering sand again, and trickled along an invisible path, swiftly returning to their owner, who was calmly waiting.

"G-Gaara-sensei!" She exclaimed upon seeing him standing just a few feet away from her, his expression stoic and unreadable; in a show of respect, the girl politely dipped her head, bowing as she expressed her gratitude, "Um, th-thank you for helping me…"

It had truly not been that big of a deal on his part, so Gaara merely watched her perform the gesture without saying a word, deeming a response unnecessary, though he was a little surprised by the way she continued to address him.

When she straightened back up, the young brunette gingerly headed toward the crevice where she had thrown and hitched the pointed head of her rope dart, unhooked it, and then began to ravel the long length together. While she did this, the red-haired ninja turned his attention back to the moon, feeling his inner demon stirring faintly at the sight of the brilliantly-illuminated star, albeit he was able to suppress it from emerging with the strength of his will. few minutes later, the passive Genin went to stand by his side, sneaking a peek at him before she dutifully faced forward to see the setting ahead that was so captivating, and her gaze fell upon the large glowing moon with some interest. She hardly thought that Gaara was the type to enjoy such a beautiful sight of astrological value, but then again, he seemed to like being surrounded by quiet aspects, probably preferring time to himself for brooding and private contemplation.

As a long period of silence stretched out between them, the girl inwardly fought the urge to fidget uneasily as she timidly darted her gaze around various places before she managed to speak up softly in query, "Um… I guess you couldn't sleep either?"

"I don't sleep." He answered bluntly, evidently unfazed by her question, as his attention remained focused on his object of interest, although a corner of his mouth quirked up slightly in a very mild reaction.

She wanted to ask him why, because she would rather not rely on the source of gossiping villagers in Suna for information on the sand wielder, but she kept her mouth shut upon detecting a twinge of his tension, figuring he might not respond.

"Matsuri. Why are you out here?" Gaara inquired without preamble, his voice cool and composed as usual.

"W-well, I couldn't sleep…" she began to reiterate in reply as faint pink blush appeared on her fair cheeks.

"So it's customary for you to go scaling across rooftops when you're unable to sleep?" He countered smoothly.

Matsuri ducked her head and timidly averted her gaze before responding in a quiet tone, "No, but… I, um… I wanted to come up here because I thought the view from a higher ground might help me find you, Gaara-sensei."

The redhead discreetly looked at her out of the corner of his eye, admittedly feeling rather surprised by the information as he wondered what she could possibly want with him, and so he asked mildly to clarify, "You were looking for me?"

"Yes," she replied, nodding firmly in emphasis, and then she explained, "I went to your room, and I didn't see you in the bed next to Naruto's curtain. I, um, thought maybe you had gone out somewhere…"

Gaara turned partway to briefly glance in her direction, wondering aloud, "Did you need something from me?"

"Not really," the petite Genin admitted softly, unaware of his gaze upon on her because she was still idly looking at the tiles surrounding her feet. "Actually… I just wanted to see how you were doing. I-I felt kind of worried because you passed out so suddenly this afternoon…"

"I am fine." He stated resolutely even as he recalled how drained his body had felt from using such a large amount of chakra in such a short period of time, albeit it had been necessary to defeat the white-haired, weapon-abusing foe. "I can take care of myself. You don't need to worry about me."

From the battles that had taken place earlier in the day, Matsuri knew he was strong, but she was rather astonished that the sand wielder could dismiss her concern so easily – maybe he did not like showing any signs of weakness on the outside? "Well, of course I do…You're my sensei. I care about what happens to you…"

At those words, he fully pivoted to face her, unable to fight back the mild twinge of shock that flickered over his expression for a few seconds, but she was looking in a different direction now, and could not see his reaction. "Matsuri. Are you sure you still want to be associated with me? After everything that happened today?"

"Please, teach me how to fight like you, Gaara-sensei," the young brunette hastily pleaded as she turned toward his direction and lowered her head in another bow, showing him her polite and respectful manner once more, "I… I'm really sorry I didn't help very much in your battle against Seimei, but I promise I'll work hard and become stronger, if you'll train me…"

This timid, soft-spoken girl still insisted on being his student, despite having been kidnapped by his enemies, and she had even seen him partially transformed into Shukaku… why was she not running away in fear, like the other Suna villagers frequently did? He could not understand her mindset one bit… after all, everyone else had always looked at the sand wielder and merely saw him as the demon spirit container, but she somehow rose beyond that common sentiment and was able to stand her ground. Whenever Gaara closed his eyes, he could still very clearly see the kids appearing terrified of him as they desperately escaped the vicinity that he merely occupied, and their cries of cruel insults still rung vividly in his ears to this very day. There was no possibility of Matsuri being completely oblivious to the countless stories about him that were constantly being whispered all around the village, so then why would she want to stay by his side and willingly remain his student?

After several long moments of struggling to comprehend her baffling reasons for her insistence on having him as her instructor, he finally questioned with a bit of confusion underlying his voice, "Tell me, why do you want me? Temari and Kankuro are strong and capable shinobi as well."

"I know, but…" the young brunette tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and lowered her gaze to the ground, feeling embarrassed all of a sudden as she tried to figure out the best way to explain herself. "Well, they have a lot of students, so they probably don't need another one, and… and I really think I can learn more from you, Gaara-sensei. You've already shown me that weapons can be used to protect your comrades, when you protected Naruto from Seimei's attack. Because of that, I don't feel so afraid of weapons now… and I want to keep training under you."

Gaara had no response to that, not being used to receiving praise and positive comments regarding his actions; he was unable to counter her point nor offer an alternative, so he merely stayed silent and contemplated how it would feel to have a student, to actually be responsible for another person.

"…Gaara-sensei?" She piped up in question when a few minutes of silence had passed by, lifting her head to look at him as she awaited his decision.

Suppressing a sigh of uncertainty, he slowly nodded just then, indicating he had relented and would indeed keep her as his student, though inwardly his mind thought it was strange to have someone so ardently vouching for him, rather than the other way around…

Her expression brightened with a timid smile, and Matsuri immediately bowed her head yet again as she expressed wholeheartedly, "Thank you for accepting me, sensei… I won't let you down; I'll do whatever I can to make you proud."

The combination of her polite gesture and her firmly-uttered words made him feel oddly flustered, and the red-haired ninja briefly struggled against the way his contained demon stirred at that moment, apparently having its curiosity roused by his bond with the girl. What possible interest could Shukaku have in her…? Not that Gaara wanted to find out; he would hardly relinquish even a sliver of control to the devious sand spirit, knowing how much excitement and pleasure it derived from causing bloodshed and destruction. Never again would he allow that to happen, Gaara had vowed shortly after he and his siblings returned from their mission of assisting Konoha in their fights with a number of formidable opponents from the mysterious Sound Village. Kankuro was close by when the young sand wielder had expressed his desire to turn his life around and attempt to forge bonds with other people, and work hard to be accepted by the villagers in Suna, regardless of the difficulty or the amount of time it would take.

The redhead was admittedly quite relieved that neither one of his siblings had asked him why he was so adamant on going after Matsuri's kidnappers and rescuing her from their clutches without even waiting for back-up to arrive. Aside from the faint sliver of guilt that clung to his mentality, he had wanted to ensure her safety because she was his student, and he found it absolutely repugnant that she should suffer even a second for merely being associated with him. After all, he was the enemies' originally intended target, and they had involved Matsuri in order to draw him out; he felt responsible for what happened to her, and so he was determined to bring the girl back to Suna alive and unharmed with his own hands. Despite her inexperience with fighting, she had handled herself fairly well in such a dangerous situation, although Gaara did not expect her to keep him as her teacher after that incident, and yet he ended up receiving quite a bit of shock from her persistence in the matter.

If she truly intended to learn all about battle techniques from him, then he would train her to the best of his ability, and pay little heed to the fact that they were both only at the Genin level – in real fights, foes attacked everyone, regardless of rank. Matsuri seemed to be getting somewhat more accustomed to handling the rope dart he had picked for her, and when she became capable of successfully immobilizing enemy targets, he would start showing her how to execute offensive skills then. His aptitude with taijutsu was the most lacking, so perhaps it would be advantageous for him to improve in that area while he worked with his student, even though he preferred ninjutsu as his primary method of physically subduing the opponents he faced. Gaara quickly realized one important thing he had to keep in mind for when he began to truly instruct her, and that was to go easy on the girl with his sand attacks; it felt strange to restrain himself, but there would certainly be no benefit in causing her injury or alarm, should their sessions ever get intense.

"Matsuri." He finally spoke after his mental deliberation had ceased, and he noted with a sense of peculiarity that she kept her head down this whole time, as if she was waiting for him to respond before she would straighten back up. "You need to rest. We'll be leaving for Suna in the morning."

Her dark ebony eyes peered at him with understanding as she lifted her gaze and complied easily, "Yes, Gaara-sensei."

The redhead slanted a slight nod in response, and then watched silently as Matsuri approached the edge of the rooftop, briefly turned to call goodnight to him, and then seemed to hesitate when she glanced down toward the ground.

Perplexed by her apparent vacillation, he calmly walked over to her position and inquired in a low tone, "What is it?"

"Oh, um, nothing," Matsuri proclaimed immediately, the light blush on her cheeks illuminated from the pale glow of the bright moon that hung above the pair. "I guess I just… didn't realize how high up we were…"

…Hmm. If she had not been an inexperienced amateur, Gaara would have no leniency for such a show of feeble timidity from a fellow shinobi, but he supposed he could stretch out his patience to accommodate his student – just a little. "Do you know how to control the flow of chakra in your chakra system?"

She slowly shook her head, appearing somewhat sheepish to admit having limited knowledge on one of the most vital aspects that a ninja had to learn in order to execute many different techniques, but she certainly would not lie about her ignorance.

Trying to explain it in a way that she would best understand, the experienced young redhead recited the directions verbally, but then ended up walking her through the process by physically leaping down to the ground himself. His pale turquoise eyes were coolly locked onto her petite form as faint blue light surrounded the soles of her feet, adding adhesion to her position as the girl jumped off of the slanted tiles just then, and landed just a bit shakily. Matsuri retained her balance and quickly turned to face him with a smile, and Gaara acknowledged her first achievement by his slight nod, although he made sure to tell her that it was just one small step toward the beginning of her training. When they returned to Suna, he planned to start instructing her immediately, and if she could learn the basics quickly, then she would progress to a set of defensive tactics using her rope dart, eventually moving onto techniques of attacking purpose.

Matsuri listened intently as he spoke, focusing all her attention on his words as he relayed a tentative schedule for them; she had a feeling he would be a strict teacher, but he was really the best choice for her out of three instructors. Even if he denied it, she thought the red-haired ninja was much stronger than his siblings, and she would definitely try her best to please him, in spite of her weapon phobia and innate affinity for clumsiness. Though not entirely sure of how they regarded her at present, Matsuri suspected that the other young Genin students might consider her crazy or horribly disillusioned for deciding to go with Gaara, but then again, what did they know? Of course, she had heard all the whispers and rumors circulating around the small group of aspiring Sand shinobi after the girl initially asked her question on weapons, which surprisingly prompted a response from Gaara before his siblings.

He decided not to fully state whatever he had intended to express, and she wanted to get his entire answer eventually, so she mentally stored that in the back of her mind for later, maybe when they were alone sometime…

Now, Matsuri was beginning to feel tired again, and despite her attempts to fight it back, a yawn escaped from her mouth just then, causing the redhead to end the brief lesson by commanding, "That will be enough for now, Matsuri. Go back to your room and sleep; restore your strength for tomorrow's trek."

This, she would definitely not protest, and so she obeyed her sensei without hesitation, a small smile forming over her lips as she bid him farewell with, "Good night, Gaara-sensei. Um, I'll see you in the morning."

"Rest well." He calmly dismissed his student, nodding slightly in response to her polite gesture, although in all honesty, he would prefer that she dropped the stiff formality – he was not used to receiving such blatantly sincere respect.

After casting him one last lingering glance, the girl turned away and began walking back toward the hospital, soon leaving his sight when she disappeared past the entrance, where a comfortable bed and several hours of sleep were awaiting her.

When she was fully gone from his view, Gaara looked on for a moment longer before swiftly returning to his preferred location on the rooftop of the building, as he intended to wait out the rest of the night there in solitude. He gazed at the moon in silence, still feeling considerably bewildered as to why Matsuri had insisted on being his student so strongly, but deep down inside, he admitted it was rather pleasant to know that finally, someone from his own village did not fear him. A twinge of hope dimly came alive inside his mind, along with the belief that perhaps his desire of attaining acceptance from the people of Suna was not entirely elusive after all, nor would his efforts to change himself be fruitless. Kankuro had expressed doubt and wariness on the subject due to past experiences, but the sand wielder no longer wanted the others to regard him with only fear and resentment, and he would prove to each and every one of them that he was more than just a destructive force, a weapon to be used for terror.

The strength of the new teacher-student relationship he formed with Matsuri assured him that forging bonds with the other villagers was indeed possible, and suddenly, Gaara realized that he felt a little less lonely than before.

For the first time in his life, he was actually eager to return to Suna.

Tomorrow…

The End

Author's Note: Hehehe, as promised, here is yet another GaaMatsu fic from me! I¨ope you readers don't mind that this one was just friendship rather than romance, but I've got ideas for future stories of the latter genre, so worry not, my fellow romance lovers. XD Oh man, Gaara and Matsuri really have a lot of potential and a vast amount of background to explore and develop… and I'm definitely going to have fun with that! Hmm, I·onder which idea I'll go with next… guess I'll have to let my brain pick it out, hmm? It might be a while before I finish another story, though, because I have midterms and finals coming up soon, and as much as I'd rather spend time on fanfiction, I should probably focus on my schoolwork for a while. Please be patient with me, everyone!

Anyway, to you readers out there, I'd love to hear your comments on this story, so please leave a review and let me know your thoughts!

With love for my fans,

Tiger5913