Shifting Sands

"Gaara..." Again the voice tugged at the edge of his awareness. Gaara blinked, and turned his pale green eyes to glower at the current source of his irritation. Temari's hands pulled back as if he'd bitten her, or worse. A flicker of a nervous smile flitted across her face, unsure of how to proceed. At least this was normal.

Gaara let the tension ease out of his weary frame and looked away into the darkness beyond the makeshift campfire. Again her voice intruded into his thoughts like a pesky insect. "... Gaara, are you sure you're okay? I've been talking to you, you know..."

He frowned, realizing she wasn't about to let it go. "Yes..." his voice was weak even to his own ears. "I SAID I'm fine. Finish up and leave me alone."

His brother was watching from the other side of the camp, the light of the flames reflected in his dark cunning eyes. It was obvious to Gaara that he was being watched more carefully than before, ever since his defeat by that blond idiot from the Leaf Village. Or perhaps it was because of the unheard of apology that he had uttered to his startled siblings as they carried his broken body away from the scene.

His sister nodded curtly, and pulled out the linen strips to make quick of her work. At least Temari was better about letting his uncharacteristic behavior go without making Gaara feel as if she was feeling him out for any weakness to be exploited. If anything, his sister seemed oddly maternal in her sudden care for his injuries (no doubt thinking he'd been hit in the head just a little too hard). Her hands worked quickly to bind his bruised chest, immobilizing the fractured ribs until they could be mended by their people's medical nin. Gaara had never experienced such physical pain before, always protected by the sand spirit that possessed him. But the Leaf ninjas had surprised him by actually being able to break through what he'd thought were impenetrable defenses. First that absurd boy named Rock Lee, then the dark haired boy with eyes full of hatred and the hunger to kill. A boy named Sasuke Uchiha...

Gaara still felt an incredible need to kill that one. But, things had changed in ways he never would have believed. And all because of Naruto. Confusion, despair, hope, uncertainty.

A sudden stabbing pain caused him to gasp for breath. It was all so new, these feelings... and if Gaara hadn't been so exhausted, no doubt he'd lose himself in his past once again. Remembering was painful for the young Sand Shinobi. But at least it was a pain he was used to dealing with (if you could call it that), unlike his body breaking down in such a troublesome way. Staring down along his lean frame, he watched his chest rise and fall with shallow breaths, the only way he could effectively breathe with the bindings so tight.

His body ached beyond belief and even now it still took effort just to turn his head. His siblings had been forced to carry him away from the site of his defeat, retreating before they could be hunted down by any of the Leaf Shinobi's forces. The Sand's treaty with the Sound had been a costly mistake, and their failure to destroy their enemy was partly Gaara's fault. They'd counted on him being the ace in the hole for the invading forces. The only problem is they hadn't given enough weight to the fact that he might take it upon himself to completely ignore his mission in his bloodlust to kill Sasuke.

That single fateful decision had changed everything, and Gaara played it over and over in his mind, trying to understand just what had happened. Sasuke had been an exciting prospect. Someone like him, who understood the need to kill... it would have felt so incredible to prove his existence by dealing death to that one. The invasion had become a nuisance to have started during his long anticipated match with that Uchiha brat.

But Sasuke had been more difficult to wipe out of existence, and had managed to present Gaara with his first real injury. The sudden pain that had struck his shoulder had been an utter shock to him in his darkened sanctuary. His fingers had traced a line across the torn fabric of his shirt, feeling with astonishment the warm viscous liquid that bloomed like a flower out of his ruptured flesh. It was then... then that he lost it.

He remembered screaming... and then... and then...

The next thing he remembered he was in the forest, away from the arena. His enemy was there in the treetops. But there were others this time. Irritating little gnats, getting in between him and his target. Sasuke's teammates. They were nothing to him, merely a momentary obstacle to be swept aside so that he could reach the dark haired one. The girl was useless to fight, she was a victim, a pathetic ninja from what he had seen. A waste of blood and flesh. But there was one thing she was good for, she was an quite useful as a tool to incite hatred in others. Caring about others simply meant you were weak, that you had something to lose if you didn't bend to the will of your enemy. So he'd made use of this weakness and grabbed the girl.

As for Sasuke Uchiha, the pride of the Leaf Village, the one that everyone cheered for during their final match... he had proven a complete disappointment, curled up with black marks writhing about his body. Where was the fierce opponent that would be a joy to rip to shreds? Gaara couldn't remember where it had all gone wrong...

But there was one other. Truth be told, Gaara had never given Naruto much of a second glance. He was a fool, loud, obnoxious, and worthless as far as he could see. But now in his efforts to protect his friends... he was quite willing to play into Gaara's hands. Gaara remembered sneering at such weakness. It was going to be a pleasure to destroy his delusions. Friendships were hollow, useless things, a weakness to be exploited by the strong.

Gaara's brow creased, remembering the fight. Naruto had surprised him, had shaken his beliefs to the core, and had stunned him by his refusal to stop even when at the end he could barely move. Where had his strength come from? But it was Naruto's words at the end that had startled him the most.

'Those eyes...' Naruto's large blue eyes filled his vision. 'Eyes like mine...' He could practically taste the agony in them. Gaara understood emotional pain more than anyone he knew, that was, until he met the orange clad youth from the Leaf Village. How had it been that he hadn't seen it before? Someone like him... with eyes like that, it was more than the hatred he'd seen in the dark haired boy's eyes, it was far deeper than that. 'Naruto... he... knows. Yet, he's not weak... even though he has people he's close to.'

It had struck him with the force of a hurricane, seeing his enemy refusing to give up even to the point of dragging his useless body towards Gaara's just because he wanted to protect that girl. Naruto's words, cutting through the years of torment and grief that had consumed his being. 'Is it possible? For someone who's suffered like me, to change his life, and if so... am I strong enough to change mine? I...' Gaara had never felt so lost, his entire reason for living having been stripped away from him in one fell swoop. 'I have to find out.'

By the time he drew out of his fractured thoughts, Temari had long since retreated to sit by the fire, intently discussing the details of their withdrawal from the invasion and how best to get home safely. Gaara shifted, grimacing from the stabbing pain in his chest. His arms shook violently as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. Getting up was going to be a challenge.

"Gaara! What do you think you're doing?" Temari cried out in exasperation as she leapt to her feet. "Don't be stupid! You shouldn't be moving yet! Save your strength for tomorrow." But the youngest brother was determined, and would tolerate no obstacles.

Gaara's breath came out ragged as he supported his weight against the tree, pausing to let the pain subside before responding. "I want... to go back." The look he got in return was priceless, but none of that mattered to his feverish thoughts.

Kankurou rose from his seat, somewhat resembling a predatory animal stalking his prey and stepped forward with hand raised to block his path. He shot their sister a look before attempting to reason with their younger brother. "... we can't let you do that Gaara." It wasn't the first time he'd tested the tenuous bond between them.

But Temari had other methods to convince and control her psychotic younger brother. Her voice softened with careful precision as she attempted to calm the potentially dangerous situation. "Gaara... it's OVER. Going back now wouldn't do any good.

Gaara looked past her, Naruto's determined face all he could see. "I don't care about that anymore." He had to talk to him.

Again, his siblings exchanged silent looks. Kankurou frowned and turned back to the situation. His voice holding that same cockiness that said he thought he knew best, "And what do you expect to do? Your chakra is completely gone, and you can barely stand. You think you can summon the strength to storm in there just to kill a genin that is most likely holed up in one of their hospitals?" Gaara's eyes flashed in irritation to his brazenly foolish brother. Kankurou obviously didn't know a thing.

Temari once again broke into the conversation in an attempt to deflate the situation. Something she'd become quite adept at over the years. "Gaara, if we went back now, they'd kill us. We're lucky we got away with our lives after the Sound betrayed us like that. There's time for that later if you really have to kill him."

Gaara sighed, letting his body relax against the support of the tree, things had changed, and he was absolutely exhausted from it all. "It's not that." His voice held a resignation that sounded alien to his ears. "... nevermind. We should go home then." They were right, there was always time later. Later, when he could encounter Naruto on hopefully very different terms.

Temari stared at her younger brother as if he'd grown another head. Helplessly, she turned to an equally astonished Kankurou. It always bothered Gaara how they could communicate so easily with each other even with just a glance; a bond he'd never had the fortune to hold with either of them.

'... I suppose it can't be helped, the two of them reacting like that, they're so used to being afraid. I'll just have to get used to it, and... maybe in time, things can get better.' It was almost too good to hope for.

End of chapter 1