Alright, so I struggled with what I was going to make as Matsuri's character. How she'd be like, what she'd like, which group she'd wind up getting shoved into when she started high school. And…I wound up burning out. I still haven't decided, so, for now, she's going to be a bit wonky. As in, she's shy one minute and brazen the next. Ugh. I think that's okay. She's got a mild Hinata-syndrome in which she's okay around people she knows and shy around people she doesn't. Hence, why she seems to be on "friendly" terms with Sasuke. –sarcasm-

Speaking of, you finally get a slew of new characters! Huzzah!

By the way, Rock Lee mentions "Coach Shiranui" as his track coach: that would be Genma. Shiranui is his last name. (God, I can never take Rock Lee seriously. I'm terribly sorry he's been tarnished by my fuck-up nature. His speech pattern in this is extremely annoying to me, mainly because I am refusing to use contractions, as contractions denote casual conversation, and his speech pattern in the show is so polite and formal.) I made him say "Miss" in front of all of the girl's names to go along with the fact that he uses polite speech and likes to use honorifics, which are viewed as more polite, especially in instances with strangers. For the boys…I felt Mister was stretching it a bit so I cut that off. Just know he's referring to them politely, too.

8D Ahhhhhh–– I'm so proud of the interaction between Matsuri and Shikamaru in the bus this chapter. I get tickled pink every time I read it, and I hope everyone else gets a kick out of it, too. Oh, Shika…you'll be manly the older you get. 8D Don't be in such a hurry to change––

As for Matsuri's past: In the show, her parents are murdered. And then later Gaara helps her conquer her fear of weapons when she's training to be a kunoichi. Then, she's kidnapped to get to Gaara. In this, I changed it a bit to make more sense. So, her parents worked for the same company Gaara's father helps manage and Sasuke's father works as C.E.O. for. She lives next door to Gaara, and when a bunch of people came to kidnap GAARA, they got the wrong house and wound up murdering her parents and nearly murdering her. Hence, why she lives with her grandmother now and why Gaara can barely look at her and feels so, so, so guilty. I just smushed the two things together, see?

I apologize if Matsuri is Sue-ish. I really don't know how to make her character (as I can barely remember the episodes she was in and how she acted) so I'm pretty much just going with the favorable outcomes in situations, like Sues tend to do. Hopefully I'll get the hang of writing her better and she'll be a less Sue-ish. (Not to mention the next chapters won't be solely about her like this one was.)

And I apologize the moment between Matsuri and Hinata and Chiyo is so shitty. I wanted to get through it so I didn't even bother making it prettier.


A Quiet Mind
The Dangers of Pointy Objects

"Such a wonderful morning; I can only hope it will get better," the brunette stated happily as she let her hair down, smiling proudly at the waves her hair had dried into by putting it up while she slept. She popped a CD into her boom box and grabbed the clothes she had hanging up for her first day of school.

Mika's "Love Today" began blaring from the speakers; she couldn't help but smile widely, singing along childishly into her hair brush as she stripped out of her pajamas.

As she slid on her clothes, she bobbed her head with the music and sang, sang, sang, ignoring the sounds from the kitchen as her grandmother called her out for her music being too loud again. She was in too good of a mood to let anything dampen her spirits. Today she'd be going to high school, today she'd be making friends; today she'd be seeing Gaara, hopefully!

As she turned down her music and exited the room for lunch, she grabbed a small plastic charm necklace off of her desk and pulled it around her neck. It was something silly she'd gotten when she was little. The last time she saw Gaara, it was sixth grade, and for her birthday he'd gotten her a small charm attached to a string. It was really simple, just a little plastic raccoon on a little cord, but she held it close to her heart.

He had been her dearest friend all through elementary school.

––––––––––––––––––––

Her grandmother was horribly protective of her after that incident with her parents, but she'd convinced the elderly woman to let her ride the bus to lessen the burden of driving back and forth every day. As she happily walked to the school bus, iPod blaring The Beatles into her ear as she did, she couldn't help but feel the sunshine on her skin and looked up to the sky again, smiling widely.

"Hey, any of you seen her before?"

She froze in stride, turning and looking at the other kids at the bus stop. There were a few upper classman, but most of them looked roughly the same age as her. One girl had her hair up in buns and looked extremely athletic. There was a boy there decked out in a green athletics top and jeans that were so tight they'd put hers to shame, looking like he was disgruntled for missing some pre-school activity. His eyes were big and he had the queerest shiny bowl-cut hair.

Matsuri's cheeks flushed, and she shifted over toward the group, over to a girl with bright pink hair – the one who spoke. There was a boy next to her who looked older, and his hair was bright green. A girl next to him had her hair in a scenester cut, covering one eye.

"H…Hi…"

The pink-haired punkette looked back at her, nodding her head mutely. The green-haired punk gave her a bright grin and nodded his head…but the scenester just stared ahead of her as she explained to the boy that one of the strings on her violin broke and she was now super-pissed. Neither of them said a word, and the punkette just rolled her eyes and looked back to the scenester, choosing to completely ignore the new girl she'd just asked about.

"Hey, new girl, come sit next to me on the bus!"

Matsuri turned her head to the girl with buns, immediately trailing off to friendlier pastures. The boy next to her wailed, throwing his arms in the air over-dramatically.

"Oh! How could this have happened!? Me!! Late for track!! Coach Shiranui will be so angry with me! And Coach Gai is going to be angry I missed soccer practice yesterday afternoon, too!! This can not be!! How could I have sunk this low!? I must try harder!!"

Matsuri looked at him, smiling a little. "You're in track and on the soccer team? Doesn't that get difficult?"

He turned to her, fire in his eyes, zest in his clenched fist. "It is the difficulty that makes it worthwhile! You will understand when you get to be my age! Are you a freshman, Miss…??"

"Oh…I'm…" She flushed, extending a gentle hand and hoping he wouldn't shake it too roughly. "I'm Matsuri… I'm a freshman, yes."

He grabbed her hand, nearly breaking it off in his eagerness. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Matsuri!!" He turned to the girl with the buns in her hair. "Miss TenTen! Did you hear that!? Aside from the beautiful Miss Sakura, she is the only other freshman here!!"

TenTen giggled, extending a far more agreeable hand to the girl, rolling her eyes at her friend. "I'm TenTen, Matsuri. You'll have to forgive Lee. He's…h–" She giggled again. "H-High on life, as you can see…" She cleared her throat, nudging her companion teasingly. "And being one year older doesn't make you all-knowing, Lee." He didn't seem to hear her, distracted by a new potential friend.

Matsuri smiled. "Oh? It's nice to meet you."

The boy, Lee, thrust his fist in the air. "Ah! There is nothing greater than the prime of youth! Coach Gai has made me see just how precious youth is, and I just can not help myself! Oh! I completely forgot to introduce myself! I am Rock Lee, Miss Matsuri!" He grabbed her free hand, shaking it roughly once again, in his eagerness.

Matsuri felt positively unbalanced with one soft hand shaking her left hand, and a rather bumpy earthquake shaking her right hand. "Y-Y-Yes…It's…It's so nice to meet the both of you…" Still, though, she couldn't get the smile off her face. It was nice to see she'd met people this nice this early on in the game. (Her year was looking up!)

"Shut the hell up, Lee. You're making it so difficult to be happy this morning," replied a very angry scenester to their left.

Matsuri's smile faded, and TenTen rolled her eyes. Lee, on the other hand, immediately tried to make amends, running over in almost a split second, kicking up dust as he did so. "Oh! My apologies, Miss Kin! I apologize sincerely for ruining your morning! If there is anything I can–"

A palm flew in front of his face, cutting him off sharply. "You can get the fuck away from me, you freak. Personal. Space."

He paused for a split second, and it nearly appeared as if he would burst into tears for that comment. Tears did begin streaming down his face, but for an entirely different reason. He lifted his hand, determined. "I will do my best, Miss Kin! I will not let you down!"

Matsuri couldn't help but giggle and she turned to TenTen, a smile on her face. "Is he always this animated?"

TenTen gave a pleasant smile and nodded her head. "Yes. It can get quite aggravating when you've known him as long as I have…" She paused, thinking it over, before she tilted her head. "Of course, knowing him as long as I have also makes it easier to deal with."

"Hey, Lee. Is it true you were making out with Neji behind the school? I heard a rumor."

Both brunettes and a very shocked Lee turned to the boy with green hair, who was smirking to himself with the smuggest smile Matsuri had ever seen. His gal pals merely snickered.

Lee gasped, putting his hands to his face. "Z-Z-Zaku!! I would never with Neji! Only with the beautiful Miss Sakura!! And aside from that, Neji says he is dating a girl at a different school!"

"That means he's lying, you dumbass," Kin rebutted lividly, hoping it would repel the beast assaulting them this early in the morning. She was the farthest thing from a morning person, and a broken violin string wasn't helping her mood at all. There was a concert coming up in two days, and both of her parents were too busy to give her a ride to get a new one.

Sakura gave him a pained look, as if she wanted him to leave as much as Kin did. She smiled lightly, shaking her head. "Lee, could you just do us a favor and try to keep quiet for the bus ride? None of us are morning people…"

"I will do anything for you, Miss Sakura!!"

He quickly zipped over to TenTen and gave her a look that clearly said he wanted to prove his undying love to the pink-haired punkette before promptly shutting his mouth into a tight line. He stayed there like that, and Kin resumed telling her friends about the violin string she now had to go halfway across town just to replace.

A few seconds later, a car drove up and stopped, right in front of Sakura. She sucked in a breath, her eyes going wide. "No way…" The window rolled down and there, right in front of them, sat Sasuke Uchiha, a boy that used to go to private school with Matsuri and Gaara. He'd been popular there, so it was no surprise that he'd be popular in public school, too. "FUCK YES!!!" Sakura cried, pumping her fists and forgetting to keep her thoughts to herself and act more normal.

Sasuke gave her a strange look and a much older boy next to him leaned over, his face appearing near his – it was Itachi! Matsuri remembered him better than Sasuke; he'd been a bit hard to get to know, but when she did, he was really nice to her. Ah, and according to the black eye marring Itachi's normally handsome face, they were still brawling with each other as always…

The younger brother paled slightly and opened the door, stepping out to escape the creeper that was his older sibling. "Uh…uh…" He fidgeted slightly, until his brother cleared his throat.

"Sasuke, we need to get going. Get her in the car or I'm driving off without either of you."

"I heard you the first time, bastard!" He opened the door, and Sakura dashed over, hands clenched together over her heart. He went red, stuttering. "Uh…w-w-wo-would you…um…would you like…"

"Would you like a ride to school?" asked his brother. Sasuke turned back, glaring daggers at his older brother and making a motion towards Sakura like he desperately wanted to strangle someone. He closed his eyes, turning back around and shouting at her, his temper rising.

"Do you want a ride to school, Sakura??"

Sakura paled, her eyebrows knitting together. "S-Sorry. Y-Y-Yes I do…" When he opened his eyes, words failed him. He, instead, rubbed the back of his head and tried to apologize. His words were clipped from even beginning when the young man in the front began to speak again.

"I'm already late, Sasuke. Do or don't."

"Do, DO, Itachi!!" He glared, pushing Sakura inside the car and slamming the front door as he climbed in next to her angrily.

Matsuri went pink and tried her best not to laugh. It seemed neither of the Uchiha siblings had changed at all over the past two years.

As the car sped off, Zaku snickered and leaned over to Kin.

"Uchiha said doo-doo. Heh heh heh."

Kin just gave him a strained look and put a hand to her forehead. "God, I wish Dosu were here… If it weren't for Temari's fucking little brother he wouldn't be in the hospital and I wouldn't be stuck listening to your stupidity. I'm going to fucking kill that kid, I swear. The second those teachers aren't around–" She pounded her hand into her fist, eyes blazing. "POW! Right in the back of the neck!"

Before Matsuri could ask what they were talking about, Zaku sighed. "I really don't see what Sakura sees in Sasuke. He's a fucking jock."

"Yeah, it seems to run in your group of friends, doesn't it, Zaku?"

Zaku turned to her, slightly interested. "Wait, what do you mean by that, Kin? Is there something you know that I don't? Augh! You're dating a jock, aren't you!?"

"It's not me, it's–"

"The bus is here!!!" shouted Lee, his mood returning to that healthy glow.

The second they all slumped onto the bus, Matsuri turned to TenTen. The other brunette was leaning over one of the seats, chatting animatedly with a boy sitting beside a much larger redhead. The larger of the two was tapping away on his Game Boy, and the thinner boy was looking at TenTen like she was God's gift to mankind.

Matsuri felt silent, feeling just slightly uncomfortable at the fact that they'd already formed cliques and she was an outsider here. After a brief moment, TenTen sat back down, and the boy turned himself around, leaning over the back of his seat and extending his hand to her. "You're Matsuri, right? It's nice to meet you. Say, do you like chess? Or video games? Or card games?"

Matsuri stared at him, her mouth finally opening as she shook his hand. "Uh…I used to play Yu-Gi-Oh! cards in middle school… If that's what you meant by card games…" She glanced over at TenTen, who was looking at her with a smile on her face. The brunette returned the smile, looking back at the boy. "What's your name?"

"I'm Shikamaru. TenTen's–" Matsuri couldn't help but giggle at how he deepened his voice and puffed out his chest a little, trying to be manly. "–boyfriend." He looked at TenTen, smiling, proud of himself. He'd probably gotten a hearty pat on the back from his father the night before, judging by the look he was giving her.

Matsuri laughed. "You two look good together."

Both went pink and Shikamaru rubbed the back of his head happily. "I don't look too young or anything, do I?"

"No! You look…" She glanced over at TenTen, who was trying to hide the smile on her face, and looked back at Shikamaru, giving him an overly serious look and nodding her head. "You look so manly, Shikamaru. Are you growing facial hair?"

Shikamaru rubbed his chin, looking slightly ecstatic. "Really? You noticed? I've already got some chest hair, so–"

"Oh…Oh wow. Y-Your manliness can not be measured by mere mortal standards," she said, trying her best not to laugh. TenTen looked like she was having a hard time fighting the urge to burst out laughing as well.

Shikamaru looked quite pleased with himself. "Sweet." He kissed TenTen on the cheek and grinned. "I'll talk to you later…babe." He looked like he'd been wanting to say it for quite some time, and had even practiced in the mirror beforehand to get it just as suave as he wanted.

TenTen giggled and waved coyly at him, and he sat back down. After he'd done that, she leaned over toward Matsuri. "I know you were just humoring him, but please don't say that again… He's mine."

"Don't worry. I won't. I've already got someone I like." She lowered her eyes, twisting her fingers together anxiously. "Um…Ten…TenTen…? That…Kin…said something about a boy named Dosu… Do you…know anything about that?"

TenTen looked up at the ceiling, putting a finger to her lips thoughtfully. Finally, she looked over at the other brunette. "Matsuri, there's one thing you should know if you're going to go to this school– No…" She looked back down, biting her lip in an attempt to stall for time in order to organize her thoughts. Finally, she cleared her throat and nodded her head. "Well…I sort of know Dosu because he lives near me and Kin and Zaku, but the three of them aren't the type of people that people really like, you know?"

"No, I don't know what you mean."

"What I mean is…Dosu's not as likeable as some of the other kids at this school. He's really quiet from what I've seen with him and his friends, and his opinions tend to be critical of others…" She shrugged her shoulders. "The teachers say he's out sick, but there's a rumor going around that the youngest Sabaku sibling sent him to the hospital."

"…The youngest…"

"Yes."

Her chest went cold and a shiver ran up her spine. "Gaara? Was his name Gaara?" Her face paled, sure that something was terribly wrong, sure that something must've happened after she left.

"…I think so. I think he's the redhead that sits with Temari at lunch." TenTen shrugged. "But Kiba, that's the guy who's been informing everyone, is known to have a vendetta against that guy, so he probably just made the entire thing up." Her eyes lit up with realization. "Oh! Gaara! He's the guy that got into a fight with Sasuke on Tuesday, wasn't he!?"

Shikamaru turned around, suddenly interested in their conversation. "The bastard also gave me a black eye for no reason."

TenTen's jaw dropped. "He's the one that gave you that black eye??"

"Yeah, but it's no big deal. I can understand why he'd get pissed off at me. Naruto was annoying him."

"Oh…" TenTen nodded her head, understanding the situation perfectly.

Matsuri blinked. "Naruto? Who's he?"

The pair went silent, as if neither of them wanted to tell her about him. Finally, Shikamaru rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah…Naruto's a bit of a goof and not a lot of people like him. He's one of my friends, actually. He means well, but most of the time…he's just loud. He got into a fist fight with Ino Yamanaka the other day."

TenTen burst out laughing, leaning over toward him. "You serious!? He got into a fist fight with Ino!? How badly did he beat her!?" She looked all too happy to hear for some real damage.

The two trailed off into gossip and Matsuri looked down at her backpack, her eyebrows knitting together. Just what happened to Gaara in the some two years since she'd seen him? He was getting into fights and not acting like himself…and…

Was he still the same boy she knew back in elementary school? The same boy who desperately wanted friends but managed to get only jeers instead?

–––––––––––––––

The bus pulled into the bus stop, dropping off its passengers for an enthralling day of school. The flurry of kids getting off there was astounding, and Matsuri was almost afraid to see what lunch was like. She'd heard this school was smaller than most public schools, but if a third of the students rode the bus, as was portrayed as average in all of the movies she'd seen, there had to be hundreds more inside.

She trembled as she stepped off the bus, the absence of music bringing her crashing back to reality:

She was getting an education at school rather than at home like she had been all during middle school after her parents were killed; she didn't know anyone; Gaara was acting strange and she was almost positive he wasn't going to accept her back as kindly as she'd assumed at the beginning of the day.

As if her thoughts weren't enough to get her down, what happened next crushed her to pieces.

"Hey, there, girlie!"

She turned to see a boy approaching her, an upper classman, judging by his height. His face was nice and tan, his hair black and mussed, forming either a half-assed attempt at a mullet or absolute carelessness in his appearance. Actually, scratch that – he had it tied back in a ponytail, now that she could see him closer. The boy was wearing a big grin on his face, and his height made her feel very small. As he grew closer, his features came into focus, and, despite the innocent smile, his eyes held absolutely nothing of the sort. Not only that, but she was starting to see the black-eye formed around his eye and the bruised cheek to his left. A few scratches lined his chin, and it also looked like his neck had sustained some damage in a fight.

He looked dangerous.

"You look new here!" He gave her a goofy grin and waved in her direction, sending shivers up her spine.

"I'm…eh…I–I am," she whispered, backing slowly into a wall. A few kids walked by and observed her predicament, opting to not get involved. It was like entering a den of wolves and discovering she'd been smeared in sheep's blood on the way in.

A few steps closer and he was within arm's length from her, and a few steps after that he had his hand on her arm, staring straight into her wide, frightened eyes. He pouted, his eyes alighting with mischief. "Hey now, don't be frightened, girlie. Your old pal Kidoumaru wants to show you around school. What name does a pretty girl like you go by?"

Just faintly, she managed to give a weak cry of submission, shutting her eyes tightly and looking to the side. "T-T-Temari," she managed to squeeze out, in hopes that he'd leave her alone. The last thing she wanted was for this dangerous boy to know her name.

He chuckled, and she looked up at him to see his expression completely different. He winked at her, folding his arms over his chest. "You're in luck. I happen to be after a girl named Temari…" He leaned down, close enough to take a whiff of her hair. "But you don't have her blonde hair or smell like she does…" His hand slammed the wall beside her face, and he leaned right up to her face, close enough so she could feel his breath on her cheek.

"Do I scare you, girlie? Because it seems to me you're lying."

"Kidoumaru…" A pair of voices rang out in unison, startling the now quiet air of the bus stop.

The boy turned, his eyes widening, to see a pair of boys by the door, their hair pale, skin pale, everything about them pale. It even appeared as if their personalities were pale, judging by how emotionless they looked. Kidoumaru actually shivered and took a step away from her, fleeing to the wall just as she had done.

"Sakon, Ukon," he acknowledged…and stiffly, she noted.

One spoke, glancing over at his twin for a split second before turning back to Kidoumaru. "We saw you outside and had to say hello…" he started.

"And when we saw your making friends with that girl," the other continued.

"We just couldn't be left out of all of the fun!" both finished cheerfully, with bright smiles on their faces.

Kidoumaru shook visibly and fled to the corner of the building, finding that to go tearing all the way around the school was a much wiser plan of action than passing by the twins and entering through the door behind them. Whatever the case was, they seemed to just grow even more amused by his reaction. A sick moment passed until one of the twins – one wearing a chain around his neck – leaned over toward the wall, as if expecting the sexual deviant to change his mind and come walking back.

"Do ya think he's gone, Ukon?"

The one named Ukon shrugged his shoulders, his voice almost monotone. "Doesn't matter. We can just scare him if he walks back by pressing ourselves against the girl. No script or anything required." He turned his teal eyes to the brunette, yawning. "Don't mind Kidoumaru. We've hated him since middle school. He's not the type to stop if you say no."

His twin nodded his head, backing up his brother's point. "His escapade with Tayuya just coddled him to the point where he thinks he can get whoever he sets his eyes on. I hate her, too. The only one I like is Jiroubou."

"Jiroubou is nice, in a big teddy bear kind of way," Ukon said with a half-smile.

Matsuri took a step away from the wall, shuffling over toward them a bit quicker than she had originally thought. These two also seemed strange, and she wasn't quite sure if she could trust them yet. "Thank you."

"You lied about being Temari," they both said in unison.

Her face fell. Temari must've been well-known in this school. There was no way around it, then. She'd just have to risk it. "…I'm…Matsuri," she corrected herself quietly, hoping to make amends for her lie.

The two looked at each other, as if speaking with their eyes. "Should we?" the one with the chain around his neck asked.

The other twin – Ukon – replied a haughty, "I'm game if you are. Let's just get this shit over with," and the two pressed their knuckles together.

"Wonder twin powers, activate!" they both cried.

The first, more emotive of the two, struck a pose and lifted his arm in the air, pointing like a gun. "Form of, my twin brother Ukon!"

The other repeated it, so that the two looked like Charlie's Angels minus an angel, a bit less enthusiastic, but his eyes showed all she needed to know he actually enjoyed their stupidity. "Form of, my twin brother Sakon!"

Without another word, the two mussed their hair, switching the parts in it, Sakon removing his necklace and giving it to Ukon, Ukon placing it around his neck. The two then spun, taking each other's place. When their strange ritual was over, the two looked exactly like the other – both had even been wearing the same clothes to complete the effect, too – and Matsuri's jaw dropped.

They both looked at her, and Sakon popped his collar, nodding his head toward her. "Whatcha think?"

"…eh…It needs work…" She brushed past them on her way inside, her face beet red from embarrassment. Heck, she wasn't even a part of that and she felt ashamed. It was a wonder those two even had friends.

Just when she thought she'd lost them, she heard hurried footsteps behind her. 'Oh great,' she thought to herself. A few seconds later they were on her, circling around her as she walked like a pair of defective sharks. After a moment of trying to hide from the few people she passed watching her, she finally stopped.

"Wh-What do you want?"

They stopped in time, and Sakon, Ukon-clothed, smiled. "Actually, we were wondering if you needed someone to show you to your first class, since we're–"

"–nicer than most of the other people at this school," Ukon, Sakon-clothed, interrupted. The brothers shared a high five and a joint, "Hell yes! That's the seventh time today!" as if it was the coolest thing they could finish each other's sentences.

A bead of sweat made its way down her temple and she rubbed at her reddening cheeks. No, she couldn't trust these two, could she? Both of them finishing each other's sentences, both getting all into that little two-man team of stupidity… These two couldn't possibly have had friends. They were too bizarre, too closed-off to let anyone in their two-man clique.

They were freaks.

"I'll get the Wonder Twins showing me to my first class?" she asked, hoping the disgust wouldn't leak into her voice.

"The…Wonder Twins?" Both brothers looked at each other, their faces brightening. Even the more stoic-inclined Ukon seemed to brighten more considerably. They both high-fived each other and dashed off. "Yes! We're twice as cool as the fucking WATERMELON!!"

Matsuri watched them go, feeling the bottom drop out from under her. She could practically hear the static from a television echo around her as her mind went completely blank from shock. Her nervous smile descended into a deep-set frown. So…they'd just been looking for her to acknowledge them as the Wonder Twins? Ridiculous! They were just blundering idiots, and rude ones at that!!

"The Watermelon? What the heck is the Watermelon?"

No sooner had the words left her mouth than a boy with a bright orange hoodie called out against the wall, from where he was talking with a girl with short-cropped, black hair. "The Watermelon? That's Sakura and Zaku!" Shikamaru and his bigger friend were with them, but TenTen was nowhere to be seen. The boy nodded his head as Matsuri turned to stare at him.

"Who are they?"

"It's their hair that earns them that collective title. Green and pink." He glared to himself, as if he desperately wanted to dye his hair green to get in on some of that action. It was obvious by the look of jealousy in his eyes that he was smitten.

Matsuri's eyes widened in recognition as she made her way over to the pair, hopeful once more for the prospect of friends. These two seemed alright, and the girl looked innocent enough. "Pink and green?" she asked. "There was a girl with pink hair and a boy with green hair on my bus, but she wound up getting a ride to school with Sa…uh…some kid and his older brother." The last thing she wanted for anyone to find out she already knew who Sasuke was. That would give her more attention than she wanted drawn to her.

The blond clenched his fists, shouting out loud and not caring who heard. "That's why she wasn't here this morning!? Damn it, Sasuke! I won't lose, you hear me!?" He looked around, as if expecting to see Sasuke walk out from behind the corner right then and there and leer at him arrogantly. (Knowing Sasuke as long as she had, she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd been hiding somewhere, listening on accident and showing up just to piss him off.)

Shikamaru smirked at his loud friend, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Shouldn't you be at the suspension classroom with Mr. Morino, Naruto?"

"Oh, crap!" The one named Naruto jumped in place, fists unclenching only to clench again. "You're right! Shit! I'll see you guys later, then! Bye, Chouji! Bye, Shikamaru! Bye, Hinata!" As he dashed off, her heart skipped a beat when he looked back at her and waved with a happy grin on his face. "Bye, friend of Shikamaru's whom I'll hopefully meet at the bus stop after school!"

Her face brightened. These people seemed willing to make friends with her. That was a start, wasn't it?

Shikamaru chuckled at the silence that settled between all of them after the source of the noise left. The bigger guy – Chouji – fiddled with the Game Boy in his hands, poking his tongue out in frustration, and the girl – Hinata – stared at the ground, occasionally looking up at Matsuri with curious eyes.

"That Naruto," Shikamaru began.

Matsuri stupidly interrupted him, hoping that since they'd called out to her like that before and that, since she'd been introduced to Shikamaru, she'd be able to get some help. "Um…would any of you be willing to help me find my way to my class?"

Shikamaru rubbed the back of his head, glancing back at the clock. "Ah…I have to get to class, actually." He started walking off, as if shirking the responsibility of escorting her. Chouji followed close behind…but Hinata stayed against the wall.

Hinata stared at the ground for the longest time before she looked back at them wistfully. Shikamaru glanced back at her and gave her a soft, encouraging smile, shooing her a bit with his hand. With that done, he continued walking in listless strides to the corner of the hallway. Chouji shouted out something about his melee fighter being damn slow and the skinnier of the pair proceeded to then offer advice.

An eternity passed before Hinata took a few timid steps away from the wall.

"U-U-Um…w…what's your first class?"

"I'm not sure. I still don't know where the office is."

The girl nodded, walking off. Matsuri followed, clearing her throat and trying her hardest to be polite. "Um…where are we going?"

Hinata's face turned an even darker shade of red, realizing she'd forgotten to speak up again. "…The office. Sorry…"

Matsuri nodded. They reached the office rather slowly, and she snagged her schedule. After a brief moment of looking it over, Hinata asked the same question. This time, she could answer.

"Pre-Algebra with Miss Kurenai."

"Oh. A-Alright."

Hinata nodded and started walking off again. Matsuri started to follow her, not really knowing what else to do. Should she strike up a conversation? Ask her if she liked card games like her friends? What should could she ask about and what would Hinata be willing to answer? As the pair continued until they reached a stairwell at the corner of the school and went the up stairwell to the third floor, the brunette couldn't shake the feeling that this girl was taking her in the wrong direction.

Hinata finally stopped and pointed at a classroom Matsuri had been too busy worrying about getting lost to notice they'd reached. "Th-This is Miss Kurenai's class…" The timid girl turned her eyes to the floor and shuffled through the door, and Matsuri followed her in.

Hinata had the same class as her…?

Why hadn't she said so earlier?

––––––––––––––––––

Her second period class was Biology, and she was already regretting taking the course. While biology was great and all, chemistry had been her forte. Why had she decided to take Biology instead? She had to be stubborn and take a class she hadn't taken before, hadn't she?

A few seconds passed before someone slumped down into the seat beside her in a huff. She turned to see who it was and paled. Of all of her luck, she had to get stuck sitting next to Sasuke on her first day! She looked away immediately, hoping he wouldn't notice her. It had been a while, and she must've changed by then. Her hair was a bit longer, and she'd taken to pulling it up out of her face now, so he couldn't possibly recognize her anymore. A few seconds later, she glanced back only to find him staring right at her. When he caught sight of her eyes, recognition spread through his entire face.

"Matsuri?"

Matsuri nodded, shifting in her seat a little. She'd never been too fond of Sasuke, but his older brother had been nice. He hadn't been that bad, really, but then his brother had to get all of the attention and Sasuke grew into a stoic introvert.

The Uchiha cleared his throat and stood, immediately retreating to the table behind her. Her face paled even further and she looked back at him. He stared at her as if she had two heads, and she looked back at the table.

He'd never been too fond of her either, now that she remembered private school clearly.

"Um…it's…it's n-nice to see you taking a positive step forward after your parents…and all…of that…" he muttered hoarsely.

Her eyes widened and she whirled back around. The effort on his part looked almost unbearable, and she gave him a small, grateful smile– "Thank you, Sasuke. Give your parents my regards. Oh, and tell Itachi I said hello."

His face froze before it fell, and he began tapping on the table angrily. "Yeah. You should come over for dinner sometime. We'd all love to have you," he glowered. "Maybe you can take my place at the table while you're at it all," he said snidely, at his own expense.

Sighing, she gave him a pitying look. She would've thought the pink-haired girl at the bus stop pointed to him taking a positive step forward, but it was obvious he was as sour as ever. "You don't give yourself nearly enough credit, Sasuke," she informed him. "I'm sure you could be really sweet if you were to get over yourself. You'll never keep that girl of yours if you keep that sour attitude."

He tensed up, his knuckles turning white as he tried uselessly to grip the table. "Don't give me that crap. Like you could possibly know what I go through at home!"

"You used to be nice, but because of this whole obsession with beating Itachi you turned into an asshole," she said bluntly, shrugging impassively.

"I used to think you were nice, too, but then you started hanging around the nutjob."

Her jaw clenched. "Do you mean Gaara? Because he's not a nutjob."

"I do mean Gaara," he smiled smugly, hoping to ruffle her feathers a bit. "He gave me a black-eye the other day, you know."

She pursed her lips together, narrowing her eyes. Good. That way you'll match when I give you one today, she thought darkly. She'd never say it out loud, but she actually found the thought of Gaara finally turning around and wailing on him slightly humorous. Of course, it wasn't like him at all and she was worried about that, but Sasuke needed some sense smacked into him.

He gritted his teeth when she didn't answer him, positively livid. So he struck up a conversation and she had the nerve to call him an asshole, but then nothing after that? Didn't she have anything to say to him?

A blonde slid into the seat next to him, immediately slipping her bone-thin arms around one of his and pressing her face against his shoulder. "Sasuke, dear, is this rugrat bothering you?"

He sneered and wormed his way away from her, shuddering at the sight of the scratch along her chin. "Uh…Ino…didn't I tell you to not touch me?"

"I'll lose you to Sakura if I don't."

He stared at her for the longest time before he finally sighed, rubbing the back of his head. He scowled and turned back to the front of the classroom. You kind of already have, he thought to himself, not wanting to risk saying it under his breath for her to accidentally overhear. The last thing he wanted was conflict after that fight with Gaara the other day. His father would be pissed if he got into another fight, especially with a girl. Matsuri, on the other hand, was a family friend and wouldn't dream of telling her grandmother she got into a fight with one of the Uchiha siblings, so he had no problem riling her up at all.

Ino did what she did best and wormed her way back toward him, and Matsuri spun back around and stared at the blacktop of the table she was sitting at. This was one thing she wanted to stay out of.

When she heard the familiar voice of the pink punkette, she knew Sasuke was in trouble. Turning around, she could see Sakura standing and glaring at Ino, telling her to move to a different table. Sasuke sat in the middle of the two girls, looking absolutely miserable as Ino demanded him to tell her who he really cared about. Sakura was giving him the same look, only more for Ino's benefit rather than for herself or Sasuke's.

Her face fell, and she rolled her eyes. She didn't know why she was doing this, but there was just something so pitiful about Sasuke. Sakura seemed nice enough, and caring enough to tell him to his face how stupid he was being. With a new-found mission, she took it upon herself to make sure Sasuke got the sense smacked into him from the only person he'd let get close: She had to keep Ino out of the picture no matter what the cost, so Sasuke and Sakura's relationship could continue on until he started acting nice again.

"Oh my goodness, I love your hair!" Matsuri cried out all of a sudden, stunning all three of them. "How'd you get it so blonde?? You look like a supermodel!" She directed her comment toward the blonde, hoping to butter her up and get her away from the table.

Ino turned and looked at her as if she were crazy before she glanced sidelong at Sasuke and back at the brunette. She let a small smile grace her lips, and she cleared her throat – when it came to compliments about her looks, she couldn't possibly stay angry at someone interrupting her conversation. "Actually, this is all natural," she said. "You have a pretty complexion, too, but you have a few zits on your forehead. I could help you with those! What's your name?"

"Matsuri," the brunette replied shyly. She looked over at Sasuke, shooting him a "you better thank me for this" look. "Could I ask you to change spots? I want tips."

His eyes widened before he grabbed his things and stood immediately. "I…I wouldn't want to intrude," he said a bit brighter than most people at that school heard from him, and she knew he really meant, "thank you." They switched spots and Sakura spent the rest of the class period telling Sasuke how awesome he was. Matsuri, on the other hand, was almost sure Ino's rant about skin care turned into a rant about Sakura's forehead halfway through, but that could've just been her imagination.

Rolling her eyes and trying to concentrate on the teacher after class started as it wore on were two things that came increasingly easier as the blonde jabbered on and on and on…

–––––––––––––––––

The day went on as usual, and then lunch rolled around. As she walked into the lunch room, she could see Temari sitting by herself near the entrance of the lunch room. A few tables down sat Sakura and Zaku and Kin, the kids at her bus stop, all tense and glancing over at Temari every once in a while. Temari kept looking back over near her, and she almost thought she was looking at her. The blonde stood up and walked over to her, her high heels clicking against the tiled floors.

She could see the recognition in the older girl's eyes before she even got there, and when Temari finally stopped in front of her, they were both ready. They both grabbed each other's hands and shared excited smiles, all the while fighting the urge to bounce up and down ad start squealing.

"Oh! I haven't seen you in so long! It's so good to see you again!" Temari exclaimed.

Matsuri quelled the squeal building in the back of her throat and looked the blonde over. "Same here! You've changed so much! And look at what you did to your hair! You look so much older, I'm surprised! I thought you were older before, but you seem more womanly!!"

Temari leaned in and cupped her hand over the brunette's ear. "To be honest, me and Itachi have taken it to the next level. Shhhh! Don't tell anyone!!"

Matsuri's jaw dropped. "You two were together!? For how long!?"

Temari snickered at her naiveté and ruffled her hair, dragging her out of the cafeteria. "When I used to look over you when your parents…er…" She cleared her throat before forcing a laugh. "He was always coming over, remember?? Didn't you ever find it strange? I mean, we've been together since middle school! Eighth grade! You know, back when Sasuke was just a little less closed off?"

Matsuri went red. "He's in my biology class. He's as stubborn as ever. Apparently he's dating a girl named Sakura now…" Her face darkened even further. "Um…how…how is Gaara? Is he doing fine? I've…heard some things…"

Temari forced a smile onto her face. "I have a lunch for him. Take it to him, would you? I'm afraid he isn't talking to me or Kankurou lately. We made him angry, it seems."

The brunette stared at her for a long time before her eyebrows knitted together. "Is everything really alright, Temari? I can't put my finger on it, but you look sadder than you used to…"

"Everything's fine," Temari replied snippily, turning to leave. "Just worry about Gaara, okay? That's who we're all worried about now." For a moment, she turned to look at Matsuri again, her façade cracking for a moment. "If I stopped worrying about Gaara, I wouldn't know what I'd do with myself."

Matsuri's eyes softened and she walked over to her, clearing her throat and taking everything in stride. "Alright, Temari. Where's his lunch?"

––––––––––––––

Gaara stared down at the table as the three delinquents beside him continued smarting off to each other. After a brief moment of silence, Kidoumaru clamped a hand on his shoulder and snickered.

"Hey, Gaara. I wasn't aware your sister was a freshman like you now!"

His eyes widened, and he turned to stare at him. The boy, in turn, took a fork and stuck it in his mashed potatoes, stuffing it in his mouth with relish. "Yeah, I saw her in the back where the buses are this morning! I couldn't believe it," he laughed out loud. "She shrank and had brown hair and everything! Your sister's pretty magical, eh, Gaara??" To further get on his bad side, he decided to ruffle his hair, earning a silent snarl from the younger boy.

Tayuya stifled a snicker and leaned over the table. "Come on, Kidoumaru, stop messing with his little fishie head! You did not fucking see Temari at the bus stop! The bitch fuckin' drives to school, remember??" Jiroubou shot her a gentleman's glare, and Tayuya flipped him the bird before he could scold her for her language.

"Oh?" Kidoumaru grinned, winking at her. "But I'm not lying! See– she's walking right over here!"

The four turned to see a brunette walking up with a sack lunch, her face bright red, walking as slow as she possibly could. She glanced at Gaara and turned her eyes away, taking a step towards the table and shoving the lunch in front of him. "Um," she mumbled. "Y-Your sister wanted me to give this to you…"

Tayuya's face brightened, and she grabbed the girl by the wrist. "Oh! Such a cute little girl! She your girlfriend, Gaara??" She leaned toward the brunette and took a whiff of her hair. "Smells nice, too! Is that lavender I smell?? I use the same fuckin' shampoo! Awesome! It's so nice to be young! You two already have sex yet? I was fourteen when I fucked Kidoumaru!!"

The brunette's face turned almost purple, and she stumbled backward. "N-No, it's not like that! We-We're just friends!" She cast a pained look toward Gaara to see him giving her a scathing glare.

Gaara stood, snarling. "Go away, Matsuri," he told her, grabbing the lunch and pulling it toward him. "There's no sense in you being here, so just go away."

Her face paled, and she spun out of Tayuya's grip and dashed out of the cafeteria. Tayuya leaned across the table and ruffled Gaara's hair, pursing her lips together. "Oh, you didn't have to be so mean to the poor girl, you little jackass. She was just giving you lunch…"

He smacked her hand away and buried himself in his lunch, positively livid.

The three went quiet, all turning and rolling their eyes at each other. Kidoumaru whistled and took a bite of his mashed potatoes again. "Wow. Freshmen sure are jerks these days, aren't they? When I was your age I was the nicest person in the world." He flashed a smile, earning an eye roll from his friends, and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm still a nice guy." He looked off in the direction Matsuri had run off in, grinning lewdly to himself. "At least I know how to treat girls."

"Shut up," Gaara hissed in a voice that was not his own, unwrapping the bologna sandwich and taking a savage bite out of it. "The only girls you know how to treat are the ones who put out. You better stay away from her if you know what's good for you."

Kidoumaru's jaw dropped, and Tayuya burst out laughing. "Ah ha ha!! He got you there, Kidoumaru!! You're an ass!! Tell me, how many girls have you gone through this week??"

"Not as many men as you have, I can tell you that much," he replied bitterly, glaring down at his mashed potatoes. He gave a glance over in Gaara's direction before pushing the freshman's head into the sacked lunch. "Respect your elders, kid. Else you'll turn out like me, heh heh."

Jiroubou changed the subject with an easy-going smile. "Hey, Tayuya, I heard Zaku and Sakura broke up. She's going out with Sasuke now."

Tayuya burst out laughing, slamming her fist into the table. "You dumbass! The Watermelon was never dating in the first place! Zaku's fuckin' got a hard-on for Kin and Sakura's been wet for Pretty-boy Sasuke since fuckin' middle school!!"

Jiroubou's face turned scarlet red with embarrassment as Kidoumaru started laughing, too, until the aide that had escorted Naruto to the bathroom came back and told them to shut up. Gaara's head just continued to pound as he took another bite from his sandwich and rubbed at his arm, the word "LOVE" covered by the long-sleeves he'd decided to wear today. It was starting to heal and, despite it being puffy, red, and sore, he felt compelled to rub at it.

"Hey, Gaara! What's with you?? You look upset!" Naruto shouted as he sat back in his seat and took a bite of the Chinese noodles from the cafeteria, the spaghetti noodles leftover from Italian day and drenched in soy sauce.

Gaara just stared at the bag, grabbing it close to him and staring at the spot Matsuri's hands had last touched it, head pounding with pain, seething to himself the entire time.

He'd gone and yelled at her. She'd been the only who'd ever reached out to him, and he'd yelled at her.

–––––––––––––

Matsuri stumbled out of the bathroom and rubbed her eyes. They weren't puffy and red, but she still didn't want anyone to see her right now. Gaara had changed a lot in two years. He didn't even seem like himself. Worst of all, it didn't seem like he had any interest in being her friend anymore. She cleared her throat and took a deep breath to calm herself down to face Temari. No doubt she'd ask questions and–

"Matsuri? When did you start going here?"

She turned to see Itachi standing there, his hand on the door to the boy's bathroom, surprised to see her. He hadn't changed much since the last time she saw him – he'd started maturing his second year in middle school –, but he seemed…different.

"Itachi?"

"Yes," he said simply, staring at her all the while.

Matsuri forced a bright smile onto her face. "I started today. It's pretty fun so far. I'm having a lot of fun back in school again!" She chuckled and glanced back toward the cafeteria, and Itachi cleared his throat.

"Well, it's nice to see someone's staying positive. Hang in there, okay?"

She nodded, and he reached for the handle to the bathroom again. "Hey, if you get Sasuke in any of your classes, keep an eye on him, will you? I want to know if he starts improving."

"I've got biology with him. He looks really happy around a girl named Sakura!" she exclaimed as he nodded curtly and opened the door. She cleared her throat. "Oh, and Itachi?" When he turned to look at her, she gave him a worried smile. "Temari doesn't look so hot lately. Make sure to cheer her up, okay? I'll keep an eye on Sasuke if you keep an eye on Temari, okay?"

His face turned a bright shade of red as the brunette dashed off, and he ducked into the bathroom.

"Crap. How the hell did she find out about that? Temari promised she wouldn't tell anyone!"

–––––––––––––––––

Temari leaned back in her chair, cracking her neck. "Shino, you don't have to sit with me. You can go sit with Sakura and Zaku if you want. I've got a friend on the way I'm hoping to eat lunch with today, so you can go do whatever it is you do…"

He gave her a long look before picking up his tray and stalking over to sit with Hinata Hyuuga. Temari snorted and rolled her eyes. "God, if only I could sit with my boyfriend. Instead I get stuck sitting with– Matsuri!" Her face brightened as Matsuri ran up, and she stood up. "Come on! Let's buy lunch, okay??"

Matsuri slipped into the seat and cleared her throat, pulling out a bagged lunch. "I don't really feel like eating right now. You want my lunch?"

Temari grabbed the bag and inspected it. "Oh, wow. Your grandmother makes really good lunches! Not even I've got the patience to make lunches like this. The old bat's got a lot of free time, doesn't she?" She chuckled, and Matsuri's face turned red.

"Oh, I made that. My grandmother's terrible at making lunches, so I made my own. Those are leftovers from dinner last night."

Temari pulled out a tupperware dish of salad and opened it. "Wow. Smells fancy. You know, the acid in most vinaigrettes breaks down the lettuce, right?"

Matsuri's face reddened further. "That's…not a vinaigrette. It's a salad dressing I made."

Temari's jaw dropped and her eyes widened. "No kidding! You made dinner the other night!?"

"No…just the salad and the dressing. Me and my grandmother take turns making the side dishes. It was my turn that day." Her face brightened. "Back when I was home-schooled, we spent most of the day cooking, so I learned a lot from her! It was a lot of fun… It's still fun cooking with her."

"So…" Temari started, slyly feigning innocence. "I wonder if your grandmother would mind you coming over for dinner at our house some time… I'm sure we could cook something better than bacon and eggs for a guest…"

Matsuri giggled, seeing right through her ploy. "Do you three still have to fend for yourselves?"

"Yeah," Temari sighed. "Kankurou and I have yet to make anything halfway edible. And Gaara never helps with dinner, just holes himself up in his room like Dad, so we get stuck injuring ourselves and tripping over each other in the kitchen. Did you know Kankurou can't set the table without tripping and ruining it at least once?"

"Oh? Well…maybe I should come over and help cook dinner for you guys some time…" She'd let Temari have her fun, and play right into it for a while. After all, it's the least she could do for them after all they'd done for her over the years.

"Seriously!? That'd be awesome! We've been living on instant meals and sandwiches for the past five years!! The last time we had a decent meal was when we ordered take-out!!"

Matsuri gave her a pitied look. "Take-out isn't a decent meal, Temari."

Temari took a bite from the salad and looked ready to melt at the taste.

"In our house, Matsuri, anything not cooked in a microwave or frying pan is a decent meal."

The two continued eating in silence, only breaking it to talk about her grandmother and the arts and crafts Temari had been getting involved in. Neither of them were satisfied by the conversation – they both wanted to be talking about someone else.

––––––––––––––––

Every time her and her grandmother made dinner, her grandmother had always been the one to do any sort of cutting. Ever since that incident with her parents, she couldn't even look at knives without having horrible flashbacks and finding her legs give out as crippling terror seized her. Over time, she'd managed to get over it. She could look at them now without feeling too nervous, but the second someone picked them up, she felt anxious all over again and had to leave the room.

And so, it only made her realize how stupid she was when she'd decided to pick Cooking as an elective just now.

All of the students put on their aprons and went to their tables, and she stood there in the doorway, frozen solid. A few of the students began to get bowls out and in the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow begin to overtake the door. Her heart stopped when a laugh sounded behind her, and a hand fell to her shoulder.

"You must be the new student! Matsuri!"

She stumbled forward and nearly screamed, causing everyone in the room to turn their heads and look at her. When she spun around, she saw an old woman who looked twice as old as even her grandmother smile at her widely, chuckling behind her hand at her reaction.

"Oh! I'm sorry to frighten you! Heh heh, I'm the teacher for Cooking! You may call me Chiyo like everyone else here!"

She put a hand to her chest and took a few deep breaths before laughing lightly. "It's nice to meet you! I'm M-Matsuri. I'm really glad I'm taking this class. Cooking is my favorite thing to do!"

The teacher smiled warmly at her, and she couldn't help but feel an immense wave of calm overtake her. The lady smiled just like her grandmother. "I'm glad to hear that," Chiyo said. "I think you'll fit right in here. If there's anything you need, feel free to ask me. I'm always eager to help."

Her face flushed, and she couldn't help but feel joy well up in her chest. Not only did this old lady have a warm smile, but she was also extremely nice and caring. Maybe she could conquer her fears in this class after all! She seemed to be on cloud nine right now, and it didn't feel as if there was anything that would–

The woman grabbed at her chest and gasped, falling into the doorpost.

Matsuri screamed and went to her immediately. "Ch-Chiyo!! M-Miss Chiyo! Oh my God! Wh-Wh-What–"

"Gotcha!" the teacher said, opening her eyes and winking at her.

Matsuri's face paled, and her knees buckled underneath her. She went tumbling to the floor as the room burst into hysterics. It wasn't funny when it happened to them on the first day, but it was hilarious happening to someone else who didn't expect it. And this girl had actually fainted.

Next to a rather portly redhead laughing quietly to himself, a girl with cropped black hair recovered from yet another scare from their teacher. She was the only other one who had fainted when Chiyo had pulled her stunt at the beginning of the year, and yet again it felt as if she would faint. She grabbed her friend's sleeve to keep herself grounded, and he chuckled and patted her arm.

"Chill out, Hinata. She was just pranking the new girl. Everything's fine," he assured her.

She wiped at her face and nodded her head, relaxed again. "Th-Thank you, Chouji."

He grinned. "Anytime. Say! Maybe she can partner up with us! I'm sure Shikamaru will enjoy having someone else do his job!"

As if on cue, the dark-haired boy showed up behind his teacher and the new student in the doorway, staring at the room apathetically. "What's everyone laughing at? Did I miss something again?" His head fell to the girl on the floor, and his eyes widened a smidge. "Oh! It's Matsuri."

Chiyo bent down and nudged her, and she looked up groggily. "I, hee hee, didn't think you'd faint like that, Matsuri! Pfffft….the only other person who's ever…ha ha…f-fainted was Hinata!"

The brunette perked up, recognizing the name instantly. "…Hinata?"

"Matsuri? You're in this class?"

She turned and looked up, her jaw dropping. "…Shikamaru?"

He bit back a smile and grabbed her hand, helping her up. "Yeah. Me and Chouji and Hinata have this class." He eyed the other two, his smile quickly taking up his face. "Hey, maybe you could partner up with us…"

She smiled back as class got started, and they walked back to the table after shuffling some aprons on. "Okay… That sounds great!" she exclaimed, glad she was making friends she had a chance to talk to in so many places.

They took their spot and Chouji leaned over Hinata, whispering hoarsely and reaching for her hand. "I'm Chouji. I think I was busy when we first met. Hey."

She shook his hand and scratched her head a little. That was…absurdly polite. She'd never shaken someone's hand before…not since meeting her parent's friends and their friends' kids. Instead of wondering how his parents raised him, she turned to see Hinata glancing at her. She turned to face her, but Hinata looked away immediately, her face turning bright red.

"…Hi. Thanks for showing me to my class and all. We should sit together in Pre-Algebra."

Hinata looked down at the table and nodded. "…I'd like that…" Neither of her friends expected her to smile or say another word the rest of class, but she clutched the edge of the table and looked over at the brunette, nodding her head. "I…I-I'm Hinata…"

Matsuri grinned. "I'm Matsuri." Oh yay! She'd looked over at her and spoken! Her first girlfriend aside from Temari at this school! And she was her age and everything! Sure, her girlfriend was shier than anyone she'd ever met in her life, but she was sure she could pull her out of her shell. "…Are you guys in here for a blow-off class?" she whispered.

The three looked at each other before Chouji fought back a laugh and Shikamaru glared at him.

A giggle from Hinata froze them all, and she covered her mouth and tried to keep from laughing. After a moment, she wiped at her eye and took a deep breath. "O-Only Shikamaru is…using this class for that. I…I l-like cooking," she trailed off, turning back to the table.

Matsuri's face brightened even further, and she nudged Hinata's elbow a bit. "So do I. I love cooking. If nothing else works out for me, I'd like to make a living out of it."

Hinata's face turned bright red, and her mouth opened, gasping. "M-Me, too!"

Shikamaru cleared his throat and stepped away toward Chouji, leaving the two girls to themselves. Chouji smiled, staring at Hinata. "Wow. They already have something in common. Doesn't it seem like she's been getting a lot of luck with friends in the past few days? There was Shino…and now Matsuri…" He glanced over at Shikamaru, his cheeks turning pink. "Is it weird that I feel like this is what my parents must've felt on my first day of school?"

Shikamaru's eyes widened and he put a hand over his mouth, shaking with laughter.

"Pfffffffft–"

The teacher turned, along with everyone in the room, and he cleared his throat and composed himself. When class resumed, he glanced back at Chouji and nodded, whispering hoarsely. "…I want to say yes…but I know exactly how you feel," he said, glancing at Hinata and resisting the urge to laugh. Their shy little bird was finally spreading her wings and leaving the nest. What a ridiculous concept and yet…it was spot-on for the sensation he got watching her interacting so easily with Matsuri.

That's when the four looked around at the sight of everyone in the classroom getting ingredients ready and starting to prepare vegetables. Shikamaru turned to Chouji, and Matsuri turned to Hinata, both asking the same thing–

"Uh…were you listening to what we're supposed to be doing right now?"

They all shook their heads, and Shikamaru leaned over the table to one of the girls at the table across from them. "Hey, Mitsuko? What dish are we making today?"

She leered at him and picked up a pickle she'd brought from home, along with a knife. "We're making deviled eggs. What are you making today? Didn't you remember today we get to make whatever dish we want to?"

He glanced over at Chouji, but Chouji just rolled his eyes and pulled out a bar of chocolate. "I made sure Hinata brought the Graham crackers because I knew you'd forget," he mumbled. "We're making s'mores. It was your idea in the first place, remember?"

Shikamaru chuckled. "Oh yeah. I wonder if this even counts as a dish… You think if we stole one of the Bunsen burners from one of the science labs and used it, it'd still count as a stove-top?"

Hinata flushed red and pulled out a pan. "…Ch-Chouji…if we melt down that chocolate and crumbled the Graham crackers, we could easily dip the marshmallows in them… Or…Or we could even borrow some dough and make snack cakes…"

Chouji's stomach rumbled, and he looked over at her. "I like that idea better…"

"Tch, S'mores are easier," Shikamaru replied.

Hinata nodded her head. "I-If you want, we could still make s'mores," she mumbled, her face turning bright red. "It was only a suggestion…" She turned her eyes to the table. "And I doubt anyone would let us borrow any dough…"

Chouji frowned. "We can always just ask Chiyo for some dough, Hinata! I like the snack cakes better. It sounds challenging. What do you think, Matsuri?"

The three turned to see their deciding vote staring at the table, fighting to calm down and keep from walking shakily out of the classroom. Hinata put a hand to her mouth and looked over at her, stepping toward her a bit. "…M…M-Matsuri?" She leaned over to look at the brunette's face, and her face stiffened. She looked back at the boys, poking her fingers together nervously.

"…Sh-She looks…up-upset… Like she's about to cry…or s-something…"

"…I'm…I'm fine," Matsuri answered stiffly, taking a few deep breaths and looking back at them with a forced smile on her face. "…I'm fine, so let's just move on. W-What are we making today?"

The three gave her a strange look before Shikamaru moved on quickly. "S'mores," he replied simply, as if the incident had never occurred and all the while maintaining only minimal interest in what could have possibly been wrong with her. His best friend shot him a dirty look and opened his mouth to reply, but Matsuri beat him to it.

"…You can do that?" she asked, staring at him and quirking a brow. "I mean…isn't that…like…really half-assed?"

"So you agree!" His face brightened. "I mean, you looked a bit iffy earlier, so maybe we should go slow on your first day! You don't want to do too much and get nervous about the class, you know?"

Chouji gave him a strained look. "Shikamaru," he said breathlessly. "You can't honestly think this class is going to tire her out… This isn't a sport or anything. She'll be fine doing snack cakes. If worse comes to shove, we can just make her do something easy like cut them into circles or spread the filling between the two cakes."

"Well, whatever we're planning on doing, we have to do it quick. We are only in a fifty-minute class. There's only so much we can do in that time…" Shikamaru reminded him.

"Yeah, but this is the last period of the day. As long as we clean up afterwards, the teacher doesn't mind us taking a bit longer after class, Shikamaru," the larger one there said with a look of aggravation on his face. "I'd like to try Hinata's idea instead of being a lazyass today for once."

Hinata smiled. "…Um…I-I'll make the chocolate…" she said out loud, to get the ball rolling. Her friends both rode the bus, and she wasn't too keen on finishing everything for them like she normally did.

Matsuri smiled. "And I'll help knead and bake the dough! Shikamaru, you can set the oven temperature and let it warm while Chouji goes and gets the dough we need. I'll get everything else out!"

Shikamaru started working the knobs and getting out a few more bowls, all the while looking more exhausted than he could have actually been. "Fine, but you people are crazy. There's no way we can do this in fifty minutes. We've never even tried something like this before! How are we going to make a cream filling with a bag of marshmallows?"

Matsuri smiled as she pulled out a whisk and a mixing bowl, and Hinata giggled to herself as she pulled out the marshmallows. The girls handed him the supplies, and Matsuri winked at him. "That's the question of the day, isn't it? Why don't you figure it out, Shikamaru?"

His jaw dropped as Chouji came back with the dough, and he set to placing the marshmallows into the bowl and staring at them like they'd get up and dance. As Chouji took his place beside him, he spoke through his teeth. "…Sheesh. Even Hinata's laughing it up and helping her give me work to do. How am I supposed to mix these into something creamy?? They're dry on the outside!"

Chouji pulled out a rolling pin and some sugar, just rolling his eyes at his best friend.

"Don't pretend you don't like figuring things out, Shikamaru."

––––––––––––––––

The bell rang, and Shikamaru looked up from where he was stirring the thick goopy mixture of marshmallows while waiting for the dough to finish baking, and turned to Chouji. "Shit. We're going to be late for the bus, Chouji…" he said, glancing around at the other students hanging up their aprons and walking out the door. A few were putting their supplies away as they ate their concoctions…but they weren't even close to finished! He wasn't sure if the marshmallows were done, having just now figured out how to make them into something remotely fluid.

"Ah, you're right!" Chouji turned to the girls, fidgeting. "You don't mind finishing it on your own, do you??" he asked, knowing Hinata would say yes regardless and he'd still feel guilty anyway.

Hinata nodded, looking a lot less depressed than she usually did when they asked her to finish a dish for them, but Matsuri put a hand over her mouth. "Ah! That's not good! I ride your bus, too!" She turned to the dish, stressing over what to do about the situation, and Hinata looked down at the table and continued to stir the chocolate.

"I…It's f-fine, Matsuri… I can h-handle this."

Matsuri gave her a steamed look. "That's no good! What about you?? Won't you be late for the bus!? You can't just say things like this to help the people around you! You have to think of yourself, too!"

"…Oh…I…I walk to school, it's okay. I don't live that far away. I'll be fine…" She looked over and smiled, her cheeks warming. "It…It was fun meeting you. I…'ll see you in Pre-Algebra tomorrow…" Immediately, she turned back to the chocolate, and the boys began packing their things.

Matsuri turned to them for a moment before grinning and taking over the marshmallow for Shikamaru. "I haven't been in the previous semester for Pre-Algebra," she said, looking over at Hinata. "…so I'm going to need someone to help me with my homework. And I'm almost sure we're going to get a pop quiz tomorrow, and I need someone to help me study…"

Hinata looked over at her, her face pale. "E-E-Eh? You…D-Do you want to come over and study at my house?" her voice came out louder than she expected, and her cheeks flushed. "…You really want to??"

"Of course! Besides, that way you have someone to help you finish this. I can call my grandmother and let her know. I'm sure she won't mind!"

The boys looked back at them before sharing high-fives with each other – with Matsuri in the picture, it would be a little bit easier to deal with Hinata's crippling shyness. "Well," Chouji started, and Shikamaru finished. "If you girls have everything under control, we'll be leaving now." They both waved and walked out the door, hanging their aprons off to the side.

"Bye! I'll see you two on the bus tomorrow!" Matsuri called out to them. After a moment, she turned back to her task and looked at Hinata.

"You know…you could've just spoken up if you wanted someone to stay behind with you…"

Hinata shook her head. "N-No. It's fine. They have to ride the bus, and if they miss it, it puts pressure on their parents, and I'd hate to be the cause of that." The buzzer rang, and she bent down to get the dough out of the oven. They'd had to start the baking after Shikamaru figured out the marshmallows, that way it wouldn't cool by the time the filling was ready.

Putting it on the counter and turning the oven off, she went back to the chocolate.

"If something's bothering you, don't hesitate to tell me, okay?" Matsuri said, dipping her finger in the mallow soup and tasting it. She perked up, going positively pink. "Ooh! Whatever Shikamaru did to this deserves an A+! This is delicious!!"

Hinata looked at her, her face going red, as she turned back to the chocolate. She smiled. "Thank you, Matsuri… Not even Shikamaru's asked for that…and he's usually the one I tell things to…"

"Well, duh! He's a boy! Some boys ask things like that, but others don't feel like they need to." She looked back at her new friend and smiled sadly. "Plus, it's easy to read you because my first and most dearest friend was the same way. It took forever for me to get him to open up to me." She laughed, rubbing the back of her head. "That's why I was surprised when you perked up so quickly!"

Hinata gave her an even bigger smile. "It's hard not to around people like you and Shikamaru and Chouji," she laughed. Matsuri returned the smile.

"Now then! Let's get these snack cakes finished so we can hurry back to your place!"

"Right!" Hinata grinned and looked down, dipping her finger in the chocolate and tasting it before nodding her head. She took it off the burner and went to go grab a knife from the drawer to cut the dough into pieces. Inches from the drawer, she turned back around.

"M-Matsuri?"

Matsuri looked at her. "Yes, Hinata?"

"I…If…If there's…a-anything b-bothering you…you can always tell me," she stuttered, her face heating up. There! It was out there in the open! It went both ways, their trust. Hopefully. Hopefully Matsuri would become a dear friend.

Matsuri smiled. "Okay."

Hinata pulled a knife out of the drawer, and Matsuri froze.

As the darker-haired girl cut the dough into circles, she was completely unaware of Matsuri freaking out beside her. After a moment, she turned and paled when she saw Matsuri staring at her wide-eyed, mouth half-open. "…Um…U-Uh…Am…Am I…doing something wr-wrong?"

"…I'm scared of knives," Matsuri gasped, before putting a hand to her head and stumbling toward the door. "I-I'll be fine in a mo-moment! J-Just finish that up and put the knife away!"

Hinata's face fell and the teacher finally spoke up from the front of the room. "Hinata, finish that up and I'll go check on Matsuri, okay?" Hinata nodded and she went walking to the door, out into the hallway where Matsuri was standing by a locker, her eyes closed, looking at the ceiling and taking a few deep breaths.

"Matsuri?"

The brunette spun around and gasped. "M-Miss Chiyo! Oh, I'm sorry… I just…needed to get a breath of air…"

"Is everything all right?"

"Y…Yes. I'll be f-fine… I just…I'm just terrified of knives…"

The old lady smiled that warm, endearing smile of hers and Matsuri found herself relaxing immediately. "Why don't you go back in," Chiyo suggested. "You don't have to stand near Hinata while she's holding the knife, but I think it'd be best if you stood there in the room."

"N-No, I c-can't. I just can't… It's a long, long story, but b-because of…of something that happened a few years ago, I become panic-stricken when I see knives," she mumbled, her eyes lowering to the ground as tears threatened to fall. With this old lady reminding her of her grandmother so much, she was finding it absurdly easy to show her that side of herself she tried not to show to anyone.

The lady patted her on the shoulder and put a hand on her back. "That's alright, Matsuri. You can take this at your own pace, but running isn't going to make it easier for you. You'll never get anywhere if you run from the fear. And I don't want to make this a habit in my class. It'll become troublesome. You managed to shake it off with so many people around you earlier, didn't you? Now what makes this so much harder?"

"…Y-You saw that?"

"Of course! I had to make sure you adjusted well to the class, after all. I've been watching you since class started. You're such a bright person, and I'd hate to see something like this keep you from being your best. " She leaned in close, smiling. "And Hinata doesn't even giggle like that with her two friends, so I think you should really work on this. You and Hinata can work on it together, hmm?"

Matsuri's face warmed. That was absolutely right. She didn't have to do this alone. Hinata was anxious, just like her. Hinata's anxiety was slightly different, but it was still there. She wiped at her eyes and nodded her head. "Yes. We can; you're right. Thank you, Chiyo."

"No problem. I'm a teacher. This is my job. Now get back in there." She laughed, giving Matsuri a nice pat towards the door, and Matsuri walked in, taking a deep breath and watching the girl closely. Her muscles tensed and her forehead began to perspire, but she took a few deep breaths.

Hinata glanced over at her and gave her a small smile, and Matsuri waved back, edging closer.

She could do this.

It was all mind over matter, after all.

––––––––––––––––

With a slap on the back, Kankurou grabbed Gaara's attention away from the pavement. The redhead had been sitting at the side of the building, staring off into space as the last student hopped into his mother's car and hitched a ride home. Temari's counselor meeting was taking longer then they'd thought it would, and they were stuck waiting for her out by the back of the school. Even now, they could see her black Jetta in the parking lot, looking lonely all by itself among a few cars spaced apart at random intervals.

"Gaara! You look down. Didn't you see Matsuri today? Surely that made you happy."

Gaara rubbed his shoulder, but didn't look up. He didn't say a word, and Kankurou took it upon himself to start up the conversation.

"Well," he said proudly, "I got the part of Puck in the school play. Isn't that great?"

"…I feel off today," Gaara murmured. Back at lunch, he'd heard that strange voice inside his head, and again he'd snapped in that voice that wasn't his own, feeling altered from what he was before. It was alarming – what was happening to him? He'd even lashed out at Matsuri. How deep would this go?

"Oh…" Kankurou's smile faded before he slumped down beside his brother and patted him on the shoulder again. "Well, tomorrow things'll get better, okay? Today was just off because Dad blew up at us the other day, but everything's going to be fine when we get home this evening. Tomorrow morning, everything will be good as new."

He cautioned a look at his brother; Gaara didn't look convinced at all.

"You should try taking your medicine and get some sleep tonight," he mumbled. "You'll probably feel better…"

"When I sleep…I dream things… I…wind up hurting you and Temari when you try to wake me up… I get violent, and I get scared…and…" He curled up, linking his hands around his knees and putting his chin in the groove his kneecaps formed. "I can't…"

And that same question was asked to him–

"…What do you dream about anyway, Gaara?"

His lips parted, and he turned to look at Kankurou, to communicate like his brother wanted him to.

"Don't tell him! If you tell him, he'll tell your father and your father will be disappointed in you again. You'll go back to that shrink who makes you feel uncomfortable and they'll pry you wide open and make you take medicine all over again!"

His face froze at the voice speaking against his inner ear. The voice was right.

He shook his head and turned away.

But Kankurou merely sighed and smiled and placed a hand on top of his head, ruffling it endearingly. "Gaara," he said, "The medicine keeps you from having those dreams and getting violent. If you take that medicine and let it lull you to sleep instead of flush it down the toilet and try to stay awake all night, everything will be fine."

"Don't believe him, Gaara. It won't."

"…It will?" he whispered, trying his hardest to ignore the voice, to hold onto some sense of self.

"Of course it will," Kankurou replied, flabbergasted. "That's why they prescribed it in the first place! And it's okay if you don't want to tell me what you dream about! As long as I'm getting through to you, it's fine. So just relax and let the counselor help you. Everything will be fine, okay?"

Gaara forced himself to smile and looked back at his knees, but then the door behind them slammed open.

"That fucking counselor doesn't know shit!! Like he really gives a damn about my home life!! What the fuck does he know, anyway!? I'm perfectly fine thinking the way I do so don't you dare try to change me, you jackass!!"

They both turned to see Temari storming out of the building. Kankurou stood to say hello to her, but she shoved him out of the way and stormed toward the car.

"Get your asses over here! We're going home! I am just so angry right now! Kankurou, drive for me because I don't think I can last on the road without ramming into someone's rear fender!! Ugh!!"

Gaara stumbled up and trailed after his older brother, watching his sister warily. Again, he was seeing a side of humanity he hated seeing – why put faith in people when they were too stubborn to accept help and hated people for trying to help them? Why put faith in anything?

"Sis…what'd the counselor say?"

The air settled around them thickly as Kankurou slowed to a stop. Slowly, slowly, Temari began to turn before she clenched her fists and stomped her stiletto heel against the ground, nearly breaking the heel off against the concrete.

"Like hell Dad would listen to me if I tried talking to him!! Kankurou, you better count yourself lucky you don't have to see these idiots like me and Gaara do! They don't know anything!! Am I right, Gaara!?" She tilted her head to look at him, asking her to back him up. "I'm right, aren't I!?"

Iruka smiled, clearing his throat and placing a hand against his desk as he scribbled something down in the notebook. "So, Gaara… I'm curious as to why you attacked Dosu in the bathroom the other day. Did he say something to set you off?"

Gaara stared at him, shuddering a breath, and immediately looked to his knees. He couldn't tell Iruka he hadn't been thinking anything; he couldn't tell him that his body moved on his own and he felt like a completely different person as he bashed the older boy's head into the floor hard enough to crack his skull open. He'd been trying so hard to forget that had even happened…but what if Iruka cared? What if somewhere deep in that man's heart, he actually cared about the people he counseled? Would he give him a strange look and look uncomfortable after he told him like the shrink did? Would he give him an understanding smile and tell him it was alright? He couldn't bear to think what would happen if the man grew uncomfortable around him like the shrink had.

"He…did…" Gaara forced through clenched teeth. "And…and I can't remember…what happened after that… I just…remember staring…at the blood on the floor."

"…You don't remember attacking him at all?"

"…I do…but…but I don't." It was too big of a risk – he should have just stopped and gone silent, let the man make of it what he would and save the comfortable air between them. But it was too late, now. There was no going back, and when he looked up, Iruka would be staring at him with a slightly frightened expression, unsure of what to say.

He turned to look up at Iruka, but the man wasn't looking uncomfortable at all. Instead, he looked like he understood exactly what he meant. He looked…almost as if he knew what was wrong with him.

Iruka smiled and shook his head. "You and Naruto are a lot alike, Gaara," he said.

He had broken the oath of confidentiality, too?

"I think we're all finished up here, Gaara. Unless there's anything else you'd like to say," he continued.

Iruka smiled at him, scribbling one last thing on his clipboard before looking back at the boy in front of him.

Gaara opened his mouth and licked his chapped lips, unused to this sort of treatment outside of Temari and Kankurou, and even they had their moments when they were less than nice. Tears welled up in his eyes – Iruka understood. He wasn't scared, and he… Things were still comfortable between them.

"I'm scared," he admitted, wiping at his eyes to keep the tears from rolling down his cheeks.

"It's okay to be scared," Iruka replied. "There's nothing wrong with being scared."

Gaara wiped at his eyes uselessly as the tears began to fall too heavily to catch them before they dripped down to his chin, but Iruka didn't yell at him for crying, just like the day before.

Because Iruka cared.

She was in front of him now, and Gaara jolted back from his reverie to see her staring at him, slightly concerned.

"You okay, Gaara? You just…stopped responding and stared off into space… Is everything fine?" She put a hand to his head, but he shied away. "…H-How did you like seeing Matsuri today? She's doing much better, right? It's almost as if her parents were never murdered…"

"No. Don't let her talk about that, Gaara. It will only make you feel worse! Don't listen to anything she says! Ignore her!!"

His face sharpened, and his eyes hardened. He stormed over to the car, and it was his siblings following after him this time, Kankurou slapping Temari's shoulder angrily for bringing that back up. They didn't want him to blame himself for that, but he did anyway. And they knew he did, because the shrink had told them. Even if no one else blamed him, it was still all his fault, because those men had been after him, hadn't they? If Matsuri hadn't known him, if she hadn't lived near him, she wouldn't have gotten caught up in the middle of everything, so it was all his fault.

Everything shut down, and with a final throb of pain, Gaara went numb.