Author's Note: Hello, everyone! Sorry for the wait! I had a lot of trouble getting this story going. I'd like to say a special thank you to Frustratedfruitloop for helping me sort out my plot. I'd also like to thank everyone who reviewed, favorited, or put on alert Desert Flower. Knowing people were actually reading my weirdness really helped me to keep writing. Okay enough sentimental dribble…. I noticed that I did not mention Gai and his team in the previous story. That was a severe oversight on my part and I apologize for it. I had intended to mention that they had gone back to Konoha and left Kakashi and his team to recover a bit before making the trip (because Kakashi was so exhausted from using his sharingan) but somehow that got lost in the editing. I intend to go back and do a bit of revising on Desert Flower once this story is out of my head.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or Gaara or any other characters from Naruto. I do not own Konoha or any other recognizable setting. I make no profit off of them. I did make up Shinta and Sena, but I don't make any money off them either. If anyone wants to borrow them for their own fics, please give me credit for creating them and let me know what story to look for them in. Thanks. On with the fic...
Sandstorms and Falling Leaves
Chapter One: Arrival
Gaara was relieved when her small band of ninjas arrived at the gates of Konoha. The trip had taken nearly double the time it normally would have, because they had to accommodate the camels through the desert. Then they traded the camels out for an ox-drawn cart at the edge of the desert, which was just as slow. They had kept their cloaks on and tried to draw as little attention as possible in the hopes of throwing off any pursuit the announcement of her departure may have generated.
The redhead was pleased that her shadow clone ploy seemed to have worked. She had released the jutsu midway through the day after they left Suna. She had been suddenly filled with the knowledge that the announcement had gone smoothly and the villagers were taking it fairly well. She was a little surprised by that, Naruto hadn't mentioned that she would receive the memories from her clone.
They had not encountered any trouble on the journey. 'Though there are downsides to that.' She mused, casting a glance at her siblings. Temari and Kankuro had been at each other's throats for days, arguing to relieve the tension and boredom. It was a behavior Gaara was well acquainted with and she knew they didn't mean ninety percent of what they said to each other when they were fighting, but it still grated on her nerves that the only emotion her family reliable portrayed towards each other was anger. 'Not that I'm any better.'
Having to worry that someone might kill her was a novel experience for the ex-jinchuriki. People had tried all her life but before the Akatsuki, no one had ever come close to succeeding. Now the worry that she might not be strong enough to defend herself, and worse that someone she loved might be hurt defending her, ate at her constantly. The stress, combined with her insomnia, made her irritable and withdrawn. Even Naruto couldn't get more than a few words out of her after the first couple days had passed. Thankfully the blonde boy didn't seem to take it personally and instead spent hours chatting with Matsuri and her jonin sensei, Sena.
Shinta had struck up a conversation with Sakura about medical ninjutsu on their third day of traveling, because he had thought about becoming a medical ninja and he was curious about the technique she had used to remove the poison from Kankuro's body. That lead to other topics and the two soon discovered they had quite a bit in common. The Suna chunin still eyed Naruto with distrust but he seemed resigned to dealing with the orange clad ninja's presence because the Kazekage obviously liked having him around.
Kakashi acted as scout while Kankuro drove the cart. Gaara was kept to the center of the group, just behind the cart, the safest spot in case of an attack. The little redhead was unused to needing protection and the restriction bothered her more than she let on.
"We're home!" Naruto shouted excitedly, "Ichiraku here I come! Ramen, ramen, ramen! Yeah!" The blonde seemed oblivious to the stares most of the Suna ninjas were giving him as he bounded towards the gate. He looked back with a huge grin while still rushing towards the gate.
The leaf genin slammed into something and went sprawling.
"What the..." Naruto jumped back to his feet and glared at the thing that was rude enough to knock him down.
The thing didn't bother to glare back, looking bored and exasperated at the same time. His hands were shoved in his pockets and you got the impression that he could have avoided letting Naruto bump into him, but it would have been too much trouble.
"Hey, Crybaby!" Temari shoved her way to the front of the group, grinning at the leaf chunin. "So did you make jonin yet?"
Shikamaru yawned, "Don't be stupid, Woman. You were only gone a couple weeks. I'll get to it."
"Ahem." Kakashi cleared his throat, amused at their antics but eager to get home and relax a little, away from all these teenage hormones. Plus he wanted to read his new book for the fifteenth time. All the nuances were really starting to sink in the last time he read it.
Both teenagers blushed but Shikamaru recovered quickly.
"I have orders to escort the Kazekage, her party, and team Kakashi to the Hokage's office." He announced dryly.
He had actually been lazing around near the gate for days, waiting for them to show up. He had a strong suspicion Tsunade gave him the mission early, to give him a chance to take a break from planning the upcoming chunin exams. He had been immersed in those plans for months: choosing proctors, organizing security, providing lodging and escorts for the ninja teams taking the exam, and working with the troublesome Suna ambassador. Chunin exams made him nervous, the memory of the sound invasion always moved to the forefront of his thoughts when it came time for Konoha to host the event. He wasn't about to allow a fiasco like that on his watch, so laziness had taken a back seat to necessity. He'd grumbled and complained, but he did a thorough job and he knew Tsunade appreciate his hard work, even if she never mentioned it.
Gaara moved smoothly to the front of the group, noting that the Nara boy had said 'her party', obviously he had been told about her by Tsunade. He didn't seem to care, but then apathy was a look Shikamaru pulled off very well according to conversations she had overheard from her sister.
She nodded tersely and the spiky haired chunin turned towards the gates. Naruto fell in beside her as the group moved to follow the Nara heir. He was visibly disappointed to not be going straight to Ichiraku but he rallied quickly.
The blonde boy turned to her with a big grin, "Wanna have some ramen after this meeting is over? My treat."
Gaara hesitated. She wasn't even sure if she liked ramen, having never tried it, but she did like spending time with Naruto. After a few seconds she nodded at him.
"Hey, Naruto." Sakura chimed in brightly. "Was that offer for everyone?" She grinned evilly as Naruto nervously pulled out his froggy wallet and eyed it's contents. He glanced at Gaara, who just shrugged to show that she didn't care if the pink haired girl came along. It wasn't like going to eat ramen was a date or anything, "I guess you can come, Sakura-chan." The leaf genin said slowly.
Sakura smiled but inner Sakura heaved a great big sigh of relief. 'What the hell was Naruto thinking? Asking Gaara out in front of Shikamaru! That guy is way too perceptive. Good thing I was here to cover for them.'
If Shikamaru noticed the exchange, he showed no sign of interest as he led them up the exterior stairs of the Hokage's building. He knocked once on the office door and waited patiently for a muffled "Enter" before he pushed it open and stepped aside to let the Kazekage and everybody else enter before him. He was about to close the door and slip away, when Tsunade caught sight of him.
"Nara, stay." she ordered.
The lazy young man sighed and slumped against the wall near the door.
Tsunade stood and nodded politely to Gaara. "Welcome Kazekage-san."
"Just Gaara." the little redhead corrected with a nod in return, "I'm not the Kazekage right now."
Tsunade frowned, "Stupid chauvinist attitudes can't take away who you are. You earned the title of Kazekage and you deserve to keep it," the fiery older woman said firmly, "but if it makes you more comfortable, Gaara-san it is, and you can call me Tsunade." She finished with a grin.
"Now, down to business," Tsunade sat back down at her desk and leaned forward, "I have arranged three apartments for your group. I assumed you would want to stay in pairs rather than alone."
Gaara nodded again.
"Right, Shikamaru will show you to them when we are done here. The rent is reasonable and the landlord has even offered a substantial discount if he can advertise that you stay there. Before you go, however, I would like to make sure there are no new developments since you sent me that letter. We have the Chunin exams coming up in two weeks and we can't afford any surprises. I realize you have your own security, but I must ask that you keep us informed if you find any threats within or around the village."
Gaara shrugged, "We've noted no threats."
"Good." Tsunade smiled and leaned back in her chair. "Shikamaru."
The lazy chunin raised an eyebrow at her in answer.
"Kindly escort the Kazekage and her party to their living quarters and help them settle in."
The sand ninjas looked to Gaara for instructions.
"Go. I'll join you later." She waved them away before turning back to Tsunade. "Naruto has offered to introduce me to ramen, so I'll wait for him." She hesitated, "Should I wait outside?"
Tsunade shrugged, "Makes no difference. This is Naruto's business mostly. If he doesn't mind, I don't care."
The blonde boy perked up at her words, "Me? What about me?" He asked excitedly.
Tsunade cast a pointed glance at Gaara and her siblings, who were wavering in the doorway. The redhead waved them away imperiously and they hurried to follow the leaf chunin.
"Oh, she can stay. Now, what is this about me?" The orange clad boy was bouncing in place with eagerness.
Tsunade looked at the blonde boy seriously, "Naruto, you are the only member of you class who has not yet reached the rank of chunin."
The young man slouched in depression, she had hit on a sore subject.
"As I said earlier, the next chunin exam is being held here two weeks from now." She studied him thoughtfully. "You are going to attempt the exam again."
Naruto's head shot up and he grinned, "Really? Great! I'll definitely pass it this time."
Tsunade nodded, "You had better, because this is the last mission you will ever receive as a genin."
Sakura gasped at the ultimatum and Gaara's eyes widened slightly. Kakashi showed no reaction except to glance at Naruto thoughtfully. The blonde genin clenched his fists and looked down at his feet for a minute before he drew in a deep breath.
Tsunade preempted whatever he was going to say, "After all, the future Hokage can't stay a genin forever."
Naruto visibly relaxed and a small grin crept onto his face, "That's right. I won't let you down, Hokage-sama."
"I'm looking for a team for you to take the exam with since Sakura has already passed." She purposefully did not mention the other member of their three man squad.
"Would an international squad be allowed?" Gaara asked thoughtfully.
The four leaf ninjas looked at her in confusion.
"Matsuri has yet to take the chunin exam. I was planning to suggest she take the next one but she is ready." The redhead explained.
Tsunade pondered the idea, "It has never been done before, but I don't know of any rules against it. They'll still need a third."
Gaara shook her head, "She is the only genin with me."
"Naruto, do you think you can work with the sand genin?" The Hokage asked seriously.
"Sure, no problem."
"Very well." Tsunade nodded. "I suggest you begin training with Matsuri of Sunagakure as soon as possible and I'll find you a third before the exam."
"I will inform Matsuri tonight." Gaara told them.
"Excellent, that saves me a little bit of trouble. Naruto, Sakura, you may go. Gaara-san, if you don't mind going with them. I will have Shikamaru find you later to show you to the apartments. Kakashi, stay."
The three young people left the office and shut the door behind them.
Naruto's exuberance from the gate reasserted itself, "Ramen! Let's go, Gaara, Sakura-chan." He grabbed both girls by the hands and dragged them off down the hall, past the startled faces of Tsunade's assistant, Shizune, and her pet pig, Tonton.
Meanwhile, Neiji and Tenten were waiting for their unibrowed teammate to arrive at their usual meeting place. They had returned from the rescue mission to Suna over a week ago and had spent the downtime training while they prepared to serve as security for the upcoming exams. The two less "youthful" members of Team Gai had arrived early to present a united front against whatever hair brained training regimen Lee was sure to come up with.
Neiji spotted the Suna ninjas first, as a jonin he had been told about the Kazekage's impending stay so he wasn't surprised to see the puppet master driving a cart, and the fan-wielding blonde walking beside Shikamaru. He didn't see the redheaded Kazekage among the other three sand ninjas walking behind the cart, which was a bit disappointing because he had been briefed about her recent gender revelation and wanted to note any changes.
"I guess the Kazekage must have finally arrived." He gestured idly to the group as he said it.
Tenten was just turning to see what he was talking about when a green blur landed between the two teammates.
"My eternal rival is here?!" Lee struck a pose as he landed. "I must go and greet him immediately! We will have a youthful challenge!" The green unitard wearing ninja sped off towards the Suna ninjas, screeching to a halt in front of Shikamaru and Temari, who were leading the small group.
"Where is my eternal rival, the esteemed Kazekage Gaara-san?!" He demanded cheerfully.
Shikamaru frowned but decided to answer, in the hope that it would get the troublesome ninja to go away, "With Naruto." He drawled tiredly.
By the time Neiji and Tenten had recovered from their green clad friend's abrupt proclamation, the younger green beast of Konoha had already moved on from the startled sand ninjas. The Hyuuga boy and the brown haired girl hurried after him without delay.
"Hurry," Neiji encouraged, activating his byakugan to make following the green blur easier, "I didn't get the chance to tell him that Gaara is actually a female and he's sure to make a scene when he finds her."
"Wait a minute," Tenten gaped at him but did not stop running, "Gaara's a girl? Since when?"
"Since always apparently. It is a long story and one I have not been told the details of, just try to act normal when we find her."
Tenten nodded gravely, mulling the new information over and trying to reconcile it with the deadly, slightly psychotic guy who nearly killed Lee during their first chunin exam, or the quiet, serious young man who had become Kazekage at only fourteen years old. Neither image looked quite right so she pushed both away and resolved to stay open minded.
Neiji spotted Naruto, Sakura, and Gaara with his byakugan and cut sideways hoping to head them off and warn them of Lee's approach. The exuberant young man probably wasn't even considering the fact that the redhead was still recovering from her recent ordeal and he might not give anyone time to point that out before issuing his challenge. Neiji scowled and increased his speed, 'That idiot is going to cause an international incident if I don't stop him.'
Tenten didn't question the sudden course change, she trusted Neiji implicitly. He was her best friend and, she had long ago admitted to herself, she had a huge crush on him. The thought made her blush and she quickly refocused on the task at hand, mentally berating herself for being foolish. 'As if he'd ever want to date a plain faced, second rate kunoichi like me. Ino is prettier, Sakura is stronger, and there are any number of other girls throwing themselves at him now that Sasuke is gone. He's a genius, girl, don't get any ideas.' By the time her mental tirade was finished she could see the three distinctive hair colors of the group they were aiming for. She focused on speeding towards the bobbing red, yellow, and pink heads and pushed the other depressing thoughts away.
Too late. Lee came around a nearby corner and spotted his target at that moment.
Gaara spotted Lee just half a second before he spotted her. She watched his eyes light up with excitement as he charged forward.
"Esteemed Kazekage Gaara-san! My Eternal Youthful Rival!" He shouted as he aimed a kick at her stomach.
She just barely had time to get her arms in place to block, and the impact reverberated through her whole body. 'That is definitely going to leave bruises.' She mused as she ducked his follow up swing at her head. Naruto and Sakura stepped back, not sure whether she would want them to intervene in the fight.
"Yes! I have come to challenge you, My Esteemed Eternal Rival! I will prove the power of youth can overcome any opponent!"
Gaara was just fraction of a second too slow to block a blow to her chest as she processed what the odd ninja was saying. As the open handed hit connected, she was knocked back a few feet and she would have skidded further if two sets of insanely strong hands hadn't caught her by her arms. Lee jumped back and prepared to launch another attack.
Just then, Neiji and Tenten dropped from a nearby rooftop to land between the two combatants. Neiji landed closer to Gaara, quickly apologizing to the redhead for Lee's behavior.
Tenten landed facing the green clad boy, "What is the matter with you?! Don't you remember rescuing Gaara-sama just a couple weeks ago?! Do you think a victory would mean anything with her still recovering? Where is your honor, Lee?" She knew exactly which buttons to push and the excitable leaf ninja hung his head in shame, dramatic tear streams running down his face as he dropped to his knees in front of the stunned redhead, who was still being supported by Naruto and Sakura as she tried to catch her breath.
"Forgive me," The young man pleaded tearfully, "In my youthful joy at hearing of your visit, I failed to consider your weakened condition. It was dishonorable to attack you when you weren't at your peak strength."
Gaara coughed as she tried to speak, and had to try again. "Don't worry about it." She said slowly, wanting the weird guy to stop crying at her feet. "It was good training."
Lee shot to his feet with a sparkly grin and a thumbs up, "Ah, your youthful attitude makes me proud to have you as my rival!" He paused and cocked his head to one side as he studied her. "By the way, is something different about your voice? I didn't think I hit you that hard...."
Gaara was saved from having to use her recently abused lungs to answer as Neiji stepped up and whispered in Lee's ear.
"WHAT?! My Eternal Rival is a woman?!" Lee looked at her again and Gaara stared back, refusing to give in to the self-conscious urge to avert her eyes. "Is that true?" Lee asked quietly.
He seemed to think it over for a minute before a toothy grin once again lit his face. "I will surpass you yet! Don't think you can get out of meeting my challenge just because you are a woman. You are still My Eternal Rival and I must beat you so I can prove my ninja way!"
Gaara blinked at him in confusion, but her pride wouldn't let her refuse a direct challenge. She shrugged off the supporting hands of her companions and stepped towards the green clad young man calmly.
"I accept." She said simply, "Once I have recovered my strength, you can help me test it." A small dangerous smirk played across her face but Lee did not catch the warning in it.
He turned around to expound upon the joy he was feeling at her acceptance of his challenge and did not notice her quick hand signs. He heard movement behind him and looked back at her just in time to see her place her palms flat on the earth. Suddenly, the ground beneath his feet was no longer solid and he sank into soft sand up to his neck. Gaara stood and brushed off her cloak, satisfied that her practice during the long, mostly sleepless nights of their trip had paid off. Her control was much better than when she had thoughtlessly tried the same jutsu on Kankuro a week ago. Lee wouldn't sink any further and she didn't feel dizzy at all, which meant her chakra levels were returning to normal.
She stepped around the strangely happy looking head sticking out of the sand and continued in the direction they had been going before Lee's sudden arrival. She nodded to Neiji and Tenten as she passed them, grateful for their intervention. Her ribs hurt and her arms ached but she was fairly certain nothing was broken. Neither she nor Lee had been seriously injured and no buildings had been damaged. Neiji nodded back and went to help Lee extricate himself from the ground.
Tenten grinned brightly at her and bowed quickly, before she too went to see if she could help her teammate out of his predicament. She had been a bit nervous when she saw Gaara performing a jutsu, remembering Lee's broken form after the chunin exam, but the green clad boy looked merely startled rather than hurt and the redhead seemed decidedly amused by the whole situation.
Gaara paused as Naruto caught up with her. Sakura looked back at Lee with a conflicted expression on her face before she shook her head and went over to the bowl cut boy.
"What are we going to do with you?" She muttered before looking back at Gaara and Naruto. "I'm going to help dig Lee out. You guys go on ahead, but you'll owe me ramen later, Naruto."
Naruto nodded and took Gaara's hand as they continued towards Ichiraku. Lee's excited prattle and Tenten and Sakura's angry voices followed them for a few minutes as they walked.
When he was sure they were out of earshot Naruto glanced sideways at the sand ninja, "Why didn't you just reverse the jutsu the way you did with Kankuro?"
A smirk played across her pixie-like features and she shrugged, "Because I didn't want him following us."
Naruto grinned, "Yeah, Lee can be pretty persistent company. He'd probably want to help you train or something."
Naruto spotted Ichiraku up ahead and the incident was pushed aside for a more important matter, namely ramen.
He sat down on an empty stool and Gaara removed her cloak before she took the one beside him, looking around curiously. Sunagakure didn't have any ramen stalls, and no Suna restaurant would be open to the air like this one, because the frequent sandstorms and fierce heat made such a layout impractical.
The owner, Teuchi, and his daughter, Ayame, smiled warmly at Naruto and greeted the jinchuriki warmly before the old man turned his attention to his other patron. He blinked at the petite redhead, obviously recognizing her as the Kazekage, but not knowing what to make of her obviously feminine figure. Gaara suddenly regretted wearing the snug black t-shirt and shorts under her cloak, as they left her feeling rather exposed now that she had taken it off.
"So, Naruto," Teuchi drawled, his smile still firmly in place. "Who's your friend?"
Naruto smiled cheerfully, "This is Gaara. She's come to train in the village for a while and I told her the first thing she needed to do was try your ramen because Ichiraku's is the best ramen in the world." He announced seriously.
Teuchi looked to Gaara for more information but the redhead was silent and merely nodded a greeting at him. Giving up on figuring out the weirdness of ninjas for the time being, he nodded back and switched his attention back to his best customer. "Okay then, what can I get for you and the young lady?"
Naruto rattled off his order and looked at Gaara. She shrugged to show she had no idea what to order and he rattled off something else to the old man, who immediately set about preparing their food.
"You've never tried ramen at all? Really?" Naruto gave her a disbelieving look.
Gaara shook her head and spoke quietly, not comfortable talking in front of the old man and his daughter who were still staring at her when they thought she wasn't looking. "I told you, we don't serve hot soups in Sunagakure and I've never spent much time in other villages, at least not socially." She frowned as she thought about the fact that many of the villages she had visited when she was younger weren't even there anymore because of her.
"But you stayed here for the chunin exam..." The blonde stopped as Ayame dropped a bowl in shock.
Gaara scowled at the orange clad ninja, as the man and his daughter scrambled to clean up the spilled soup and broken pottery. "I ate whatever Kankuro handed me." She gritted out. "I wasn't here for the food at the time."
Naruto looked blank for a moment before comprehension dawned on his face, "Oh yeah. We're such good friends now, I just don't often think about...uh...before." He said lamely.
Gaara just shook her head, 'Only Naruto would condense my murderous, psychotic past into 'before' and think nothing of it. It is a wonder he has survived as a ninja for this long, he's so quick to want to trust people.'
"I'm terribly sorry." Gaara glanced up at Ayame in surprise, she thought the girl was afraid of her. "I just didn't know the Kazekage was in town and I couldn't believe you would be here in our restaurant. When I finally realized it really was you...I'm sorry but it was a shock to me. Please forgive my clumsiness, Kazekage-sama."
Gaara nodded, not bothering to correct the girl about the title and too shocked to otherwise reply.
Just then Teuchi set their ramen in front of them with a flourish. "Thank you for your patience. I wanted to make sure it was extra special for the Kazekage, especially since I heard you say you have never tried it before." He smiled at Gaara and she nodded her thanks as she took a pair of chopsticks from the container Naruto held out for her.
The blonde then began to demolish his own ramen with gusto. Teuchi and Ayame smiled fondly at him for a moment before turning to watch Gaara try her own food. The audience made her a little uncomfortable but it wasn't like she was unused to being stared at and the looks weren't always so pleasant.
Cautiously, she brought the steaming hot noodles to her mouth and slurped them the way Naruto was doing, only slower because she liked being able to breathe. The old man and his daughter were watching her expectantly so she swallowed her first bite and nodded at them.
"It is just as good as Naruto said it would be." She said slowly. She couldn't say it was her favorite food but it was pretty good, and there was no reason to alienate the proprietor of Naruto's favorite restaurant.
"Well, you're welcome to come back anytime. Naruto is one of my best customers and any friend of his is a friend of mine." Teuchi smiled brightly and he and his daughter got to work on more ramen for Naruto, who had already decimated his first bowl.
"See, I told you, you would like it." Naruto grinned at her.
They continued to eat in silence. Naruto was on his third bowl when Gaara finished her first. She ordered another with extra fishcakes, since fish was an expensive delicacy in Suna.
She was halfway through that when the curtain was pushed back and two ninja's she vaguely recognized as being the Nara boy's teammates came in, arguing over the choice of restaurant.
"But we always have barbeque." The tubby young man was protesting.
"Exactly!" The blonde girl sounded thoroughly exasperated. "We always eat there and I tired of having the same thing week after week. From now on we have to go somewhere else at least once a month or else! Got it?!"
The fa-husky young man hung his head. "Okay, I got it. At least it's Ichiraku and not that salad place you like. It would cost a fortune to fill me up there."
"It costs a fortune to feed you anywhere, Choji." The girl muttered sourly.
"Hey, Choji! Ino!" Naruto waved at the bickering pair as they took the remaining two seats.
"Hey, Naruto." Choji said cheerfully, he then noticed the redhead on the other side of the blonde boy. He studied her intently for a moment, "Gaara?" He asked hesitantly. "Is that Gaara with you, Naruto?"
The blonde nodded, strings of ramen hanging from his mouth as he continued to make up for his time away from his perfect food.
"You...uh...you look different, Gaara-san." Ino ventured curiously.
"Not really." Gaara said, resigning herself to answering this sort of question for a while. "You've just never seen me without my sand armor. No one had until recently. Not even me."
The redhead could practically see the blonde girl's train of thought as she sorted out that statement. Ino's eyes lit up with excitement and Gaara suddenly regretted speaking to the girl at all.
"So, you've always been a girl? Wow! I never would have guessed. Why the disguise?"
"It wasn't my idea, it came with the one tail." Gaara explained reluctantly, suddenly remembering that Ino liked getting into other people's heads.
"Ooo, I see. Now that the demon is gone, no more disguise. That's gotta be weird, right? All of a sudden finding out you are a woman. I can't even imagine how difficult it must be for you to adjust." The blonde girl's pupiless blue eyes were wide a she considered it.
Gaara went back to finishing her ramen, not acknowledging that question at all. Ino ordered a diet ramen. Choji was already well on his way to catching up to Naruto.
Thankfully Naruto declared himself done after his fifth bowl and Gaara was done after her second.
As the blonde boy was paying the tab, Ino leaned over to Gaara and whispered conspiratorially, "If you have any questions or need any help with anything just let me know, okay. I'm a good listener." The girl's strange blue eyes sparkled as she smiled at Gaara.
Gaara kept her face blank and didn't respond to the offer, retreating outside to wait for Naruto. When the orange clad ninja joined her a few minutes later, he seemed oddly amused and Gaara raised an eyebrow at him in question as they started to walk away from the ramen stall.
"Well, I think you just took care of explaining your situation to everyone in town."
Gaara's expression became even more puzzled.
"Ino is the biggest gossip in the entire village. In a couple of days everyone will know everything you just told her and more if she can weasel any information out of anyone else."
Gaara frowned but her feelings on the matter were mixed, 'I don't like people gossiping about me but in this case it is true, so I can't really say anything. At least it will save me from having to repeat myself to everyone who recognizes me.' she shrugged, "What's done is done. I don't care who she tells as long as it is the truth."
Naruto nodded, "She's usually pretty good about that as long as you aren't Sakura."
Gaara didn't have to ask the blonde about the rivalry between Ino and Sakura. She had seen their fight at the chunin exam and the two girls obviously had issues that went deeper than Sasuke.
Just then Shikamaru and Temari came around the corner ahead of them. The eldest sand sibling hurried over to the pair, the lazy leaf ninja trailing behind her reluctantly.
"Hey, the apartments are mostly set up. They were furnished already so we don't need to buy much. I hope you don't mind rooming with me. We put the boys in one apartment and Sena and Matsuri in the other which left just me and you for the third."
"That's fine." Gaara assured her apathetically.
"Since Temari knows the way back, you don't need me anymore." Shikamaru announced, edging away.
Temari looked ready to protest his departure but she apparently couldn't come up with a valid excuse and so she simply scowled at his retreating back until he turned the corner, heading out of town and back towards his family estate. Once he was out of sight, the older girl shook her head and turned to her youngest sibling with a small smile.
"Are you ready to go check out our new home, Gaara?"
The redhead nodded thoughtfully. 'Home. I guess I've never really had one of those before.' She mused to herself as they walked, 'I thought I finally had a place in Suna, but when I lost my usefulness my home went with it. No, that isn't true. Temari and Kankuro are my home. They stay with me no matter what. Isn't that what a home is? Wherever the people who love you are...' She glanced at the young man at her side, marveling as she realized he felt like home to her too. She shoved the thought into the back of her mind, which was thankfully a much less crowded place now, and resolved not to get ahead of herself. 'Naruto likes me right now and he wants to help me, but this probably won't last forever. Why would anyone stay with someone as screwed up as me when they have so many better choices around? I just hope we can remain friends...'
Naruto must have spotted the troubled look in her eyes, because he reached over and squeezed her hand, continuing to hold it as they made their way through town. Temari grinned at them but said nothing. Her natural inclination was to tease the young couple, but Gaara had a habit of taking her teasing seriously so she decided to keep her big mouth shut for once and let her little sister enjoy her first boyfriend, 'At least for a little while, then I'm not making any promises.' The eldest sand sibling thought with a grin.
When they arrived at the apartment building, Gaara invited Naruto in and asked Temari to get Matsuri and Sena to join them.
"You really think I'm ready, Gaara-sama?" Matsuri asked nervously when the redhead told the girl she had registered her for the chunin exam.
"Of course you're ready." Sena assured the girl. "You've been ready for months."
Matsuri frowned, "But I thought the exam was only open to three person squads. Are more genins coming from Sunagakure?"
"You will be on Naruto's squad." Gaara gestured to the blonde boy. "The third has not been chosen yet, but the Hokage assured me she would find someone."
"Naruto? Is that even allowed? He's from a different village...." The younger girl stammered.
"It will be allowed and I expect you to train hard for the next two weeks. Learn to work well with Naruto." Gaara ordered, leaving no room for argument.
"Yes, Gaara-sensei." Matsuri bowed before she stood and looked at the single leaf ninja in the room. "When do we start, Naruto-san?"
Dawn the next day found six figures standing in team seven's old training area. Shinta had stayed home to guard the apartments, since they had not finished installing sufficient traps to satisfy the paranoid sand ninjas. The training they had planned would involve one team tracking and sparring with the other group in one on one battles, since the opponents were all jonin or higher. Matsuri and Naruto were to be the pursuing team, to practice working together. The rest of the Suna ninjas would serve as their opponents. Gaara, Kankuro, Temari and Sena got a ten minute head start and then the other two ninjas went after them. Matsuri was an accomplished tracker so they found a trail right away.
"Naruto, stop!" The brown haired girl called out and the leaf ninja obediently jerk to a complete halt. It was a good thing too, because just a foot in front of him was a nearly invisible trip wire attached to a paper bomb on the branch above him. It was a training bomb so it wouldn't have killed him, but it would have been unpleasant.
They had to travel slower after that, wary of more traps, but by midday they had rounded up Temari and Kankuro, both of whom had put up a good fight. Naruto overpowered the puppetmaster with his shadow clones while Matsuri occupied the newly repaired Crow. Both ninjas knew the battle might have been a lot more difficult if Kankuro's other puppets hadn't been out of commission. Later, Naruto's clones served as decoys for Temari's attacks while Matsuri waited for a chance to tangle the wind user in her johyo and render her fan useless. Thankfully they managed to trip her up before she could summon her flying weasel.
Sena was an expert tracker, which made finding her exceedingly difficult, but Matsuri used a sensory jutsu that allowed her to follow the jonin woman's scent. They caught up to the dark haired jonin in a small clearing surrounded by booby traps. Naruto used his shadow clones to set off all the traps at once in the hopes of disguising their approach and throwing her off guard. It almost worked but she performed a substitution and almost took out Matsuri with a sweep kick before the girl could dodge. Naruto was just able to force Sena back with a hastily thrown kunai, giving Matsuri time to escape.
Twenty minutes and many more unsuccessful attacks later, Naruto gave in and summoned Gamakichi who had grown considerably in the last two years. The man sized toad lashed out at the jonin woman with his tongue and managed to pick her up by her feet, allowing Naruto and Matsuri to force her to surrender. All three jonins had moved on to other pursuits after being 'defeated'. That left only Gaara and the two genins in the training area.
Naruto and Matsuri finally tracked down Gaara late in the day, after taking a break to recover from the earlier sparring with the three jonins. The redhead was waiting patiently in a field, and she had obviously been busy because she was surrounded by a pile of sand when she hadn't brought any with her. When Naruto had asked her about her gourd that morning, she had muttered something about it being broken and needing to make another soon.
The young woman wasted no time in attacking them, she sent her sand to grab them but it wasn't up to her old speed and they were able to dodge. Naruto made a few dozen shadow clones to further occupy her with figuring out which was the real ninja. Matsuri was fairly busy just dodging her old sensei's attacks but she occasionally managed to throw a kunai or attempt to entangle the redhead with her johyo. As the battle dragged on, all three ninjas were visibly tiring. Gaara had not used her jutsus for any prolonged period of time since the loss of Shukaku, and the other two had already fought three battles that day.
However tired he might be, Naruto was enjoying the battle. Gaara was a cunning opponent, making up for her current weakness with calm forethought. She really forced him to strategize and try to outthink her.
By the time the sun had begun to set, Gaara was thoroughly frustrated with herself. Her sand wasn't responding as quickly as it used to, she had to consciously direct it to shield her from projectiles and other attacks, a Kunai had grazed her arm and one of Naruto's clones had managed to get through her defenses to land a kick on her side. 'I know I can do better than this.' she thought angrily. Suddenly, her slight scowl shifted into a small smirk.
"Naruto," She called out.
The blonde boy and the younger girl stopped and looked at her curiously.
"Dodge this." She ordered, before starting a series of hand signs.
Naruto didn't recognize the signs but Matsuri did, "Oh shit! We need to get off the ground now!"
The blonde boy didn't question her, he just started his own hand signs, biting his thumb and summoning Gamatatsu. "I'll get you some snacks if you take us and jump really high." He promised the portly young toad, who was just as big as his brother.
"Okay." Always ready to work for food, the toad allowed Naruto to jump onto his back with Matsuri in tow.
By now they could see a wall of sand starting rise in front of Gaara.
The tsunami of sand swept towards them. Gamatatsu leapt high into the air as the wave passed just a few feet below the toad's webbed feet. They touched down briefly on the shifting sands before the portly toad's powerful legs launched the trio skyward again.
By the time they landed the second time the sand had settled, turning several hundred yards of meadow into smooth desert.
"Wow!" Naruto blinked around in awe as he hopped down off the toad's back. "I didn't know you still had this kind of power, Gaara. Way to go!"
Matsuri hopped down beside the bonde, looking around in concern. "Naruto, do you see Gaara-sama anywhere?" She asked hesitantly.
The orange clad boy's grin slipped and rushed over to the last place he had seen the red head.
After a few frantic moments of searching, a flash of red against the beige landscape caught his eye.
"Gaara?" He called, half hoping that this was just a trick to catch them off guard. He rushed over to the crumpled figure, half covered with a heavy dusting of sand. 'Please be alright, please be alright...' He pleaded silently, trying to banish the image of Gaara's still, cold corpse lying on the grass with Sakura shaking her head. 'Not happening again.' He insisted to his subconscious, firmly pushing the image away.
Carefully, he rolled the young woman over and brushed the sand from her face. He breathed a sigh of relief as her breath passed across his hand. He checked for signs of injury and found none other than a couple of minor cuts from their sparring match.
Matsuri hovered nervously on Gaara's other side. Naruto forced himself to remain calm for her sake.
"Come on." He said firmly, "Help me get her on my back and we'll take her to Tsunade."
The younger genin nodded and helped Naruto situate the limp redhead on his back in a piggy back position.
"I'm probably over reacting." The blonde said, not sure whether he was trying to convince himself or the sand genin. "It's most likely just chakra exhaustion, but I'll feel better if the old lady has a look at her."
Matsuri nodded and they took off for the village at top speed.
To be continued....
Author's Note: Okay, sorry for the cliffhanger. I was going to put the whole two weeks in one chapter but it would have been fifty pages long in word. I broke it so you all wouldn't have to wait as long for the story to start. The next bit is just waiting to be typed so it won't be long in coming. Let me know what you think, please! I tried to keep Gaara more in character because I was told she was talking too much. *laughs* The final paper in my class is due next week so I probably won't get the chance to type up chapter two until after next Tuesday. I'll get it posted as soon as possible. Thanks for reading.