Generic Disclaimer: Naruto not mine. Woe.
Everything else: Meant to take place in the time between chapters 238 and 245. Probably AU as hell, but since Kishimoto hasn't really told us what happened in that time, I have a lot to play around with. :3 I'll probably sneak in canon as it shows up.
There's more to this than the Sand's ultimate replacement of the Kazekage; it's about relationships, and life, and growing up. It's about pain and sacrifice, learning how to be selfless and when to be selfish. It's about finding yourself in adversity. It's the story of a ninja.
I hope you like it.
They had left Konohagakure five days ago, and Gaara had yet to fall asleep again.
She was going to miss all of this – the cool, dark shadows, the air that did not scorch the lungs to breathe, the endless supply of water. Temari was no fool, she knew that Sunagakure would always be her home, but she was also well aware that someday it would also be her death. People did not grow old in the deserts of the Wind Country; they withered up and dried out and blew away with the next harsh wind. It was, after all, why some of the best ninja in the world had come from Sunagakure – because the climate did not produce weak fools, like the ones in more water-abundant regions.
Or at least that's how it had been in the past. Or maybe she had been the fool, to believe the doctrines of her father and the other ninja of the Hidden Sand. Those boys from Konohagakure might not be great yet, but they had the potential for immense greatness. And being raised in a country where water was taken for granted had nothing to do with it.
Temari stifled a sigh. Almost a year in the Fire Country had made her weak. She was going to miss all this water…
Across the fire slept Kankurou, his form a flickering bundle of black in the darkness of night. His dolls were humped shapes resting against the trees further away. Also across the fire from her, but several feet away from his brother, sat Gaara, arms crossed over his chest and leaning back against his gourd. The light from the tiny fire lent his pale eyes an almost demonic glow as he gazed vacantly at nothing. Of the three of them, only Kankurou was asleep, but Temari had a feeling Gaara wasn't exactly awake, either.
She wished Baki was with them, although she understood why he had needed to return to Sunagakure. He was more than their guardian, more than their trainer, more than a ninja – he had weight on the Council, however small, and he felt his presence was needed desperately now that the Kazekage was dead. He was needed more in the Wind Country to keep their home from falling apart than he was needed with his students.
But Baki also had a way with Gaara, knew how to… not control him, exactly, but convince him to behave in a way that did not involve resorting to begging (as she and Kankurou usually had to). Baki knew what to say to Gaara and how to say it without getting killed – the only reason why he had lasted as their mentor for so long – and Temari desperately wished she had some of that skill now that Baki was gone.
Her little brother had been… strangely docile over the past three months. Quiet. And that docility made her wonder how long it would be before he snapped again. She knew that he hadn't really been recovered from his transformation into Shukaku when the Godaime sent them after the Sound-nin. She knew that recovering from physical stress was harder for him than normal people, even with his semi-demonic nature, considering how he couldn't exactly sleep like normal people.
But it had been three months since he had killed Kimimaro (or Kimimaro had killed himself, depending on who you spoke with), three long months where he had spent most of his time laid out on a bed in an isolated wing of the hospital, while she and Kankurou watched him sleep and woke him if his chakra spiked. Three months and Gaara should have recovered.
Their going was not slow. Leisurely, but not slow – because a slow pace would have looked suspicious, and the siblings were still wary of attracting their brother's attention. It was an easy pace to keep up with. But Gaara had said next to nothing since they had left, not even his usual "Shut up or I'll kill you" when Kankurou started singing the raunchy songs he had learned while with the puppet troupe. He walked with his head down and his eyes half-closed, looking like nothing more than a sleepwalker. Which wasn't so far from the truth; Gaara was the only one she knew who could walk all day and even carry on a coherant conversation while half-asleep.
Three months of virtual bed-rest should have restored her youngest brother's stamina, but instead she was seeing all the signs of exhaustion. His eyes looked more bruised and puffy than they had been before the chuunin exam, and there was a glassy look to them that only disappeared when something commanded his full attention. He hadn't deliberately manipulated his sand in weeks. Kankurou had even commented briefly on how it seemed their brother was using more chakra than usual to supplement his stamina.
All of this disturbed her, because this was not the Gaara she knew. A Gaara that was not quietly brooding or wildly homicidal was outside of her comfort zone. But a small part of her was also silently relieved, because if her brother did drop from exhaustion, she knew that Shukaku could not take advantage of a body so completely drained of stamina. Chakra could only do so much, no matter how unlimited.
Temari couldn't help but feel bad for being relieved at Gaara's fatigue. She wondered what kind of person that made her.
The eyes of the boy seated across from her drooped a little more.
The blonde Sand-nin shifted her position, drawing her knees up to her chin and wrapping her arms around her legs. She didn't care if the posture flashed anyone; Kankurou was asleep, after all, and Gaara didn't have the body shyness or the interest to care. And with their fire dwindling like it was, the night air was beginning to get cold; at least curled up like this she could conserve heat. She let her gaze be drawn to the flames, watching the embers creep slowly along a branch that stuck out from the circle of fire.
What were they going to be walking into when they finally got home? The Hidden Leaf had been able to unanimously decide on a new Hokage only weeks after the previous one's death; it had been finding her and getting her to accept the position that took the most time. But half a year had passed and the Hidden Sand still had yet to agree upon a new Kazekage. They could very well be walking into a civil war.
It was said that the Kage of a Hidden Village had to be strong, but Temari knew her father had not been strong. He had been petty and ambitious and power-hungry. He had, as she'd learned on the sly, not gained the Kazekage title by strength of arms and wise political decisions, but by threats and a few well-placed daggers in the dark. Ninja clans who were likewise power-hungry and scheming were drawn to him, and went through the dance of being lackeys, equal allies, enemies, neutral advisors, and back to lackeys again in the space of a week. Or went from allies to enemies to dead in the space of a day if they mis-stepped. Her father had not made decisions for the good of Sunagakure, but for the good of his own political power and position. The moral of the city had dropped from more than just the lack of well-paying missions after that retard of a Minister made that ridiculous peace-treaty. Temari had no doubt that there were people dancing in the street when they heard the news of his death.
She also had no doubts that her father's death had left a void that was dangerously unfilled. Those clans who once had their fingers on the pulse of Sunagakure were now nothing without the Kazekage's backing. There would be jockeying for position, political posturing and maneuvering. Threats laced in among the honeyed words.
Like a nest of scorpions, she thought in disgust. No matter where we step, we'll run the risk of being stung.
She did not know where she and her brothers would stand once they reentered the city. As the children of the Kazekage, they had been revered, feared, and perhaps even a little spoiled. All right, more than a little spoiled – she, for instance, could never have become a ninja if she had not been the Kazekage's daughter. There were no female ninja in Sunagakure.
Where once they had been respected ninja of the Hidden Sand, their status as genin not withstanding, Temari knew that she and her brothers would soon be turned into political pawns. There would be many marriage proposals, she suspected – for her and Kankurou at least – in the effort to tie clans in more tightly in with the previous Kazekage's bloodline. (No one in their right mind would offer their daughter in marriage to Gaara, and besides, Temari privately suspected her younger brother would never develop a sex drive.) There would be efforts to get on their good side. There might even be attempts to get Baki replaced in order to get control over the three siblings. And that, of course, was just plain suicidal; Gaara was incredibly resistant to change, and giving the pale-eyed boy a new mentor was just as good as signing that mentor's death certificate.
There would, she knew with awful certainty, be assassination attempts.
Temari moved her gaze back to her brother, watched his eyelids steadily drop lower until there was only the faintest gleam of white against the bruised black of his eyes. She worried about him – she had never seen him freak out like he had during the chuunin exam. Even the first time she had seen his awful transformation into Shukaku, Gaara had been far more calm and in control. He had never been exactly sane in the conventional sense of the word, but he was rational (most of the time) and not all that difficult to work with, so long as she watched her mouth and stayed within the bounds of what did not upset him.
But he had been so irrational during the exam, so blood-thirsty and out-of-control. And in the space of roughly five months he had performed a complete one-eighty, and was now almost… acquiescent. Docile was the word that kept coming to mind. On the rare occasions when she or Kankurou asked him to do something, he had done the task without resistance or even so much as a dirty look.
Kankurou, before they had left Konoha, had mentioned his worry for Gaara. How much more withdrawn he had become. Not absent-minded, but not paying much attention to his surroundings, either. Even though the sand in his gourd would protect him automatically, she feared that inattention might cost him his life once they reentered the Hidden Sand.
Temari wasn't sure where this worry came from. Before the exam she had never seen the red-haired genin take a hit, much less get a scratch on him. In a childish way she had thought it impossible. But experience had shown her that in truth her brother was extremely vulnerable – without the protection of his sand, and without the strength of his chakra, he had no defenses whatsoever. She had already understood Kankurou and her duty in protecting others from Gaara – but never before had she realized that they also needed to protect Gaara from himself. From the urges of the demon Shukaku and from his own incredibly fluctuating instabilities.
She had been wildly excited when she learned she had siblings – immensely pleased when she met Kankurou and horribly disappointed when she met Gaara. She had been hoping for two younger brothers that she could tease and protect; Kankurou, even though he was a year younger, had ended up more like an older brother. He did, after all, currently out-weigh her by nearly forty pounds. But Gaara… had most definitely not fit the role she had imagined for him. She had hoped for a seven year old little brother and had instead gotten a pale-eyed monster.
Maybe all this worry came from the hope she had felt when Gaara had said, "I'm sorry." Hope that maybe somewhere in that apparently soul-less body hid the little brother she had longed for.
She watched in silence as Gaara's eyes finally slid shut.
Temari settled her chin on her knees and studied his face. He looked so much like their father, compared to Kankurou or herself. She had gotten the blonde hair and elf-like features of their mother, and the kugutsu-nin had received the stockier build and darker coloring of their father's father. But Gaara had the same lean build as the late Kazekage, the same dark red hair and aquiline features. Only his eyes were his own.
Their father had hated him. Maybe it was because he harbored a demon that the Kazekage had been unable to control as he wished. But maybe it was because he saw himself in Gaara, saw the demon he had become and the demon he had made his son into, and could not stand the ugliness he saw. Maybe it was because Gaara had taken away his chance to produce more heirs from his wife's bloodline. (Although, really, that was his own fault; Baki had revealed to her that all three pregnancies had been hard on their mother, and three children in roughly three years was too much for many women to take. Birthing a demon-possessed child had only added to the stress that might have killed her anyway.)
But whatever it was that had caused the Kazekage to hate his son so much was a hatred that was shared by everyone else in Sunagakure. The only place Gaara could walk mostly unnoticed was outside of his mother country. And that, Temari thought, was horribly unfair.
She feared her brother sometimes, and with good cause, but she had never hated him. It had always seemed as though no one but she and Kankurou – and Baki, perhaps – could see past the demon inside the boy or the sand that protected him. No one seemed to connect the discoloration around his eyes to the fact that Gaara had never been able to rest more than three hours straight in his entire life. That he, an eleven year old child – no, twelve, she reminded herself, his birthday was during the exam – could go longer without rest than any grown man, not because he wanted to but because he had to. Because if Gaara fell into a truly deep sleep, Shukaku the demon could suppress the entity that was Gaara the boy and gain control of his body. It had happened more than once, and each time it had scared the shit out of her. She would rather face Gaara and his murderous tendencies than Shukaku. At least Gaara could be reasoned with… most of the time.
And that was why she and Kankurou stood guard at night. Not to watch for enemies, but to watch Gaara and wake him if his control slipped. It wasn't exactly selfless, but it certainly wasn't selfish, either. No one else in Suna would watch over him like they did. She wondered if he knew that.
Maybe someday, if he ever grew to trust them enough, Gaara could even get a full night of uninterrupted sleep. That really would make her day.
The ashes at the outside edge of the fire pit began to stir.
Temari dropped her gaze from the sleeping face of her youngest brother to watch. The particles of fine soot shifted in tiny whirlpools near Gaara's feet, but she knew that the distance was too far for the dust to be disturbed by the rising heat of the flames. The loose layer of soil on the hard-packed surface of the old campsite was also too heavy to be moved by anything less than a stiff breeze, but it was moving all the same. And she, growing master of the currents, knew there was no breeze.
No wonder Gaara appear more tired than usual. He had only just fallen asleep, and already Shukaku was attempting to claim control. The demon was more being more persistent than usual.
The blonde Sand-nin uncurled from her position by the dwindling fire, tucking her legs underneath her and reaching for the small pile of brush she had gathered before the sun went down. She had been forced to pick mostly green branches – it was green branches or rotted logs, and those simply could not be convinced to catch fire – and so when she tossed the handful of twigs into the flames, the wood immediately began to spit and hiss as the sap exploded outward from the pressure.
Gaara's eyes snapped back open, the ashes and soil stopped their sinister dancing, and a tendril of sand whipped in front of him in a defensive gesture. Across the fire, Kankurou's dark form paused in the rhythm of breathing before resuming again.
Temari added a few more handfuls to build the fire up before sitting back again. She met her brother's gaze and tried to smile.
Gaara stared at her briefly, before looking pointedly away. His sand withdrew from sight.
She curled up again, ignoring the heavy lead that seemed to have dropped into her stomach. Two more days, she told herself. Two more days and we'll reach the desert. Then we'll be back with Baki, and he'll know what to do with Gaara. Because I sure as hell don't.
Temari woke Kankurou for his half of the night-watch two hours later. She didn't manage to fall asleep until almost an hour before dawn. It seemed Gaara's insomnia was catching.
The landscape had slowly but surely changed shape around them; the lush, verdant greenery of the Fire Country had given way to the lowland scrub and oaks that marked the territory of the River Country. The small area that the River Country claimed as its own was starkly open in comparison to the forest they had left behind. The only things that grew taller than the traveling genin were the stunted scrub oaks and twisted date palms, whose trunks often bent and grew parallel to the ground from the fierce seasonal winds.
Although the River Country was small compared to its neighbors, the native ninja were ferocious. Kankurou was then suitably surprised that their travel went unmolested. The Hidden Sound and Hidden Sand had forged an alliance for war after all, and some River-nin had been caught in the middle of the fight. He had quite honestly expected at least a display of intimidation while traveling through their territory.
Then again, Gaara's gourd was un-corked and his sand was slithering around him in a decidedly wrathful manner. And he was looking far more alert than he had two days previous. Kankurou knew the sand was not for show, nor to warn off the rattlesnakes they kept encountering in the waist-high palmettos. No, he would lay stake that the River-nin were watching, and too smart to make a move after the stories they had heard about the chuunin exam.
The Sand-nin, unfortunately, could not sense if they were being tailed. Compared to his siblings, the kugutsu-nin's extended senses were pathetic. But he could tell from his brother's sand and the way his sister held her head high to scent the wind that they, at least, were aware of the threat.
Well, so long as he was with these two, it didn't matter that his senses sucked. He was an actor, after all, and he knew how to read body language to discern the hidden truths. All he had to do was keep an eye on his siblings, and he'd have more than ample time to respond to an attack.
Already the saw grass and palm fronds were beginning to thin out, and in the far distance Kankurou could see the undulating, blinding sands of their home country. Eventually the hard-packed, grainy soil would give way to the desert, the brush to cactus to nothing at all. The palms would grow stunted and crooked far past the cactus, but eventually even that would vanish when the ground grew too soft and shifting to support a root system. They had finally reached the eastern edge of the Wind Country.
Kankurou came to a stop and resisted the urge to wipe sweat from his upper lip and possibly smear his face paint. Wearing all black under the rays of a midday sun had been nothing back in Konoha, but out here he felt like he was getting well-baked.
"About where do you think we left it?" he asked aloud.
His sister took a few steps past him, hands on her hips. From this position he could see that the wooden edges of her fan were looking a little chipped. It could probably use a sanding and oiling, too. "Not far from here," she replied. Her eyes were narrowed against the harsh noon sun as she calculated their distance from the landmarks she had memorized.
The kugutsu-nin dragged his eyes away from Temari and glanced over to his younger brother. Gaara had stopped several feet away from them, and was staring out toward the distant desert with a blank look to his face. Now that a good quarter of his sand was curling around his feet, the youngest Sand-nin was standing straighter under the weight of his gourd. The damn thing did, after all, weigh well over fifty pounds when full.
Not that such a paltry weight would bother him. The combined weight of Karasu and Kuroari was almost two hundred pounds – more, if he hadn't specifically designed his dolls to be hollow. He was sacrificing armory for speed and lightness, but Kankurou didn't have the strength or skill to command one of the true juggernauts of the puppeteering world. Just one of those dolls weighed three hundred pounds, and he would be lucky if he had the chakra strength to even twitch a finger. Those things were damn near made of lead.
Still, if he knew he wouldn't be killed in the effort, he would offer to shoulder that gourd for Gaara. Karasu was light enough for him to manipulate over the sands at least part of the way to Sunagakure, and god knew Gaara could use the rest.
"Here we go," he heard Temari mutter, and Kankurou turned in time to watch her stalk toward where they had buried their equipment on their first trip through. Scarves to protect the face from blowing sand, smut for the eyes to cut back on the glare of the sun, extra water canteens. Survival gear necessary for the desert, but just a detriment to travel in the forest. They had buried all of it deep to protect it from notice – he could only hope it was still there. And in good condition.
The Sand-nin jogged a few steps to catch up with his sister as she waded through the saw grass. His puppets bounced in the motion, threatening to upset his balance, but he compensated automatically. "They still watching?" he asked her, sotto voce.
"One is," she replied in just as low a tone. "The others left about ten minutes ago. He probably stayed behind to make sure we get where it looks like we're going."
He couldn't help but chuckle darkly. "He'll have a while to wait. I don't think we're up to traveling during the day."
Temari grinned. "All this water made us weak."
"Made you weak, maybe." He reached out with a gloved hand to tug lightly on one of her short, frazzled ponytails. "I wasn't the one who squealed in delight when I saw how the showers worked. And god knows Gaara doesn't have the pitch to squeal."
Gaara squealing in delight. Now there was a mental image to give him nightmares.
She batted his hand away and came to a stop. The way she shrugged off the travel gear she carried (she ended up carrying more than her brothers, if only to make up for the relative lightness of her fan) and dropped it to the ground indicated at least a small amount of indignant annoyance at his remark. "I did not squeal. Now shut up and help me make sure this is the spot."
Obligingly, he knelt next to the blonde genin and helped her clear away the scraggly weeds that had grown up over the past six months. Together they scooped out handfuls of the sandy dirt until Temari, covered with grit up to her elbows, found the trowel she had buried about two feet below the surface.
"Looks like shit," he observed as she held up the badly rusted tool. "Hope the rest of our stuff doesn't look this bad."
His sister stuck the handle of the spade in an outside pocket of her traveling pack, securing it in place before rising to her feet. "We wrapped everything tightly," she reminded him, dusting off her hands. "And since we'll be traveling at night, all we'll really need is the canteens. And those are indestructible."
"We can hope, at least." He levered himself to his feet with a grunt. He had taken his gloves off to help dig, but the pale sand was still smeared liberally all over the legs of his pants and sleeves of his shirt. Nothing short of a soaking would get this mess off. Pity.
The kugutsu-nin glanced at his sister, then glanced in unison with her in the direction of their brother. "Hey… Gaara?" Kankurou said hesitantly.
About two yards distant, having never moved from his previous position, their brother's pale eyes shifted in their direction. He didn't even bother to turn his head.
"Could you...?" Temari paused as she picked up the request, then made a rotating gesture with one hand. She looked just as uncertain about asking for Gaara's help as he felt, but it would save them hours of work if he obliged.
The youngest Sand-nin's eyes closed, and his chest expanded and contracted in what was probably an annoyed sigh. He made a sweeping motion with one hand, palm down, and his siblings were forced to scramble backwards as the earth shifted beneath their feet. Temari's quick reflexes were all that kept her portion of the traveling gear from sliding down into the rapidly expanding hole.
The rest of the afternoon was spent digging out and cleaning off the equipment, and lazily preparing for their trip across the desert. The walls of the six-foot trench Gaara had created refused to stay stable, and more than once Kankurou had found himself buried to the hips as he passed the wrapped bundles up to his sister. Surprisingly enough, everything was in good shape, and since Baki was not with them the genin had the added security of his canteens. The watchful presence of the River-nin did not disappear, their hidden guard following as they retreated from the sand-line to the last water source they had crossed.
After the scarves had been soaked (along with Kankurou's sadly sand-encrusted outfit) and the canteens cleaned and refilled, it was just a matter of wasting time until the sun went down.
"Are you going to miss it?" Temari asked.
Kankurou scrubbed harder at the stubborn face paint that refused to leave the creases around his eyes. "Miss what?"
"This," she replied, and he blinked past the water to see her gesture broadly at the campsite. He understood that the gesture was all encompassing – that she meant the trees, the wildlife, the dappled shadows, the small creek. And more than that, probably; he was sure she also meant Konoha, and its people, and its food, and its freedom. No one had given her strangely disappointed stares when they realized she was a ninja. There had been a peace in that anonymity for all of them.
The kugutsu-nin dipped his hood in the creek, twisting and squeezing the stiff fabric. "I guess. I mean, home has its own perks as well."
The blonde genin scowled at him. She was leaning back against the trunk of a tree, legs folded underneath her. The grey fabric of her dress had ridden up so that he could see where the wire-mesh stocking ended on her upper thigh. He briefly considered playing the big-brother (even if he wasn't older than her) and telling her to pull down her skirt, but decided he liked his head more where it was.
"Like what?" she demanded. "Drought and disease?"
Kankurou sat back on his heels and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. Trying to find the right thing to say when she was in a bitter mood was oftentimes hard. "Well… the sunsets. I've never seen a sunset out here that could compare to a sunset – or a sunrise – in Sunagakure."
She seemed to deflate slightly, which gave him the hope that he had (for a change) said the right thing. "Yeah…"
"And there's more than that." The Sand-nin wrung the excess water from his hood and slapped it over his shoulder before standing to approach his sister. The water that seeped through his wire-mesh undershirt was cool and not at all unpleasant. "There's… well. There's also the sand paintings. And the blown-glass sculptures."
Temari tilted her head to look up at him, then away as he sat down. "The music," she added, getting into the swing of it. "The abbey of the Sand Priests."
The siblings looked up sharply at the unexpected addition. Gaara blinked owlishly at them from across the campsite.
Kankurou didn't bother containing the wide grin that spread across his features. It was about damn time his brother had tried contributing to the conversation, and he couldn't help but love it when Gaara actually talked about something that didn't involve blood, death, or other such depressing topics. "They sold wasabi in Konohagakure," he replied. "Besides, I saw you eating it. You damn near hogged the whole bowl."
This earned a narrowed look from the other boy before he directed his gaze to some distant point off in the scrub forest. "Inferior quality," was his disinterested rejoinder.
Temari huffed faintly to Kankurou's right. "Well, at least one of us is happy to be going home," she muttered.
Gaara obviously didn't care enough to make a response to that, and Kankurou… well, he felt it was better to say nothing at all. He would be lying if he said he wasn't looking forward to returning to Suna. Because, as much as all the traveling and seeing new sights appealed to him, it meant nothing if he didn't have a home to come back to.
He missed his workshop, nestled in the back of the house he had been forced to share with Baki and his siblings since he was nine. He missed working on the generators and water collectors/purifiers that were vital for survival in the desert. He missed the dry air and lack of humidity and the static electricity that raced across his skin when a sandstorm was blowing in his direction He missed Tomiji, the head of the puppet troupe, and all the other players as well. He missed Baki.
But he also understood the reasons why Temari didn't want to go back. Of course, Kankurou couldn't empathize with her, as he was most certainly not female, but he still knew the reasons were logical. Sunagakure could be incredibly suppressive, and his sister just didn't fit the submissive role that was demanded of women in his hometown. He just wished that she would trust him, that she would have faith that he would never allow the Council to withdraw her status as a ninja just because the Kazekage was dead. Gaara might not give a damn either way, but Kankurou did, and he would fight any effort to that affect with tooth and nail.
Kankurou didn't want to look too deeply into what might happen in the future. It was easier to deal with things as they came, and too much crystal-gazing got depressing. All he really wanted was to protect his siblings and make sure they survived the things that would inevitably come. Everything else was irrelevant.
Although both of them would kill him if he ever implied they needed protecting.
The kugutsu-nin stifled a sigh and forced himself to think instead about how nice it would be to have his own bed again. And to see Tomiji's daughter again. Six months was a long time for someone his age; there was a good chance she had finally managed to fill out that kimono he had last seen her in.
Oh yeah. There were plenty of good reasons to go home.
He reached for his travel pack, planning on drying off his face and reapplying his paint. Temari chose that moment to sigh loudly and stretch her legs out in front of her. The fabric of her dress finally slid down to what he considered an acceptable level.
"I'm going to miss the shadows," she said absently, eyes unfocused as she gazed back the way they had come.
Kankurou had a strong feeling she was talking about something else entirely.
"There are no shadows in the desert," Gaara said. "Not at full noon." There was a harshness to his voice, a deliberate cruelty, that made the kugutsu-nin want to hiss at him to shut up. That tone was usually a precursor to further scathing nastiness, and he just didn't want to deal with it tonight.
The blonde genin closed her eyes in a pained-angered-hurt-like-she'd-been-slapped expression and turned her head away in silence.
Kankurou glared across the camp at his younger brother. Gaara just ignored him, as he was so fond of doing. The Sand-nin had a strong feeling that his sister was talking about something else, and he had an even stronger feeling that Gaara knew this, too.
He always got off on making people miserable. The goddamn prick.
The sudden silence was no longer comfortable, as it had been earlier in the day. Instead it had become the cold, deafening silence that usually appeared in the aftermath of Gaara opening his mouth. And it was probably going to last all the way to Sunagakure.
Kankurou pressed his lips together in a tight line and began removing the paint from his travel pack.
.oO0Oo.They ate a light meal while the sun sank below the western horizon. The siblings built no fire to cook fresh food, although Kankurou could have caught some fish with his chakra strings; instead, the course consisted of the standard ninja MREs they were supplied with back at Konoha. Unlike the rations from their hometown, though, these were actually fit for human consumption.
In the kind of semi-psychic synchronicity that only years of close contact could create, the three Sand-nin had their meager belongings packed and were on their way before the first star appeared in the sky. They walked into the setting sun with their heads bent low, scarves veiling their eyes from the blinding light.
Their hidden, watchful companion stopped following when the saw grass lost its tenuous hold against the sand. By the time they had passed the last crooked date palm and entered the desert for real, the sun was gone and the moon held reign in the sky.
Traveling in the desert could be a far more dangerous thing than people realized. If someone was foolish enough to travel during the day (and inevitably, most people did even when they didn't have to), dehydration was definitely at the top of the list of worst problems – followed closely by heat stroke, misdirection by mirages, being attacked by buzzard hawks (who didn't always wait for you to die first), and being poisoned by upsetting scorpions, tarantulas, sidewinders, or cobras. Traveling by night wasn't much better; dehydration was still at the top of the list, followed by misdirection by not being able to discern landmarks, getting attacked by buzzard hawks (who didn't seem to follow the general rule of being active by day and sleeping by night) and being poisoned by upsetting scorpions, tarantulas, sidewinders, or cobras.
Sometimes, when Temari was feeling especially bitter, she wondered why anyone had bothered to settle out here in the first place.
The trick to traveling across a desert, the oldest Sand-nin had learned, was to simply not stop moving. Stopping to take a rest was probably the most risky move any person could make, because it was usually the stopping that got a person in trouble with the wildlife. It was important to keep concentrating on putting one foot in front of another, to pick a pace that could be maintained for an indefinite amount of time, and to always keep your eyes on the horizon. It was easy to be lulled by the apparent changelessness of the scenery, and as soon as one dropped their eyes to, say, a few yards in front of their feet, and started to day-dream – that was it. Said traveler had just lost their way and probably wouldn't find it again before the sun came up.
The sky, however, had stars. This may seem painfully obvious, but she had often found that the amateur traveler never thought to use them to their advantage. When the sun was up, one could use the sun (so long as it wasn't within an hour of high noon) to determine direction; by night, one could use the stars. And it was by the heavens alone that one could find their way in the Wind Country, because the natural iron ore deposits deep beneath the surface wrecked havoc on a standard compass.
As usual, Kankurou started out in the lead. He almost always started out the lead in everything, whether it was walking through a desert or walking into a Hidden Village where they were going to facilitate a war under the false pretense of entering a chuunin exam. Of the three of them, the kugutsu-nin gave the best first impression – Temari found it incredibly hard to look notable when her younger brother was built like a freaking ox and painted his face to resemble some kind of demented tiger. It did, however, give Gaara and her a much easier time of escaping notice and kicking ass later on when others misjudged them.
Which happened… an awful lot, really.
They trudged across the desert in a straight line – Kankurou first, Gaara second, and Temari trailing along third. The hard-packed earth they once had the luxury of traveling over had turned into the soft, deep dunes that undulated endlessly toward all horizons save the east. The further west they traveled, the higher the swells of sand rose, the deeper the troughs between peaks grew. If it wasn't for the wall-walking jutsu, all three of them would have been floundering up to their knees in the reddish sand. Even though the delicate use of chakra prevented them from having to struggle too much, Temari still found herself forced to her hands and knees in order to climb up the monstrous waves, and sliding down them to reach the bottom.
Her only consolation to the irritating itch of sand inside her sandals and other… places… was that Kankurou and Gaara weren't doing any better.
Midnight came and went. They did not stop to eat or rest, and drank the absolute minimum of water possible. Since sunset the temperature had been dropping steadily; without any clouds to mar the perfect dome of starlight above them, there was nothing to lock in the heat after the sand itself had cooled off. It was not unusual for it to drop close to freezing during the night, and if there had been more humidity in the air there probably would be frost. This night, however, the temperature did not drop low enough for Temari to see her breath condense in the air before her – although it was still uncomfortably cool.
At some point the dunes started to grow smaller in size, the slopes a little less steep, and when Kankurou paused a moment to knock back a swallow of water from his canteen, Gaara passed him without a glance. And after that it was Kankurou and Temari pacing silently side-by-side, following the silent form of their little brother, and the blonde Sand-nin found it strange how that was the way it always ended up. In the end, it was always Gaara, the youngest and the smallest, who took the lead.
While this didn't bother Temari, per say, she could understand why it sometimes confused people outside of their small circle. She couldn't say it worked like that because he was smarter, or faster, or stronger than them (though she could at least agree on the lattermost), or if it was fear that encouraged her and her other brother to just let him take charge. She didn't think Kankurou could exactly put a finger on why, either. Especially since Gaara was so damn good at pissing them off.
It was amazing that they even managed to function as a team at all.
The swells of sand gradually shrunk to a more easily managed size; far off in the distance, the blonde Sand-nin could see where the mesa of her home town was located by the strip of darkness on the horizon where no stars could be seen. The ground grew firmer, the soil rockier, and vegetation began to creep back into the environment. More than once they crossed the lazy, meandering tracks of a sidewinder, or saw the dark shape of a horny toad scuttle out from beneath their feet. The non-stop whirr of cicadas started off a low, buzzing background noise, but the further they got back into a more hospitable region, the louder and more insistent the sound grew.
Temari hadn't been paying too close attention to their travel, only making certain that the North Star stayed on her right. It wasn't until she saw the long, circular shadows of ash and scorch marks on the rocks beneath their feet that she realized just how far north Gaara had angled.
A few inches of half-burnt, precious wood crunched underfoot when she came to a stop. "We've come too far north," she said. It was, to her knowledge, the first thing she had said since they had entered the desert.
Kankurou took a few more steps forward before coming to a halt himself. Gaara ignored her; he went all the way to the edge of the ravine before finally pausing and looking back at them over his shoulder.
"I know," he said simply, and turned back to look down into the gully.
Temari looked uneasily up at her brother. The painted face of the kugutsu-nin looked a little unsettled as well. She had never liked coming out here, to Sunagakure's graveyard – it seemed as though the ghosts of the deceased had tainted the rocks and left a sour, angry feeling to the ground. It made her hackles rise and her stomach churn.
Kankurou sighed through his nose, and the lines on his face eased into resignation. "Come on," he muttered, hooking a thumb under the strap of his travel pack. "Might as well get it over with."
She scowled at his back when he turned away. "I don't like indulging his morbid tendencies," she replied in an undertone, but found herself following anyways.
Grit scuttled down the edge of the ravine when the two Sand-nin joined their sibling – Temari to his right, Kankurou to his left. The ravine could almost be better described as a canyon, although it was not quite large enough; the cliffs were tall enough and steep enough to give anyone (besides a ninja, at least) a rough time getting to the bottom. The steps that had been carved into the ancient granite rock wound back and forth across the cliff face; Temari had always refused to enter the graveyard, but she guessed the steps numbered easily into the hundreds.
The diffused starlight did a horribly good job of reaching the sandy bottom so far below them. Somehow, despite the winds that oftentimes howled across the desert and piled buckets of sand against the walls of homes in Suna, the cairns of the dead below were never buried. Sometimes the wind would rip away the neat little crosses that were staked at the head of each pile of stones, or blow away the stones themselves, but never was the graveyard ever buried.
Down below were the markers of those who had deceased over the last hundred years of Sunagakure's existence. It was a deformed forest of small, sadly sun-rotted crosses.
Temari hated it here, hated the sight of all those empty graves and the smell of burnt wood (and faintly, burnt flesh) that clung to the stones where the dead were ceremonially set alight. She was no stranger to death, knew it intimately enough, but there was something about this place that wasn't… right. Like the spirits were bitter when they finally passed on, like the grief of their loved ones had soaked into the ground. Like it was some kind of ancient battleground where both sides suffered grievous losses and neither really won.
"God," Kankurou murmured under his breath. "How many more?"
The oldest Sand-nin shifted her eyes to the far side of the ravine, where the newest cairns were erected. The color of the rocks on those cairns indicated they were not as old as the ones that surrounded them, the crosses not as bone-pale and sun-bleached. She tried not to count, but her mind worked against her; even the briefest glance had numbers automatically being estimated.
"Thirty-five," she said, and deliberately looked away. "Or so."
Gravel scraped beneath the kugutsu-nin's feet as he shifted. "That's an awful lot of people to die in six months."
Drought and disease, Temari thought. With the Kazekage's attempt at waging war with the Hidden Leaf, several of the other countries had imposed an embargo on the city. She had no doubt that infections or other easy-to-take-care-of problems were the primary cause of most of the deaths.
Gaara made a non-committal noise and turned back toward Sunagakure. "They're dead," he replied. "Who cares how it happened? The fact doesn't change."
The youngest Sand-nin continued his trek toward the mesa his home city was centered in; his siblings only stared at the graveyard a bit longer, before looking in unison at each other.
Sometimes I wish he wouldn't talk, Kankurou mouthed silently.
Temari just hitched her travel pack higher and turned to follow. She was too tired to get into another fight.
Half an hour later they walked through the gates of Sunagakure. And, unsurprisingly, the act was marked by silence.
.oO0Oo.The door to their house was open.
Kankurou couldn't say he found that surprising. Six months was a long time to be gone; if he and his siblings had lived in an apartment, it would have a new tenant, even if they had paid the months of rent in advance. No, he didn't find it surprising that the door had been picked and that sand was piled up inside the doorway nearly to his knees. Disappointing, but not surprising.
"… think they got through the seals?"
His sister sounded tired. Looked tired. Twelve straight hours of travel could do that to a person. Dust smeared her face except for where sweat had drawn thin tracks through the grit from hairline to jaw. He probably looked worse. God knew what the guards had thought when they passed through the gates.
"Maybe," he said, but he doubted it. Temari's seals weren't the best, and Gaara didn't care enough to bother, but Kankurou felt he had some legitimate pride in his own work. And he never set a seal without setting a trap to go with it – sometimes two. If anyone managed to get past the seals and the traps… well, they were welcome to whatever they wanted. Someone like that certainly had more skill than the common vandal.
Gaara pushed past them and entered the doorway. He didn't bother to brush away the sand in the tiny foyer, merely slogging through it to the steps that lead up to the inner door. Kankurou and Temari followed, even though there was barely enough room for three ninja and their equipment on the porch.
The seals on the inner door were still intact (even if the paper was yellowed and brittle from the dry desert air), but the kugutsu-nin was too tired to smirk. As expected; a ninja of the Hidden Sand wouldn't find anything of interest in their home, and a punk that was looking to sell someone else's VCR wouldn't bother trying to get around a seal in the first place. It was too much work with not enough reward.
He went up the steps – four of them – and went through the complex set of hand-seals he had developed for this particular jutsu. Chakra was applied to the lock and to the hinges, and the binding that had been set six months ago through the placement of the paper seals dissolved. The trap beyond the door would still be activated as soon as he turned the latch, but at least the door would open. Binding jutsu were incredibly useful skills to pick up.
Not bothering to remove the calligraphic paper pasted to the wooden frame – appearances could be deceiving, after all, and it wouldn't hurt to let people think the seal was still in place – Kankurou twisted the knob and pulled open the door.
He was prepared for the oncoming assault of senbon needles, but none came.
Funny, he thought. The trap couldn't have broken down after only six months, could it?
"What is it?" Temari asked in a low voice when he did not immediately move into the house.
Kankurou's lips twisted downward at the edges. Sand caked into the folds of his face ground against his skin in the movement. "… I think I left the coffee pot on when we left."
"Tch." His sister came up the steps behind him, nudged him in the kidney with a fingertip. "Don't be retarded. Get inside before I hit you."
He obliged. Three steps and the trap still did not go off. Darkness obscured the far corners of the room, barely lit by the dim morning light that poured in through the open door and through the cracks on the shuttered (and also sealed) windows. Inside, the house was buried in several inches of dust and sand that got in through the cracks under the doors and between the window panes during sandstorms. The wooden platform that circled the room was more obviously worse for wear than the sunken living room floor; the yellowish-tan tiles were made to hide the sand that got in no matter what one did to prevent it. The television was still in its usual place to his left, in the corner of the room. He could see the remote where he had left it on the coffee table. There was a rectangle of clean red wood beneath it that was perpendicular to how it was lying.
Kankurou turned to his right, taking another step and clearing the doorway so that his siblings could get through. The house had that musty scent of a place closed up too long, of stale air and, very vaguely, dirty laundry. He could see better into the kitchen from this angle, over the bar counter and under the cabinets that created a kind of window into the room. There was enough light coming in through the front door that he could see the smudges in the dust on the bat-wing doors.
Temari didn't remark on the footprints in the dirt that criss-crossed the living area, from the door to the kitchen to the couches to the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Neither did Gaara.
The trap still did not go off.
The blonde Sand-nin rested her fists on her hips, tilted her head back and sniffed the air. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about," she said. "I don't smell burnt coffee."
"My bad," he said absently. He reached behind the door to flip the light switch – up, then down, then up again. No lights came on. "I meant when we left Konoha."
A much-abused travel pack hit the wooden planking with a dull thud. "Retard," the girl repeated herself, massaging her shoulder with a grimace. "We didn't have a coffee pot in Konoha."
Their little brother slipped through the door and stepped off the platform, ghosting across the room in that eerie, silent way of his. The room was dark from the shuttered windows, but Kankurou could still see the way the dust fluttered around the genin's feet to hide his passing footprints. "Shikamaru did," the kugutsu-nin said.
"No, he didn't," she countered.
This gained Kankurou's full attention, and he was unable to quell the rising of his brows. "How would you know? We never went to his house."
There was more than enough light in the room to high-light the blush that came over her grimy features. "Uh – "
"Here," Gaara said.
He filed that bit of information away for future reference (and teasing) and turned to look across the room. The red-haired genin was standing in the shadows of the hallway, right underneath the trap. He held up a small bit of parchment, but it was too far away for Kankurou to read.
"Great," he mumbled, and took the step down off the platform. Looked like whoever slipped through his binding jutsu, disable his trap, meandered all over his house, and then reactivated his binding jutsu, had also decided to leave a note just to piss him off. And he had a bad feeling he knew who it was, too. Bastard.
Grit crunched beneath his sandals as he stalked across the living room and snatched the note from his brother's hand. Gaara gave him one of his looks, but withdrew down the hallway into the gloom of darkness without comment.
Scribbled on the parchment was a single sentence: Need more practice.
"God damnit," he swore.
Temari leaned around his shoulder to get a look at the note herself. Kankurou had to force himself not to startle; couldn't she learned to make a little more noise when she was in her own home?
"Baki?" she asked.
He pushed the note at her, scowling. The hand-writing had been too obviously that of their instructor; he had a bad habit of smearing the ink with the blade of his palm because he didn't keep his hand high enough off the paper. That wasn't something easily mimicked. "Yeah. Smug asshole, doing all that and making us think someone had laid traps or was still waiting in the house. He really gets a stiffy off of pissing me off."
The blonde looked up at him under her eyebrows, her way of communicating amusement when she was worried that saying it aloud would only insult him. "Are you so sure there aren't?"
"Any more traps?" He blew out a sigh and slid a thumb under the tie that held his dolls strapped onto his back. "Are you kidding? If there were, we would have sprung them just walking across the room." The kugutsu-nin carefully undid the buckles over his chest and gently set his dolls down on the tiled floor. His travel pack quickly followed. "I'm more interested in finding out how he unsealed my jutsu – and then resealed it."
Temari shrugged, one shoulder and the arm attached to it rising in the motion, hand palm up with the paper stuck between two fingers. "Admit it, Kankurou – you suck."
"Bite me." He tilted his head back, squinting in the effort to see through the darkness. The trap that he had set up in the corner of the hallway was almost completely dismantled. The chakra strings he had used to connect the trigger to the door had been dissolved (although the ones holding it in place were untouched), the needles and the simple throwing mechanism still intact. Man, now he was going to go insane from waiting until Baki showed him that trick… after all, their mentor didn't know the exact hand-seals Kankurou had used, because he had sealed up the house after the other three had left. Unless he had been spying?
The Sand-nin let out an annoyed sigh and shook his head. There was nothing to be done about it now. He would just have to strangle the trick out of Baki later.
He looked back to his sister. "We're out of power," he said heavily. "The generators probably got clogged, or maybe the solar panels need cleaning. If someone was siphoning we'd at least get some power."
The blonde nodded, looking toward the television in the corner. "We must have had power not that long back, though, or Baki would've had no use for the news."
"Lazy bastard," Kankurou swore again. "He could have at least swept up a little."
Temari shook her head, grinning. It was easy to see how much this was amusing her. At my expense, I'm sure, the kugutsu-nin thought sullenly.
"Well, if there's no power there's no running water," she said matter-of-factly. "We'll just have to take care of it later. I need a nap more than I need a bath, anyways."
"Me, too," he replied truthfully. It was a relief to finally get the weight off his back – the muscles across his chest and ribs were tight with strain, and he knew he'd have to be careful with his stretches later on, or he'd stiffen up something awful. Everything was sore, really, because scrambling through sand dunes was no easy task for even the most experienced nomad.
He turned with the intent of checking the bindings on the bedroom doors, eyes finally adjusted to the dim light of the house. But no amount of adjusting could have prepared him for the surprise of nearly walking into his brother, who had come up behind him without a sound.
Kankurou took a swift step backward to keep from losing his balance. Gaara and Temari both! Couldn't either of them learn to make some noise once in a while?
"Gaara," he said, sounding more startled than he wanted. "Don't creep up on me like that."
His younger brother gave him an annoyed look. In the bright light of day, Gaara's pupils were so contracted that they seemed to vanish; but in the darkness, like this, they widened again, threatening to swallow the pale green of his iris. In the dark, his eyes almost looked normal – except for the way those eyes caught the light and reflected it when he glanced back at Temari.
Seeing that never failed to remind Kankurou of his first night in Konoha, of walking down one of those damp alleyways and startling the local cats. The way they had glared out from their hiding spots with baleful, luminescent green eyes.
It was just plain creepy.
"The seals on our doors are untouched," Gaara stated blandly. His eyes flicked back up to Kankurou, and the angle prevented any more refraction of light. "Baki's room is open, but unused."
The kugutsu-nin withheld the jealous urge to ask how, exactly, Gaara knew the seals had not been touched, when he, the maker of those seals, was unable to. It was a pointless question.
"He must not have spent much time here in the last three months," Temari said behind him. "The Council must keep him busy."
"Maybe." Kankurou edged around his younger brother to peer into the room in question. The bed was still made (in Baki's signature sheets-could-bounce-a-dime style) and covered in a thin layer of dust. In the far corner of the otherwise Spartan room there was a hamper of dirty laundry. There was also only one set of footprints in the dust on the floor.
"Then why did he reseal the house?" he asked the empty room. "Baki knew when we would get back."
"Maybe he locked up a while ago, or wasn't planning on coming back," the oldest Sand-nin suggested.
"Or maybe it was to piss you off," Gaara added in a bored tone.
Kankurou glared over his shoulder at his brother. He was stoically ignored.
"Screw it," he said, and stalked into his mentor's bedroom. "I'm too tired to undo the other seals. He deserves to get sand in his sheets, anyways."
"Now who's the lazy bastard?" Temari asked he seated himself on the bed and began removing his sandals. She stepped forward far enough that she could lean one shoulder on the door-jam. "Besides, the bed already has sand in it."
"More sand," Kankurou said with exaggerated patience, and threw his sandal at her. "Nitpick."
She caught it and threw it back at his feet with enough force to score a hiss when he didn't draw them back fast enough. "Whatever. If you try to hog the pillow, I'll kill you."
The bed was not a terribly large one, but big enough to fit two children – three was a squeeze, but do-able. As the blonde Sand-nin relieved herself of her fan, Kankurou looked past her to where Gaara still stood in the hallway. He was staring toward the open front door with a suspiciously blank look on his face. "If you're tired, there's room for three, y'know."
The red-haired genin didn't look over or even blink. "No," he said.
Which was the response the kugutsu-nin had been expecting. He couldn't help but make the offer anyways. It would have felt… odd… if he hadn't.
"Whatever," he said, and let himself fall back onto the mattress. A cloud of dust rose up in the air, forcing him to close his eyes and try not to cough. "Just kick me if you want some space."
Gaara did not bother to respond. By the time Kankurou had reopened his eyes, his brother had vanished from the hallway, and his sister was smacking him with her sandal for more room on the bed. They fought briefly over the pillow, which threw up an unholy amount of sand and dust. By the time his internal clock (and the rising temperature) told him it was a half-hour past sunrise, Temari had one half of the bed and the pillow, and Kankurou had the other half with no pillow at all (he preferred to consider it not a loss, but a gallant sacrifice on his part). The sheets remained crumpled beneath them, as it was already too hot for covers.
He didn't bother to remove his hood or any other apparel save his shoes; neither did Temari. With his sister curled up on her side to his left, back toward him, Kankurou stared at the ceiling for all of fifteen seconds before he fell asleep.
.oO0Oo.At a point that felt like a few hours after noon, Kankurou woke back up.
But he couldn't really call it waking, per say; it was more like sleeping while being completely aware of his surroundings. Just being able to lie on a soft surface, in a place that smelled like home, felt like home, was enough to lull him into the half-state between sleeping and consciousness. He could hear the soft breathing of his sister beside him, the sound of someone tinkering around in the front room (but not a bad kind of tinkering – the quiet kind that sounded like Gaara messing around in the kitchen; he was so weird about keeping the kitchen clean), the faint catcalls of merchants closer to town showing off their wares. It was comfortable, and the feeling of rightness cradled his senses.
But the passage of time was impossible to track in that state, even for his internal clock, so Kankurou had no idea how long he had been sleeping when Gaara reentered the bedroom. He didn't really know how he knew his brother was there – he didn't make even the ghost of a sound when he moved. Maybe it was that smell he had come to associate with the red-head's sand, that scent of blood and hot desert air. Whatever it was, it alerted him so that he wasn't alarmed when the mattress on his side of the bed dipped under someone else's weight.
Kankurou rolled over onto his left side, flung an arm over his sister, and nudged the back of Temari's skull with his forehead until she gave up some of the pillow she had stolen. She just jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow (but not quite hard enough to hurt) and rolled over onto her stomach, away from him. Gaara slid into the space provided and did his best not to touch Kankurou or fall off the bed. The mattress underneath them shifted and squeaked as they made room for one another.
Eventually the three of them got situated – Gaara and Kankurou back-to-back on their sides, Temari on her stomach with Kankurou's arm over her shoulders. It was warm in the room and warm where their bodies were forced to touch, and frankly they could all use a good long bath with lots of soap – but it was, the kugutsu-nin thought, incredibly comfortable. It smelled and felt like home.
" 'Night," he mumbled.
"S'not night, stupid," Temari said in a sleepy tone, voice muffled by the pillow.
Gaara, of course, said nothing. But that was the way it was supposed to be.
Kankurou smiled and fell back asleep.