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 canon doesn't really tell us much about what happened, even after the whole Gaara-arc, so other than slipping in our favorite old bag lady I feel like I can pretty much continue on the vein I had originally planned.
And I suppose I owe an apology for taking over a year to finish this second chapter, cough cough. I got sidetracked with developing other characterizations (primarily Asuma), and the characterizations for the Sandsibs kinda got pushed into the wayside. And, you know, when you're writing detailed RPs that might as well be stories in and of themselves you kinda lose interest in writing actual stories. Excuses, excuses. Enjoy chapter two!
The door to the house was open.
It was an hour to sunset. Streamers of gold and burnt orange and mauve wreathed the western skies to his right, tinting the cliffs of the ancient mesa red like blood. The home in question was on the north-eastern edge of Sunagakure, dangerously close to the wall of its natural enclosure. Really, all of the ninja housing was at risk of mudslide or flash flood in the rainy season, but this modest, one-story adobe home was more at risk than the others.
Hachi suspected the home was built so far away from the rest of housing for a very, very good reason.
He had already taken the time to scout the perimeter. There was no sign of life within the house – all the windows were shuttered, no entrance save the front door, the water purifiers out back silent, the shed locked; it looked, for all intents and purposes, uninhabited.
But he had the word of a reliable source that the house was inhabited, by his targets, which he could only assume (from the lack of activity over the last few hours) were either asleep or otherwise occupied.
A trickle of sweat ran down the crease between cheek and nose. The ninja stuck a finger under his red and gray ANBU mask to wipe the irritation away.
He didn't think he was ready for this. He had just been raised to jounin a month ago (he passed the exam only because his opponent fainted from blood-loss and heat stroke), and the ANBU tattoo on his upper arm still itched and chaffed horribly under his desert robes. He was sweating more from the thought of going into that home than he was from the afternoon heat, but the thought of not going in…
Not going in wasn't an option.
The adobe home was built just like all the others in housing – there were only three or four types of floor plans, and the only real difference between them was how many bedrooms there were. The outer door was just a way to try and keep out the encroaching sand; inside was a small room typically used to hang desert apparel and clean off. He imagined the house would probably be dusty from months of disuse, his targets tired from travel (they had chosen the direct route across the Waste rather than head to the capital by train and then cross the relatively mild landscape of the Lower Steppe) and quite possibly unprepared for an attack. They were still genin, after all. It was possible that Hachi could rely upon their inexperience and lack of paranoia to make this job easier.
Then again, there was a notoriously long list of deceased ninja under Gaara's belt, and all three were the children of the late Kazekage. It would be best not to underestimate any of them.
He took a breath, let it out slowly. Slipped a kunai out of his thigh holster and proceeded to enter the small porch.
The space inside the porch was shin-high in sand; the outside entrance had, apparently, been left open during the last sandstorm (or two). Cobwebs littered the corners where the walls met the gritty floor (the walls he could almost touch if he stretched his arms out) and hung from the coat hooks bolted into the adobe to his right. Six old, yellowed seals were plastered onto the inner door and over the gap between the door and the frame.
Three were on the door itself, one on the frame over the lock, and two over the hinges. He could not sense if the binding jutsu was still in place (that type of jutsu did not leave behind the characteristic chakra residue), but he could see the creases in the seals over the hinges. The door had been opened recently.
Hachi felt a brief, giddy lift of relief at the sight. It was, frankly, amateur – too obvious, reminiscent of a genin who had too much confidence in his own abilities, too much faith that he was strong enough to deflect any attack that came his way. It was hard to imagine Hachi himself had ever been that stupid.
But the ninja put a damper on the relief he felt; he could not allow it to distract him. He could not allow himself to become over-confident.
The ANBU went through a short series of hand seals, preparing himself for the gloom and darkness he knew to be beyond the door. It wouldn't do to be startled because of sun-blindness. He hopped up to the top step, the hem of his robes dragging over the sand piled at the bottom of the stairs. Cautiously wrapping his hand around the doorknob, the ninja tested to see if it was locked.
It was not. The latch turned easily (and quietly) under his palm; he pulled the door open.
There was no tug on the door to indicate he had sprung a trap – nothing but the almost inaudible fwoosh of suddenly airborne objects. Hachi whirled backward and to his right, behind the concealment of the door. But not quite fast enough; the edge of his cloak tore under the assault of the missiles. There were multiple, faint thuds of impact on the far side of the wood.
Silence. Hachi leaned backward, remaining behind the door as he pulled it open again. This time he could feel the resistance of the trap, but only barely; it must have been set with a hair-fine trigger.
Not bad at all, he thought. If the trap had truly been silent, he probably would have never known it was there. Perhaps the children were more paranoid than he had previously thought.
The ninja pulled lightly on the door, attempting to retrigger the trap, but there was no further assault. Deciding that more caution was necessary, Hachi went through another series of hand seals, directing chakra to heighten his sense of hearing and smell. He had anticipated no real problems until he had actually gotten to his targets, but… Well, they were Baki's students. He had thought the only one he would really need to worry about was Gaara; perhaps he had better amend that thought before it got him killed.
Hachi pulled open the door again and slipped inside. His eyes, already sharpened by chakra, picked out the details of the living room in stark relief; the eye-holes of his mask limited his range of vision, but so little as to be nearly unnoticeable.
An old television set, two battered couches. Bat-wing doors leading to an enclosed kitchen. Two candle stubs on the counter of the window looking into the kitchen. The odor of a house closed up too long, burnt matches, dirty laundry – something just a tad too sweet and sick, like death, but very faint. A worn travel pack by his feet, another one at the entrance of the hallway, an unidentifiable bundle – was that hair or fur peeking out of one end? – lying next to it. A lax, barely visible glimmer of wire, stretching from the knob of the door to where the trap had been attached to the ceiling in the hallway across the room.
The ANBU briefly fingered the wire, looking over the needles that had embedded themselves in the door. Several more were sticking out of the sand in the foyer, a scrap of his cloak pinned to the ground. It was a crude trap, but effective. More so if a second trap had been set, triggered by a trip-wire or by the door closing again. Hachi considered it in his favor that there had been only one.
Leaving the door open (it was unwise to close any avenue of escape), the robed ninja stepped lightly off the wooden step and moved delicately across the sandy, unmarked floor. Although there were no more wires that he could see, no obvious signs of chakra or explosive tags, something about the house seemed… off. His targets hadn't even bothered to unpack their equipment, so it seemed unlikely that there were any more traps.
Something in the way his stomach fluttered told him he was missing something. Was that fear? Or the faintly strengthening scent of death?
He paused at the mouth of the hallway. There were five doors here: two on the left, two on the right, and one straight ahead that was obviously the entrance to the bathroom. The two doors on his left and the one furthest away on his right were all closed, the yellowed seals giving the binding jutsu away. Another traveling bag was leaning in the corner by the bathroom door, along with a cracked gourd that stood almost to his hip.
Hachi swallowed and eyed the gourd warily. The smell was stronger now, more pungent, like the scent of old, sun-dried blood. It made the hair along his arms and the back of his neck stand up. It was a good sign, he thought, that the gourd was not physically with the Kazekage's youngest son, but its presence alone was unnerving. The sand it contained had been soaked with the blood of an unknown number of ninja, of enemies and allies to Sunagakure alike – it was, without a doubt, the most dangerous weapon he would ever face, never mind that the gourd was corked and there was no sand in sight.
More sweat trickled down his hairline, even though it was easily ten degrees cooler inside the adobe home. He didn't dare adjust his mask to wipe it away.
The fifth door in the hallway, the closest one on his right, was open; he could barely see the corner of a worn headboard. Licking his lips and tightening his grip on the kunai, the masked ANBU slid forward the last few steps to see into the room.
All three of the children were curled up on the bed, on their sides. Facing him. Watching him.
Oh, Hachi thought dumbly. The trap wasn't meant to actually stop him, but to wake them.
The realization came a little too late.
The older of the two boys lifted one hand in a negligent gesture, and the feeling of chakra tickled the ninja's senses. Something hit him from behind, violently propelling him into the room at the same instant that his feet were jerked out from under him. Hachi tucked in his shoulder and turned the unexpected tumble into a more controlled roll, losing his grip on the kunai. Behind him, the door slammed shut, rattling the window in its frame.
The air hissed as sand poured in under the gap beneath the door, a roiling current of death that moved at the will of its wielder. It was, he realized in that brief second before instinct took over, the exact same color as the thin layer of sand that had covered the tiled floor of the living area and hallway.
The thin layer of sand that had, upon inspection of memory, carried no trace of footprints from the occupants of the house.
I'm never drawing straws againHachi thought dolefully.
The second passed; he rose from a crouch and let his hands fly through the seals necessary to create a weapon of wind to defend with. He forced the chakra generated into his extremities, down his arms and into his fingertips –
- and a gust of wind sent him skidding backwards, disrupting seals and wasting the chakra he had built up. He threw out his hands to catch his balance, to defend from attack, but the blow came from behind instead; Hachi hit the wall full force, hard enough to knock the breath out of him, hard enough to hear the adobe crack in protest.
The sand engulfed him immediately, curling around him like some giant hand. Faster than he could register, it pinned his arms to his sides and slithered up his body in an embrace that would surely mean death. His mask was knocked askew, and all he could see was the pale cream of ceramic.
Less than five seconds had passed since the initial attack.
Hachi, as most did in his position, proceeded to have a quiet panic attack.
"Hold off a second," one of them said; male, likely the oldest boy.
Sand scraped over his neck and collarbones. It tickled in the insanely terrifying way that he imagined being buried in a termite hill would feel like. His mouth had gone very, very dry.
He could hear the mattress squeak as weight was shifted. The quiet rustle of clothing, perhaps the scrape of metal on wood, and Hachi tried to jerk his head back when his mask shifted. But the sand tightened, holding his jaw and neck firmly in place, stopping all movement, and all he could do was try not to whimper and wait.
The tip of a kunai dragged over his cheek as the girl used the weapon to push his mask up. The oldest child of the late Kazekage looked far too calm, the elfin features set in an expression of detached interest.
"Pretty fast this time around," Kankurou said. The purple face-paint drawn around his left eye and cheek was smudged, but it still lent him a strangely creepy air.
Not nearly as creepy as the boy next to him, sitting on the side of the bed with one fisted hand resting lightly on his thigh. Those demonic, dead green eyes stared at him, unblinking, and it was all the ninja could do to tear his gaze away to the blonde girl before him.
"Sunagakure never sleeps," Temari replied idly. She pressed the flat of the blade against his right cheekbone, the point of the kunai just under his eye. "Someone besides the guards would have seen us walking through town."
"Probably," the puppeteer agreed. He took the time to push himself higher up on the bed, leaning back against the headboards. "So why would one our ANBU decide to drop in on us without knocking?"
Hachi opened his mouth to respond, and had to pause to work some moisture into his mouth when no sound emerged. The three children waiting in patient, menacing silence.
"… the Council summons you," he croaked finally.
"That certainly explains why you decided to sneak into the house," Kankurou said wryly.
"I'm sure it's standard procedure," Temari replied in just as dry a tone, pressing the kunai harder against his cheekbone.
"I h-have an official summons," Hachi said quickly. The not-quite-seen presence of the weapon (it was too close for him to focus on it properly) was making his eye water involuntarily. He didn't dare blink. "I can show it to you."
The older siblings ponder this for a moment before turning as one toward Gaara. He tilted his head back, eye still unblinking.
"Show me," he said finally, and relaxed his fist.
Sand whispered down the jounin's body, withdrawing from where it had crept up under his robes and sandals. It left behind a maddening itch that was all but impossible not to scratch.
For the briefest second, the ANBU considered going for his kunai, or for his most violent wind jutsu, or even for setting off all his explosive notes at once. He was here, in the same room as that monster; was it possible that he might succeed where all others had failed? That he might be able to rid Sungakure of this abomination for once and for all? Surely he would die in the effort, and a suicide explosion would probably take Kankurou and Temari as well, but sacrifices had to be made.
The girl withdrew the weapon she held at his cheek; he shifted his gaze down to his feet, where the sand whispered in errant circles like a predator stalking prey. Would he even be able to move before it engulfed him again? Before it pulverized him like a child would a handful of clay? The youngest boy was watching him, staring at him with those dead, empty eyes, one hand lying palm-up in his lap with the fingers curled up – as though cradling something precious… or waiting to crush something the instant it moved.
Hachi reached into his robe, moving cautiously. His fingers brushed against the rolled-up explosive notes tucked into his vest pocket.
It would only take a second.
Just a tiny, infinitesimal second…
Baki stood to the side of the Council chamber, hands behind his back, perfectly at attention. When he arrived three hours ago he was not offered a seat at the long trestle table; he would not have taken one even if he had been offered.
Harsh light from Sunagakure's sunset slanted into the room from behind the dignitary's table, casting the Council members in shadow and forcing petitioners to address the floor or risk being blinded. Baki, from his position to the side, was able to avoid the sun-blindness and watch the proceedings of the day unhindered – but his eyes chose instead to follow the sand motes as they danced through the beams of light. His irritation was tightly withheld and never touched his features.
The administrator of the underground aquifer – Sunagakure's only reliable source of water – droned on in his report of the city's water usage and retention, machinery malfunctions, lack of personnel, funding requests, etcetera. The jounin already knew all the numbers that would be quoted and all the weak spots pointed out; Ichiro had been pleading his case before the Council heads every week for a month. And every week they sent him back to the aquifer with assurances that they would look into the matter and contact him when Sunagakure's tight funding allowed. Don't call us, we'll call you.
It made Baki sick. The Kazekage would have never allowed this to happen to his city. But with his controlling influence gone there was no one left to keep the Council in check. It made him sick and more than a little angry.
The ninja let his uncovered eye shift minutely toward the members of the Council seat – those who had bothered to appear, at least. Saishu's ornate red robes were conspicuously absent, but the lack was somehow unsurprising; the desert abbot kept his ear to the ground and had his own informants among Suna's guard force. Baki wouldn't have been surprised if Saishu found out about the siblings return before Baki himself had, and knew they'd immediately be called before the Council. The old man always had been something of a coward around Gaara.
At least the other three members of the Council had bothered to arrive – politely bored at what Ichiro had to say though they were. Even young Mamoru, chieftain of the nomadic clans, showed signs of impatience to be out; his dark eyes kept flickering to the clock on the far wall. Disappointing, really, because the boy had shown a great deal of promise after Chuuko's growing senility had forced him to step down from the Council. Baki had hoped a nomad's stern sensibilities might stabilize the other men – instead it appeared as though the position of new-found power was going to Mamoru's head.
"Your concern and dedication to your job and the citizens of Sunagakure is admirable, Ichiro-san," Eki said, voice slick with false pride. His cold, reptilian eyes did not reflect the warmth in his words. "But you must understand that the issue of funding is a delicate one at the moment."
Beside him, the swarthy face of Kyouji bobbed in agreement. "It is a matter which must be given much thought."
Baki resisted the urge to spit on the floor in contempt. Suna's funding had been halved since the failed attack against the Hidden Leaf – they could survive on that little, if barely. But if even one drop of water was contaminated it could mean the death of the whole city! No matter how delicate the finances were, everything had to be thrown into maintaining the water supply if necessary. How could the Council be so blind?
Ichiro was doubtless expecting this answer, as it hadn't deviated over the last month. He pressed his palms together and bowed.
"Your time in this matter is greatly appreciated," he said to the floor, "but you must understand the urgency in the problem. If the contamination is not contained in the southwest quadrant – "
"The results will be grave. But the results of awarding the aquifer more funding without considering how it will affect the rest of Sunagakure's assets could be just as grave." Mamoru said. The beads in his braided hair clinked together as he looked across the empty seat of the Sand Priest. "Can we have results no later than sunrise tomorrow, gentlemen?"
"Surely," Eki said agreed smoothly, and Kyouji nodded again.
Baki swallowed to keep from spitting.
The dark-skinned nomad turned back to Ichiro. "We will send a messenger with the final determination tomorrow. You may depart."
Ichiro bowed deeper, thumbs touching his chest. "My gratitude, Council," he said, still addressing the floor. "You wisdom will lead Sungakure to new heights."
Baki could not help but wrinkle his nose as Ichiro backed out of the room. The Council's 'wisdom' had done nothing but fail the Hidden Sand. He appreciated Ichiro's efforts – debasing oneself in order to win the assets needed to aid the city was admirable, but in the end worthless. He already knew the aquifer would not receive the funding so badly needed.
No one on the Council had Suna's best interests in mind. The jounin had hoped the Mamoru, young and still relatively unbiased, would at least keep the people in mind, but the other three had taken him under wing far too quickly. Eki's cold lust for power and Kyouji's lust for material wealth and Saishu's indeterminate political maneuverings were having their effect on Mamoru. Perhaps he was playing it safe and was mimicking the attitudes of the other Council heads, but even something so relatively innocent was taking its toll on the lives of hundreds of people. Despite Baki's hopes, Mamoru was simply too young for this position.
And the other three… Baki had spent so much time with them over the last six months, trying to piece Suna back together, that he could no longer understand how the Kazekage must have controlled them. Kyouji would have been the easiest to keep in hand – he had grown too fat and corpulent over the years to be a threat to anyone of higher rank than a genin. Wealth and comfort was all a civilian like he needed to be content.
Eki, on the other hand, was a serious threat – one that Baki knew he could not yet fully understand. The reptilian clan head was hairless and acted benign and painted his nails to match his robes – today the iridescent blue of his kimono was almost defiant of Suna's situation – but one look at his slit-pupiled eyes and his grayish-pink fingers that ended in blue-tipped claws, not nails… looking at that one could see that Eki was not a power to be underestimated. The Kazekage no doubt needed to use force to keep Eki under control, but who could do that now that the Kazekage was dead? Not Mamoru or Kyouji.
And then there was Saishu… and the ancient desert abbot was even more of a mystery than Eki.
Someone needed to take these four in hand. Someone who could whip Eki into compliance and match Kyouji and Saishu in matters of finance and politics. Baki had tried to serve as best he could over the last six months – to aid in the negotiations with Konoha, to bite his tongue and simper with gratitude when the Daimyo of Wind Country graciously did not cut off Suna's funding as originally threatened – but he did not have the skill or knowledge to take on the Council. At least he could see what needed to be done, but how could he force the Council to take action if he could not control them?
One did not have to be a politician or a master of finance to see how perilously close the Hidden Sand was to collapse. The Daimyo's funding for the city had dwindled to almost nothing, many of their skilled chuunin and jounin were dead from the failed attack on Konoha, there was still no new Kazekage in sight, and now their carefully maintained water supply was steadily becoming corrupted. And yet for nearly a month now the Council had continually turned a blind eye to the contamination in the southwestern quadrant of the city. Merchants were hawking boiled water among their wares now, and the price of a neighbor's (presumably) clean tap water had exploded. Fights had broken out over the last liter of imported water on a caravan train. Dozens of people were growing ill and risking the loss of their lives from Legionnaire's Disease and diarrhea.
And the Council still did nothing. It would not take long before the contamination spread to other parts of the city. Baki could smell a riot coming – and when it arrived, it was going to engulf Sungakure in flames.
The skin on the covered side of his face itched in annoyance. Damn his inability to force sense into the situation! His negotiations with the Hidden Sound and Hidden Leaf had only added to his notorious reputation as Gaara's jounin instructor of five years – he didn't dare make a move when so many eyes were upon him.
The air of Ichiro's passing had only just grown still when the Council room door opened again.
The Council's attendant peeked his graying head in, and then bowed. "Sirs," he said, "the late Kazekage's children have arrived." There was no tremor in his voice, but the hair at his temples was curling and damp – Baki doubted this was because the fans in the waiting room had stopped working again.
Eki leaned forward, resting his elbows on the tabletop and linking his fingers together. The expression on his hawk-like face was calm, but something in the light of his eyes signaled hunger. "Excellent. Please show them in."
The attendant bowed again and slipped out the door.
Almost as one, the eyes of the three Council heads turned to where Baki stood to the side of the chamber.
"It's been almost six months since your students were last home, Baki-sensei," the reptilian clan head purred. "I hope they've improved since the last time we saw them."
Kyouji looked bored. Mamoru looked vaguely interested (probably because he had never seen the legendary Gaara of the Sand before). Eki looked as though he was considering whether Baki's liver would taste better with wasabi or oyster sauce.
The skin hidden by the cloth bandages Baki wore around his head itched worse. He fought the urge to scratch his cheek and remained silent.
The second hand on the clock had almost made a full circuit by the time the door opened again. The attendant entered first, holding the door open as he made his announcement.
"The genin Gaara, Kankurou, and Temari of the Sand, sirs."
"Let them enter," Eki said gravely.
Baki's students filed into the room at the older man's gesture. They were dusty, and their sandals and feet still showed signs of travel, but they had taken the time to make themselves presentable. Temari had gone through the effort of brushing and putting her hair back up again (though her parts weren't as impeccably straight as Baki remembered), and Kankurou had done a rush job of reapplying his face paint (it was a little smudged on the left temple). All three wore their full compliment of weapons, and none gave him so much as a side-glance.
Despite his agitation and frustration, Baki was relieved to see his students again. He had never left Gaara in his sibling's sole care for so long before – it was good to see them whole and uninjured.
They stepped into the Council chamber in the order presented, eyes straight ahead as they lined up before the dignitary's table. Behind them followed a single ANBU in desert attire – the one sent out earlier in the day to let the siblings know their presence was required. The mask was new and did not show the chipped edges that were a sign of combat. Baki did not know whose face was behind that mask, but he knew well enough that it was one of the chuunin who'd been accelerated through the ranks in order to fill sorely needed positions. Baki had advised strongly against promotion without proper training, but it was just one of many matters in which the Council had ignored him.
The ANBU bowed deeply to the table as a whole, and the fat minister of trade and finances waved a pudgey hand in dismissal. There was no further need for him when the Kazekage's tower already had the full complement of ANBU guards. (Which, Baki thought bitterly, was very representative of the new government – they skimped on providing for anything besides their personal safety.)
With another, briefer bow, the ANBU retreated, and the attendant closed the door behind him as they left.
"And so the progeny of the Kazekage have returned," Eki said after a long, tense moment (during which the siblings showed no signs of nervousness or impatience; neither did they fidget – it made Baki want to smirk, though he did not). "How was your trip?"
"Uneventful," Gaara said quietly. He looked and sounded bored, his hands hanging loose at his sides and giving no sign of his inner thoughts. His posture, however, was very poor; had he slouched that much under the full weight of his gourd when they'd first left for Konoha?
"It is truly regretful, what happened to your father," Kyouji said. There was a note of genuine grief in his voice, but Baki suspected it was more because of what the Kazekage's death had done to Suna's coffers than because of any loss the orphans might be suffering. "We all mourn his death and the betrayal of that bastard Orochimaru."
No eyes turned toward him, but Baki could feel the Councilor's attention shift subtly in his direction. He grit his teeth and remained silent instead of pointing out that he hadn't been the only one advocating an alliance with the Sound.
Kankurou's fingers twitched slightly. "… thank you," he said, when Gaara did not immediately reply.
"All of Sunagakure mourns the loss suffered," Eki said. He ran a hand over his bald, pinkish-gray skull, iridescent blue claws dragging against the skin. "Much has changed since the chuunin exam, and little of it for the better. Your sensei Baki, as I'm sure you've heard, has helped relieve some of the repercussions of our failed attack on the Leaf."
Baki declined his head slightly to accept the praise when young Mamoru's eyes flit toward him. The genin said nothing and did not look to their instructor.
The reptilian clan lord dropped his eyes to the tabletop, making a show of rustling through papers on which he had not written a single note in three hours. "We have been informed of the incident in which one of the Leaf's genin defected to the Sound. Supposedly the Hokage made some offers if you agreed to provide back-up in the genin's retrieval?"
Gaara glanced significantly toward Kankurou. The older boy nodded, reaching inside his hip pouch to withdraw a slim scroll. Even from this distance Baki could see the ornate chop of the Leaf's newest Hokage – a symbol he had grown very accustomed to over the last six months – pressed into the pale green wax seal. The kugutsu-nin stepped forward to offer it to the closest Council member – Mamoru – before stepping back and resuming his impassive stance.
The dark-skinned nomad accepted the scroll and rose from his seat, moving to stand behind the other two heads so that they could all read the scroll at once. Eki, of course, was the one to break the seal, briefly checking for any signs of traps (his chakra felt as dry and dusty as the skin of the lizards his clan controlled) before delicately sliding a thumb-claw beneath the pale wax. Silence enveloped the room, broken only by the faint tick of the wall clock and Kyouji's breathing as he labored under the heat and his layers of fat.
Baki contained his curiosity under stillness. He'd had next to no contact with his students since the chuunin exam – even willingly surrendering to the Hidden Leaf after learning of the children's capture had not guaranteed his ability to speak with them. After agreeing that they would be treated as temporary political hostages for an undecided amount of time, he had been able to exchange a few letters with them – but not in the last three months. He had, of course, learned of their condition and status through the Godaime Hokage and her aides, but her word amounted to nothing when he could not verify those words for himself. Receiving the message outlining their imminent return and that they carried new terms for Sunagakure's surrender had both lessened and worsened the tension that had been building in Baki's shoulders since his return.
He hated politics. But he was glad to have the siblings home.
"Fascinating," Mamoru murmured. He lifted his pale eyes to look directly at Kankurou, tucking a beaded braid behind his ear as he did so. "You negotiated this?"
The kugutsu-nin's fingers twitched again – a habit that he apparently hadn't broken himself of yet. Baki would have to point it out to him later.
"We did, sir," Kankurou replied.
Eki's gaze briefly slid up to the hooded genin before dropping back down to the scroll again. "So modest," he said. "Still, the conditions outlined in this scroll will work greatly to our benefit. We were uncertain if Konoha would demand the withdrawal of your status as genin. Nine months suspension is a small price to pay in comparison."
The finance minister gently took the scroll from Eki's hands, stroking his fleshy throat in contemplation. "Note that this was rendered effective at the time of signing," he added, "and three of those nine months have already passed."
"And the Hokage's guarantee that the embargo will be lifted in six months with only a minimal increase in tax." Mamoru straightened to seat himself in Saishu's chair. "Even we had not been able to take negotiations that far."
The reptilian clan head shot Mamoru a look (that Baki clearly interpreted as 'stop revealing information'). "Indeed," he said, and returned his gaze to the siblings. "Your negotiation skills are impressive. Clearly this genin's defection was a vital weakness to the Hidden Leaf, or the Hokage would not have been so generous with these offers. She must have been desperate for your assistance. It is important for a ninja to take advantage of every weakness that an enemy betrays, and the terms on this scroll clearly show that you have done just that. Consider this a small victory on your part."
"Thank you, sir," Kankurou and Temari said softly. Gaara said nothing.
Eki glanced over to the scroll that the portly minister of finance still held, before linking his manicured fingers on the tabletop. "The Council considers this document valid and will abide by the conditions within it," he said. (Baki did not miss that he made no effort to confer with the other Council heads before making this decision – and in Saishu's absence, no less.) "For the next six months your team will go on no missions. As the children of the Kazekage you will, of course, continue to receive a generous stipend." Orange, slit-pupiled eyes glanced in Baki's direction. "The conditions do not apply to you, so if necessary you will be put on solo missions without your team. Otherwise, it is in Sunagakure's best interest that you keep your students on a training schedule so that they will immediately be ready to resume their position once the probation period has ended."
Baki dipped his head in acquiescence. "As you say, sir."
"Does the Council have any more to ask?" the reptilian clan head asked, and looked to the two men at his side.
Kyouji shook his head minutely, and let the Hokage's scroll roll back up. "My questions are satisfied."
No difficult feat, Baki thought sourly, considering you asked none to begin with.
To Kyouji's left, sitting almost incongruously in Saishu's seat, the dark-skinned nomad smiled. "And mine as well, for the moment," Mamoru said. "Welcome home."
Eki nodded and looked at the siblings. "Your sensei will debrief you and pass any pertinent information to us through the proper channels. We will send a messenger if we need to ask any further questions. You may depart." A gentle flutter of blue-tipped fingers. "You as well, Baki-sensei. We thank you for your services."
"My pleasure and duty," the jounin replied automatically, and pushed away from the wall. He was tired of spending hour after hour in this room, day in and day out, allowed to watch the proceedings but repeatedly being slammed down every time he offered some sensible advice. He was not made for this delicate dance of formalities, but for the battlefield, where he could effect change where he saw fit. Baki would be glad to be back in the blunt, honest presence of his students.
At least Gaara would tell you to your face if he was planning on killing you.
The three siblings turned to the door when dismissed, but Temari hesitated in following her brothers. "Sirs," she said slowly, looking back to the Council members, "if it isn't too much to ask, is it possible that any decision has been reached regarding the new Kazekage?"
Kyouji's expression immediately grew shuttered, his gaze guardedly shifting toward Eki. Mamoru dropped his strange eyes to the tabletop before looking to the clan head as well.
"There are many things that must be considered in that decision," Eki said coolly. "Unfortunately, appointing a new Kazekage will not solve all of Sunagakure's problems since the failed alliance with the Sound. When enough matters have been set right, the Council will begin to consider candidates."
Baki bit his tongue to keep from saying anything of eminent stupidity. It was exactly the kind of non-response he had expected Eki to give, and exactly the kind of response that showed the Council did not want to give up its power.
He hated politics.
The oldest genin dropped her gaze and nodded. "Thank you, sir," she said, and turned to leave the room. Baki followed.
"Baki-sensei," Eki called, just as the jounin was about to exit the room.
From the safety of the hallway his three students looked to him in question (or Kankurou and Temari did, at least – Gaara just stared at the floor). Baki motioned for them to continue to the waiting room before turning to step back into the Council chambers.
"Sir?" he asked.
"Be certain to keep your students in line," Eki said darkly. "Sunagakure would not be in this position if Gaara had not lost control in Konoha. Be sure he does not lose control again."
The skin on the covered side of his face burned, and Baki bowed to hide his glare.
"As you say, sir," he said softly, and left the room.
Sunagakure was abandoned by day. But when the sun slid behind the protective shoulder of the mesa that surrounded the city, and when shadows swept down the streets like silent dust storms, Sunagakure came back to life.
The Council of the Hidden Wind resided in a large, dome-shaped building in the direct center of the city, sitting on the convergent points of Suna's four corners. It stood out from the businesses and apartments that surrounded it by virtue of its shape, when all other buildings shared the tall, square form of adobe skyscrapers. It was an impressive structure, no matter how many times one approached it – or left it.
Oppressive heat slammed into Temari as she followed her team in exiting the Kazekage's tower, but she was far too used to the rapid, twenty degree transition to give it more than passing thought. When one had spent several hours in an adobe hut with closed windows and no power, one hundred degrees radiating off a sidewalk and a stiff breeze coming off the desert was nothing.
Baki led, and she and her brothers followed like silent shadows. Shop windows were illuminated by fluorescent lights that spilled out onto the street, and iron lamps gradually flickered on to light the way. In the center of the city, as opposed to further out in the quadrants, the shopkeepers could afford air conditioned rooms with windows to separate their wares from the heat – and themselves, consequently, as well. Temari studied the passing reflection of her team mates and instructor in the rippled glass to keep herself from blatantly staring.
She should be glad to be home, she thought, but instead she was only finding herself increasingly apprehensive. Partially because the Kazekage was dead (who would care what kind of ninja she was if she no longer had the Kazekage's power to back her – especially when she had failed to pass the chuunin exam and to decimate Konoha?), partially because of Suna's plight (they'd lost so much face in attacking Konoha and failing – and she couldn't even go on a mission to help!), but mostly because…
Gaara caught her watching his reflection; she dropped her eyes immediately, before his gaze could meet hers.
The streets were active with civilians and ninja alike, on their way to work or out for a day of shopping – crowded everywhere except for the path Baki chose down the wide walkway. The crowds parted for them as surely as a hot knife through butter, a kunai through a throat, people unconsciously stepping away to let them pass. A few even stepped into the street itself, daring the carts of goods drawn by groaning camels. Or, more dangerously, a rikisha-puller, announced only by a rhythmic jingle before people would have to jump out of the way of a sweaty cart-bearer.
It wasn't until the Kazekage's tower had been hidden by the hulking shinobi academy that Kankurou dared to grab Baki's arm and start begging for food. Baki, in turned, rolled his visible eye and turned a weary glance to the eldest of his students as if to ask, 'Can't you ever keep him in line?'
Somehow that single glance, after having gone so long without it, lifted her spirits with the familiarity of home. "I'm hungry, too," she said with a toothy grin she couldn't withhold.
She knew from long experience that this would earn her a sigh. And, in accordance with her expectations, Baki did. Her brother flashed her a victory sign and a cheshire grin, and she deliberately did not look back at Gaara to preserve the mood.
They stopped by a road-side stand for takoyaki (and tea for Baki and nothing for Gaara because, as expected, he was not hungry). Temari pretended not to notice when the line of patrons thinned out at their arrival, and no one said a word when the stall owner stuttered and got their order wrong twice before they could continue on their way.
"The house is a mess," Kankurou said eventually – filling his stomach evidently came before conversation with a sensei they hadn't seen in nearly half a year. (Not that Temari could blame him – she was starving, too, and Baki was evidently pleased enough to bask in their silent presence, and Gaara… well, was Gaara, albeit a more silent one than usual.)
"I haven't been home in nearly five weeks," the jounin replied unapologetically. He was walking to their left, so Temari could see the uncovered side of his face – he looked straight ahead without offering his students a glance. "The Council has temporarily designated me a cabinet member for the purpose of negotiation, and it's been keeping me… busy. Eventually I decided to stay in a vacant apartment at the ANBU barracks, because I was lucky if I went home as often as once a week. It didn't justify leaving the house open, so I sealed it up again."
The kugutsu-nin glared at the older man from over his half-eaten stick of octopus. He had stripped his gloves to keep from getting them greasy while eating, and it was odd to see how pale his hands were compared to his fingertips.
"I have a bone to pick with you about that," Kankurou muttered. "How did you – "
"Later." Baki smiled, only the right side of his mouth quirking up, and glanced over to the hooded genin. "It's a simple technique, to reuse a seal. I thought you'd have picked it up at the puppet troupe. But I suppose it's something to keep you busy until you're mission ready again. Worry about it later."
Kankurou said something under his breath that was uncomplimentary.
The oldest of the siblings smiled sweetly at her own stick of takoyaki – she couldn't resist. "Loser."
He hissed between his teeth at her, and she hissed back. Baki sighed the world-weary sigh of a man much put-upon, and they both backed off without a word.
"So, the house is a mess," their instructor prompted after a moment.
"Dirt everywhere." Kankurou took another bite and didn't bother to finish chewing before he started talking again. "And we have no power. I'll bet the generators are dead."
The blonde genin wadded up the napkin that had come with her food, tossing the trash into a waste bin as they passed it. The further they walked from the city center, the less dense the crowds became, and she no longer had to watch out for mashing her last stick of takoyaki against someone else's shirt. Street side stalls were more common, open air shops that were guarded from above by strips of pavilion cloth. Goods were laid out on display atop bright swatches of silk or in carefully over-flowing baskets, lit from above by strands of paper lanterns.
She risked a glance over her shoulder. Gaara was following along as silent as ever, pale eyes focused on what appeared to be Baki's heels.
"There was still power when I was there last," the older man mused thoughtfully. "That last dust storm probably clogged the intakes…"
"And the water purifiers probably sucked up the last of the power from the capacitors after the machines died." Kankurou made a face around his last ball of octopus. "I so do not want to look at the reservoirs. That's going to be disgusting."
The jounin took a swallow of his tea from his paper cup. "That's what happens when a house sits too long in the desert. It's a good thing you three won't have any missions for a while – you'll need that time to clean up."
Temari's brow furrowed immediately, and she took the time to re-enter the conversation. "Don't you mean we'll need that time to clean up, Baki-sensei?"
He smiled that damnable half-smile again, which only make the blonde scowl and start bending her last stick of takoyaki out of shape. "Perhaps I should call cleaning up the house and restoring power and water a 'training exercise.' Would that suit your ego better?"
It was, predictably, at this moment when Kankurou started bitching. Baki told them to do something, the kugutsu-nin griped about it, they did what they were told anyway (unless Gaara decided he didn't like it, in which case… yeah, it didn't get done).
As irritating (and sometimes frightening) as it was… it was predictable. Like being home.
She glanced back at her youngest sibling as Kankurou kept up his complaining, at the way he was trailing behind like some kind of aimless ghost. In the twilight of Suna's setting sun and the fluorescent light of the shops, the bruising of his eyes stood out even worse than normal against the oddly pale skin of his face.
Coming back to Suna was, almost, like coming home. Except in all the ways that were most important.
Turning slightly, she offered her last stick of takoyaki to Gaara, the skewer half-bent and the balls of octopus no better than lukewarm by now.
"Would you like these?" she asked. "I don't have room for them after all."
Temari could feel Kankurou's attention switch over to her, about ready to demand the food himself – but for a change, he refrained. Gaara drug his eyes up and stared at her silently, emotionlessly, and the blonde genin did her level best to look unconcerned. Like she didn't care if he took the food or not.
"… dude. I'll eat it if you don't." Hunger apparently threw logic out the window. Temari restrained herself from glaring at the kugutsu-nin pacing alongside their instructor.
Gaara's eyes shifted, just far enough to glance at his brother, and then back to her. Wordlessly, he took the stick of food.
She turned her gaze back to the path ahead, watching the more suburban areas steadily draw near. Ignored Kankurou when he eventually resumed his attempts to wheedle out of housework. Tried to remain unaffected when Gaara only held the food she'd given him, loosely in one hand, as though he'd forgotten it was even there.
Temari couldn't fool herself. This wasn't normal. Things would never again be normal since their defeat in Konoha.
Gaara's silence unnerved her. And, perhaps, scared her. Maybe even more than when Shukaku was staring out of his luminous green eyes.
She needed to talk with Baki.
Jars of paint and other ceramic containers rattled on the dresser as he slid another drawer home on its tracks. He took great pains to pretend he wasn't watching Temari from the corner of his eye, but hell, who was he kidding? Of course he was watching her. She'd been off for weeks now, and now that they were finally back home – back with Baki – he knew she'd make a move. And he wanted to be there when she did.
His sister might have thought she was being sneaky, but Kankurou wasn't fooled so easily. Hadn't he been her team mate for five years now? Wasn't he a puppet master, able to discern the motives behind the blink of an eye? No matter how hard she might laugh at him if he said it out loud, it was true – her feelings were transparent to him. She was worried about Gaara.
Hell. He was worried about Gaara, too.
The kugutsu-nin could easily watch his sister as she toiled in her room, her doorway across the hall and diagonal from his own. They had already removed all the seals from the windows and doors (Baki smirking that silent half-smirk until Kankurou had finally thrown the wad of crumpled papers at him and told him to go away), opening them to the early night and any breeze that might happen by. And then by a kind of silent mutual consent, they each turned to their respective rooms. Kankurou, for one, wanted to sleep in a bed that did not resemble a sandbox, thank you very much.
Temari pulled out another drawer from her bureau and ungracefully dumped the contents onto the floor. There was nothing that could be done with their clothing right now, anyway – without running water or electricity the best they could do was shake out the clothing and sheets (as the blonde was doing) and hope the sand wouldn't chafe too badly come the morning. Hopefully he would be up to the task of working on the generators later; the only time Kankurou would have sufficient light for the job (excluding their currently batteryless flashlights) was during those cool hours after dawn, before the metal of the generators had absorbed the sun's heat and left blisters where he touched it. Or, alternatively, during a full moon – but it was not currently a full moon, and his hands would have been too full with damage control to even think about machine maintenance if it were.
Damage control. Heh. Kankurou was beginning to wonder if they would ever have to deal with that again. He wasn't sure if the idea scared him or if he was just deluding himself or if the knot in his stomach was a precursor for relief.
Temari shook out another shirt, folded it neatly, and laid it on her (previously shaken out) bed. She caught him watching her – damnit, forgot about being discrete! – bent over to grab another shirt from where she'd dumped them on the floor, and shook the sand out of it in his direction. Loudly. While glaring.
Kankurou took the hint and retreated further into his room.
Geez, he already knew she was tense and on edge because Gaara was being so weird – more so than usual, anyway. She didn't have to be a bitch about it. There really wasn't anything they could do until their younger brother snapped out of this mood and went back to what consisted as 'normal' – all they could do was watch and prepare. It certainly wasn't as if Gaara would tell them why he had retreated so far inside himself that he hardly noticed what was going on around him. He certainly wasn't considerate enough to clue them in.
The little punk just had to make things difficult for them.
He stared out the small window to his room, to the shed out back that contained their spare mechanical parts and all his extra puppeteering tools, and to the walls of the great mesa beyond. The light from the houses that surrounded them did not extend far enough for him to tell which pair of thick, silvery cables came from their generators – set high on the mesa wall – or from their neighbors'.
They would need to start a list of all the things they'd need to get come morning. Water, perishables, any pieces they might need for the generators, flashlight batteries so he would do repairs overnight if necessary… jeez, Baki had been right. They certainly had their work cut out for them.
Behind him, through the door and across the hall, Kankurou heard his sister shove the dresser drawer back on its tracks. Heard her stuff her clothing back in and slam the drawer closed. Heard a conspicuously long silence as she did not move on to the next drawer – and he knew she had one more to go through. He'd been watching.
The kugutsu-nin made it a point to not turn around and see what his sister was doing. Almost a full five minutes passed before he heard the hushed, "… Baki?"
Ahh, there we go. He knew she would make her move on their sensei before the night was up. She was too impatient to wait until they were out of ear shot from the topic of discussion.
Said topic of discussion had moved back to the kitchen nearly half an hour ago, resuming whatever he had been doing the morning before. Kankurou could hear his movements, if barely, which meant Gaara would be able to hear them, too.
He supposed he should get back to cleaning. You know, rattle some furniture, curse at the general state of his belongings, lend some cover noise so his brother wouldn't get suspicious of a whispered conversation. Gaara was paranoid enough as it was (when he wasn't spacing out at least), and Kankurou really didn't want the younger genin's suspicions turned in their direction. Gaara didn't trust them, but he didn't distrust them, either, and that was a compromise Kankurou didn't want to upset.
But if he did provide cover noise for Baki and Temari's conversation, he wouldn't be able to hear it, either. And Temari would be just the kind of bitch to ignore him or withhold information if he asked what Baki said. And Baki, of course, would just say, 'Go ask your sister.'
… damnit all. They'd just have to pull off a super-sneaky, innocently-quiet, no-we're-not-plotting-behind-you-back conversation and hope Gaara wouldn't get curious. Kankurou turned away from his darkened window and crossed the hall to Baki's bedroom.
Temari was standing just inside the door to their mentor's room, and glanced back to him as he came up behind her. Her dark green eyes were distracted and more than a little irritated at his presence. Kankurou just stuck his tongue out at her and stuffed his hands in his pockets. If she wanted a private conversation, then she could wait until later. Gaara was his brother, too.
Their instructor was seated by the closet door, his jounin vest neatly hung on a peg by the door, his stored array of weaponry (and the chest he kept them in) laid out on a cloth before him. His single dark eye did not look particularly surprised when Kankurou joined his sister, and the exposed portion of his face took on that serious, stone-faced expression he got during missions.
"Difficulties?" he asked quietly, and motioned them into the room with the tip of the kunai he was cleaning.
"No," Temari replied, moving into the room and seating herself on the edge of their instructor's bed. Kankurou only stared at her, not following, and wondered what the hell she meant. Gaara had been nothing but a problem for the last six months; if he hadn't been a problem, why would they be in here talking about it? What the hell did she mean, no?
Baki looked as surprised as Kankurou felt – or at least, looked as surprised as he ever got, which was to say that his uncovered brow twitched upwards a degree in curiosity. "None at all?" he asked. "Not even at night?"
She shook her head, her loose and dusty ponytails swaying with the movement. "It's like he's not even there half the time. I mean, when he pays attention he pays attention, but unless you've pulled him into a conversation he kind of… zones."
Oh. That sort of not-problem. Yeah. It was almost funny to think of a passive Gaara as a problem, because you'd think, hey, homicidal maniac that squishes people into bloody balls of goo because they looked at him funny would be way more of a problem than a passive boy that said nothing and pretty much did whatever you asked of him. But said passive boy wasn't Gaara, was some imposter that did not fit in their weird menagerie, and frankly it creeped the hell out of Kankurou because he was just waiting for the other shoe to drop – for Gaara to finally snap the rest of the way and kill everyone, including his team mates. It was kind of scary.
He'd rather deal with the homicidal Gaara any day of the week.
"Even back in Konoha," he offered, adding his own piece to the conversation. He did not mean to deliberately lower his voice, but he could still hear their youngest brother moving around in the kitchen, and he didn't want the kid to hear them talking. "We watched him when the moon was full, but there were no signs of…"
Baki examined them both for a moment before looking back to the kunai in his hands, resuming his cleaning. "I see," he said simply, not asking for clarification of just what signs they did not see – not needing clarification. His dark eyes assumed the far away look of deep thought.
Kind of how Gaara always looked now, the kugutsu-nin thought. Far away, not really in the same place as the people surrounding him. In a place of such deep contemplation that he couldn't be bothered with such trivial things like 'awareness of your surroundings.'
Temari picked at the dusty coverlet on Baki's bed, and all three of them were silent as their sensei resumed the steady rhythm of cleaning his weapons. Down the hall, in the kitchen, dishes quietly clattered as Gaara puttered around with whatever cleaning he was intent on. If only he paid as much attention to everything happening around him recently, Kankurou thought. Then they could be less worried about him walking into a wall by accident because he was too deep in thought to notice.
"And Shukaku?" the jounin asked finally.
The oldest of the siblings glanced at her brother, then towards the entrance of the door. Kankurou couldn't help leaning back to peek down the hall himself, and was satisfied that no one was tramping down the hall with bloody vengeance in mind. They had deliberately avoided saying Gaara's name, using 'he' and 'him' in the assumption that the association would automatically be known – as though they were afraid of attracting his attention. Speak of the devil, as it was said. Silly, but still…
"He might have slept this afternoon," Temari said quietly. "But otherwise… he hasn't slept in about a week."
"Or longer," Kankurou added. Normally Gaara napped every three days or so, but since they left Konoha it was almost as though he was refusing to sleep at all. "He's pushing the envelope harder than he usually does."
"I see," Baki repeated. It was impossible to determine his thoughts with the way his face was half-covered with that shawl. "There's not much we can do beyond watch, you realize that?"
Watch. It wasn't like there was anything else they really did, since it wasn't like they could exactly control Gaara if he decided to go on a rampage. The expression on Temari's face echoed her sibling's thoughts as she nodded.
"I know," she said, sounding like she had a bad taste in her mouth. "But with the way he's been – for months now – I'm afraid he might…"
Baki finally glanced back up from his weapons.
"… slip up," Kankurou finished for her.
The jounin watched them for a second, face devoid of expression and utterly serious - determining their level of concern, determining just how serious the situation was. Kankurou hated it when Baki measured them up like this; he wondered if this was how his enemies felt when the jounin was deciding whether or not to kill them. But he knew it was necessary. Baki's level of assistance always depended on just how serious his pupils were on the matter.
And as far as Kankurou was concerned, his sister and he were very serious.
"There's not much we can do besides watch," their instructor repeated. He dropped his eyes and resumed the inspection of his weapons. "We'll decide what to do if – and when – any problems come up."
It was something, Kankurou figured, and better than nothing at all, even if it wasn't an immediate solution to the problem. And it would have been stupid to figure that Baki could come up with an immediate solution to what had been a problem for twelve years now. It would just have to be enough that he knew there was a problem (or at least, a new problem) and that he would help them deal with it.
He looked over to his sister, where she was sitting on Baki's bed. Is that good enough? he asked with his eyes, with the frown on his lips.
Temari frowned back, stood, and left the room, brushing past him with just the barest millimeter of space between them.
Not good enough by half, she was saying. But there's nothing else we can do.