Dusk
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Happy Halloween.

I've been reading oodles of Jacqueline Carey, and I think it shows... I don't plan on picking up this sort of prose style permanently, but it seemed appropriate for this piece.
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Ghosts are one thing the shinobi world has in plenty.

In Grass Country, it is said, they ply their dead with sweets and the woven dried garlands the land is so famous for, laying them in offering among the graveyards and memorials and battlefields; in the Rice Field Country where Orochimaru lives, they sing songs at dusk on the Night of the Dead, to honor those who have passed before.

In Wind Country, such traditions as they may have had are long forgotten; harsh land that it is, its people have always been more concerned with surviving this life than looking toward the next. But far back into antiquity when the Wind first fanned the flames of Fire, ambassadors came, and with them foreign ways. In Fire Country, they light lanterns for their ghosts, so that when the Night of the Dead wanes and the curtain that parts the mortal world from the immortal one begins to close once more, the spirits may find their way home. For many years, the people of the Wind have done the same.

For their Konoha allies, there is feasting on the Night of the Dead, great parties thrown to welcome departed souls for one night of revelry on earth; in Sand, where their sense of humor is short, the observances are more sober. Every year, Kankurou awakens on the morning of that day, and wishes he were in Konoha. But every year he stays at home.

The people of the Sand are ever alone, in remembering their dead, even when they stand together. Kankurou goes about his day in silence, walking down empty, sun-soaked streets, quiet save for the ever-present howl of the wind, and he ducks into his theatre. Inside it is dim, with all the curtains pulled, a separate world from the bright silence outside. He spends some hours on the stage, talking with the ghost there (for what theatre, of puppets or otherwise, is complete without its dead player who loved his home the stage too much to leave?) as he does few enough other days of the year, working while he muses over the next year's schedule, wondering aloud whether he will be free enough of missions to help plan the pageantry of the summer festival, whether the playhouse's coffers will be strained with new heights of extravagance. He remembers, with his ghost, as he works, carving fine patterns in wax with a practiced hand; remembers the creatures that have walked this stage, both those of wood and those of flesh, those who he will see tomorrow and those who he will never see again.

When he is finished, dusk has fallen outside; and he returns home to a quiet, empty kitchen to take his supper, the servants dismissed for the day to honor their own dead as they will. Afterwards, he waits on the front steps outside, offering clutched in one hand, the first to arrive; some change their clothes for this occasion, but Kankurou, a player in all his dramatic black, has never had a need. He wears the mourning stripes upon his face, and that much is enough.

At length, his sister and brother arrive, and they walk up to the mesa.

It is a slow journey, one made without the shinobi's arts of crossing quickly and silently over any land, a simple unhurried march over sand and stone and up the steps carved into the sandstone wall. They do not speak as they climb, each with their offering: Temari the eldest, holding her black lantern swinging before her; Kankurou next, with his fine-wrought candle; and Gaara behind them, holding a torch aloft.

On this day, out of all the days of the year, Kankurou has never in his life feared his younger brother.

The top of the mesa glows already, as they reach it at last, lanterns lit and left atop the stone to shed their scattered light all about them. Here is where the Sand remembers its dead, the mesa the altar and the very sky their temple, scattering the ashes of its people on the wind their land is named for. Many have been here before them tonight, and many more shall come after they pass. But the center stands empty, awaiting their black lantern; for they are the children of Kazekage, dead these five months, and the bonds of blood lead them here tonight.

If they do not mourn the passing of a great man -- for that he was not, and they who are his kin know it best -- still, they honor the spirit of a great shinobi.

The stark black lantern, plain and austere, is for their father; the candle, that Kankurou kneels to set in its place within the metal framework, is for their mother.

It is the one thing of his father he believes without doubt: that she was always at the heart of him.

Gaara lights a brand from his flame, and kneels to set their mother's light aglow; and Kankurou takes the torch from his small hand to blow it out. The night air is still and clear around them.

They tarry for only a moment; and then return from whence they came.

When dawn breaks, the spirits of the past too will return to their grey uncharted home beyond; and the world of flesh will belong to the living once more.

But tonight:

Oh, tonight, how he will dream.
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