Even though the Hidden Village of the Sand was in the midst of the Wind Country's largest desert, winter was still cold. The Wind Country was further south than the Fire and Earth Countries, which spared it some of the bite, and the high cliffs surrounding the village helped protect them from the snow. But even so, it was cold. The frigid wind blew into the valley where the village lay, relentlessly blowing sand and cold into the faces of all who were unfortunate enough to travel in this weather.
Temari made her way through the windy streets, wrapped in a cloak to protect herself from the sand and wind. The Chuunin Exam had ended just before the snows moved in to the Hidden Leaf. Kankurou and Gaara had already come home with the rest of Gaara's escort, but it had taken her a little longer because she had to wrap things up with the other examiners. But now, she was home.
At least one candle burned in the windows of each house she passed. It was almost the Festival of Lights, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, when candles were lit to keep the darkness at bay. It was an old ritual common to the Five Countries, dating back to when they'd been a single united nation. Though the celebration changed from country to country, two traditions remained the same: the lighting of candles or lanterns and gift-giving. When she'd left the Hidden Leaf, there were paper lanterns hanging all over the village, and the people were preparing for a festival. Nara Shikamaru had stopped her before she left the gates and handed her a small wrapped box. She'd half-glared at him, asking, "Is this a proposal?"
He'd actually been startled by her question, and villagers around them had been snickering. The gift-giving ritual was different in the Fire Country than it was in the Wind: In Fire, gifts were exchanged among friends as well as among family and lovers; in Wind, a young man giving a young woman a gift on the Festival of Lights was a common proposal. The Fire ritual did explain why Uzumaki Naruto had been giving presents to all of his friends in the village and to the three Sand siblings, but then, he seemed to adopt almost everyone he met into his family. Temari had even given him a gift, mainly out of a feeling of obligation—he had given her family a second chance, after all. It hadn't been easy buying him a gift; he was a heavy ninjutsu user, so kunai and shuriken were almost meaningless, and armor was hardly useful for someone who could heal himself as quickly as the Kyuubi's container could. His apparent adoptive father, Umino Iruka, had offered a suggestion by way of Haruno Sakura: Naruto didn't have much in the way of decoration in his apartment, so something that could make it feel like home would be appreciated. For him, an impractical gift was best, so she managed to get a glass lantern delivered from the Wind Country, the characters for "spirit of fire" etched in one of the panels. He was very emotional when he thanked her, and then he'd given her a new tassel to hang from her fan. Gifts in the Fire Country weren't quite as practical as those in the Wind, but they were appreciated all the same.
I'll need to find something for Gaara, she realized. Kankurou had been easy to buy for—she'd just picked up a book on advanced puppetry in one of the stores she passed along her way. He was always looking for new techniques he could adapt with his three rebuilt puppets. Gaara was the difficult one, and he always had been. In the past, it was because she and Kankurou were afraid of displeasing him. Now, she just wanted to make him happy, to show him that they could be a family for the very first time in their lives.
Knowing Kankurou, he probably hasn't thought of anything either, she reflected. They would be able to look for something together.
When she finally arrived at their house, she took out her key and unlocked the door. Her friends in the Leaf probably would have been surprised at this display of normalness. It was hardly something they'd expect from the tough kunoichi. But at home, it was all right to stop being a ninja for a while and start being an ordinary person.
It was comfortably warm inside the house when she entered, and the smell of something Kankurou was cooking drifted to her from the kitchen. She hung up her cloak and took off her boots, asking, "Stew?"
"Yeah," he answered. "Takes a while to make, but I had almost nothing to do all day."
"How long 'til it's done?"
"Another twenty minutes, I'd say. And we probably won't eat
until Gaara's finished." They'd recently gotten into the habit
of trying to do as much as possible as a family, and dinner was no
exception. It wasn't uncommon for them to wait hours until Gaara
was finished with his duties at the Kazekage palace.
Temari set out bowls and spoons on the table. "How's he been doing lately?"
"The Council still doesn't trust him, even without the demon, but he's determined to prove them wrong," he answered. "At least Baki's on our side, and now Ebizou."
"You're not bashing anyone's skulls in, are you?"
"No. I'm saving it for Akatsuki if they ever show up again."
"I don't blame you," she replied. "Before I left the Leaf, I made Naruto promise to give that bastard Orochimaru an extra beating for us."
Kankurou grinned. "What did he say to that?"
"He wasn't sure how much he could leave of Orochimaru after all the beatings on behalf of the Leaf, but he promised he'd try." Her grin was absolutely feral, and Kankurou laughed. Sometimes, it paid to have Naruto as a family friend; he could be just as vengeful as they were, and he didn't let anything stop him from taking his revenge.
There was a brief silence as Kankurou checked the stew again and Temari got a handful of chestnuts to tide her over until dinner. Finally, Kankurou said, "Baki asked me to consider teaching next year. A genin team."
Temari raised an eyebrow. "When he's always scolding you for your temper?"
"I guess he thinks I can handle it."
"You thought about it yet?"
"Some," Kankurou admitted. "I'll be nineteen—still young compared to other jounin instructors, but old enough to handle the responsibility. I know enough that I can pass it on to the next generation, but I'm still learning myself."
Temari shrugged. "Maybe teaching a bunch of kids will help you learn something."
He shrugged back. "How was the Leaf?"
"Got out before the snows came, thankfully, else I'd have to wait. Team Kakashi was about to continue their search for Orochimaru now that Naruto made chuunin. I managed to give Naruto his gift before he left."
"What was his reaction?"
"You know Naruto: enthusiastic. He almost looked like he was going to start crying after I explained that gift-giving isn't exactly common outside of family, but that Sai kid was around, and I've heard the horror stories about the bad blood between them." Kankurou nodded. While the Leaf hadn't given them any specific details, they'd been informed that Team Kakashi had gained two new members for a short period of time: a temporary jounin instructor called Yamato, and a boy of unknown rank called Sai. Sai had not been very warmly accepted by Naruto and Sakura, but he hadn't warmly accepted them either. The last thing Naruto would let himself do was start crying in front of Sai, only to be mocked even more mercilessly than the way Temari teased Shikamaru. At least that was only joking between friends.
"That reminds me," Kankurou commented. "Did you get anything for Gaara?"
She shook her head. "You?"
"No." He sighed. "I don't have any ideas on what to get him. He's never been easy to buy for, but now it seems even harder."
"Since we're trying to make up for sixteen years of mistakes," she added, dropping onto the couch. She popped a chestnut in her mouth and chewed slowly, thinking it over. "What exactly do we get him? He's the Kazekage and our brother. That alone makes it hard. But now he's free of the demon. That's almost a gift in itself."
"Hard as getting something for Naruto, isn't it?" Kankurou guessed.
"Pretty much the same," she admitted, "only there wasn't so much at stake then. Naruto's more of a close cousin than anything else. He'd appreciate anything. Gaara is harder."
"Too bad Yashamaru was a lying bastard," Kankurou sighed, sitting next to his sister. "He always knew what to give him. Spoiled him on behalf of Father, even if it was to try and control him."
"Yeah," Temari agreed. "I remember when we first saw Gaara. We were training, and he was sitting on his own, watching us and clutching that bear of his."
"Whatever happened to that bear, anyway?"
"He tore it up after Yashamaru tried to kill him. I found the fluff all over his room when I had to clean it while he was out. Scared me half to death."
"I don't blame him," Kankurou commented. "I think I'd have done the same." He sighed. "We have the most seriously screwed up family in the Sand, don't we?"
Temari snorted. "Try the country. Maybe even all five nations, though I think some of Naruto's friends could make the same claim." She got up to throw out the nutshells and stopped over the trash can.
"What is it?" Kankurou asked.
"I think I have an idea as to what to get Gaara," she answered with a grin.
Candles and lanterns guided Gaara on his way home from the Kazekage's palace. Even though he was the Fifth Kazekage, he didn't live in the palace. He'd work there, but not live there. There were too many memories of his father there, and he didn't want to remember all the assassination attempts now that he could finally sleep. He'd had a sleeping nightmare for the first time in his life several weeks ago, all spurred on by the village erecting a statue of him in the Council Room, standing beside his father, the Fourth. He supposed it was childish for him to react like that, but if he'd still had the Shukaku inside him, he would have had one of his waking nightmares about it anyway, consciously remembering everything he'd ever faced because of his father. Either way, it would still haunt him.
The wind tried to blow him off-course, but the sand never touched him. His meticulous control over it kept it still along his path, protecting him and any of his people who were still out at the ungodly hour. Gaara wished he wasn't so late, but the Kazekage could never afford to rest. He was still negotiating with the Daimyo of the Wind Country for more military funding so that they would be able to defend themselves while at the same time assist the Leaf if war openly broke out between them and the Sound.
As he walked along, people greeted him in the street. Some complimented him on his improving health since the Akatsuki incident; others offered their wares. He politely refused, but he still wound up with a bag each of walnuts and figs. Three figs and six walnuts went to a child he'd come across. The boy was making his way back home from playing at a friend's, and he'd been delighted at the treat. Gaara himself smiled at the warm, mile-wide grin that lit up the child's face. All in all, it wasn't as bad a Festival of Lights as some he'd experienced in the past.
When he arrived home, he placed his cloak on the wall, next to Temari's, and removed his boots. There was no sound of his siblings arguing, but it didn't surprise him too much. Silences were a bit too common at home, particularly awkward ones.
"I'm home," he announced needlessly. He could smell stew heating on the stove, and three clean dishes sat on the table. But that wasn't all that was on the table. Sitting there, looking as though it had been waiting diligently for his return, was a brown stuffed bear.
He set down the bags and picked up the bear. A note around its neck read, Love, Temari and Kankurou. Another smile spread across his face, and he could sense the chakra of his sister and brother as they spied from the kitchen.
On the Festival of Lights, gift-giving was a very serious ritual. All gifts had to be practical or meaningful. This one stuffed toy, so similar to the Fifth Kazekage's childhood companion, meant more than any gift he'd ever received. And it was all Temari and Kankurou had to know.
Standard disclaimer applies: I don't own Naruto or any of its characters. I'm using the rating K-plus just because this is closer to PG than anything, and the FFN guidelines say that "mild coarse language" is permitted (even if I feel weird about a nine-year-old reading words like "bastard"). If there are any problems with the rating, just let me know and I'll upgrade it to T.
This fic was mostly inspired by a piece of fanart on Naruto Fan, and I figured this would work well after the time-skip, especially after they saved Gaara from Akatsuki. Temari's guilty look when Naruto shouted that Gaara never had anyone who cared about him made me specifically focus on her more than on Kankurou. And this is possibly a slight AU since we don't know yet if Naruto is going to be in the Chuunin Exam and if so, if he passes or not. Comments or critiques are appreciated.