Then fifteen-year-old Temari looked at him quietly, curiously. Only little of the crimson hair showed underneath the wheat-colored cloak he wore, but she knew exactly who he was.

What she wanted to know at that moment was to know what engrossed him so. It was rare that she would find her brother so interested in anything at all, save if it was anything worth an effort to exterminate.

And then she saw it. The scene had her gaping at his back in incredulity for some time, because it didn't reconcile well with her understanding of this red-haired boy's supposed nature. But then, how else could she interpret what she was seeing at that time: Gaara murmuring to the animal, coaxing it to eat.

As if sensing the eyes of someone on him, he turned and faced her. On his cupped hands, imprisoned, was a struggling brown cat.
She inspected his arms and saw scratches— like hastily red lines drawn carelessly on a flesh canvas—covering both limbs. She could have concluded that these were marks of the feline's attempts to save itself from Gaara's almost-legendary atrocity, but she saw what she saw minutes ago. The small bowl of water and the scattered pieces of bread on the ground attested to it.

"Gaara?" she asked carefully. "Whose cat is that?"

"Nobody's." He looked down at the vigorously fighting cat, not seeming to mind the bruises it was carving on his skin, like a grotesque relief.

"A stray cat."


She thought he was done speaking, but to her surprise, he talked again. "I saw it on my way home. It was lying on the road, severely bleeding."

"It must have been hit by a carriage." Closely, she inspected the brown creature. She found some parts of the cat covered by gauze. Though skeptical, she knew deep in her heart that her brother did this. And strangely, she felt a warm current pass through her. Straightening up, she turned to him. "You used chakra on it, didn't you?"

"There was no other way to save it."

She looked at the furiously wiggling creature again, smiling faintly this time. "The little fellow sure knows how to express her gratitude."

"Why won't the cat eat?" he wanted to know.

"It's a stray cat," said Temari gently. "It has its own way of eating. Let her go and watch."

He pondered on her suggestion for a moment, and then bent down. He released the cat, and like a bullet, the creature zoomed into the nearest shelter it could find—a wine cellar. Temari then picked up the bowl and the pieces of bread and placed them in front of the cellar.

They both stood there from a distance, waiting.

Moments later, the cat's head peeked out cautiously, assessing the environment. Deciding it was safe, it gracefully bounded towards the waiting meal and hungrily gobbled them.

Gaara watched, somewhat fascinated.

"Stray cats are the masters of themselves," she remarked, not expecting her brother to reply. "They are creatures that will die painfully when they are owned by somebody else."

But he did. "Why aren't people like that?"

She smiled ruefully. "Because we're weak. Because we're dependent." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Because we hate being alone."

"That makes me a human then, even if people say otherwise." Gaara commented all-of-a-sudden.

Temari was speechless, even after the stray cat ungratefully departed and her brother had left her already.

Chapter Dedication: Kuya Sheo Darren and Cyberwolf. Thanks for giving my not-the-usual-pairing fic a try :)

In between her dainty bites of curry-topped rice, Temari watched the brown-haired woman in front of her, eyebrows arched. She earlier thought that the brunette had taken her light jibe seriously because she ordered nothing but a glass of water and an extra pair of chopsticks.

She only learned too late of the kunoichi's nefarious scheme—by then, her vegetable noodles were already halfway to the bottom of the bowl, her tray of breaded shrimps which she hadn't even touched yet were down to the last four or five pieces from the original twelve, and Tenten was already calling out to the waiter, asking for a refill for the pot of wine on their table.

But she will be damned if the shrewd woman would touch her much-loved curry and rice meal!

"That looks good," said Tenten, eyeing her serving with such longing.

"Don't even think about it, sweetie," she hissed, pulling the bowl closer to her, uncaring if she was also bringing it to the edge of the Formica table.

"Touchy." The brown-haired woman eyed her curiously. "So what are we going to discuss again?"

"My little brother's proposal." Temari paused only long enough to chew, and then she resumed her speech. "You may want to give his offer a second thought."

The other woman rolled her eyes heavenwards. "It doesn't merit one, Temari. Do you really believe that he is serious?"

"I'll be more disbelieving if Gaara kids."

Good point.

The blonde regarded her with a judicious gaze. "What's stopping you anyway, dearie? A smart woman such as yourself must know that marrying the Kazekage is like winning a lottery jackpot. It's instant wealth, instant power… and it doesn't land on your doorstep everyday."

Tenten casually picked up another shrimp and popped it in her mouth, then chewed thoughtfully. "I'm already in love with someone else."

"That someone is long dead." The minute Temari's words flew out, she regretted it. Despite her mastery of pretensions and politeness, she would still be defeated in the end by her sentimentality where her younger brother is concerned.

"So you've already investigated about me to that extent, huh?" Tenten had turned away, shielding her eyes from scrutiny. "His death doesn't change my feelings."

"You don't need to feel anything else. Just stay by his side," she coaxed, regaining her composure. "There'll be no sexual clauses in the contract."

Tenten sighed. "I can protect myself, even without matrimonial vows. And now I think I understand why Gaara came up with this plan. It's because he wants to protect a Konoha nin that is suddenly under the Suna's care, isn't it?"

Temari's mouth dropped open. Don't tell me the possibility of THAT never crossed her mind?

The brown-haired woman grinned. "He's a noble person, that Kazekage. He deserves a wife as great as he is. Plus, I will only marry for love." She gave her a parting salute. "Well, I'm off to my room to productively procrastinate. Thanks for the meal!"

Temari watched the kunoichi wheel away, feeling disappointed. She couldn't say she did not expect Tenten's response. She understood what it meant to love someone—it wasn't just the physical nearness that mattered. Lingering longer was the mighty string of commitment. And from the looks of it, Tenten had committed herself to only one man until her final breath.

Gaara would have better luck wishing for the rain to start pouring down on Sand Village. His proposal was doomed from the start.




"Marriage?" Temari looked at her younger brother, who was busy donning his coat. "After she refused your offer to stay and work for us, you honestly think she will stay in the village to be your wife?"

He didn't reply; he focused his concentration on his clothes instead.

"If you wish to take her to bed, you can just order it," she offered.

He didn't even seem to give her suggestion a thought. Nimbly, he placed his triangular hat on his head.

She heaved a sigh. But of course, Gaara wasn't the type of person who entertained lust. Not that Tenten was exactly the type of person who could provoke lust either. However, the Kazekage was a man who only sought the highest wants. He could have seen in her a certain kind of spirit many other women sorely lacked.

It translated beyond physical meanings, she knew, the admirable strength and confidence that the Konoha kunoichi brazenly displayed. She was a woman built tough not by birth, but by experiences. A character not afraid to laugh amidst the devil's tantrums. A person's whose only needed beacon in life was absolute faith in her self, regardless of the perception of rightness or wrongness from everyone else.

Even from this distance, she could feel his great longing, his vulnerable uncertainty few people knew as well as her. Had she only been bestowed the power to command hearts, she would have willingly done so for him and his one wish.

But she was just as helpless as he was when it comes to influencing Tenten. Falling skies would do little at best to move her.

"Kazekage-sama, a woman like her… can never be yours."

"Like a stray cat."

Temari paused, remembering the incident some years ago. Gaara, it seemed, had never forgotten, even if that feline had disappeared a long time ago. She nodded gently, surprised by how parallel the two really were.

Tenten and a stray cat—two creatures that cherished its independence and solitude as much as their own lives. Two creatures that defy possession, ownership, and even bonds.

And they both caught her brother's elusive interest, for some reason she currently couldn't pinpoint.




Gaara knew he should have barred the door.

"Hello, little brother!" Kankuro strode into the office, grinning in malicious glee.

"You are supposed to be in the next village, conducting military drills for our elite striking force," he chose to say, voice as dry as sawdust.

"What? And allow you to wallow in depression all by yourself? You know that it's not the kind of elder brother I am!" The man said, feigning a wounded look.

"So you've been informed." He clasped his hands together on top of the table. News traveled fast in this part of the village, gossips even more so.

"Ah, but the people of this village love juicy intrigues as much as warring itself." The puppet master looked at him witheringly. "Won't you even offer me a chair?"

"You may use the floor."

The uninvited guest took for himself a seat across the Kazekage. "So how did it go wrong?" he asked, playing love doctor investigating a live case study.

Unfortunately, the Kazekage wasn't in the mood to have his situation diagnosed, least of all by his brother whom he felt no sort of sizable affection for. "The interest is uncalled for," replied the red-haired village leader, "it isn't a serious issue."

If the man before him did comprehend what he said, he showed no signs of it. Kankuro was rubbing his jaw with his finger, contemplating in a deliberately loud voice for all the world, including the incensed Kazekage, to hear. "Wealth, power, the honor of being the wife of the most powerful man in the most powerful village in the continent… and she refused them all! What was that woman thinking?" He paused, glancing at his younger brother. "And admittedly, I'm also curious as to what you were thinking, too."

Gaara gave no reply, so Kankuro continued to speak. "She is not an ugly creature, yes, but the village boasts of better-looking women sans physical disabilities. In fact, you can have your pick from other villages, too. They'll be tamer and less difficult than her, I'm sure."

"Get out." The Kazekage's voice remained quiet, but anyone could sense the dangerous, steely edge in his tone.

"You should advise yourself that, little brother," said Kankuro cheerfully. "Locking yourself up in the office and seeing only that Konoha kunoichi is certainly distorting your natural flow of unnatural thoughts." He chuckled. "Unless… no, that's impossible."

Gaara opened his mouth to repeat his words of dismissal, but his brother had already risen from the seat. "No need to fuss about it. I can manage to find my own way out."

Kankuro encountered Temari on his way out. "Hey, Temari! When will I get a raise?"

She eyed him sharply. "What were you doing in the Kazekage's office?"

"Just paid him a little visit, dished out a little brotherly advice…"

"Brotherly advice, my foot," she hissed. "Don't tell him stupid things that will only needlessly complicate things for him!"

The puppeteer guffawed. "Ya think the weapons mistress got under his skin?"

Temari glared at him pointedly before marching into the Kazekage's office.

The elder brother whistled. "If what you're saying is true, then that is scary."




She wearily buried her head on his chest, sighing heavily. "Neji… in all those times we were together… from the moment we exchanged weapons in Academy training until we first made love… I never got to tell you." Her fingers tightened on the collar of his coat. "I love you. I've lived my whole life loving you."

"I know," he whispered softly. "My whole life… I did. I-I can't tell you enough how happy I am for knowing that."

Her eyes, misty with tears, stared at him pleadingly. "T-Then… then you won't die on me, Neji…"





Tenten blinked back her tears that had unconsciously streamed down her cheeks. Fortunately for her, the furnace ensured that none of the tell-tale, salty traces will remain on her face.

"Tenten-san!" A middle-aged soldier called out again from outside. "I've found the man you were looking for!"

Time to get to work. Wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her dirty work clothes, she pushed the wheelchair towards the door, a forced casual smile on her face. "Ahoy there, Uncle!"

The soldier grinned at her. "He's in the southern part of the village right now."

"Don't announce it to the world, Uncle. Come right in." She threw open the door for him. Inside her, the wheels of her mind were starting to turn. This piece of news would be her first ray of hope that she wouldn't die without having avenged Hyuuga Neji.


to be continued