The purple night sky formed an everlasting blanket over the desert sand, enveloping it in cool air. Suna no Kuni's famous wind breezed through the temporary stillness, in a light, graceful dance. A pleasure after the hot, scorching sun of day.
Across the sands, there was an oasis where one scrawny tree grew, surrounded by a few sparse blades of grass. Moonflowers dared to bloom at the base of the tree, closest to the water.
A small hand reached out of the shade of the tree, where the moon could not reach, and a fingertip lightly touched the edge of a white petal, turning the flower's face to the admirer's eyes.
There was a small sigh and the owner of the small hand came out into the moonlight, creeping closer to the muddy water of the oasis. The moon shined down on a dark head of hair.
A little girl.
She smiled and sat on her knees, arranging her yukata around her.
"Megumi-chan! Megumi-chan!" A young male voice called. A little boy of nine years or so streaked across the sand to the little girl.
"Aniki?" she asked, standing up, patting her yukata clean, guiltily.
The little boy stopped and frowned at her. "Kaa-san will be angry at you for running off again. She's looking for you now."
"Gomen Kazu-nii," Megumi said looking down at her feet.
Kazuma rolled his eyes impatiently and grabbed her hand. "Come on."
He led her along under the moonlit sky, until they reached a small hamlet on a hill. A woman waited with her arms folded and a frown on her face, standing in front of the first small house, as the brother and sister approached her.
"Kaa-san!" Megumi cheered, running towards the woman. The woman's frown melted immediately, and she knelt down and held her arms wide open and hugged Megumi when she finally reached her.
"Little One!" said the mother, relieved. She sighed and held Megumi back to look at her smiling face. "Where have you been?"
Kazuma frowned and answered. "Looking at the flowers again, Kaa-san."
She frowned for a moment, then gave Megumi a smile. "You like seeing the flowers, don't you?"
The mother sighed again and stood up. "Well, let's go eat supper, ne?"
The children nodded as the mother opened the shoji and took off her shoes. The children followed her example and went inside, closing the shoji securely behind them.
Supper was already laid out on the table, and at the head of it was a smiling man who held out his arms for Megumi.
"Megumi-chan, we're you looking at the flowers again?" he asked, letting go of her.
"You shouldn't run off like that, you worried Kaa-san," he said sternly.
She nodded again and turned to her mother. "Gomen Kaa-san."
The mother simply smiled in return.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash outside. The father jumped up and grabbed a katana near him as a woman screamed. The mother ushered the children to a room in the middle of the house, warning them to stay quiet.
There were more screams, accompanied by loud yelling. They heard the shoji to the house burst open and the father's katana coming free of the sheath.
"Stay inside!" he called back to them.
"Tou-san!" Kazuma yelled.
The mother bit her lip and covered her son's mouth lightly with her hand. "Hush Kazuma-chan."
He obeyed and sat on the tatami quietly with his mother and sister. With his father gone, he was the man of the house now.
The screams and yells never ceased, but when they heard the crackling of fire, the mother got to her feet and quietly made her way to the open shoji, peeking out.
"The neighbor's house is on fire," she whispered when she came back. "There are men everywhere, men not of this village. They're pillaging." Her voice was anxious. "The neighbor's wife is pregnant. I'm going to help them. Hide." She handed Kazuma a kodachi. "Be safe." She kissed her children and hurried away into the night.
Kazuma bit his lip and turned to Megumi and pulled her to her feet. "We must hide," he said. "Come."
He pulled her to another room where there was a closet that they stored their futons in. He pushed her in and hid her behind a line of them.
"Stay here," he said.
"Where are you going, Aniki?" she asked, a tear streaming down her cheek.
He patted her arm. "Hush, hush, Megumi-chan. I'm just going to help Tou-san."
"Please don't leave me, Aniki!" she said, wiping a tear away angrily. "Everyone's leaving me!"
"Hush Megumi-chan. You are seven years old, you are old enough to not cry when you don't need to!" Kazuma scolded lightly. "I'll be back imouto-chan. All right?"
Megumi's bottom lip trembled, but she nodded.
"Good, now lay down and hide like Kaa-san said," Kazuma told her, helping her to lay down. "Good girl, now promise me you'll be quiet and you won't cry."
"I promise Kazu-nii."
He nodded and went through the doorway and out of the house.
Megumi laid quietly behind the line of futons for what seemed like forever to her. She grew more and more worried with every passing moment, along with being worried, incredibly bored.
She counted the stitches on the futon she was hiding behind.
When she reached fifty-two, she heard footsteps in the front room, but they weren't the familiar stride of her father. Nor were they the light steps of her mother, and it didn't sound like Kazuma's jumping around either.
They were heavy, and it sounded like whoever was there had shoes on. It brought a sense of ill will to Megumi, and a rush of anger that some unknown person was in her house.
Then came another pair of unfamiliar footsteps. "Hey, you find anything Jiro?"
"No," came a deeper voice. "I haven't been here long though. There's bound to be something valuable."
Megumi bit her lip as she listened to the men pull open drawers and overturn small boxes. The only thing she could think of that had any value at all was her mother's pearl necklace. She kept wondering when her father would come in and get rid of these men.
Any minute now, surely.
"Here's a lady's pearl necklace," the man with the deep voice said.
"Great, I found some china that should fetch a decent amount. Guess we found more than expected, huh?"
"For such a small house," the deep voice replied. "Oh, look, another room."
Megumi flinched when she heard the footsteps enter the room she was hiding in. She burrowed deeper into the futon.
"Eh, doesn't look like much," said the other voice. "What's in here?"
Megumi clamped her hands over her mouth to keep from shrieking when she heard the shoji open to the closet.
"Slice them open," said the deeper voice. "Often women will sew money in the futons."
"Considering the size of this house, and the lack decoration, I don't think we'll find much. But if you insist."
The was the sound of a blade being unsheathed, then the careful tear of fabric down by her feet.
"Nothing in this one Jiro," said the other voice. Megumi's hands went tighter over her mouth when she sensed the man approach the futon she was hiding behind.
Suddenly, she felt a piercing pain in her arm. The blade that the thief had went right through the futon and sliced open her upper arm.
"Blood?" the voice asked, apparently seeing his knife.
What came after that, Megumi didn't remember. But when she came around, she was covered in cuts and bruises and her whole body was engulfed in sharp, fiery pain. The men were gone, and the sun was shining through the window again.
But she was curled up on the floor, fighting the urge to throw up and pass out again. She couldn't move for the pain, yet she didn't cry. She refused to cry.
All she did was breathe in short, gasping breaths.
Where was everyone?
Why was everything so quiet?
Soon she gritted her teeth and pulled herself up into a sitting position, after having accomplished that, she sat still a moment more. Then, gathering all of her strength, and using the wall to her advantage, she pushed herself up to her feet.
I must get up, she told her protesting body. I must.
Slowly, she made her way through her house, very glad that it was small.
She finally reached the shoji that lead outside.
She was not prepared for what she saw.
"Hey, a fire," Kankuro said, pointing in the distance.
Temari squinted. "A really huge one, by the looks of it. Isn't that the little village we're supposed to be going through?"
"I think so," Kankuro replied, frowning. "It doesn't look like the houses are on fire. Something beyond that."
Temari frowned and turned to Gaara. "Maybe we should check it out, Gaara."
The redhead frowned, but didn't protest.
Temari and Kankuro took it as an okay, and put some chakra in their steps, bounding forward.
Gaara followed them.
As they got closer to the village, they began to hear the loud roar and sizzling of the fire.
"Hmm…" said Gaara.
Finally, they came upon the little hamlet and were surprised at how ransacked everything was. A smoldering house, broken shoji and walls. Smashed glass and china.
Blood was splattered and pooled everywhere. But…
"W-where are the bodies?" Temari demanded.
Gaara's arm extended past her as he pointed ahead to the fire at the bottom of the hill. "Burning," he said simply.
Kankuro covered his nose as the wind blew their way. "He's right Temari. I can smell it. Disgusting."
"Who's burning them?" she asked, making her way past the clutter of houses to the edge of the hill.
Her brothers followed her.
They reached the end of the hill and looked down at the bottom where a mass of bodies burned. Halfway down, sitting on a rock, was a small girl with her dirty hands folded in her lap.
"What happened?" Temari breathed.
The little girl blinked and slowly turned her face to them. "Everyone's dead. Everyone but me."
She turned back to her fiery deed.
"She rolled them all down the hill, one by one, and set them on fire," said Gaara. "Alone."
"We can't leave her here," Kankuro said.
Temari nodded in agreement. "No. We'll have to go back to Sunagakure and file a report. We'll have to find out who did this and put the word out. We can't have an entire village murdered like this one again. No matter how small it is. People will lose faith in Sunagakure's power and turn against us."
That end part is what got Gaara hooked.
No one would ever rise against him. Ever.
"Fine," he said. "Get her Kankuro. Let's get out of here."
The puppet master nodded and jumped down on the rock beside the girl.
"Hey kid," he said. "You're coming with us."
She stood up blankly, and took his nonproffered hand, surprising him. Her hand was very tiny in his. Not to mention very dirty.
"Fine," she responded quietly. "It's all gone anyway."
Kankuro frowned and pulled her up the hill. So everyone she knew was dead? This must obviously include her family. He sighed. Poor kid.
When they reached the top, Temari wrinkled her nose at her. "She needs a bath."
"I would like a bath."
Gaara narrowed his eyes irritably. "Make it quick," he said. "Don't make me wait."
"Where's the bathhouse?" asked Temari.
The little girl pointed to a building down the way. "There."
"And your house?"
"It's the very first one to the right down there. It has bluebirds on the shoji."
Temari turned to Kankuro. "Go to her house and find something clean for her to wear. I'll take her to the bathhouse."
Kankuro nodded and left.
The little girl now latched her hand around Temari's, much to the blonde's annoyance. But no matter how obvious Temari made her discomfort, the girl still hung on.
When they reached the bathhouse, Temari was extremely annoyed.
Maybe sensing this, the little girl slipped in the cool water before the blonde could snap the order at her.
Temari scowled and handed her a bar of soap she found on the floor of the washing area. "Here, you might as well stay in there. We have to hurry and you don't have time to be getting in and out."
She nodded and scrubbed her arm. "What's your name, Onee-san?"
"Temari. What happened? Did you get beaten or something?" the blonde asked, noticing her array of cuts and bruises.
"I don't remember Temari-san. My name is Megumi." She frowned and dunked her head underwater, and began to wash her hair.
"Humph," came from Temari. "I'll be right back, Kankuro has your clothes." The blonde turned on her heel and went out of the door to the entranceway where Kankuro stood.
He held out a simple blue kimono. "This is all I could find. All of her other clothes were taken or torn to shreds. Whoever got this town did a pretty thorough job. There's hardly anything in that house, or in any of the others I looked in."
"They took all the food too?" Temari asked.
He sighed. "As far as I know. I'll look around some more to be sure. Hopefully, there'll be some rice somewhere."
She nodded and glanced out a nearby window. "Where's Gaara?"
"Probably avidly watching the bodies burn. I don't know." He shrugged. "Anyway, how's the kid?"
Temari shrugged. "I don't know. She's covered in bruises, I bet the bandits beat her. She says she doesn't remember."
"Did you get her name?"
"Megumi. I'll go give this to her now," Temari said, lifting the kimono.
Kankuro nodded and watched her go back into the bathing room.
"Get out right now," Temari ordered, handing Megumi a dry towel that hung on a hook on the wall.
Megumi wiped her face and got out of the tub. She dried off and slipped on the kimono. Temari tied the yellow obi and pushed Megumi out of the bathing room ahead of her, scowling.
"You need modern clothes," she said. "You can't travel on foot in a kimono."
"Kaa-san…" Megumi said quietly, biting her lip. "She wouldn't let me. Always kimonos."
"It's a good thing you don't have to be a ninja in a kimono," Temari muttered.
"Kyoko-chan had modern clothes…"
"Well, let's see if she left any behind."
Finally, about fifteen minutes later, Temari was satisfied with what Megumi was wearing. A pair of shorts and a button down sleeveless shirt, very simple, very quick, and very confusing to the constantly kimono-clad Megumi.
She kept staring at the buttons.
"Let's go," Gaara ordered, striding past them. "Now."
Kankuro gave Megumi a small bag with her kimono in it. As she slid it on her back he said, "There's a kodachi in there too. I found it in your house."
The puppet master frowned and picked Megumi up. "Come on kid," he said. "Let's get out of here."
Gaara glanced at her as Kankuro's pace began to match his own.
She met his eyes, completely fearless. She had already stared death in the face, and she had nothing left to lose. There was no fear for him.
She gave him a warm smile. Gaara felt the corner of his mouth pull up in a smirk.
Together, the quartet disappeared into the pink sunset.