Neji counted five of them. For the most part they kept their distance, using the heavy boulders that cluttered the narrow canyon as cover. It was hard to keep track of all of their movements- the dense rocky surrounds managed to impair even Neji's superior byakugan- but it was not hard to tell he was surrounded.
This had started as a simple training exercise for Neji's three young students. His students- bright and eager to please Nori, shy and silent Keichi, and the ever cynical Umi- had been out here with Neji for a little over a week. It was a good spot for training, one Neji had used frequently since his move to Suna. There was a small oasis nearby that provided fresh water. The bottom of the rocky canyon was good for practice maneuvers, and good for setting up ambushes. What Neji had not planned for was to encounter an actual ambush.
The five assailants all wore hoods, and covered their faces with cloth masks to hide their identities. Even their eyes were hidden, behind dark tinted shades, to protect their eyes from the bright desert sun, muted though it was at the canyon bottom. They'd said nothing since their appearance, but there was little doubt to their hostile intention. Having to defend against intermittent onslaught of kunai and other projectile weaponry proved that quite well.
Neji held his position, Nori, Keichi and Umi in formation beside him. Neji spared a glance for his students; aside from being scratched and a little bruised, they seemed to be holding their own against attack. Though Keichi was crying, very slightly; this was his first time defending against a real attack. It confirmed one of Neji's earlier suspicions when he started working with this group of students. Though he had the right moves, Keichi really was too gentle in nature to be an effective shinobi. Neji just hoped it wasn't about to get the boy killed.
Though the unknown attackers had them surrounded and effectively cut off all avenues of escape, none of them attempted a direct confrontation. Neji was loath to launch an attack of his own, which would leave his students vulnerable to attack from the other. They had the training, but not the experience. Fighting mock-battles and fighting for your life were two very different things.
Neji didn't know who these attackers were, or what they could possibly want with attacking him and his students out of the blue like this. And though they had the little group effectively trapped, they did not approach any closer. It was easy enough to fend off the thrown kunai, but Neji had a feeling the projectile weapons were a mere stalling tactic. It was like the assailants were waiting for something.
It happened when the wind changed. The wind in the deserts of Suna was a constant, inescapable force. Neji was used to it now, and hardly even noticed it. The wind had been whisking through the canyon steadily, but now it was coming to a lull, easing up.
Another hail of projectiles rained down on the trapped team, and again Neji batted them away with his own kunai like so much detritus. As his weapon connected with one projectile, he realized a moment too late it was not a kunai. His blade punctured the thrown pouch, and as it burst, it released a cloud of fine white particles.
The sudden burst of powder in his face made Neji cough, and he waved a hand through the cloud to make it dissipate. The powder had gotten into his eyes, and his vision blurred and warped. His eyes began to burn with a fierce pain. He had inhaled the insidious powder as well, and his throat, nose and lungs were ablaze with fiery agony. His throat was closing, and he couldn't breathe. He coughed harder, spasmodically.
He could hear Nori, Keichi and Umi calling his name, their voices high and panicked. Neji tried to say something, anything, but he couldn't get any air to form the words. The world was taking on a dark gray cast, shapes and shadows blurring into one another, until there was nothing but a smear of darkness. His vision failed, and his lungs felt like they were full of fire. His head was getting woozy, and he couldn't maintain his balance. Neji fell to the ground, coughing smatters of blood onto the rocky soil. With no strength left, unable to get any air, Neji finally gave in to the call of unconsciousness.
The three young students didn't even have enough time to panic, now facing the five assailants without the protection and aid of their teacher. A hail of smoke bombs was tossed into the tiny clearing from behind protective cover, exploding into clouds of noxious fog. It lasted but a moment before the wind swept it away, but it was long enough for the sleeping gas to take down all three children.
At last the five emerged from their hiding places. Three gathered up the sleeping young shinobi, carrying them off. The two remaining regarded Neji. One knelt beside him, almost tenderly wiping the flecks of blood of Neji's lips. A dose of liquid from a bottle of water washed the worst of the insidious powder from Neji's mouth.
"Will you be long?" asked the fifth, watching his partner minister to the prone shinobi.
"You go on ahead," replied the other, not taking his eyes from Neji. "I just need… a little something." He gathered back Neji's long hair, slicing the length of it off with the swift stroke of a kunai. Neji's hair now hung barely past his shoulders. "Just a little parting gift, until next we meet, Neji Hyuuga. I'll be seeing you again, very soon."
Gaara lay on Neji's side of the bed, breathing in the last lingering remnants of Neji's scent. No one would expect Gaara to get up for another few hours yet; whenever Neji was gone for missions or training, the Kazekage would stay abed for hours later than usual. Gaara knew, realistically, that it was futile to wish for Neji to be here with him at all times. Neji had his own duties to attend to, just as Gaara had his. Still, it was always hard for Gaara to let him go.
"It's a shame Neji isn't a girl," Shukaku spoke up inside Gaara's mind.
"Why is that?" Gaara muttered, his voice muffled in Neji's pillow.
"Girls can be kept in a near-constant state of pregnancy and child-rearing," the demon said reasonably. "Neji would be too encumbered to ever leave."
"You're lucky I don't plan on telling him that," Gaara said. "He'd probably never speak to you again."
That shut Shukaku up, as Gaara had expected it to. Aside from Gaara, Neji was the only person to really recognize Shukaku as a real being, even going so far as to have the occasional conversation with the demon, with Gaara relating Shukaku's comments. Even after all these years, Shukaku still pretended not to care about the Hyuuga, but Gaara knew better. Shukaku exhibited its best behavior for Neji, and was fiercely protective of him. Shukaku, in its own demonic way, cared for Neji as much as Gaara did, he was certain.
Gaara took in another breath of Neji's fading scent, letting out with a sigh. He really missed him.
"Alright, enough," Shukaku finally griped. "You've been moping every chance you got for a week. You're Kazekage; get up and go do something official. Do paperwork. Make up some laws. Delegate. Anything! I can't take any more of this angst. It's been nonstop ever since he left!"
"You'd get more breaks from it if you'd ever let me sleep," Gaara pointed out.
"Nah. You'd probably even angst in your dreams."
Gaara said nothing to that, but did finally rouse himself out of the bed. Only Shukaku's complaining kept Gaara from lingering too long over the other objects in the room that brought to mind memories of Neji; Neji's clothing folded neatly next to Gaara's, or the photograph of the both of them that Temari had taken, the frame sitting in a place on honor on the nightstand. The tiny jar of sand Gaara had given Neji was conspicuously absent from its place beside the photograph; Neji always took it with him when he went on missions.
When he was dressed for the day, Gaara's attention turned to the gourd, sitting as it always did next to Gaara's side of the bed. The sand rushed in its container in low, mournful tones. The sand had its own form of personality, a sort of animal consciousness, mirroring and magnifying Gaara's own base emotions. Right now, the sand grieved for Neji. The sand always did have a way of being very melodramatic.
Gaara gathered up the gourd, patting it consolingly as he left his room. The training would only last another week, and then Neji would be home. Until then, Gaara would keep himself busy, to keep himself from thinking ("Moping," Shukaku corrected) too much.
He didn't get as far as his office, however. He found Kankuro pacing, obviously agitated, at the bottom of the staircase. Any of Suna's jounin had permission to enter the Kazekage's home to inform him if there was an emergency requiring his attention. However, Gaara found that on these rare occasions, one of his siblings was elected for the job of delivering him the news. Apparently, the Suna shinobi expected Gaara to slay the messenger, and figured Temari or Kankuro were more likely to survive his wrath.
Gaara's siblings usually took it in stride. They were used to Gaara, and were not afraid of his glares or temper in the way that the villagers still were. It was very unusual to find Kankuro so agitated over delivering a message. Kankuro all but cringed when he saw Gaara descending the stairs. Gaara was instantly alert, the sand tensing for battle in its gourd. Something bad had happened.
"Now Gaara," Kankuro said, "don't freak out."
Both of Gaara's two imagined worst-case-scenarios began with Kankuro saying those exact words. Since there was no sound of battle outside, Gaara guessed that the village was not being destroyed. That left worst-case-scenario number two, which ended with the discovery of Neji's mangled corpse.
"Where is he?" Gaara demanded sharply.
Kankuro didn't even have to ask which "he" Gaara was referring to. "At the hospital, but-"
Gaara didn't hear the rest of what Kankuro said; he was already off and running.
It was still morning and not yet too hot out, and the streets were full of people going about their morning errands. On a good day, even the densest crowds still made room for Gaara to pass through. But on days like this, when Gaara was obviously feeling a little unhinged, with his sand spilling out carelessly from the gourd and trailing behind him as he ran like a miniature sandstorm, the streets all but emptied. There was no way even the toughest shinobi was willing to get in the way of that.
Gaara didn't even notice the way the villagers ran to avoid him. He didn't notice the flurries of sand he was causing, or even the way Shukaku was snarling and thrashing against the bonds that held it. None of that mattered nearly so much as getting to the hospital as quickly as possible. He had to see Neji. Had to see what condition Neji was in. To see if he was dead.
"Don't be dead," Gaara said, unaware even that he spoke aloud. "Please don't be dead."
There were several jounin waiting in the lobby of the hospital, brave souls who attempted to speak with their Kazekage the moment he ran in. Gaara ignored all of them, the sand sweeping them out of his way as he ran to the little reception desk.
"Which room?" Gaara demanded of the receptionist attending the station.
A credit to her position, the receptionist didn't even flinch at Gaara's tone. "Room 213," came her immediate answer. "And you don't have to run!" she called after him, but he was already racing for the nearest flight of stairs.
What little shreds rationality Gaara managed to maintain reasoned that it was a good sign that Neji was in a room on the second floor of the hospital. The intensive care units were on the first floor, and the morgue was in the basement. So whatever had happened to Neji, he was going to be alright.
Logic did little to quell the panic, however, and he did not stop running until he reached Neji's hospital room.
There was a nurse standing outside of Neji's room, holding a clipboard, clearly waiting for Gaara to arrive. Gaara forced himself to stop, to calm down. The sand slowly collected around him, pouring back into the gourd as he settled himself. He couldn't just barge into the room, without knowing what to expect.
Shukaku was still growling in his head, ready to unleash all forms of demonic fury on whoever had caused Neji harm, and anyone else that happened to get in the way at the moment, for that matter. It took a great deal of willpower to ignore all the demon's instincts to cause a bloodbath. Luckily, Gaara had had a lot of practice.
"What happened?" Gaara asked the nurse. "How is he?"
"While out training in the canyons with his students, there was an ambush by five unknown assailants. In the battle, Neji ended up inhaling some form of astringent, which damaged his throat and lungs and finally rendered him unconscious. We've managed to clean most of it out, and he's doing okay now. The damage to his throat and lungs should heal without scarring. He's awake now; you can go in and talk to him. Just don't make him talk too long. His throat is still sore."
Gaara reached for the door handle, but paused before opening the door. "There's something else, isn't there? Something you haven't told me."
The nurse sighed, then nodded. "Whatever Neji was hit with, damaged his eyes as well. We won't know how badly they're damaged until we've given them some time to try and heal. Even if he does regain his sight, it's possible that he'll never use his byakugan again. It's too soon to tell one way or another."
Gaara considered that in silence, then opened the door and stepped inside the room without further comment to the nurse.
Neji was sitting up in his hospital bed, face toward the window as though looking out at the view. But he had a bandage wrapped over his eyes, reminiscent of a blindfold. His dark hair had been cut short as well, by one slice from a very sharp blade, by the look of it. It barely brushed Neji's shoulders now. Insult, added to injury.
Neji turned his head toward Gaara when he heard the door open. Gaara walked toward him but said nothing, taking a seat in the single chair beside Neji's bed. Neji seemed to be considering for the briefest moment, analyzing the sound of the footstep, the smell of sand and heat and the faintest aura of demon, before smiling faintly and relaxing.
"I'm glad you came, Gaara," Neji said, accurately concluding the identity of his visitor. He spoke softly and slow, his voice a little rough from the injury to his throat. "Though I'd have preferred to come home under better circumstances than these."
Gaara reached out to take Neji's hand from where it rested on the bedcover, assuring himself through touch that Neji was here with him, alive if not unhurt. "Let me kill them for you. Let me unleash the demon on them. I want them paralyzed with fear before I rip out their hearts and crush them. I'll string their entrails from one end of the desert to the other for the buzzards to pick at."
Neji let out a soft laugh, though it ended on a rough cough. "You always did say the sweetest things." The humor was gone quickly, though, and Neji's expression was solemn. "They found only me in the canyon. No trace of my students. They haven't come home, have they?"
"I haven't seen them," Gaara admitted. "But I came straight here. It's possible they've been found by now." Alive, hopefully.
"Temari said she'd organize teams to search for them," Neji said. "They're just children. I don't know why anyone would kidnap them. Of course, I don't know why we were attacked in the first place."
"They are valuable as hostages because they have value to you," Gaara said. "These five that attacked you, they brought a weapon that would particularly subdue your byakugan, one of your most powerful weapons. When you were down, they cut your hair. Whoever orchestrated this, it seems as though they were after you, specifically." The thought of someone targeting and harming Neji gave Gaara a peculiarly sick feeling, not to mention the urge to rend said someone limb from limb. Shukaku's increased snarling did not help matters.
"Why would they be after me?" Neji wondered aloud. "And if they were, why blind me, take the children, and just leave me there?"
"I don't know," Gaara said. "I may let them answer that question, before I kill them." The sand hummed eagerly inside the gourd, then spilled out from its confinement in a steady stream. Thick ribbons of sand drifted to Neji, nudging affectionately at his hand resting on the bedspread.
Neji smiled at the feel of the sand's loving touch, and he combed his fingers through the accumulation of grainy particles. The sand shivered, looping loosely around Neji's arms; the sand's version of an embrace.
"We missed you," Gaara said, speaking for himself, the sand, even Shukaku. They were weak words, unable to properly convey the desperate emptiness they felt when Neji was away, the sleepless nights spent staring at uncaring stars and hoping that wherever Neji was, he was safe. But Gaara had never needed to try and articulate those feelings; Neji had always been good at understanding the things Gaara didn't say.
"I missed you, too," Neji said. There was a lot more unsaid behind those few simple words, speaking of lonely nights under an unfeeling desert moon, far from home, and the desire to come back and be with the one he loved, where he belonged. Neji never put those emotions into words, but he'd never had to; Gaara was pretty good at understanding the things Neji didn't say, too.
There was a timid knock at the door. The sand reared back with a hiss, flaring protectively around Neji and Gaara, tense and apprehensive. Gaara didn't think anyone that would knock so nervously would pose much of a threat, but with Neji injured, the sand was on edge, expecting attack at any moment. Gaara did not bother to soothe it; the sand's hair trigger was the very thing that kept Gaara alive through his childhood. Gaara had hoped that time of violence was past, but it may be that those instincts would yet be needed.
When Gaara gave them permission to enter, the door opened just wide enough to allow a clearly nervous chuunin to slip into the room. Gaara recognized him vaguely, though he'd never bothered to remember the kid's name. The boy was tall but scrawny, with perpetually rumpled dirt brown hair, and clothes that always looked like he'd slept in them for days.
"A message came for you, Lord Kazekage," the boy blurted, holding out a scroll, his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. "It was marked urgent. I was told to bring it here."
Gaara let the sands reach out and take the scroll from the boy's hand. The chuunin held very still as the sand surrounded him, circling him slowly as if examining him thoroughly to determine if he was a threat. The boy was clearly very uncomfortable to be in the room with the Kazekage and his sands, so Gaara dismissed him. The chuunin didn't run from the room, though he looked as though he wanted to.
"A little jumpy, don't you think?" Neji commented once the boy was gone.
Gaara smiled, untying the cord wrapped around the scroll. "Even without sight, you could tell that, could you?"
"I could practically hear him break into a nervous sweat," Neji said. "And he breathes too loudly. He wouldn't be my first choice for missions requiring stealth."
"I'll mention that to his team leader, when I see them…" Gaara murmured as he unrolled the scroll. The thought was quickly forgotten, though, as he began to read.
"Dear Kazekage," the letter began. "Though originally I intended to address this letter to Neji Hyuuga, it would be a wasted effort, since by this point he wouldn't be able to read it. It was a shame to blind those pretty eyes, but it was necessary. You've tricked Neji into thinking he loves you, but deep in his heart, he knows you're a monster. It falls to me to show him this, to show him his true feelings. When you're gone, when everything Neji knows and cares for is gone, he'll learn to love me, instead. I will be the only one Neji will look upon, ever again. Enjoy your last days with him, Lord Kazekage. Soon you won't even be a memory to Neji. I'll come for him soon."
"What is it?" Neji asked into the tense silence. "What does it say?"
"Nothing," Gaara said, his voice rough with barely checked fury. He slipped the scroll into the gourd, where the sand shredded it into tiny pieces. "It's nothing."