Title: Secondhand Faith

Chapter Title: Whirling Dervish

Author: Lell

Current Rating: A very boring PG. It is, however, the first chapter so the rating can be forgiven.

Warnings: Spoilers…pretty much up until the current chapters. While considered an AU, many things in the timeline remain the same. So, read at your own risk (though that warning applies to most of my work…)

Summary: They got Sasuke back (yay), Itachi died at his hands (more yay) and Konoha emerged triumphant after having been to hell and back in a handbasket (innumerable amounts of yay.) But sometimes peacetime is just as harrowing as war when old enemies and not so old friends convene at this year's Chuunin exams. (AU futurefic starring the Sand Sibs, various Otonin and the Konoha ensemble. All at once. Fear.)

oOo

In the desert, the shadows of the dusk snuck up on you. They fell, hard and fast, turning pale sand grey and the hollows between dunes an inky charcoal. Evening was a subversive thing; distracting one with the fiery brilliance of a desert sunset so as to conceal the plummeting temperature and the landscape's dive into hiding.

There were no lights to illuminate the arid wasteland beyond the red mud walls of Sunagakure. Foreigners had difficulty understanding that the hidden village in Wind Country was a veritable haven; wasn't desert country uniformly inhospitable? It wasn't until night fell and Sunagakure was transformed from a rough-hewn and sprawling village into a safe haven that used softly lit windows and sturdy walls to shield against the looming darkness and gritty winds of the surrounding desert that they realised four walls and a roof (plus running water) were all the luxury any one person really required out here.

Only in the desert did you run the risk of death by both sunstroke and exposure in the space of twenty-four hours.

Shikamaru quite liked the desert. Out here, sunlight was pretty much guaranteed and the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows. It was an environment uniquely suited to his particular fighting style, though he was somewhat hampered at midday when the sun rose highest and shadows were shortest, with little to cast them in the wide, open space.

Besides. Rain was troublesome; humidity as well.

Overhead, the dull blades of the ceiling fan spun languidly, sending a low thrumming sound throughout the room. Their passage was reflected in the metallic surface of the water flask set on the desk he stood before, shrunk down in miniature into a blurred catherine wheel, distorted by the convex curve of the container. A bead of sweat rolled indecisively down the nape of his neck – while the sun was indeed sinking towards the western horizon, the heat of the day hadn't dissipated yet. Stone absorbed heat well and took time to relinquish it, though the decline in temperature would be a steep one when it arrived. Ravine wall steep.

The silence was as heavy as the lingering heat. In front of him, head bent over the diplomatic scroll he'd carried here, Suna's Kage frowned in absent thought. Behind him and to the left, just in Shikamaru's line of vision, Temari watched her youngest brother. To the other side, Kankurou leant against the wall. His attention resided with Gaara too.

After an eternity (or was it a second?) the young (but not so young anymore, not really) Kazekage shifted and looked up at Shikamaru, losing him his porcelain statue status. "And Naruto thinks the terms are reasonable?"

Shikamaru shrugged. It was a trademark gesture of his since it took a bevy of synonymous words, an entire emotion and replaced its complexity with a single, easy motion. "He knows that they have to play by our rules," he replied. "I don't think reason comes into it." Behind Gaara, Temari laughed softly and Kankurou smirked. The corner of Shikamaru's own mouth twitched in response. "He says, however, that it is fair."

"They're not crippled any more." Kankurou pushed himself away from the wall, though the laziness of the motion almost suggested that it was the wall doing the pushing, not him. "Barely functional, but not crippled. Seems to me, the decision here is whether to let Oto have a chance to grow back its fangs."

"No fangs – not with Orochimaru five years dead." This came from Temari and Gaara's pale eyes slanted towards her from behind the half moons of his reading glasses. Though hardly old at twenty two some unfortunate hitch in his genetics had led to this necessity, but it had been argued that this came about because he was one of the few Kages to actually do his own paperwork. His sister, noting his silent invitation to further her point, did so. "Between us, we slaughtered them. We killed their leader, decimated their adult ninja population and pretty much crippled them financially. It's taken them this long just to train up the next generation of ninja – they're hardly going to be a threat any time soon."

Like any self-respecting brother would, Kankurou disagreed. "This is Oto. Oto. Orochimaru's own special little project. Even with him dead, it's like inviting the snake to wait in the grass for us to step on it. They're always going to be a threat."

The puppeteer looked to Shikamaru for agreement, but the younger man held up his hands in apathetic defence. "Too much snake imagery for me."

In her corner, Temari laughed. "We Suna folk like our metaphors," she teased. She moved to stand behind Gaara's chair, elegant yet callused hands resting on its back. "Besides, little brother here's made a decision anyway, no matter what we say." She turned an amused jade gaze downwards. "Eh, Gaara?"

The slim young man tipped his head back just enough so that he could see her grinning, catlike face over the rims of glasses. Slowly and deliberately, he removed them, folded them and pocketed them before picking up his pen-brush. The signature he made was neat and efficient even after years of official use. When he set the brush down, his calm eyes met Shikamaru's hooded ones. Understanding resided in that gaze and the envoy from Konoha nodded, his small smile signalling approval that would have been insulting to a ninja of Gaara's rank, but was merely amiable when directed towards to the serious young man Shikamaru now counted as a friend.

"Oto is permitted to submit candidates to the Chuunin exams to be held in Suna in three months time." Such was the edict of the Godaime Kazekage.

Kankurou sighed, but took defeat well – he deferred to his brother in most things after all. "With conditions?" he asked.

"With conditions." For while Naruto, Rokudaime Hokage, had taught Gaara of compassion, the Suna-nin did not let it rule him.

Sensing that business was over for the evening (and it was definitely evening now because the sun was gone and the sky outside was inky) Shikamaru bowed to the siblings assembled before him. "I will return to Konoha tomorrow and inform Naruto of your decision."

Something that didn't really count as a smile, but did count as Gaara's version of one made its wintery way across his pale face. "Very good."

A heavy hand thudded onto his shoulder; an equally heavy arm did the same around the back of his neck. "Yeah, yeah, very good and all that. Drinks now?"

Temari eyed her brother's man-handling of Shikamaru with some degree of exasperation. Being notably female and an elder sister, she had it down to a fine art by now. "Isn't it a little early for that?"

Kankurou's grin had the dangerous quality that his family seemed to have perfected to it. "Sun's down. It's late enough."

"The sun goes down here at six." Shikamaru felt obliged to point that out, however little heed he knew the Kazekage's brother would pay that gem of logic. He was a genius and he knew a lost battle when he saw one. Resigned, he let the sturdier man hustle him off to what the sages only knew.

Temari lingered behind. Were Gaara's eyebrows more prominent, he would have perhaps raised one at her. As things stood, he had to settle for tipping his head marginally to one side in a vague silently questioning manner. She smiled in the amiable, easy way that never failed to instil in him a quiet sort of bewilderment that he was the kind of person to whom such smiles were offered.

Old mindsets died hard.

"The world almost seems to be moving on." She leant against his desk and her long skirt rustled against the polished veneer. "Oto rejoining the ninja community, Naruto's three year anniversary as Rokudaime—," A pointed (if affectionate) grin. "—Kankurou's insistence on getting every diplomatic envoy we receive drunk." The low lamp shone through dry strands of muted gold hair, softening their usual errant existence into something much more akin to a gentle aureole than the thatch it could sometimes be after a hard day's work, despite the stern bunches she tamed them into each morning.

"The latter is perhaps the reason for the recent influx of more junior couriers we've been receiving," Gaara replied in his usual dry manner.

Temari waved an absent hand: the point was moot after all. She was not the sort of woman to look dreamy – indeed, she was a kunoichi born and bred with a core of steel and an exterior as seemingly granular and rough as Gaara's own sand shield. She ran roughshod over her charges, had (on occasion) shocked the Suna elders with her snapped curses on particularly bad days and had always had a rather skewed view about who should rescue who when it came to princes and princesses. Instead, she just looked considerate. Musing. Thoughtful.

"You could almost say things are restful," she said. Then her lip curled minutely. "Except, for all our peace treaties, we're shinobi." And wasn't 'shinobi' the antonym to 'peace'? A sigh drifted out of her barely parted lips. "You know?"

Gaara didn't reply. She didn't expect one. She just did this sometimes - came and talked and mused and theorised at him. She did it when the shadows lengthened and the moon rose. New, half, gibbous or full, the moon could sometimes turn his kunoichi sister into a scholar, a philosopher. There lurked an intellect beneath her hard demeanour, the same intellect that Kankurou promoted and Gaara retained for emergency use only (being Kazekage required logic and organisation over philosphy; political knowledge instead of something more esoteric.)

The brief moment passed. Temari lost that tilt of her head, the cant of her hips, that considering look in eyes which wouldn't have appeared out of place on a gryphon. Earthbound once more, she grinned at him and reached across the desk towards him. Strong, slim fingers mussed his already unruly hair. He wrinkled his noise in the response she expected and Temari was satisfied. The hand retreated and she bowed, a fond mockery of what Shikamaru had performed before her.

"Duty calls – someone needs to make sure the boys go to bed at a reasonable hour."

"You're not joining them?"

"Of course I'm joining them." Temari's tone was an overly patient one yet somehow infinitely smug. "I can just out-drink them both."

That actually drew a chuckle out of Gaara and Temari, pleased, smiled as she let herself out of her brother's office.

Left alone with the shadows and the slowly rotating ceiling fan, Suna's Kage looked to the window on his left. True night reigned now and, as such, the view through the narrow window was almost uniformly black beyond the boundary of the village Gaara was sworn to protect.

There were no lights to guide you in the desert at night and it was far too easy to lose your way in those thick, heavy shadows.

In his haven (with its walls and its lamps and its water) the Kazekage dozed in his chair. Because he could now. Because these really were, for a shinobi, restful times.

oOo

Author's Comments:

Yes, I know, it's short, but I'm experimenting. I'm writing by the seat of my pants because this idea's already picked me up and is running with me. I have little choice, it seems.

Naturally, I am worried.

I shall tentatively, tentatively, be setting up a schedule for an update once a week. Whether they'll always be on a Tuesday is undecided (we'll see how I adjust to this year's timetable at school and when I'll be able to write in my free periods or at home) but I think a deadline will make my work more structured instead of my previous 'update when it's finished' approach.

I hope you've enjoyed – this is something a little new to me, but it was one of those 'hit me in the bath' bunnies and it demanded to take priority over such trivialities as paying attention to my boyfriend/family/friends, schoolwork and sleeping (it's nearly two in the morning in London as I type this.) I'd really appreciate any feedback, just to see what people think.

In next week's episode… "Been there, drunk that, got the hangover shirt."