Arg! Sorry for taking so long to update! I blame it on a mixture of writer's block and exam stress! But that's over now so hopefully I'll be updating far more regularly!

Anyway, as an apology for the ridiculously long wait, here is an extra long chapter.

Sorry, I know this is a little jumpy in places – truth be told I'm not 100 happy with it, but I was getting frustrated going over it so I thought I'd just go ahead and post it.

Chapter 3 – The Mission

The rays of the early morning sun shone down on Aoi as she sat patiently by the gates awaiting her team mates. Not knowing when exactly they were to be heading off, she had turned up early so as not to risk being left behind. She had arrived just as the dawn was breaking, which meant she had been sitting here for - Aoi's teal eyes flickered upwards to check the position of the sun - two hours already and still no sign of her team. Leaning backwards against the gateway, the girl let her heavy lids slid shut in exasperation.

Slowly Aoi's hand crept up to rest lightly on the pouch that Toshi currently occupied (she had thankfully managed to procure another one for him to use during the mission rather then have him emptying her weapons one all the time). As she felt the stiff fabric raise and fall gently with the small animal's steady breathing, she felt a slight pang of jealousy. But then she supposed that one of them at least should be able to get some sleep, after all there was no sense in them both suffering just to appease a petulant puppet master.

As much as she would like to think the best of him, Aoi was not a fool. It seemed a little too suspicious to her that Kankuro had been the one to pass on incomplete information about the meeting time. Not to mention that it seemed just a little too likely that he would take pleasure in making her life as hard as possible, particularly since he had no problem with letting her know how little he liked her.

Letting out a deep sigh, the young medic couldn't help but wonder why it was the puppeteer seemed to have taken so completely against her. Had she done something to upset him? Shaking her head, she shrugged the problem, aside. She supposed she would just have to do her best not to antagonise him on the mission.

"What are you doing here?" the soft voice from behind her jerked her out of her musings. Letting out a small squeak of surprise, Aoi turned to face the speaker.

Gaara stood a few meters away, arms folded across his chest as he gazed at her coolly.

"Oh, hello again Gaara-san," said Aoi cheerily as she did her best to ignore the familiar wave of emotion that washed over her in his presence. She was relieved to note that the intensity of the sensation had decreased somewhat since the first encounter, obviously the shinobi was feeling distinctly calmer than he had been before. But they were still there, simmering away under his detached mask.

"I asked a question," his cold eyes narrowed slightly as he spoke. Aoi blinked up at him in confusion.

"Wha- oh! Why am I here? I'm the medic that is to be accompanying you on your mission. I was waiting for everyone else to arrive," she explained to him pleasantly, as she internally prayed that he would not take issue with her presence.

"We are not meeting for another hour. Why are you here so early?" Aoi did her best to stifle her dejected sigh. Looking up at the expectant red-head, Aoi quickly flashed a false smile.

"Oh... well I wasn't told the exact time we would be meeting," she explained, "So I thought I'd better get here early just incase."

"I see," muttered the Jinchuriki as he turned away from the young medic. Aoi glanced up in surprise.

"Gaara-san? Where are you going?" she asked with a small frown. Pausing only to give his fellow genin a disinterested glance, Gaara vanished in a swirl of sand.

Letting out a soft sigh, Aoi pondered what had brought the redhead out here in the first place. Shrugging, the girl closed her eyes and continued her wait.

Raising a dirty hand, Aoi wiped the sweat dripping down her brow as she continued doggedly on. They had been running for hours. She was hot sweaty and tired. Sparing a glance at her team mates, the medic was dismayed to note that they still looked relatively fresh.

Gritting her teeth, she put her head down and persevered. No matter how tired she was, she vowed that she would not complain. Apart form anything else it was Temeri that was leading this mission and she was not the kind of person you bothered with frivolities such as exhaustion.

Sensing the weariness of his companion from his usual perch on her shoulders, Toshi leaned forward to offer her some comfort. The ferret began nuzzling her ear in a consoling manner as he muttered softly about suitable ways to punish the 'Neko-teme'. That brought a smile to the bluenette's tired lips.

Not that she was about to condone Toshi's plot to litter Kankuro's bedroll with mouse carcasses, but the thought did make her feel better. After all, were it not for him, she wouldn't have been up since the crack of dawn and hence not so exhausted now. All possibility of the omission being a genuine mistake had ceased the moment Aoi had seen the vindictive smirk on the puppeteer's face when he had (finally) arrived that morning in the company of his siblings.

The girl's eyes flickered to the horizon and locked onto the sinking sun. Not long until dark. Hopefully that would mean they would be stopping soon to make camp. Providing of course Temari did not decide to continue on through the night. Kami only knows how Aoi would cope if she did.

As if reading her thoughts, the blonde kunoichi slowed to a halt, indicating for the others to follow suit as she did so. Trying her best not to let out an audible sigh of relief and collapse to the ground, Aoi did as she was bid.

"It looks like there might be a sand storm on its way," said Temari as she studied the horizon before them. "There are some caves up ahead that we can shelter in. If we hurry we should get there before dark." Noting the nods of agreement from the team, Temari signaled for them to follow her and took off in the direction of the caves

Temari's weather reading turning out to be accurate, the team reached the caves only moments before the storm hit. Holing themselves up in their sanctuary with the aid of one of Gaara's sand barriers, the four ninja set about making camp.

Some time later found the team huddled around the meager fire they had managed to construct to ward of the chill of the desert night, using the small left over scraps of wood that had littered the cave from previous visitors.

Reclining comfortably along Aoi's shoulders. Toshi watched as the humans ate their meager meal of cold rice balls and tea. Not something that he found particularly appetizing himself. Ears pricking up at the sound of scuttling emanating from the back of the cave, the ferret licked his lips as he considered more enticing food. Quickly barking an explanation to his blue haired friend, Toshi bounded of to catch his own meal.

Chuckling at her small cohort's excitement, Aoi glanced around at her other companions as she finished the last of her dinner.

Temari had spread her giant battle fan across the ground in front of her and appeared to be doing something with a bottle of greasy liquid and a cloth – either polishing or oiling, Aoi wasn't sure. Kankuro had followed his sister's suit and was seeing to his own weapon - the youth had pulled out tools and had begun tinkering with the large, ugly puppet's joints.

Gaara alone out of the three siblings did not appear to be preparing his weapons, 'But then again' Aoi conceded, 'how would you prepare sand for battle?'

Instead the redhead sat staring broodilly into the small dancing flames before him, legs crossed and hands curled in his lap. On seeing his preoccupation, Aoi decided to take the chance to covertly study him.

The golden glow of the fire reflected in his intense eyes and changed his pale skin to a warm bronze, causing the intimidating shinobi to appear more human somehow. With mild interest, the bluenette noted that his tousled red hair also appeared darker in the flickering light. With a light frown, Aoi glanced over to where Kankuro was sitting – the puppet master had removed his cat-eared hood whilst he worked, revealing his own shock of messy brown hair.

For the first time, Aoi was struck with the physical similarity between the two brothers. It was a well known fact that Kankuro, underneath his hood and face paint, held a strong likeness to his father, the late fourth Kazekage, but as far as Aoi was aware, no-one had ever mentioned Gaara baring a family resemblance. And yet when you really looked, there was no denying it. Yes, his features were slightly finer than his brother's, and like his elder sister he possessed pale green eyes rather than dark brown, but the semblance was still uncanny. Aoi began to wonder why no-one ever spoke about it.

'Could it really be just because no-one wants to draw similarities between the Kazekage and a Jinchuriki?'

As much as the idea appalled her, the bluenette couldn't help but feel she was right. Shaking her head at people's folly, she returned her gaze to the impassive redhead before her, taking in his lean muscular frame, clearly visible through his black t-shirt.

'He really is quite handsome,' the medic realized with a start, causing a hot blush to creep over her face. 'It's just a shame he's not more... approachable' she thought wryly as she noted the typical eerily impassive expression on his face.

Shaking her head to rid herself of her musings, Aoi dismissed her idle observations. Resolving to put her free time to more productive use, the bluenette turned instead to rummage in her bag for her medial textbook. On finding it, the young medic settled herself down into a more comfortable position and flipped the book open at a chapter she had marked near the middle headed 'Experimental Techniques'. Shifting closer to the warmth of the small fire, Aoi began her studying.

She had been reading for approximately thirty minutes when a sated Toshi returned with a bulging stomach and blood stained whiskers. Liking his lips the mustelid lazily observed his human frowning at her book. Realising no attention would be forthcoming anytime soon, he (grudgingly) settled on taking a nap to help digest his meal instead.

Absorbed as she was in a particularly complicated section regarding rapid cellular re-growth, the girl was only dimly aware of the ferret clambering over her in a bid to get to his pouch. Slowly turning the page, Aoi continued her reading.

A sudden loud curse echoing around the cave abruptly broke the silence and dragged the bluenette back to reality. Blinking in shock the girl glanced wildly about for the source of the noise.

Eventually her eyes – along with everyone else's – fell on Kankuro as he lurched hurriedly to his feet, hurtling a kunai for the shadows to his immediate left as he did so. An angry hiss informed him that he had missed his intended target. Lips peeling back in an irritated snarl, the puppeteer reached in his pouch for another blade as the shadow rippled to reveal a snake. Tongue lashing in and out of its mouth furiously the serpent seemed to regard him for a moment before lunging to strike lightning fast for his foot.

Reacting at a speed only a ninja could, Kankuro danced backwards at threw his kunai at the reptile's head. A smile flickered over his face as he watched his weapon race towards the animal as it franticly tried to dodge, confident that it would not be fast enough.

The flash of firelight glinting on metal in the corner of his eye, caused the shinobi's head to whip round just on time to see a slim needle fly past his shoulder. Following its trajectory, the boy watched as the small weapon raced forwards, colliding with his own and sending both spinning harmlessly of track.

"What the..?"

Shocked, Kankuro span round to find who had been stupid enough to stop his blow. He found himself confronted with a highly agitated Aoi moving swiftly in his direction.

"Kankuro-san, stop! Please allow me to deal with this!" she called as she darted past him and knelt by the incensed serpent. The youth's face pulled down in a confused scowl as he watched the girl and snake staring at each other, the later hissing softly now and again.

"Please calm yourself little one. I mean you no harm," cautiously the serpent lifted its head to stare at the girl before him with intelligent black eyes.

"You sspeak?" it hissed in surprise, its voice decidedly feminine. Aoi smiled.

"I speak," she confirmed.

The snake's head swayed back and forth, its tongue darting in and out as it considered this.

"How iss it that a human can talk?"

"I am not like most humans," as she spoke, Aoi watched in fascination as the firelight played over the animal's patterned scales, changing the brown to a gleaming reddish bronze.

"You do not sseem ass foolish ass most of your breed," snake conceded after a moments deliberation. Aoi let out a soft chuckle. It had been a while since she had last spoken with a snake. She had forgotten how haughty they were.

"Tell me little one, if I am not mistaken, you are not one of our usual desert snakes." she asked with a slight frown.

"Of coursse I am not one of your lowly desert breedss! I am a mamushi (1), the mosst intelligent of all sserpentss!" the affronted reptile informed her. Suppressing a smile Aoi inclined her head apologetically.

"Forgive me little one, I meant no offence. I am unlearned in the way of your kindred, but even an ignorant human like me can hear the truth in your words," she soothed the ruffled serpent.

Somewhat mollified, the snake let out an agreeable hiss and raised her head proudly.

"But how is it then that you came to be in this cave?" the medic asked him curiously. Lowering her head immediately, the snake's tongue began to flick in and out of her mouth rapidly, as she rattled a sound of distress.

"I wass carried here by one of your imprudent kin," she hissed irritably, "it wass cold in my home forest and I had sslithered into hiss pack sseeking warmth and fell asleep. When I awoke I wass here and the foolish creature wass shrieking and throwing objectss at me." The snake lifted her head to glare over Aoi's shoulder at Kankuro. "Much like that one," she paused to offer the puppet master a warning hiss before continuing.

"I am unssuited to ssuch an unforgiving environment and sso I cannot cross the desert and return to my home. I am trapped here. I would have perished before now were it not for the rodentss which infesst this cave."

Aoi smiled sadly at the reptile.

"Well little one, I cannot promise to return you to your home, but if you wish it, I will happily carry your out of the dessert. My companions and I are traveling to a mountain village, I am sure you would find the mountainside forests to your liking." Lifting her head, the snake eyed the medic suspiciously.

"You would do thiss for me? Why?" she asked, her tone wary. Stifling a sigh at the animal's mistrust, Aoi offered her a comforting smile.

"It is the least I can do to apologize for the actions of my companion," she tried, mentally crossing her fingers in the hopes that it would be enough to appease the snake. After all, she could not in good conscience leave her here to inevitably starve to death. The snake considered this for a moment, before finally dipping her head in acquisition.

"Very well," she hissed in a magnanimous tone, "I will accept your apology and allow you to carry me from thiss place."

Eyes sparkling with laughter, Aoi grinned at the serpent. Yes it really had been too long since she had last spoken with a snake. Biting back a laugh, she lowered her arm for her to climb on.

"I thank you my friend. Now come and warm yourself by the fire while I explain to my companions. I will make sure they do not harm you, but in return you must promise to stay away form them." Readily hissing her agreement the snake quickly slithered up onto the proffered arm.

Once she was sure the reptile had a firm grip, the bluenette stood upright. Turning to walk back to her seat Aoi found herself under the intense scrutiny of her team mates. Even Gaara looked mildly curious.

Blushing madly, Aoi avoided their gazes as she returned to her seat and make quick introductions between the snake and Toshi – who had awoken with all the commotion. Once she had finished Aoi took a deep calming breath before lifting her head to face her team mates as the serpent coiled contently in front of the dancing flames.

"Umm, I suppose you would like an explanation?" she asked hesitantly.

"Explanation!? Yeah, how about you explain what the hell is going on!?" exploded an enraged Kankuro. Growling at him to shut up, Temari faced the cringing medic.

"Start explaining," she commanded firmly.

"Hai, Temari-san," Aoi bit her lip as she considered how best to start. After a moment she turned to face the still incensed puppeteer and bowed low, "Gomen Kankuro-san, but I couldn't just stand there and let you kill the snake. She means no harm to us. It is unlikely she would even have attacked you had you not thrown your kunai at her."

"How the hell could you possible know what it would have done? And what was I supposed to do? Leave a poisonous reptile to slither into our bedrolls while we are sleeping? Stop being an idiot and let me kill it!" he snarled in reply.

"No she wont I promise you!" pleaded the kunoichi.

"What makes you so certain?" inquired Temeri, her tone serious. Dropping her gaze, Aoi began to fidget uncomfortably.

"I… ah… spoke to her, she assured me she wouldn't…" she mumbled shyly. Kankuro snorted his disbelief, causing Aoi to flush bright red as she hung her head.

Slowly Temari's eyes flickered from the blushing medic, to her oddly intelligent ferret, before finally settling on the suddenly tame snake coiled at the girl's feet.

"Start from the beginning," she ordered. Swallowing nervously Aoi nodded slowly.

"I suppose I ought to have mentioned my genkai before we left," she began hesitantly, "only I didn't really think it was going to be relevant so I didn't bother." The bluenette's fidgeting increased. "It… um, gives me a kind of bond with animals, I suppose. It lets me talk to them amongst other things."

Temari raised her eyebrow as she watched the younger female squirm in front of her. As far as genkais go, this was certainly one of the more obscure ones. The blonde considered it for a time.

'And not the most useful one either,' she though dryly to herself. Still, she supposed it suited the meek bluenette.

"If it's a clan genkai, then why haven't we heard about it before now?" she asked.

"Oh," said Aoi as she raised her teal eyes to meet Temari's gaze, "I guess that's because I got it from my father. He wasn't from Suna you see. Actually I don't know where he was from. He left before I was born and Mother never spoke to me about him." The girl shrugged and looked away.

"So why don't you just ask her?" questioned Kankuro, a look of scorn obvious on his face. The medic suddenly became very interested in the snake at her feet.

"My mother died on a mission back when I was still in the academy. It's just me and my elder sister Kin now. I'm not sure if Kin knows anymore than I do about it, but we have different fathers so I don't really see why she should." Staring fixedly at the reptile the way she was, Aoi missed the flicker of surprise which moved across Temari's face at the mention of her sister's name. "Besides, Nee-san doesn't particularly like talking about my genkai. She thinks it's a useless ability and that I waste too much time with it as it is."

"She's right," snorted Kankuro as he threw himself down on his bedroll. Aoi's blush deepened.

"Its late and we have an early start tomorrow. We should get some sleep," advised Temeri distractedly as she still stewed over the nights revelations. Happy that the conversation was over, Aoi complied eagerly.

A few moments later found Aoi and Toshi snuggled into her sleeping bag (the snake having commandeered the pouch). As her lids were beginning to droop, the young medic noticed a figure still sitting by the fire.


He sat perfectly still as he gazed into the burning depths of the flames. He had been predictably quiet through the whole conversation, Aoi wasn't even sure if he had been paying any attention. As she watched him, the kunoichi considered calling out to ask why he was not resting, but a larger part of her was more interested in the blackness that was rapidly claiming her. As her weary eyes slid closed, her last sight was of the stoic redhead, his fine features illuminated in the golden glow of the fire.

Aoi gazed through the large window at the wonderful mountain landscape before her.

After a rude awakening – Aoi had awoken to find Kankuro chasing Toshi around with a kunai in one hand and a wet sandal in the other (that smelled suspiciously of ferret urine) – team Baki had started off in the direction of the destined village. The four of them had made good time, arriving approximately an hour previously, which had given Aoi plenty of time to release her newest charge in the dense mountain forests. Aoi hoped that it would be suited to her needs.

Absorbed in her worry for the reptile, it took a few moments for the medic to realise that she was being spoken too.

"Aoi!" the irritated voice soon dragged her from her thoughts. Turning, the teenager's eyes widened as she realised that she was the focus of attention for all the room's occupants. Swallowing nervously she shot Temari a desperate look. Eyes narrowing in annoyance, the older female turned to the overdressed, overweight, middle aged man who had asked the initial question.

"I assure you," she growled menacingly at him, as though daring him to disagree with what she was about to say, "Aoi is highly competent. She is the personal apprentice of our village's head medic." The man took one wide eyed glance at Temari's stony face and decided not to argue further.

"Oh, that's, ah… wonderful," tried the village headman nervously eyeing the terrifying blonde. Turning his piggy eyes to the blue haired girl before him, he began to scrutinize her carefully. "In that case we were wondering if we may borrow her services form you? We have civilians that were wounded form the bandit's last raid on the village." Temeri nodded briskly.

"Of course. That was her purpose in coming," turning to pin the younger female with a firm glare she issued her orders, "Aoi, you stay here and do what you can for the civilians. The rest of us will go on ahead to deal with the missing-nin. If we haven't returned by the time you are finished then catch up with us." Aoi bowed her head to indicate her obedience.

"Good!" exclaimed the fat official, a queasy smile plastered on his face, "Then let us waste no more time. My men need seeing too and I am sure you are eager to be off!" Slowly lumbering to his feet he made an impatient gesture at Aoi. "This way girl."

Suppressing her flicker of annoyance at his patronising manner, the young medic rose and followed him out of the room.

It was several hours later when Aoi finally managed to extract herself from the condescending village head. Over the time she had been forced to heal everything from stab wounds to bunions as the entire village (or so it seemed to the young medic) had queued up to ask for her expertise. Apparently the official had no scruples with abusing Aoi's kind nature and had quickly spread the word that there was a healer in town.

It wasn't particularly that Aoi minded putting her talents to use, particularly when she noted that many of these people were too poor to seek aid elsewhere. Nor did any of the healings take up much chakra – even the skirmish wounds that she had initially been brought to heal were relatively easy to fix, but the shear quantity of them made the exercise more draining and time consuming than she was comfortable with. Especially considering her true purpose on this mission was to ensure the safety of her team mates, a duty she was shirking by remaining in the village.

Not to mention the pompous nature of her chaperone was driving her round the bend.

Still she felt she couldn't really turn them away when they asked for her help, so consoling herself with the knowledge that she was doing good and that her team – who were far more competent ninja's than she would ever even dream of becoming, would more than likely have little use for her out in the field anyway.

However as the day wore on and her team mates still did not return Aoi began to feel uneasy. After seeing her last patient, the medic debated the sense in heading out to find the others straight away (this idea was much encouraged by Toshi, who was all for abandoning the others and remaining in the comfort and safety of the village). However in the end her unease won and she chose to head out without stopping for a break first, her disgruntled little friend wrapped securely around her throat, complaining all the while.

Aoi lost track of time as she followed the trail left for her by her team, with Toshi occasionally changing her direction with a soft bark in her ear as he caught lingering scents on the wind. A short while after the fourth such bark, Toshi stood upright, ears pricked and nose twitching madly. Frowning, Aoi was about to question his behaviour when the faint, but unmistakeable sounds of battle whispered by her ear on a stray breeze.

"Toshi?" The ferret ducked his head in affirmation of the unasked question.

"Yeah, its them," lifting his head the small animal scented the air, carefully dissecting the barrage of aroma's that filtered in through his nostrils. "From the smell of it Neko-teme, Boss-lady and Demon-boy are all up ahead with four others I don't recognise. And there's one hell of a battle going on. The air's thick with chakra and blood." Aoi winced visibly on hearing the last part. Biting her lip as anxiety clawed at her gut, the medic considered her options.

On one hand she was no fighter. She had no illusions about that fact. She was a healer who abhorred violence. Under normal circumstances she would be more then happy to stay clear of the battle, confident in her team's abilities and very aware of the fact that she would most likely just get in the way if she tried to help. But she was increasingly beginning to think that this was not normal circumstances. After all hadn't Toshi just said the air smelled of blood? What if one of them was hurt?

"Leave them," advised a soft voice by her ear. "We're not fighters. That's their job. Wait until the fight's over. Then if there's anyone left alive you can go and fix 'em." The ferret gave out the strange growling noise that he seemed to use for a laugh as he began to playfully bat at her hair, "maybe if we're lucky they'll all kill each other off!"

"Toshi!" Aoi admonished in a horrified tone. "We can't just leave them!" Biting her lip, the blue haired-nin turned to scan the foliage before her nervously. "We have to go, they may need our help." Ignoring Toshi's bark of disagreement, Aoi desperately tried to think of a plan. It was all very well to declare that she would help her comrades, but how? At times like this she couldn't help but wish she was more like her prodigal sister. She bet that Kin would know exactly what to do in this kind of situation…

An abrupt hiss startled Aoi from further indulgence in her misery.

"At lasst I have found you," a familiar voice hissed from beneath her. Jumping slightly in surprise, the young medic dropped her gaze to the irritated snake by her feet.

"Little one?" she gasped recognising the particular pattern of black and bronze bands across the head as the same as those of her reptilian friend. A small smile lit her worried face as she gazed at her. Despite the bad timing she was glad to see her. And apparently she was not the only one. Cheekily butting her head out of his way, Toshi leaned out over her shoulder to chirrup a greeting of his own.

Letting out an impatient hiss the viper lifted its head and met Aoi's wide eyes with its own beady black ones.

"We do not have time to waste," it told her haughtily, "your humanss are in trouble. Two of them are fighting outnumbered, and the ssilent one iss trapped in hiss own battle. They require our help."

The girl blinked at the snake's statement, unease quickly spreading through her. A sudden thought crossed her mind.

"Did you say they need our help?" she asked in surprise. The reptile flickered its tongue smugly.

"Yess, friend. You ssaved me from the cave. Now in return I will help you ssave your humanss. Thiss will clear my debt to you." Aoi's smile widened at the small creature's offer. Leaning down, she whispered her thanks to the mamushi and offered it her arm. Once she was certain that the snale was securely wound around her forearm, the bluenette straightened and began to swiftly make her way to her comrades.

Knowing that he had long since lost his argument, Toshi let out one final wail of protest, as he steadied himself on the medic's shoulders, nervously awaiting what was to come.

Aoi and her passengers moved silently along the forest floor, the ninja's teal eyes locked on the clearing before her. The clash of metal on metal rang out from the centre of it, punctuated here and there by loud grunts and mocking taunts. As she neared, Aoi caught sight of the cause of the noises between the thick trunks of the trees.

Dripping sweat, clothing torn and spattered with blood, a clearly exhausted Temari and Kankuro stood back to back, each brandishing their chosen weapon and carefully eyeing their opponents. The pair faced off against four enemy shinobi - two apiece. The siblings may be strong, but apparently the difference in numbers was beginning to take its toll on the Suna-nin.

Eyes flickering desperately, the medic could find no sign of Gaara anywhere. Firmly pushing aside the fear caused by the redhead's absence, Aoi focused on the situation a hand. Rescuing his siblings.

After a quick, silent exchange the medic and her companions formulated a plan. Moving as close to the clearing as she dared without being seen, the bluenette released the snake into the undergrowth before carefully moving round the clearing so that she was facing Kankuro. Silently moving into position, the medic slipped two senbon out of her weapons case and awaited her signal.

Brandishing her battle fan threateningly in front of her Temari kept her gave focused on the two grinning shinobi before her. Her breath was tearing from her throat in ragged pants and exhausted tremors had begun to ripple through her muscles. She was reaching her limit.

She didn't even need to glance behind her to know her younger brother was in a similar state.

'Damn it all!' she snarled in her mind as she narrowed her eyes at her opponents. After the long battle her chakra reserves were running dangerously low, a situation which - thanks to their double teaming, her enemies did not share. Things were getting desperate.

A sharp grunt of pain from Kankuro caused the kunoichi to clench her jaw in fury. If they wanted to get out of this alive they needed back up and fast.

'Where the hell is Gaara?'

A unexpected shriek of pain dragged her thoughts back to the problem at hand. Body tensing Temari watched in wary bewilderment as the missing-nin to her left dropped to the ground clutching at his leg, screaming at his confused partner for aid. Mystified, the kunoichi's frown deepened. What the hell was going on? Was this some kind of diversion..?

A sudden movement in her peripheral vision caused her head to whip round. She felt her eyes widen in shock as a frighteningly familiar snake leisurely made its way from the fallen man. As though it could feel her gaze, the pit viper suddenly lifted its banded head and turned to face her. After a moments silence, the beast hissed something that felt strangely like a greeting before continuing on its way.

A sudden ripple of amusement ran through the ninja as she watched the retreating reptile. Apparently help had arrived after all. Just not from the team mate she had been expecting. Making a mental note to thank Aoi for sending the beast to her aid, Temari turned back to face the single standing shinobi, trusting the snake venom to finish of the other.

Gathering up the last of her reserves, the blonde ninja moved into a battle stance. On seeing the bloodthirsty gleam in the woman's eyes, the missing-nin paled visibly. Temari allowed herself a smile.

Things were looking up.

As soon as she had heard the commotion from Temari's side of the clearing, Aoi had let her senbon fly. The slim needles had flown silent and true to their mark, piercing the skin of the ninja closest to her in the base of the neck. The medic watched in satisfaction as the man crumpled to the ground in an unconscious heap, adding to the overall confusion.

Recognising the slim needles in the felled man's neck as the same that Aoi carried, Kankuro wasted no time in using the missing-nin's confusion to his advantage. Smirking broadly, the puppeteer pressed home his attack.

After a few moments of observing the battle Aoi decided that her help was no longer required. Apparently an evening up of numbers was all that had been required to tilt the battle in the puppet master's favour.

A sudden brown flash streaked from the undergrowth and up her body to settle on her shoulder. Smiling slightly Aoi raised her hand to caress Toshi's head.

"We're good over the other side. Our reptilian friend took out one and the Boss-lady is tearing the other a new…"

"Thanks Toshi!" the medic interrupted quickly, not at all interested to find out how the ferret had been planning on finishing that sentence.

Now that she had taken care of the immediate problem, Aoi found her mind drawn back to her initial worry – where was Gaara? Why had he not been participating in the battle? Swallowing back her fear, Aoi calmed herself and began to search for his chakra pattern.


She could feel his signature to the left of the clearing. The anxiety the medic had been trying to control came back in fool force. Gaara's chakra was spiking like crazy. Clearly something was wrong. Eyes snapping open, the medic turned and sped towards the Jinchuriki.

As she drew close, Aoi was assaulted by angry lashes of intense emotion. Wincing at the almost physical pain they caused as they raked against her mind, the girl hesitantly made her way towards the hunched figure.

The redhead sat on his knees. His body crouched forwards as his pale fingers tore at the flaming locks in his scalp. Eyes screwed shut the boy rocked back and forth, his face contorted in pain. Recognising the pose as the same one she had seen in the examination room during their first encounter, Aoi moved closer.

"Gaara-san?" she called softly to him as she moved quickly to his side, ignoring Toshi's protesting barks. Kneeling beside him she inspected his pale sweaty face with a frown.

"Gaara?" she tried again, still getting no response. Hovering uncertainly, the medic debated what to do. She wanted to help him, but she had no desire to repeat her flying episode. Biting her lip, Aoi stared uncertainly at the boy before her. The sudden strangled snarl of pain that escaped his lips made up her mind.

Hesitantly, the medic raised her hands and placed them gently on the side of his head, squeezing her own eyes closed as she did so and preparing herself for a wave of sand to send her flying. When no injury was forth coming, the girl stifled a sigh of relief and began to probe her patient's mind with her chakra.

A worried frown crossed Aoi's face as she examined the mess of Gaara's mind. She had been wrong, this was nothing like the last headache. Unease began to ripple through her as she examined the shredded chakra pathways that laced through the Jinchuriki's brain. It almost looked like something had raked sharp claws through his mind, tearing at his very sanity.

Pushing aside the disturbing thought, Aoi let her chakra flow out, numbing the shinobi's pain as she began to fuse the tattered pathways back together. As she worked, Aoi let her consciousness slip farther into Gaara's being as she followed the damaged pathways deeper into the recesses of his mind. The further she went, the worse the damage became and the harder it was for her to rectify.

Even more puzzling, as she delved deeper and deeper, the young medic began to notice that the chakra had began to take on a rusty hue… like the colour of dried blood… Aoi felt her unease mount, but she stubbornly continued on as she searched for the source of the damage.

"Let me out brat!" the deep rumbling voice echoed out from the darkened depths ahead of her. Aoi shuddered on hearing the sinister tone of the demand. Despite the fear that laced through her being, the medic could not help but be pulled down the shredded chakra line towards the blackness.

"You dare defy me!?"the dark voice snarled again, closer this time. "Let me out! GIVE ME BLOOD!" The last sentence was a full throated roar that tore through Aoi's mind like a searing desert wind. The fear finally succeeded in overriding the intoxicating curiosity that had dragged her this far. Terrified, the medic turned to flee back the way she had come.

"I said no, demon!" rasped a familiar tone, stopping her in her tracks. "I am through giving you what you want."

Gaara? Slowly Aoi turned back towards the darkness a look of indecision written on her face.

Another sudden roar sent a lance of pain through Aoi's mind once again. A soft groan told her that she was not the only one.

The worry that had previously been plaguing the medic rose to the surface of her turbulent emotions once again. Hesitantly Aoi moved forwards, closer to the blackness.

"Gaara-san?" she called out softly, her voice echoing around her as though she were in a cave. At her call, the other two voices immediately fell silent. Anxiety gnawing at her insides, the girl continued her slow advance towards the waiting blackness.

As she reached its surface an evil chuckle reverberated around her. Eyes widening, Aoi suddenly found herself lurching forwards into the inky mass before her. Squeezing her eyes shut in terror, the medic desperately tried to pull herself back as the blackness flowed into her ears and nostrils like water, drowning her while it swept her along in a fast current to an unknown destination.

Then abruptly, the sensation stopped, jerking Aoi to a halt.

Dimly she realised that she was on her hands and knee's as she sucked in hot dry air, ignoring the burning sensation it caused in her throat and lungs. As her breathing slowed, her mind gradually began to stop its spinning and think rationally. Slowly cracking her eyes open, the medic lifted her head to check her surroundings.

Terror shot through her as she found herself gazing up into two colossal, bloodthirsty eyes.

"I see you," the beast rumbled.

(1) mamushi – this is the common name for the Japanese pit viper.

Please review! As always constructive criticism is encouraged – now more than ever as I no longer have a beta to keep me right!