Not as long this time, but it was either that or else I wouldn't be able to update until next week, and it seemed a little mean to leave you on a cliff hanger that long! XD

Oh and you may have noticed that I seem to be writing a fair bit of Temari and Kankuro's POV lately. You can expect more of that- I just have so much fun writing them, they are such awesome characters!


Chapter 4 – Shukaku

Aoi was only dimly aware of the hot sand beneath her sandaled feet and the huge cavern walls that surrounded her, as she stared at the monstrosity before her.

The colossal tan beast gazed down at her from behind huge bars made of the same reddened sand that filled Gaara's gourd. Idly swishing his huge, racoon-like tail, the tanuki considered the miniature intruder that stood before his cage. Eyes glinting with sinister amusement, the beast lowered his head, bringing his muzzle down to the girl's level.

"Oh, what's this?" he mused to himself, his voice a rough growl that reverberated through Aoi's bones, "a little lost pup?"

Frozen in fear, the bluenette could do nothing more than stand rooted to the spot as the demon's fetid breath blasted her with the nauseating scent of blood baking on hot sand.

Sensing her terror, Shukaku let out a rumbling laugh.

Aoi's eyes widened in horror as she watched Shukaku took a few lumbering steps towards her, stopping only when the bars would permit him to go no further. Once again lowering his head, the tanuki's fearsome muzzle was scant inches from her body as he spoke.

"Come here, little pup," he crooned to her, "come closer to my cage." The girls gaze remained fixated on the wickedly sharp teeth that lined the massive mouth. The waves of emotion that rolled of the beast sent ripples of panic racing through her mind. A terrible mixture of bloodlust, frustration and amusement assaulted her senses as the fiend watched her through black ringed eyes.

The medic felt her heartbeat triple as her body reacted to the danger with its most primitive defence mechanism, pumping adrenalin around her system as it prepared itself for fight or flight.

"What are you doing here?" The cold voice snapped her from her terror induced stupor. Head whipping round to her left, Aoi felt a wave of relief run through her as she found herself staring into Gaara's icy sea-foam eyes. The Jinchuriki wore an irate frown as he glared at the girl before him, radiating confused anger.

"Leave now," he demanded impassively, only his narrowed eyes betraying his true feeling. Aoi shot him a desperate look.

'Leave?! I would love too, but how?!' she wailed silently, her eyes pleading the Jinchuriki to help her.

"Silence brat!" roared an infuriated Shukaku, his head snapping round to Gaara's direction, large black ears pressed flat against his skull and lips peeled back in a ferocious snarl, "who are you to deny me my prey when it wanders so willingly into my den?"

The explosion of rage was almost enough to force Aoi to her knees as she felt herself overwhelmed with the fearsome power that leaked from the ichibi. Leaning his body right up against the bars of his sand prison, the demon pushed his muzzle as close to her as he could, his hot breath causing the fabric of her clothing to undulate as it blew past her.

"Come closer little pup, let me get a better look at you," he growled softly, more demanding this time, as his long, pointed ears twitched impatiently.

Aoi was vaguely aware of the sound of Gaara snarling something as she felt herself drowning in the terrible sensation of the monsters bloodlust, but it seemed so far away. Slowly her panic filled eyes looked up and became locked with Shukaku's wicked, dark orbs.

In that moment, Aoi new she was going to die.


Exhaling heavily, Temari snapped her fan shut, giving the mangled corpse at her feet a derisive snort as she swept past it. Walking over to the second body that lay on the ground several feet from the first, the blonde dropped to her haunches and quickly checked for a pulse.

Nothing. Temari allowed herself a grim smile. The snake venom had done its work. Straightening up, she quickly swung her fan onto her back as she glanced over at her brother.

"Anyone left alive?" she called over to him. Looking up from where he was crouched next to a body, the puppet master met his sister's gaze.

"Yeah, the one Aoi took down is still breathing. Looks like she wasn't aiming to kill," as he spoke his tone held a slight sneer. Suddenly realising something, Kankuro began to glance around him.

"Where'd she get to anyway?" he asked with a puzzled frown. Temari shrugged in response.

"My guess is she went looking for Gaara," she murmured as she narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. Kankuro let out a grunt of annoyance.

"And where the hell was he when we needed him?" he snapped, irritation clear on his painted features. Temari shook her head.

"I don't know but I intend to find out," she growled as she briefly swept her gaze over the surrounding forest, before turning back to her younger brother once again.

"You head back to the village with the prisoner, I'll look for Aoi and Gaara," she ordered, her tone firm. With a shrug of acceptance, the hooded youth nodded stood up, dragging the unconscious missing-nin with him as he did so. Carelessly slinging one of the comatose man's arms around his shoulders, he took a firm hold of him around his waist before giving Temari a lazy nod of farewell and moving swiftly into the forest.

After watching her brother disappear, Temari turned her attention to seeking out Gaara's chakra pattern. She had barely started her search when she was startled from her concentration by the sound of hysterical squeals.

Eyes snapping open, Temari watched in surprise as a small brown blur exploded from the undergrowth to her left. Recognising the shrieking mammal as Aoi's pet ferret, the blonde kneeled down by his side with a worried frown.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked it as it raced to her and began frantically tugging on her skirt with his teeth, his sharp little claws raking the skin of her legs through her fishnet leggings as he tried in vein to haul her forwards. Releasing its mouthful of fabric momentarily, the mustelid gave her a frenzied chatter as way of an explanation before resuming his tugging.

Despite her irritation at the beast's behaviour, Temari felt unease begin to uncurl in her stomach. Clearly something was wrong. Firmly prying herself loose form the small furry creature, the blond stood, levelling it a firm glare.

"Calm down!" she ordered in her most intimidating voice. On seeing she had the trebling animal's attention she continued:

"Obviously something is the matter with Aoi..," she was interrupted by an excited bark. Slowly she nodded. "Alright then ferret, take me to her."

Temari watched as the small mammal chattered its agreement before darting off. Firmly stifling her worry for her two missing team mates, the kunoichi quickly followed.

When she finally arrived at their location, the unease that had been uncurling in the pit of her stomach began to grow. Something was definitely far form right here.

On the ground in front of her was the huddled figure of her youngest brother, back bent, hands fisted by his side, eyes screwed shut and his face twisted in a soundless snarl. Knelt in front of him was a pale, sweating Aoi, brow furrowed and eyes squeezed shut, a look of fear frozen on her face as her slim hands pressed gently to either side of Gaara's forehead.

The girl's ears, face and neck were laced with small cuts.

With an agonised wail, Temari's small guide bolted over to the medic. Launching himself at her, he began ripping his sharp claws down her cheeks and screeching desperately at her in a futile attempt to wake her from her trance. Turning his head, the ferret began barking hysterically at the blonde kunoichi.

With a slightly panicked growl, Temari darted towards the blue haired ninja. Swatting the furry creature out of her way, the blonde seized hold of the front of Aoi's shirt and began to shake her violently, ripping her hands away from Gaara in the process.

Slowly, the girl's lids began to flutter, her fearful expression easing out into a more relaxed one. Pale lips parting, Aoi let out a small groan. Scowling with relief, Temari ceased her ministrations as she gently lowered the girl back to the earth.

Eyes cracking open, Aoi raised a shaky hand to her forehead as she dazedly glanced around her.

"... where am I?" she rasped, her usually soft voice raw and painful sounding.

"Just north of the clearing where Kankuro and I were battling with the missing-nin," Blinking in confusion, the bluenette turned hazy eyes on her rescuer. Slowly a scowling face framed by four blonde ponytails swam into focus.

"Temari?" she whispered in surprise. "Does that mean I'm alive? He didn't kill me?"

The blonde kunoichi's brows snapped down in a frown, but before she could open her mouth, she was interrupted by a series of high pitched squeals.

Aoi looked down in surprise as a trembling Toshi launched himself into her lap, swiftly clawing his way up her front and began to nose her stinging cheek in a desperate bid for comfort.

"You wouldn't wake up!" the ferret wailed, his distress rolling of him in waves so thick it was almost palpable. "I tried everything, but you wouldn't wake up!" Gently, the girl wrapped her arms round the shaken mustelid, stroking him soothingly as she murmured her apologies. A small velvety muzzle nuzzled into the crook of her neck.

"I couldn't do anything so I had to try and find someone who could." The medic's heart broke at the forlorn tone of her small friend.

"Thank you Toshi. You saved my life," she murmured to him as she continued to stroke his ruffled fur.

"Aoi!" The medic's head snapped up in surprise. She had almost forgotten that she and Toshi were not alone. Serious green eyes locked with hers.

"Aoi. Tell me what just happened. Did Gaara attack you?" A look of confusion passed over the bluenette's face.

"Gaara? No…" her voice trailed off as sudden recollection dawned on her. "Oh, Kami! Gaara!" she whispered in horror head whipping round to face him.

The redhead was leaning forward on his hands, his chest heaving as he gasped down ragged breaths. Slowly the blacked lids opened to reveal cold green eyes.

The immediate relief that Aoi felt on seeing that he too was awake, was abruptly quashed as his icy glare locked onto her. A swirling torrent of anger, confusion and unease poured out of him, but in comparison to the onslaught of emotion she had felt from Shukaku, this seemed like a soft caress.

Eyes narrowing slightly, the Jinchuriki lowered his head and laboriously climbed to his feet. Turning, the shinobi made to leave.

"Gaara?" Temari's voice caused the redhead to pause.

"What?" he rasped. The blonde frowned at the back of his head.

"What happened to you? Why did you disappear during the battle?" she demanded from the psychopath that was her youngest brother, silently praying that he was not about to snap. Slowly Gaara's head turned so he could look at her from the corner of his eye.

"I was busy," he stated simply, before leaving swiftly in the direction of the village. Eyes narrowing in annoyance, Temari watched him go.

"Come on, Kimura," she growled, turning to face Aoi, "we need to head back." Climbing to her feet, Toshi firmly cradled in her tired arms, the young medic nodded her agreement.

"Hai, Temari-san."


Taking a sip of his scalding tea, Baki observed the anxious blonde before him.

"I'm telling you Sensei, there's something wrong with Gaara," sighed Temari as she slumped into a chair at her teacher's kitchen table, exhaustedly rubbing her temples. Setting his cup on the table, the jounin's hawk-like brown snapped down in a dark frown as he gazed at his eldest student.

"What makes you think that?" he asked coolly. Worried green eyes locked with his own.

"Something happened on the mission," when she spoke her voice was low and uneasy. Baki's single visible eye narrowed.

"What happened?" Scowling into her own cup of tea, Temari thought over the strange events which had surrounded her recent mission.

"It was during the battle with the missing-nin," she began as she toyed with the beaker of steaming liquid before her. "Just after we were attacked, Gaara started behaving strangely. He started holding his head and muttering to himself." Baki's slim eyebrow raised doubtfully.

"You know Gaara often talks to himself during battle," he murmured as he studied the teenager. Vehemently, Temari shook her head.

"No. This wasn't his usual conversation with 'mother', this was different. Baki, he stopped fighting and disappeared." Eye widening in shock, the jounin leaned back in his chair. Never in all his time training the young Jinchuriki could he ever recall Gaara walking away from a fight. The boy that claimed his sole reason for existence was death, refusing a chance to kill someone..? It was… unheard of.

No wonder Temari was uneasy. Gaara acting strangely never boded well for the village.

"Why did you not report this?" Baki demanded, fiercely locking gazes with his pupil. Snarling in frustration, Temari raked a hand through her fringe.

"Why? Because you know as well as I do that the council are looking for any excuse they can find to use against him" she snapped irritably. "I refuse to report anything until I'm certain that he has become a threat to the village." Angry green eyes glared up at the jounin. "Whatever else he is or has done, he is still my little brother."

Closing his eyes in frustration, Baki set his elbows on the table and steeped his fingers together. Temari was right. The council would tear Gaara apart if they heard this. Better to deal with it themselves for now.

"So then, tell me what actually happened during the fight," he ordered, his eyelid lifting slightly so he could once again focus on the girl in front of him. Temari scowled.

"Gaara left me and Kankuro to fight the battle outnumbered. We held our own for a while, but a loss was inevitable unless we got some back-up. Fortunately Aoi turned up and managed to even the odds up. After that she took off to find Gaara and left us to finish up." Raising her cup, Temari took a cautious sip of her rapidly cooling tea.

"Something happened between her and Gaara while we were fighting. I'm sure of it," she muttered thoughtfully.

"What do you mean by 'something'?" Frowning into her tea Temari thought about the question.

"I have no idea," she said at last. "When I got there they were both in some sort of trance. After I managed to wake them up, Gaara took off and Aoi muttered something about someone trying to kill her - but I don't think she meant Gaara. I asked her about it later but she claimed that she couldn't remember anything." Temari gave a disbelieving snort. Baki raised his eyebrow once more.

"You think she's lying?" he asked.

"Definitely," she growled softly, once again glaring at her tea. "Something happened to spook her so badly that she barely spoke on the entire trip home and she doesn't want to discuss it."

Baki leaned forward, pressing his fingers against his mouth as he considered this information. Exactly what had passed between them he could not say, but at least this offered some insight into Gaara's erratic new behaviour.

Aoi.

The only girl besides Temari that Gaara had been around for any length of time and not killed.

Now that he thought about it, Gaara had been acting more… subdued lately. He had barely even threatened anyone since he had gotten back from the failed Konoha mission. Since he had first met Aoi. And hadn't Tomasu mentioned that the girl hated violence?

Was that really all that was going on here?

'Well," he mused to himself, "he is fifteen now… I suppose it's normal to suddenly start noticing the opposite sex. Even for someone like him…' To be honest, Baki had never been certain that Gaara would ever take an interest in girls. All his energy always seemed to be channelled into killing to appease Shukaku's bloodlust.

And truth be told, he had always worried what would happen if he did ever discover them. If the boy had approached sating that particular hunger with the same cold disregard for others that he did his other ones, things had the potential to become… messy.

What Baki had never considered was that it may have a good effect on him. That he might try to control himself in order to impress someone. With the village's fear of him, it had seemed impossible that there would ever be a female willing to accept Gaara, so he had dismissed the notion.

But what if there was? Aoi was certainly unconventional enough, and she seemed to get on with Gaara at least as well as his siblings. But then again, that doesn't necessarily mean that she would want any sort of relationship with him.

What would happen if she were to reject Gaara? Would he take no for an answer? Or would he go on a murderous rampage to assuage his anger?

And this was all just assuming that he was right about Gaara's interest in the girl to begin with. Sighing, Baki rubbed his head. Well, it was the best idea he had at this particular moment in time, and to be honest, it was probably the best outcome he could hope for as well. He would keep the two of them interacting as much as possible for now and see where it led.

"Temari, I think it may be time for Gaara to have 'the talk'. (1)" Opening his eye, Baki saw his student staring at him as though he had just sprouted another head.

"You want me to… Wait a minute! That is what you think this is all about?!" Holding back a look of amusement at Temari's expression, Baki nodded.

"I believe it's a distinct possibility," he informed her impassively. Temari sat dumbfounded for a moment as she though this over.

She had to admit… it did seem to fit…

"I'll have Kankuro speak to him," she sighed as she stood up. Mimicking her movement, Baki escorted her to his front door.

"See that you do," he growled firmly as he opened it for her. Pausing on the doorstep, Temari turned back around to face her teacher, a scowl marring her features.

"Oh and sensei? When were you planning on telling me that Aoi was Kin's sister?" Slowly a dark smile spread itself over the jounin's face as he closed the door without another word.

Left speechless, Temari stood glaring at the closed door for several minutes before she managed to pull herself together. With one final glare, the blonde left for home.


"You want me to what?!" spluttered Kankuro, a look of disbelieving horror on his face. Scowling fiercely, Temari folded her arms under her breasts and levelled her younger brother a firm glower from where she stood at the other side of their kitchen table.

"You need to talk to Gaara," she growled in her best no-nonsense voice. Kankuro continued to gape at her, the various pieces of the puppet he had been tinkering with lying forgotten on the table in front of him.

"Let me get this straight," he choked, "you want me to talk to Gaara about sex!"

"Yes." The puppet master shot his sister an incredulous look.

"Why the hell would I want to go and do a stupid thing like that!? Are you trying to get me killed?"

Heaving a frustrated sigh, Temari rubbed her face. Why did life have to be so damn complicated?

"Kankuro, someone needs to do it. Baki thinks he might be starting to take an interest in girls. Would you rather we just left him to experiment? Just wait and see what he would come up with to try and deal with these new feelings that he doesn't understand?" she snapped at him.

"For the love of Kami! He's fifteen! He must know about everything by now!" he yelled in return, throwing his arms up in the air. Setting a hand on her hip, Temari gave him a derisive snort.

"Oh please Kankuro! This is Gaara we are talking about! Who the hell besides us would ever bother trying to explain this to him?"

"But why me?!" her brother wailed jumping out of his seat. "Why not Baki or you if you think its so damn important? Why do I have to do it?!"

With an irritated snarl, the kunoichi slammed her hands down loudly on the wooden table.

"Because you are his brother!" she yelled her green eyes narrowed in fury. "I can't do it because I am female. This is a guy thing! And we can't ask Baki to do it. This is a family matter. We have to deal with this ourselves! Besides," Temari let out a snort as she lowered her voice back down to a more normal tone. "Could you imagine getting that kind of talk from Baki? Gaara's messed up enough as it is. I'd like to try and not traumatise him further. For everyone's sake."

Sighing heavily Kankuro slumped back down in his chair. Pulling his hood off, the puppeteer ran a frustrated hand through his messy hair. Temari was right, just the though of their strict, stoic teacher trying to speak about something as embarrassing as sex was enough to make him want to drown himself, let alone an emotionally unstable time bomb like Gaara. And he supposed that all things considered, just leaving him to it probably wasn't the wisest option either… but was he seriously the best choice they had to do this?!

Shit. That was messed up.

"Kankuro?" his sister's accusing voice cut through the puppeteer's thoughts. Narrowing his eyes he scowled up at her.

"Alright! Fine, I'll do it!" he snarled as he climbed to his feet.

"But you owe me big time for this!" he spat over his shoulder as he made his way towards the front door. Relief flooding her features, Temari allowed herself to slump forwards. Thank Kami for that.

Suddenly thinking of something, the blonde hurriedly leapt to her feet and darted after her brother, catching up to him just as he walked out the door.

"And don't you dare even think of foisting him of with some porn Kankuro!" she yelled down the darkened street after his retreating figure, ignoring the strange looks she was getting from the few passers-by.


(1) Heh, sorry, I just couldn't resist! I love the idea of Gaara being so evil and so innocent at the same time! Plus we now have the added bonus of putting Kankuro in a mortifying position (and no offence to any Kankuro fans out there, I like him too, but he's fun to torture!)

Oh and for the record – Baki and Temari are just speculating about the cause of Gaara's recent behaviour and this was the conclusion they came up with, that doesn't make them correct! I'm not trying to steal Naruto's thunder, honest!

Reviews are what make writing so worthwhile – so good or bad, please review and let me know what you think!