DISCLAIMER: I do not own Naruto or any cannon characters or storylines. I do own any introduced (aka: new) characters and storylines. I also own my own lazy state-of-affairs and unusual sense of humor. I reserve the right to only put the disclaimer with the first chapter, but it carries over to all chapters henceforth. I also do not own your personality. You are to enjoy or not enjoy this at your leisure. I also reserve the right not to care that this story contains spoilers. In other words, you shouldn't read this if you don't know as much of the cannon story as I do.

The Path We Walk

Gaara sat in the windowsill of his master bedroom. He was gazing out at Suna, his village. The Kazekage was no longer the ultimate weapon, but he was still feared by his enemies and respected by his village. It was a hard-earned respect, and he intended to fight tooth-and-nail to keep it.

His vision turned to his bed. A human-sized lump gently moved within the covers. A feminine moan came from lump as an arm exited the wrap of covers. The arm then franticly flailed to find the missing body warmth before bolting into a seated position. The covers fell to reveal a brown-haired, dark-eyed teenager roughly a year or two younger than Gaara.

"Gaara?" Her voice quaked with fear. When her eyes fell on his silhouette at the window, she heaved a sigh of relief. "Why don't you stay in bed with me?" She wore a pout. She wasn't disappointed in him, but she was worried he still might fear the company. She knew the long years of resentment still lingered which he fought.

"Matsuri…" He hesitated as he spoke her name. She was still the kind, sweet-hearted girl he knew when he picked the jouhyou for her. When he tried to come up with an excuse, she gave him stern eyes. "I'm still…not used…" She stopped him by standing, the covers falling onto the bed.

She walked over to him and embraced him. "It's okay, Gaara-kun. It's okay." She trembled slightly when he returned the embrace. Despite his circumstances, he was still extremely warm. It didn't help she loved him madly, and his touch to her naked skin still brought a flush to her cheeks. "Was it that nightmare again?"

Gaara nodded as his face fell between Matsuri's neck and shoulder. "It's always the same. I don't have the Ichibi Shukaku anymore, but he still gives me sleepless nights." After Naruto, Matsuri became his best friend, and he never regretted where their relationship went from there. She knew more about him than most people, even his own siblings.

She gently cupped his cheeks and forced him to look her in the eye. She loved gazing into his seafoam green eyes, but she had to be serious. At least she had to be for a moment. "I've waited years for the smallest chance to touch you. I can wait a little while longer for you to stay in bed with me." Her eyes curved with her gentle smile as she leaned in and kissed him.

He enjoyed the warmth she gave him, and he never denied the chance to touch. While he was a jinchuuriki, he couldn't touch or be touched without the automatic defense going up. Matsuri found that out the hard way when she tried to hug him. A wall of sand kept her at arms length, and his pleading eyes told her he wasn't doing it. She always understood, never hated, and never backed down.

It was that determination which finally allowed Temari and Kankuro to accept her while shunning the rest of his…fan girls. They hid the relationship well. Matsuri became known as Gaara's one and only apprentice. Considering the fact that she had already been kidnapped to draw him out, they continued hiding their relationship until shortly after Shukaku was extracted. Shortly after the entourage from Konoha left, their relationship was made public, and they were wed.

The recurring nightmare related to the extraction. Nobody knew the cause, and some speculated it was Shukaku's last ditch effort to stay alive. In other words, some feared the Ichibi may have permanently scarred his mind. He dreamed of awaking from his slumber only to find those most precious to him dead, and his hands were always soaked in their life essence.

Gaara awoke in a haze. His vision was clouded, and he wiped his brow to find cakes of blood. His eyes went wide as he tossed the drying blood away and looked to his side. Matsuri was looking at him with cold, dead eyes. A look of horror and pain was forever etched upon her rigid face. He let out a blood-curdling cry as he fell out of his bed with a hard thud against the floor.

He frantically backed away from the bed, and he could clearly smell the blood and smoke. He stood up to look out the window, and a look of distraught rage filled his eyes. His eyes darted back and forth to find the attacker. He finally jumped out his window and landed on a cloud of sand. Suna was in ruins, and bodies were strewn across the streets.

"Who did this?!" He finally screamed out. He looked around, determined to find and slay the attacker. His eyes finally fell on a familiar figure strolling towards the canyon walls entrance. He felt fear as he touched down and approached the foreboding figure. He willed a wall of sand to appear before the attacker.

The attacker turned to reveal himself. Gaara felt like he was looking in a mirror as he stared down himself. He was completely clean, not a speck of blood on him. He tilted his head with a crazed smile. "I saw you were done here, so I was just heading somewhere else to continue."

Gaara blinked, frozen in spot. He wasn't sure he wanted to know this other's implication. "What do you mean? I have done nothing!" He swung his arms low in open defiance. The other returned a confused look. Gaara pointed at the nearest body. "Why did you attack my people? I thought Akatsuki removed you for good!" He moved his finger to point it accusingly at the other.

The other turned his crazed smile into an annoyed frown. "You think you can threaten me? …Shukaku the Ichibi?" Shukaku reared back in raucous laughter. After nearly a minute of mirth, he leaned forward and wiped a tear from his eye. "Besides, I didn't do anything here. You're the one covered in blood." Hands of sand raced towards Shukaku only to drop two, lifeless bodies.

Gaara's eyes went wide as he studied the corpses and fell to his knees. Temari and Kankuro lay on the ground, rigor mortis already setting in. Shukaku laughed. "They feared you all this time, and it was you who finally killed them." He looked to Gaara with a smirk. "I'll finish the job. That brat holding the Kyuubi is next. Then I'll take my time with Konoha."

Gaara usually woke up with a start before the nightmare continued. It only went farther a few times, so he didn't remember the details as vividly. He did remember the grief of having killed Naruto, then his precious people, then the rest of Konoha. It was his deepest fears from when he was a jinchuuriki, and they were finally given visible form in his slumber.

Matsuri always comforted him. Besides her, only Temari, Kankuro, and two medic nins knew. All were sworn to secrecy, and none dared betray that promise. Now, Matsuri knew she had to comfort him. She led him to the bed and sat him down. After stroking his cheek, she turned to the wardrobe to get dressed. Gaara wore a sullen expression as he watched.

When she was fully clothed, she sat on the bed and directed him to lay his head on her lap. As she gently ran her hands through his hair, she wore a sad smile. "How far did it go this time?" She hated making him relive his night terror, but she always knew how affected he was by where it stopped.

Gaara looked into her face, and he gave Matsuri his awkward smile. He wasn't sure of his emotions yet, but he felt he had to reassure her. He felt comfortable lying on her lap. "It stopped halfway through. I had to get some fresh air." He was sad to leave her warmth behind, and he recalled she instantly reacted by drawing the covers closer to herself.

She gently smiled and leaned down to plant a kiss on his forehead. If he didn't have the responsibility, she would have kept him off active duty. She wanted to devote his and her time to helping his mental state recover. As she pulled back from his face, she noticed the angle of the sun and let out a depressed sigh. "I, unfortunately, can't keep you in bed all day." She playfully pushed him onto his feet. "The Kazekage can't be late for work."

He smiled at her and nodded. As he put on his robes of state, she prepared her ninja gear. She still preferred the jouhyou, and her form was perfect. She was no longer afraid of the blade, but she was among the most adept at capturing her foes. She had long since risen to the rank of chunin, and she was more than capable of attaining jonin if she ever so desired.

For the time being, she enjoyed being placed on guard duty. She was often among the chunin placed as guard and secretary of the Kazekage. When a mission called for her expertise, she dutifully accepted and completed it. She once told Gaara's siblings she'd rather stay a chunin until she was strong enough to be an able ANBU. She did what she could to maximize her time spent with him.

Temari was speeding through the desert of Wind. She just completed a mission. The scowl on her face told how much she hated it, and the cuts and bruises on her skin told of the tough battle. She replayed the events over and over in her head as she went along. It started off as routine. It was only supposed to be B-rank, a simple escort mission she could handle on her own.

She even offered the mission could have been ranked lower because of the extremely low possibility that enemy ninja might attack. The merchant insisted his wares were likely to be targeted by a certain group of bandits seen with a B-rank missing nin. As it turned out, the merchant was right. Halfway to River, they were ambushed. The bandits were easily dispatched, but Shoka Katsurugi made off with the merchandise. She never expected him to be far more than the Bingo Book gave him credit.

Temari was on his trail for days. She just wanted to be back in Suna with her brothers and sister-in-law. However, she was more worried about failing such a simple mission and making all sand nin out to be weak. Though allied once more with Konoha, Suna fought hard to regain even the meager reputation they had before. She wasn't about to betray the village by letting this failure disgrace the village.

Katsurugi wasn't hard to follow. He was a missing nin from Iwa, and his bounty was high for his rank. He betrayed his village after failing to attain chunin for the eighteenth time. The Bingo Book reported he was more than strong enough, but he lacked the qualities required for advancement. He spent over nine years as a genin before he had enough, and he stole a valuable weapon before making a hasty retreat.

Temari did get a good look at him before he made off with the merchandise. He still wore his hitai-ate around his thigh. She was surprised by the slash across his ex-village's symbol. She didn't want to assume what it meant, so she stomped any guesses before they took root. Other than his hitai-ate, he was surprisingly common. He was an average height with an average build. He wore Iwa camouflage, so he stood out in Wind. He was probably three years older than her with stone-brown hair and grey eyes.

The entire time she followed him, she thought back to his eyes. They stared off into the distance, and they never seemed to focus on anything. Was he blind? She worried he might have a kekkei genkai, but she squashed those thoughts before they unnerved her. She also knew she couldn't allow herself to get lost in thought.

When she finally came upon a clearing, she slowed and stealthfully approached. She wasn't about to give away the element of surprise. Katsurugi was about as good at hiding his chakra signature as a fresh genin. He probably ran and hid his tracks as best he could as he did everything to confuse any possible trackers. He double-backed more times than she cared count, and he seemed to just lead her on a wild goose chase around Suna. In the days and uncounted miles traveled, they were less than ten miles from where they started.

Temari carefully looked about the camp site. There was a single fire in the center, and it was hidden more skillfully than she thought possible for him. There were also several tents. She counted them, and they seemed like they might have accommodated the bandits he was traveling with, until their untimely demise. Sure she didn't sense any other presences; she strolled casually into the dim light the fire cast.

Katsurugi didn't skip a beat. Her appearance startled him, and he was sure he ditched her long ago. He licked his cracked lips as he reached over his shoulder to the strange, leather case strapped there. He withdrew three poles stacked against each other and linked by chains. "So, the little lady would like to play?"

Temari didn't miss his condescending tone. She pulled her fan off her back and leaned against it. She was confident she could take the guy, but he was barking up the wrong tree if he thought he could take her lightly. "I'll give you one chance to return what you stole. I might even consider taking you in alive."

He scoffed and laughed. He couldn't believe the blond kunoichi thought she could beat him. He didn't know her rank within Suna, but he knew how much the Bingo Book underestimated him. "If you think you can beat me, you're certainly confident or stupid enough to try." He felt her chakra spike and her killer intent roll, so he knew he struck a nerve.

She lifted, pulled back, and unfurled her fan. With a heavy swing, she let loose a chakra-infused gust towards the offending missing nin. He quickly leapt back and flung the loose sections of his weapon out. Her smirk disappeared as the loose sections didn't flap helplessly in the wind. Instead, he sent his chakra through the material. They straightened out and snapped together. The chain links were no longer visible, and he held a staff weapon.

Temari was about to swing again when Katsurugi held his staff above his head. With a smirk, he smashed it downward while calling out. "Fool! Katon: Sanrinho no Jutsu!" The staff was immersed in flames halfway down its trajectory. When the staff hit the hard ground, the flames momentarily backfired before looping around and creating three rings. The fire rings shot at Temari with surprising speed, and they picked up strength from the wind technique she used.

She was forced to raise her fan in defense. A defensive wall of wind would only amplify the already amplified Sanrinho, so she sent chakra into her fan and hoped to weather the flames without too much damage. As they washed over the fan, the flames licked and tore at her clothes. She smelled hair singe and skin burn. She was not a happy camper! "He had to be a Katon user; didn't he?"

Her inward musings were cut short when she heard footsteps running towards her. At least her opponent wasn't dumb enough to think he finished her that easily. Unfortunately for her, she was severely mismatched. She was a mid to long range fighter, and her opponent was a short to mid range fighter. She used Fuuton, and he naturally opposed her with Katon.

Temari jumped back to avoid him. His first swing missed her widely, but he displayed his skill in not letting that go to waste. He focused his chakra into his weapon, and her right arm was licked by flames. She was put on the defensive, and Katsurugi pressed his advantage. He didn't know if she had a secondary element, but he was sure he didn't want to find out.

She was prepared for his second swing. His third swing nearly hit her, but he made the most of the glancing blow. She focused chakra with his fourth swing, and he grinned widely as he hit her collar bone, heard a crunch, and pushed chakra into his weapon. She was engulfed by flames. He shook his head in dissatisfaction. "Tch. She hardly put up a fight. Oh well, she was the one to underestimate me."

Katsurugi heard a snapping twig behind him, and he almost dismissed it for a wild animal. Almost, that is, until he felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his right calf. He felt his body convulse before he forced his muscles to respond. Before a second kunai could imbed itself in him, he jumped away. He landed in a tree and unceremoniously extracted the offensive weapon. He noted how close it came to a major artery.

His eyes went wide when he felt the killer intent. It was coming from all around him. His eyes went wide when he heard her voice. "I think you're the one underestimating me." Temari smirked before throwing two more kunai, each attached to a thin, metal wire.

He skillfully dodged a third and fourth kunai coming from straight ahead. Measuring their trajectory, he breathed in deeply and collected chakra in his lungs. "I'll get her this time. Katon: Hidama Mugoi no Jutsu!" His mouth spewed a wide-angled flame. He released the flames for a full breath. He smirked feeling confident he hit her. When two more kunai flew at him from the right, he carefully dodged them and repeated the technique. "How did she dodge that? Katon: Hidama Mugoi no Jutsu!"

Katsurugi looked around frantically. He knew he had to find the sand nin before she landed a solid blow. She may have been at a disadvantage in elements, but she hid well and had forced him to use multiple Katon techniques. He dodged two kunai which came from behind and felt like he had enough. He held his staff in his right hand and slipped it behind his back while holding his left hand over his mouth. "You're dead! Katon: Soudai Horeiki no Jutsu!"

His body seemed to become swallowed up by flames. The flames extended outwards until it was a perfect sphere surrounding him. Temari threw two more kunai as she watched. She knew by the amount of chakra that this technique was a high level one. When the kunai came in contact with the flame sphere, it moved then quickly expanded. The kunai continued along their path and embedded in a tree not far away.

She didn't have time to think about her plan before she had to duck behind a tree. She knew the flames would simply lap around the tree to get to her, so she set her fan in front of her and focused her chakra into it. She didn't know how long the flames would last or how long she could. She just had to fight it. After twenty seconds passed, she clearly heard something spinning. The flames finally died down, and she turned to see what it was.

Katsurugi finished spinning and nearly fell to his hands and knees. He felt confident again, and he allowed a wide smile to display what he felt was an assured victory. He looked around the clearing. It expanded slightly from the battle, but that was to be expected. The scorched trees were still scalding, and he saw the embers pulsing glow. He reared his head back and started laughing. "Stupid girl. That's what she gets for interfering with me. Too bad though. She was cute. I coulda used her to relieve some pent up frustration."

He stood up and stumbled backwards slightly. He felt a resistance and squinted his eyes. He looked around his side, and all he saw was two kunai embedded in a tree not two feet from him. He followed their trajectory. "Oh yeah… That girl was able to move awfully fast. Oh well, no way she survived my Soudai Horeiki anyway." He walked over to the kunai. As his hand moved towards one of them, his hand brushed against something. "What the…?"

His thoughts and sentence never finished. With his hand against the wire, he heard his opponent yell. The problem was he heard her from all sides, like earlier. It was eerie in its finality. "Bye-bye! Raiton: Senpuuki!" Katsurugi never had a chance, and Temari knew it. He didn't even notice that all he burned earlier was a sleeping bag. She walked over to the charred missing nin while pulling out a scroll.

She rolled the scroll out and performed the necessary signs to seal his corpse within. When she packed it, she looked at her clothes. They were worse for wear, but she was glad they were intact enough not to reveal her body to the world. They were still ruined, and she sighed. "I'm at least collecting the reward on this guy, so he'll end up paying for new clothes."

She stomped over to his tent to find the merchandise he stole. She found a lot more than she bargained for. She had to use another scroll to seal everything she found. There were scrolls outlining a secret organization she had long since learned to loathe, Akatsuki. He seemed to be writing in one to send to them. She found merchandise thought lost, and most still had a bounty on it. She just earned her village a large paycheck.

The merchant was more than happy to get his wares back, and she escorted him the rest of the way to River. Her mission complete; she was more than halfway home. She didn't have the extra cash to spend, so she decided to wait until she got back to Suna to buy her new clothes. She watched the sun as it set under the horizon and knew it was time to find a place to rest.

Kankuro was on watch. Unlike Temari, he currently had a genin team. They were assigned menial, D-rank missions. They, of course, referred to them as meaningless tasks, and they hated being left out of the Gaara rescue mission. That mission, of course, was far too difficult for any genin to be part of it. He was content to practice his with his puppets while he awaited his sister's return. He still found it odd how his genin were named after weapons, and he has had his team for close to seven months.

Takanaka Mori turned twelve about a month prior to graduation. He was the youngest of Kankuro's genin. He was lanky and stood above his peers. His natural dexterity made him a gifted puppet user, and he carried a two-armed Karasu tightly wrapped in white much as Kankuro once did, and he had a black battle dress to match. He had sandy brown hair offset by hazel and green eyes. He didn't wear face markings, but he did have a gold earring on his right earlobe. He was the calmest of the group, easily thinking up logical solutions and careful strategies.

Kuroda Hishu was the eldest of the three. His birthday was coming up, and he openly admitted he looked forward to an invitation to the Chunin Exam as a gift from Kankuro. He was actually the shortest of the three, but he had more muscle tone. He had dark red hair and soft green eyes, so he was often teased before Gaara was accepted for his similar appearance. As any Kuroda, a complicated facial tattoo was permanently engraved when he became a genin. It wrapped from each temple to his forehead, and a casual glance revealed only that it looked like the sun rising from the horizon. He carried two bludgeoning clubs on his back.

Tomoyuki Tsume was the girl of the squad. She wore a harsh look and was often heard scolding her teammates when they were brash…which ended up being the pot calling the kettle black. Kankuro often mentioned how she reminded him of Naruto, which she beamed at. He was the man whom many saw as saving Gaara, and therefore Suna itself. Other than her behavior, little reminded the spitfire of Konoha's blond shinobi. Her hair reflected a soft though dark blue, and her eyes were like melted chocolate, appearing pupil less. She wore a battle dress similar to Temari's, but her sash was an annoying shade of orange. She wore bright orange clubs against each forearm.

Kankuro was practicing with Tsume, and Mori sparred with Hishu. It was strictly weapons practice. They were on guard duty, so he wasn't about to have them wear themselves out with ninjutsu or genjutsu. It was also a chance for the genin to bond and learn how the others moved. They had been together for almost seven months, but they still managed to step on each others' toes.

Kankuro had his four-armed Karasu out against Tsume. She had her clubs still strapped to each forearm. The way she fought and utilized them like that made them seem like tonfa. He knew better. He was going easy on her to help build her confidence while watching for her weaknesses and openings. The Tomoyuki clan was famous for their style of combat. They were also highly regarded for their kekkei genkai. It was constantly active and said to replace their eyes. They 'saw' through air pressure, so their natural enemies were Raiton or Fuuton users. They easily countered Doton and Suiton users, and were on equal ground with Katon users.

Mori and Hishu both had a crush on Tsume, so they formed an immediate, strong rivalry. They had a rough friendship; though, Tsume rattled on and on about a boy from Konoha, Naruto. Kankuro often sighed and wondered about the puppy crushes. Even in something as simple as weapon practice, they went all out. Hishu seemed to have the advantage for his muscles and bludgeoning clubs, but Mori more than made up for that with his quick thinking and lithe fingers. It didn't help that Hishu could never get close enough to Mori to deliver a decisive blow thanks to the two-armed Karasu.

Unlike his genin, Kankuro was able to keep his attention divided. He watched how all three fought. He also kept an eye out for anybody approaching Suna. He called a halt to the practice when he saw a glimmer near the horizon. He motioned his genin back to await instruction, and they quickly took cover along the craggy entrance. Kankuro scanned the vast desert before him only to breathe a sigh of relief.

He started waving his hands in anxious anticipation. His sister was almost home, and she had taken far too long on her B-rank mission. She covered the last of the distance quickly and stopped to catch her breath near him. His expression changed to worry as he looked over her. "You okay, Temari?" He looked to where she just came from to make sure nobody was tailing her.

She flashed him that winning smile of hers. "I'm just fine! It was a B-rank mission, and I killed a B-rank Iwa missing nin." Kankuro's genin were instantly impressed by that. They gathered around her to beg her to relate the fight to them. She mussed Tsume's hair. "I've gotta debrief before I can tell you guys anything, and you know that. Kazekage-sama might decide to make the mission details a secret."

The genin let out a unanimous sigh, and Temari couldn't help but giggle. Kankuro shook his head. "As long as you're all right, Gaara is expecting you. I'm sure Matsuri would like to see you, too." He gave her a warm smile.

She nodded. "Thanks. I'll get going now. I could use a long, cold shower after this mission." She disappeared through the craggy pass before the genin could get anything else out of her. They watched her go, and she slipped quietly into Suna. She was glad to be home, but she had to make a beeline to the Kazekage office and report in before she could relax and buy new battle dress.

Gaara looked up form his paperwork when the door opened. "What is it, Matsuri? I'm bu-…" He was interrupted when she stepped to the side to let Temari in. He blinked for a moment before sitting back in his chair. "I'm surprised you're late. Matsuri, close the door please." The door closed, and he offered Temari a chair. She sat, and he started the debriefing. "Was the mission a success?"

Temari nodded her head. "Yeah, but I'm worn out!" He gave her a skeptical look. "I ran across a missing nin. Iwa placed a bounty on his head." His look changed to concern. "Shoka Katsurugi, a B-rank missing nin, he was skilled with Katon and Hibou." Hibou was the name of the weapon he fought with and stole from Iwa.

He let out a thoughtful sigh as he leaned back. "That is not a good match up for you. Katon reflects and amplified Fuuton, even if the latter is stronger." He looked over her clothes again. It was obvious she didn't come out of the fight unscathed.

She giggled. "Oh, I'd say he had the advantage." She smiled at his incredulous look. "He had the advantage to the point he got overconfident and conceited. I ended it with Senpuuki. He never saw what hit 'im." She beamed, obviously proud of her achievement.

Gaara felt proud of her, but he still needed proof. If he was going to collect the reward from Iwa for Katsurugi's death, he needed the corpse and Hibou, or at least his head. "I trust you collected Katsurugi and Hibou to return to Iwa?" He wanted the best diplomatic terms possible in this case. He wasn't about to withhold the weapon if he had it.

Temari nodded and approached his desk with two scrolls. She left one scroll on his desk for the moment while the unrolled the other on the floor. She made the necessary hand signs and released the contents. Katsurugi's remains appeared over the scroll along with his stolen weapon. "We can send all this to Iwa. Just be sure you collect the reward. He owes me some new clothes and weapons."

Gaara nodded his head, but his attention quickly fell to the scroll on his desk. "What does this scroll hold?" He was curious, but she had to clear the corpse first. When she did, she unraveled and released the second scroll. He rose to his feet in surprise. "He didn't sell any of this? He could have made a fortune. As it is, Suna stands to gain both monetarily and politically." He knew the bounties would economically boost Suna, but the reputation from happy merchants and nobles was far more valuable.

Temari handed him a scroll with a solemn look on her face. "This is for our allies, Konoha." He took it and opened it, carefully scanning the contents. "It's information from Akatsuki to Katsurugi. It seems he was a member. Things are a lot worse than we thought. Though Konoha might know only two bijuu remain to be captured, we have to pass this along."

Gaara nodded. He considered and weighed his options. He could send it faster through a carrier bird, but that always held the chance for interception. The birds were also less capable of defending themselves. There was a higher chance for attempted interception when an envoy carried it, but it might be worth the risk. Decided, he pulled out a scroll and wrote out orders.

As he handed it to Temari, he outlined the details. "You are to take Kankuro and his team to Konoha. I'm assigning this a C-rank. I don't expect trouble, but we all know how that can turn out." She nodded. She just had the 'unexpected' trouble happen on her last mission. "I want this handled with the utmost care. Take the confiscated scrolls with you to show them."

She smirked. "Of course, Kazekage-sama. When do I leave?" She wanted to have the chance to buy new clothes and weapons before she left, but his orders took precedence.

Gaara leaned over his desk to hand her stubs to claim her pay. "It's just before afternoon now. You leave in four hours." He knew it gave her the necessary time.

Temari gratefully took the stubs and bowed with the orders. "Understood! I'll report to Kankuro to tell him what's going on." She smirked and placed a hand on her hip. "It's a good thing I get time to change. I can't show up in Konoha looking like something the cat dragged in." She giggled with a widening smile.

Temari made quick time to where Kankuro and his genin team were. He looked up in surprise as she approached and instructed his team to stop. "What's up, Temari? Thought you had to report to Gaara." He didn't miss her still well-worn clothes.

She shrugged and tossed him a scroll. "I got orders." He gave her a dubious look as he unfurled the parchment. Her usual smile flashed across her face as she cheerfully announced the news. "You're genin squad has been given its first C-rank mission!" She giggled before continuing with a hint of sarcasm. "Only took you seven months."

As predicted, Tsume spoke up before anybody could stop her. "That's not fair! We would have had one sooner, but Hishu had that family thing." She paused long enough to take a breath. "Mori had to get his Karasu repaired, and I…" She nervously fidgeted remembering the embarrassment of badly twisting her ankle during a routine…search and rescue.

Hishu scoffed. He may have liked her, but he felt a well-deserved tease was just the way to show that off. "You forget you couldn't walk for almost three months because of that ankle?" He received a dangerous look from his female teammate. Mori pinched the bridge of his nose feeling the coming headache. "If you didn't try to turn so fast to catch that ferret…"

He was cut off when she slapped him upside his head, making sure her club hit him. "Hishu you jerk!" She felt like adding insult to injury. "You're nothing like Gaara-sama or Naruto-san!" She stormed away to a guard position, and, before she sat down, pulled her eyelid and stuck out her tongue. She was far from happy.

Temari and Kankuro sighed, but they watched for a moment longer to make sure the two male genin didn't start a fight. Kankuro gave his sister a displeased look. "Why did you have to start that? Now we won't be able to live with them the entire trip to Konoha."

Temari giggled. "It's fun to set them off sometimes." Her expression changed to serious. "We're carrying some valuable and possibly time-sensitive material. Gaara doesn't want to risk carrier bird, and that's unusual in itself considering its safety record." He nodded at the implication. "Plus, I can move faster on my own and am perfectly capable of defending myself."

He heaved a heavy breath. "You're wondering why he wants to send my team along with you." His statement sounded more like a question, and her smirk told him he was dead-on. He lowered his voice to avoid a certain, chocolate-eyed genin from hearing. "This mission could have to do with a certain organization or help training the 'three weapons of Suna' I've been stuck with."

She nodded. "I trust Gaara. I think he has something planned…" She paused before sighing and shaking her head. "We move out in three and a half hours. I'm going to get changed and restock. I'll meet you back here in three." He agreed, and she was off.

The first thing Temari did on the way back to her apartment was deposit her mission and bounty pay. She took just enough cash for a new wardrobe and refreshed supplies. The second thing she did was take a long, cold shower then a brisk steaming one. The final task was shopping. She bought everything she felt she needed for the mission. When she was satisfied, she made a beeline to the rendezvous point.

Kankuro and his well-stocked genin team were waiting for her when she got there. In truth, they only needed two hours to prepare and stock up, but they knew she just got back from a mission. They were actually expecting her to be a little late, but she was five minutes early. They decided to take the half-hour to plan and discuss mission details. The genin were left out of a few details, but nothing vital.

With less than ten minutes before the departure time, Matsuri ran up to them. "Oh, glad I didn't miss you." Her bright smile betrayed her jovial mood. "I won't be seeing you for a while, so I wanted to wish you good luck and safe hunting!" Her eyes fell on the young genin, and she felt her heart swell with pride.

Mori, Hishu, and Tsume stood a little taller before Kankuro decided to deflate their egos. He couldn't let them get overconfident. "We're moving through Wind, River, and Fire. The terrain is vastly different between each of these lands. Matsuri is right; we won't see Suna for at least a few weeks." The genin felt their shoulders slump. They were looking forward to the mission, but they felt homesickness setting in.

Matsuri sighed. "Now why'd you have to do that?" She eyed Kankuro in disbelief, but she shook her head and sighed. "Oh well, you just bring these kids back in one piece." She gently hugged her brother-in-law, and he patted her back in return. Her next words were whispered directly into his ear. "Gaara's afraid for Naruto. He's one of the two remaining. Akatsuki may be planning their next move."

Tsume suddenly looked into the distance. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Her eyes were focused on one spot. "Uh… Kankuro-sensei, something's coming this way." She paused for a moment. He might need an explanation as her ability to sense chakra, though partially tied to her kekkei genkai, wasn't as strong as his. "…something big. It's still past the horizon."

Six pairs of eyes focused on the horizon. Sure enough, something big was moving their way. Whatever it was, it was kicking up a large cloud of sand. It was also moving fast. Within seconds, the shapes could be made out. Tsume focused her senses as much as she could. "It feels like…people…riding cylinders." She seemed to question herself. "I don't think most of them can mold chakra." Her face scrunched in uncertainty.

Kankuro nodded, and the elder shinobi directed the young genin behind them. The unknown figures finally came into view. Just as Tsume noted, there was a large number of men riding on…cylindrical objects. The objects couldn't be identified even as the men, quickly identified as bandits led by a single missing nin, came to a stop not far from the craggy pass of Suna.

Temari groaned as the lone shinobi of the group hopped off his…ride and approached the three elder shinobi. He seemed to completely ignore the genin. He was Katsurugi's older brother and partner, Shoka Keita. He gave the girls a lecherous glare before addressing the three before him. "I'm here to collect my idiot brother's Hibou and the rest of our treasure. His carcass is enough to collect Iwa's bounty." There was no love in his words, and he spoke with a certain air of nobility.

To the surprise of the gathered sand nin, it was Matsuri to contest the high B-rank criminal's proclamation. "Kazekage-sama isn't about to start an international incident because of that toy." She smirked when Keita growled at the thought of Hibou being called a toy. Her smirk broadened when he started molding chakra. He was easy to egg on. "He will be giving Iwa what it wants. Earth will have its treasure back and at least one less troublemaker to worry about."

Her implication was obvious, and he wasn't about to take it. "Don't be dumb, girl. I'm not afraid of your pitiful Kazekage. He's no jinchuuriki anymore." She looked like a vein was ready to pop, and it was his turn to smirk now. "He's powerless and worthless. Akatsuki abandoned his carcass, but…" He paused in consideration. "…we were curious how he escaped the shackles of death.

Matsuri wore a murderous glower as she listened to Keita. It was doubtful anybody in Suna missed the killer intent rolling off her in waves. She turned towards her in-laws with the sweetest smile she could manage. They were instantly taken aback. "Temari-chan… Kankuro-chan…" She started even as she reigned in her emotions. "Would you mind protecting the precious students? This won't be long."

The two slowly nodded before hurrying over to Kankuro's genin, who already had taken cover. They silently agreed to step in just in case Matsuri needed help. They held no doubt in their mind she would be fine. They're eyes widened, however, when they felt a familiar presence walking towards them. They looked up to see that silhouette with a massive gourd strapped to his back.

Keita was so focused on Matsuri he missed the ominous, approaching presence. He gave her an appraising, if lecherous, look. She took the moment to size him up. It was obvious he had more combat experience than his younger brother. He liked to show off his muscles, to the point he looked like a bad martial artist showing off. He was a bit taller and darker, but his hair and eyes were the same. He had some scars up and down his right arm, and the left side of his face was disfigured from old injuries.

His next words came as no surprise. "Come on, baby…" He seemed to lose that noble manner of speech. "If you give up now, I'll even let'cha join my crew 'ere." He chuckled. "I can offer so much more than this puny village. You're skills probably aren't even recognize here. What's your rank here, anyway?"

Temari and Kankuro were fighting back two things. They wanted to laugh until their guts split at how stupid this guy was. They wanted to lynch him for his grievous insults. They knew what fate awaited him, so they stood back and decided just to watch. When asked by Tsume, Hishu, or Mori, a silent request to remain silent was all that was made.

Matsuri was impressed Keita was still molding his chakra. He was either preparing something big or attempting to intimidate. Either way, she was not impressed. She tilted her head as a genuine smile overtook her face. She was remembering the day she made chunin. "Ask any within Suna, and I am a proud chunin." Keita pressed his lips and let out half a whistle only to nearly choke as she continued. "I've been offered the chance to become jonin, but I've refused."

She watched the near instantaneous change in his demeanor. She knew she struck a nerve. She read his Bingo Book entry. He was an accomplished chunin within Iwa, and he made several requests for advancement. Like his brother, the reasons indicated he simply did not have the qualifications. The allure of Akatsuki led him to betray the village along with his brother. Katsurugi stole Hibou, and Keita stole the weapon he finally withdrew.

The bandits all took a step back once Keita held Yuuan. It was a weapon by and far more powerful than Hibou. Iwa, like any village, held many treasures. Hibou was often wielded by the strongest Katon user in the village. Yuuan was reserved for the second in command of the ANBU forces. It was a wakizashi with dusk-colored blade and grip wrapped in worn, blood-colored leather. Other than color, it looked fairly ordinary.

Matsuri, Temari, and Kankuro weren't fooled for a second. Matsuri took a long familiar stance in Suna. Her legs spread to shoulder length as she crossed her arms over her chest. Though she leaked of bloodlust, her appearance was of disinterest. To those who knew her, she was taking this fight very seriously. As the breeze picked up, Temari and Kankuro prepared themselves to shield the young genin. A figure watched from the shadows.

Keita bellowed his disgust. "Don't take me lightly girl!" He threw his sheath to the ground and arched Yuuan back. He focused chakra into the blade, and flames erupted from the guard and hilt. He threw his arm forward with all the grace of an ape. "Katon: Sanrinho no Jutsu!" As when his brother used it, flames flicked forward then seemed to backlash. In a split second, the flames formed into three wheels which raced forward.

Matsuri barely narrowed her eyes, and a wall of sand erupted between her and Sanrinho. The wheels dissipated as they struck the barrier. She sensed another coming, so she left it up. It gave her an extra few seconds to think out a strategy, and she could sense where everybody was anyway. Then she heard something she didn't expect.

A very effeminate voice called out just before the second Sanrinho struck the wall of sand. "Fuuton: Aoru." The voice was surprisingly calm, but the true surprise was that there didn't appear to be any females among the bandits. Aoru was a weak technique, but it had the desired effect. It strengthened Sanrinho enough that it extended over the barrier and continued to head for Matsuri.

She watched the approaching, amplified flame wheels with mild interest. "Based on what Temari told Gaara, Keita devises better tactics and strategies than Katsurugi. He hid somebody who could mold chakra among his subordinates, and he made sure to come at us en masse." She didn't want to resort to her secondary element, so she forced a second barrier to appear. The enhanced flame wheels dissipated.

Keita reared his head back in self-righteous laughter. "If that's all this girly can do, I've got this one in the bag. I can take her hostage and get Hibou back." He paused in his thoughts for a moment. "I can't believe Yuuan's considered stronger. I can't even find an agreeable element for this stupid thing." His smirk broadened as he noticed the sand walls fall back to the desert floor. "You think a pitiful Doton user like you can beat me?" He scoffed. "Get real! All the sand in this desert wouldn't be enough to save you!"

She felt a slight strain on her chakra, but his was dropping faster than hers. She was forced to admit how strong he was. He probably almost qualified for an A-rank in the Bingo book. With a barely noticeable flick of her forefinger, a wave of sand raced towards him. She only wanted to test reactions.

Matsuri stifled a giggle when her prediction became true. "Fuuton: Oshi." The calm, effeminate voice rang out again, and she was able to locate it. She almost fell face first into the desert sand when she saw the…man. She had to question that one. He looked like an actor, or something, from a play with all the face paint and silk kimono. His slender fingers held a fan which flapped rapidly to cool him. The distraction, not Oshi, caused her attack to falter.

Keita misread the dispersed attack and rapidly proceeded through hand signs. Matsuri noticed and started molding chakra. He seemed overly confident at his victory. "Even if Yuuan won't accept this chakra properly, I'm sure to take victory!" He finished and took a stance Temari was familiar with. It looked odd with a sword instead of a pole. "Game over, girl. Katon: Soudai Horeiki no Jutsu!" Gaara tensed as flames headed towards his wife.

For anybody who hasn't read it, this story is a sequel to my other Naruto fan-fiction, School Daze. I recommend reading it before reading anything after this Prologue.

For anybody who has read it, this story will be more than twice as long per chapter (approximately 8,000 words) and will be released once every two weeks instead (unless my schedule becomes obstructed).

Now to answer some questions which will obviously come up. Matsuri is the girl kidnapped to draw Gaara out in the episodes 217 through 220 of the original Naruto anime series. I always thought Gaara/Matsuri made a cute couple, so I accept no complaints about the pairing. They are also not too young to be married. I'm basing this decision on the fact I've seen many feudal-type laws in effect during the anime/manga. Plus, he's the Kazekage and likely expected to sire an heir. I'll let my readers guess what those thoughts may mean as future chapters unfold. Also...you try living three years without so much as being able to touch somebody who's trying to teach you love, love you in return, and slowly but surely you fall in love with. Yeah, got'cha there.

I'm quite proud of my fight scene between Temari and Katsurugi. It's sad to see an original character go so quickly, but he's more useful dead than alive. He didn't even offer up a decent challenge. Go for being conceited and arrogant, neh? I promised better fight scenes in my last fiction, so I hope I delivered here. Matsuri versus Keita coming up!

Before I forget... If anybody knows a better site than freedict to come up with jutsu names, it would be much appreciated. I haven't used any cannon moves yet, but I promise I will when appropriate.

As always, reviews are appreciated, and flames outright ignored.

Story Word Count: 8,020
Story Page Count: 16


Katon: Sanrinho no Jutsu - Fire Release: Three Flame Wheel Technique: A mid to high level fire technique, Sanrinho creates three rings of fire which travel rapidly towards the target. They require a weapon to 'fan' them into creation because the heat they create is too intense for chakra to be collected in the lungs then expelled.

Katon: Hidama Mugoi no Jutsu - Fire Release: Merciless Fireball Technique: A mid to high level fire technique, Hidama Mugoi is designed to flesh out enemy combatants. It coves a wide field with flames. Though it requires a lot of chakra, the actual damage it can cause is minimal.

Katon: Soudai Horeiki no Jutsu - Fire Release: Grand Fire Aura Technique: A high level fire technique, Soudai Horeiki takes a lot of chakra to use. The user is surrounded by an aura of flames which rapidly expands outward. It requires both breath and a weapon to use effectively. The chakra-laced breath first creates the aura while the weapon's rotation fans and continues to feed the flames the required chakra.

Raiton: Senpuuki - Lighting Release: Electric Fan: A high level lightning technique, Senpuuki requires a lot of set up. It takes six or eight kunai thrown in a pattern resembling a fan. The wires must all be touching and converge at a common point. They don't have to start there. The kunai are often used to both distract and set up for the technique. Though electricity fills the area to effectively electrocute the victim(s), a skilled user will wait until the victim(s) touch the wire.

Fuuton: Aoru - Wind Release: Agitate: A very low level wind technique, Aoru is mostly made up of a pushing wind. There are wind sickles within for damaging, but stopping power is minimal.

Fuuton: Oshi - Wind Release: Push: A very low level wind technique, Oshi is a defensive technique using wind to push much stronger attacks out of the way.