Disgaea: When Worlds Collide
By Random Writer 46
Tragedy of the Marionette – Part I
Several days had passed since Naruto's first foray into the Item World, and he was starting to get the hang of demon life. The Prinnies would go around here and there, occasionally running errands and the like, but apparently unlike their old master Etna, Adell was a man of little needs. He spent most of his time not managing Adell House going into the Item World of rather high-level weapons, occasionally Unique and Legendary, for training. Naruto had went along for the ride once, and was treated to the sight of his red-headed mentor obliterating floors twenty-one to thirty of a rather shiny axe all by himself. Once again he had been reminded of the giant rift that existed between him and the one he wanted to help, and it was galling to think that he was barely any help to somebody who had done so much for him already.
Because of that, he had asked Taro to be his training partner for a while. He wasn't allowed to go into the Item World by himself, due to Adell's concern for his safety, and Obito and Teddy were off running errands. The leader of Adell's division of the Prinny Squad was off talking to that girlfriend Adell had back home, and Teddy was off to another Netherworld to get ingredients for tonight's dinner. He had volunteered himself, wanting to see some of the other worlds out there, but he had been told that it was too dangerous a mission for him. He failed to see how, until he realized that several of the ingredients came from things such as dragons and ghosts. He had respectfully bowed out right then.
"You've got to turn it up a notch!"
Which was why he was sparring with Taro right now. Naruto wiped the sweat off his forehead, panting as he looked at his opponent. Taro wasn't even sweating, his clothing was unruffled and his eyes, although alert, remained completely serene. The difference between them was huge; Naruto kept attacking and attacking, but no matter what he couldn't even scratch Taro once. The boy on the other hand was actually having problems holding back, and had returned to using the ladle that he had been wielding rather than Longinus, which had taken a liking to him. (It had been a bit of surprise to learn that the spear was sentient, and it had been an even bigger surprise to realize that the spear was an expert in weaponry and liked chewing him out whenever he screwed up.)
"Here I come, 'ttebayo!" cried Naruto as he charged forwards, attacking with a palm strike. Even if it hit, it would do no damage, Naruto knew, but he wanted it to hit. So far he had been completely unable to land a hit on the cow-boy, and so he made it his goal that by the time the session was over, he was at least going to nick him, dammit.
Taro was unworried, raising a hand gently up to grasp Naruto's fist. What must have seemed to him to be nothing more than a simple motion was faster than a speeding bullet for Naruto. The speed had been incredibly surprising for Naruto, but he had gotten used to it after being blindsided at least fifteen times already.
"Sorry, Naruto, but you're going to have to do better than—"
"Believe me, I am!" cried Naruto as he hooked his leg around Taro's, using the momentary punch as a diversion. Taro's eyes widened slightly, and Naruto grinned as he realized he had gotten the boy's expression to change. His right arm was caught in Taro's grip, but his left arm was still free. Twisting his fingers into a fist, he swung his limb back and drove it forwards, intending to deliver a jaw-breaking punch. "Grit your teeth!"
Yet, Taro was still slightly faster.
Raising his left arm, he blocked the punch with the side of his arm, before twisting it slightly, deflecting the blow away. Taking the chance – although he didn't need it – he brought his head forwards and delivered a powerful head-butt. Naruto gave out a loud cry and flipped backwards, rolling a couple times on the grass before coming to a stop.
"Oh, oh my god, Naruto!" cried Taro as he ran forwards. "I didn't mean to put so much power into it, it's just that you've been getting closer and closer! Please don't die, Naruto!"
"Oh, come on! Who the hell do you think I am!" cried Naruto as he pulled himself off the ground. Shit, that hit had been much harder than he had expected. A couple days ago he might've fallen to something like that, but he was getting better at tolerating these heavy blows now. His head felt slightly addled, and some things were getting a little blurry. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto – I'm not going to die in a sparring session! Urgh!"
"Oh… ew," noted Taro as he blanched.
Naruto, who had received the blow straight to his head, was in the middle of throwing up everything he had for breakfast. The ramen that had tasted so delicious was absolutely disgusting as it went the other way, landing in a partially-dissolved pile in front of him. The smell was disgusting, and Taro almost felt like throwing up just at the sight of it.
"Don't you eat anything other than ramen, Naruto? That's unhealthy. And the noodles are glowing too… Are these Unique? Don't tell me the mess in the pantry was because you were looking for Unique ramen."
"Yes," said Naruto as he wiped his mouth. He was going to have to go to the washroom later and rinse his mouth. "It's called cake."
"So you're telling me that the only things you eat are ramen and cake?"
"Well, there are other things," said Naruto as he scratched his head. His eyes were slightly unfocused, probably due to the damage. It seemed that he wasn't really in his right mind at the moment. "It's just that I really can't think of any right now. Say, why are there three of you, Taro? Do demons have their own version of the Bunshin no Jutsu as well? Can you teach me?"
Taro shook his head, sighing.
"Adell's going to be so mad at me… Um, let's take you to the Dark Hospital."
The gray-haired pre-teen wrapped Naruto's arm around his neck and started heading into the castle. Even in his dazed state, Naruto was still slightly surprised at how strong the younger boy was. He was carrying almost the entirety of his body weight without any problems, as if he wasn't even there, or as if he was no heavier than a fly.
The thought was rather disheartening in a strange sort of way, Naruto found, although that might've been the concussion talking.
Kankurou was not a nice guy.
He also did not trust.
These two things were connected, because they made him a bad person to try and get close to, and the reasons for both were the same. Being a shinobi of Suna as well as the son of the Kazekage, he had been taught from birth that anybody, even those on his team, were potential enemies. He had been taught from birth that blood and nationality meant nothing, and that money made the world go 'round, and that true love did not exist. Any fairy tale Aesop he ever heard was forced out of his head by his shinobi training, he was told they were all lies.
It didn't help that his father was the Kazekage, and thus had often very little time for him and his siblings. It didn't help that his mother was dead, and the cause of it was the birth of his little brother. It didn't help that his uncle had been murdered by his little brother, and that his father had been the one to send him to his death. It didn't help that his elder sister was very detached from the family in general, and thus from him as well. It didn't help that his younger brother was a sleep-deprived demon-vessel who had the power to kill him any time, and probably wouldn't be bothered by it for more than a second, if at all.
Thus, Kankurou was a very cynical young man of fifteen. Life had made it that way for him. He was groomed in every way to become a perfect ninja of the Sand, and the Sand's standards were very different from peace-loving Konoha. Yet, there were problems with his upbringing that his father and the Sand's council had not foreseen.
He had no talent.
He had nothing.
His sister, a prodigy in the ways of Fuuton jutsu, had managed to pick up a Suna battlefan when she was five and managed to swing it three times before losing her strength. By the time she was seven, she had learnt the majority of the weaker, non-combat Fuuton jutsu, and had moved onto her first major Fuuton jutsu, the Kamaitachi. By seven-and-a-half, she had mastered that, and by the age of ten she was working on an apprenticeship with the local summoner, trying to find an animal that would fit her.
His sister, who was also gifted intellectually as well, being considered a genius on many levels. Her intelligence was at least Chuunin-level when she was ten, and it only took her a couple months after learning the rules of go for her to start placing consistently in the elderly igo tournaments that took place in Suna. It was no mean feat, considering many of the players were themselves retired shinobi, and often at least Chuunin level. Her marks in the Academy had been unmatched, and she had graduated valedictorian.
His sister, whose beauty often stunned foreign dignitaries into silence when they found out that the young lady at the side of the Kazekage was not the Daimyo's daughter, the princess of the land, and rather a young shinobi-in-training. There was no quelling the talk of the town, that whoever married her would be a lucky man, becoming at once a part of the Kazekage's family and the husband of the would-be beauty queen of Suna. The only thing that kept suitors away was Gaara, whose psychotic tendencies frightened the hell out of everybody.
His brother, who, born with a demon sealed within his belly, had power unmatched by everybody in the village other than the Kage. Although he lacked control, and he was psychotic due to his lack of sleep, there was no doubt in his mind that Gaara would become a much better shinobi than him. With his absolute defense, and the demon that would come to assist him any time he was in truly mortal danger, Gaara did not ever fear for his life.
His brother, who was the focus of the village's attention. If he sneezed, the village got a cold. All the expectations that had been piled up on him previous to his birth, Kankurou had never felt before in a lifetime. All the fear directed at him, although negative, gave Kankurou a sort of strange, guilty envy. Everywhere he walked, people parted. Anything he wanted, it was invariably given to him. There was nothing that he needed that he could not have, with the possible exception of peace and acceptance.
He was nothing.
All he had were his puppets.
He wasn't strong like Gaara, was not intelligent like Temari. He did not have the leadership qualities that his father did, and displayed none of the talent that was becoming of his family. He was pretty much a cookie-cutter shinobi, and he realized that.
It drove him crazy.
He was not an asset to his village.
Which is probably why he did what he did.
It was supposed to be an average C-rank mission, the kind that he risked his life over and Temari breezed through, and the kind that Gaara utterly demolished without a bare scratch on his sand shield. They were sent out shortly after the recent Genin exam, investigating a strange creatures being spotted in the vicinity of a nearby town.
Although they never spotted them, they had managed to track them down without any complications. Strange footsteps in the sand, still warm when they found them, lead to the ruins of a nearby village that had been completely destroyed by a powerful sandstorm a year or two ago. The place had been completely abandoned, and the people had been evacuated by the Suna shinobi and relocated to other villages. There was a reconstruction effort going on, but it was still in the middle of its fundraising phase. Therefore, nobody should've been around the area.
They had camped on the outskirts of the ruins for the night. For three days they had been travelling without sleep; due to Gaara's insomnia and ruthlessness. Kankurou feared for his life every time he disagreed with his red-headed younger brother, and the subject of sleep was one of them. There were times when the demon-sealed boy was very bitter about the fact that they could sleep and he couldn't, and so it was with great hesitancy that Kankurou finally broke down, using the excuse of setting up camp and watching the ruins first before moving in.
Gaara had given him a glare, but acquiesced. He had disappeared shortly to who-knows-where, but Kankurou had no doubt that he would be back by the time they moved out tomorrow morning. He never knew what Gaara did when they slept and he didn't, and he suspected that the boy didn't want him to find out.
It was in the middle of looking up at the moon that he realized Temari had settled down beside him without him realizing it. Bound by reflex, his right arm flew to where Karasu was bound up, before stopping.
"You don't have to get that tense around your own sister, you know."
"Yeah, yeah, Temari," said Kankurou, calmly. If there was one specialty of his, it was the fact that he almost never sweat. He had no idea why, but it was useful every now and then. Although he couldn't regulate his body temperature very well, he had gotten used to searing heat, and could even wear full-body black clothing that would fry any other shinobi who attempted such a feat. There was also the added bonus of not having sweat ruin his carefully-applied war-paint. "...Gaara's still gone?"
"You know how he is," said Temari, shifting her legs slightly. Kankurou was unaffected by the action, but he knew several young men in the village who would kill to be in his position right now. Not that it was that big of a deal. They were shinobi after all.
That was it. The conversation between them.
It was kind of funny, actually.
This was it, the extent of their bond as siblings; pitiful, almost laughable. Although they lived in the same house, and were born of the same parents, they had almost nothing in common. They barely spoke on missions, and spent most of their free time far apart from each other. Any effective teamwork during missions was due to practice and followed a basic pattern of yielding to Gaara.
For a second, he felt a slight chill. With a slight motion, he tugged the bandages that covered up Karasu behind him closer. He was trained to trust no one, not even his elder sister, and it made him slightly uncomfortable in her presence. It was alright however. He'd get through it.
"…Kankurou. Are you cold?"
Temari's voice broke him out of his brooding for a second, as he realized he was in her company. The bandages that he had been tugging around him were released, and as he let go of the rough material, he realized just how hard he had been holding onto it.
"No, I'm fine," said Kankurou. "Worry about yourself for a bit. With the amount that you wear, I'm surprised you don't have a cold yet. Might want to cover yourself up a bit, if only to keep some of the guys away."
Temari let out a short chuckle, slightly bitter in tone.
"Not that I have to worry about that, with Gaara around," said the blonde-haired shinobi as she looked at the moon in the sky as well, forlorn. There was a slight pause in her words, as if she was searching for something to talk about. A topic. Then, as if she had found it, she turned her eyes upon Kankurou once more. "What do you think about our family, Kankurou?"
"Our family? It's messed up."
"Of course it is," said Temari. "But… do you think of us as family at all?"
"…What kind of question is that?" asked Kankurou. "We're related by blood, aren't we? We have the same father, and the same mother. There's no question that we're family."
"That's… not what I'm talking about," said the sandy-blonde girl. "I know you don't really have any friends, but I met a girl at the Academy. She's graduated now, and we don't really talk much anymore, but there was this one time that she invited me over to her house… I met her parents. We had dinner together… It was fun."
Kankurou's eyes wandered over to her.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"…I don't know," said Temari. "I just wanted somebody to listen, I guess."
"…Go on, then."
"Heh…" said Temari as she looked downwards, crossing her arms around her knees. A cold wind passed by, and she felt the chill distinctly. The desert was hot during the day, and cold during the night. Suna was a land of extremes. It was a good thing that the clothing she wore did double-duty, otherwise she'd either have roasted or be freezing to death now. "We sat down at the table… Her brother was there, you know. He was a little younger than her, probably in the same Academy class as you. He kept asking what she did during class, what kind of jutsu and training she was going through… And her father was so proud, and her mother so happy. It… really felt different, being a part of that."
Kankurou let her words sink in without really thinking about that. Her voice, normally sharp in the household, was dulled slightly by his hood. It was good… He didn't want to let those words truly reach him. He already knew they had a messed up family, dammit, and nothing was going to change that. As long as Gaara remained a psychopath, as long as the uneven balance of power was there, there wasn't going to be any change…
"I've been thinking. Maybe it's not Gaara who's been screwing up, you know," said Temari as she looked slightly sideways. "We're the older ones… We're the ones who're supposed to be looking after him. The ones who should be disciplining him, the ones who're supposed to show him how to live. I don't… I don't think we've ever really talked. Ever since he was born."
"You think we can fix up this screwed-up relationship now?" asked Kankurou, his voice slightly higher than he wanted it to be. "What the hell are we supposed to do? Gaara would kill us the moment we get in his way. At any second! Father's trying to groom him into becoming a killing machine!"
Temari was silent.
"…I guess… you're right."
Without another word, she walked off, back to camp. Her footsteps were soft, barely making a sound as they sank into the soft sand. Pretty soon she was out of range, and Kankurou looked back up at the moon, extreme emotions swirling around in his chest. There were so many things that he wanted to say, so many things that he wanted to think, to feel. Yet they conflicted against each other, contrasting each other, contradicting each other.
He wanted peace and quiet, yet he felt hatred to Gaara for ruining his life. He felt at the same time envy for his talented and beautiful older sister and his attention-hogging younger brother, yet despised himself for even pondering that, knowing the trials and tribulations they went through for being themselves. He felt pain, he felt sorrow, yet somewhere deep within was a spark of annoying hope.
Angrily, he squashed that hope with his mind.
They would never be a normal family. They could not be.
This was why Suna shinobi were taught that emotions were weaknesses. This was because they actually were. What else was he supposed to do with these hazardous whims? What purpose did they have other than to pierce his gut with infinite shards of glass? Why the hell did they exist, if they weakened him so much?
Puppets never had to feel this way.
He wished he was one.
At six in the morning they moved out, with Gaara returning from his nocturnal solitude. No words were shared, no information given as the trio of siblings deserted their campgrounds, now once again nothing more than sand and sand, making their way towards the ruins that were in sight. A slight haze covered the village, coating it in yellow. Nothing more than a small sandstorm, and something Gaara was easily keeping calm with his powers. One might wonder why he would do such a thing, when there was no possibility of him being in danger of it, but visibility was an important thing to him, and he wanted to keep it if at all possible.
They passed by the gates, which were quite obviously ruined by this point. The wooden frame, untended to by its past keepers and hit hard by the disaster that had emptied out the settlement, was in pieces on the ground. Tents that had been pitched in the empty sand had been from new arrivals, old stone buildings had been filled with sand as a result of the disaster.
Kankurou had to keep nervous thoughts down. The destruction was great… Yet he was travelling with somebody who could probably cause this sort of destruction on a whim. Younger brother or not, he was travelling with a psychopath blessed by the gods to have powers beyond his belief.
Their footsteps made no sound in the sand, soft as it was. It was hard to believe something that sifted and moved so easily could possibly be so damaging, yet the evidence was before his very eyes. They were passing by a street as Temari motioned for them to stop.
"What is it?" whispered Kankurou as they followed her and put their backs against the wall, although he had a hard time of it, considering the bandaged puppet that he had slung over his shoulders.
"I hear voices. Shh."
Kankurou instantly fell silent, understanding.
It took several seconds for his ears to find the sound, silent as it was. The house they were pressed up against; it was in better condition than the rest of the ruined buildings, and the only one that seemed even remotely livable. As he pressed the side of his head against the building wall, he could hear inside. Raspy, wooden voices came from within. Some of them were rather monotone, others slightly more animated. Yet it felt as if each of them lacked a soul, or at least the ability to express themselves. As he closed his eyes and pushed his consciousness further into his auditory senses, he listened to the conversation within.
"…'ll be mad. We've been told to scout this place out, and we've been here for weeks. There's nothing here, nothing at all," said one of the voices. It was wooden, completely monotone. The words might've sounded like they were coming out of a human's mouth, the tone was definitely not. It was like a speech made by a machine. "He'll be coming soon… What do we do then?"
"What else can we do?" asked the other voice. "There's nothing for it but to tell him the truth. He'll do what he likes, how he likes. All we can hope for is to avoid his anger."
"How can we do that? We need an offering…"
Kankurou wrenched his head away from the wall, having heard enough. Temari did the same, and Gaara, who hadn't even thought about joining them, simply looked on as they gave each other telling glances. It seemed that the sighting of the strange monsters had been exaggerated slightly...
"Missing-nin?" asked Kankurou.
"Most likely," nodded Temari. "If they were strong, they wouldn't be hiding out in this area. There's no food, and nothing to do. With the reconstruction efforts going on, it would be merely a matter of time before people start coming back here. Looks like they've made this place their temporary retreat."
"We take them out?"
"And calm the clients down in one stroke. As long as we have Gaara here, it'll be alright," nodded Temari as she looked on. The red-headed subject in question didn't even look at them at the mention of his name, instead merely staring intently into the doorway. He never bothered to listen to his siblings' conversations, they were merely massive wastes of time. Given a mission, all he had to do was kill all the targets. It was that simple.
"Alright, how are we going to make our entrance, then?"
The three Marionettes stood around the table, their faces completely unable to betray the turmoil that they were feeling inside. Although they were fashioned of wood, they felt every emotion that other demons did, and the one that dominated their mentalities right now was the chill called fear. Had Marionettes been fashioned the same way as humanoid demons, then without a doubt they would've been quaking in their boots. As it was, however, even their voices were completely calm.
"What do we do…"
"How can we survive?"
"Comrades, what are you worried about?" asked a voice from the doorway.
In stepped another puppet-like demon, although where the others were green this one was orange. Its face was as blank as the others, yet there was a slight lilt in its voice that the green-hatted ones did no exhibit. Its body was wooden, and its movements as well, yet it walked with more flourish, as though something in its body was threatening to break out.
"Ruin… where have you been?" asked one of the green ones, its eyes lighting up for a slight second before dying down once more. Had the white holes not been positioned on its wooden face where normal eyes would've been on a normal face, they would've hardly been eyes at all. Pure white, and looking as though they had been painted on, they were circles that could've given children nightmares. "You've left no trace of yourself for three weeks now. We were afraid you might have deserted us."
"Siblings, comrades," said the one called Ruin with a slight shake of its head. "Do you really trust me that little? I understand that little Mana went into the process of your creation, but I thought that the crafted demon heart within you held more trust for a relative than that. I've been… scouting."
"Scouting? There is nothing around."
"Then it seems you haven't scouted as far as I have," said Ruin, the painted line on its face turning upwards slightly in a horrifying imitation of a smile. "I've come across what could only be described as a village of humans lying to the south. Although I tried to remain untraceable, it seems that some of them had managed to catch glimpses of me. Nevertheless, it seems that there are humans in this world."
"Where does that leave us?" asked another one of the greencaps. "So you have found humans within a human world, that simply explains their location. Remember that the leader has ordered us to come back with 'something interesting', and so far we have nothing."
"Are you so sure about that?" asked Ruin, chuckling. "These humans… they are not as ordinary as you are thinking right now, surely. I have sensed what seems to be a sort of Mana within their bodies, and they are able to succeed at feats that normal humans cannot. I have found something interesting… it is information."
"Will it save our hides?"
"Will it please the leader?"
"Only time will tell," said Ruin. "For now, how about you make yourselves useful and prepare for his arrival? We have to tidy this place up a bit at least, the old man won't be happy if he arrives in the middle of a desert wasteland where all the chairs are broke—"
Before the red Marionette was able to finish the sentence, the window on the wall, the only entrance into the room other than the wall, blew inwards with humongous force, smashing against the wall and breaking off the windowsill. The Marionettes turned to look at the noise.
The sentence that ones of the greens was about to utter was cut off as another burst of wind, this time even stronger than before, smashed against the wall from outside. The entire windowsill came off this time, blown apart from the wall, and flew towards Ruin like a shuriken, although it merely bounced off harmlessly against the wooden cross that the red Marionette retrieved from its back.
Cracks quickly appeared on the surface of the wall as wind continuously pounded against it, like a never-ending barrage of tidal waves. From the single hole in the wall, where the window had been, they could feel the pure pressure that was coming towards them. Each of the Marionettes prepared themselves.
"We're under attack…? What are—"
Ruin spun his head quickly.
Each of the other Marionettes followed in turn, quickly spinning their heads one-eighty degrees to look behind them at the real attack… Except. There was nothing there. Nothing except a detached wooden head, which looked like it had come from a human-sized doll. Its three wooden eyes stared outwards at them blankly, as a speaker held in its mouth continuously blurted out words of alarm.
Ruin quickly turned backwards, realizing that he had been had. Gripping the wooden cross that was his controller, he raised it once more, as the wind increased in strength. The cracks on the wall were starting to spread and increase in both size and amount…
Unable to handle the pressure any longer, the wall buckled under the strain, breaking into pieces. Unchained to the heavy structure, the debris flew at the Marionettes with surprising speed considering their size. Ruin did not waste him, throwing up his cross. The majority of the rocks, wood, and other material were deflected, although a few small shards managed to break through his guard and strike his wooden body. The other Marionettes, although not as efficient as he, had done well also, deflecting most of the damage.
Ruin lowered his wooden cross, looking at where the wall had been. He could see the remnants of the town outside, and the sand that covered the town streets. Most importantly, however, he could see the attackers. Two male figures, and one female one, who was holding a giant fan; she must've been the one to blow the wall down.
"What do we—"
"Kill them," ordered Ruin nonchalantly. "They attacked first."
Instantly, the battle was on. The Marionettes pulled out the wooden crosses on their backs, their joints clicking as they moved. Enemy in sight and orders received, their minds shifted into an empty state, completely set on completing their objective. Their bare, blocky feet slammed against the ground as they rushed towards the intruders like a moving wall.
Kankurou smirked as he looked at his foes. Puppets… huh. Well, these were his specialty. It seemed that the puppeteer wasn't around here; oh well, it wasn't like he could be too far off, not if he wanted to keep these guys moving. After they took the puppets out, it'd be easy to figure out where the rogue was. Deftly, he flicked his index finger backwards.
Karasu's head, which had been lying on the floor, opened its mouth. A jet of white mist spewed out of the wooden orifice, drenching the Marionettes. As soon as the liquid covered them, they stopped. The momentum that had been carrying them forward continued, and unable to stop themselves they crashed into the wall. Wood splintered as their block faces came into contact with the stone walls. They slid to the ground, lying in strange poses as if their strings had been cut.
Ruin looked at the prone forms of his comrades, and shook his head.
"What are you doing? Get up."
Kankurou raised an eyebrow at the voice. He had never heard of a talking puppet before… Not that it couldn't be done with the jutsu and technology that was currently available, but there was really no point for something like that. Was it supposed to be a diversion, was it a psychological trick? Maybe there were actually several puppeteers rather than just the one; it would make sense that they'd have to communicate with each other somehow, and if the other puppets had receivers… Nah, that was possible, but improbable. There were plenty other ways of getting information across that was easier and less revealing to the enemy, hand signals for instance.
"Not going to happen, punk," said Kankurou, pointing a finger at the red puppet. He jerked backwards with his other hand, and Karasu's head flew towards him. He caught it with his hand, before tossing it backwards and pulling forwards with his left ring finger. Karasu's body, which had been hiding behind him, gripped its head in midair and attached it to its body. "That mist I just sprayed your other puppets with, it's chakra-sealant. For a short while, it's not going to let you attach chakra to it. Might as well give up while you can."
"When did you get something like that?" asked Temari, looking sideways at her brother.
"Got it from Baki, it's still in its alpha stages. I prepared a canister in Karasu, but didn't expect to need to use it so early," said Kankurou. "Think of it as a field test, if you will. But so far it seems to be working we—"
"Look. It's doing something," noted Gaara.
The red Marionette simply looked down at the still bodies of its comrades. Its wooden face betrayed no emotion, although judging by its stance it certainly didn't seem worried. After a few seconds of doing nothing, it approached the body of another Marionette. Kankurou and Temari had their guards up in an instant; Gaara had his arms crossed as always. Ruin crouched, twisting the fallen puppet's neck slightly, as if looking at something.
"Interesting…" said the red Marionette. "It seems you certainly have a little bit of skill. I never thought that humans would be able to incapacitate us, no matter how low-class, with nothing more than fluid… You have truly surpassed my expectations. Yes… yes, that is what I will do. When the leader comes, I will present you to him."
"What are you talking about you crazy wack—"
"Brothers, the time for sleeping is over!" said the puppet as it raised a gloved hand over its head. The Suna siblings instantly went into defensive stances, prepared for the worst. Temari gripped her fan tight, preparing to attack at the slightest provocation, and Kankurou instantly had all of his chakra strings connected to the most important parts of Karasu. Even Gaara had lowered his stance slightly, glaring straight at the puppet in front of him.
Kankurou spared a second to look at his brother, and was slightly surprised to find a thin moist sheen on Gaara's forehead. As long as he had known him, Gaara had been perfectly at home in the desert. No matter how much he wore, or what he carried, or how long he stayed out in the desert, he had never seen him sweat before. His eyes were also strangely tense, and Kankurou could see thin veins bulging in his neck. Was there something different about this enemy…?
Gaara's opened his mouth, and the other two quickly turned to look.
"Mother… mother is scared," said Gaara. The completely disaffected look on his face had been wiped away, and now his siblings could see something that resembled emotion on his face. Whatever it was, he was not accustomed to showing it; what came out looked like a cross between a grimace, a smile, and fear. His fingers twitched, as if he was unsure how to proceed. "There's something different about them, especially that red one. Mother… mother… calm down. It's okay. It's—Argh!"
Gaara clutched his head, suddenly reacting to something in the air that Kankurou and Temari could not feel. Just as Temari was about to go to him, however, she received a firsthand demonstration of just what was throwing the implacable Gaara off so badly.
The air felt heavy, as if it was being condensed. Although they couldn't see it, it felt as if some strange gas was being introduced into the air, slowly depriving them of oxygen. Then, as if blown there by some mysterious wind, a faint red mist started rolling into the room from every opening, almost swallowing them all. Temari felt her legs shaking, as she was gripped by some unknown, primal fear, and Gaara shook his head, trying to clear it away.
"What's going on with you guys, hey!" cried Kankurou as he looked at his siblings. Temari being like this was surprising, but he had seen her with worse before. Gaara being affected by anything at all except deep emotional trauma was something he had never even dreamed of before, much less experienced. Quickly, Karasu was at his side. In the worst case, he was going to have to fend for all three of them. "Gaara—Are you getting a headache? Look, if you want to transform, it's alright—There's nobody around—"
The red Marionette in the center of the room had a wooden face, but Kankurou could've sworn that it was smiling as it snapped its gloved hand. Two seconds passed with nothing happening, before the puppets on the ground slowly rose upwards, their splintered faces returning back to normal. Kankurou's eyes widened. There was no way this was possible—His chakra-sealant. Was it defective?
The green-capped Marionettes stood in front of him like a wooden wall, their bodies framed by the red mist. The red Marionette stood looking at him, before raising its arms up sideways. The green ones copied the motion, and instantly the wooden crosses that had been discarded on the ground returned to their puppets immediately, and now they were pulsing faintly, as if reinforced by some unknown power.
Kankurou knew what fear felt like; it was something that all those who lived with Gaara faced before in their lives. This was a similar feeling, yet it contained another edge. With Gaara, he had always known what he had been dealing with. With these things… they were mysterious variables. But he was sure of one thing now.
"You… you're not a puppet!" stated Kankurou.
"No, you're quite right," agreed Ruin. "I'm a Mad Jester."
The mechanical monstrosities they were dealing with had proved to be unimaginably powerful, Kankurou thought with alarm as he hid behind a barren wall with alarm. Karasu was at his side, its right arm broken into pieces. Gaara and Temari weren't with him; they had been forced to split up so that the Marionettes couldn't find them. With the large pieces of equipment that they carried around with them, it would've been child's play for the wooden dolls to catch their trail.
After the Marionettes had gotten back up, they were completely different from before. The red mist that had rolled in had condensed into opaque red spheres, and had entered each Marionette except the red one, the Mad Jester. Their bodies glowed red for a second, before they turned to them. And then, before he knew what had happened, the Marionette closest had smashed his face apart with the wooden cross.
It was a good thing that he had switched places with Karasu in preparation with the Kawarimi no Jutsu. If he hadn't done it in advance, there was no way in hell he would've survived. As it was, Karasu's head was designed to break into large pieces, so it'd be easy to put it all back together later. The Marionettes had gained speed beyond their imagination, and although they had been hard-pressed to do it, with a bit of support from Gaara's sand and Temari's wind, they had managed to scatter.
Kankurou knew what the plan was now. They had to run. The puppets they had been dealing with were on a different level, a level that he could not hope to reach. Gaara had been afraid, and Gaara was never afraid. The only hope they had was to get out of here and either get some reinforcements from Suna or cancel the mission altogether. If these were normal puppets, all they'd have to do would be to find the puppeteers, but Kankurou had realized by now that normal was not a word that could be used to describe them.
Still… it wasn't like they didn't have hope. Right now they were concealed, at least he was anyway. As shinobi of Suna, they were well-versed in hiding in sandy areas. No matter how strong the foe was, if they didn't know where he was, there was no way they could fight him.
He looked back at Karasu, who was at his side. The puppet was twitching slightly, although Kankurou had barely any strings attached to it at the time. He pulled on one finger, attempting for Karasu to raise its left arm. No go. It wasn't working. Sighing, he pulled out a scroll from his pocket. With a puff of smoke, the writing on the scroll vanished, and there it was, another right arm. He quickly detached the broken one from Karasu's joints and replaced it with the other. Although the new one was devoid of weapons, it was still better than a broken one.
That red mist… What was it? As far as he could tell, he hadn't been affected, but Gaara and Temari had been. Heck, something even seemed to happen to Karasu. Now there was a faint red glow about it, and for some reason it was a lot harder to control than before. It even seemed to be moving slightly, as if it had its own will. Kankurou shook his head as he considered it, it was impossible. Something about the red mist must have affected the joints. Perhaps a magnetized field of some kind…?
Sounds of fighting.
Kankurou swung his head around as yells and screams reached his ears. These voices, unlike the Marionettes', were full of emotion, mainly anger and terror. They were… male. Kankurou's eyes widened as the voice became familiar – it was Gaara's. He hadn't recognized it before because he had never ever heard Gaara while in a mood other than angry or murderous, but here it was.
For a second, he thought of running.
For a second, he thought of a life without Gaara.
A life where his mother was alive, where his father was a better person, where Yashamaru still took care of them, where Temari and he could live lives like normal teenage shinobi.
And as soon as he had those thoughts, he picked them up, tossed them to the back of his mind into the smallest box he could imagine, and instantly closed it. Fifty locks were set and the opening was welded together, and as soon as that was done he crushed the box in an imaginary cave collapse.
He released the chakra strings that bound him to Karasu – right now it was dead weight, something unable to be controlled. A puppet that did not react instantly was more trouble than it was worth, and right now Karasu was barely responding at all. He couldn't use it. Yet, as he looked back once more and saw that familiar three-eyed face, he couldn't help but feel a little sad as he left his comrade behind.
Chakra strings whirling about his hands, he charged his feet with chakra and took off towards the location of the fighting. Although he was much less capable without a decent puppet, he was nonetheless a shinobi of Suna. He was fully able to do damage with only his strings.
It was time for him to be the older brother for once.
Behind him, Karasu's three eyes turned to focus on its master's back.
"Try as you might, there is no escape from us," said Ruin as it watched its comrades, its brothers fight against the sand-wielding young man in front of him. Although the boy was talented, and used techniques that Ruin had never seen before, he was simply no match, barely holding on as it was. "You might as well give up and die."
The battle was like something out of a nightmare for Gaara. For so long, he had not known pain. Due to his sand shield, even the small act of tripping gave him a soft cushion of sand to land on, and it became impossible for people, even himself, to inflict harm on his body. But right now, he was being hounded. The Marionettes that he was fighting, they were getting stronger and stronger, faster and faster the longer they stayed in that red mist.
He had attempted to run and hide, but he had never really learned the required skills, as nobody in the Ninja Academy had the guts to go against the will of the Kazekage's son and village monster. If he wanted out of the class, he was out. If he didn't want to learn something, they didn't force him to, and now he regretted it.
Temari was on the ground, several meters away. Without an absolute defense like his own, she had been beaten down quickly by the puppets, completely unable to mount a defense. Normally Gaara wouldn't have cared a single bit, but it meant that all four Marionettes had their attention on him. If it had been two, maybe three, he might've been able to take care of them, at least find some way to hold them off, but with all four it was pretty much impossible.
A wooden cross found its way penetrating through his sand shield again, being stopped by the extra pressure in his sand only inches away from his forehead. The puppet pulled, and the weapon came loose from his wall, ripping out segments of sand as it did so. Before the sand was able to full reform, another wooden cross found itself imbedded in it once more, this time at least several centimeters closer to its mark.
Gaara twisted his arms around in opposite directions, and the sand underneath his feet shot out like lances, penetrating the puppets that stood opposite. Or attempted to, rather. As if they had reflexes that ran like lightning, the two green-capped puppets dodged the sand lances nimbly, spinning their bodies around and tossing the wooden crosses at him once more. They spun through the air like giant shuriken, the lack of any sharp edge did not dull their deadliness.
Gaara swung his arms upwards, and two pillars of sand instantly erupted out of the desert ground. The pillars were instantly destroyed by the wooden projectiles, but they had done their work; the crosses hit his sand shield, and although they managed to penetrate the outer layer they were unable to hit their mark.
This time, without letting the crosses get back to their owners, Gaara clenched his fists. The sand closed in around the wooden crosses. Grunting, the red-headed demon child twisted his arms the other way, crossing in front of him. Instantly, the wooden crosses shot out in the direction they had been going, although the trajectory was altered just enough so that they didn't smash through him like they had been made to do before. The crosses zoomed through the air, the wind howling behind as they went; their true speed mysterious although quite clearly at a high level.
The two crosses reached the opposite puppets, although rather than knocking them down all it managed to do was provide the two with each other's weapons. They each took hold of the wooden crosses like they were their own, and returned to the battle. Gaara grunted in annoyance as he watched.
His eyes widened as he felt wooden hands reach around his ankles, and looked down.
Another Marionette had dug through the sand, and was now looking up at him from the hole that it had made in the ground. Its wooden fingers had locked around his legs, and no matter how hard he tried to move them his feet wouldn't budge. Yelling in a combination of anger and terror, Gaara drove his arm downwards, and the sand obeyed. The yellow particles flew up into the air, and came down like a tidal wave, crashing into the green-capped Marionettes and missing Gaara completely. Yet it was no use, Gaara saw as the remaining sand fell to the desert floor; the puppet seemed completely unharmed.
Just then, he heard a sound behind him. Turning around as swiftly as he could, he came face with face with the last Marionette. It had its wooden arms raised over its head, and the expression on its face, although painted like all the others, seemed to contain a sort of psychotic gleam. The instrument of death that it held in its hands, like the others, was in its grip, and seemed to be prepared to come down at any time.
Rather than panic, Gaara closed his eyes. At this point, the only way he was getting out of this situation was by calling on mother. Yet, even as he searched deep inside himself, he found that the elusive and insane voice that he had come to associate with the one who had given birth to him was nowhere to be found; rather, all he could hear was a sort of pathetic mewing.
Mother… Where are you? Why have you left me here?
…It's all over. They've come! They're finally here, after all these years of isolation we've had! Kyuubi was right… Kyuubi was right! There is no safe place for us now… It's all lost… all lost… all lost…
Time seemed to slow down as he watched the wooden cross, a giant pole with spokes on the side, come down; it was mocking him, taunting him as he was completely unable to do anything.
What do you mean? Mother? Give me your power!
It wouldn't help. Nothing would help now. You don't understand, you don't understand! These demons are just the herald of something much larger, much larger! It's over already… No matter what, you're just human! You honestly think a human with demonic powers is enough to overcome a real demon, much less five? Dream on! Dream on! OH WAIT, YOU CAN'T!
The voice inside of him seemed to be torn between rage, ecstasy, a sort of antagonistic sadism, and pure genuine terror. He was used to the insanity, to the madness, but to think that the voice inside of him could feel fear as well… This must've been what he had experienced back during the first encounter, when the red mist had incapacitated him.
But right now, he had no time to worry about that.
The wooden cross was coming down.
Before Gaara's eyes, another Marionette, one of the two that he had been fighting before, suddenly appeared out of nowhere and smashed into the one that had been preparing to kill him. It had swung its cross straight into the other's abdomen, and with the force of a meteor. A split-second later the injured one was flying across the sandscape, bouncing up and down like a skipping stone. It came to several yards away, as its weapon spun down beside it, planting itself into the desert floor like a gravestone.
Gaara's eyes widened in surprise.
Ruin was evidently surprised as well.
"What was that?" asked Ruin. "Are you malfunctioning?"
"Negative!" cried the puppet that had attacked the other. Its arms were wrapped around its cross rather clumsily, as though it was doing it for the first time. Turning around, it addressed the remaining two puppets. "My body is not under my control!"
With frightening speed, it clashed with the other puppet, although its speed was greatly diminished from before. Evidently, its body's sturdiness had been unaffected by whatever it was that was wresting its control away, and despite the heavy beating that it received from the other, which was completely unapologetic about the injuries it was inflicting on its comrade, it was able to keep going. In fact, it seemed completely unaware of the pain and danger, as the wooden body kept charging and ramming as though it was on a suicide mission and had no reason at all to get out of it alive.
Faint trails of blue light were tied to its joints, and instantly Gaara understood. Following the blue lines back to their source, Gaara's eyes came upon a black shadow hidden within the shade of a wall and almost completely hidden from sight by a mound of surrounding sand. Green eyes met black for a split second, and Gaara understood.
Kankurou had taken control of one of the puppets, and was fighting the other with it to give him a chance to escape. Kankurou, who had always seen him as nothing more than a monsters, something to be afraid of, his own brother, was risking his life although it was unnecessary to try and help him, fighting against monsters even greater to try and save his life.
Images of Yashamaru flashed through his mind, and for a second the steel that covered his heart cracked a bit. Yet, he had no time to ponder on the acts that his brother had done nor the emotions that rose up within him. Kankurou had given him a chance, and he was going to make it count. The Marionette underneath him still had him in its clutches, and until he broke out there was still no chance for him to escape.
Taking his chance, he threw all of his might into controlling the sand underneath him, forcing it to compress. The grainy particles converged on the puppet like a swarm of locusts, forcing themselves into joints, into places where they weren't supposed to go. The puppet, although apparently rather well-insulated, froze for a second; one second too long.
"SABAKU RYUUSEI NO KOURIN! (Descent of the Desert Shooting Star!)"
Gaara wrenched his legs out of the Marionette's grip, and threw his arms down once more. This time the surrounding sand flew up into the air in the form of a sphere, and smashed downwards like a wrecking ball, falling onto the puppet's head like a miniature sand meteor, leaving a crater as it fell. The puppet was forced underneath the earth, and although Gaara had no doubt that the creature was still more or less alright, it was at least presently incapacitated. Now with one knocked out, one buried under the desert, and the last two fighting each other, he'd be able to get out of here no prob—
"GAARA! WATCH OUT!" cried Temari's voice from the side. Gaara's eyes flickered over to her for a second. She was standing, although leaning heavily on her fan, and her face was full of fear. It didn't take long to figure out who it was for, and why.
Ruin's wooden cross, unlike the others, broke through the barrier like it was cheap tinfoil and smashed him right in the head. It was a good thing that he had his sand armour on, otherwise chances were he'd be lying on the floor, his head blown into pieces. As it was he was suffering from intense pain several meters from where he had been as he rolled around on the sand, gripping at his head, which was flaking away to reveal his true self underneath his sand armour.
This was pain.
Like needles stuck into every pore, like somebody had taken a hammer to his bones, like his head had been stuck straight into boiling lava and then pulled out again. For once, he understood exactly what kind of feelings he had been inflicting on other people for so long.
"How annoying," said Ruin. "But interesting as well. Hmm… In you, I clearly sense a demonic presence of some kind. Interesting. Very interesting. The leader will definitely be happy with you… I'll present you as a specimen to him for him to study. To dissect. How wonderful. As for my companions over there engaged in battle… hmm… A malfunction? Yes, definitely a malfunction. Those that malfunction always deny it, that's for sure."
With that conclusion reached, Ruin raised its wooden cross once more, and launched it to its side without even looking. The flying projectile shot across the sandscape and imbedded itself into the head of the rogue Marionette, sending machinery and shredded wood everywhere as the force of the blow literally broken the demon apart. The Marionette that it had been fighting finally stood down as it watched its once-comrade fall to pieces and disintegrate into little purple bursts of Mana.
Temari's eyes widened as she watched the spectacle.
"You… you would kill a comrade," said the Sun shinobi breathlessly. "Just like that?"
"What does it matter to you?" asked the Mad Jester as it cocked its wooden head to the side. With a flick of its wrist, the wooden cross flew back towards it like a boomerang, and Ruin caught its return with ease. "Although my brothers, they are nothing more than lower-class demons, without worth and function. Their deaths were also determined the moment I pumped excess Mana into them, enough for an overload. The time they have left can be counted in minutes. I simply did them a favour."
Kankurou swore as he retracted the blue threads of chakra he was so proficient in using. The Marionette that he had managed to snag, it was destroyed now. He had originally planned on using the parts from the destroyed creature to keep fighting, yet his plan had been dashed when the destroyed fragments disappeared in bursts of purple light. A sort of self-destruct mechanism? Even he wasn't sure what was going on now.
One thing he was sure of, however, was that it had been much easier than he had expected to take control of one of those sentient puppets. The fact that they were sentient was pretty much evident now; when he had gained control of it by attaching his chakra strings to the joints, he had found no traces of another user. Yet, for something that was so strong by itself, it had been far too easy for him to overcome it and bend it to his will. The moment that he had attached the chakra strings, the monster had seemed to lose all control of that appendage; in fact, he found them even easier to control than the standard Suna kugutsu, which was really saying something with Suna's decades worth of research into kugutsu-jutsu.
Yet, he had a problem now. With the Marionette that he had been controlling absolutely destroyed, he had no easy way of taking control of another one. The first one he had ensnared due to its proximity, yet the other ones were simply too far for him to control easily. Right now there was one knocked out on the ground, one buried under, one fine (the one that he had his own Marionette fight), and the last one, the most dangerous one. On their side they had Gaara in the middle of the field, Temari who was in an injured state, and he himself, who had not caught the attention of the demonic puppets just yet.
The battle was still for a second.
And then a voice boomed from out of the sky.
"RUIN… HAVE YOU FINISHED YOUR TASK?"
The Suna siblings looked upwards. Several meters above the battlefield a black portal formed out of nowhere, and several black steps formed as well to accompany it, creating a spiraling staircase that came down all the way to the sandy ground. Each of the Marionettes looked at each other, and nodded. Ruin himself came off guard, as though he was completely unaware of the existence of the siblings.
"Milord, yes we have. We have also come across several interesting specimens, examples of the humans in this world," said Ruin. "Do you need me back right away? Or can I spend a few more minutes here?"
"THREE MINUTES IS ALL YOU HAVE."
"You're too kind, milord," said Ruin, sickeningly smoothly. "I will bring it to you at once. My brothers, my comrades. Thank you for your services, but your services are, unfortunately, unnecessary as of this point on. Pleasure to have been working with you."
"Ruin, what do you—"
The red Marionette raised its gloved arm into the air once more, and snapped its fingers. The remaining Marionettes collapsed onto the ground immediately, as red energy gathered from its body and formed spheres once more. The spheres floated dangerously in the air for several seconds, before zooming back and entering Ruin's body.
It took a second for Gaara to realize that he had been hit, and it was a second too long. He slumped over, gasping for breath, as the wooden knuckle that had struck at his ribs pulled back slightly. He collapsed, gasping for breath. Had he been more experienced with pain, and understood the information that pain relayed to the brain, he would've known that several of his ribs had been cracked, if not outright broken. At this point, the pain, unfamiliar as it was, was crippling him in ways that blindness, muteness, and deafness could never do.
"I have him, milord. I'm coming back now."
With that said, Ruin began climbing up the staircase that led to the black portal swirling about in the middle of the sky. Temari watched it go, gripping her abdomen tightly, wondering what exactly she could do. The fan she was wielding was broken after attempting to block a strike from one of the puppets, and now she was incapable of long-range attacks. There was absolutely no way she was going to catch up with that puppet now, not with her injuries.
Kankurou watched as he puppet prepared to leave.
"No… no way in hell," said the hooded young man. He felt a spark of emotion, one that he had never felt before for his younger brother. Right now the bonds of blood were stronger than ever. "You're not taking him!"
Just as all hope was thought lost; Ruin felt a tug on his body. The tug instantly turned into a pull, and he was lifted off the stairs as though by an invisible hand. Gaara, who had been slung over his shoulder, fell off and landed in the soft sand, conscious but gasping with pain. Ruin found himself turning about in mid-air, hovering softly in the sky for several seconds before going into motion instantly and smashing into a nearby stone wall; a piece of the remains of what had been a house.
Ruin checked his body for damages; nothing. The wall had been too weak to damage his treated wooden body, and the speed that he had been going at had been nothing. Its body felt paralyzed, however, which was something new to a species that had been previously known to be immune to physical debilitations. As his arm moved about the sunlight, though, he caught wind of a blue trail coming from his elbow joint. Focusing some Mana into his eyes, he found the source.
Faint blue lines had been connected to his joints. Normally, they would've been nothing, but unlike standard lines these were somehow more ethereal… and contained a sort of energy similar to Mana, yet unlike it. Yet the energy base of the lines only served to strengthen them, as Ruin realized. There was something else about the lines that seemed to limit his movement, that seemed to be wresting control of his body away from him.
This feeling… yes…
It was almost like the leader's soul.
No, it was nothing like the leader's soul.
It was simply… far too weak.
With a powerful burst of Mana, summoned up from the core of his being, Ruin disconnected the blue lines from his body. Kankurou's eyes widened, but before he had a chance to detach the lines from his fingers, Ruin had already acted. The red Marionette gripped the released chakra strings with its wooden hands, and pulled as hard as it could. Kankurou felt himself jerking away from his safe position in the shade of the wall and landed right in front of Ruin, on his hands and knees. He looked up, and only the sight of Ruin's intimidating wooden face was there to greet him.
"Ergh… you bastard…!"
"Hmph. A cockroach? Fancy that," said Ruin. "What's a punk like you doing here?"
"You asshole…" said Kankurou as he glared straight into the Marionette's eyes. They were blank white, painted on. He could not see an ounce of humanity in that opaque white paint, if they were its real eyes. All he could see was a wooden wall, one that repelled emotions. There would be no reasoning with this monstrous beast. "You think I'm just going to let you run off with my little brother like that?! No way. NOT A CHANCE IN HELL!"
"You fancy yourself a puppeteer?" asked Ruin, looking downwards at the prey in front of him. The hooded figure threw out his arms, blue strings dangling from his fingers, as though attempting to take control of him again. Ruin did not give him the chance, however, instantly stepping on his arms and forcing them into the sand. The hooded figure gave out a small cry. "That's funny. I don't recall giving permission for anybody other than the leader to pull my strings. Let's see how you try to control others without control of your arms."
And with that said, Ruin stamped down. Hard.
"ARRRGGGGHHHH!! Ahh… AHHH! URGH! AAGGGGHHH! SONNUVABITCH! ARRRRRGGGHH!"
Sickening cracks were heard as Kankurou howled in pain. The puppet had stamped right on top of his arms, right underneath the elbow, breaking the bone and leaving his arms hanging at strange angles. The pain was unimaginable, and Temari, watching from a ways away, turned pale at the sight of her brother in pain. Gaara looked upwards, and too felt similarly as he watched the arms of his brother twist unnaturally.
"I wonder how you did it, attempting to control me," said Ruin as he looked downwards at the pitiful youth, who was attempting to stifle the pain. "But it doesn't really matter. You're too weak to be of any interest. Looks like the demon-human will be the lucky winner."
"WAIT. DID YOU SAY IT ATTEMPTED TO CONTROL YOU?"
"You heard that, master? I'm going to take the demon-human back."
"NO, NO… THIS MAY BE JUST WHAT I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR. TAKE HIM INSTEAD OF THE DEMON-HUMAN. HE MIGHT JUST BE THE ONE."
Ruin shrugged. "You're the boss."
Gripping Kankurou by the collar, the red Marionette began its trek back up the obsidian stairs. Temari watched in despair as the demon took her brother, probably to a place where she'd never see him again, and found herself racing in spite of her injuries, trying to get to the stairs and stop the puppet somehow. Gaara too tried to stand. This emotion was unfamiliar to him, but he could've sworn he felt it before. But right now, he simply didn't want the person who had protected him to die.
Yet both their efforts were stopped before they began, by the timely assistance of somebody else. Wires flew through the air, their tips topped with kunai. They spiraled around Ruin, wrapping him and Kankurou up. The puppeteer's eyes widened as he felt the steel cable close in around him; he knew this stuff. There was only one place that they were installed in. There was no way in hell—
Temari's eyes followed the wire to its source, to an unimaginable sight. Her eyes widened as she realized what she was looking at.
She had been wondering where Karasu had been, and here was her answer. In front of her, standing on its own two legs, was the puppet that Kankurou had been using ever since he decided to get into puppetry. The wooden spheres that represented its eyes before were now replaced with white, real-looking flesh, and all three of its eyes were pointed in Ruin and Kankurou's direction. Temari was sure that if Karasu's wooden face had been able to show emotion, it would've been displaying impossible anger.
"DON'T… DON'T YOU DARE…!" said the puppet, its simple mouth opening up and down. Yet, somehow without lips or a voice mechanism, it was able to speak. The tone was simple, a little raspy, but the emotion within it was evident. Karasu did not speak in monotone like the Marionettes. This was a puppet filled with emotion. "GIVE ME BACK MY BOSS!"
"Karasu…!" cried Kankurou as he looked outwards from within the steel cable cocoon that he along with his would-be kidnapper were trapped within. "How—!"
"How do you people do it," said Ruin, not even looking backwards at his attacker. "Every time I get a little closer to the end, you have to go and stop me like this. It's nothing, but it's really starting to… PISS… ME… OFF!"
With that said, Ruin gripped the steel cable and pulled forwards as quickly as he could, charging into the black portal. Kankurou could only watch in horror as his body went through the swirling darkness. Karasu flew through the air, propelled by the momentum of the steel cable, and entered the portal as well, moments before it closed up.
In the end, all that was left was Gaara, Temari, and the unmoving bodies of four Marionettes. It took several seconds for Temari to get to where Gaara was, shocked and injured as she was, but the moment she got near her little brother, she got to work. The sand that had been surrounding Gaara, his automatic defense, was failing; it didn't even prevent her approach. Instantly, she whipped out her first-aid kit. Although Suna did not place as much importance on medcare as much as some of the other shinobi countries, at least one member of each team was required to have some general knowledge of medicine and medical jutsu. In this case, it was Temari.
She was at work in a second, ripping off Gaara's top layer of clothing to see just how badly he was damaged. Her mind was still in slight shock over the events that had just occurred, but she knew right now that Gaara needed some help. He had never gotten hurt before in his life, and that had been a particularly bad blow.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was Gaara's voice, which was tinged with pain.
"Don't talk, Gaara," said Temari as she put her hands on his chest, willing her chakra together into something that resembled a healing jutsu. It wasn't much of a jutsu; it didn't work fast enough to cure in the middle of a battle, and couldn't cure wounds that were too serious nor wounds that were too light. The only advantage that it had was its ease of use and learning, something that was useful in a first-aid jutsu. "You've got some pretty bad damage here. Just let me take care of it."
"Kan—Kankurou… where is… he's been taken?"
Temari looked at Gaara's eyes. They were bloodshot, something that terrified her. Whenever they got bloodshot, danger always followed. Massacres in Suna could be predicted from those eyes—
No. Not these eyes.
Temari had to stifle a gasp as she looked downwards. These eyes… They weren't the eyes of the unrepentant monster that had terrorized Suna for all these years. These weren't the eyes of somebody who treated the lives of others like trash and merely tossed away broken toys when he was finished with them. For the first time since Yashamaru's death, Temari was seeing Gaara's eyes. The eyes that had been kind once, the eyes that had lusted for love and companionship. Temari found that she could not refuse.
"Yes… yes, he has."
"Kankurou… He could've just left me," said Gaara, looking upwards. His eyes were unfocused, yet he was clearly still conscious. His arms lay to his sides, spread-eagle. The pain in his chest barely compared to the pain that lay within his heart right now. "He could've just let me get taken. I thought that was what he wanted. That's what mother told me. That everybody hated and wanted me gone."
Temari didn't know what to say. She wanted to say that the words were all falsities and lies, but she knew that it was truth more than she wanted to admit. She herself sometimes thought the same, even if the majority of the time she wanted a normal family that included Gaara.
"He… called me his little brother. He said he wasn't going to let them take me," said Gaara, his eyes shining for the first time in a long, long time. This feeling was strange, almost inappropriate. Liquid gathered up in the corner of his eyes. Soon enough, a tear leaked from the duct and slid down his face. "He saved me… and I… I couldn't… I couldn't save him…"
The tears kept coming, and Temari didn't know what to do. She had always been taught that emotions were unnecessary to a skilled shinobi, and had been taught mastery over these strange things that drove humans, yet right now she was unable and unwilling to beat them down. For the first time in her life Gaara was vulnerable, for the first time he was human rather than a monster and Kankurou was gone. The recent events, and their near brushes with death, as well as worry over Kankurou's fate finally broke through, and she joined her little brother in tears, sitting him up and taking him into her arms, hugging him as hard as she could.
For the first time in eternity the two members of the Sand siblings felt a bond closer than teammates as they shared tears under the desert sun. For the first time the Sand siblings felt their emotional walls break down and reveal them for who they really were, rather than shinobi and monster.
And for the first time, the Sand siblings were seperated.