A Remedy for Lassitude

By: firefly

Note: Final chapter, guys. A big thank you to everyone for sticking by this fic and indulging my love for crack scenarios, and my undying gratitude to everyone for their reviews. They mean more than I can explain. Here's hoping you enjoy the last installment. :D As always, reviews are love.

A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.

—Emily Dickinson

A Remedy for Lassitude ch.3

December 11th.

The house was still and empty save for her, creaking and murmuring as gusts of chill wind whipped against the window panes and crept into cracks in the foundations. A plume of dust drifted into the air as Temari blew gently on the lid of the shoe box, removing it to gaze at the contents six months after seeing them last.

Her grandmother's letters lay bound in a neat pile in the centre, flanked on all sides by the little vials and knick-knacks she'd given Temari over the years. Out of habit, she lifted out her favourite one, marveling at the sight of sand from the Sahara Desert bottled here in her hands so far from home.

It felt comforting in her grip and she held it for a while before turning her attention to the letters in her lap. Returning the vial to the box, she took up the plain white envelopes with their familiar black scrawl. A folded sheet of notebook paper peeked out from the roughly torn edge of one of the envelopes and despite the small, tired voice in the back of her mind telling her not to, she withdrew the sheet and unfolded it.

August 10th.

What are you so shocked for? Of course I went to seminary school. Need a degree to become a minister, you know. Good thing I applied for the army when I did cuz those loan officers were fucking pissed. Not my fault I can't find a job in this shitty economy, and there's no way in hell I'm gonna flip burgers or deliver pizzas or some crap like that. Seriously, there's no respect in it.

She recalled her response, remembering how she'd teased him.

Be careful, you never know what you might end up doing when money's tight. Maybe you'll find yourself desperate enough to apply as a clown for kids' birthday parties. Now there's a respectful job.

Temari flipped to the next letter, finding his response.

August 24th.

No way in hell. I'd sell a fucking kidney before stooping to that level. What about you, huh? Being such a strict disciplinarian and all, bet you'd have loads of fun performing a valuable service like picking off escaped convicts with a sniper.

She remembered laughing out loud at that when she'd first read it, and smiling faintly, she folded the sheet again and placed it back in the envelope. She bound the envelopes with an elastic band and placed them into the box along with her grandmother's letters, gazing down at them with a million questions buzzing in her skull.

Why the superfluous comments? Why the inanities? Should she have been more prudent? Should she have written exactly what she felt after reading his letters? Was it because of pride that she hadn't been up front when she'd had the chance?

Inwardly, she wondered if he'd had any regrets after sending out his last letter. Had he been reticent with his words at all like she had? In that moment, it occurred to her that there had never been an instance where she felt he was being reserved with his words. He'd been an open book, revealing everything whether it made him look good or bad. Why hadn't she done the same?

Regret pooled in her chest, cold and discomforting as she contemplated the question. Even if she had written what she felt, what would it have accomplished? Would that have changed anything? Could such thoughts and feelings, spontaneous and fleeting and inexplicable as they were—could they be put on paper? Did they make sense out in the open, when articulated? Or was she right in saving them inside for private contemplation?

She closed her eyes, trying to find a way to express what he stirred in her and envision what her last letter to him should have sounded like.

This is going to sound strange and awkward and it's probably better suited to staying private, but just in case anything happens, I have to let you know that writing to you makes me feel alive. It's a paradox: you're impulsive, fanatical, and belligerent, and I'm level-headed, straightforward, and practical, and I should be confused as to how we can possibly communicate coherently when there are so many contradictions between us. But I should tell you, in case I never get the opportunity again: you've changed my life. You, on the other side of the world, someone I've never met, someone I've never seen a picture of, possibly someone short or fat or tall it doesn't matter—I just have to tell you I smile more now and I'm happier and it's strange because I swear more than I used to. I'm happier because you listen to me and talk to me and maybe it's an illusion but I feel you do it because you care and that boggles the mind because I only know you through paper and ink, through your scribbles and spikes and sharp edges, which makes me wonder if I hardly know you at all and if I'm just being delusional. It's perplexing because some things remind me of you and that makes me think I must care too because why else would I bother thinking of you in the first place? I like vegetable soup and you like spare ribs and it makes me question what the hell compels you to keep on writing to someone so freakishly divergent from your interests. Or are these all surface things, our likes and dislikes? Maybe we connect on a level below the surface. Maybe we connect out of desperation. I hate to admit this but I have to: you and your letters have become a coping mechanism in my life and until I remember where I left my pride and figure a way out of this compromising and potentially dangerous situation, please listen to me when I say stay safe. Stay safe, stay safe, stay safe. Please stay safe because you have become my crutch.

Temari opened her eyes, finding her hands clenched into fists on her thighs. She didn't think herself capable of feeling so much at once, remorse flooding through her till she was almost numb.

She closed the shoe box and slid it back under her bed, deciding she needed to get out of the room and out of the house.

Grabbing her coat, gloves and keys, she emerged into the frigid December morning and took off walking in the first direction she glanced in, paying no attention to where it led her so long as it tired her enough to make her stop caring.

She walked till her toes ached with cold within her boots and glanced up an hour later when she found herself on a familiar street. She caught sight of the doctor's office Chiyo used to take her to as a child, the memory oddly soothing as she gazed at the small dwelling and its adjacent pharmacy from across the street.

Eventually, she leaned back against the brick wall of the building behind her, settling for observing her surroundings and hoping the nostalgia it elicited would purge the chaos of noise and confusion inside her head.

A hush had fallen on the usually busy road. Car lights twinkled in the distance and the gentle rumbling of crackling gravel sounded from afar, strangely comforting as she stood there gazing out at the street.

A string of gleaming flags fluttered over the used car depot, swaying beckoningly in the breeze. She could see an old woman sitting inside the Laundromat next door, reading a magazine as a tenant from the apartment upstairs leaned out his window and smacked his defunct satellite dish.

It was an odd scene, one she felt detached from, like an outsider peering through a glass display at specimens who were oblivious to her scrutiny. After a few moments, she found that the scene was doing nothing to assuage her thoughts, realizing that the longer she stood there, the more the hollowness within her chest seemed to expand. It left her with the feeling that, even if she waited till midday, when the streets would be teeming with people and the roads were noisy with cars and buses, she would feel no more comforted than she had watching the flag banner wave in the wind.

She straightened and moved away from the brick wall, tucking her hands into her pockets and walking onwards down the street. Coffee shops, thrift stores, an elementary school and a stream of small houses drifted past in a blur of concrete and indifference, disconnected from her and her aimless thoughts.

When she reached a traffic light, she glanced over at a nearby convenience store where the owner was tossing some garbage into the dumpster in the alley. Right next door was a small, quaint building she didn't recognize until she lowered her eyes to the sign affixed to the wall above the doorway.

It was a church.

The light turned green ahead of her, inviting her passage onto another street of endless rows of houses and stores. Temari bit her lip and turned away from the crosswalk, making her way up to the miniscule building. The name of the religious denomination on the sign escaped her and didn't really matter as she paused at the door, hand hovering above the brass handle in uncertainty.

What the hell are you doing? She asked herself, feeling foolish. What do you plan on doing once you go in? Are you even allowed to go in? Do you have to register for this sort of thing? Will they toss you out?

She eventually grew weary listening to her doubts and decided, if anything, she just needed a place to sit down for a while away from the cold.

The door was unlocked when she pulled on it, closing behind her with a bang as she stepped inside. The church was completely empty as she stood there on the red carpet leading towards the pulpit, surrounded on her left and right by rows of empty pews.

Candles glowed on either corner of the pulpit and the air was redolent with the faint scent of incense and dried flowers. The walls, which must have been white a long time ago, were stained a faint amber colour by water leaks and the heat of candles.

The floorboards creaked loudly as she took a step forward, raising her head to look around. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, emitting faint, mottled light through glazed bulbs. The rafters were caked with dust and laced with cobwebs.

Raising an eyebrow at the state of the place, Temari pulled her hands out of her pockets and made her way to the foremost pew, glancing around once before taking a seat. Though old and unkempt, the building was warm and eased the stiffness in her limbs.

She raised her hand, rubbing her palm as warmth crept into her fingers, then tensed when the floorboards gave a loud creak. Temari raised her head sharply, stilling in her seat when a man emerged from a door next to the pulpit and suddenly noticed her presence.

"Oh, good morning," the man said, smiling. "Sorry if I startled you."

He was a tall, stately-looking gentleman in his mid-seventies. His hair had gone completely white and his hands were speckled with liver spots, but he stood confidently and without the slightest hint of a hunch. Temari's eyes strayed to his white robes and her uncertainty heightened with the realization that he was the minister.

"You didn't," she said awkwardly, shifting in her seat to face him. "It's just my first time here."

He nodded and took a few steps forward to sit on the pew adjacent to her. "Always a pleasure to see a new face…though regrettably, the timing is unfortunate."

At her questioning glance, he raised his gaze to the ceiling and smiled wistfully.

"I am retiring at the end of the month. My wife would like a place away from the bustle and noise of the city."

Something about his unassuming tone put her at ease. Feeling more comfortable, she sat up straighter and regarded him curiously. "Does that mean another minister will take over?"

"That's what I was hoping," he admitted, resting a hand almost affectionately on the backrest of his pew. "But there haven't been any takers. Most likely, the church will be converted into a shop."

Something in her expression told him the announcement struck a nerve. Her eyes visibly clouded over as she looked away.

"That's too bad," she said after a moment. "If you don't get anyone to take over."

He chuckled. "Well, if you know anyone…"

She smiled back, but in a noticeably strained way. "I did. Know someone, that is. He wanted to be a minister, too."

He seemed to detect a note in her voice that convinced him to keep silent, giving her his full attention and waiting patiently as she paused.

"He was fighting in the war," she continued after a while. "We didn't know each other until I started writing to him in June." At this point, she smiled faintly in amusement. "He was obsessed with his religion. And he really wasn't subtle about wanting me to convert."

The smile wavered momentarily, then widened. "And even though it got redundant after a while, he never stopped. It made me think he was crazy, to be honest, and I think he knew that and didn't care. He was really that passionate about it..."

She gazed at some obscure point on the ground, the smile eventually receding into a pensive look. "…too passionate."

After a prolonged moment of silence, the minister lowered his gaze to his clasped hands. His voice was thoughtful when he spoke.

"Sometimes, what we view as flaws are regarded as virtues through the precepts of one's faith. Like any ideal, faith is a thing many are willing to die for. And why?"

He raised his gaze and read the restrained questions etched in her features.

"We are all looking for fulfillment. For something worth dying for. Some of us just find it sooner than others…and in things people can find intangible and wasteful."

When she lowered her eyes, he smiled slightly. "But what one finds wasteful, another can find capable of offering his soul the fulfillment and happiness he is searching for. Who are we to judge others? We can only live and let live."

Temari lifted her head, wanting to speak or nod to acknowledge what he'd said, but found herself incapable with the weight of the lump forming in her throat. The minister leveled her with a kind, compassionate gaze as she lowered her eyes again and leaned back against the pew.

He rose to his feet and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. When he spoke, quiet with empathy and understanding, the words drowned out the hapless questions rending her from the inside.

"Don't be afraid to cast aside pride. It is not a sin to mourn."


That's what they were, at the basest level. Their unit consisted of those with zero ties and obligations. They made the best soldiers, uninterrupted by thoughts of doubt, undeterred by moments of hesitation. Theirs was a private passion, a sacrifice made on behalf of ideals and personal motivations, and that was what made them deadly.

A machine could be brought down. It was predictable in its systematic nature and its weaknesses easy to determine. It was programmed to follow a particular path to get its job done. It depended on commands and protocol. It was a puppet, useless unless there was someone there to pull the strings.

Their kind was different. Death was a companion they carried with them and limits nothing more than vague notions. Blood was fuel and loss of it was interpreted as an incentive to act harder, faster, stronger to make the best of what remained.

The term applied to those able to transcend human limits, be they emotional, physical, or psychological. Pain was a concept, not something to be dwelt on. Exhaustion was merely a sign to cut loose for the final bang. Death was a relief, a well-deserved rest after the toil.

The kamikaze soldier did not expect to open his eyes again after that final collapse and found no reason to try. With one's purpose complete, there was no need. There was no unfinished business to attend to and no reservations inciting them to cling to the edges of life.

But sometimes aspirations remained, secondary to their primary purposes but swaying enough to keep them holding on. Sometimes purposes extended past patriotism, faith, and servitude. Sometimes the will to live came from nothing more than the desire to simply see what would happen next.

The kamikaze soldier did not expect to open his eyes, but nestled amidst their resolution, pride, and indelible determination to greet death without fear, they sometimes, secretly, held the will to try anyway.

2123 hours. A nameless forest.

Beams of intense, white light pierced through the foliage, startling nocturnal animals into flight, the muffled sounds of their scampering interspersed with footsteps and snapping twigs. There were six beams, each sweeping different parts of the dense greenery, issuing from flashlights fixed atop machine guns.

Each soldier kept his finger pressed lightly against the trigger, searching the darkness for any potential survivors, insurgents or otherwise.

Moonlight bathed the forest in a soft, silvery hue, illuminating any signs of footprints, bullet casings, or blood. Twenty minutes elapsed without incidence, the forest remaining quiet and still save for the occasional scarpering animal.

The silence was eventually broken by the faint, yet audible chirping of a cricket as they neared the west side.

Two of them met up at a checkpoint, radioing in the others until one of the soldiers shifted his gun. The flashlight moved and illuminated the dark stains speckling the matted grass nearby. He raised his weapon, following the trail, gaze settling on the snapped branches of the thicket ahead.

He could hear the others coming in from behind. Without thinking twice, he brushed through the thicket, wincing against the backlash of twigs and subconsciously following the cricket's chirping. It was getting louder, he noticed, as he stepped into a clearing, sweeping the flashlight over the foliage.

As he took a few more steps into the clearing, he realized the chirping held a somewhat hollow, mechanical quality, as though it were artificial. Brow furrowing in confusion, he shouldered his gun and followed the noise, gradually recognizing it as the beeping from some sort of device.

The thought that it might have been a bomb left him as soon as his light fell on the copious amounts of blood soaking the ground and, just beyond it, three bodies.

He recognized the army fatigue on one of them despite the bloodstains covering the majority of the uniform and immediately grabbed his walkie-talkie to call the others.

The first man, he was stunned to find, was Manzo Heki. He'd been dead for at least a few hours. The other had been one of the rebels.

A moment later, he was kneeling near the fallen soldier's side, reaching down to turn him over as the others burst through the clearing. The beeping was coming from the soldier's watch, the digital display perpetually flashing the time as 16:00 hours.

"Holy shit," he breathed, eyes taking in the gunshot wounds, fingers withdrawing a moment later from the pale, cold neck.

"Is that…?" one of the others began disbelievingly, slowing to a stop.

The first ignored him, slinging his gun over his back as he reached down to remove the bloodstained jacket.

"Get the stretcher. Quick."

He felt like he was moving but couldn't be sure, unaware if he still possessed a body or if he was some sort of effervescence drifting aimlessly through a mist. Nothing hurt and that was a good sign, but his head spun and things that felt like hands jostled and touched him.

Any attempts to elucidate what he was experiencing were futile; his thoughts were slow, muddled, and confused. But impatience gradually pushed through the weight of drowsiness and bewilderment and he forced himself to get a grasp on his surroundings.

His eyelids flickered and he wondered if the light, dreamy sensation encompassing him was a symptom of the soul leaving one's body.

I don't know about that, a voice said doubtfully in the back of his mind. That shit feels like morphine to me.

Even if he wasn't sure he possessed a body or not, he still made the effort to scowl at the thought.

Hey, that's just how it feels. I don't think heaven's supposed to make you feel like you're high, seriously.

Then where the hell am I? He wondered, briefly seized with the horrifying thought that he'd entered some sort of limbo.

Open your eyes and look, dumbass.

He tried to move his head (if he still had one) to tell the voice to fuck off, but the movement prompted a severe sensation of vertigo that startled him enough to do as it said.

His eyelids cracked open painfully, pupils narrowing beneath the intense glare of light above him. It had an obnoxious quality to it and reamed into the depths of his skull, eliciting a throbbing, dull pain. The surface beneath what felt like his fingers was cold and hard. His lips parted, expression contorting into a grimace as he squinted disbelievingly into the brightness.

"Heaven's…got fluorescent lights...?"

A hand touched him, slipping an object over his face and delivering a dose of something wonderfully soporific and numbing. The person's voice was a faint mix of concern and amusement.

"You're nowhere near heaven yet, buddy."

Oh, thank Jashin, Hidan thought dimly, closing his eyes to that blinding glare overhead. Because that would've been a fucking rip-off, seriously.

December 27th.

Temari smiled as Gaara appeared in the kitchen doorway, drowsy and tousle-haired and holding his hand out for his morning cup of coffee. She handed it to him and ushered him towards the table before bustling back to the stove.

As she flipped the pancakes, Kankuro bounded down the stairs a few minutes later, hair still dripping from the shower.

"What the hell?" he said in bewilderment upon entering the kitchen, finding Temari standing over the stove with a spatula. "You're actually making me breakfast?"

"Shut up and sit down," she said calmly, turning the pancakes onto a plate and sliding them onto the table. "I can cook for you guys if I want to."

"You and your mood swings," Kankuro said, rolling his eyes but grinning as he plopped into a chair next to Gaara. "So, what's the special occasion?"

"No occasion," Temari replied, turning off the stove to come join them at the table. "I just felt like it."

Kankuro's grin widened as he grabbed the bottle of maple syrup and doused his pancakes in it. "Could you feel like that more often, then? A guy could get used to this."

Temari snorted faintly but smiled nonetheless, gazing contentedly across the table at her brothers as they ate their breakfast. It was the winter holidays and Temari had been grateful to have them around in the days that had followed her final exam.

Kankuro would be off to work and then planned to spend the rest of the day with his friends. Even Gaara had made some friends at school and had spent the last few days working at the library with them on a group project. Temari had never seen him so relaxed and committed to his schoolwork, unable to resist swelling with pride each time she sifted through the graded papers and tests he quietly left for her on the kitchen table.

Gaara glanced up when he felt her gaze on him, giving her a mildly curious look as she smiled faintly and lowered her eyes to the tabletop. Beneath the table, her fingers curled inward in her lap.

Whereas Kankuro merely attributed her sudden attentiveness to them to mood swings, she knew her youngest brother had noticed a distinct change in her demeanor the past two weeks. She kept herself as busy as possible, borrowing cookbooks from the library and indulging them with elaborate, time-consuming dishes; she left no chore undone and frequently carried out errands usually reserved for Kankuro; she spent increasing amounts of time with them when they were in the house and the shadowed, disconsolate look that passed fleetingly and frequently over her face whenever they left her alone did not escape Gaara's discerning eyes.

She was trying desperately to move on and forget, assuring herself that her brothers were enough consolation and distraction from her troubled thoughts. The absence of the weekly letters seemed to have opened up a hole in her life she tried desperately to fill with the mundane activities. It hurt and angered her to think of how deeply she'd grown attached to the correspondence, and even more so when she realized it would take a very long time for her to grow used to living life without it.

Kankuro craned his neck to look out the window. "Mail's here, Temari."

Gaara abruptly stood up before she could rise. Without looking at her, he quickly went to the mailbox and retrieved the mail, leaving it on the kitchen counter and mumbling that the weekly flyers had arrived. As much as she hated herself for it, the news of the flyers incited a pathetic bloom of relief in her chest as she realized she'd have something to distract herself with when they left the house.

Kankuro finished his breakfast soon after and bolted out the door. Gaara left to get ready and then lingered in the kitchen waiting for his ride, watching her as if he wanted to say something but settling for silence instead. Temari pretended to not notice, packing him a snack to take with him and obsessively cleaning the kitchen to spare herself from having to answer any questions he might have had.

It both relieved and disappointed her when a car honked outside and Gaara waved goodbye, leaving her alone in the house. She stood in the centre of the kitchen and listened to the car back out of the driveway, waiting till it disappeared down the street. When it was gone, she released a slow breath and dropped the washcloth she was holding into the sink, trudging up to the counter to look at the mail.

The flyers were bound in a thick bundle and rested atop three envelopes. The first letter was from a credit card company and the second the phone bill. She took her time reading through each of them, simply for the sake of letting time pass. When she finished both and turned her attention to the remaining letter, her breath stopped short in her throat.

It was beige in colour, larger than most envelopes and sporting a military emblem in the top left corner. Her address had been typed out on the sticker label at the front and the return address was one she did not recognize.

For a long moment, she merely stared at it, wondering what it could possibly be when a sick feeling settled into the pit of her stomach. He'd said he had no family or friends; perhaps he'd listed her as a sole contact in the event of his death.

Suddenly, irrationally angry, she scooped up the letter along with the other torn envelopes and turned towards the garbage bin beneath the sink. She threw them in and snapped the lid closed, furious at the stupid army for eradicating two weeks' desperate attempts to forget him and the letters she'd stowed away in the box beneath her bed.

And what would this letter say, anyway? Nothing more than transparent, pseudo-consoling words taken from a stack of mass-produced casualty cards, with serial numbers edited out to list the name of the deceased; and with no body to bury, the futile assurance that they'd provide a grave nonetheless with a coffin containing a flag when that hadn't even been what he'd been fighting for in the first place.

Rife with resentment and burgeoning disgust, she turned away and seated herself at the counter again. The flyers did nothing to distract her; the longer she looked at them, the worse she began to feel, the all-encompassing sense of heartsickness building till she gave up trying to ignore it altogether.

Wearily, she pushed the papers aside and buried her face in her hands, taking a few moments to knead her temples and breathe to calm the anger rending her from the inside. Though it was unbearable for the amount of time it lasted, it subsided eventually, leaving her with a peculiar, empty feeling in her chest.

A person could not delay the inevitable; there was a grieving period, one she would have to live through before she could return to living her life. But knowing that still didn't stop her from trying. Recovering from Chiyo's death had been the hardest thing she'd ever done and she'd hoped to never experience grief like that ever again. The fact that she was experiencing the same grief, and the fact that the pain was as familiar and poignant this time around was more than she could stand.

Against her own will, she turned her head and glanced over her shoulder at the garbage bin.

What would reading it accomplish, anyway? She asked herself, tiredly lowering her eyes to the floor. Would it make her feel worse? Better? Did people read those sorts of things for closure and find comfort in the consolatory words, hollow and meaningless as they were?

She sat there for a long time, staring at nothing in particular as she contemplated the hapless questions, thinking until her options became nonsensical with repetition and she found she no longer cared how it would make her feel. Listless, Temari stood and retrieved the envelope from the bin, taking a moment to look down at it and steel herself.

Then without further hesitation, she slit the side open and withdrew a single sheet of paper, finding it typewritten in the same font evident on the envelope. It was a medical report. A hospital name and emblem she didn't recognize was printed at the top, along with a foreign address. Beneath that was a date reading December 20th.

What followed was a lengthy exposition of patient #001287's injuries, denoted in medical jargon she could barely comprehend. She could only make out the fact that the patient had sustained a total of three gunshot wounds and two broken ribs from blunt force trauma, her bewilderment growing along with the suspicion that she must have received the wrong soldier's medical report. It continued on to say a blood transfusion had been administrated, the bullets were surgically removed, and 48 hours after admittance he was conscious and alert.

The words "exceptional speed of recovery" were not lost on her.

The report ended there. At the very bottom, someone had squiggled something resembling an arrow in blue ink, pointing to the right side of the paper. Finding no other pages in the envelope, and finding her heart suddenly pounding and hands inexplicably shaky, she turned the paper over to the blank side, discovering a single word scrawled in that familiar, haphazard cursive.


If hyperbole had ever garnered a more effective use than it had in describing her state of mind as stupefied beyond all reason, she would have genuinely been surprised. It took Temari several days to overcome the combination of shock, elation, and fury at the stupid idiot for putting her through such a rollercoaster of emotion, such that she couldn't even come up with an adequate reason to explain to her brothers why her expressions veered rapidly between relief, happiness and severe annoyance.

Gaara and Kankuro found it better not to ask and left her to contemplate what she'd do next. The first and most obvious thing was to find some way to respond. But after re-reading the medical report, she realized it was impossible.

He'd been discharged on December 20th and granted leave from his duties the same day, so she had no way of knowing whether he still remained at the base or if he'd been moved to another location. Or if he'd already returned home.

As she realized this, her frustration ebbed into a helpless sort of disappointment, a feeling she could no more tolerate than she'd tolerated the ennui that had settled like dust into her life last June.

So, with great reluctance, she turned to the news. Every now and then, the occasional segment on new scientific discoveries caught her attention and she sometimes watched it long enough afterwards to hear some heartwarming reunion stories of soldiers returning home from the war. The arrival dates and names of the airports were usually given and it wasn't farfetched to assume he might be accompanying the next group home.

Days passed and amidst the reports of more casualties, Manzo's death, and the prime minister's endless press conferences, there were no return trips to speak of. Temari eventually grew disillusioned with the news, remembering why she never watched it in the first place. Repelled by its sensationalist tendencies and penchants for showcasing tragedy, she gave up and simply decided to wait, though for what, she wasn't exactly sure.

Problems that led to the car not starting in the cold and the release of midterm results eventually preoccupied her attention. As a result, she spent the first week of the new year familiarizing herself with bus routes, thoughts of where he was and what he was doing lingering in the back of her mind.

Nine days after the letter and nearly getting lost on her way to school, Temari stood waiting for the train in the subway station with her midterm results in her bag. She'd done exceptionally well on each one, and though it was nice to see her efforts had paid off, it offered only a temporary, hollow sort of happiness.

Besides her brothers, there wasn't anyone who would congratulate her or show pride in her accomplishments. The papers would find their way alongside other old essays and exams and eventually the cycle would repeat in the coming semester.

As she lingered there by the wall, the screens of the overhanging news monitors caught her eye. She glanced up at the one nearest to her, taking in the local weather and ignoring the mute broadcaster and stock numbers. A few seconds later, the broadcaster was replaced by a female reporter smiling and standing outside a large building.

Temari watched her apathetically, vaguely wondering what she was reporting about when the camera suddenly panned to catch a shot of a plane taking off.

She blinked, realizing it was the airport, paying closer attention as the reporter said a few more words and paused with a smile. The scene changed to a clip of a short interview and Temari nearly dropped her bag. The tagline beneath the soldier's image identified him as a captain and he nodded and smiled in accordance to the interviewer's questions.

Behind him, other soldiers could be made out embracing family members and filing out of the arrivals gate; at the bottom left corner of the screen, a small black rectangle encased the word 'LIVE.'

"You're shitting me," Temari said out loud in blank disbelief.

Without thinking, she glanced around at her surroundings to remind herself where she was and glanced at her watch. It read 8:15 PM. The bus station was half an hour from the airport. The subway would take half an hour to get to the bus station, which was at the end of the transit line. It would take her an entire hour to get there.

And why are you going there? She questioned herself suddenly, raising her head at the sound of the arriving train. How do you know he'll even be there? Maybe he's still overseas. Maybe he's still recuperating from his injuries. Maybe he went somewhere else.

Brow furrowing in thought, Temari automatically boarded the train and contemplated her choices. It'll take an entire hour to get there. Even if he is with them, everyone will be gone by then and you'll feel like an idiot. Besides, what makes you think he'll wait? He said he had no family. How will you even recognize him?

Her doubts were perfectly plausible and deflated most of her verve, but she couldn't help but acknowledge the smaller, less realistic part of her rebutting.

And what if he is with them? I could just ask someone. And it's not that far from where I live, so it's not going out of my way…

The train ride, which should have taken half an hour, elapsed in what felt like five as the internal arguments continued relentlessly. By the time she realized she was at the station and everyone had already exited, she found herself leaning towards the more pessimistic voice in her head.

To go there would be done on nothing more than a whim. And she was not a whimsical or impulsive person. She planned, she thought ahead, and she counted every variable before forming a decision. Deviating from her usual route home for an impromptu trip to the airport where, not to mention, she'd never been before, was absolutely nothing like her.

But where was the harm? She asked herself persistently as she climbed the stairs to the station, finding her bus idling at its post.

Would it really kill her to take a chance and just see? If he wasn't there, would feeling like an idiot for a few minutes really leave a permanent scar on her psyche for the rest of her life?

No, she thought fairly, stepping out into the cold night air and watching people filter onto the bus. But it didn't hurt to be realistic and spare herself the disappointment, either.

It was the first week of January and the bite of winter was evident in the breeze despite the absence of snow. She shivered and buried her nose behind her scarf, squinting through the wind at the bus as her fingers clenched inside her pockets. She took a step towards it, then stopped.

In that moment, her mind was strangely absent of thought. Her body seemed to be making the decision for her, stolid in the cold air between the terminal doors and the bus. As she waited, another bus pulled in behind the one that would take her home.

It was easy to make the realistic choice.

Her ride lingered as the last few passengers stepped on. To her left, the bus to the airport opened its doors.

But it was far too easy to lose touch in a chaotic, ever-changing world like this. It was too easy to let the potential for something worthwhile dwindle into doubts and regret. Commitment, Temari realized, took far more effort than she'd imagined.

She hesitated only a moment longer, tensing on the spot.

It was way too easy to let go, and it was the thought of imminent regret that urged her to turn her back on the bus home. She gripped her bag tight and made her way towards the airport bus, climbing on without meeting anyone's gaze and settling into a single seat on the far left. It lingered for several more minutes, during which she debated getting off while she still had the chance.

To her relief and simultaneous trepidation, the bus doors finally swung closed and soon it was pulling away from the curb. Temari took a deep breath and wondered why she felt half-sick with nerves and anticipation, trying to evoke the aloof personality of the Temari she'd been six months ago.

It helped, but then she was imagining what she would say, what she would do, and found herself wringing the wad of tissue she held between her hands. The bus took thirty-five minutes to reach its destination, during which its gentle swaying and the hypnotic passage of street lights lulled her into a state of drowsy relaxation. But as the sight of the brightly lit airport came into view, she was stricken with the sensation of a weight dropping away beneath her stomach.

The bus finally pulled in to the stop. Temari waited till the other commuters exited and wound up following a woman and her two children, trailing the family until they entered the terminal and reached the arrivals gate, at which point she stopped dead.

The children ahead of her ran squealing into the arms of a tall man in uniform in the centre of the room, surrounded by at least fifty other soldiers already greeting family members. Around them, sundry scores of others filed out of the arrivals gate, filling the room with a cacophony of noise and jubilation and colour, the chaos only heightened by luggage wheeling past and announcements echoing throughout the massive terminal. Overwhelmed, Temari took a step back and spun around to rest against the other side of the wall, wondering what the hell had possessed her to try to find a person she wouldn't even be able to recognize in a melee like this.

She waited several minutes before emerging from behind the wall to look again, finding the terminal noticeably calmer with fewer people, though it still teemed noisily with new arrivals.

Her gaze swept the room several times, but everywhere she looked she saw soldiers embracing family members, holding up children, or talking on cell phones. She was annoyed for feeling awkward and out of place, and eventually, foolish as she lingered uncertainly by the door. She wasn't even sure what she was looking for in the first place.

One of the soldiers and his family moved aside, opening a gap in the midst of the crowd and revealing the waiting room seats. From where she stood, Temari could make out a pair of legs stretched out across one of the armrests.

Biting her lip, she looked left and right once more, hesitating and feeling incredibly silly as she slowly crossed the room, weaving through the embracing family members. When she emerged through the throng and headed towards the seats, an odd, muted sort of silence welcomed her.

Almost at once, she felt tempted to turn back towards the exuberant crowd and their cheerful voices, feeling even more out of place among the few random people seated sporadically throughout the room. Exasperated at herself, she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath, hands clenching by her sides as she strode over to the man sprawled over the seats.

She'd recognized the army fatigue from a distance. The dull green camouflage jacket and cargo pants were unmistakable. He was wearing the jacket open in the front, revealing the dog tags draped over the white beater underneath, and as she stopped a few meters away, she realized he had a green cap lain over his face.

Great, she thought dully. He's asleep.

Scanning the rest of the people occupying the seats, her brow furrowed in disappointment. There was an old woman, a mother with her toddler, a foreign couple, and a dozing old man.

She lowered her gaze to the sleeping soldier again, about to turn on her heel when she realized the fingers on his left hand were idly drumming against the metal frame of his seat.

Before she could pause to reconsider, she slowly walked over to him, expression automatically growing stony as it always did when she was feeling uncomfortable. He didn't move or seem to notice her presence as she came to a stop by his side.

She cleared her throat.

He didn't react.

"Excuse me," she said flatly.

No response.

"Hey," Temari said loudly, exasperation creeping into her voice.

His fingers stopped their drumming, head turning slightly in her direction.

Fighting off the disgruntled note in her voice, she crossed her arms and spoke, keeping her tone carefully detached.

"I was wondering if you could tell me...do you know Hidan?"

"Who wants to know?" he inquired lazily, voice muffled behind the cap.

"Do you know where he is?" she asked, ignoring the question.

"Maybe. What are you, a cop?"

"I—no," she said sourly, shooting him an irritated look. "Could you tell me where he is, please?"

"I could," he replied, starting up his drumming again. "But then you've gotta tell me who's asking. He just got back from a war, you know, fighting for his country and all—it'd suck for him if you were airport security, or a pissed off creditor or something. Did some guy named Kakuzu send you?"

"No," she said flatly. "I don't know anyone named Kakuzu."

"Then what do you want?"

"Why do you want to know?" she retorted.

He shrugged and turned his head towards the backrest. "Hey, whatever, you don't have to answer. Just keep standing there."

Suppressing the urge to slap him, Temari reached up to rub the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. The words sounded strange in the back of her mind and even stranger when she finally said them. They almost made her feel self-conscious.

"I'm…his friend."

He stopped drumming his fingers, turning his head towards her again.

"He probably isn't expecting me," she continued, feeling foolish once more.

"Friend?" he repeated, as if the word sounded foreign to him. "He doesn't have any friends."

"How would you know?" she said, annoyed. "You sound like you're looking out for him. Why don't you just tell me where he is?"

"I'll do that when he shows up," he replied, sounding indifferent. "What's your name?"

Temari sighed, uncrossing her arms.

"Just…it's okay. Forget it."

When he didn't reply, she turned away, looking expressionlessly after the dispersing crowd. A welcome back balloon had floated away and clung to the ceiling. Flower petals lay scattered and crushed over the carpet. Several of the soldiers had left their jackets behind. As she stood there, the last of the crowd began tapering off.

She reached for her cell phone and dialed home mechanically, expression blank as she walked back towards the door, staring sightlessly out into the departing crowd. The silence grew more pronounced and the dial tone sounded all the more harsh in her ear because of it. Eventually, Kankuro picked up.

"Hey, it's me. I'll be home in an hour or so. Did you start dinner?"

"About dinner," Kankuro said sheepishly. "It kinda didn't work out so I just ordered something. And I know, I know, I shouldn't be spending my pay cheque on takeout, but come on, it's Friday."

She smiled despite herself, pausing midway to put her bag down and retrieve her bus tokens. "I wasn't about to complain, Kankuro. Just make sure there's some left for me when I get back."

"Yeah, sure."

"Did Gaara eat?"

"I gave him his share as soon as I got in, don't worry. Just hurry up and get home before we eat your half."

"Okay, I'll be there in a bit. Bye."

She pocketed the phone again, taking a deep breath before kneeling to pick up her bag. Mostly everyone had left. There was a distinct sense of being displaced as she stood there amongst the forgotten mementos of crushed petals and army fatigue.

In spite of that, she still turned to glance once more at the arrivals gate, disappointment burgeoning up inside of her again. The feeling was almost immediately tempered by the disconcerting sensation of being watched.

Automatically, her gaze shifted towards the waiting room seats.

The dozing soldier, once sprawled over an expanse of three seats, was sitting bolt upright with his hands by his sides, staring at her with a dumbfounded look on his face. His cap had fallen off onto the floor at his feet.

Bewildered, she glanced around to see if he was looking at someone behind her, but the terminal remained empty.

She opened her mouth to speak, but he beat her to it.

"That guy on the phone…was that your brother?"

Temari stared at him, blank with surprise before nodding, but it was nowhere near the level of astonishment that lit up his features.

There was a moment of silence that seemed to span a minute, and as her lips parted to speak again, he raised his arm from his side and pointed at her, sounding incredulous.

"Are you…Temari?"

Her eyes widened, and without thinking she automatically focused on his features, as if doing so might abate her sudden confusion.

His eyes struck her first—an intense and startling shade of violet. Then the pale shock of hair swept immaculately back from his forehead, ending at the nape of his neck.

The length of his hair stood out to her for some reason, the significance of the observation not dawning on her until the memory of the first soldiers she saw came to mind. They'd either sported crew cuts or had shaved their heads.

Almost instantly, a line from one of their first letters jumped out at her.

Those bastards wanted to cut my hair. Like hell I let that happen—they let me keep it after I volunteered to go kamikaze.

Her bag slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor.

There was a long moment where neither spoke after that, staring at each other from across the terminal, expressions frozen in shock.

Her lips parted to speak, to ask and confirm who she thought he was, but when she found herself incapable of forming words she reached into her pocket. The expression on his face escaped description when she withdrew his rosary, the beads clinking faintly as the pendant dangled questioningly from her fingers. At the sight of it, his legs seemed to move on their own.

Hidan found himself crossing the terminal before he could fully register that the rosary was really his, only coming to a stop a foot away as the familiarity of the symbol erased all doubts. Transfixed, he reached out to take it, fingers closing around the pendant when it occurred to him to look at the hand holding it. His gaze trailed upwards till it settled on her face.

"Holy shit," he said, eyes widening. "Holy shit."

Temari merely stared at him, too floored to speak, but the name embedded into his dog tags brought the reality of the situation crashing down on her all at once. Impulsively, her arms rose from her sides, hovering uncertainly in the air between them until she paused, dropped one and extended her right hand.

He glanced down at it, momentarily looking as though he didn't know what to do until she spoke.

"Nice to meet you," she said finally, voice wavering as she failed to control the smile that spread over her face.

He stared at her hand for a moment longer, expression blank, until he raised his gaze and a grin spread over his features. She nearly jumped when he clasped her hand in a firm grip.

Her hand was small in his, even delicate by comparison when one took notice of the still-healing scrapes and cuts marring his flesh. Yet despite that, his skin was unexpectedly soft, a stark contrast to the sharp, jagged lines his fingers were capable of inflicting on paper. It was unreal, gripping the hand that had filled the last six months of her life with letters.

Before she could say anything else, he tilted his head slightly and smirked.

"What, is that all?" he asked sardonically. "I keep you entertained for six months, almost die, and all I get is a handshake? That's harsh, seriously."

The feeling that overwhelmed her in that moment of hearing him say his habitual "seriously's" out loud was difficult to describe; it made her wonder how one's heart could leap so hard at something so insignificant, even though, to her credit, she remained perfectly composed on the outside.

"What were you expecting?" she replied automatically, inwardly astonished at the ease and familiarity of this. Of him. "For me to leap into your arms?"

His grin was a toss between charismatic and devious. "That'd just complete the cliché, wouldn't it?"

She returned the look with a haughty smile. "I like to think I'm a little more original than that. Besides, I'm not sure it's such a good idea considering what you've been through..."

There was a brief pause where she lowered her eyes to the outline of bandages still visible through the thin material of his shirt and allowed a note of sincerity to creep into her voice. "I'm glad you came back in one piece." Then with slight reproach, "you could have at least added a little more detail to that hospital report, you jerk."

He ran a hand carelessly through his hair, looking somewhat surprised himself. "I know, right? What are the fucking odds. And hey, you try writing after getting the shit shot out of you. Just putting down what I did almost knocked me out."

She wasn't able to hide her concern fast enough, resisting the urge to roll her eyes as he took notice of her expression and smiled in an infuriatingly indulgent way.

"You were that worried about me, huh?"

"Yes," she said flatly, finding no point in denying it. "Even after telling you not to be so eager to die."

"Whatever. I'm standing here now, aren't I?"

"After leaving me thinking you'd blown yourself to pieces for two weeks."

"I'm touched you care so much, seriously."

Temari wanted to punch him but desisted at the thought of accidentally hitting him somewhere in the vicinities of his injuries. At the same time, she was besieged with a strange feeling somewhere between awe and bafflement; here they were, meeting for the first time, shaking hands for the first time, seeing each other for the first time, and talking as though they were two old acquaintances who'd just seen each other across the street. His physical presence was new and unfamiliar, but she knew his likes and his dislikes, his history and his personal motivations and dreams. She knew him in a way few people got to know each other in a lifetime, and he knew her just the same. It was an oddly wonderful dichotomy.

In response to his flippant remark, she merely cocked an eyebrow up at him.

"So how did you get from blowing yourself up to getting shot and breaking two ribs?"

He made a face and scratched the back of his neck. "Long story. I'll tell you when I'm not about to drop dead."

She didn't press him further, recognizing the underlying weariness in his movements. At her silence, he cocked his head and leveled her with a vaguely bewildered expression.

"What are you doing here, anyway?"

Temari gave him a blithe look. "I came to see you, idiot."

She wagered that perhaps most people would have understood this and left it at that, but the entire concept seemed alien to him. He regarded her with an odd expression somewhere between skepticism and intrigue, leaning more towards the latter as he realized she couldn't possibly have any ulterior motives.

If she hadn't known him the way she did, she would have thought him socially retarded for what he asked next.


"Because I think I qualify as something like a friend," she replied dryly. "And that's what they do in these kinds of situations."

It was remarkable, really, how completely unabashed he was in his bluntness. "I wouldn't know."

"Then learn," she announced succinctly. "Because I'm not going to explain it to you."

He couldn't help but smirk at that and she took it as a form of agreement. After glancing around and noticing they were the only two remaining in the room, she cleared her throat and spoke with far more confidence than she actually felt.

"Where were you planning on going?"

"Nowhere," he admitted with a shrug, glancing back at the waiting room seats. "Was gonna spend the night here, try calling my creditors in the morning when the banks open. Can't do shit right now with the cheque they gave me."

Temari regarded him meditatively, the chaos of her mind and conscience not showing on her face and simply manifesting in a slight tightening of her grip on her bag. She was not an impulsive person. She was never an impulsive person. But right now she was simply too elated to care about thinking twice.

"You're crazy if you spend the night here. It's the holiday season. You'll be buried alive."

He shrugged. "Yeah, well, I don't have much of a choice, unless you wanna lend me the money to get a motel room."

She inwardly prided herself for maintaining a straight face when she gave into the voice of conscientiousness.

"No. But I can lend you a bus token."

At his questioning glance, she inclined her head towards the duffel bag he'd left back on the waiting room seats. "Get your stuff. You can drop by my place and make your calls from there."

He blinked, caught off guard. Not giving him an opportunity to answer, she withdrew an extra token from her bag, reached forward, and dropped it into his jacket pocket.

To both her relief and amusement, he didn't bother with inquiries and merely followed her back to the bus terminal. Temari attributed his lack of questions and general languidness to the stress of recuperation, and despite the burning urge to ask him the many questions teeming at the tip of her tongue, she settled for observing him during the ride back home.

He stood out like a sore thumb between the old woman and chubby six-year-old seated on either side of him, the camouflage ridiculously conspicuous against the bright red seats and monochromatic interior of the bus. The irony almost made her laugh, and gradually her grin faded into a small smile as she leaned back in her seat across the aisle.

His jacket and pants were dusty and faint red lines marred his cheek, remnants of healing scratches. The way he sat, slightly slouched and completely oblivious to his surroundings indicated a physical and mental weariness she couldn't even begin to understand.

He looked incredibly tired, completely immersed in the gentle, swaying motion of the bus and unaware of the thankful smiles people unashamedly threw his way.

She caught each one and wondered what it meant, when you were proud of someone else's accomplishments, when you could accept causes of someone else's happiness as your own and when people made life feel like life and not a chore to get done.

The moment was oddly whimsical and serene and utterly hers, and she committed every aspect of it to memory in the short time it took to get home.

When they reached her stop and he followed her off the bus, muffling a yawn with his sleeve and crossing the short distance to her house, the situation went from odd to positively surreal; it felt so perfectly natural yet uncanny when they paused on the porch as she unlocked the door, when he brushed past the mailbox without a second thought, as though it held no significance, and stepped into the house where, upstairs, she kept a bound collection of his letters in a shoebox beneath her bed.

Temari couldn't spare herself the time to contemplate those things at length, suddenly realizing she hadn't called ahead to warn Kankuro that she'd be bringing a guest.

To her relief, neither of her brothers was in sight and she immediately turned to where Hidan was standing and almost laughed at the look on his face. Besides the fact that he appeared slightly more awake, he wore an odd, surprised sort of expression that made her think he, too, was beginning to realize just how surreal the entire situation was.

"I'll get you the phone," she said over her shoulder as she kicked off her shoes. "Just take a seat."

Without waiting for a response, she went into the kitchen and returned five minutes later with two cups of hot chocolate and the phone, finding him sitting in the living room and rifling through a wallet full of nothing but scraps of paper.

She sat on a chair across from where he sat on the sofa, finding him incongruous against the soft browns and beiges of the surrounding furniture. It was strange, seeing him sitting in the same spot she'd sat in several times reading and re-reading his letters, holding her favourite mug in one hand while using the phone with the other.

Despite her outward casualness, she inwardly marveled at the fact that someone who harboured such violent passion when it came to his faith and possessed a manic compulsion to swear could look practically cherubic when he was calm. She wondered at the way he held himself and spoke, amazed to see he was just as informal and carefree as she'd envisioned him to be, and was even more bowled over when he demonstrated his propensity for keeping none of his observations or opinions to himself.

"The cheap bastard turned off his cell. Why the hell does he even have one if he's not gonna answer his calls?" He grumbled, listening to the message on the phone and pausing long enough to wait for the beep of the voicemail.

"Yeah, it's me, asshole. Answer your fucking phone so I can give you your goddamn money. You've got 24 hours. If I don't get through to you before then, I'm burning your half, seriously."

Then he hung up, scowling at the receiver before putting it on the coffee table.

"Problem?" Temari asked, watching him over the rim of her cup.

He kneaded his temples, muttering. "Motherfucker won't answer his phone, and he kept my apartment as collateral when he gave me my loan money."

Her voice was matter-of-fact. "Meaning you have nowhere to go until you two get in touch."

He threw up his hands in resignation and leaned back to aim a dour look at the phone again. "Yeah, and that's if the shithead decides to answer his cell anytime soon."

Temari looked at him as if she was stating the obvious.

"Then just spend the night."

There was a moment of silence. When he merely stared at her, the corners of her lips twitched and she felt the need to elaborate.

"I meant on the sofa, genius."

"For real?" he said blankly.

"It's as easy as yes or no."

A slow grin pulled at his lips. "Wouldn't sit well with your brothers, though."

Temari made a noise of contempt. "My brothers will understand. Can't let a war hero spend the night in a crappy motel."

He smirked. "I thought you didn't give a shit about the war."

"I don't," she replied, watching him steadily. "I just don't want you to spend the night in a crappy motel."

Before he could reply, she raised her cup again, smiling behind the rim.

"Shut up and drink your hot chocolate."

He did. And they talked, long after both cups were empty and despite the fact he was clearly too tired and she really should've been eating dinner.

It was seamless. Effortless. And she found there was no need to forgo the inanities and superfluous comments; you didn't have to be direct for the other to know what you were really thinking. Conversing face-to-face with tone, body language, and expression intact ensured that.

You're impulsive, fanatical, and belligerent.

"This is gonna sound fucked up, but even though I knew you were young, I totally expected you to look like some old bat."

And I'm level-headed, straightforward, and practical.

"Well, with that mouth of yours, I definitely didn't expect you to look like an overgrown cherub."

I should be confused as to how we can possibly communicate coherently when there are so many contradictions between us.

"What the hell did you call me?"

"You heard what I said."

I just have to tell you I smile more now and I'm happier.

"In no shape or form do I look like a baby."

"No, just your face."

I'm happier because you listen to me and talk to me.

"Here I was teaching you about Jashinism for six months and you tell me I look like a fucking pagan idol."

"It's nothing to get upset about. It's adorable. Really."

Maybe we connect on a level below the surface.

"You're a lost cause, seriously. No point in talking to you."

"And yet here you are, still talking to me."

Maybe we connect out of desperation.

"To hell with this. I need some fucking sleep before I can deal with you."

"Right, I forgot about that. Bathroom's down the hall and there's food in the fridge if you get hungry in the middle of the night."

He rolled his eyes but looked appeased while doing so and Temari stood to gather the empty mugs and phone, setting them in the kitchen before she disappeared upstairs to find a spare blanket.

By the time she returned to the room, she realized she was too late. He was already asleep, slumped against the cushions without any regard for his uniform or the fact that he really should have been sleeping on his back to keep his weight off his injuries.

Shaking her head at his blatant disregard for his own health, she left the blanket next to him and moved back to the entrance to shut the light. At the same moment, Kankuro descended the stairs, oblivious to the duffel bag he nearly tripped over until Temari gestured for him to be quiet and inclined her head towards the living room.

Kankuro stopped abruptly and did a double-take, whipping around to gape at the sofa. "Who in the hell—?"

Temari grabbed him by the arm and steered him into the kitchen, explaining in hushed tones as Gaara came downstairs soon after, pausing at the entrance to the den and staring, befuddled, at the strange man in military fatigue sprawled over their sofa.

Deciding it would be more trouble than it was worth to ask, he strode into the kitchen to join his siblings as Temari pinched Kankuro to calm him down and his brother emitted a muffled yelp.

And he didn't have to ask, Gaara realized as he watched them. His sister was smiling again and looking more alive than she had for a long time, and it instilled him with a sense of contentment he couldn't even begin to describe.

If her source of happiness was currently asleep on their living room sofa, then he was more than welcome to stay.


Saturday, March 25th.

The sunlight was glaringly bright, melting whatever remained of the snow and dappling the road with wet, glistening patches. Temari turned the corner of the street and shielded her eyes against the light, appreciative of the warmth on the back of her hand as she walked to the next block.

She'd been waiting for the right moment, particularly after he'd gotten his financial matters in order and recovered from his injuries before deciding to show him the surprise. By the time Hidan had settled into a normal pattern again, three months had passed and she was back to attending school, getting ready to write the next set of exams with him occasionally accompanying the study sessions, usually disrupting them more than helping.

It made her laugh to think back to a few weeks ago when, for a change of pace, while seated on a park bench outside her school, they'd switched texts and she'd read his guide on preaching while he'd read, or at least tried to read, her book on the biology of horticulture. Like she'd anticipated, he stopped after the first paragraph and didn't mince his words.

What the fuck am I reading right now? Is this even English?

Disruptive though he was, she didn't really mind. Studying had become a lot more interesting with him around, especially since he'd grown restless soon after settling back into his old life and spent the majority of his time gathering the resources he needed for starting his own church.

Still a pipe dream, he'd informed her when she'd asked him about how the search was coming along.

At the thought, she lowered her hand from over her eyes and spotted him.

He was sitting just outside the corner store at the edge of the sidewalk, clad in a black t-shirt and jeans. Several little white specks littered the asphalt beneath his feet and the lid of the gutter nearby. As she advanced, a smirk graced her face when she realized he was holding a small, plastic bag half-full of pomegranate seeds and attempting to spit the pits into the sewer.

When he saw her approaching, he stood up, tying a quick knot in the bag and dusting off his pants.

"So, what the hell was so important you couldn't just tell me over the phone?"

"Good morning to you, too," she replied wryly. "And I told you, it's better if I show you. Let's get going."

With that, she turned on her heel abruptly and started down the street, trying hard to maintain a poker face as he caught up and demanded to know where they were going.

"Chill out. Honestly, you're like an impatient child. Just wait and see."

"This better be worth it, damn it. I was planning on sleeping in this morning."

She only smirked and walked faster.

By the time they reached their destination, he looked completely nonplussed and she had to hold the door open to the building to usher him in. It swung closed with a loud squeak of hinges and then there was silence.

This time, no candles stood lit on either side of the stage, though the faint fragrance of incense and flowers still lingered. The church had been stripped of all religious symbols and furniture and now stood bare save for the pews and pulpit.

Temari watched him as he took a step forward, wondering what he was thinking as he glanced at his surroundings with an inscrutable look on his face.

"How is it?" she asked, when he climbed onto the pulpit and ran his hand over the stained wood of the stand. His expression was peculiar. She could only describe it as wistful.

He shook his head, jumping down from the stage and tucking his hands into his pockets.

"Don't ask. It's fucking depressing." He glanced askance at her, brow furrowed in bewilderment. "Why'd you bring me here?"

She wanted to avoid looking at his face when she withdrew the envelope from her bag but found herself incapable, a faint smile lingering at the corners of her lips as he accepted it with a bemused glance.

The noise of traffic was muffled and dim in the silence that followed. At some point, she managed to shift her gaze away, eyes trailing the drifting spirals of dust illuminated by the panels of sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. The gentle plips of dripping water resonated from somewhere behind her, interspersed with the rustle of papers.

By the time she felt enough time had passed and she looked at him again, he was staring at her with a dumbfounded look on his face. The papers dangled limply from his fingers at his side.

"You're not…" he finally managed to say weakly, voice hoarse. "Seriously...?"

"Seriously," Temari assured him, trying not to laugh. "And it's not a joke. I'm not that cruel."

He only stared at her, speechless.

"I know it's a fixer-upper," she continued, turning away to look at the peeling paint and leaky ceiling. "But within a year or two, with some work, I think it'll look as good as new."

She reached out to rest a hand on the backrest of the front pew, running her fingers over the worn, gleaming wood.

"I met the minister who owned the place," she added, letting her hand drop back to her side. "He didn't want it going to waste. I guess I left him with a good impression, because he believed me when I talked about you—about how much you wanted your own church. Lucky thing he didn't give up the rights to the place before you came back."

She grinned faintly, lowering her eyes from the stained glass windows. "He said to tell you good luck. Took my word for it, just like that, so now it's yours."

There was a pause. She laughed as she anticipated the look on his face, knowing he was the type to wear his heart on his sleeve and never be reticent when it came to showing how he felt. The thought of seeing his stupefied expression was too amusing to miss, and she finally turned around, voice teasing.

"Guess that says something about you—"

She didn't finish the sentence, stopping abruptly when she saw that he was standing directly in front of her.

Before she could open her mouth to speak, she found herself seized in a vice-like grip, felt the rough chafe of his shirt against her cheek, and smelled something reminiscent of soap and matchsticks before she realized she was being hugged.