Our Deepest Fears

By Ariel-D

Description: When they return to Konoha to retake the Chunin Exams, Gaara, Kankuro, and Temari are dared by Shikamaru to visit the haunted house attraction at a festival. Little does anyone know, this house is haunted for real. Post-Sasuke Retrieval, pre-Shippuuden. Angst/horror.

Disclaimer: Gaara, Kankuro, Temari, and the Naruto-verse are copyrighted by Masashi Kishimoto and Weekly Shonen Jump. I am making no profit; this is just for fun.

A/N: Covers three P.O.V.s — each of the siblings'.

Warning: some gore and violence.

Translation reminders: "jan" is the random syllable/word Kankuro adds to some of his sentences because he speaks with a punk/Yankie accent.

Gaara didn't quite understand his sister's reaction to the Shikamaru guy. He analyzed her interaction with the boy in the hotel lobby, and realizing their conversation would take several minutes, he crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. Kankuro, his hands in his pockets, walked over and joined him, and then they both watched the pair. To Gaara, it was obvious some kind of friendship or interest had formed between his sister and Shikamaru, but he couldn't figure out why. Granted, Shikamaru had made chunin and proved himself a brilliant strategist at the previous exams, but past that, Gaara sensed nothing remarkable about him.

Kankuro was smirking. "That guy's gonna get hit in the head with her fan if he's not careful, jan."

Gaara glanced at his brother, then back at his sister. He really hadn't been paying attention to their words so much as their body language, so he honed in on the conversation to see if Kankuro were correct.

"Why would I want to do a dumb thing like that?" Temari grinned — a wolfish smile, really, that showed all her teeth. "I don't believe in ghosts, and everyone knows the stuff set up at festivals is fake."

Shikamaru sighed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "You said you were bored." He shrugged. "I haven't been through the place myself, but Choji and Ino claim it's genuinely scary. Even Kiba said it gave him the creeps, and he wouldn't enter it because Akamaru was too scared."

Temari propped on hand on her hip and sneered. "So what? Three cowards and a puppy? That doesn't tell me much."

Despite her attitude, Temari was enjoying herself. Gaara could tell by the amused sheen glowing in her eyes.

Shikamaru slumped. "Look, it was just a suggestion. Besides, the haunted house itself isn't new. It's an abandoned hotel — the first hotel built in Konoha. The family that owns it keeps trying to sell it, but the place has such a bad rep that they can't. So they rent it out as an attraction during festivals."

Temari dropped her hand and narrowed her eyes — a sure sign of interest. "Really? What's its rep?"

"It has to do with the mass murder that took place there fifty years ago." Shikamaru's shoulders straightened.

Gaara raised one hairless brow. The guy looked like he was going into Analysis Mode, and what was more, he was finally saying something worth hearing.

"Mass murder?" Temari asked.

"Yeah." As though caught in a memory, Shikamaru's gaze shifted and landed on the bamboo fountain in the lobby's corner. "A prominent shinobi from Kirigakure was visiting on a diplomatic mission. His name was Agawa Hitoshi. After what seemed to be a successful meeting with the Hokage, Agawa returned to the hotel, visited the baths, and settled in for supper with his companions. For a reason no one knows, he went berserk during the meal and murdered his entire party, half the hotel staff, and half the other guests. The only survivors were those who fled at the first sign of trouble."

A small frown bent Temari's lips. Gaara was well aware that, although she loved fighting, his sister was disturbed by senseless killing. He often wondered if she'd request diplomatic missions in the future. "I see," she said. "No wonder people think the hotel might be haunted."

Shikamaru returned his gaze to her. "Yeah. They nicknamed it Hitoshi's Hell, and apparently all sorts of scary stuff happens there. Furniture moves by itself; bodiless screams emanate through the halls. When the place still functioned as a hotel, guests supposedly awoke in the night and found headless ghosts leaning over their beds. The walls are claimed to randomly ooze blood." He shrugged again. "Most Konoha kids are forbidden by their parents to visit the place, but the doorkeeper lets them in as long as they pay."

Gaara decided the lot of it was rubbish. "Foolish," he said, thinking back at all the men he'd killed while he'd allowed Shukaku's bloodlust to rule him. No ghosts had ever risen to haunt him.

Kankuro pushed away from the wall and joined Temari. "So, what? You just go in and see if something scary happens? Sounds boring."

"Nah." Shikamaru slumped again. "They have stuff set up in each room where they try to scare you on purpose. If you're 'lucky', you get to see something genuinely paranormal."

Kankuro shut one eye in the habitual mannerism that signified he was either bored or smug. "Good enough." He nudged Temari in the arm with his elbow. "Let's go kill some time."

Boredom it was, then. Kankuro had never been the type to sit idly and stare off into space.

Temari glanced at Shikamaru. "You're coming, too, right?"

The boy frowned. "Sorry. It's troublesome, but I have to go meet Ino and Choji now. Asuma's recruited me to help Ino train for the final exam."

Temari's brow furrowed, and Gaara could tell she was not pleased. Kankuro's prediction that Shikamaru was going to end up with a fan through his skull might come true. "So you tell us about this, then run off." The wolfish grin returned. "Chicken."

Shikamaru sighed and turned toward the lobby door. "Just tell me if it's worth seeing or not," he called over his shoulder. "I don't wanna waste my time on it if it's not."

Temari laughed.

Gaara stood in the street and stared at the abandoned hotel. He wasn't quite sure why he agreed to accompany his siblings on this stupid venture except maybe his own deep ennui had gotten the best of him. "I'm not paying for this," he informed them.

Kankuro glanced at him. "I know, I know. I'll cover your charge."

They approached the doorkeeper, who sat behind a small booth. Even from the street, Gaara could hear banging and see flickering lights in several windows.

The doorkeeper was an elderly man with steel grey hair and overly wide eyes, as though he were permanently frightened senseless. "That'll be 300 yen per person. And you have to leave your weapons outside. We don't want you to kill an innocent worker in a moment of fright."

Temari started to reply, but from inside the hotel, a blood-curdling scream interrupted her. She frowned at the entrance, then turned back to the man. "Okay." She forked over her money and set her fan in the cubicle at the door.

Kankuro sighed and paid for both himself and Gaara. He also put his puppets in the cubicle.

Gaara paused, questioning the wisdom of leaving their weapons, but the truth was the sand was always with him. Even without his gourd, he had enough to kill someone if he needed to. Wordlessly, he propped his gourd in the cubicle as well, then followed his siblings into the haunted house.

A gory scene confronted the siblings: fake corpses and blood decorated the lobby, along with stern warnings of "Enter at Your Own Risk." An arrow painted on the wall directed them to head down the hallway to their right. A "Do Not Enter" sign marked the hallway to their left. Random graffiti decorated the walls as well — faded symbols that reminded Gaara of badly drawn hourglasses and yen/yang symbols. To him, it looked like a child's scribbles.

"Oooh, scary," Kankuro said sarcastically.

"We're killing time, remember?" Temari replied, leading the way.

Gaara crossed his arms and followed them, his ennui unbroken.

As they entered the first hallway, they pressed through a mass of fake spider webs. Through the walls came screams and high-pitched, hysterical laughter. The hallway itself was strewn with fake, decapitated corpses of maids.

"Lovely," Temari intoned, clearly unimpressed.

Gaara, however, thought he detected movement on Kankuro's shoulder. "Halt."

His siblings both froze where they stood. Gaara knew their fear of him was slowly ebbing away as he pursued his new goal in life, but he could still get them to obey him by pure reflex. "Kankuro, there's something on your shoulder."

Kankuro glanced at his shoulder, and Temari stepped back to inspect it as well.

"Oh, it's just a fake tarantula," she said, reaching out to flick it away.

The spider scurried closer to Kankuro's neck, and the boy stiffened with utter terror. Kankuro hated spiders. He hadn't been too fond of bugs in general since he'd been swarmed with them during his fight with Shino, but he despised spiders.

"Get. It. Off!" Kankuro snapped, his voice tight with panic.

Gaara sighed and reached up, crushing the spider in his hand. He tossed the bug to the floor and wiped his hand on the wall. "Don't get so worked up. You deal with poisons every day with your puppets. Even if the spider bit you, one of the general antidotes you carry would take care of it."

Kankuro turned to glare at him. "That's not exactly the point!"

Temari gasped. "Kankuro . . . stand still."

Gaara could literally see the blood draining from his brother's face. Another tarantula climbed up his shoulder, and Kankuro's frightened gaze turned toward it. "Temari!"

"I've got it," she said in a calm but determined voice. She took off her forehead protector and made wide sweeping movements across Kankuro's back and shoulders. A dozen spiders hit the floor and scurried away.

Kankuro danced away from the spot and drew close to Gaara. "I thought those were fake spider webs. That's dangerous!"

Gaara glanced at his brother, a strange but pleasant sensation fluttering in his chest. Kankuro had stepped up beside him as though seeking protection. Was his brother slowly beginning to trust him now?

Temari was frowning. "I thought they were fake, too." She shook her head. "That's not wise on their part, unless they've removed the poison sacs from the tarantulas." She sighed and tilted her head toward the hallway. "Let's go. We definitely know we don't want to stick around here."

Gaara stayed by Kankuro's side as they moved forward, feeling oddly compelled to remain there since his brother had offered a sign of trust. Not that he felt they were in any real danger, but this sensation of being needed, or at least wanted, by his brother —

Temari's gasp jerked Gaara from his thoughts. A figure burst from the room beside them, leveling a dagger at her. She dived into a forward roll, dodging the attack, but the figure turned and hurled the dagger at Gaara's chest instead.

The blade hit Gaara's sand armor with an echoing thud, then fell to the floor. Gaara crossed his arms and glared at the attacker.

"What the hell!" Kankuro leapt forward and decked the figure. His specialty was not taijutsu, but if he got a clear shot at someone, Kankuro had a devastating punch. The attacker flew backward and hit the far wall, then slumped.

"I hope they pay their workers good money," Temari quipped, bending down to examine the person. She immediately jumped back to her feet. "It's not real."

"What?" Kankuro joined her, and Gaara followed him. They all bent around the figure, which turned out to be a plastic skeleton in a shinobi outfit.

"But the blade hit squarely," Gaara said, confused. He glanced back to the dagger, but even in the hall's torchlight, he could see the weapon was plastic. He glanced down at his chest, where five cracks raced from the point of impact. "No plastic dagger could crack my sand armor."

His siblings stared at his chest with looks of growing horror.

"Forget this," Kankuro said. "Something isn't right here." He headed back toward the entrance. "I don't believe in ghosts, but whatever is going on, Temari could have been severely wounded if she hadn't dodged in time."

Temari sprinted to catch up with him. "You're right. And we don't have our weapons."

Gaara followed them, trying to figure out what was happening. None of them believed in ghosts, but it couldn't be genjutsu either. The cracks in his sand armor were real.

The siblings exited into the lobby, only to find the entrance was gone. Where there had been a door, now there was only a solid wall.

"Where's the door?" Kankuro asked in a voice that promised many curse words.

Temari growled. "Dammit! What is this, genjutsu?" She raised her fingers to her chin. "Release."

Nothing happened.

Gaara frowned, suspecting the truth.

"Let's all do it at the same time," Kankuro said.

Gaara figured it was useless, but he formed a triangle with his siblings so their backs would be covered. He raised his fingers to his chin as well.

"On three," Temari said. "Ichi, nii, san!"

"Release," they commanded together.

Nothing happened.

"It's not genjutsu," Gaara said quietly. "The cracks in my sand armor are real." He could sense a wave of terror wash through his brother and sister, and for once, he found he wanted to ease their fear. "Let's just work our way through this as quickly as we can."

A long pause followed, then Kankuro spoke. "Uh, guys. There are three hallways now."

Gaara and Temari turned to the direction Kankuro faced. Sure enough, in addition to the right- and left-hand hallways, a new hallway stood directly before them, where the hotel desk had been. Screams burst through the ceiling over their heads, followed by the sounds of panicked running. Several heavy thuds followed, then the hotel grew eerily silent. The siblings traded grave looks with one another.

"I'm beginning to think Shikamaru's information on this place was accurate," Kankuro muttered.

"Three hallways," Temari said. "That's either three chances to find the exit or an open invitation for us to split up."

"It definitely wants us to be alone," Kankuro replied, sounding disturbed by the concept.

"But one of these hallways has to provide the chance for escape," Gaara reasoned. "The first one of us to escape can go get help."

Temari stared at Kankuro, and then Kankuro stared at Gaara.

"I don't see that we have much of a choice," Temari finally said. "Splitting up does provide us with the greatest chance for escape. If you get out, report immediately to the Konoha authorities. Don't trust the doorkeeper."

"Sure thing," Kankuro said. "But I'm not taking the right-side hallway again."

Gaara nodded at his sister before turning to Kankuro. "I'll take it." He headed back the way they'd come.

"Be careful, jan," Kankuro yelled after him.

"And keep checking for genjutsu," Temari added.

"Yeah," he called back, then sprinted down the hall. Strange, but it did seem to him that his siblings were genuinely worried for his safety. If his siblings could care for him, perhaps his dreams of bonding with his village were legitimate.

Kankuro proceeded carefully down the left-side hallway, checking for traps as he went. He didn't like separating from his siblings; he couldn't protect them this way. Or, if he were honest with himself, they couldn't protect each other, and he couldn't keep track of how they were doing. He didn't like it, not one bit. It worried him to know they were in danger but to have no idea if they were okay.

"Who said you could protect them anyway?" a lilting voice whispered in his ear.

Kankuro whirled around, drawing a kunai from the pouch on his leg. He might have handed over his puppets, but he still carried a small stash of kunai and shuriken.

However, no one was there. Behind him stretched an expanse of dark hallway, illuminated by nothing more than an occasional torch. Kankuro couldn't even see the entrance anymore, and the darkness in the ceiling's corners seemed to churn and bulge.

Suppressing a shiver, Kankuro faced forward again and crept a few more steps, checking for hidden doors, trip wires, trap doors — anything that could ambush him. The hallway, though, was suspiciously blank. Featureless. It even lacked the doors for the hotel rooms.

"Unremarkable, like you," whispered the voice.

Kankuro whirled around again. Nothing. The voice was soft, quiet, and lilting, but definitely male. It almost reminded him of a warped version of his father's voice. "Try me," he told it. "I'll kick your ass, jan."

The bravado was neither cheap nor fake. Kankuro was getting angry. He didn't have time for spirits or ghosts or whatever they were to taunt him. He needed to escape and get help before one of his siblings got hurt.

"Ah, you care and care and care," sing-songed the voice. "You care until it hurts. But they don't care back. In fact, the little monster wouldn't care if you dropped dead."

Kankuro growled. "Come out and face me, jan. Quit playing around and fight me."

A peel of silvery laughter raced through the hallway. "Why fight?" asked the disembodied voice. "You're a puppet master without his puppets. Useless is all you are — useless to help yourself or your siblings. But it's always been that way, ne?"

Mind games. Kankuro knew them well. He used them in combat to unnerve his opponents. His oversized black clothes, his face paint, his carefully-crafted taunts — all of them existed to throw opponents off balance. Even the puppets themselves were designed to look unimpressive, with all their poisoned blades and weapons hidden from sight until it was too late. "Nice try," he said, smirking.

"Nice try for what?" the voice asked. "Tell me one time you ever helped your brother. You've spent your whole life running away from him or cowering in fear, leaving him to face the hatred of Suna all alone." The spirit sounded gleeful. "Name one time you saved your sister. You didn't even manage to stop your father when he hit her! You'd grab his arm, but he'd shake you off. You'd try to shield her, but he'd knock you away. Useless, useless."

Kankuro clenched his fists, answering in spite of himself. "I was only eight or nine when that happened. Father was twice my size!"

"Pathetic, really," the voice sang out. "He wants to protect, but he can't. He cares, but he fails to make a difference. So he hides behind a mask."

"Go to hell," Kankuro hissed, drawing another kunai and praying that he'd get the chance to beat the owner of the voice senseless.

"You want to hurt me?" the voice asked from behind him, and this time it sounded solid, real. The lilt was gone and replaced by cold factualism.

Kankuro turned to face the specter, only to gasp and freeze still. His father stood before him, a half-rotted corpse. Bugs crawled from holes in his cheeks and neck, and most of the right side of his face was missing, leaving a bare-toothed grin.

"I had you trained to follow in the footsteps of Chiyo-dono," the man said. "But middle children are typically worthless. They lack the ambition of the eldest child and the specialness of the youngest." He sneered, and it pushed several maggots out of his cheek. "No, you were too sensitive, too kind. Soft. You still worry too much, placing your siblings before yourself and getting upset if they're endangered or hurt." The man stepped forward.

Kankuro forced himself to move, to step backward and raise his kunai. "You are not my father. He's dead."

"This is the house of the dead," the man replied. "I am welcome here as long as I like. And you, my failure of a child, obviously need a few more lessons before I depart from this realm." He cracked the knuckles of his bony fingers. "Since I had you trained in the puppet jutsu, your skills in blocking were never more than average." He pulled his arm back, fisting his hand. "You remember our lessons, don't you?"

It's not him, Kankuro told himself fiercely, but an explosion of pain like a supernova burst through his gut as he remembered all the times his father had beaten him.

"Useless," the man spat. "You can't save yourself, much less protect anyone else!"

The words hurt far more than any punch, but Kankuro threw up his arms to block the first blow.

Gaara passed through the right-side passageway with little problem. No spiders rained upon him, and no skeletons jumped out to stab him. In the distance, he could hear haunting music — a heavy organ pumping out black notes paired with the hollow tune of a wooden flute. Occasionally, screams would filter through the walls, followed by running footsteps and more sickening thuds. Gaara suspected that all the visitors prior to himself and his siblings were dying on the hotel's upper floors.

Ahead, flickering candlelight announced the end of the hallway. Gaara stayed close to the walls, blending with the shadows as he approached the exit. As he drew closer, he realized someone was humming a tune — a happy one that clashed with the distant organ and flute. He peeked around the threshold and saw woman bent over a table in the room's center. It appeared to be a foyer connecting one wing of the hotel to a newer extension. A massive candelabrum hung from the ceiling, casting a warm glow upon the room. A pastoral painting covered the far wall and depicted peasants working in a rice field under a rosy, setting sun. A crimson rug with a delicate sakura design covered the hardwood floor.

The woman straightened but didn't turn to face the doorway; apparently Gaara was keeping himself concealed well. As she straightened, however, Gaara realized that despite the apron tied around the person's waist, it wasn't a woman. No soft curves outlined the figure. It was a fine-boned man who happened to have shoulder-length blonde hair.

The organ and flute melody faded, leaving only the man's happy humming. He glanced over his shoulder. "Oh! Gaara-sama. It's good to see you again."

For a moment, Gaara couldn't move. His long-dead uncle, Yashamaru, stood before him. He closed his eyes briefly, quelling the tide of pain that washed through him, then opened his eyes and stepped into the room. "Nice try. But Yashamaru died years ago." He didn't think it would do any good, but he tried anyway. He raised his fingers to his chin. "Release."

Nothing happened.

Yashamaru smiled. "I'm not a mirage." He stepped aside and waved one hand at the table, where an Ouija board sat. "I was summoned here by some kids who were trying to contact the spirit world." He clasped his hands before himself. "They were on the verge of accidentally summoning a demon, so I interfered and came instead. It only seemed right, since I was a med nin in life." His large eyes twinkled with joy. "Besides, I could sense your chakra, Gaara-sama, and I wanted to see you again."

Gaara frowned. It had to be a trick. "I don't believe in ghosts."

Yashamaru chuckled. "Why not, Gaara-sama? You yourself have a spirit inside of you — the wraith of an evil Suna monk."

"Shukaku is different. He's one of the tailed beasts." Gaara folded his arms. "All these other stories of ghosts are fairytales. Besides, if ghosts were real I would be haunted by hundreds of them by now."

Yashamaru's brow knitted together. "What do you mean? Surely you can see them."

Gaara didn't even blink. "I see nothing but an elaborate hoax."

"Oh, Gaara-sama." Yashamaru shook his head. "You never did quite understand things." He sounded sad, almost distressed. "I suppose you think that since everyone else in the world runs away from you and abandons you, the vengeful spirits of those you've killed would also." He spread his hands outward, as though indicating a crowd. "But they're always here, awaiting their chance." He folded his hands again. "But don't worry, Gaara-sama. After dying, I regretted my attempt to kill you, so I have been protecting you all this time."

Gaara narrowed his eyes. "Stop playing games with me. There is —" He stopped, his words forgotten, as a host of blue lights, like a swarm of fireflies, filled the room. The glowing balls widened, then spiked at the top. A cold wind whipped through the room, and each ball dissolved into a spirit: shinobi from the Villages Hidden in the Sand, Leaves, Rain, Waves, and Grass. The boy from Sound. The drunken civilians who had accosted him in Suna when he was a child. Dozens. Hundreds. Most of them were deformed, having been crushed to death, and sand matted their blood. A low moan rippled through them, then crested in a mournful wail, the sound so loud Gaara felt a vibration in his chest.

Gaara stared at the spirits who pressed in upon him from every side.

"This is the thing about the dead," Yashamaru said in his soft, warm voice. "You can't always see them, but a mass murderer like yourself — a monster like you — will always draw them."

Gaara flinched in spite of himself. It was almost as though he were reliving his uncle's betrayal.

Yashamaru wound his way through the spirits to stand before Gaara. "Living people will always abandon you because your mother cursed you to be unloved. Even tonight, your siblings chose to separate from you to increase their chances of survival. A smart choice on their parts, but a brutal one, nevertheless." He smiled. "Don't worry, though. The vengeful spirits and I will keep you company."

"Ya . . . sha . . . maru . . ." Gaara was too stunned to process it all. It was impossible, and yet he could feel the spirits' hate and rage. And his siblings had easily agreed to his plan to split up. Maybe they didn't care after all. It wasn't like he deserved their care after all the times he'd threatened to kill them.

Yashamaru closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, they glowed red. "Of course I was lying about protecting you. As if death would erase my hatred of you! I will never forgive you, not throughout all eternity."

A bolt of pain shot through Gaara's chest, but before he could react, the spirits howled and rushed at him, their hands extended like claws.

Temari had traveled the center hallway for no more than fifteen feet when she came upon The Staircase. She couldn't see the top of the stairs, which were shrouded in darkness, so she's begun climbing. After her internal clock told her she'd been climbing for ten minutes, she mentally renamed the stairs "The Staircase." It didn't seem to have an end. She paused twice for a moment's rest, but as soon as she caught her breath she continued.

"If I get out of this alive," she muttered under her breath, "I'm going to kill Shikamaru."

Finally, though, she saw the outline of a door. The end was in sight, and the room beyond was obviously lit. Sighing in relief, she forced herself up the last steps and leaned her ear against the door. Silence. She reached out with her senses, trying to detect chakra. Nothing. She drew three shuriken from her pouch and cautiously opened the door. An expansive guest suite lay beyond, the far doors opened to reveal a balcony and the soft moonlight over Konoha.

Temari wanted to be excited, but she knew better. Something was wrong. All the earlier screams had come from upstairs, so she had to be in danger. She scanned the room closely, but the straw tatami floors were clean and bloodless. No figures lurked in the corners. A long kotatsu table, laden with food and candles, sat to the right. From the balcony came quiet crickets' chirps and the occasional dove's coo.

Cautiously, Temari stepped into the room, keeping her back to the wall.

"It all happened here, you know."

Temari jerked in surprise and glanced to her left. A set of doors greeted her. One door slid open, revealing a kneeling woman. She was dressed in a white wedding kimono, with her face painted white and her lips red. Despite the makeup, Temari recognized the woman immediately. She knew that face from her memories but more so from the framed pictures she kept in her bedroom.

"M-Mom . . ." She felt her knees weaken and cursed herself. She had to remain rational. Logical. In control.

The woman stared sadly at the floor. "They call this place 'Hitoshi's Hell.' All the shinobi and kunoichi, the civilian guests, the butlers and maids . . . all their souls are trapped here in fear and anguish. Hitoshi-san himself strikes out at the people who come here." She sighed, tears collecting on her eyelashes. "But evil men here in Konoha use Ouija boards and séances to draw in other spirits — demons or wandering human souls." Several tears streaked down her cheeks, leaving tracks in the white face paint. "They summoned your father here. And my little brother. And, obviously, me. We'll be trapped here now."

Temari edged toward the balcony, calculating that her only hope was to escape from there.

The woman glanced up. "Yes, please go." She smiled wanly. "You can't afford to say here, not even for me. You have to move on with your life, but more importantly right now you need to save your brothers. They're trapped downstairs, under attack."

Temari paused, shot through with conflicting emotions ranging from guilt to terror. She knew she couldn't trust what she saw, yet she felt disturbed that she would flee from her mother so easily. She had missed having a mother, and memories of a smiling woman occasionally haunted her dreams.

The woman met Temari's gaze. "But before you go, I have to tell you one thing. I know you wish for peace between the shinobi nations, but you can't trust Konoha. There is great evil here. Several of their leaders are corrupt, and never forget that the entire Uchiha clan, minus two, was annihilated here in one night. The evil and tragedy that hide here can only draw more evil. This village will become the target of much war and pain. The world's destiny will play across Konoha's stage in a bloodbath." She reached one hand toward Temari, then let it fall. "Take your exam, and then leave forever. It is best if Suna has no ties with Konoha."

The picture the woman painted made Temari nauseated; it was exactly the kind of future she feared — pointless, mindless bloodshed. Still, something in the woman's words struck her wrong. "I . . . know. I mean, I know about the Uchiha clan. But Suna is no better. Father killed you and cursed Gaara with Shukaku in the process. Corrupt leaders? Bloodbaths? War and pain? You could be describing any of the Great Shinobi Nations." She clenched her fists. "But there is no way to peace without negotiation. Without diplomacy, we can't create a new future. To be so hypocritical as to separate ourselves from Konoha for evil deeds we share in common . . ." She laughed harshly. "Don't play me for a fool!" She drew back her hand, readying her shuriken. "I don't remember my mother well. I was three when she died. But I refuse to accept you are her. And even if you are, you're dead, and I'm alive. You have to entrust the future to my hands!"

The woman stared at her. "Have you heard nothing I've said? You will only bring ruin upon Suna!"

"According to what I've been told, you died cursing Suna." Temari felt tears spring to her eyes. Until this moment, she hadn't realized how much that knowledge had hurt her. To think that the warm mother she vaguely remembered died wishing for vengeance tore at the very core of Temari's soul. "You hated us! You cursed Gaara in hopes that he'd carry out your vengeance for you. Why would you care now?" She threw her shuriken at the woman, but they passed through her and hit the floor.

"Leave!" Temari screamed, grabbing more shuriken and throwing them in her rage. She didn't care that the weapons didn't connect. "Get out of my sight! I will choose what future I live in. I'll make of it whatever I want." Tears streamed down her face. "You are notmy mother!"

The woman's image wavered as Temari's shuriken hit the floor. After a moment, the woman vanished, and Temari realized her weapons had been hitting a symbol drawn on the floor. It looked like a yen-yang symbol warped into the shape of an hourglass.

"Some kind of jutsu." She ran forward. "I don't know who's responsible for this," she told the room at large, "but take this!" She fell to one knee and punched the symbol with all her strength, shattering the tatami mat and showering the room with straw bits. The symbol flashed, then faded.

Suddenly, Temari found herself back in the hotel lobby. Both her brothers were in the room with her, striking out and blocking against thin air. She whirled toward them. "Kankuro! Gaara!"

They couldn't seem to hear her. She dashed to Kankuro's side, placing her hands on his raised arms and lowering them. "Kankuro," she said softly. "Look at me."

He was sweaty and shaking, his eyes filled with pain, terror, and rage. He stopped thrashing, but he stared past her.

"Kankuro . . ." Temari's normal response would have been to slap him conscious, but he was so obviously suffering that she couldn't. She reached out and touched his cheek, gently cupping his face in her hand. His skin felt hot to her palm, and sweat had beaded on his temples.

He blinked several times, then focused on her. "Temari?"

"It's okay," she said, keeping her voice quiet, calm. "It was just a jutsu after all. In fact, I suspect it was a jutsu perpetrated by a Konoha traitor, but I'll wait to go into that with the Konoha authorities."

Kankuro relaxed and nodded, but she could tell her brother was hurting inside. Still, she had one more brother to save. She turned her attention to Gaara, who looked to be fighting off an invisible horde of assailants with sand taken from his sand armor.

"What do we do?" Kankuro whispered.

"I think we have to touch him to bring him out of it," Temari said. "I didn't get through to you by simply calling your name."

Kankuro's brow furrowed. "I get it." He headed for his brother, his shoulders set in determination.

"Careful! His attacks could kill you." Temari reached after Kankuro, trying to grasp his arm.

He evaded her and kept walking. "I know."

Temari stared after him, wondering what had made him so resolute, so fearless. His courage seemed to be connected somehow with his pain, but she couldn't quite identify it.

Kankuro raised his voice. "Gaara! Gaara! Listen to me, man. You're under some kind of jutsu."

Gaara's eyes were unnaturally wide, though, and Temari could tell he was either genuinely scared or hurt.

Kankuro ducked under a stream of sand, pushed Gaara's left arm down, then stepped in front of him. "Gaara! It's okay. It's not real. Temari and I are here." He hugged his brother against him but was careful not to pin his arms down.

Temari cringed, terrified that Gaara would accidentally kill Kankuro in his fear. Several streams of sand grazed Kankuro, opening gashes on his cheeks, arms, and legs. The older boy took the wounds stoically, however, and simply rubbed his brother's back.

After a moment, Gaara blinked several times, just as Kankuro had, then looked up at his brother. "K-Kankuro?" The sand fell to the floor.

"It's okay," Kankuro said, and Temari was stunned by the sheer kindness of his tone. It was as though he'd thrown aside his entire punk persona in his attempt to break through to Gaara. "Like I said, you were trapped in a jutsu. Temari and I are here, and you're fine."

"You're here?" Gaara's voice was so tiny he sounded like a child. He glanced over at Temari with wide eyes, then back at Kankuro. "A jutsu . . . right." He frowned, his shoulders visibly relaxing. "I should have known. I did know. I just . . ."

Kankuro gave him a quick squeeze, then released him from the hug. "Hey, man, it's okay. Apparently we all fell for it."

Temari walked over to join them. "Yeah, we did. And now we have to go tell the authorities what I've discovered."

"You discovered something?" Gaara asked.

Kankuro wrapped one arm around Gaara's shoulders and the other around Temari's, then steered them toward the door. "Yeah, she's the one who broke the jutsu."

Temari smiled at Kankuro, noting his gruff support of both Gaara and her; he always had worried about her. "I discovered more than one thing, I think." She reached up and patted Kankuro on the back. "So let's collect our weapons and get the hell out of here."

Her brothers nodded in agreement, and the siblings exited the hotel into the fresh night air.

After some searching, Kankuro spied Gaara sitting atop Konoha's hospital. Gaara had been quiet during their interrogation and had left as soon as he'd given the Hokage his version of the night's events. Temari had stayed through the arrests, apparently needing to see justice performed, and Kankuro had remained out of curiosity. Gaara, though, being the way he was, had simply disappeared.

Kankuro jumped from balcony to roof top to roof top until he reached his goal. Gaara was staring at the crescent moon, which hung over the Hokage mountain memorial. Kankuro sat by him but faced the opposite direction so he could watch the hospital courtyard, where Temari had cornered Shikamaru.

"I think she's gonna kill him," Kankuro quipped after a moment. A loud boom echoed off the building as Temari swung her fan at Shikamaru's head, missed as he dodged, then hit the ground.

Gaara roused from his meditation and scooted around to face the courtyard. "Since it was his suggestion for us to visit the place, it figures she'd aim her frustration at him."

Shikamaru's desperate but irritated yell wafted up from the ground: "I didn't know it was cursed!"

Temari swung her folded fan like a bat, and he did a back-flip in his effort to dodge her. "You could have told me that it totally screwed with people's minds!" She took aim again. "Your friends went through it, after all."

"They didn't tell me anything like that," Shikamaru replied, but then he had to dedicate all his efforts to running and dodging.

"She's not serious," Gaara said after watching them several minutes.

"Nah," Kankuro agreed, laughing. Based on seeing his sister angry at her friends, he knew that if she had really wanted to punish Shikamaru, she was more likely to walk up and deck him, not actually deploy her weapon. "She's just giving him a hard time."

"So what did they say?" Gaara asked. "I saw them making arrests."

Kankuro nodded and turned his attention to his brother. "It was a genjutsu after all. However, the jutsu was embedded in the building through a series of seals in multiple rooms and hallways. When Temari discovered the main seal and destroyed it, it severely weakened the jutsu's power and enabled her to snap us out of it."

Gaara frowned. "So we couldn't release it because it was amplified throughout the building?"

"Right." Kankuro sighed, thinking of the four men and one woman who'd been arrested. "In fact, the genjutsu was being maintained by a whole group of people at once. We had the right idea when we tried to band together and release it, but we just weren't strong enough."

Gaara's brow knitted together, and Kankuro could tell something was bothering him. "Why, though? What was their purpose?"

Kankuro shrugged. "Apparently they're traitors who were trying to sow discord and confusion among the youngest Konoha shinobi — and kill a few of the older ones — and they took the opportunity to use it to break Suna's ties to Konoha as well. That was basically what tipped Temari off. The jutsu, which apparently originated with the Uchiha clan, extracts your worst fear and materializes it for you. They tried to make Temari doubt or stop her diplomatic tendencies."

"That's not what it was doing to me," Gaara said quietly. "My illusion said nothing about Konoha or diplomacy."

Kankuro pondered the problem. "If they perceive you as a threat because you're the host of Shukaku, then all they needed to do was try to incapacitate you. Or maybe they would have ultimately tried to kill you." He paused, cringing at the memory of fighting his father's specter. "Mine was just trying to get me not to care about anyone or anything."

Gaara glanced at him, and for a moment, Kankuro could have sworn he looked concerned. "But you resisted. You . . ." His gaze moved to the bandages on Kankuro's legs and arms. "You walked right into my attacks in order to snap me out of the genjutsu." He stared at his feet. "I wasn't so . . . successful."

Kankuro shook his head. "I made a conscious choice to act differently than the illusion wanted me to. Just like you've made a conscious choice to change your life."

Gaara still looked disturbed. Kankuro beat aside his father's ghost, ignoring the condemning voice that whispered about caring too much. He was who he was. Therefore, slowly and gingerly, he reached out and put his arm around Gaara's shoulders. After all, Gaara hadn't tried to kill him for hugging him earlier. "Hey . . . Temari had to jerk me out of the genjutsu. And apparently the only reason she escaped it herself was because she got so damn pissed."

A shriek of rage drew the boys' attention. Temari swung her fan open to reveal its first circle. "Oh trust me," she told the obviously winded Shikamaru. "I'm just warming up!"

Shikamaru clasped his fingers in front of himself, forming a sign. "This is so bothersome."

Gaara nodded. "She is very determined." He leaned slightly against Kankuro's side.

Kankuro smiled to himself and squeezed Gaara's shoulders. "In this case that's a good thing. For us."

"Yes, for us," Gaara replied as Shikamaru's yelps echoed through the courtyard.

A/N: So, I openly admit that my source of inspiration was the Halloween episode in season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Any Buffy fan picked up on that right away, I'm sure. But I couldn't shake the image of the Sand Sibs facing their worst fears like Buffy and the Scoobies, so I wrote it. Therefore, credit is hereby given to Buffy, Mutant Enemy, and Joss Whedon for the idea.

Thank you to Darkhelmetj for beta reading, and thank you to anyone who reads and reviews! This was officially written for a Halloween contest on DA.