Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, or anything associated with it whatsoever. Alas, and woe.
Journey Through Night
The dry winds coming off of the slowly cooling desert sands as the hot sun sank beneath the dune covered horizon failed to refresh the persons they brushed up against as they usually did. It was hard to find anything refreshing in the putrid odor of rotting flesh and festering pus that assaulted the senses of the people scurrying through the contaminated streets of Sunagakure no Sato. Most people covered their mouths and noses with scraps of cloth and squinted against the tears forming in their stinging eyes as they darted among the dead in search of shelter.
The harsh winds threw up dust storms and dust devils that picked up grit and then viciously hurled it over the fortified cities wall to fall in a fine rain of sand onto the slowly desiccating corpses the clean up crews had not yet removed from the places where the victims had collapsed. Bodies were strewn about stone paved boulevards and alleys alike; often the remains were curled up against rough mud brick walls in unnatural positions of pained contortion, their tattered clothing flapping lightly in the breeze. The ill had overflowed out of the overwhelmed hospitals some weeks ago and the mortuary facilities had petitioned to be allowed to burn bodies before identification was validated not long thereafter. The number of bodies being dumped at the crematorium was simply too many.
This evening, some survivors picked their way around the abandoned corpses, rags pressed against their wide-eyed faces, as if tip-toeing or a simple mask could protect them from the nameless plague that was inexorably invading the body of every citizen of Suna, then sucking the life out of them from the inside to leave them as a collection of scattered, withered husks. The entire city, usually lively and colorful with the beginnings nightlife at this point during dusk, was instead hushed and muted. Even the fresh spurts of crimson blood coughed up by, and pouring freely from, the dying that lay in scarlet speckles and streams across the dusty stone and brick quickly oxidized to an unnoticeable brown. It was as if the terrain of the desert itself was rushing to reclaim all those who lived within the once vibrant city and was hurrying to erase any sign humans had ever dwelled there.
Baki stood on one the observational balconies protruding from the side of the Kazekage's Tower and noted the few shinobi who could be spared for scouting patrols in the city leaping in blurs from rooftop to rooftop. He could only hope he wouldn't see another of them suddenly crumple mid leap and plummet from the starry desert sky towards the darkened streets below.
The battle-hardened jounin didn't really need the reports from the scouts to relay to the Central Intelligence Office or the Emergency Relief Detachment to be able to accurately reconstruct the state of the city. It was clear enough that the concentrated efforts of the entire village were failing to have any visible effect on the containment or treatment of the plague, and failing completely. Everyday when personnel reported for the senior officer muster another body showed up horribly weakened, or didn't show up at all. It was especially frightening to note that shinobi seemed to be more susceptible to this unnamed pathogen than the civilians at this stage of infection, and neither conventional nor experimental treatments did anything other than temporarily halt the progression of symptoms.
Baki was not accustomed to being frightened. He had faced life and death struggles on numerous occasions during his life-long career as a shinobi. He had had full-grown man attempting to kill him since he was a twelve-year-old boy, had seen fellow soldiers destroyed by denoted explosives and ninjutsu attacks that were impossible to avoid. He had seen old teammates and admired senpai reduced to bloody pieces, charred to ash, and melted by poisons. But never had the enemy been unknowable, impossible to resist, and impossible to fight. The finest minds in Suna had worked themselves to exhaustion, picked through every possibility and option available, but they could uncover nothing that wasn't directly obvious and common knowledge even to the simplest citizens of the suffering city.
Every effort had been made by the shinobi forces in accordance with the council's instructions to keep the news of Suna's extreme vulnerability from spreading and all applicable emergency protocols had been applied to keep the number of shinobi available for foreign missions and escorts at minimal levels, but soon there wouldn't even be enough of their forces sufficiently healthy to so much as man the observation posts along the city walls. Baki knew he wasn't the only nin quietly awaiting the first word of insubordination, when the first teams would refuse to return to a plague-ridden city. The situation would be completely unmanageable soon. The situation was very close to being that desperate already.
Two chuunin in uniform appeared out of the darkened sky and landed before him on bended knee, fists on the floor of the balcony. Baki didn't even need to hear the preliminary report to know exactly what would be said.
"Sir! The number of infected and fallen in the streets continues to increase at the rates predicted by the Chief Medical Officer."
The voice of the chuunin who had spoken didn't carry the inflections of the strained or ill. Good.
"Understood," Baki replied curtly. "Dismissed."
"Hai!" The pair of scouts disappeared from view, heading inside the lamp lit tower to report the numbers of their findings in greater detail to the appropriate personnel.
Although he kept his posture rigid as befitting a lone sentry on duty, internally Baki's broad shoulders sagged in weariness. Before him, beyond the railing of the balcony, the stars in the inky blackness of the sky stood out with a stark clearness. Beneath the stars the city answered the display of lights with only a handful of the number of points of illumination it should have. Only a few warm points of lantern and candle light were bright enough to be eye catching, and some of those were from the light sources carried by the crews removing the collected deceased.
He hoped the meeting convened in the inner chambers of the Tower would yield the resolutions all the shinobi were anxious for. He knew Gaara-sama was carefully cultivating an image that would encourage the denizens of the city to trust him, to see him as something more than the Shukaku he imprisoned, but this desire was overriding his willingness to go against the tradition of making decisions at council, as the leadership had in the days of tribal meetings, and exercise the autocratic authority that was warranted.
If the necessary decisions weren't made as Baki looked over the darkened city, he knew he would be a very lone sentry indeed.
Times like this made Kankuro glad he wasn't the Kage.
The council meeting had been filled with the useless words and mindless blathering of one petty, overdressed noblemen and overstuffed merchant after another. The puerile collection of bureaucrats waved their unworn hands around in the air and insistently gesticulated at each other, all acting as though they knew what they were talking about. None of them did of course; arrogant blowhards who talked but never acted on their words never did. Kankuro was sure Temari, who was seated on the other side of Gaara at the head of the table they all shared in common, was chewing her tongue in effort to keep silent in the face of this meaningless, useless talk.
The flapping of expensive fabrics resounding from the group of clucking dullards accompanied their typically empty pontificating. Their arguments were the same as what they had been since Temari had first suggested the lack of progress made towards finding a cure for the sickness warranted the potential consequences of summoning aid from their allied city of Konoha. The response from the shortsighted council was akin to childish horror. Every pasty and puffy face seated at the heavy table in the oppressive council room had acted as though she suggested they drink poison or pay income taxes. His older sister's attempts to convince the council using accumulated data and carefully analyzed reports directly from the scouts who were monitoring the situation in the city were utterly disregarded. Each valid conclusion and demonstration of corroborating facts was decried as sensationalist and doctored by the greedy fops.
It had become obvious to both older siblings it was time for their little brother to play the part of the 'bad guy'. A joint look from both Temari and Kankuro communicated to Gaara that they agreed it was time and the youngest sibling spoke a single word.
"Silence." And there was complete silence.
Gaara had ordered the idiots to be silent. And when Gaara wants silence it is silent.
Kankuro loved how that worked.
His little brother rose from his seat at the head of the table and placed his hands flat against the top of it. He lifted his head to pin the previously squabbling congregation with a steely glare that was somehow pointed at all of them simultaneously. Internally, Kankuro smirked at the knowledge Gaara wasn't intentionally trying to be intimidating.
"We have clearly heard enough," Gaara stated in his dry voice. "We have done nothing but talk through each of these sessions, while always coming to the same eventual decision before adjournment."
Gaara scanned the gaudily dressed group by shifting his pale green eyes from one side of the table to the other. Some of the more cowardly businessmen present flinched and fidgeted under the weight of his flat gaze.
Gaara made certain he had the entire council's undivided attention before continuing. "I will not accept another decision to simply divert resources to investigations of the source of this outbreak or try to maintain life as usual beyond basic containment strategies." Gaara paused in his speech, clearly daring anyone to speak up against him. If there would be any murmurings against the next set of actions to be undertaken they needed to be addressed immediately to prevent any undermining of the aid of the group from Konoha.
Kankuro resisted the urge to smirk. It had taken some combined cajoling on the part of him and Temari, but in the end they had convinced their doubtful brother defying the expressed will of the majority of the council would not hurt his reputation among the populace.
"The latest reports from the city indicate all attempts at containments have failed miserably and quarantines have not impeded the spread of illness in the slightest."
Kankuro felt his brother let a bit of killing intent seep into the crowded room. His little brother and Kage had decided if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right.
"Reports from the hospital outline in no uncertain terms the fact that no progress has been made towards understanding this disease, it's origin, or a developing cure."
Gaara's voice clipped to an abrupt halt. His eyes swung sharply to one side to glare venomously at a puffy merchant, so swathed in silks he could be mistaken for a badly decorated couch, who had dropped his multi-chinned jaw to argue. The rotund man froze with his yap hanging open.
"Do you have more a more reliable source of information?" Gaara challenged, his dry voice perfectly even. His roughened tenor was quiet but the sheer suffocating and crushing feeling of Gaara's presence and displeasure alone was more powerful than a raging roar.
Kankuro recognized the tawdry collection of fabrics as being a spice baron that relied heavily on international trade to support his business in such a pricy commodity. Kankuro couldn't decide if the trembling man was brave or just plain stupid when he kept talking.
The merchant's first attempted at speaking ended in little more than a breath shakily exhaled. Kankuro felt one of his eyebrows arch up as the pompous rich man tired again.
"I-I kn-know where you are going with this-s line of reasoning," he stuttered pathetically as the blood visibly drained out of his sweat-covered face. "You are going to put f-forward a motion to send for aid when you know very well that would be an admission of weakness to our enemies."
The man was stupid, Kankuro decided.
When the first reports of an unknown illness in what used to be viewed as the slums of the prospering city were reported by the hospital staff after conferences with social workers, the council had begrudged the time it took to even mention it at the opening of the following meeting. The narrow-minded plutocracy had shown equal distaste when it was noted that no progress had been made in identifying the sickness or developing an effective treatment the week after that. To these complacent fools who were busily taking every advantage of the loosened regulations regarding commerce now that Gaara had pushed legislation revising previously isolationist policies, any piece of business that did not directly impact their capital flow was a nuisance at best. What were a few people who didn't have the money to buy their products anyway? It mattered that they were suffering because why?
It wasn't until some of the social workers began to become ill themselves, and shortly thereafter when the nurses and the shinobi monitoring events in the name of public safety began to become ill and suffer a much more rapid decline did the council bother to take notice. Even then, the council members immediately wanted to know what measures could be taken to quarantine low income housing and how to prevent visitors from outside the city noticing anything was amiss in Suna.
They didn't want any rumors spreading. It might have a negative influence on the economy.
It was only when the symptoms began a rapid spread through the ninja of the village did they begin to show strong concern, and even then, it was only because too many shinobi would be on sick leave to keep up appearances. The assembly demanded to know why the medic-nin weren't coming up with answers regarding the disease. What did they get paid for anyway? Why were village resources being committed to a specialty hospital if this was the best they could do? People were beginning to die now, correct? Why not just empty out the old tenements and relocate the rabble? Who cared where? It's not like such people mattered.
Despite all the excuses and misdirection, Kankuro and his siblings knew very well what the council's real concern was: What if someone actually important gets sick and not merely one of these expendable scum?
It seemed denial was their favorite strategy. The councilmen didn't even hide it when they all closed their eyes and turned their fashionably accessorized heads away during the reports from Temari that held facts they wanted to ignore. Now that the disease seemed to have evolved to the point were death was becoming a frequent outcome, they seemed to come to the conclusion money equated invulnerability. People with money were safe and the only ones susceptible were the burdensome poor. They just wanted the corpses out of the street to maintain the cities appeal to visiting traders and for no other reason. Kankuro was convinced none of them followed up on their promise made to Gaara to see the deaths for themselves, to get a real idea of the scope of the crisis. No matter how the death counts climbed, as long as it didn't effect them behind their lush, gated gardens, who cared?
Gaara had spoken of his increasing frustrations to his siblings in private. Kankuro was awed by his younger brother's dedication to improving the lives of the citizens under his protection and observing the voice of the people, however badly represented by the council, as much as he could. He loathed undermining the democratic process and acting autonomously like their father, the previous Kazekage, had, but the near hysterically selfish and defensive behavior of the noblemen and merchants fostered by years of tyranny was resulting in a deadly stubbornness on the part of the council. It had taken Baki's insistence that not only was the disease worsening, but that soon the shinobi forces of Suna would be depleted enough that they could no longer properly defend the city, and their old sensei almost pleading, for Gaara to let some of the more fearsome aspects of his personality to reappear while performing his duties as Kage.
"I'm going to send a personally written letter to the Hokage requesting aid in determining the origin of the illness and identifying an effective treatment," Gaara stated in no uncertain terms. He looked directly at the councilmen who had spoken up. "The dispatch will be discreet, as will the form of aid I am requesting." The intimidating redhead shifted his eyes so that it was clear he was addressing the council at large. "Konoha is our closest ally. The Godaime Hokage is an honorable woman would not abandon an ally who makes a formal request for aid. Furthermore, she will be sensitive to our precarious situation and send that aid in an appropriate form."
One of the council members present, an older man, who in Kankuro's opinion, was totally freaking senile, sputtered out his scoff. Kankuro didn't bother to hide his reflexive scowl. The decrepit, doddering old excuse for a leader had been a major obstacle to ending this plague from the first moment Temari had begun suggesting possible responses to the mounting crisis.
The gaunt figure opened his mouth, revealing badly decayed teeth, to speak. "You really think another Hidden Village will not take this opportunity to learn our vulnerabilities and disadvantages for future use?" He spoke with a tone one might use to address a slow child. "You shinobi are all opportunistic murderers." Kankuro felt his fingers twitch at that, eager to reach for his kunai.
"The Hokage may appear to fulfill our contracts of alliance but it will be nothing more than a typical ninja's subterfuge," the withered voice wheezed on. Kankuro barely swallowed his growl and envied his composed brother's stoicism. The old imbecile kept talking. "We can find a cure for this illness." He waved a wrinkled, liver spotted hand dismissively, as though the deceased pilling up in the streets was a trifling thing beneath his notice. "But we cannot remove the information collected about our village from the minds of the Konoha nin without risking an international incident. The risk is too great."
"You are wrong." Gaara's flat statement caused the old fool to visibly jerk and stare in wide-eyed indignation at the Kage. "All of the experts studying and observing this crisis have assured me the death toll will continue to climb. Even if I was not certain further infection would leave the village insufficiently fortified, more deaths would not be acceptable."
The councilmen tried to speak again.
"Dead pilling up in the street is not acceptable." Although he still spoke softly, Gaara sent a wave of killing intent towards the silk swathed old man, who was quivering with righteous outrage.
"I will not be bullied!" his creaky voice blustered, spittle falling in flecks onto the polished tabletop. "This illness will run it's course and be gone. Deaths are inevitable! And the dead in that old ghetto are measly vermin!"
A tightly clenched fist crashed onto the hard top of the table. Kankuro looked out of the corner of his eye at his sister on the other side of Gaara, easily identifiable as the only blonde in the room. Temari had been sitting silently with her arms crossed, displaying admirable self-control, but he could see her formidable temper had finally reached its limit.
"You are out of line," she spat, deep blue eyes burning holes in the bothersome old idiot. "And the only people in Suna who are vermin are those who live off of the deaths of others, like rats in a sewer gnawing on rotting carrion."
Kankuro smiled a bit. Temari had such a way with words when she wanted to.
Gaara quickly cut off the dishonorable elder before he could retort. "This is not open for discussion." Numerous incredulous and uncomprehending faces looked back to the Kage. "To save the lives of the citizens of Suna, to protect those who trust me with their lives, I am requesting aid from Konoha." He let another wave of killer intent wash through the room to remind the dissenters exactly whom they were dealing with. Elite assassins hadn't failed to kill him since he was a preschooler for nothing. "I am exercising the right and duty of the Kazekage to protect his people by any means necessary. This is a usage of my Crisis Dictation."
Kankuro enjoyed the way some of the more slothful council members tried in vain to remember the details of the historical legal power they had certainly never bothered to read about, let alone develop expertise in. He watched some of them exhibit pained expressions at having to perform critical thinking of any kind. They probably had people they paid to do that for them.
"I am sending out the missive this evening," Gaara said. He pulled himself up to his full height. Despite the way that the insomnia and strain of containing the Ichibi had stunted his brother's growth, Gaara was still taller and most definitely fitter than many of the so-called men present. "I expect all assembled here to offer the Konoha shinobi any assistance the may ask for once they arrive." Gaara looked every council member in the eye. At least he did to those who could stand to look him in the eye. "Any obstruction will be considered traitorous behavior in a time of crisis."
A couple of the assembled councilmen gasped, a few even whimpered, but none said a word.
Gaara looked to the side towards Kankuro, who got the unspoken message. He rose to his feet to close the meeting.
"This meeting of the Village Council is adjourned."
Temari, the only sibling not yet standing, silently stood up from the table and followed tensely behind Gaara as he lead the way out of the council chamber while the cowed council members waited their turn to exit.
The wooden door to the Kage's office swung open as the guards cleared the way for the siblings before stepping aside. All three passed though the door and into the quiet, austerely furnished room and it's ever-present stacks of paperwork. The seals set in place on all four walls and the floor and ceiling guaranteed they would have total privacy and could speak candidly. Kankuro closed the door behind them as Gaara made way his across the clean swept floor to his document covered desk and Temari collapsed gracelessly in a stuffed sitting chair. The sandy-haired kunoichi groaned aloud before placing a gloved hand to her face and proceeded to massage her aching temples with her fingertips.
Council meetings in that windowless little dungeon of a meeting room were always a chore, but this one had been more draining than most. And considering how the last series of meeting with those morons had gone, that was saying something. Ever since the first reports of an unknown illness propagating among the civilians who lived in the low-income district had been brought to her attention, it had been one farce and disaster after another with the council.
The illness had spread unnoticed at first, apparently it had a long incubation period, and had appeared in a variety of people from numerous age groups and in varying states of health. Public health officials had investigated every conceivable avenue of infection once the unusual symptoms were recognized as a previously unknown emerging infection. The investigators had meticulously checked water supplies, food, searched for a contaminant in incoming shipments of cloth and clothing, and they even considered the possibility that vents had opened up in the rock of the extinct volcanoes and were releasing noxious fumes. Every potential source had been slowly eliminated from the list. The absolute lack of explanation had lead Temari to go on some of the investigations personally to examine the evidence as it lay in the field. She had carefully looked through the tenements for any hard to detect mold or fungi. She had climbed over rocks to search for any changes in the local geography. She examined the city wells herself, even taking samples of the slime and algae clinging to the stone walls lining the shaft back to the lab for further scrutiny. Whatever the source of the disease was, it was refusing to be uncovered.
The disease itself was just as much of an enigma as it's elusive source. Temari cursed the fact that she didn't have the perfect chakra control necessary to be a medic-nin and had to limit her study of medicine to the role of combat medic. She didn't have enough of a background to participate in the medical investigation proper.
She had been told one of the first symptoms was a mild fever, something easily overlooked and a probable cause for the initial unnoticed spread. There was also sweating, weakness, and all the other classic signs of infection followed by septicemia and in some victims, mostly the shinobi, osteomyelitis. The progression of the disease as it moved from the civilian citizens to the ninja forces aiding in relief efforts lead some of the scientists working in the forensic labs to speculate the pathogen was capable of rapid evolution. This combined with the not yet identified mode of transmission lead some medical personnel to speculate that a virus was the type of pathogen they were combating. However, just like every other kind of treatment they had tried, broad spectrum antibiotics, fungicides, steroids, and autoimmune medications, anti-viral treatments had not made so much as a dent in the disease progression.
Anti-fever medications and cold packs helped with the fever, and IV drips insured proper hydration and nutrition and medications to keep the victims blood pressure elevated and blood count up bought those infected time, but they weren't enough to prevent patient decline and eventual death. She spent some time at the bedside of one the first shinobi infected to see the symptoms and deterioration with her own eyes. At the time, the hospital still had beds available.
The walls of the isolation ward had been coated in a white plaster that had been sanded to perfect smoothness. The air was crisp and antiseptic, having been filtered numerous times over and then recycled back into the room. The infected shinobi had already slipped into a coma, and bore the distinctive unhealthy pallor of the ill beneath his olive skin.
Temari approached the comatose man as he lay under carefully laundered sheets. The nurses attending told her he had initially made small noises and twitched in his sleep like other coma patients, but as the disease progressed he had become to weak even for those small things.
Making sure to keep her filter mask in place, the fabric that composed it bearing a seal that cleaned the air, Temari extended a hand covered in a medical glove to pick up the chart attached to the end of the bed. Focused blue eyes perused the information on the top sheet.
His blood pressure and heart rate were in a continuous state of decline. He was continuously loosing fluids through all possible means and blood was beginning to leak from his capillaries. Necrosis was beginning to set in some of major organs, and internal bleeding was beginning to become a problem.
The kunoichi noted the veins and arteries in his face and arms were becoming visible as the man's skin turned translucent. Temari carefully extended her hand to check the motionless shinobi's eyes by delicately lifting his eyelids, and saw bloody tears collecting beneath the close lids as well as more blood pooling freely in the jaundiced sclera. She gently closed the eyelid again before stepping away and returning the chart to the end of the bed.
She turned to look at the fluids collecting in a transparent jar beside the man's bed, the clear tube connected at the top probably connected to a catheter leading to his bladder. The fluid was reddish and darkening to brown.
That shinobi had also been among the first ninja to pass away. Temari had personally examined the autopsy report while conversing with the hospital staff and the resident expert who was charged with training hunter nin to exam bodies for signs of tampering by foreign shinobi. None of the experts present were able to determine the nature of the disease or suggest a new path of investigation. Kankuro already had a whole squad of ninja buried in both the dingy halls of hospital archives and the annals of previous mission reports to look for any clues, ideas, or even inspiration. So far, the only results of the intensive investigations among the endless shelves were eyestrain and, courtesy of one klutzy genin, a paper cut.
Temari sighed heavily through her nose and continued to slouch lazily in the chair while rubbing the throbbing temples. She could hear her two brothers beginning to discuss what had occurred in the council chambers.
"Well, that went as well as could be expected," Kankuro said from where he stood in front of the desk, his obnoxious smirk slightly distorting the lines of his face paint.
That was true enough. The council had gotten so used to Gaara's magnanimous attitude they had forgotten he wasn't the interim committee that had been in place following their father's death. The committee had been essentially a bunch of wall paid yes-men. Such a conglomeration of spoiled buffoons so used to being catered to had nearly forgotten that there were people in the world perfectly capable of saying the words 'no' and 'you are wrong'. Some of the councilmen were probably going to go home to their posh little mansions and throw tantrums fit for a toddler.
"They were not pleased," Gaara observed dryly. Her brother sat in his chair behind the Kage's desk and glanced askance at the massive pile of papers framing either side of his head as if his disproving glare could make them vanish as easily as it did the members of the council. "However, I am satisfied with the outcome. I believe they understand any interference in the activities of the aid from Konoha will bear a heavy penalty." Gaara shifted to his green-eyed gaze to his dark eyed brother, who nodded in agreement. Gaara then looked towards his seated sister, who returned the attention from under the arch of her hand as she continued to work against her burgeoning headache. She should probably go get some aspirin after this.
"Temari," Gaara began, "since you have headed the investigation of the disease since the beginning, I'll ask you to continue in that role."
Temari nodded in affirmation.
"Kankuro," Gaara turned to his puppeteer brother, "when the aid from Konoha arrives, I want you receive them and insure they have access to all resources they may require. I'm also going to ask that you keep an eye on the activities of the councilmen in the event they attempt any interference."
Kankuro nodded his head sharply so that the cat ears on his hood flapped slightly. Temari doubted that even the most ingrained bad habits of the council would have survived exposure to Gaara's decidedly impressive killing intent. Plenty of the decadent pseudo-aristocrats had witnessed the dismemberment of the bodies of the unsuccessful assassins during Gaara's youth. She was sure her brother's chakra mixed with a little murder had resulted in a pleasant trip down memory lane for them all. It ought to be more than enough to dissuade the council members from trying to deny the Konoha nin from accessing locations or information they would rather try to hoard for themselves. After all, even the council knew one couldn't manage a trading monopoly when one is dead. As Kankuro once quipped, people tend to ignore the memos after that point.
Gaara reached down to pull open a drawer of his paper covered desk and removed an inkwell and pen. Normally, he would call in one of secretaries to dictate, but a letter of this importance required his personal hand. He hadn't promised the council to write it in his own hand simply to placate them.
Temari watched her youngest brother concentrate to remember the incredibly intricate and flowery language required for such communications through one cracked eye. She really should be offering advice on the nuances of phrasing since her brother's underdeveloped sense of empathy sometimes prevented him from properly grasping the minutiae of such interactions. Temari begin focusing her thoughts on the rules of structure and vocabulary usage she had been taught by her tutors as young girl growing up in the Kage's family, only to have a stab of pain shoot sharply between her temples.
"Ungh." Temari pressed the gloved hand she had arched across her forehead firmly against her face in response to the pain. She shifted on the cushion of the chair to lean forward with her elbows on her knees, head held firmly between her two hands.
"Temari?" The concerned voice of Kankuro made it's way to her ears, but she set it aside as a growing sense of dread begin to curl it's way through her senses and flush her skin hot. Normally when faced with a headache, she would take down the four ponytails she wore to release any tension in her scalp, but she had a sinking feeling this was not an ordinary headache.
"Temari?" Kankuro said again, this time his voice was much closer to her. She peered through her fingers to see he had kneeled down next to her, his expression one of intense concern. "You don't look so good."
"Back away from me, Kankuro," Temari ordered in her best no-nonsense tone, blue eyes bright, carefully covering her mouth so she wouldn't inadvertently breath on him. "My forehead is burning up. I'm running a fever."
Kankuro's face morphed into an expression of horror as Temari begin to use one hand to push on the stiff arm of the chair to help herself up to her feet. She was already feeling fatigued. In fact, she had been feeling fatigued through most of the council meeting but she had considered that a mere side effect of having to be in the stale air and frustrating atmosphere of the blasted council room in the first place. The heaviness in her limbs and balance checks arising from the heightening sense of vertigo told her she needed to get herself to the hospital as quickly as possible, not only to place herself in quarantine to protect her brothers and fellow shinobi, but to buy herself time. There was a small chance she was simply experiencing an unseasonable flu, but her finely honed survival instincts were insisting she was in grave danger. She opened her eyes only to witness the earth-tone colors of the room swim mightily in her vision before her balance failed her completely.
Kankuro reached out to grab the sleeve of kimono and right her as she sensed rather than saw Gaara cross the wood floor and grab her free arm to slip around his shoulders.
"Temari? How long?" Kankuro asked, his discipline in critical situations not able to completely mask the growing dread and pain in his voice.
"Since the meeting," she breathed with her chin carefully tucked towards the collar of her kimono. She swallowed, her mouth was beginning to feel dry and the rush of adrenaline that had followed her realization was swiftly accelerating her heartbeat. It was likely she was already beginning to perspire. She needed to calm herself down to impede the spread of the pathogen.
Temari took deep steady breaths as her two brothers opened the door and half carried, half dragged her out of the office and into the adjoining hallway.
"Kazekage-sama, I-" Baki's words, whatever they were, cut off abruptly as he saw the brothers drag her around the doorframe. "Oh, no." Temari summoned the effort to lift her fair-head even as a small part of her, one that would always be the genin kunoichi trying to earn her sensei's approval, beamed at the knowledge he was worried about her.
"We need to get her to the hospital now." Kankuro growled as Temari looked with blurred vision at the face of her old sensei. His face was a blur of color; white cloth, tan skin, and red face paint.
"Please take over my duties for me Baki-sensei, unless Gaara orders you otherwise," Temari asked, her voice forced by her iron will, forged by years of service as a soldier, to be even and stable.
Temari saw the chuunin that were flanking Baki come forward as if to take her from her brothers, but Gaara's words stopped them in their tracks.
"I will take Temari to the hospital."
It made sense. Despite how ill and sickly he may have looked growing up, short for his age, underweight, and unnaturally pale with the dark ring of built up toxins completely encircling his eyes, Gaara had never suffered so much as a runny nose in all of his life. She had once asked her Uncle Yashamaru why this was and he responded he supposed it was the work of the biju Gaara held. Gaara was as immune from illness as much as he was from injury. Well, more so now that they knew Gaara could be injured by loud mouth genin from Konoha. To this day, it blew her mind that a brat from the famously sentimental Konohagakure no Sato who had all the hallmarks of a born-loser had defeated her youngest brother in one-on-one combat.
Temari felt Kankuro's larger frame slip away from where he had been supporting one side of her to give Gaara room to slip the arm that was not beneath her shoulders under her knees to pick her up. Gaara must have told Kankuro to do so with a look since she hadn't heard him utter a word.
"I'm taking Temari directly to the hospital. Upon my return I will prepare a dispatch to the Hokage. Have our fastest eagle prepared to deliver it." Gaara's orders were spoken with the same dry detachment with which he had addressed the council, and Temari supposed some of the chuunin observing them might find his response to the situation cold. She knew that wasn't true. In addition to the body heat that was seeping through the fabric of her svelte brothers Kage robes, there was also the beat of his heart. It was decidedly quicker than it's normal resting pace.
He's concerned for my well being…
Temari felt Gaara begin to rush with the agile, sure-footed speed of a ninja through the many corridors of the tower and then into the cool air of the night to get to the hospital. Even though she herself was not contributing to the motion she still felt dizziness assaulting her balance and orientation.
This illness really is progressing more swiftly with time…
A flock of social songbirds twittered merrily amongst themselves as they perched in the delicate branches of a flowering tree in full bloom. Judging by the look of it, Shizune would wager those were ume blossoms. The kunoichi passed the tree and kept walking through the colorful streets of Konoha, lively and full of activity brought about by the exceptionally fine weather. Vendors had their wares out in full view, brightly dyed cloths, hairpins made with colorful jewels, and more rainbow colored flowers than Shizune could name. Many of the stores and buildings had fresh coats of vibrant paints, and the leafy trees of the city were lush and green. People chattered animatedly and laughed amongst themselves as they examined the items for sale, or, in the case of some small children, tried to climb the trees.
Bright sunshine poured in through the window beside the main doorway of the Hokage Tower as Shizune stepped over the threshold and back into her place of work, her spirits high. Her lunch had been especially pleasant. Instead of eating her normal bento, Shizune had decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and go out into the city for food. The sky was a beautiful blue dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the sun was just bright enough to warm but not overpowering. The light breezes that had followed the brief rain shower that had left a clean scent in the air teased her short dark bangs and the edges of her purple kimono.
For some reason, she had been in the mood for dango and had actually had a pleasant chat with Mitarashi Anko, who was finishing up advanced training in tracking and eager to take on her first assignment. The purple haired woman, infamous for her brash personality, had made for surprisingly good company.
Shizune had approached the open-air shop and stepped into the shade of its umbrella to place her order with the smiling girl who was waiting to receive it, when a vaguely familiar voice called out to her.
"Hey! Shizune-san!" Shizune turned to see the rambunctious exam proctor sitting cross-legged on one of the establishment's benches, light kicking her free leg and taking a sip of her tea. "Get the bocchan! It's great today!"
Shizune gave the friendly woman a small smile in return and turned back to the cashier to say, "One order of bocchan."
"Man, how rarely do I get to talk to you?" Anko asked with a lop-sided grin as Shizune settled down on the bench next to her, order in hand. "Normally I only get to see you when you're running from one place to another, arms full of papers or that little piggy of Tsunade-sama's," Anko finished before taking a big swig of her tea.
"Ton Ton," Shizune said before taking a careful bite of her dango. They really were good today.
"Yeah her," Anko said breezily. "I want to say 'hi' but you're always in such a rush."
Shizune took another careful bite of her dango and noted that some of the men walking by were eyeing Anko. Shizune felt an urge to roll her eyes. You would think people would be used to Anko by now. Surely it was not that hard to see that beneath her mesh suit she was wearing a breathable, lightweight flesh colored body stocking. Then again, Shizune knew Anko dressed the way she did specifically to "mess with people", as she put it.
"So, same old-same old with you?" Anko asked, taking another huge bite out of her dango and chewing enthusiastically.
Shizune swallowed and answered, "More or less. There hasn't been too much going on at the Tower except for the usual." She took a sip of her green tea. It was quite good, too.
"No news is good news," Anko said, stuffing the last dango on her current skewer into her mouth whole.
"True." Shizune took small bite of dango before asking, "How about you?"
"Can't complain," Anko said through a mouthful of chewed dango before swallowing. "I finished up my last round of training and am almost done getting the last of my papers finalized," she said brightly.
"Tracking right?" Shizune asked, looking over at Anko over her cup of tea.
"Yup, the last certification I needed!" She turned to look at Shizune with a huge grin stretched across her features. "Hopefully, I'll get my first mission before the week is out!" She turned her attention to back to her tea and drained the cup in a single gulp.
Shizune made a mental note to spend her lunch with Anko more often as she began to return her mind to work mode. Shizune's heels clacked there way across the polished wood floor as she made her way towards the stairs that ascended to the floor where the Hokage's office was located.
"Ah! Shizune! You're back." The friendly voice of Hagane Kotetsu called out across the spacious entry hall. The dark-haired nin wasn't typically in the Hokage Tower since he was usually running errands elsewhere, and Shizune greeted him with a warm smile as she altered course to where he was standing at the side of the room, leaning on his elbow which was resting atop a shipping crate. She supposed he thought he looked rather cute that way, with that piece of cloth stretched fashionably across his face and his easy-going posture. At least the guy wasn't uptight like some of the older shinobi she had to put up with.
"Here, I'll let you take this to Tsunade-sama. It should make her day," he explained, lifting up the crate with two hands and offering it to the slender medic-nin.
"What is it?" Shizune asked as she accepted the package. The label on it read 'sake', but that shouldn't be enough on it's own to make Tsunade-sama happy. The Hokage kept a sizeable stash hidden away in various parts of the Hokage Tower at all times. It wasn't unusual for Shizune to be going around the Tower hunting for 'misplaced' paperwork and come across a bottle of sake tucked away up in the rafters of a storeroom or in stashed a hidden drawer in a desk. Shizune knew Tsunade didn't do this out of secrecy or alcoholism; she simply didn't want other people getting into her stash. Tsunade-sama hated sharing her booze.
"A shipment of sake directly from the Rice Country," the tall chuunin replied. "You can read the letter in detail, but the short of it is they had a mix up at their distributor and to apologize for it they sent some of their best sake free!" Kotetsu beamed at Shizune, only to look puzzled a moment later as the woman rushed towards the staircase in a flurry of clacking heels.
Tsunade-hime, Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato, sat in her chair at her desk in front of the wall of windows in her office and mentally cursed that thing known as responsibility. She turned her head to look enviously at her pet pig Ton Ton, contentedly dosing on a soft rug in a puddle of warm sunshine. The little pig snored lightly, and occasionally one pink ear would flap slightly in a gesture of happy comfort.
Tsunade felt her lips purse into a jealous pout before turning back to the mind-numbingly dull piece of parchment in her hands. The document was, she was told, a proposal outlining the details of a suggested restructuring of the municipal zoning codes in Konoha to create more streamlined conversions between zones. Tsunade couldn't know for sure because the wording was written in such jargon-ridden legalese it might as well have been an ancient text from the sunken cities off the coasts of the Wave Country. She was getting crossed-eyed just looking at the mess of chicken scratch.
Tsunade set the proposal down on her paper-swamped desk and pinched two nail polished tipped fingers on the bridge of nose to ease the tension headache she felt forming. When was Shizune getting back anyway? She needed to think of a way trick her apprentice into taking on this piece of… joy.
A muffled "Let me in! Let me in!" came through the closed door to her office, grabbing Tsunade's attention. Well, all she to do was ask.
The door was flung open and a harried looking Shizune came bursting through, her expression intense and the grip she had on the crate white-knuckled. The young woman clacked purposefully up to the desk.
"Shizune, what is this?" Tsunade demanded, arching one eyebrow over an amber colored eye as the young woman placed the crate on the desk, upsetting one of the teetering stacks of paperwork in the process. The stack fell to the floor with a series of flutters and soft thud, startling Ton Ton and causing the pig to oink in surprise as she sat up with a shake of her head.
"Tsunade-sama," Shizune started, slightly breathless from her rush up the stairs. "It's your latest sake shipment form the Rice Country."
Tsunade felt her other eyebrow join the first. This was especially bad; sake should be good news.
"There was an error in your order," the dark-haired woman continued, the expression on her youthful face grim. "To make up for it, the distillery sent you their finest offering. Complimentary."
Tsunade shot to her feet, her geta hitting the floor with a sharp clack. The Hokage gripped the farthest corner of the wooden crate with one powerful hand and with an application of her trademark strength yanked the top free, nails and all, without the use of a crow bar. One flaxen ponytail slipped over shoulder as she leaned over to dig through the wood-shavings and grab the ceramic neck of the most expensive looking bottle.
Tsunade noted Shizune visually inspecting the bottle as she turned the ornate tag tied around the bottleneck over to read the artfully written description. Tsunade frowned.
"Rising White Phoenix." The buxom blonde exchanged a look with Shizune. This was the company's signature honjozo-shu. This was serious.
Tsunade placed the bottle on the desktop with a thunk and reached into a desk drawer to remove her ochoko set as Shizune focused on opening the bottle. Tsunade took the opened bottle from her apprentice and poured a small amount of the drink into the cup.
Tsunade observed the liquid with a critical eye, noting the transparent gold color. The Hokage took a sip of her free sake and closed her eyes to focus on the feel and flavor of the beverage.
Dark lashes parted to reveal amber colored eyes. Tsunade turned to look at Shizune, who was anxiously awaiting the verdict.
Shizune let out her held breath rush. This could only mean one thing.
"What do you think it is, Tsunade-sama?" Shizune asked, referring to what terrible thing had occurred or would soon occur.
"Did you notice anything amiss while you were in the village?" Tsunade asked.
Shizune shook her head to indicate she hadn't seen anything of interest. Tsunade set down the cup as she considered the reports she had reviewed that morning. Nothing in any of them indicated difficulties outside of the normal issues encountered by shinobi performing their duties. She watched an empty space on her desk, halfway expecting one of Jiraiya's messenger frogs to appear in a poof of smoke.
"I don't know what we're dealing with just yet. Remain at the ready and keep a watch for anything abnormal."
"Hai, Tsunade-sama." Shizune stood at attention, and then turned on her heel to exit the office. The sounds of commotion from the other side of the doorway caught the attention of both women. The door slammed open for the second time that day to reveal one of the chuunin who manned the communications towers.
"Hokage-sama!" the man called out as he staggered to a stop in the middle of the sunlight office. "We just received a message brought by Suna's fastest eagle bearing the personal seal of the Kazekage. It's being decoded as we speak!"
Tsunade's expression set into a series of firm lines as she considered the implications of such a dispatch. That sake had better be excellent to the last drop.
Tsunade sat in her chair, the decrypted message in her hand. Across from on the other side of the desk, Shizune had pulled up a chair and was sitting on the edge of it, her focus on the parchment in the Hokage's hand.
Tsunade's honey-colored eyes flicked back and forth rapidly as she quickly absorbed the information contained within. She handed the paper over to the eagerly awaiting Shizune, and then closed her eyes to focus on organizing her thoughts and formulating a plan.
A previously unknown illness had appeared in the city of Suna and resisted all efforts to check it's spread or develop a cure. Even the treatments administered to aid in the relief of symptoms had limited success. The incidence of fatalities was increasing with time rather than diminishing.
The medical professional in Tsunade was itching to run to Suna and gain access to every one of those patients and review all associated records. The idea that there were so many people suffering with no hope of cure infuriated the medic in her and made the leader in her want to grill Gaara about why the little upstart had not sent out a request for relief sooner. At the same time, the reluctant politician in her who had to deal with stubborn elders and short-sighted businessmen knew the young Kazekage was certainly dealing with his own version of her own headaches. It was likely he was facing even more opposition than she normally did considering how people tend to panic in the face of deadly threats.
Shizune put down the paper and looked to her longtime master, her dark eyes sharp with purpose. "What are your orders, Tsunade-sama?"
Tsunade opened her eyes. The delicate nature of situation meant they could not risk suggesting to any observers Suna's imperiled condition. Any indication the desert city was vulnerable would no doubt result in one or more of Suna's enemies attempting to exploit the situation. The relief sent would have to be suitably subtle to avoid attracting unwanted scrutiny. A team should be sent, but not with anything more than the usual supplies to prevent unwanted questions. The heart of the team should undoubtedly be a medic-nin. The question of who to send and who should be sent as support was the critical question.
"We'll assemble a standard four men cell to dispatch to Suna," Tsunade replied.
"Should I summon my team, Tsunade-sama?" Shizune's face was full of conviction.
Tsunade shook her head in denial. Dispatching Shizune to Suna would have unwanted consequences, not the least of which was losing her right-hand woman.
"I need you here. In addition, after all the years we spent traveling in the countryside you would be too recognizable as a disciple of mine." She flicked her eyes towards the younger woman, who looked disappointed, but understood completely.
"We'll send Sakura instead. She has the medical capability but is not as likely to be recognized." Tsunade considered for a moment. The rest of cell should consist of people her other disciple was familiar with to insure the team functioned as well as possible immediately. Sakura and her new team members would not have time to get used to each other as they might on more casual missions. Despite the uniformity of ninja training and regulations, the ability to predict the individual responses of your teammates could be the difference between sure success and deadly failure. Such familiarity only came from experience working together.
Since teams normally had just one medical ninja, including a second may also draw attention. The rest of the team should consist of reconnaissance specialists to aid in the continuing investigation of the source and transmission patterns of the illness. Considering how long Suna had tried and failed to understand anything about the sickness, the more information gathered, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, the better.
Members of Team 8 from Sakura's year made a natural choice. Normally she would have assigned Sakura's old genin cell to support her, but due to circumstances beyond Sakura's control that was obviously not an option.
"Kurenai is still on her mission to the Lightening Country," Tsunade stated, distinctly remembering sending the genjutsu specialist on the S-ranked mission. "The rest of her squad is still in Konoha?"
"Hai," Shizune replied. "None of the members have requested leave."
Good. Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba, and Hyuuga Hinata all had excellent information gathering skills and Sakura was familiar with both their jutsus and personalities. Shizune must have noticed the expression she on her face was the one she normally wore when she arrived at a conclusion because she began to hesitantly speak.
"Ano, Tsunade-sama," she said, looking slightly apologetic. "I doubt Hyuuga Hiashi-san will permit his oldest daughter to go on a mission into a diseased city where the disease is fatal and has no known cure."
Tsunade felt a spark of annoyance at the stipulations of the old contract her great uncle had signed with the Hyuuga when the clan agreed to live in Konoha. The clan head had the power to refuse any mission on behalf of any members of the clan should the head decide the missions posed conditions or risks that were unacceptable.
Although Hyuuga Hiashi was known for being one cold and ruthless man, a reputation not wholly undeserved, the progress Hinata and her cousin Neji had shown, both in ninja skill and emotional and psychological well being clearly demonstrated he cared in his own way for his family. Hinata was his eldest daughter and current heir to the headship of the clan. There was no possibility of convincing him he should allow Hinata to go on the mission and there was no way to hide the details as the contract required full disclosure.
There was also the issue of squad leader. It was best that Sakura not be appointed squad leader so she could focus on her medical investigation. Neither of the young men considered for the team had the experience necessary to lead. The most obvious choice for squad leader was Kakashi. He was one of the best ninja in the entire village and he had been Sakura's original sensei during her time as a genin. On the other hand, Kakashi's infamy and the large bounty beside his image in the Bingo Book meant it wasn't just other shinobi who actively kept a watch for his distinctive visage. It would be better to select a nin who didn't have such a reputation preceding them.
"How about Hyuuga Neji-san?" Shizune suggested sensibly. "He hasn't been assigned a mission as squad leader yet." Tsunade tilted her head in consideration as Shizune continued. "It would be beneficial to his career and Hiashi-san would be less likely to object, especially considering how soon it as after Neil's successful completions of the jounin exams."
Tsunade nodded her head in agreement. It was the main function of the branch family to protect the main family, and Neji was one of the most talented Byakugan users to ever be born into the Hyuuga clan. It was also an undeniable honor to be assigned the role of squad leader at such a young age and on such an important mission.
"Perhaps the messenger dispatched to the Hyuuga compound should be reminded to…" Shizune hesitated, somewhat uncomfortable, "assure Hinata she is not being left out."
Tsunade felt her eyebrows lift up, and then almost immediately settle back down. "I don't believe Hinata will view this as being left behind. Her team is merely being broken up into parts at this time." With Kurenai on her solo mission, her team wasn't truly leaving without her. Additionally, although Neji was her cousin, he was a jounin and Sakura had no connection to either of their previous teams whatsoever. Tsunade trusted that the pale-eyed young woman's self-confidence and maturity would allow her to see this as the practical concern that it was and not as something personal.
Tsunade sat up straight at her desk and looked Shizune directly in the eye to indicate she was ready to give orders. Shizune stood up out of her chair and shifted her posture to that of a subordinate at attention, indicating she was ready to receive them.
"Send out chuunin messengers to locate and summon Sakura, Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba, and Hyuuga Neji to my office immediately. In addition, send another messenger to locate Nara Shikamaru. I would like his thoughts on this mission for its duration," Tsunade finished.
"Hai!" Shizune turned away from Tsunade and ran across the floor of the office to execute the received orders. Tsunade watched her go as she considered the situation and Ton Ton grunted in her sleep. Not only was this a health crisis that could potentially result in an epidemic or full pandemic should it not be properly handled, there was the chance of diplomatic chaos and opportunistic warfare to top it all off.
Tsunade allowed herself a deep breath. She reached for the sake bottle she had stashed in her desk when she had ordered the rest to be removed by housekeeping while waiting for the Kazekage's dispatch to be decrypted. She had the feeling she was not going to be permitting herself to enjoy any more alcohol for a while after this one.
AN: Since not much is mentioned in the manga about what happened in Konoha during the time-skip, I decided to write a piece about what could have happened. Although, it is already one multi-chapter story and two one-shots. One of those one-shots is already posted.
The title of this story is an English translated lyric from the song The River Sings by Enya (which I do not own). The sound and lyrics of the song fit the story fairly well.
For pairings, see my note in Chapter 3.
Review if you like it.