Chapter 46 - Goodbye
My cart, (which was the only transport available at short notice) rolled slowly down the deserted streets. There were scorch marks on the clay buildings, miraculously standing after Shukaku's possession of Gaara. I still didn't know how Kankuro and the others had managed to contain the destruction. There was evidence of a fight with scraps of lighting papers and blood splatters, but this I regarded as minor. After all I had seen with my own eyes what was possible and it could have been so much worse.
Muscles tugged at either side of my mouth dragging it into a frown. I remembered entering the village in a violent sandstorm, clutching onto Temari's back tightly as a shell to a tortoise. Of course back then I had no idea who or what lay ahead of me, it had been a voyage of pure discovery. I laughed thinking back to my horrendous judgements the first week including the letter I had sent to Master Homura.
The sun may shine here for more hours than any other continent in the whole world, but it has the coldest heart on Earth.
"It was all going so well," I grumbled into my boots.
"You mumbling something back there, Yasu?" Torao asked giving the reigns another quick flick. He'd been sent here to pick me up and help make my exit in the early hours. A few of the more important possessions belonging to the Konoha elders plus all the paperwork I had accumulated was stashed here with me.
I felt like a thief stealing away having said no goodbyes to the people who cared. They would be disappointed by the sudden absence some might say even furious. Toshie for one might even throw kunai at the door of the ambassador residence. She'd never really developed those anger management skills we'd talked about. Maybe I should drop by her house and leave a note at least? I thought about it for all of a few seconds before realising there was no such thing as a short letter with me. It would take at least an hour to come up with the right way to put things, craft the words to ease her pain. By that time Toshie would be awake and opening the door wondering why I was there!
With a sigh I glanced at the Administration Building. Buried within a prison of guilt, Gaara would be trying to make sense of last night's chaos. It didn't do any good to ponder on the Kazekage at the moment I was being strangled perfectly well by my own doom and gloom.
We passed through the narrow rock tunnel leading outside the village. All far too easy then again Temari was a master at making plans come to fruition. I'd been told to pack immediately, and at dawn several men had come and placed everything onto the cart in total silence. She did not want to hear my plea about Gaara's condition - to her the Kazekage was not in charge until he had regained complete control. Until he was back in Ivory Towers in human form my fate rested in the female kunoichi's hands. And because of the danger that I posed to her brother I was to be removed effective immediately. In the meantime I'd be left to the fiery will of Lady Tsunade back in the Land of Fire.
"Please wait!" A shrill voice rang out accompanied with clumping footsteps. It was a single figure, who tripped over his own feet in rapid succession. Each time with renewed determination he stood up and continued to run his disoriented stagger. When eventually he caught up I recognised the brown curls and exhausted face sweating like a pig.
"Tell me," he gasped. "What do you know about Grandpa?" He said impatiently, aggravated at my lack of response. "I know you've holding something back."
My eyes blinked as I considered carefully what the young boy was referring to. "I don't know what you're talking about," I said at last hoping to throw him off the scent.
He seemed undeterred however as two chocolate brown eyes widened. "I heard Lord Kazekage talking to Grandma Rooba. He said that Grandpa died to save you. Please tell me – is it true?"
"Hiro... You shouldn't listen to adult conversations."
"But you're leaving!" He protested. "You can't just walk away and leave the people here thinking he'd gone mad! They won't believe anyone else."
"I can't tell them the truth if I don't know what the truth is. I know that I survived that night somehow, but..." I was lost I hadn't expected Hiro to come running after me demanding answers. "I have to go Hiro. When I remember I promise to write to you and explain exactly what happened."
"Do you promise?" He puffed out his chest trying to seem taller than he was. "Cos when I'm old enough am gonna go travelling to Konoha and find you if you don't!"
I couldn't explain how much I wanted to forget that night and so all I could do was nod. The cart moved on.
"Goodbye Lady Leaf!" He called sadly.
I watched transfixed as the figure slowly disappeared through the increasing distance. After an hour when I squinted my eyes I thought I could make out a hand waving dumbly I waved back thinking Hiro could still see me.
By the time we reached the edges of the desert there was a sand storm moving in. Torao continued to a stream and made camp for the night. In the morning the journey continued taking us further into the fresh terrain, leaving the sands behind as a bad memory. Looking around for clues it was the first time I had considered the time of year. It felt cold. I searched for any flowers still alive for signs of the season, there were none.
Torao told me we had begun to enter winter. The first snows had reached the taller mountain ranges to the North. From the sea colder air fronts had made themselves known to the farmers in the Land of Rice Paddies and they had returned home.
Winter in Konohagakure, I vaguely pictured making snow angels with Naoki, lighting fires and watching glistening frost spread onto window panes. Compared to the Land of Snow which Naruto had once mentioned, Konoha enjoyed fairly mild winters. He had travelled there many years ago with Sasuke and Sakura, when they were still Team Seven. They had fought to save a princess, a princess who did not want to be one. Naruto had rolled his eyes at the mention of the many escape attempts she had made to avoid the role.
I was lucky it was all out of my hands now. I had to be honest and admit there were very few things I would actually miss about being an ambassador. The power held no appeal to me any longer and the title could be thrown away for all I cared. Becoming ambassador had been nothing short of an endless headache and I was glad to be free of it. The only thing I missed was my friends...
Maybe in another time I would still be sitting on the steps gazing at the sun. In another place where I never had the cursed blood of Hashirama Senju, where Hiro's Grandpa was alive, working in the ink shop, Lady Tsunade was a kind, gracious leader and Gaara was not possessed by a demon. I clutched at the unlikely dream just a little longer despite the threat of summoning more tears.
Suddenly there was a heavy jolt, which launched me from my comfortable perch onto the chest I had securely placed by my side. I lay there paralysed by the impact of the landing, having managed to fall squarely onto its curved wooden lid with a sickening crunch. To make matters worse a sizable collection of objects buried my face in dark shadow. The sky disappeared for several moments until I felt the cart lower as though a person had jumped onto it. I blew a scroll away from my nose, and then scowled as it fluttered and settled once more. I was desperate to scratch my nose. How it tingled persistently!
Blue sky appeared inch by inch like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle slotting into place. When my arms were free I lay down fiercely attacking the scratch with my nails. It was not enough to simply scratch the itch, there was further rubbing with my fists in round circles to the sides of my nostrils. A sickening squelchy sound was accompanied by a satisfying groan of relief. When I finally opened my eyes ready to greet the laughter of Torao for rescuing me, there was something else.
"Oh crap!" I spluttered out.
"Ambassador..." Gaara acknowledged before narrowing his green eyes.
"Lord Kazekage!" I replied in alarm regaining my wits. I tried to sit up but couldn't, for my body was still reeling from the fall only moments earlier. "Oh for goodness sake..." I tried again to move leaning backwards on my elbows and then slipped due to the rolls of paper scattered on the floor. My pathetic rueful laugh was accompanied by the shrugging of shoulders, "Can't move."
"So I see," Gaara agreed looking down with the same air of superiority that he always held.
I couldn't believe it - I had followed Temari's instructions down the last letter. I was supposed to have been tucked away in Konoha for at least two days before Gaara realised I was even gone. Yet here he was glaring at me! In one beat my heart boomed with excitement at seeing the young shinobi, I would be able to say goodbye properly. Then I saw the faces of Baku, Lady Fifth and Temari yelling and bawling in a haze of red smoke; angry at my deception and for speaking to the Kazekage. I had to get rid of him quickly. We were less than seven miles away from the majestic gates of The Village Hidden in the Leaves.
Gaara leaned against another set of drawers to the side of me. Absently he slid his finger across the wooden surface and watched as it became lined with a film of dust. He rubbed his finger tips together removing the dirt.
I lay there trying to guess what troublesome thoughts might be dashing about in his mind. Shukaku and my sacrifice on the yagura altar were top of my guess list. The hideous and wild face of the monster standing above me with a blade still haunted even my waking hours. How much of that had Gaara witnessed? Had he heard my submission to death? Did it freak him out? So many questions that I never expected answers to, I had been prepared to shut myself away and forget everything.
"Why are you here?" I began, still aware that I was flat on my back. Mind you there was no one spying on us now. No Hokage, mentors or sisters to advise what was best. It had been a very long time ago when we last sat together on the steps outside my shack. I understood that the duties of a leader left very little time for the Kazekage to have time to himself. There was even less time for nonsense social chitchat about haiku, fables and myths. In fact had it not been for the festival I would rarely have seen Gaara at all.
He seemed relieved that I opened the dialogue, and as always took the opportunity to answer my question with one of his own, "Why did you leave?" His gaze wandered to the clouds as though afraid of the answer.
I didn't know what to say. There were so many reasons why I was leaving; being ordered to came first, then there was the threat of being pulverised by Temari, Shukuku destroying the village, the accusation of treason by my peers and of course being the Hokage's half sister! All this was irrelevant however as the most dangerous reason was that when it came to Gaara I couldn't trust myself.
Somewhere along the way I had fallen short of my ambassador duties and got too close. When I first came to Suna it was a nightmare and I longed for the trees and Hokage rock with a deep passion. Over time when it became clear that the Sand Village was becoming more of a true home to me than the place of my birth, I knew something was wrong. I had immersed myself so deeply within the social fabric that I had literally forgotten what it meant to be a citizen of Konohagakure. I couldn't simply brush this aside. If it was possible I had performed my duties a little too well.
"It was nothing to do with you," I joined him by looking at the sky. "My contract is up and I have to return home, that's it."
He sniffed at this, "ambassador, you are still a poor liar."
"Well, I'm not the ambassador anymore. I have no title... I'm just Yasu." I smiled at the simplicity it felt genuinely good.
"Is that what you want?"
I snarled at him, "Don't be so bloody naive, it doesn't suit you."
He was taken aback by this, eyes widening with confusion.
"We don't always get what we want, Gaara. Sometimes there are bigger powers at work that can't be controlled. I have the secrets of Konohagakure locked into my DNA, the elders of the village would never let me run around and live my own life now. If I stayed in the Land of Wind there would be great unease. They'd be worrying that I might betray the village or become a rogue for hire or something! It's happened before.
I get the feeling that I'm a problem for them. I have absolutely no idea what I'm supposed to do when I get back either."
This was becoming more difficult than I had ever imagined. I forced my eyes to stare at the streaks of white cloud dragged across the pool of blue. I wanted him to hold my hand just for a moment to feel the warmth of his skin. He was barely half a metre from me, but it felt like there was a wide chasm between us.
He considered his words, "Perhaps you could return to work at the hospital?"
"Three murders, the theft of your gourd and an oak tree planted in the main building, all linked back to me. After all that scandal I don't think I'd be welcomed back there somehow.
No, I think Lady Fifth will have a mind numbing, safe job lined up for me, something that will keep me very close in her line of sight. Let me see, maybe stacking books at the library or completing D rank missions for the rest of my life? I can hardly wait..."
Suddenly he coughed violently and took water from a flask. He drank in small sips taking the time to moisten his mouth which I noticed was chapped. I thought suddenly how far he must have travelled to come and see me. He wasn't even wearing a basic travel pack, what was he thinking?
"To become a prisoner within your own village seems wasteful. You have...talents which should be utilised not simply swept under a mat and hidden."
"Does anyone know where you are?" I asked suddenly. There were times when it was easy to forget that the young boy was actually the leader of an entire village.
"By the time Kankuro discovers my sand clone sitting at the desk it will not matter." He said with a devilish look of enjoyment.
Upon hearing this particular piece of news I was horrified. Trying to imagine the expression on the puppeteer's face when he realised his own little brother had tricked him good and proper! What panic and chaos would ensue trying to track down the missing Kage, I knew Temari would pull the pieces together soon enough. All of Suna's elders would know that Gaara had discovered their attempt at a cover up; that my swift exit had been engineered in their eyes to protect the village. However whether Gaara would interpret such events in that light upon his return would remain (for them) an uncomfortable and tense mystery.
I shook my head in disbelief, "I can't believe you just upped and left! You're supposed to be Kazekage." I realised how much like Temari I was becoming, and groaned in exasperation. "They will know that you've come to find me!"
Gaara's face came closer and spoke softly, "It was my own choice, Yasu. You must not worry for my sake for I know that you do, more so than your own well being at times. I was unable to offer my apologies for that night which was unacceptable. You knew what I was about to do"
"What Shukuku was trying to make you do," I disagreed firmly whilst attempting to sit up once more. "And so long as I'm around he'll continue to try and possess you, putting the whole village in danger again."
"Who said such a thing?"
"Nobody, forget it." My voice became strained as I finally managed to scramble up and leaned against the chest.
A clean break would be the best thing I kept telling myself desperately. After a few months I was positive that the Kazekage would be so busy that he would not even give me a second thought. My resolve was so weak that all I could do was swallow the bitter bile that bulged inside my throat.
"Do you believe I would punish them?" His low voice rumbled.
"I know you would."
He knew I was right.
"Do you realise there are times when I envy ninja from the leaf?" He changed topic suddenly. "The way you protect others in both thoughts and actions, it is to be admired. Naruto Uzumaki taught me that true strength comes from protecting someone who is precious to you. If I am unable to do that friendship is worthless."
"No friendship is ever worthless...it's just complicated." I picked up one of the scrolls and placed it back with the others. To start talking about friendship after everything that happened was crazy. I continued to tidy the mess around us in a frenzied annoyance. Gaara said nothing and watched evidently amused by my sudden urgency to reorganise the cart to satisfaction.
Knowing Tarao was probably still eavesdropping I gingerly slid my body off the end of the cart, and walked hastily towards the trees. Gaara followed and there we stood. I didn't know how I could feel so many different things just by looking at a person. He'd taught me how to stand up for myself and to realise that I could do more in this life than I ever believed possible. In his eyes my right to exist had been proven, and that meant more to me than anything else.
"I don't know what you consider to be our friendship," I hissed, the anger making me shake. "You've drawn enough tears from me to fill a well, beaten me to a pulp and never let me to win an argument – not even once!"
"Aside from insulting my intelligence," Gaara nodded. "You are accurate in your statements."
His smirk was maddening I wanted to punch him. How could he joke at a time like this?
"You just don't care do you? I never came to Suna to be your entertainment, Gaara. In fact I never wanted to come at all." I took a shuddering breath, "I wish I'd never met you."
This seemed to make no impact whatsoever. He tilted his head as through studying a curious painting, "Must you become so overwhelmed by your emotions that it clouds the little common sense that you possess?"
Hands flew to my hips as they often did when I heard criticism, "I have plenty of common sense, thank you very much!"
"You said a true friend will accept both the light and the dark. That which you have seen in me you have accepted. I followed because I finally understand."
Distraught dark eyes looked into my own - it was my turn to be confused, "What do you understand?"
"I came because I fear, I am about to lose someone precious to me."
The shock of hearing such genuine words was both bliss and torture. He always came across so guarded and aloof that it was hard to read him. To hear Gaara speak of even a ghost of an attachment was bizarre. The way he acted and spoke around me was as changeable as the weather.
"You have introduced me to things I would never have considered worth my time; Haiku, cultivation of plants, opening presents...to others insignificant. At first I could not comprehend why names are more important than titles. Why sharing a burden is not weakness. How kindness effects more than severity."
"You came all this way to tell me that?"
"Come back to the village," his raspy voice demanded.
"I can't..." The two words crushed together inside my windpipe. I saw the disappointment in his face and wanted to reach out and embrace him. But he still didn't realise how cruel the demon truly was. There had to be some way to show the young Kage what I meant. I didn't want to hurt him, to make him resent his situation, but how else could I prove my point?
"Why does it hurt so much," He pleaded with me. "To hear you say that?" His dismay was painful to watch. He'd come all this way and yet would return empty handed. I would never forget the green eyes barely holding together some kind of control. He clutched his coat near to the heart, his breath wheezing.
I tried to smile and make light of it, but my voice trembled. "I'll always be your friend."
My hand reached over to his and I held it gently, bracing myself. Then it happened, the sand shield burst into life trying to rip us apart with great force. Strangely, despite knowing what would happen, it didn't prepare me. Like a swarm of angry hornets the sand grains buzzed and crackled. Gaara's mouth flew open, but any sound was drowned out.
To comprehend that a person Shukuku perceived as a threat would be attacked in close proximity could only be experienced firsthand. Gaara could never be told - he had to see for himself. The sand spirit hadn't realised what was happening between the Kazekage and me until it began to change Gaara's motives. Of course upon coming to the conclusion that such a relationship was dangerous the tanku had pulled all his energies into a relentless tug of war with his host. And despite Gaara's best efforts and desires he was not strong enough to stop Shukuku.
I held onto the hand knowing full well how much damage was being inflicted. At first Gaara held on just as tightly, but when the sand began to scratch and bite at my face his grip loosened. I needed him to understand that it was not me. How could he possibly believe that I would choose to leave Suna behind?
Shukaku left his host alone and solely set about tearing me apart. I bit my lip holding on, despite the terrible, searing pain. I wasn't sure what hurt the most the physical pain or my heart breaking into a million pieces. He still could not see, refusing to believe the truth that was clearly laid out. Was he so stubborn that only my dead body would be evidence enough? Then finally something solid, the Kazekage's own fingers prising our hands apart. Now I knew, he truly understood.
The sand continued to lash out whipping me. Gaara's nails clawed at my hand before finally I allowed myself to snatch back the limb. I could feel the throbbing flesh, and knew that deep red scars were already forming. Strands of my tatty blond hair were scattered across the forest floor. I was amazed to still be standing up straight, but expected to collapse at any given moment.
"Like I said," I sucked up a gulp of air. "We don't always get what we want."
He nodded dumbly, battling with how life could offer so much with one hand, before taking it away with the other.
"We must therefore make the most of what we have," he said finally in a fragile whisper. I had never seen Gaara on the verge of tears before, he faltered, calming himself before moving on. He produced a box from his inner pocket. The box was wrapped in brown paper and I realised it was the same box from my mother. "I have added something to the contents," He explained with a hidden smile. "But you will need to open it to find out."
"I don't want to open that box."
"You are correct, we don't always get what we want," he said slowly. "Sometimes we receive only what we need." The Kazekage still dressed in the coat I had given to him began walking away. He paused briefly and placed the box on the ground. "Thank you, Lady Leaf."
I watched the Great Wind Shadow leave knowing there was nothing else to say. He didn't dare look back and in a way I was very glad. As I ran to the box I could tell how the paper had been painstakingly taken apart. With the same care and attention to detail it had been folded back together. Somehow I tried to pretend that a present would make all the difference, that I would feel better. It rattled annoyingly as I returned to the cart. Even now he was testing me – seeing how many days I could last before peeking, no doubt. It was hard not to laugh at that.
"You ready to rumble yet, Yasu?" Torao yelled from the front.
"Ready as I'll ever be," I replied with my bravest smile. "I can handle anything!"
Author's note – This is the end of Lady Leaf I hope it's given at least some enjoyment along the way. I'd like to thank everyone who has reviewed and encouraged me. In particular Gaaras1girl who has been very helpful, you are a star.
If you're reading this and in the middle of writing your own story, I wish you the very best of luck!