Title: Unwrap

Series: Naruto (written May 2006)

Pairing: Temari/Sakura (femslash, obviously)

Summary: [There are voices in the desert] Sakura isn't afraid of dying, only of being lost. Canon time line, post Gaara-rescue mission.

A/N: I'm really sorry to all the people who have me on alerts (all five of you) for the onslaught of ages-old fanfic you're about to be bombarded with. I'm trying to archive most of what I've written here in case something happens on LJ. Feel free to remove me from your watch list if this annoys you.


Unwrap

-o-

"These are my hands

My knees.

I may be skin and bone…"

Sylvia Plath, "Lady Lazarus"

-o-

"With one you loved so long ago

Now you don't even know his name."

Neutral Milk Hotel, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"

-o-

Before Sunagakure, Sakura has never seen the desert.

Of course, she has read about it many times, in books ranging from the academic to the frivolously entertaining (she is not so smart for nothing), and certainly she had all the geographical characteristics of the Wind Country well memorized before embarking on the rescue mission. Standard recon routines, nothing more, and really, somebody had to do it and it wasn't going to be Naruto. She didn't even consider asking Kakashi.

So when her feet meet gold sands for the first time (and one doesn't walk through the desert: it consumes), her photographic memory efficiently supplies all the necessary words to describe what she sees. The heat: scorching; sweat evaporating too quickly to soak through the rough layer of canvas cloak. Sand dunes: whirling, shifting, swallowing, ever changing the shape of the landscape. The air: dry (arid, desiccated), scratchy, too hot to breathe in.

Life in Sunagakure is like nothing she has ever experienced, but she learns to get used to it, and before long, is well-versed in rationing drinking water and tapping her sandals against the floor every morning before sliding them on (the sand gets everywhere). It's too hot, Naruto complains incessantly, and she murmurs agreement but doesn't say a word. After all, what is the point in complaining about something that won't go away?

The desert night is an entirely different matter. Sakura thinks that is something she will never get used to.

Under the mantle of darkness, the vast expanse of sand beyond the oyster-pink walls retreats into a bitter wasteland, growing sleepy and indolent, like a predator deceptively docile in slumber. Sakura knows better. Beneath golden grains, this land is a graveyard, and the wind in her hair whispers of death.

-o-

They buried Chiyo that afternoon, a desert tomb in the tradition of Sand shinobi (consumed). Irrationally, Sakura thinks that inside her ebony coffin, the old woman is already beginning to disintegrate, her withered flesh crumbling away from her bones, her bones being stripped and chafed stark white. The fractured glint of gaping teeth in the unyielding sun.

In the desert, there is only sand. Eventually, everything returns to dust.

The end of the mission leaves Sakura exhausted. She doesn't want to think about the battles she's fought, not just yet. Rather, that is a thought she will tuck away into her bosom like a rare present: to be unwrapped and relished in the comforting familiarity of dear green Konoha. Right now, she is sapped, her frayed edges flapping dejectedly in the cold desert air. A gust of breeze leaves a chill on her face, bringing her palms up to cup her bare elbows. Less than a windswept mile separates the balcony she is standing on from the ever encroaching sand.

She hears a dry cough from behind and spins on her heels to face the new-comer.

"Temari-san?"

The Sand kunoichi inclines her head slightly in acknowledgment. In the shadow, her moss-green eyes (moss, damp, water: an antithesis) are fixed on Sakura, in that direct, straightforward manner she always carries. It is slightly intimidating. "Haruno, wasn't it?"

Sakura bows her head politely. Her sudden movement startles a black scorpion that scuttles away from her left foot. Temari's eyes flick to the jabbing point of its raised stinger, then back to Sakura's face.

"Why aren't you sleeping?" the older kunoichi clips tersely. Her no-nonsense air makes Sakura feel slightly foolish. She looks down at her hands, and in the moonlight, they are bathed spidery blue-white, like the desert moon.

"I can't sleep," she whispers. "There's… there's just too much on my mind. So many things have happened, and I…"

She trails off, fearing she has said too much, but Temari just nods once and doesn't comment, so Sakura has no way of knowing whether the other girl has understood. The silence that falls between them is heavy as lead, punctuated only by the desolate cries of some night bird (warbler, says the travel guide). The sound disturbs Sakura; she chases it by saying the first thing that comes to her mind.

"Gaara-san, how is he now?"

"Fine," answers Temari, "Sleeping. His first night's rest in over fifteen years." At this, her lips twist into a scythe smile, and in its thumbnail curve, Sakura can see all the things she is not allowed to be privy to. Political unrest. Wartime horrors. An ugly secret, rearing its putrid head from a grave of lies. The doomed Kazekage rising from death, but it is no miracle.

"And how are your teammates? I heard your team leader was injured in the last battle."

"Thank you for your concern," Sakura says quickly, glad for the change of subject. "Kakashi-sensei has merely depleted his chakra store. It has happened before. I've made sure that his condition remains stable."

"Good," is the curt reply. The conversation is at its end.

But instead of leaving, Temari steps forward to stand next to Sakura at the head of the balcony. When she walks, the forcefulness of her brisk strides parts her robe, exposing a flash of white, muscled thighs, and when she stoops to rest against the railing, the curve of her back is corded and ridden with power. Sakura recognizes this as strength. Sakura is strong herself—this mission has proven that—but her strength was acquired from dusty tomes and long months straining under Tsunade-sama's hawklike observance. Temari was born with hers, and the difference shows.

"So," asks Temari, "what do you think of our humble village?"

"It's beautiful," Sakura says, and then blurts out before she can stop herself, "It is very harsh though."

Temari raises an eyebrow, and bursts out laughing when Sakura blushes. The sound of her mirth leaves a low, zesty ripple under Sakura's skin. "Yes, that it is. But you've seen nothing yet."

Then, quite abruptly, she turns and marches to the door (the air from her ankles brushing Sakura's calves), saying as she walks, "Be down in the courtyard in five minutes. I won't wait longer than that." Adding like an afterthought, "Wear something warm."

"I beg your pardon?"

Temari's smile in the doorway is a sliver of moonlight. "I'm going to show you the desert."

-o-

When Sakura stumbles into the cobblestone courtyard, still struggling with the hood of her threadbare cloak, Temari is standing beside two reined and saddled horses, their tall silhouettes painted against the chalky moonlight. The Sand kunoichi also has a thick riding shawl draped around her shoulders, and her head is wrapped in a black, jewel-edged scarf.

"This is Tomoe," Temari says, indicating the smaller palomino to her left. "She's only three years old. Gentle as milk. She won't throw you." A smirk. "Unless you're stupid."

Sakura nods and reaches for the proffered rein. Instead of handing it over, Temari casually takes hold of her hand and traces one long white finger along the thatched lines. Sakura shivers when the sharp edge of a clipped nail grazes her skin lightly.

"You do not have a rider's hand," Temari says before placing the rein into Sakura's palm. The same smirk lingers on her curved lips. Sakura feels something squirm strangely in the pit of her stomach, and averts her gaze quickly, reaching up to massage Tomoe's bushy mane. The mare whinnies softly beneath her touch.

"And this," Temari continues, turning to the silent stallion, battle-scarred and black as cinder, still standing on her right, "is my old boy, San. I've had him since I learned how to ride."

Like his mistress, San displays all the physical traits typical in a child of the desert: long legs taut and muscle-bound, eyes deceptively stolid, nostrils flared. Temari strokes his powerful neck, leans into a wind-bitten ear and whispers something in a secret voice, full of tongue-clicks and coarse vowels that raise the fine hair on Sakura's arms. Then, slipping one foot into the stirrup, she mounts her steed, her body moving in a fluid, graceful arc. Sakura promptly follows, possessed by a sudden wish to impress her guide.

"Ready?"

They let the horses trot in a slow canter—San in the lead and Tomoe meekly trailing after—their hooves clattering evenly on the cobblestone road. Houses drift past, gourd-shaped and pigeon-holed, a trait native to Sunagakure. The village square looms ahead, and in its center sits a statue that catches Sakura's eyes. A woman, swathed from head to foot in cloth, arms crossed over a swollen belly so that the body appears to be bent in upon itself.

"Fertility symbol," Temari mutters. "Those old crones and their ridiculous notions. Nothing ever grows here."

The figure's featureless face has been nearly weathered away by the abrasive wind, leaving grooves like tear tracks. Here in Sunagakure, where paint loses its color and paper crumbles into dust, art eschews subtlety for immortality. Wall murals, and sculptures in stone and plaster casts, but even they, Sakura thinks, shall not endure.

When they are at the gates, two shadows drop suddenly out of the sky without warning. Tomoe rears back a little in surprise, neighing, but San stands his ground. Then the moonlight shifts, revealing two guards in standard issue Sand flak jackets. Upon seeing Temari, they jump swiftly to salutation with military precision.

"Open the gates," orders Temari. "Haruno-san and I are going for a ride."

If the guards are wondering why the Kazekage's sister would choose to ride into the desert at three in the morning in the company of a member of the Konoha delegation, they wisely keep their questions to themselves. Without further ado, the tall palisade doors are unstopped, the iron bolts groaning thirstily, and beyond the wooden faces, the barren tracts of sand sweep out before their feet.

"Try to keep up, Haruno," Temari throws back over a shawled shoulder before driving her heels swiftly into San's sleek flanks and guiding the horse into a full gallop, a fine white cloud of dust the only thing in their wake.

What choice has she got but to follow?

-o-

It's a clear night, and the crescent moon hangs in the velvet sky like an oddly shaped lantern, a silver sickle in a land where there is nothing to reap. The desert pours open on both sides, reducing the horses to a finger-snap. Sand dunes wax and wane, vacuous and drab with sheerness.

They have been riding in silence for some time (twenty, thirty minutes, an hour; out here, time passes differently) before Sakura works up the courage to inquire, "Temari-san, where exactly are we going?"

"I know of a few things I might show you," Temari says without turning around, the end of her scarf whipping wildly about in the wind. "There are always the tombs."

Sakura feels goose bumps solidify on her skin, and knows it has nothing to do with the brisk air.

"But there's something else even more fitting."

Crooked stairs leading down, down, down to dark catacombs (stones, moans, bones). Death-traps and glossy scarabs, dwellers of ruins, flesh-eaters in glittering bejeweled armors. A torch hitting sandy floor, flickering out of existence. Monuments and indecipherable runes. The intoxication of embalming spices.

Not this night.

Instead: a labyrinth.

"This," announces Temari, dismounting, "is the famous rock maze of the Wind Country."

That such a thing might exist in the desert.

They are teeth, Sakura thinks, staring awestruck at the fantastic black structures. Broken teeth sticking out of the sand, and beneath that, the grinning skulls.

"The horses will go no further," Temari says. "We will continue on foot."

And indeed, Tomoe is already pulling back in panic, tightening the rein in Sakura's grasp. Even San appears slightly uneasy, his bright eyes scrutinizing the rocks cautiously, muscles wound like a spring with the rolling waves of tension.

"What are they so afraid of?" Sakura asks in confusion.

Temari's lips crack into a strange half-smile. "The voices. There are voices in the desert. Better be careful, or they might lead you astray. You wouldn't want to get lost, would you?"

Sakura feels her mouth fall open ungraciously and closes it with a forceful swallow, the click of her throat audible in the suddenly still air.

"Well, come on. What are you waiting for?"

The stone structures rise huge and tall on all sides, leaving only narrow, cramped passes in the sand. Temari seems to know her way around. Sakura follows her closely, using the moonlit twinkle of the gems on her scarf as a guiding beacon. Round and round they go, and as the rocks grow larger, more incredible in form, Sakura's eyes swell in disbelief as the creatures of the desert emerge before her.

An owl; sage: wisdom and night.

A hawk; hunter: poised for flight, life-crushing claws hooked.

A man; traveler: face contorted, arms raised to hide from bright, desiccating death.

"Was all this created by Wind Country inhabitants?" she asks, tracing the jagged stone features.

"No," answers Temari. Her silhouette is a hazy, gauzy-pale ghost as she strolls among the rock formations. "It's all Nature's doing. The south-borne wind carves out the shapes over the years, and that is what is left."

And even as she hears this, Sakura's fingers stumble over the deep, snow-white grooves on the rough black surface. Even rocks are reduced to dust out here, she thinks. If it were me, how long would it take before I shrivel up like a shrimp and turn powder-fine?

A soft slithering startles her, a scaly, insidious sound that brings to mind criss-crossing tracks in the sand as if so many wooden cartwheels have passed this way. These rocks are perfect for snakes, Sakura remembers. They sun themselves on the surface, and hide in the shadow to await hapless preys. Beware the guardians of the desert.

She turns, and sees only a lizard, scrambling to crawl through a crack in a boulder. Still, the queasy feeling has had its chance to take root. "Shouldn't we be getting back?"

The howling wind is her only answer. Temari has vanished.

"Temari-san?"

Her words fall with lazy grace into the maw of darkness.

And that's when Sakura hears them.

-o-

The voices breathe like rustling silk.

"Sweet girl, my lady-child."

Cold-threaded and broken-hearted. Sakura staggers away from them, searching desperately for a sign of familiarity, some recognition through landmarks. There are none. She cannot see the exit. The voices are all around.

"Why are you running, sweetheart? Come, come, come…"

"We know what you want, don't we? Yes, we are very old and we know everything."

"Come, come, come, come…"

The vestiges of reason maintain that they are unreal, that this is a hallucination, but Sakura's mind is screaming and drowns them out.

("You wouldn't want to get lost, would you?")

But it is too late for that.

"Weak little thing, aren't you, darling? Can't take care of yourself at all, can you? The boys aren't here to save you, princess, it's just you and us now."

"I am not weak!" Sakura shouts hysterically, forgetting that she's supposed to remain calm.

"Watch us, lady-girl, watch us."

The rocks are shifting, Sakura thinks. She's really not seeing things. No tricks of fog, no smoking mirrors, just solid stones becoming not so solid, morphing into humanoid shapes, leaning in closer, breathing loudly through holeless, shapeless mouths. A menace of ruins. She is surrounded.

(Tsunade-sama's eyes are pools of liquid fire, and her fists are invisible steel.)

(Chiyo in the cave that day: chakra strings and antidote bottles.)

(Sasori and his army of a hundred puppets; the dead Sandaime with the poisoned sand.)

"I am strong," Sakura grounds out through clenched teeth, the words coming out in a low hiss. She is remembering, she is focusing her chakra into her fingers, and her fingers are closing in upon her palms. The stones seem to sense her resolve. For a moment, the maze cowers, trembling faintly on its own foundations, and then it too seems to have made up its mind about something and the rocks begin to reallocate with a purpose.

Out of the shifting sands rises a giant king cobra, hissing and showing fangs dripping with thick black venom.

(And lo, it opens its hood, and its hood blots out the sun.)

But she is not afraid. That frightened girl in the Forest of Death from so long ago, she sleeps now in Sakura's heart.

The cobra explodes into a million razor-sharp shards when her glowing fist connects with its exposed underside, and Sakura almost chokes on the thick cloud of chalky dust. The possibility of victory is overwhelming, the taste insidious.

Then, out of the haze, a face surfaces and solidifies, an effigy etched in stone. Sakura feels her breath catch in her chest with a painful hitch. "You!"

A name lingers on the tip of her tongue, hollow and brittle as glass. Once, it was second-nature to her, springing out of the cavern of her mouth with light and happy ease, but somewhere along this endless road she has forgotten, and now the vocal cords cannot recall the lost sound.

And suddenly, it feels as if everything is riding on this one moment. If Sakura can remember that name, if she finds the right password ("Open, Sesame!"), then the maze, defeated, will release her. But if she cannot, if she tarries here a moment longer, the sands will open up beneath her feet and swallow her whole, and her body will spiral inward and downward to rest beside curses and bones, for under every inch of this nation lie tombs.

But the word keeps slipping through her fingers like draining water, a peripheral detail, elusive.

"I loved you once," Sakura chokes out, caressing the beautiful stone face before her as hot tears tumble down her cheeks. "But that's it. There isn't any more." Perhaps this will be last thing she'll ever say.

"We know, lady-girl. We are very old, and we know everything."

The sound of cruel laughter seethes up all around her. Sakura tries to run, her feet scrabbling on grainy-fine sand, but something snatches her wrist and she screams in terror.

"Haruno!"

It is only Temari. But it cannot be. She is a mirage, an optical illusion in the desert; she is unreal.

Temari's shoulder feels real enough when she pulls Sakura against it, the long strands of goat hair on her shawl tickling Sakura's face. Sakura feels Temari's hands clamp down firmly at the small of her back, and realizes that she is shaking.

"Haruno," Temari repeats, voice sharp as a blade of water. "What did you see?"

Sakura raises her eyes, and through the fringes of her sweaty bangs, sees nothing but the silent rows of rock formations. The desert is still as death. The voices are gone. The tortured visage of the lost traveler meets her gaze, pained lines all asking the same question. What did you see?

"I…" she begins, swallowing hard. "I was lost."

Temari is silent. Her arms retain their strong hold around Sakura, and after a moment, she begins to feel slightly self-conscious.

"Yes, you were lost," Temari says at last. Her breath brushes hotly against Sakura's ear. "You were lost, and now I've found you."

And that is that.

"Come on." Pulling Sakura by her trapped wrist, Temari starts to lead them out of the maze.

-o-

The gentle sound of Tomoe's neighing welcomes them back into the smooth open landscape (land of the living). The moment Temari lets go of her, Sakura stumbles and falls heavily against a boulder, knocked down by the force of her weariness.

Temari watches her from a measured distance, eyes hooded and unreadable in the moonlight. The desert wind chants on its despondent song, the notes rising swiftly into the sky, higher than any high-flying bird ever born can reach.

"It is so lonely here," Sakura whispers. "How can you know that you're alive?"

"Like this." Temari says, and with that, she rips off her jewel-lined scarf, pushes Sakura back onto the boulder she's been leaning on, and presses their wind-chapped lips together.

It takes a few seconds for this to register, and then Sakura is kissing her back hard, with teeth and tongue and bruised lips, giving back as good as she gets. We might frighten the horses, she thinks illogically, but out of the corner of one eye, she sees that San and Tomoe have demurely lowered their heads, silently allowing themselves to be let in on the secret as only good thoroughbreds do.

Temari slips her hands into the folds of Sakura's cloak, one at the time, then moves one upward to cup a breast while the other slides down towards the warmth. Her touch is like a slicing wind, turning Sakura's nipples rock hard. Sakura writhes desperately against the merciless fingers, feels the heat rise as moisture seeps through. She is a traveler with parched throat in the desert, and Temari's body is an oasis. She is a mummy, sleeping for a thousand years in blankets of papyrus, and Temari is unwrapping her hand and foot. She has walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and Temari is kissing her blue-tinted skin, urging cold blood to run in with a burning mouth.

(A kiss to bring me back to life.)

Sakura's head lolls back onto the boulder when Temari drops to her knees in the sand and slips her head between her parted legs. She arches her back against the stone, bites her lips, fingers scratching roughly on the rock surface. One fingernail breaks and snaps off, drawing blood; she pushes the raw cuticle into her mouth and sucks on it, tastes the coppery tang on her tongue, moans. Temari's soft laughter vibrates against the walls of her inner thighs and she thinks: This is living, this is life.

-o-

Temari washes her hands and mouth with water from her canteen, then tosses the flask to Sakura, who catches it with numb hands. She sits with her back against the boulder, her knees still shaking too hard to support the weight of her body.

"Have a care, Haruno," Temari murmurs, her voice low and husky, eyes downcast. "Many things disappear in the desert. People get lost."

Sakura nods. Inside her throbbing veins, her blood is still boiling with the memory of minutes before. She has never felt so alive.

"In order to survive," Temari goes on, "what you need is…"

"A guide," Sakura finishes the sentence for her. Beneath the sand, the desert is thrumming with a new hunger, bones singing and rattling in their graves, humeri drumming on skulls, jagged teeth chattering against one another. That is the music—the rhythm of living, the resonance of lonely places.

Temari traps her mouth in a searing kiss.

-o-

"Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air."

-o-

-fin-