Anathema in Reverse
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of the respective characters. I just borrow them to play.
A/N: I was in the mood for fluff, mixed with the Sand Siblings. This fic takes place when Temari is seven, Kankuro is six, and Gaara is five, and this is also set pre-Psycho Gaara. In other words, he is still largely innocent (if he ever really was).
The young kunoichi stirred at the sound of her name. "Mmph," she mumbled, rolling over onto her other side and clutching her blanket in a fist. "Lemme… alone…"
"Temari, wake up."
A small finger jabbed her insistently in the back. Needless to say, the gesture demanded her full and instant attention and had it returned tenfold.
One hand reached instinctively under her pillow for a kunai, the other shot out to grab the blurred silhouette kneeling alongside her bed by the neck. The fluid motion, though hampered by her sleepy state, was an automatic one, and Temari had the person pinned on the floor with a kunai to his throat before he had time to blink.
Teal eyes cracked open to glare at the intruder but blinked in confusion when her younger brother glared back at her.
The little puppeteer huffed, giving her a dirty look. "Of course it's me," he said indignantly. "Who else would want to see your ugly face in the middle of – ow!"
She had pinched him, hard. "Idiot," Temari hissed, "I could have really hurt you!"
"Nuh-uh, I could've had you in a second if I wanted!"
"Then why are you on the floor, dumbass?"
"Well, if someone wasn't so big and fat–"
Temari flushed. "I am not fat," she protested heatedly. "And I wouldn't talk if I was you," she added pointedly, pinching a chubby fold between her fingers. "It's obvious where all those potato chips are going."
It was his turn to blush. "Whatever," he grumbled. "Just get off me before you crush me to death, or something."
She scoffed, but complied nonetheless and knelt beside him. Kankuro sat up, rubbing the spot where she had pinched him and grimacing.
"You left a mark," he said plaintively, examining his stomach.
"You're lucky I didn't slit your throat," she retorted sharply, reaching up and sliding the kunai back under her pillow. "What were you thinking, waking me up like that?"
Kankuro looked away, fiddling with the folds of his t-shirt. "I… I heard a noise," he admitted reluctantly.
"Aw, is poor widdle Kankuro scared of the big bad Bogeyman?" she teased, poking him on the forehead and smiling mischievously. "Don't tell me you want me to check for monsters under your bed again, Kankuro."
"Shut up! I thought you might have heard it too, so I came to check that you weren't scared!"
"Please, like I would let a little noise scare me."
The younger nin sniffed, folding his arms across his chest obstinately. "Well, I'm here now, so I might as well stay. Whatever made that noise might come back, and you'll need someone to protect you," he declared, climbing onto her bed and ducking under the covers. "And it might as well be me, cause you wouldn't be able to handle it."
Temari rolled her eyes, but climbed in after him. "Fine, stay if you like. But if you steal my blanket, I'll kick you all the way back to your room."
Her little brother snuggled closer to her protective warmth. "I won't," he promised.
The unspoken words hung in the sudden silence between them, giving them both a curious little bolt of pleasure.
"I won't steal your blanket… because I have you."
But ten minutes later, Temari would have cheerfully kicked him out the window, never mind the bed.
"Kankuro," she hissed between gritted teeth. "Stop. Fidgeting."
"But your feet keep moving to my side, and they're cold," came the answering whine.
"There is no your side, this is all my side. Now shut up and go to sleep, before I send you back to your room – and this time, I hope the Bogeyman eats you!"
He lapsed into a sullen silence. But it was silence, pure and blessed silence, and that was all Temari cared about at three in the morning. Baki-sensei would definitely notice if Kankuro was cranky –well, crankier, anyway– and sluggish tomorrow at training. If she was too, he would punish them both.
Unfortunately, the peace and quiet only lasted for a minute.
"Just shut up and sleep."
She rolled over to face him. "You don't have a choice," she bit out, letting a hint of menace drip into her voice. The threat of bodily harm usually kept him quiet, but she felt her hand inch closer to the kunai under her pillow just in case it didn't. "Now shut up before I make you."
Kankuro was only quiet for a few seconds. Then–
Temari gritted her teeth and reminded herself that she really did love her little brother, no matter how annoying he could be – and you didn't stab the people you loved with a kunai. "I told you to go to sleep, Kankuro."
"Will you read me a story?"
"Will it make you shut up?"
Temari sighed and flicked him on the nose. "You have to promise," she said sternly. "Then I'll read you one story."
Kankuro lit up. "Can we go get my puppets so they can act it out while you read?" he asked hopefully.
She paused, halfway out of bed, and gave him a look.
"Fine," he muttered dejectedly. "But watching Karasu act it out is way cooler than just reading dumb old words."
"All you need is your imagination, moron."
Carefully, Temari stood up on tiptoe and examined the books on her shelf. There, nestled between the boring tomes detailing shinobi practice, tools and lore, was a thick leather-bound book. She smiled, cradling it in her hands.
Temari was the only sibling who could really recall anything about their mother, and even those memories were only scant fragments at best. But she remembered this book, remembered listening to the stories with rapt attention, and remembered snuggling close to someone… Kankuro had been there, sometimes, but she didn't expect him to remember. He had been too little. Sometimes he insisted that he could, and Temari never believed him, but she never scolded him for it either.
Holding the book tightly, she scampered back to the bed where Kankuro was fluffing up her pillows so that they could sit comfortably. She slid under the covers, folding the duvet over her knees and propping the heavy volume on her lap. Kankuro nudged his way under her arm, nestling against her side. The position was awkward for her, but Temari knew her brother would refuse to sit any other way, and if they started bickering now, neither would get any sleep.
"Can we read Pinocchio again?"
"No. I'm sick of reading about stupid puppets."
Temari turned the pages with one hand until she found a story they hadn't read together before. "We'll read this one," she said decisively.
Kankuro squinted at the page. "The Ugly Duckling?" he read aloud, before looking up at her sceptically. "I don't want to hear about a stupid duck."
"Too bad, squirt."
"…are there any puppets in it?"
She glared. "No."
"Okay," he grumbled, eyes flitting across the colourful pictures. "But puppets are still better than stupid ducks."
Temari rolled her eyes, but cleared her throat and began to read aloud. "Once upon a time, in the beautiful countryside, surrounded by green forests and deep cool lakes, a mother duck sat in her nest, waiting impatiently for her eggs to hatch…"
It was one of their odd little rituals, reading fairytales together. Both siblings had come to need it with a kind of pathetic desperation. Kankuro sought comfort, a safe haven from murder and cruelty. He could sleep a little more peacefully with thoughts of magic and happy endings in his head instead of blood-splattered sand and torn flesh. Temari needed the security of knowing, knowing that she was needed by her little brother in ways that no one else was or ever could be.
He needed his sister, she needed her brother. It was as simple as that.
"…she waited and waited, growing tired with watching the other ducks swim in the pond… but at long last, her eggs began to crack, and one by one, the little ducklings tumbled out into the bright sunshine…"
Their lives were fast, frenetic, increasingly violent. This was their way of blocking it out, of making sure that the nightmares stayed away for at least one night. It was only fair, wasn't it? Exchanging blood for magic?
"…the mother duck was pleased with all her beautiful new children, but when she got up from her nest, she saw that the biggest egg still remained."
Temari and Kankuro were shinobi of the Sand; natural born killers. That instinct was encouraged to bloom, honed into a fine edge with every day that passed, until neither sibling thought twice about slitting a target's throat. It was what they were trained to do.
But here, together like this…
"She refused to abandon her last egg, even though the other ducks advised her to ignore it and go teach her ducklings to swim."
…they were still only children.
Beside her, Kankuro started to drift off, eyelids drooping as he was gently lulled to sleep by the sound of his sister's voice. Temari smiled, stroking his head lightly, and continued to read.
"So, the mother duck continued to sit on the egg, until finally, it cracked open and the last baby tumbled out. But oh, how big and ugly he was! Nevertheless, he could swim and use his feet quite well, so his mother decided that he must be her own child and resolved to love him as such. But the other animals did not think so. They hated that he was different to them. The ugly duckling was always being chased away and told that he was disgusting to look at… even his own mother would sometimes murmur 'I wish you were far away…' So the ugly duckling decided one day that he would fly away and never come back. And he did."
Temari paused when she heard soft, regular breathing. Gently, she moved her arm from around Kankuro and nudged him until he was lying flat. He mumbled sleepily in protest, but immediately curled up on his side and stuck his thumb in his mouth.
Idiot, she thought fondly, moving to shut the book. He's still such a baby. She watched him sleep for a while, smirking at the saliva that was collecting at the corner of his open mouth, before her own eyes began drifting shut. Stifling a yawn, Temari leaned over him as far as she could without falling and placed the book on her desk. Returning it to its proper place could wait until morning, because she was too tired to do anything except flick off her bedroom light and burrow under the covers.
She drifted off with her back pressed against his, a content smile lingering around her mouth.
Temari woke with a start. She stared up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly and wondering why her heart was beating so fast. It was still dark, not yet dawn. She couldn't have been sleeping for more than an hour, then. Drawing in a deep breath, Temari moved to sit up, then froze when the faintest noise reached her ears.
A scratching noise, a rustling whisper of something moving across the floor… almost like…
There was someone in her room.
Her breathing immediately stilled and she turned her head carefully. She had to bite her lip to hold back a gasp of surprise when she saw the shadow crouching near the door.
No… if it was an assassin they would have tried to kill her by now, or she would already be dead. Careful not to disturb Kankuro, Temari slid her hand under her pillow, drawing out her kunai. Cold sweat beaded on her brow making her shiver. The shadow was too small to be one of the village shinobi, and it was bent over something large and dark on the floor. She strained her eyes, inching closer to the edge of her bed to get a better grasp of the situation –if she had to attack, she couldn't afford to be surprised– but recoiled in disbelief when she realised that the intruder was hunched over a book.
Someone was in her room, in the dark, looking at a book.
Temari blinked, confused, her grip on the kunai slackening. Her first reaction, that it was an assassin, had been the most logical one: she and Kankuro were children of the Kazekage, most rival shinobi would try to hurt him by hurting them (never mind that her father wouldn't exactly be heartbroken if she and Kankuro were slaughtered in their beds). In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't some kind of twisted test of his.
She had to think. Was it a genjutsu, meant to lull her into a false sense of security before the assassin struck?
No, she thought dismissively. This kind of illusion will scare kids, but not us. We're shinobi, we've been trained to deal with things like this. If Father sent someone after us, the assassin would know that. The genjutsu would have to be more dangerous, something that would really make us panic. Or he would have to attack us directly, while we were sleeping. But when I woke up, he was doing nothing – he could have killed us ten times over already… and what's that scratching noise? I've heard it before, but I can't place it.
Temari took a deep breath. Well, whoever this nin was, he had no right to be in her room. And if she was going to attack, she had to do it now, had to do it fast before he had a chance to counter. Temari pushed back the covers, dropping in a crouch on the floor. She intended to launch herself at the would-be-assassin and stab him in the throat before he could move, but faltered when she felt grains of sand crunch beneath her feet.
Thrown, she could only stare at the sand pooled around her.
The noise, the scratching, hissing sound was sand… moving sand. It was moving under her feet, whispering against the stone and moving up her legs.
Temari felt her breath hitch, before she said softly, disbelievingly, "Gaara?"
Her youngest brother was crouching over a book on the floor. He was just sitting there, turning the pages, and tracing a finger along the dark outlines of the pictures. It was so absurd, so unbelievable, that Temari felt a bubble of hysterical laughter welling up in her chest.
Here was her baby brother, the one that her own father, the Kazekage, was afraid of, sitting on her bedroom floor and paging through a book like it was freaking normal.
At the sound of her voice, the little figure seated on the floor turned his head.
Her hand clenched reflexively around the kunai.
No, she thought, shivering as she felt sand shift against her leg. If I attack, the sand will kill me. And Gaara is… Gaara is still my brother…even if I am afraid he's going to kill me first.
He continued to hold her gaze, studying her intently. Temari stared back only because she was afraid to take her eyes off him. They sat there, simply staring at one another, for several moments, until Gaara moved.
Instinctively, Temari scrabbled backwards, digging to a halt when her back met the bed. The hard contact made her shudder, but she could barely hear her sharp huff of breath over the thudding of her heart.
What happened to Yashamaru? She fretted, digging her nails into the floor. Father said it was Yashamaru's duty to look after Gaara, but did Gaara do something to him? Did he hurt him? What if he killed him?
Unperturbed by the fact that his sister was pointing a kunai in his direction, Gaara shuffled slowly towards her, the book being towed over the floor by a stream of sand behind him. A ragged teddy bear hung limply at his side, the black button eyes staring pathetically back at her.
His voice was a soft, dry whisper as he dropped down in front of her.
Temari bit her lip. "W-What…" the question died in her throat but she tried again. "What do you want, Gaara?"
He pointed silently to the book and inched closer to her. When she gazed back at him uncertainly, he touched the cover, looking at her with an earnest expression.
"Can you finish it?"
His older sister gaped at him. "…what?" she asked stupidly.
"The story," he whispered back. "You didn't finish it."
"You–you were listening to us?"
Then he… he must have been listening the entire time, she realised quickly. Gaara must have been hiding outside my room, cloaking his chakra so we couldn't sense him… just so he could listen to our bedtime story.
And this… is the boy Father said was a complete monster.
But Temari still regarded him with suspicion. Gaara may have only been five years old, but she had been warned against him all her life, and to find him in her bedroom without his guardian… one could not simply banish in an instant feelings that had been ingrained so deeply, especially when Gaara and his sand were so unpredictable. She couldn't even defend herself against him, not if what Baki said was true, and she didn't doubt her teacher. The solution was obvious. Keep him occupied until Yashamaru came looking for him.
"Where's Uncle Yashamaru?" she finally said. "Isn't he supposed to be with you?"
"He went away."
"To where?" she asked suspiciously.
The slight shoulders shrugged, the eyes clouded. "I don't know. He's gone somewhere. He didn't tell." He pointed to the book again, and sand trailed listlessly in his finger's path. "Can you finish it now?"
Temari hesitated. He might do something if she didn't… she eyed the sand she should do what he wanted, at least until Yashamaru showed up. Besides, she had to admit that fear or not, she had always been curious about her youngest sibling. Now she had the perfect chance to learn all she wanted about him – after all, how hard could it be to wheedle information out of a five-year old?
"You want to hear the rest of the story, Gaara?"
There was a hissing noise as the sand slithered over the floor, carrying the book to her. Temari shifted onto her knees, reaching for it, repressing a shudder as the warm grains brushed against her bare arm.
Gaara leaned forward in anticipation, turquoise eyes fixed on her face. They were wide, innocent, no hint of the violent bloodshed that followed in his wake. Temari felt a sudden rush of pity. She barely knew her youngest brother, since she and Kankuro were always forbidden to see or talk to him, yet here he was, right in front of her.
And all he wants is for me to read him a story.
Could she deny him something this trivial? Even though she would be punished heavily if they were discovered, surely she should take the chance – she would do the same for Kankuro. And they were both her brothers, even if Gaara was a little…well…dangerous. And surely, surely, he wouldn't try to hurt her. She had no intention of giving him a reason to. If that was so, she should treat him as her brother, not a monster – even if it was just this one night. Decision made, the kunoichi rose to her feet and set the book back down on the desk. Gaara drew back, brow knitted in confusion. The sand mimicked him, whispering restlessly around him.
He watched her climb onto the bed and hold out her hand.
"It's too cold to sit on the floor."
The little redhead hesitated before taking her hand and letting her pull him up to sit beside her (she noted with relief that the sand didn't follow him). He glanced at the sleeping Kankuro almost shyly and Temari grinned suddenly.
"Don't worry about him," she said offhandedly. "Kankuro sleeps like a brick, even for a shinobi."
Something resembling a smile peeked out at the corner of his mouth.
"Here," Temari settled the covers over the both of them, awkwardly patting it down over Gaara's lap. "And, um…"
"What are you doing?"
She flushed, avoiding the gaze of the boy now nestled under her arm. "If you don't like it, then move."
Gaara shook his head. "No, it's " he wanted so much to say 'warm' " nice."
His sister looked away, her blush deepening. "You're almost as dumb as Kankuro," she mumbled under her breath, flipping the pages until she reached the right spot. "If that's even possible."
"It was a joke, Gaara."
Temari sighed at the scrunched up look on his face. I guess you can tell that he doesn't get out much, she thought dryly. Even if he is only five.
"Never mind. It doesn't matter. Now… um, where was I…?"
He planted one chubby finger hesitantly on the page. "Here. I think."
"Yeah, I think that's about right, too." She cleared her throat loudly to calm her nerves before continuing the fairytale.
"The ugly little ducking flew for a long time, over the wild marshes, over fields and meadows. He endured fierce winds and frigid nights, but that was nothing compared to the cruel hardships he would suffer come winter. The little duckling passed his days floating on the water, and it seemed to him that the other ducks ignored him because of his ugliness. Then, one evening, the duckling saw something he would never forget. A flock of magnificent birds rose out of the marshes, beating their brilliant white wings as they rose into the golden twilight. The duckling was awestruck by their beauty and elegance and his heart ached unbearably at the sight. These strange and glorious birds were swans, even though the little duckling did not know what they were called. But he would soon forget about what he had seen, in the face of harsh winter. He spent his days in misery, always fighting against the cold and ice that continuously crept over him. But winter soon passed, and he endured."
She stole a sideward glance at him. Gaara looked entranced, turquoise eyes drinking in every detail, every splash of colour across the pages. With the tousled red hair sticking up over his forehead and his wide eyes, Temari could even say her baby brother looked adorable.
Not that anyone else thinks so, anyway.
She read on, the words weaving an intoxicating spell around them both. Fighting against the sleep that threatened to overwhelm her, Temari endeavoured to finish the story for Gaara. On the last page, she was pausing between each sentence to yawn widely, eyes blinking tiredly against the muted light of the lamp next to her bed.
"…and the ugly duckling, now a beautiful swan, took his place as the most handsome and regal swan in the flock, and there he lived happily ever after. The end."
Relieved, Temari closed the book.
She nodded, slipping out of bed to place the book on the desk before she scrambled back next to her youngest brother. There was a little frown on his face. Temari saw it, and she didn't want to ask, but…
"I don't understand. How the ugly duckling could become a swan. Was it because he suffered, Temari?"
Temari's brow creased into a frown. "Well," she said awkwardly, "he was a swan all along. He just had to grow up. See, he was born to the wrong mother. She was a duck, and he was a swan. They didn't match from the beginning."
"Then why did he have to suffer?"
"I guess he had to learn some stuff before he could be happy, and he had to learn the hard way."
Gaara tilted his head, still frowning. "So if it hurts at first, you'll be happy later?"
"I… don't know." A feeling of danger sparked at the edge of her mind and Temari became aware that this was the kind of conversation that neither her father nor Baki would approve of. He was still staring at her expectantly, waiting for more of an answer – an answer that she couldn't give.
"You know what, Gaara, I'm really tired now." She pulled the blanket more securely over herself. "You can stay here until the morning if you want. I'm sure Uncle Yashamaru will be back by then."
"I don't like sleeping," came the candid reply. "Bad things… monsters come out when I sleep, so I don't like it. It's scary."
Nightmares, Temari thought sympathetically. But I'm sure that once he falls asleep, it'll be okay. She was still wary of him, of course, and she probably wouldn't sleep now even though she desperately needed to. She wouldn't take the chance, not with Kankuro sleeping so close by.
"Tell you what, then. You can watch over Kankuro and me while we sleep. You can protect us."
Turquoise eyes stared at her unblinkingly. "Me?"
"Sure." Leaning back onto the pillows, she pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. "Goodnight, Gaara."
She felt him nestle beside her, huddling into a little ball with his teddy bear. Feigning the shallow, even breaths of sleep, she waited for him to fall asleep. But ten minutes later, her deception became reality and she slumbered deeply beside him. Gaara lay still, gaze fixed on the ceiling seemingly for hours before his eyes dared to venture to the faces of his siblings.
Tentatively, he reached out and touched Temari's blonde hair, before his fingertips grazed her cheek with the lightest of touches. She was soft, warm.
The tiniest of smiles twitched at the corner of his mouth as the sand shuddered restlessly on the floor.
For the second time that night, Temari was woken by a touch. The more alarming reminder that Gaara was beside her immediately followed her first coherent thought of "not again, Kankuro". The she remembered Gaara, and her eyes flew open, expecting to see a monstrous figure crouched above her waiting to strike, or sand crawling all over her, eating her alive or something equally horrific. Instead, Gaara was sitting beside her, wide-eyed and innocent. She frowned in confusion, and then he pointed to the foot of the bed.
Yashamaru, covered in blood, stared back at her. He raised a finger to his lips, and then pointed to Kankuro before he slipped out onto the balcony without making a sound.
Kankuro, sometime during the night, had latched onto Gaara, chubby arms locked firmly around the younger boy's leg. The little red-haired boy didn't move, only regarded the arms clasping him with interest. Temari reached across and prodded him awake, clamping her hand across his mouth to muffle his grunt of surprise. He blinked blearily at her, letting go of Gaara abruptly, and she motioned silence, pointing at the window and mouthing "something's wrong".
He nodded, then an expression of genuine fear lit his eyes when he saw the younger boy seated in the bed with them. He knew who Gaara was, having received the same instruction that his sister did, and he'd heard the stories they told down in the village.
Temari shook her head fiercely, clapping her hand over his mouth again. Carefully, she slid her hand under the pillow and retrieved a kunai, pausing again to grab another one. Motioning for the two boys to remain in the bed, she tossed a weapon to Kankuro before she crept to the balcony door.
Yashamaru was no longer there. Temari slowed her breathing, peeking out into the night. It was still dark, but edges of rose were appearing on the horizon. Dawn was approaching. Something was happening in the streets below. If she strained her ears, she could make out faint sounds that were sickeningly recognisable – a cry stifled by a palm, the smack of flesh hitting flesh, and the metallic screech of kunai meeting in battle, before the metal point thudded into a body.
Whatever was happening, she would have to trust that Yashamaru and the other adult shinobi would take care of it. The tension did not leave her, though, it spiked when she felt Kankuro's chakra rise in a sudden surge of panic. She spun around, anger rising in her instinctively at the sight of a masked shinobi bending over her brother. His left hand lay pinned to the bed.
Tucking her arm against her side, she gripped her weapon so that it pointed outwards. No sound left her lips when she rushed the shinobi, but she could not stop a yelp when the intruder held out one hand and flicked their wrist contemptuously.
She stumbled as his blade ripped a bloody gash along her arm and before she fell, she was scooped onto the bed where she lay gasping.
Anxious fingers clutched at her, terrified eyes meeting her own dazed ones. A surge of anger rose in her, and Temari shoved Kankuro back behind her. "Where's Baki-sensei," she heard him moan softly. She echoed the feeling silently. Fingers groped blindly for her own, and she held them tight, gripping Kankuro's hand hard enough to bruise. The kunai hung in the grip of her free hand, useless in the face of this nameless shinobi. She couldn't identify the village, but the lines slashed through the symbol told her enough: missing-nin. A traitor. Someone to be despised and shunned.
"I won't let you hurt them," she hissed.
A low, throaty laugh, unmistakeably female, issued from behind the mask. "Child, you couldn't even begin to try, even if you're his children."
Ah. This was something that Temari understood. The contempt, the hatred in the woman's voice directed at the man whose children lie helpless before her. How many times has this happened? Loathing imparted on children for the sins of the father, but the unfairness ceased being a burden months ago, when his children realised their own contempt for him.
Tiny fingers touched Temari's shoulder lightly.
The attacking kunoichi shifted at the name, mask tilting in the red-haired boy's direction.
"Ah," she breathed, "I would never have expected to find you here. That makes matters so much easier." Her breath escaped in a gasp of laughter suddenly, and she crowed her delight. "All three little piggies seated in a row… now, who wants to go first?"
Gaara's turquoise gaze trailed from the bloody graze on his sister's shoulder to the unknown woman. "You… you hurt Temari. You hurt her."
Sand shifted suddenly, rustling feverishly on the floor. Kankuro whimpered, clutching at the eldest of the siblings. The rank smell of blood, decaying, rotting, filled the room. Temari stifled her own cries, only whispering his name like a curse.
"Hurt her? I'll kill the little bitch!" the kunoichi shrieked, plunging towards the children.
When she analysed the situation later (as Baki would insist that she do) Temari would know that this woman was insane, driven by the personal demons that demanded she take vengeance for whatever the present Kazekage had done to her. No shinobi in their right mind would have attacked Gaara knowing what he was. This woman should have know what would happen the instant she stepped into the bedroom and felt the gritty sand beneath her feet. You see? Baki's voice whispered from her memory. This is what becomes of you when you allow emotions to take control.
The sand erupted in a howling maelstrom. The woman's scream was swallowed up amidst the sand's bloodthirsty scream and the shriek of delight that Temari only caught fleetingly (and oh, how she would come to regret Shukaku's laughter). Blood and bits of rent flesh splattered across the floor.
Neither sibling screamed. They watched numbly as the still trembling limbs crusted in sand dropped to the floor. When Kankuro finally did cry, the sound snapped her out of her trance. She hugged him fiercely, and he buried his face in her chest. Above his wet snuffles, the sand hissed. Temari felt the bed dip slightly as Gaara's weight shifted.
"Don't–" she began. But he ignored her, little feet crunching on the bloodstained sand. What remained of the body was being consumed by the sand, clotting blood and bits of torn flesh being lapped up with gross enthusiasm. His right arm twitched.
"She was going to hurt you again."
"I know. It's… it's okay, Gaara."
"She was really going to hurt you," he repeated fiercely. He turned around, facing his older siblings. "I didn't want to… but she was going to hurt you."
"Gaara, I know, I know. But we're okay now, we're fine."
His gaze flickered back to the sand. "The monster came out again," he whispered. "I didn't want to, I didn't want to…"
Then Temari was pulling him back onto the bed, hugging him tightly on her lap. It was how Baki would find them moments later; all three siblings huddled together in a tearful mass. He materialised at the foot of the bed, eyes quickly taking in the sand-encrusted gore splattered over the floor.
He cursed softly.
"Temari. Kankuro. Are you injured?"
"J-Just a scratch."
Seeing that his two charges were still in one piece, Baki turned his attention to Gaara.
"You know that you are not to leave Yashamaru's apartments," he said in a strangely flat voice. "Come here."
Gaara only stared back at him from the haven of his sister's arms and shook his head.
"Temari," he said, gesturing to her sharply.
She felt the little boy in her arms shudder. "Baki-sensei, can't we wait for Yashamaru to come back?" she said uncertainly. "He doesn't want– it's not–"
His eyes followed hers to the piles of sand on the stone floor still lapping enthusiastically at the dead woman's blood, and his face stiffened. Baki nodded.
The stony silence, broken only by hitched breathing and faint hiccups, was maintained until a familiar and subtle pulse of chakra flared on the balcony of Temari's bedroom. Baki, arms crossed and a muscle twitching in his cheek, waited for Yashamaru to enter. The slender man emerged from the early morning gloom, tucking the bloodstained kunai out of sight beneath his belt.
"There was an assassination attempt –"
He drew in a breath, seeing all three of the Kazekage's children huddled together, and turned reluctantly to Baki. Before he could speak again, Baki cut him off.
"Get him out. Now."
Yashamaru's face took on an odd, closed expression. He brushed past the older man without a word and knelt with one knee against the bed. Holding out his arms, he smiled softly at his nephew. "Gaara. It's time to go home now."
Gaara grabbed Temari's hand. She lifted her eyes to Baki, wincing at the open disdain in his gaze. She didn't need him to say anything aloud, she knew they were in trouble, and trouble meant Father.
"Gaara," she whispered. "Listen to Uncle Yashamaru. It's time to go home now."
When the younger child didn't move, Temari pushed lightly at his back, coaxing him to move. His fingers grasped pathetically at the sheets, and a familiar, obstinate look crept over his little face. Temari groaned inwardly. Of course she recognised that look – it was the one that all three siblings had inherited from the Kazekage.
"Gaara," she repeated in a firmer voice before Yashamaru could say anything. "If you don't go home right now, all three of us will be punished by Father. You don't want that, do you? You said you didn't want us to get hurt."
Stubbornness was replaced with stricken remorse, and Temari felt tasted an appalling mixture of disgust and guilt on her tongue.
"I don't want that," he said quickly. "Temari, I'm sorry. I'm–"
"It's all right, Gaara." She forced a smile. "Just go home with Yashamaru."
The older shinobi looked relieved when the boy finally crept into his arms. The teddy bear drooped over his shoulder, and Gaara stared at his siblings as Yashamaru retreated to the door, pausing only when Baki spoke.
"This will never happen again. You will not fail again, Yashamaru."
Yashamaru did not answer. But before he could pass through the doorway, Temari was on her feet, scrambling off the bed. She stood on tiptoe to grasp Gaara's little finger with her own.
"I promise we'll read another story together, Gaara. I promise, I'll try really soon," she whispered fiercely. "Me, you and Kankuro. We'll read one of Mother's stories together, okay?"
A sweet smile softened his solemn mouth. Temari didn't notice the look that transpired between Yashamaru and Baki. If she had, she would have retracted the promise that would now only ever be a lie.
That day, once Temari returned to her room, tired, hot and covered in dust from the hours of rigorous punishment enforced by Baki, the story book was gone.