A/N: Does anyone know from which anime I stole the primary healer's name? Cyber-cookies for everyone who knows! Tabemasho! (1)
Baki and Temari arrived moments ahead of a squad of hospital guards to find the treatment room in a chaos of overturned carts, scattered instruments, cracked windowpanes, damaged ceiling lights, gouged walls, dangling electrical wires, an unconscious senior med-nin, frantic healers, a critically ill child, and Gaara. Most ominous of all was the compact cloud of chakra-infused sand hovering in the air between Gaara and the treatment bed.
Baki drew two kunai and settled into a defensive stance. Temari did the same, arming herself with kunai and shuriken – the room was too confined to risk using her tessen. Seeing no immediate enemy, they secured their weapons and stepped through the doorway.
The jonin commander pointed to two security shinobi in particular and said, "Take up positions inside the room. The rest of you station yourselves along the corridor. It doesn't look like there is an immediate threat, but stay alert."
Though Gaara never shifted his attention away from the potential source of danger, he braced for the usual reaction. A cavalcade of bloodless faces filled with dread, horror and loathing stretched back to his earliest memories, mixed with a terrified, frozen vigilance, as though they'd stumbled upon a raging, rabid demon – which, in truth, they had. The slightest twitch of Gaara's hand made seasoned shinobi flinch. Even his family recoiled when he fell into one of his darker moods.
The expected response never came.
So much has changed in the past few years, Gaara mused. Did I truly change that much? Did they? I worked hard. I considered my every thought and action, and sought the best way to protect my village and its people. I expected some recognition but not this much. Not this quickly. With all of the blood I have on my hands, it should have taken years. Decades.
Before the Chunin exam in the Hidden Leaf, every citizen of the Hidden Sand would have immediately blamed me for the devastation. Now, Temari and Baki approach me without a shred of fear. Even the security shinobi don't hesitate to station themselves within striking distance of my sand.
Temari ducked to avoid a sparking wire hanging from a damaged light fixture. Still scanning the room for any possible menace, she asked, "What happened?"
"Something within the child reacted violently to the healer's actions," the One-Tail's jinchuriki replied. His sand swirled in a tight circle. The friction of the grains cast the occasional static spark and created an ominous hissing sound.
Baki pointed to the golden cloud. "Why have you released your sand?"
"I am contemplating the best course of action," Gaara replied. A tight pinch between his tanuki-ringed eyes betrayed the tiniest hint of his internal struggle. "Either the child or something inside of him displayed a dark and dangerous power despite his unconscious state. If that power were to escape this room, it could pose a serious threat to the village."
"That might be true," the elder shinobi said. "The question to ask is, does the threat end if you kill the boy?"
What does he mean by that? Gaara wondered. What have I not considered?
The red-haired shinobi tilted his head slightly and shifted his eyes towards the jonin who had trained the Sand Siblings in their genin years. The jonin commander read the question in Gaara's posture.
"He can't have come here on his own," Baki reasoned. "His age alone is proof of that. Also, someone drew the markings on his body and gave him those injuries. If he dies, the person responsible may send another agent, someone we would know nothing about."
"Killing him may even increase the danger," Temari added, her keen tactical mind making connections and forming preliminary strategies. "You said that the power reacted to the healers' actions?" Gaara answered with a downward tilt of his head. "Some type of failsafe may connect the boy's life force to the reactive energy. If he dies, those bindings could disappear. Depending on where it happens, what type of power is involved, the nature of the restrictions, and the magnitude of the release, the results could be catastrophic. For all we know, there could be a type of 'dead-man switch' set to activate if the vessel dies."
"It may be that the child is meant to die," Baki carried the theory one step further, "so as to deliberately trigger this destruction. It wouldn't be the first time that an enemy has used an innocent child as a weapon of destruction."
"All valid points that I had not considered." Gaara nodded once. "We must keep the child alive until he can be questioned. We need all available information to more accurately assess the potential risk to the village. Information that only he – " Gaara nodded towards the unconscious child, " – can provide."
Gaara's sand slithered back into the gourd.
The jonin commander turned to the nearest junior med-nin and asked, "How is Healer Kouryuu?"
"Unconscious, but his vital signs are steady," Hyomi reported. His hands, glowing with healing chakra, hovered over the unconscious med-nin's right wrist and forearm. Tamuru's hands, also alight with chakra, concentrated on Kouryuu's scalp wound. The unpleasant, coppery tang of spilled blood hung heavy in the air, adding to the stink of overheated wiring and spilled medications. "The main concerns are the injury he took to the head when he hit the wall, as well as the marks left by ... whatever it was. The contact, however brief, ruptured the cells of his skin. There are signs of dermatologic necrosis on both hands and forearms, but it isn't spreading and is responding to treatment, so I'm cautiously optimistic. Barring any complications, he should wake shortly with nothing more than a massive headache. He will need a few weeks of therapy to regain the use of his hands, but he should make a full recovery."
"If his condition is as stable as you stay," Gaara asked, "why is everyone treating him and ignoring the child?"
"I'm not going anywhere near that monster!" Healer Tamuru snapped then blanched when he remembered to whom he had spoken. "I mean to say ... I'm not qualified to provide that level of treatment."
Gaara turned to the other healer, Hyomi. "Are you qualified?"
The healer's desire to claim otherwise was clearly written in his facial expressions and body twitches. With great reluctance he replied, "I ... I suppose I am but ... Kouryuu-sama ... "
" – will recover with minimal treatment which Healer Tamuru and one of the assistants can provide," Gaara finished the sentence for him. "Meanwhile, your original patient is in critical condition. His violent appearance so close to Hidden Sand may be part of a greater threat. He must live if we are to find out who sent him and why. Call in other healers, bring in additional equipment and medications, do whatever is needed. Keeping him alive is your highest priority."
Hyomi looked very much like he intended to refuse. A long, direct look and a single lazy blink from Gaara spurred the healer to obey. A faint susurration from inside the jinchuriki's gourd might have had something to do with it, as well. Ordering one of the aides to assist, Hyomi returned to the treatment bed and its tiny patient.
Seeing the medical staff back at their task, Gaara looked around. The samples that had been gathered on the empty bed were strewn throughout the room. At least three vials had shattered, their contents trampled. Photographs were ripped, their images soiled with dirt and dust. At least two had burned to smoking ash, most likely due to a spark from a shattered light unit.
Someone was sure to step on others, shatter the containers and contaminate the evidence.
Tendrils of sand searched the room, sliding under shelves and furniture, inside lumps of blankets and bed linens, into corners and around people. In short order, Gaara retrieved all of the bottles, vials, bags, boxes and bundles, while Baki and Temari gathered the photographs and scrolls. By the time Gaara had once more organized the samples on the spare bed, his teammates were deeply engrossed in reviewing the images. Gaara left them to it, returning his full attention to the activities surrounding the mysterious boy.
The red-haired shinobi stood in his customary pose – face expressionless, head tilted slightly forward, feet planted apart and arms crossed over his chest. Though his back was to his fellow shinobi, he directed his words toward his former sensei. "Can you decipher any of the patterns?"
Baki tilted a color photo of the forehead markings by 90 degrees, as though a different perspective might yield a clue. He shook his head, sighed and shuffled to the next picture in the stack, this one of the boy's chest. "If they're any form of sealing, power or transportation jutsu, I don't recognize it. We'll send copies to the Cyber Corps."
"It may be some form of written language," Temari added as she examined her own sheets, "but there are no similarities to anything used anywhere in the Elemental Nations. There are no common strokes, angles, swirls, shapes, or composite characters, at least none that I recognize. Everything goes in different directions – no clear up-and-down or side-to-side sentence structures. No breaks or spaces that might indicate groupings related to a specific subject or function. It could spell out his mother's favorite bread recipe for all we know."
"It may be a coded language," Baki speculated, "or a script used by a single, isolated clan."
"Or they could be nothing more than artistic scribbles," Temari said. "The power may be in the material used to make the designs and not in the designs themselves."
"If that is the case," Gaara said, "we will have to wait until the Science Division and Cyber Corps complete their analysis of the evidence."
Temari passed her photographs to Baki and examined the collection of samples. Her eyes immediately went to the distinctive stains ground into the seat and knees of the red trousers.
"Green grass stains?" Temari unknowingly copied Gaara's earlier confusion. "The nearest greenery is a full day's run east, towards the River Country."
Baki placed the neatly stacked photographs on the bed. The jonin gathered up the holster and mirrored Gaara's earlier inspection of both the leather and the wooden rod. He ran the outside of his left thumb up and down its outer surface – the pad was too calloused to detect minute differences in texture. He tilted the holster backside-forward and repeated the examination.
He halted the move near the bottom of the sheath, narrowing his strokes until he felt a thin crease in the leather that did not correspond to any wear pattern or seam. A flick of his thumbnail opened a square flap in the mini-scabbard.
Seeing that Baki had found something new, possibly significant, Gaara left the guard duty to the two security shinobi stationed in the room and joined his teammates. As the siblings watched, Baki used the point of his kunai to tease a small, rectangular item out of the crevice.
It looks like ... a book. Gaara's ringed eyes widened in surprise and curiosity. A book no bigger than the end of my thumb. The sand jinchuriki looked to the boy. The more we find, the greater the mystery that surrounds you. How can I know if you will be an asset or a threat to my village?
Temari expressed the same curiosity as her younger brother, asking, "Is that a book?"
For an answer, Baki examined the thumbnail-sized covers that had the feel of smooth, dark brown leather. He peeled the covers apart with great care and examined the miniscule pages. Faint black smudges hinted at some form of writing, but the words, if there were any, were far too small to see with the naked eye.
"It must be important for them to take such great care to hide it," Gaara reckoned.
"What could anyone possibly want with a book this small?" Temari's question was rhetorical and received no answer.
A female technician in a cream-colored tunic, pants and short poncho, an empty daypack slung over her shoulder, entered the room. She stopped two steps in, staring in surprise at the disordered chamber. When every shinobi turned towards her, she selected the eldest – Baki – and stammered, "Um. I'm from the Science Division. I have instructions to pick up materials and biologicals for examination?"
As she opened the mouth of her daypack, Gaara's sand scooped up the items and floated them across the chamber. He deposited everything they had gathered from the mystery child into the cloth container. Baki returned the thumb-book to his hiding place then handed her the wooden rod and sheath. Temari added three scrolls containing the med-nins' initial reports and all of the photographs to the daypack's contents.
"Most of these samples are irreplaceable, as are the photographs," Gaara warned. "There is a secret compartment on the back side of the scabbard. Attempt to examine the micro-pages but preserve the item as it is. Take every possible precaution. Report your findings to Baki or me right away."
The woman bowed and clutched the closed bag tight to her chest. As she stepped into the corridor, the technician had to hurriedly sidestep to avoid bumping into Kankuro. The puppet master carried two bento boxes wrapped in checkered cloth.
"Something interesting happened while I was gone." Kankuro sighed as his brown eyes took in the damage, lingering longest on the unconscious body of Healer Kouryuu. "I always miss the fun."
"I wouldn't call it fun," Gaara replied. "But it was interesting."
Kankuro handed the bento box in his left hand to his younger brother and moved into the hallway, where he sat on a bench and attacked his meal with gusto. Gaara settled on Kankuro's right and ate his own food at a slower, more dignified pace.
The Sand Siblings and their sensei settled down to watch and to wait for news. It would be a long night.
Despite how it felt to those involved, time passed with its natural, measured speed. As Hyomi had predicted, Healer Kouryuu regained consciousness shortly after care had resumed on the small patient. The injured healer was moved to another room to receive less urgent care, this only after a heated argument – Kouryuu wanted to stay with his patient while the other healers demanded that he rest.
Hyomi and Tamuru won the argument, though Kouryuu muttered promises of revenge beneath his breath as a female aide pushed his wheelchair out of the treatment room.
Hyomi had called in two additional healers. Hyomi, Tamuru and the new arrivals worked throughout the night, taking frequent breaks. The drain on their chakra was immense due to their patient's extreme condition. Their efforts were further hampered by the need to avoid triggering the potentially lethal reaction encountered earlier by Healer Kouryuu.
A small team of maintenance technicians did what they could to repair or replace equipment and lighting without getting in the med-nins' way.
Around midnight, Baki sent Temari and Kankuro home, with instructions to return at dawn to relieve Gaara. Baki elected to sleep on an empty treatment room bed, a more comfortable resting place than the padded benches in the corridor.
Gaara did not sleep, though towards three in the morning, he relaxed into a deep meditation. This gave his mind the relief normally acquired through slumber, while his exceptional healing factor – one of the few positive benefits of being jinchuriki to the One-Tail – repaired the physical damage to his body caused by lack of true sleep.
A new team of med-nin took over at five. Baki greeted Sekka and Ryokan (2) by name then left the day shift med-nin to hear their colleagues' reports. Temari and Kankuro arrived five minutes later. They carried breakfast for Gaara and Baki in wrapped, two-tiered bento boxes.
From the delicious smell, Kankuro made the breakfast. This is good. Driven by a strong survival instinct, Gaara carefully kept the thought to himself. If there is a way to burn water, Temari will find it. My sister is the strongest kunoichi in the village, but she's a terrible cook.
They had just laid down their chopsticks when an older woman approached, dressed in a dark brown tunic and skirt beneath a tan haori, her mouse-brown hair done up in a tight topknot held in place by black lacquered hairpins. She handed a sealed scroll to Baki. He in turn passed it, unread, to Gaara. The sand jinchuriki held his right hand in a half-ram seal and whispered a firm "break." The paper security seal, recognizing one of the two acceptable chakra signatures, vanished in a puff of silver smoke.
Gaara studied the test results while keeping half an ear on the woman's verbal report. Kankuro and Temari read over his shoulder.
"We've performed a preliminary examination of the samples," the technician said. "Regarding the material used to draw the designs. We found blood from three separate donors, as well as sulfur, calcium, sodium, iron, magnetite, and graphite. There are also byproducts of three unrecognized types of animal bone and ... well ... at least seven forms of organic matter that share a similarity to certain herbs and fungi, but their exact composition is unknown. More detail is provided in the scroll. We will continue testing. My superior estimates we should have a more detailed report no later than midday tomorrow."
Receiving Baki's thank you and dismissal, the technician bowed, turned and hurried back to her lab.
A man wearing the standard attire of a Suna shinobi stood a respectful distance away in the other end of the corridor. Isago, Baki's second-in-command, had an angular face with a strong jaw-line, troughs under his eyes, and a perpetual downward turn to his lips.
Baki faced his right-hand man. "Report."
"The work to clear the entry continues, but it's slow going. The obstruction is unstable and shifts without warning. There have been twenty-one injuries, six of them serious but not life-threatening. Two genin, one chunin and one jonin will be on medical leave for at least two months due to broken bones." Isago looked to Gaara and added, "If Gaara-sama can help clear the debris, it would save hours, maybe days, of labor."
Gaara replied, "I will do all that I can."
"Gaara-sama, Baki-sama," Isago said, his expression troubled. "There is one more thing. The council of chiefs wants details. Their agents have questioned everyone on duty last night who might have seen anything at all. They're sure to come here soon with demands for answers."
"Which we can't give them." Baki scowled and huffed even as Temari muttered under her breath, "'Wants,' he says. 'Demands' would most likely be a better word."
"Personally," Kankuro leaned against the corridor wall, arms crossed, one foot raised to rest the sole of his sandal against the stucco; his backpack of sealing scrolls lay on a nearby bench, "I'm surprised they haven't shown up already. I mean, it's not like them to keep us waiting."
"Especially since we're involved, especially Gaara," Temari added then blushed and cast her youngest brother a look of apology. "I mean ... Gaara, I – "
"Don't apologize," Gaara said, the tiniest of smiles on his face. "I know how most of the advisors feel about me, especially Joseki and his faction of conservatives. We talked about it yesterday afternoon."
Temari and Kankuro nodded, with Kankuro adding, "Yesterday seems like so long ago. Funny how a little excitement can mess with your time sense."
Temari's attention caught on something beyond her brothers' shoulders. "Speaking of something messing with your head ... Here they are."
Gaara and Kankuro turned to greet Yura and Joseki, two senior members of the village's advisory council.
Though taller than Joseki by a noticeable margin, Yura did not reach Baki's height – few in the village did. The head of village security – easily recognized by the black bang that fell over the entire right side of his face and a trimmed goatee on the point of his narrow chin – greeted the jonin commander and fellow council member with a smile and a nod of equals. He also shared a brief but warm good morning with Temari, Kankuro and Gaara.
Joseki was, in both personality and political affiliation, Yura's exact opposite. What Joseki lacked in height, he more than made up for with "presence." The senior jonin's arrogant, superior air either cowed or antagonized everyone with whom he came into contact. His rough, lined face and hard, dark, half-lidded eyes added to his reputation as the most conservative and unyielding advisor on the council of chiefs. He greeted Baki with the barest of nods and paid not the slightest bit of attention to the siblings.
"Baki. What is your report on the events of sunset yesterday?" Joseki jumped straight to the main topic. "We hear that you have a prisoner. Have the interrogators begun extracting information from him?"
"The 'prisoner,'" Gaara answered before Baki could, "is a critically injured child maybe five years old."
"Adult or child makes no difference," Joseki replied, his tone both snide and dismissive. "Anyone who poses a threat to our village will receive the same treatment." The councilman's gaze slid over Gaara with a callous disregard for either the jinchuriki's status as one of the village's strongest shinobi or as a son of the Fourth Kazekage. If anything, his arrogant drawl slurred even further. "The safety of the village comes before every other consideration. No sacrifice is too great for the Village Hidden in the Sand. Don't you agree, Gaara?"
He makes his position quite clear without voicing a single word that can be turned against him. Gaara held a tight rein on his temper. He must never allow any hint of the One-Tail to manifest itself. To Joseki, I am a threat that should have been dealt with years ago. If he had is way, I would have died before I could learn how to spell.
"The three of us were there when it happened." Kankuro had no such restraints, displaying his irritation for everyone to see. "We were on top of everything from start to now. Don't you think you should direct your questions to us?"
"Oooh?" Joseki offered a predatory smile. "Might I ask, what were you doing that brought you so close to this event?"
A polite way of implying that we are involved, Gaara understood. Again, without a single incriminating word.
"I was gathering desert flora," Gaara responded.
Kankuro's posture screamed challenge. "Is there something wrong with that?"
"I'm sure Joseki meant no insult." Yura tried to smooth the noticeable tension between the younger shinobi and the abrasive senior. "Please, report what you saw. Include every detail, no matter how small."
Gaara did his best not to sigh in resignation. This will not be a pleasant conversation. If Joseki keeps prodding, I may have to stick Kankuro on the ceiling to keep him from throwing the first punch.
True to Gaara's prediction, a full hour passed before Yura and Joseki left, confident that they had wrung all available information from their only direct witnesses.
After repeating his part in the previous day's events for the third time, Gaara used the distraction of Baki's statement to slip away. He retreated to the window wall of the treatment room. There, he spent several minutes watching as the healers struggled to stabilize their tiny patient. Gaara was by no means an expert in medical matters. He was in fact woefully ignorant in that area, given the way Shukaku kept him robust and healthy. Still, to his inexperienced eye, the healers' movements were less frenzied.
Maybe that means they're close to the turning point, he supposed.
A golden beam of direct sunlight refracted off cracks in the nearby windowpanes, creating a flock of tiny rainbows on the far wall. Gaara looked out, squinting against the brightness. The sun had peaked over the shield wall to shine directly on the village. Though the distance was too great to make out details, especially with the glare, Gaara knew that work to clear the eastern access continued.
I can do nothing here. There, at least, I can make a difference.
The jinchuriki turned to the nearest guard, a shinobi he vaguely remembered had made jonin in the most recent examinations. "If you need me, I'll be helping to clear the east entrance. Summon me if he wakes."
"As you say, Lord Kazekage."
Gaara blinked, his version of surprise. He stared at the mustached shinobi long enough for the man to shuffle his feet, grin and shrug. "Wishful thinking?"
The teen blinked again, gave the tiniest of nods, and turned away. Some shinobi were strange.
(1) Tabemasho – let's eat.
(2) These are the same two healers who assisted Granny Chiyo and Sakura in treating Kankuro.
Thank you, Stars of Briar, for being the 500th person to put Sabaku no Harry on your alert list.
A/N. Two serious apologies. First, for taking so long to post. Issues at work are intense and demand the majority of my attention, as well as recent health issues. Word of advice – don't get old. Just ... don't. Second, I've broken my own rule (as noted in my author's bio). I used Lord Something in one place and Something-sama in another. I wasn't consistent. From this point forward, I will be using the -sama suffix. It has more to do with respect than actual title, and I can still use the term "Lord" for those whose rank requires it.