Being a ninja is hard enough when you work for the good guys, let alone when you get reincarnated into a family of psychopaths.
Disclaimer: I own nothing but a but a pointy stick and a sharp bit of flint. At dawn I will move inland to hunt.
Chapter 8: Facing Your Problems
I stumbled as the world re-solidified around us and I was deposited on my feet after the third consecutive shunshin. I had to close my eyes for a moment to steady my nerves and stifle the nausea that always accompanied being carried along with someone else's flash-step because of the the intense uneven acceleration. I cringed as I heard Gaara retching nearby, apparently unused to the effects that I'd suffered more than a few times while trying to get to him.
Opening my eyes, I realized that we'd been carried to the very yard that I had been ferried away from so many times before, set down by the swing set that still decorated the house's rear. I saw Sidewinder, the ANBU who had taken us, on the roof, apparently having jumped away the second we'd been set down. I could guess why when I felt the ground shift beneath my feet and looked down to see the sand roiling energetically.
"Gaara?" I asked as I took a few steps away and turned to look at my brother at the disturbance's epicenter. He was on his hands and knees, wide eyed and heaving with a strand of saliva dangling from his lips. If he'd left any mess it had already been enveloped and ground away by the shifting sands below. He closed his eyes and forced his breathing to slow, the earth's twitching slowing along with it, until it relaxed back into its unagitated state. Opening his eyes, he rocked back into a seated position and scrubbed at his mouth with a sleeve.
His action reminded me of my own mess and I looked again to the flecks of blood, Keiji's blood, on my fingertips. Suna's hot, dry air, coupled with the whipping wind of the shunshin, had already dried it into a crust and I rolled my fingers against one another to brush it off. Like chalk dust.
Keiji. I'd hated his guts, though I suspected not half as much as he hated mine. But there was a difference between sniping insults and schoolyard brawls and... this. I'd never wished something like this on anyone. I could still hear his scream echoing around in my head. Not a scream of anguish or agony. The panicked, uncomprehending scream of a seven year old who'd gotten in over his head.
He was seven, I realized, my age hitting me out of nowhere like it occasionally would. Sometimes all I would know was that the other kids were my peers and I forgot just how very young that made them. A seven year old had screamed like that, had been hurt, badly, because of me. Only hurt?
He'd been able to scream, and my uncle, the ANBU grade medic, had been there in seconds. Whatever his injuries were, I had to believe he'd survive them.
God. What a mess. More blood flaked off my face as I ran my palm over it. Less than I had been expecting, but still so much, but I could feel more clinging doggedly to my skin. I plunged my hand into the sand and scrubbed a handful against my cheek, letting the coarse grains grind the crust away. There was probably more sprayed across my clothes, but I could bear to clean that off later. I distantly recalled that blood was supposed to be hard to get out, but surely a hidden village had plenty of practice. I'll get plenty of practice. I won't be a bystander forever.
Eventually I felt something approaching clean again and wandered over to sit next to Gaara. He had his knees drawn up to his chest and was staring dolefully ahead.
"Sorry," he muttered.
"It's... It's alright," I answered. He had enough baggage without me piling more on. "You shouldn't have done that, but... It's good to know you have my back." In a way, it was. I wouldn't have wished for the attack, but that he'd struck so close without harming me in the least, that I was somehow included in his protection... It was comforting, if I ignored the context.
"It was just so... Loud," he went on, clearly struggling for an explanation.
I opened my mouth to offer some comforting remark, but found myself freezing as his words sunk in. Keiji had a mouth on him, but he rarely raised his voice, far to assured of his own superiority to fall into a shouting match. Today hadn't been any different. He'd taunted, gloated, but even his final words to me had been more an affronted hiss than an enraged roar.
So what had been loud?
The answer was obvious enough.
My thoughts crystalized as I considered the problem, the disjointed mess they'd been in for minutes reordering to meet the task at hand. I was good at problems. Loss made me shut down, made me run, because it was over and there was nothing I could do to fix it. Problems, on the other hand, could be solved, could be attacked. Up until this moment, what had happened had been a loss, Gaara had lashed out and Keiji had been hurt and there had been nothing to be done about it.
Now there was something to be done.
"Can you give us a dome?" I asked, an edge in my voice that hadn't been there a moment before. Not command, but a sense that I knew what I was doing.
"I... Yeah," he swallowed nervously before forming a ram seal as he followed the unspoken order. I resisted the instinct to shift uncomfortably as sand began slowly building up in a ring around us. He focused for a moment that seemed to last an eternity as the walls of earth built around us and curved overhead. This sort of purposeful construction came much harder to him than the waves and fountains of sand that respectively defended and attacked for him, likely because it was actually entirely his effort rather than the redirected strikes of the demon he held.
At any other time I would have been proud. Jinchuriki or not, it was an impressive feat for someone his age. His training sessions with Father were paying dividends.
I gathered chakra in my palm as the sun's light was blocked by the dome's closing, thankful for even its faint blue glow against the pitch darkness. I trusted my brother, but I was still occasionally awoken by nightmares of his passenger. Being surrounded on all sides by sand wasn't precisely comforting, but it was the only way I could think of that we'd get any privacy. Sand didn't carry sound, Gaara would detect any physical intrusion, and I doubted even the vaunted Byakugan would be able to pierce the amount of demonic chakra the dome was saturated with.
"Gaara..." I began, and took a deep steadying breath before continuing. "Do you hear..." voices? I almost ask before stopping myself. Accurate, but with unfortunate connotations. "Is something... Talking to you?" Still not right, but I didn't know how else I could ask.
My brother inhaled sharply and withdrew further, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his head in them. A few grains of sand drifted down from the dome as it shifted slightly in reaction to its master's distress. He hated it when Yashamaru or I worried over him, hated thinking he might be a burden. He never complained about the sleepless nights, never mentioned the nightmares unless asked specifically and even then tried to brush them off as nothing. This was bigger than anything that had come before, and I had to wonder how long he'd been hiding it.
Right then, I needed him to talk. Slowly, carefully, I reached out to him with my right arm, still cradling our chakra light with my left, and laid my hand softly on his shoulder.
"Gaara, it's me," I pleaded. "You can trust me." Have to trust me, I added to myself, because everything we'd accomplished, all of the progress he'd made, could be taken away so easily if things went wrong here. I knew from my notes that this was roughly the age that Yashamaru had attempted the assassination, and now that I'd considered it I couldn't shake the dread that this was what had set it in motion. That, somehow, this one event had persisted against the ripples I had cast.
He raised his head to meet my gaze and I was struck by just how much darker and more haggard the rings around his eyes looked in the wan blue light. It wasn't right that all of this was being piled onto a five year old. Wasn't right that the only one who would stick in his corner no matter what was only seven.
"Sometimes," he answered quietly. "More when I'm tired."
"How long..." Since you slept? I began instinctively, but left the question hanging.
"Five days," he replied in the same quiet voice, and I nod slowly. If he stayed awake long enough he could drop into an exhausted, dreamless sleep for a few hours, but the time between stolen naps was getting longer and longer as time went on. I had no trouble believing that by twelve he would stop sleeping entirely. One more problem, but one I didn't even know how start fixing.
"When you... When Keiji got hit, was it you, or...?" I found myself trailing off again. This conversation was a minefield. The last thing Gaara needed just now was his brother flinging accusations at him. And, a small corner of my mind pointed out, it would be a very bad idea to upset him while under the dome.
"I don't know," he mumbled. "He was mean and the voice said he deserved... And then he hurt you and- and... I don't know."
"You... You know you can't trust it, right?" I asked as carefully as I could.
"Of course!" He said sharply. "It says that you and uncle Yasha don't actually like me. That you just play along so I don't hurt you. But I know that's not true, so... So I know it's a liar." He'd dropped back into hushed words after his initial burst of assertiveness, but I was relieved by the amount of certainty in his voice.
I could also see where that kind of certainty could lead. That if, as had happened in the world I distantly remembered, Yashamaru one day turned on him he would lose his only tie to humanity. Shukaku would become his only ally, and he'd believe anything it told him.
Which reminded me...
"Do you know what it is?"
He shook his head, apparently unwilling to put forward anything he might have considered, and I sighed. Of course no one would tell him about the demon bonded to him. Though, I supposed I wasn't innocent on that count either. How do you have that conversation with your little brother?
I supposed I was about to find out. Ignorance wasn't something we could afford. And he deserved to know why his life was so messed up.
"Right," I began, taking a breath as I considered how to tell the story. "There are nine creatures called the Bijuu. The Tailed-Beasts. They are old, and powerful, and cannot die. And they hate."
"...Hate what?" He prompted when I'd stopped for a moment.
"Everything." Probably not true. I knew that some of them, like the eight-tail, could get along with people. But the moral of this story was 'don't trust Shukaku,' so... "They hate everything, and use their power to destroy whatever they can.
"But ninjas, ah," I tapped my temple with a grin. "Ninjas are clever. The Bijuu may be stronger, and they can't be killed, but they can be trapped. So, a long time ago, all the villages locked them up so they couldn't hurt anyone anymore. But ninjas are even cleverer than that!" I didn't like shilling the same line the academy did, building up shinobi as heroes. But stories need heroes, and Gaara needed to be built up.
"Because they knew how to take all that power and give it to someone who would do more than just destroy. Someone who could do good with it. They could take the Bijuu and seal them up into babies."
"And... That's me," he said, looking down at his hands. He always had been quick.
"And that's you," I agreed. "You protect us all from it and, one day, you'll use it to protect us all."
"Like... Like the Hulk?" He asked.
At a certain point I'd started dipping into my first life for stories. Superheroes and fantasy tended to be the most entertaining and easiest to put in a shinobi context, so he'd heard more than a few over the years.
"Yeah. Like the Hulk. Biiiiiig ol' monster, wrapped up in a doofy little brother," I tapped him in the chest and he swatted my hand away, but there was a ghost of a smile there. "Shukaku, that's his name, is bad. But that doesn't make you bad. You can use his power. You do use his power." I rapped the dome with my knuckles. "And you can do good with it. You can be a hero."
I was well aware that I was feeding him the same propaganda the academy shoved down our throats, but... He needed it. He needed to know that heroism was an option.
"You really think so?" There was hope there. It was buried under a lot of uncertainty, but it was there.
"Hey, you're my little brother." I slung an arm around his shoulders. "How could you end up as anything but awesome?"
We both settled into a thoughtful silence, the two of us shifting so that we sat against the dome walls, Gaara leaning into my shoulder. I let him organize his thoughts as I did the same.
I briefly considered running away before discarding the idea. Between Gaara's abilities, my memories, and academy survival training we could, maybe, take care of ourselves. What we couldn't do was evade ANBU, and what we wouldn't do was leave behind everything and everyone we knew. Suna wasn't perfect, or even particularly nice, but it was home.
Could we tell the truth, blame Shukaku? It didn't take much consideration to find the glaring flaw in that plan. However bad a psychotic Jinchuriki might have been, a bijuu breaking its chains would be rightly considered much worse. A broken ninja got sent to the psych division to be pieced back together. A broken seal could be patched for a time, shored up, but ultimately the only solution was to scrap it and start over, a process that Gaara wouldn't survive.
Counting on leniency due to his age would be equally foolish, even without knowledge from the future of just what my father was capable of ordering. I'd become expendable in the eyes of the law the instant I'd entered into the academy, a tool to be sharpened, used, and broken in the service of the village. That went double for my brother, who had been considered a weapon from birth.
There were no good options. We'd have to use the least bad one.
"Gaara," I said, swallowing dryly. "Listen close. We're gonna play make believe."
"...Experiment has failed, Kazekage-Sama."
The voice drifted out as Gaara and I were ushered into our father's office, and I suppressed a pang at my brother's curious gaze. For Temari and I, visitng this room was routine. We'd seen our father more often here than we had at home. I doubted Gaara could remember the last time he'd been here.
I wondered what he thought of the place, seeing it with fresh eyes. I'd become inured to the gaudy reminders of my father's power, the golden accents and ornaments scattered throughout. I knew they were there to make a point, and only partially about wealth. Gaara knew about the gold release, father had used it to train him since he could walk, but I wasn't sure if he could draw the connection between those frightening metallic clouds and these enticing baubles.
Either way, I suspected that the effect was somewhat ruined by the two men who had preceded us into the room. The Nenshoudo clan head and the man I supposed must have been Kieji's father, both identifiable as members of the clan by their bald heads and glass accouterments. Until the Third had perfected the Magnet Release, their Glass Release had been widely recognized as the most powerful bloodline in the village. Their ability to convert sand into weapons was second only to Shukaku itself, and the Shodaime Kazekage had surpassed even that. Their ornaments served exactly the same purpose as my father's.
The clan head was instantly recognizable by the bands of glass coiled around his forearms, no doubt infused with his chakra and ready to deploy at a moment's notice. He was tall and bare chested save for a flak vest and wore his hitiate wrapped around a bicep. He regarded the two of us with... Expectation, I supposed. Not overtly hostile, but not innocuous enough to be considered curious.
His brother, on the other hand, was fuming. A pair of heavy steel canisters were strapped to his waist, one beneath each arm, and his hands twitched over their tops. He'd clothed himself in the loose white linens favored by Jounin and ANBU and had secured his headband in the typical fashion. The barely perceptible motes of gold seemed to be just a little thicker in his vicinity, and he seemed on the verge of snarling upon sighting us.
This wasn't going to be pleasant. If I was very lucky, the worst that would happen was a life long enmity with one of the most powerful clans in the village. But it was either kick the scorpion den or sell out Gaara, and there wasn't even a choice there as far as I was concerned.
...Not that Gaara would come out of this unscathed either. I gave his shoulder a brief squeeze before squaring myself up.
"Speak of the demon and it appears," the younger brother spat. "I suppose you stopped at the playground while my son lies dying?"
A lie, I told myself. It had to be.
"Apologies, Kazekage-Sama," Sidewinder offered a truncated bow that didn't involve taking her eyes off anyone. "The weapon had sequestered them for some time." I schooled my expression. Did they actually call him that in reports?
Mt father and the Nenshoudo considered us for a moment before their gazes settled on me. Someone other than the host surviving Shukaku's embrace must have seemed novel.
"There's no safer place in the village," I told them. I hoped it came out cool and calm, but there was a good chance there had been a squeak in there. Seven year olds really don't have the voice for playing politician. "So long as one minds their manners."
Keiji's father bristled at that and I hastily added, "I apologize. I'm Kankuro Sabidou. This is my brother, Gaara." Keep them off balance, keep them guessing.
"We are aware," the clan head stated with a level glare.
"Oh, good. Who are you?" That's right, baldies, all eyes on me. Pay no attention to the Jinchuriki behind the curtain.
"I am Daichi Nenshoudo, head of my clan, and this is my brother, Jirou, father of the boy... Gaara attacked."
"Hardly," I snorted. "If he had attacked there wouldn't be anything left but blood and sand. That was a love tap." I laid my hand on Gaara's shoulder and gave it a surreptitious squeeze of support.
"...Right," he agreed after a moment, voice distant.
Keiji's father bristled at that, and he opened his mouth to retort.
"Enough," my father stated. Everyone in the room stood a fraction straighter at the steel in his voice. "We are here to discuss the incident, determine where fault lies, and render judgment. Not squabble with children."
There a low rumble of killing intent as Jirou took half a step forward. It was different from what I'd experienced in the past, a barely restrained burst as opposed to a carefully honed scalpel. It was less intense, but somehow scarier for being authentic.
His older brother's hand came down on his shoulder, pulling him up short. "Of course, Kazekage-Sama. We all know who's at fault here."
"Of course. An apology is in order," I said, sending a quick glance towards my father. He seemed perfectly willing to let me hang myself by my own rope. Good. I let the silence stretch on for a moment longer before lifting my eyes to meet the gaze of our accusers. Sidewinder will probably be able to stop them before they take my head off... "We are waiting."
"How dare you..." Keiji's father breathed, suffusing the air with that low grade intent again. The air felt thick and cloying, sticking in my throat and weighing me down. I was certain Sidewinder would have had to put my wager to the test if the Nenshoudo head hadn't been holding him back.
"Your son called our family weak. His assumption was... Corrected."
This wasn't Konoha. Suna hadn't been drawn together by a charismatic leader and the promise of a better tomorrow. It had been scraped together by few powerful clans in a desperate bid to avoid getting left behind. The laws weren't meant to protect the individual, but to defend the village. And, as far as the village was concerned, when two of its shinobi fought it wanted to keep the stronger one.
Wholesale murder and random acts of violence wouldn't be tolerated, but the penalty for an attack would be better than being declared an out of control Jinchuriki.
"Is this true?" My father asked Gaara in exactly the same tone he used to interrogate Temari and I about our lessons.
"He wanted to fight," Gaara repeated the line I had drilled into him and shrugged. "We fought." My brother was much better at bottling up emotion than I was.
"This is preposterous," Jirou snapped. "This was not a duel. Your weapon lost control. Your dog is rabid and needs to be put down."
"That remains to be seen." I resisted the urge to shudder at my father's words. He was perfectly willing to follow through.
"This was the first... Incident in years," I said. "Perhaps a lapse in judgment, but not of control."
"And what do you know of control?" The clan head asked, his words measured.
"Trust me," I raised my hand and undid my arm wrappings with a solid tug at the cloth near my elbows. They fell away to reveal an arm that was as recovered as it was ever going to get. The skin was pale but mottled with patches of darker scar tissue. "Were he to lose control, I'd be the first to know."
I felt Gaara shrink in on himself beside me and fought back a wince. He didn't need the reminder, but we needed every argument we could get.
The two Nenshoudo regarded us for a moment before my father raised a hand.
"Bickering with children gets us nowhere," he stated. "Gaara. Exercise eight."
"Y-yes sir," he answered, and raised his hands to chest height. Sand – and there was always sand in Suna, it got everywhere – rushed from the corners of the room and gathered into a ball before him. It uncoiled into a serpentine shape and began circling his hands in a figure eight.
"So you've taught it tricks," Jirou dismissed. "This changes nothing. It belongs on a leash or in a ditch."
"And yours needs a muzzle," I snapped out. I hoped I wasn't showing any shock. No, bad mouth. You're supposed to run these things past our brain first.
The room went silent and the weight in the air increased as all of that wild killing intent was focused on me. This was a bit much even by my standards, I could feel myself shaking.
I'd pushed too far, made him too mad. Would he take a swing at me? Would anyone stop him in time? If he did attack, would that put the blame wholly on him? My mind was running a mile a minute, but it didn't seem to be kicking up any answers. Just more useless questions.
"This is unacceptable," he muttered after a moment, whirling to face my father. "The one attacks children and the other mocks the victims!"
Well, this certainly explained where Keiji got his vitriol. I could see my father's eyes narrow. This wouldn't end well.
"Your family is a blight on this village, and the nepotism that brought you this office is killing us more surely than Iwa ever did." His brother lay a hand on his shoulder, but he shook free and waved a hand in my direction in the same motion. "I suppose that this is what we have to look forward to in our next Kage? An insolent brat who lacks even your overrated bloodline? Or perhaps the demon will rule over us after all?"
I could see the gold dust thickening in the air. Sidewinder was shifting behind us. This was escalating much farther than I'd expected.
"Tread carefully," my father growled. "You are afforded a measure of-"
I flinched when there was a knock at the door, expecting the room to erupt like a powder keg. Instead my father, apparently recognizing the knock, made a gesture and the door opened.
Yashamaru stepped in and bowed deeply. "Reporting as ordered, Kazekage-Sama."
He had the immediate attention of everyone in the room. Keiji's survival and condition could tip the argument in anyone's favor.
"Status." A statement, not a question.
"The boy will live." I could feel some of the tension drain out of the room. "I predict, and hospital staff agree, up to a month of recovery time due to chakra infection. Scarring is likely to be the only long term effect, possibly accompanied by stiffness in the jaw and neck." Direct. Clinical. Every inch the ANBU medic he usually hid beneath layers of bad jokes.
"Nothing we haven't seen before," he added, glancing at my unwrapped arm.
"Good news, yes?" Daichi asked, laying both hands on his brother's shoulders.
"Yes, yes of course." He broke the contact to face my father. "I... Apologize for my impertinence, Kazekage-Sama. It has been a difficult day."
"Of course," my father answered. His eyes flickered between the brothers for a moment before he relaxed slightly. The shimmer of gold dust returned to the typical background levels of his office.
With Keiji's survival assured, the largest conflict had been removed from the table.
"You will also understand that, though this news is welcome, it does not remove the issue in question," Daichi added.
Not that they wouldn't wring the rest for all it was worth.
"Agreed. However, Yashamaru has been the weapon's handler for years. If any are equipped to evaluate the project's condition it is he." He nodded to my uncle. "You were present for the incident?"
"Yes Kazekage-Sama," he responded, still standing at attention.
"Can you determine whether the incident represents a breach in the seal's integrity?"
That was a good question. I didn't know. Even Gaara didn't know. Yashamaru might have keener senses, or rely on past observations, or just go with a gut feeling. I couldn't predict what he'd say, but I had no doubt he'd be honest. My uncle liked Gaara and I, but he had a sense of duty to match my father's.
"It is my observation that the attack was wholly reactionary and disproportionate to the preceding provocation," he began. Not exactly what I'd been hoping for.
"You believe it was provoked?" My father inserted. Corroborating our story. Jirou bristled slightly at the implication.
"Yes, sir. Keiji Nenshoudo had entered into antagonistic dialog with Kankuro Sabidou and the weapon, and laid hands on Kankuro when the assault occurred. It is my opinion that Keiji instigated the confrontation." He turned an eye upon Jirou as the man open his mouth to comment. "Again, the response was not in proportion to the situation. The assault was a clear disregard of village conduct."
That was not what I wanted to hear.
Daichi nodded to himself. "The weapon lost control."
No no no... I seized Gaara's hand and squeezed.
"With all due respect, sir," my uncle interjected. "I do not believe so."
"Elaborate," my father commanded.
"It is my informed opinion that the assault represented a fault in discipline, not control. That is to say," he added, "the attack was the result of the container's decision rather than the seal being bypassed. The weapon made a choice, if a poor one."
"How can you be certain?" Daichi insisted.
"I cannot. However, of the two people in the path of the attack, only one suffered injury," he noted. "I do not believe Shukaku would discriminate."
Gaara squeezed my hand back. We might actually make it out of this.
"This is hearsay and speculation," Jirou snapped. "We cannot risk this being a precursor to a larger incident."
"Indeed," his brother agreed. "The threat posed is too great."
I hoped Yashamaru would interject again, but he continued to stand at attention. He'd only speak if asked to now that he'd said his piece.
I took a deep breath. "If I may make an observation?"
All eyes turned on us and I had to steady myself. It was somehow harder without the killing intent being thrown around. Like I'd been leaning into the wind before, like I'd had something to fight, and now there was just... Me.
No. I held my brother's hand tighter. Us.
Yashamaru had laid down the evidence, made the arguments. I just had to bring it home. Spin it so the conclusion became obvious.
"Before Yashamaru got here, there was more killing intent in this room than I've ever felt before. Everyone was about to fight. And most of it was directed at Gaara. If he didn't lose control here..." I nodded to where the sand was still weaving a figure eight above his other hand. "I don't think he would have out there."
My brother protected me, I asserted to myself. My brother protected me, and the demon had nothing to do with it. If I believed it hard enough, they might too.
"I believe," my father stated after a long moment of consideration. "This is sufficient evidence to render judgment. The weapon is stable."
I sagged slightly, tension flowing from my body.
"But the danger-," Jirou tried to add.
"Is not enough to outweigh the investment. As before, the worth of a battle ready Jinchuriki is too much to discard casually. My decision stands," he said with finality.
We'd actually pulled it off. No execution order, no test of loyalties. We'd have to make sure it didn't happen again, but just then we'd won one.
Jirou looked as though he were about to argue again, but his brother silenced him with a glance.
"Of course, Kazekage-Sama. Now that we have determined that the demon played no part in today's events," he smiled. If it were possible to project smugness the same way you could killing intent, we would have been drowning in it. "Let us discuss the matter of your son assaulting my nephew."
I'd seen this coming, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with. The problem with proving that Gaara was in control of himself was that... Well, we'd proven that Gaara was in control of himself.
"And the Kazekage himself must preside over a schoolyard brawl?" My father asked.
"My son was injured," Jirou insisted.
"A child bloodied another's nose. This happens every day without becoming a matter for the village."
"A clansman was scarred for life," Daichi returned. "It must be answered for." He stood tall and imperious, peering down at where my father sat at his desk.
"...True," my father conceded, eyes narrowed. "But that is not a matter for here and now. We will discuss the matter once the full extent of Keiji's injuries have been determined, and we will do so as clan heads and fathers. This is not an issue for a Kage."
"Agreed," Daichi stated magnanimously. "I look forward to our conversation, Sabidou-San." He offered a brief bow along with his brother and made for the door. Jirou shot Gaara and I toxic glances on the way out, but I didn't feel any of killing intent that had poured off of him before.
That had gone... Better than expected? Worse? I didn't know, I assumed the last part had been full of political machinations that had gone over my head. The Nenshoudo clan head had seemed entirely too pleased with himself to think that we'd gotten a clean win.
I spent a moment steadying myself, grabbing my bindings from the floor once the pair had left.
"Yashamaru," father commanded. "You gave a full and accurate accounting?"
Confirming that there had been no politics at play, or did he suspect otherwise?
"Sir," my uncle answered with a nod.
"Sidewinder, your observations align with his?"
"Yes sir." I jumped a little, having forgotten she was hanging just behind us. God damn sneaky ANBU. "I do not believe the weapon was subverted."
"Gaara," his eyes drifted to us. "You were in control?"
"He wanted to hurt 'Kuro," my brother answered. His hands curled into fists and the sand splashed to the ground below. "I hurt him first!"
I was surprised at the conviction in his voice. Sometime between now and our talk he'd decided that he was in control.
Our father gave him a considering look before offering a stiff nod. "In the future, endeavor to use blunted strikes on allies. We will review the technique. And Kankuro," he added. "This cannot happen again."
He held our gazes for a moment longer before turning his attention to his desk and waving dismissively. We wasted no time in leaving.
"You'd think he'd be happier to have a way to hide the ugly," Hisoka noted. I followed he gaze back to Keiji, who had left the academy a little behind us. His eyes caught mine for a moment and glared fiercely, but nothing more came of it. That was about as far as any interaction between us got in the months since his return.
It had been three weeks before we'd seen him again, and it had been a relief when the cantankerous brat stalked into the classroom. Despite Yashamaru's assertion, I couldn't help but imagine a sudden turn for the worse, and the village's gossip hadn't helped. The shinobi rumor mill, fast and thorough as it was, existed to spread disinformation. I'd heard everything from 'only a scratch' to 'invigorated his blood limit' to 'crippled for life'.
It was almost a disappointment when the only change was the assassin's veil drawn over his mouth. Every so often, during spars or acrobatics, it would flutter just enough to see the scar tissue beneath. I could sympathize with keeping it covered up. Knives left the sort of defined scars you could show off. Sand blasting was just ugly.
That in mind, I gave Hisoka a vicious flick to the ear. She yelped, burst into smoke, and resolved into a glaring Hikaru. On my left, Hisoka sighed and dispelled her own transformation.
"How'd you know?" He grumbled.
"Hisoka is cruel to people's faces," I answered. "Not about people's faces." That was a lie, but I made a point to never admit to being less clever than people thought I was.
We'd just finished a week long set of lessons leading up to performing the Henge. It was the first of the basic three Jutsu that we'd been allowed to attempt.
Clones were harder to execute. A poorly used replacement would drop you on your head. But put the seals together in the right order with anything approximating chakra control and you'd get a transformation out of it. What you transformed into was the hard part.
A henge was easy to activate but hard to get right. For the instant of activation, the fraction of a second between the last hand seal and releasing the chakra, you had to hold every detail in the front of your mind. No focusing on the nose, then the eye, then the mouth, and so on. It was all or nothing. It would take a while for most of us to pick up the observation skills required to notice that much about a target, let alone deploy it. The twins could only perform it so well because... Well, twins. They knew each other better than they knew their own faces. I also wouldn't have been surprised to discover that their parents had been helping them.
Everyone else had had the gaps filled in by the sickly gray color that seemed to be chakra's default setting. It had been like being in a class full of zombies in clown wigs. Bright monochrome hair was pretty easy to get right.
"Got any plans for the day?" I asked.
"We should probably get home and confuse out parents," Hisoka answered after a moment of thought. She paused in the street and ran through the seals for transformation before reassuming her brother's form.
"This is gonna be great," Hikaru whooped, pumping his fist. From what I understood, trying to confuse parents as to which twin was which was a huge part of Gankyou childhood that they'd been missing out on until now. There was a rumor that two on the clan council had swapped places at the age of five and stuck it out for the next twenty years.
"Good luck," I gave them a thumbs up. They'd need it. Their mother was terrifying.
The pair waved back at me before running off towards the Gankyou compound, Hisoka doing her best to mimic her brother's frantic energy.
I continued on my own, taking a side street that didn't quite lead home. Gaara and Yashamaru were waiting a little ways along it, my uncle leaning against a shop that had closed down the year before. My brother's arms were crossed and he wore a stormy expression.
No one had said anything, but it seemed like a good idea to keep him and Keiji separated. Waiting in front of the academy was just asking for trouble.
"What's up?" I asked. It was weird, he'd been excited the past few days but refused to tell me why.
"They won't let me in," he said quietly. He hunched in a fraction on himself, and the sand at his feet flattened.
"Who won't?" My eyes narrowed. I hadn't heard anything about whatever reparations our clan had paid the Nenshoudo, but it was hard to miss the way shops were snubbing us.
"The academy," he muttered.
"Oh." I blinked at that. I supposed it was about the right time to start evaluating new students, but I hadn't even considered what that meant for Gaara. Mostly because...
"Said I didn't need it." He kicked the ground, sending a half foot tall wave of sand into the building across the street.
Because of that. He was personally trained by the Kazekage. I'd learned my first actual Jutsu that day, and he'd been doing elemental manipulation for years. A portion of that could be put down to Shukaku, but these weren't wild outbursts. He was an actual Sabidou genius, while I just played at it through foreknowledge and expanded experience.
"They... Aren't exactly wrong," I informed him, and received a glare for my trouble. "Gaara, you could take a Genin. today. Maybe even a Chuunin." I neglected to add 'ANBU assassins' to the list. No need to make our minders feel inadequate.
"All dad ever teaches me is jutsu," he complained, kicking up another wave. "I don't even know how to hold a kunai!" Complaining about learning ninjutsu. It was like I'd fallen into some kind of bizarro universe. Next Hikaru would start demanding vegetables.
And had father really never- No, of course he hadn't. He wanted a weapon, not a warrior. No point in doing anything but maximize destructive potential.
"I just- I want to be more than sand," he murmured.
That... That made sense. Sand was his greatest weapon, but he didn't exactly have many good experiences with it. I loved playing with chakra because of all the little tricks I could use it for, and while he could probably get even more use out of his sand it had also caused a lot of trouble. It had struck me, Keiji, people were afraid of it, and he knew it was connected to a demon.
I could see how being forced to rely on that could mess with his head.
"Ha," I snorted. "Who needs the academy?" I dug out one of my old wooden kunai and tossed it to Gaara in a gentle arc. My blunted steel set saw more use these days, but I didn't want to start him out on them. Blunted or not, they were still a solid chunk of metal that he had no idea how to use.
Sand bulged at his feet, but didn't rise more than a couple inches as he caught the practice weapon. I resisted the urge to wince at his grip, directly around the thickest part with one edge digging into his palm. The academy had gone to great lengths to assure us that there was no right way to catch a thrown weapon, but that was one of the wrongest, right after 'point first.'
Yeah, he definitely needed these lessons. That sand would make him invincible right up until it didn't. Best to make sure he had something waiting in the wings for when that happened.
"You've got your brilliant older brother!" I jabbed a thumb into my chest. "And, I dunno, some kind of ex-ANBU guy?" I waved dismissively at Yashamaru.
"They're never going to let me back in if you keep spreading that around," my uncle dropped his face into his palm. "I should never have told you."
Yes, told me. I definitely didn't slip up when I was six and blame it on him. That would be ridiculous.
"Good. We'll need you to stick around for target practice." I threw a second at Yashamaru, point first at full speed. He caught it between his index and forefinger with casual ease.
"Haven't heard that in awhile," he said, flicking it back in a high arc I'd be able to track. "You're definitely your mother's child."
I fumbled the catch, training weapon falling into the sand as I blinked owlishly. That was unexpected. I felt warm, in a way that couldn't be explained by Suna's oppressive heat.
And for some reason, that bothered me.
A few weeks later I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. The door was locked, and I hoped even ANBU would allow a little privacy here. If not... Well, it would be confusing, but not damning. I had to do this.
Carefully, I ran through the hand seals for transformation. I'd been practicing the mental exercises since I'd learned them and could do a passable Hikaru. The deficit was mostly that my observation skills weren't up to par for me to remember all the fiddly details. That was fine. The form I wanted was engraved in my mind.
A puff of smoke, a flash of focus, and I studied my handiwork.
The first thought that occurred was foreign. The shape of the face, tone of the skin, the way the hair actually lay flat. I hadn't seen anything like it in years. The second was civilian. It wasn't exactly out of shape, though it definitely hadn't been working out, but there was none of the conditioning that went into a shinobi. Even among fit civilians, a careful eye would notice the difference between muscles trained by labor and those suffused with chakra.
The glasses were another strange sight. Whether because chakra enhanced most biology or due to natural selection in ninja, very few shinobi needed them. In Suna, where sand whipped by the wind would scratch them to uselessness in weeks, the number was even lower. The lenses were thick, far too thick for for the rimless frames.
And that... That was me. Had been me. I didn't know which. Exactly as I remembered. Everyone carries an image of themselves, an idea of what they looked like, and this was mine.
But that was all it was, an image. It was the voice you heard when you spoke, not the strange but true one in the recording. Had I gotten anything wrong? Would I be able to tell if I had?
Slowly, I raised my hands to eye level and studied my fingertips. these, I knew. They were Kankuro's. Mine, now. I'd never really observed my fingerprints, certainly not enough to remember almost a decade later. And now they were gone. A little piece of myself lost forever because I'd never bothered to pay attention. How much else just wasn't there anymore? How would I even know?
I didn't dare try anyone else's face. I didn't want to know what I'd lost.
I supposed that Keiji and I had more in common than I'd first thought. Neither of us would see the right face when we looked in the mirror.
I slumped back against the wall and allowed myself to slide down. The collision with the floor was enough to break the henge, leaving me a child once more.
Who the hell was I?
A/N: Ancient spirits of reviews, transform this distracted author into Hubris Plus, the Ever-Writing!
I. AM. RISEN!
Well, this took an inordinately long time. And on a cliffhanger, too! I blame the inevitable progression of time.
Seriously though, thank you all for your continued support. All you folks who reviewed and reminded me that, yes, this exists, and, yes, people are waiting for more. I may be the hero this fic deserves, but you're the ones it needs.
Already about halfway through the next chapter, so with any luck there won't be another massive gap.
I also wrote another thing.
I gave my materials a final once over. Carefully arrayed geometric designs. Notebooks full of page upon page of esoteric ritual. Every power, prayer, and spell I knew from my first world, every monster and curse. Each one had been painstakingly remade from memory, the gaps filled by my best guesses and careful deliberation.
It would have to do. I could delay no further.
I surveyed my allies. Gaara, Hisoka, Hikaru, the three people I could trusted with my secrets in the world. If any would join me in this endeavor, it would be them. Each had loose papers arrayed before them, their instruments within easy reach.
Cracking open the first of my notebooks, I began...
"The night is dark, the winds fierce, and the roads unfriendly. Driven indoors, you've all sought out this small town inn. The building is packed, every square inch taken up by travelers and townsfolk seeking solace against the night. It doesn't seem to be much of an improvement. This closely packed, old grievances are bubbling to the surface, just waiting for an excuse..."
Hikaru scratched his head. Hisoka checked her character sheet. Gaara snatched up his d20.
"I play my lute!"
Eight years without D&D? Yeah, I'd probably try it. These segments are exactly as cannon as you want them to be, and may continue.
As always, corrections, criticism, and suggestions are more than welcome.