Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ The Flower in Adversity ❯ Homeward Bound ( Chapter 7 )
Author's Note: As stated in the prologue and first chapter, this is set way out from the start of the series, and is so far based on about chapter 360 of the manga, no further, since that's where the manga was when I started this project. Therefore, it's probably AU. Refer to the Author's Note in the first chapter for more details.
Also: this was supposed to be the last chapter before the epilogue, but it ran way too long, so I've split it down. There'll be another chapter after this before the epilogue.
Disclaimer: I do not own any part of "Naruto" or its characters. It all belongs to the incomparable Masashi Kishimoto-sensei. I'm just playing in the sandbox of this amazing world.
"The flower which blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all." --proverb from "Mulan"
"The Flower in Adversity"
Part Seven: Homeward Bound
Crash! A large granite block slammed to the ground from a fall of ten meters up. It was only the last-minute whoosh of sand that billowed up and formed a cushion that prevented the block from shattering upon impact.
"Samurai," Gaara muttered under his breath, his hackles raised. "Bloody samurai."
"All brawn, no brains," Temari murmured with a sigh. "You can't move a rock that big with muscles alone."
"They're here to help us, you know," Baki admonished gently. "Don't be too judgmental."
"That's not what I call helping!" Kankurou retorted, pointing at the cluster of Wind Country samurai uselessly trying to move the block. "That's making the problem worse!"
"Idiot," Konohamaru snorted, miming a punch at the puppeteer. "I'd actually hit you if I wasn't afraid I'd open your wounds."
"You shut your yap, runt!"
"He's almost fully recovered," Gaara said, letting his gaze sweep over his brother's form briefly. "Though, Kankurou, you no longer owe me any violent blows. That was beyond stupid and I haven't forgiven you yet for nearly throwing your life away for me."
In the fights against the various enemies, Gaara had gotten caught off guard when fighting Mist-nin, and he'd gotten separated from his familiar in the melee, which meant his automatic shield was gone at the time. He'd braced himself for the worst, when Kankurou had thrown himself in the way of an attack, taking a sword through the chest. The sword had miraculously missed his heart, and Sakura had been able to repair the damage to the lungs.
It was a week now since the Konoha contingents had shown up and the healers had stopped the plague in its tracks. A week since the physical attacks by Kirigakure, Kumogakure and Iwagakure had commenced. Iwagakure had retreated after only two days on the attack, realizing that they were dealing with a united front. But the Mist and Cloud ninjas had come a much further distance, and they were extremely stubborn; they had only recently retreated. With the other countries' daimyou getting involved, it looked like this war was at an end, at least temporarily.
All Suna-nin were now dressed in black, the mourning raiment. Gaara was in the process of exhuming the desert-buried dead, and the samurai from the daimyou's court were building numerous funerary pyres. The fighters from Konoha were either helping to remove the bodies from the sand, patrolling the perimeter to make sure things remained peaceful, or helping the civilians to rebuild homes and buildings damaged in the fights and in the massive freak sandstorm that had ripped through Sunagakure a few days ago, taking down dilapidated and unkempt buildings.
"How many more, Kazekage-sama?" Yamato wiped a line of sweat from his brow as he conveyed a pair of corpses using his mukon chakra.
"In your area? Less than a dozen."
"Geesh," the ANBU captain grimaced. "I can't believe you single-handedly buried all these people out there, and memorized where they are."
Gaara smirked slightly but didn't comment as he gestured at the desert, raising a column of sand in another area, where Gai and Kakashi were also retrieving cadavers from the sand.
"He doesn't know, does he?" Temari hid a grin. "Gaara doesn't have to memorize a thing. His affinity with sand means he knows where there is something buried in the sand that's not sand itself."
"How could he know?" Kankurou reasoned. "How could any Konoha ninja fully understand Gaara's sand abilities?"
"Silence, both of you!" Gaara snapped. The veins on his temples were starting to bulge with the strain. "Instead of standing here and providing me with unnecessary running commentary, why don't you make yourselves useful?" Temari and Kankurou refrained from speaking; they knew how Gaara was. When he got this exhausted, he tended to snap peevishly and somewhat uncharacteristically. He usually didn't let himself get this bad, but he refused to borrow chakra from Naruto for this procedure, insisting this excavation was his burden alone to bear. Jiraiya had offered to be the one to light the pyres with his katon chakra; the old sennin had enough chakra and control to light all the pyres in one shot, something even Kakashi couldn't do.
"Kankurou-dono," Shizune said from behind them. "If you'd like, Sanami-san is awake and alert enough for some visiting." She left unsaid what didn't need to be said: That Kankurou was a monumental idiot if he didn't take advantage of this, since the Konoha contingent would be departing tomorrow, and Sanami was to go with them.
Tsunade had sent word to them that she had an entire section of a wing in the hospital cleared and prepared for Sanami's treatment, and she was currently poring over all medical manuals she could get her hands on. It was news that Shizune found very comforting and strangely encouraging. This was exactly the kind of challenge Tsunade loved, taking on a tricky disease and beating it to the ground. Shizune's worst fear had been that Tsunade would be uninterested in attempting to treat the Suna kunoichi for whatever reason, but Tsunade's response had been more than just interested, even more than enthusiastic: the Hokage was positively salivating over this challenge.
That didn't mean that Sanami's survival was guaranteed, and there was no current estimation of how long she'd be away from Suna; Kankurou knew this too, and so he didn't hesitate when the invitation arose to visit with his wife and steal what few moments he could with her before she was spirited away to either her salvation or her doom.
Gaara didn't move a single muscle as his brother departed from his side. Suna-chan, sitting primly in the sand next to his left foot, sat up on her haunches, reached up a paw and touched his leg experimentally, warbling inquisitively. She moved like she was going to climb up his leg, but he made a sharp noise in his throat, forestalling her. She rested her front paws on his sandal and kept her gaze fixed on him with a single-minded focus, even as he shifted his stance, moving his other leg outward to give himself a little more support.
Temari felt a flare of chakra behind them and turned to see the three Konoha ninja that Gaara regarded highest of all -- Rock Lee, Haruno Sakura and Uzumaki Naruto -- approaching them. All three of them looked physically exhausted.
"Gaara, do you think you could take a break or something?" Naruto said with a gusty sigh as he flopped down against the sandstone wall. "We're all beat, and you look like you've been trampled. I'd give you chakra to help you out, whether you want it or not, but we're all exhausted from pulling them out of the sand. They're damned heavy, you know, those bodies! Hard as rocks!"
"Not half as hard as your skull!" Sakura smacked her long-time teammate over the head; "Dammit, Naruto, show some tact!"
Lee chuckled as he rubbed his neck. "Really, Gaara-sama, you should take a short break, and let the rest of us take one too. I for one am parched. I understand that you do not want to stop, but the rest of us need a break if we are to continue helping you."
"Right, right, okay, fine," Gaara said peevishly. "I get the message." He brought his hands to his sides, lowering his head so that his chin rested against his collarbone. The sand out in the desert calmed and settled. There was a distant yelp and the sound of sand dispersing along the ground.
"That was dumb," Konohamaru said. "You just buried someone alive!"
"They'll be able to get out," Gaara retorted, closing his eyes wearily. "Dogs like that can dig. And they didn't go far enough under the sand to be robbed of air."
"Hey what's the big fucking idea, Gaara!" Kiba's voice carried across the sand as he and Akamaru popped out of a hole they'd fallen in. "A little warning next time, dammit!"
"Konohamaru, go get some water for Kazekage-sama, eh?" Temari said. The ambassador pouted a little at being reduced to an errand boy yet again, but he didn't complain and took off with alacrity to do as asked.
Without saying a word, Gaara moved over and eased himself to the ground next to Naruto, leaning back against the sandstone wall with a sigh. "Damn, my joints are aching again. I hate winter." His familiar crawled up his leg and perched on his knees, gazing serenely at him with her bright black eyes.
"She sure is cute," Naruto said, glancing at the raccoon. Gaara didn't respond.
"How many more are out there?" Lee jerked his chin toward the desert to indicate the bodies being exhumed.
"We're about halfway done, I think," Temari said. "Right Gaara?"
"We'll be done by sunset, is all I can say," the Kazekage replied wearily, shielding his eyes from the winter sun as he looked up at it to gage the current time. "The pyres should be done by then too. We'll light them tomorrow at daybreak. I suppose that's fitting." Suna-chan chittered at him. "Yes, I know. But I can't do that yet. They haven't returned."
"Who hasn't returned?" Naruto tilted his head in inquiry. Gaara's eye twitched in response, as if in annoyance.
"... namida," was all the Kazekage seemed to say in response to that.
"Namida? Who is this Namida?" Lee inquired. "The name does not ring a bell."
Gaara gave him a withering look. "Drop the subject."
Sakura, who had been the one to overhear his one-sided conversation way back when, when he'd spoken of healing Sunagakure, heard the full sentence, "Ore no namida," and understood. She put a hand on Lee's arm when he reacted to Gaara's sudden hostility.
"I understand," she said. "If anyone can truly heal Sunagakure, it isn't a healer-nin like myself or Shizune-san. Not even my shishou, I don't think. The only one who can heal Sunagakure and return it to its former glory is you. Just don't rush it. Rushing through a healing all but guarantees you miss something vitally important and thus do an imperfect job."
"Hmm," the Kazekage grunted. "Thank you for the encouragement, but it's not that simple. Sunagakure is angry with me. Very angry. However, I think she will give me another chance."
The raccoon chittered again and hopped from Gaara's knees to his shoulder. Konohamaru returned about then with ceramic flasks of water for everyone. Naruto and Lee both swigged the water down like usual for them; Sakura drank much more slowly; Gaara sipped sparingly at his, a habit born of living in the desert all his life.
"Those pyres are so damned ugly," Temari grimaced. "Gah. I can't wait to tear them down."
"Speaking of the pyres," Sakura glanced over at the gargantuan structures. "Is this normal here? To do funeral pyres?"
"There isn't enough room in the graveyard for the headstones, let alone the graves, of all the people who died in this plague," Baki said. "We will commission a cenotaph with all their names and place it in the center of the graveyard. A mass pyre is the safest, most efficient and most respectful way to dispose of this many corpses."
"I think I know what you are getting at," Gaara said. "Chiyo-baasama's grave is still where it was; it hasn't been moved. Ebizou-jiisama's grave is next to hers."
"I'd been meaning to pay my respects to it," Sakura said with relief, "but I've been so busy. We all have. I owe her almost as much as you do, Gaara-sama. She used that technique to prevent me from dying. It's thanks to her that I was able to... well, do everything that I've been able to do."
The silence that followed was companionable enough that no one sought to break it. Eventually, Gaara stood up, moving stiffly, and resumed his position on the rampart, looking out over the desert. He sighed.
"Sakura-san, if you want to go pay your respects, you might want to do it soon, before all the pyres are completed. Like as not, the graveyard will be blocked by one of the pyres, or materials used to build the pyres."
Sakura took that for what it was: a passive order. Bowing her head slightly as she took her leave, she turned to go, glancing sideways to see if Lee was going to come with her. However, his attention was focused on the desert.
Skimming down the crumbling rampart stairs, Sakura landed heavily, tucking into a somersault to prevent injury from the impact, and rolling back to her feet. Swinging into a jog, she started in the direction of the cemetery, dodging samurai and debris as she went. A few of the cruder samurai whistled catcalls at her, and a couple made lewd suggestions, but she ignored them. One of the samurai tried to block her path, but his comrades pulled him out of her way before she had to get serious on him.
She grinned bloodlessly at the samurai as she passed. "Just a warning: do anything untoward to me, and my husband is liable to bury you with his own hands. With Kazekage-sama's help, too, I might add."
That had the desired effect: the samurai backed off. She then smiled winningly at them and continued on her course.
Of course, she thought with a grin, Lee wouldn't likely do anything to them; he wouldn't have to. But they can just think I'm a weak little woman who needs protection from her big strong husband.
Not that she would have minded being protected by him, even if he didn't fit the stereotypical "big strong man" bill. He was slim, short and wiry, but he was as strong as they came. In sheer physical power, only Gai-sensei had him trumped, and Sakura was convinced it was Gai-sensei's size -- both his height and his broad-shouldered build -- that gave him the edge over Lee.
As she entered the cemetery, she composed herself and began scanning the numerous gravestones for one in particular. There were many more gravestones than she remembered, but she was able to find the one she sought relatively easily.
Chiyo-baasama's grave was well-tended, with remnants of flowers and incense giving testimony to frequent visitors. There was also a tiny stone carving of a tanuki that sat at the very base of the stone, tucked off to one side.
"Hello, Chiyo-baasama," Sakura said softly as she brought her hands together and bowed her head in respect. "It's been a long time, I know, but I haven't had a chance to visit you in so long. I wanted to come pay my respects to you, and to tell you about the two lives you saved that day all those years ago." She touched the headstone gently, brushing dust and sand off it. "As you probably know, Gaara has been an extraordinary Kazekage. He has helped this village that you loved return to much of its former glory... at least, before this war with Kirigakure broke out. And he's managed to protect the village despite having three major villages harrying it. The people of Sunagakure love him, though. All the ambassadors have said the same thing, and I've seen it with my own eyes, a couple different times now. The people adore Gaara, more so than any other Kazekage, I think.
"It looks like Gaara probably visits your grave occasionally. I'm told by the first ambassador that Gaara greatly honors your sacrifice for his sake. That really was a noble thing you did, and we are all grateful, you know."
It occurred to her that she was rambling and starting to not make sense. She tried to push the thought from her mind.
"As for me, I haven't accomplished anywhere near as much as he has, sadly, but..." She involuntarily scuffed her foot in the dust. "Well, I did get married, just a week and a half ago. You probably won't remember my husband, though you did kind of meet him. He was part of the back-up team that helped us break the barrier that the Akatsuki put up on that cave. His name is Rock Lee. I do kind of have you to thank for this, Chiyo-baasama, since without you, I wouldn't have had a chance to discover how happy I can be with him. We're planning to start a family soon."
Good god, I'm rambling. In front of a grave. This isn't like me at all! What the hell is wrong with me?
A gust of wind picked up and ruffled Sakura's hair. Don't think about it, Sakura. Just talk. There's nothing wrong with talking to a gravestone -- you're talking to the spirit that it represents. Chiyo-baasama expressed interest in my home life during the short time she had to inquire about such things back then, after we defeated Sasori and before we caught up to Naruto and the others.
"My parents are grateful," she said finally, looking up at the winter desert sky. "I'm their only child, you know, and they're thrilled that I'm married now and planning to start a family soon. They've been so worried about me most of my career, and when they found out about how close I came to dying at Sasori's hands... well, as a parent yourself, I'm sure you understand how they must have felt. It looks like my days of doing dangerous S-ranks are about over, and I'm okay with that. Lee and I have discussed what we'll do once we have children; we've both thought about becoming instructors in the Academy, for advanced students and genin.
"Naruto has become one of the most respected jounin in the village, and there is reason to believe that he'll be promoted to Rokudaime Hokage within a year. Since Tsunade-sama is far from feeble, still very much competent for the job, this is a real honor for Naruto."
Abruptly, she ran out of things to say. She felt insanely foolish standing here in front of a headstone, talking about inane things when she was surrounded by a village still badly stricken with plague, and littered with giant multi-level pyres that would soon be loaded with corpses in varying stages of decay... here she was, in a village surrounded by death, standing in front of a grave, talking about her plans for the future, as if the headstone gave a damn.
What am I doing here? This is ridiculous! I shouldn't be standing around here like this, I should be helping. I've already paid my respects, I should leave.
She felt a strange shiver pass down her spine, as if a spirit were nearby, and for a moment she thought she could see Chiyo-baasama standing beside the headstone, smiling gently at her. A flutter of happiness tingled in Sakura's chest, as if the old kunoichi were trying to say "I'm happy for you." The combination soothed her fractured nerves, ameliorating the tension that had been coiled up in her gut like a snake poised to strike.
Tears welled in her eyes. "Thank you, Chiyo-baasama. For everything, thank you. Someday, Lee and I will bring our children back here to Suna, to pay our respects to you again."
She touched the headstone once more and turned to leave. A familiar silhouetted figure was visible at the entrance.
"Feel better?" A voice she knew as well as her own spoke evenly.
"You followed me, eh?" She smiled at her husband, who leaned nonchalantly against the gate post at the entrance.
"Naruto-kun's orders. We are still in a war zone, and Gaara-sama has been so focused on exhuming the dead that it is entirely possible that some enemies have infiltrated. They both asked me to go with you, just in case you got ambushed and needed backup."
"Ah," she glanced up at the administrative building, atop which Shino was just barely visible, perched on a spire, communing with some bugs that had just arrived. "That makes sense, I suppose."
He straightened from the casual slouch and dusted some sand particles off his vest. Then, in an entirely in-character display of his gentlemanly nature, he presented his arm to her. She briefly pondered ignoring the gesture, but decided to take it for what it was, and threaded her arm through his.
The two of them made their way back to the front of the village, where the Kazekage was still exhuming cadavers from atop a tall rampart. Sakura leaned her head against Lee's shoulder as they walked. Lee silently dictated a leisurely pace, and she was in no great hurry either.
"Lee, can you promise me something?" She asked finally, after her mind had wandered into slightly-disturbing thought-territory.
"I can try."
"Please hear me out before you interrupt, too. I've been thinking off and on about this Hachimon technique of yours."
He glanced sharply at her, and made almost like he was going to remind her that he knew very well the consequences of using the Gates. She held a hand up. "I said, hear me out. This isn't about you using it, so much as it is about you teaching it."
He stopped walking, his entire attention focused on her. "Go on."
"I've been thinking about our future, and how we've been sort of planning to have children and all, and I was also thinking about what might happen if you were to teach that technique to our kids. I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't, but maybe you could wait until they're older than you were? I think Gai-sensei taught it to you way too early. It's a technique that exerts tremendous strain on the body, and a child's body is still growing."
There was a pause and he quirked an eyebrow at her. "So what exactly did you want me to promise you?"
"To not teach that technique to them until they're at least 18 or so, until their bodies are done growing. At least until a healer says it's okay to."
He blinked slowly; "How about I promise to discuss it with you before considering teaching them the technique? I was not really planning to be the one to teach them anyway; I would much rather let Gai-sensei teach it to them. He understands it much better than I do, and I trust him to be able to teach it to them properly."
"I just want you to promise me you won't teach it to them -- or have Gai-sensei teach it to them -- before they're physically ready for something that dangerous. I don't want to see them go through what you went through. I can tell you're going to develop arthritis here in another ten years, and it could get really, really bad if you're not careful. Please, Lee? Personally, I'd rather you didn't teach them that at all, but I also think that's unreasonable of me. So please, just don't put that kind of strain on them too early?"
"That sounds reasonable to me," he agreed. "I do not want them to suffer what I have had to suffer, either. As I said, I can promise to discuss it with you before putting them into that kind of training. Will that make you happy?"
"It's enough. Thank you, Lee." She hugged him. The two of them then resumed their stroll back to the rampart. "I also hope you don't teach them that Hope Lotus technique either, but I can't say as I'd be surprised if you do."
"Ah, I think I would rather see them be able to perform Asa Kujaku than Nozomi Renge," he winked at her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders affectionately, "but I see your point."
As they arrived back at the rampart, Naruto stood up and stretched; "Ready to get back to work, Geji-mayu?"
"Sakura-chan, you stay here with Gaara. Temari will assist us out in the desert. You can spell Yumiya-neechan when she gets tired." The three jounin took off without much warning.
Sakura blinked. Suddenly it was just her and the red-headed kage up here on this rampart.
"Damn," Gaara muttered. "This is ridiculous; the desert should be at my mercy!" Suna-chan sat up and started chittering excitedly.
"Is there anything I can do to help you, Kazekage-sama?" Sakura asked.
"Just watch my back," he replied flatly. "I can't afford to divide my attention."
Sakura crossed her arms and leaned against the wall, bracing her foot against it for balance. This promised to be boring.
"Come closer, Sakura-san," Gaara ordered abruptly.
She obeyed without thinking, moving to stand just behind his shoulder.
"In regards to the question you asked me a week ago, the answer is no, nothing happened. Rock Lee merely became a very close friend of mine -- nothing more. I cannot vouch for his own feelings, but he never behaved in any way that gave me any indication that he felt more for me than as a good friend."
He glanced at her. "I am telling you this now out of courtesy; I hesitated earlier because it was my opinion that you had to come to terms with things on your own. You should trust his word over mine anyway; he is the one you are living with, not me. I should remind you that he is not given to lying. It seems to me that you have come to terms with the rumors. That is all that they are: just ugly rumors."
"I know," she said. "I was being stupid, and I'm sorry. Yumiya-san smacked some sense into me."
"So that kunoichi is good for something besides growing plants?"
"That's not very nice, Kazekage-sama!"
"Then explain your comment."
"Well, you know how she's a lesbian, right?"
"Well, she is. Anyway, when she pulled me out to spar the other day, she smacked me around pretty good, and then gave me a real dressing down for trying to cheapen love. She said I was being frivolous and didn't understand how fragile love is, how easily it can be lost. When I asked her what she meant, she told me that all those rumors about you and Lee were stupid and unfounded, that she could tell there was never any romantic chemistry between you two."
"Her being a lesbian should have no bearing on her opinion," Gaara said pointedly. "If you mean to say that homosexuals know their own, you are being naive."
"No, that wasn't quite what I meant. I guess I should have also mentioned that she was in ANBU for years. She was what they called the Watcher. It was her job to watch for signs of weakness in morale, both in the enemy when in a siege, and in the home village when not. She's got an amazing sense of perception. In the same way that Shikamaru is a genius with tactics, Yumiya-san is something of a genius in reading people's minute actions and interpreting them. And her being a lesbian means she has seen how her partners try to behave like nothing happened, how they tried to behave like 'normal' people. She's seen ex-lovers who have parted amicably and how they interact, as well as ex-lovers who parted under different circumstances.
"Even though she hasn't been in ANBU for over five years, she still retains a lot of respect for her abilities as a Watcher. Hokage-sama still uses her for that purpose and consults her."
Sakura paused when she saw a vein on Gaara's temple bulging. "Am I annoying you? Or compromising your concentration?"
"No. This is merely exhausting. I am trying to undo almost two weeks worth of burials in a single pass; it is costing me dearly in chakra. It is hard to concentrate."
"I can help a little. I can't give you any chakra, but I can help alleviate that headache that you must be suffering from right now. That has to be distracting. Will you let me? You wouldn't let Naruto help you."
Gaara sighed as he lowered his hands from the hand-seal he'd been holding. "This will not interfere with my sand-jutsu, will it?"
"No, I'll merely be helping the blood vessels in your forehead to loosen up a bit, to alleviate some of the pressure. Your concentration appears to have constricted them; I'll just relax them and help them open up a bit. That's all. I'm not a Hyuuga, you know," she laughed self-consciously, "I can't really interrupt chakra-streams with my own chakra."
"You are wrong about that," he said blandly as she activated her Shousen no Jutsu and pressed a hand to his forehead. "You can break even the most complex genjutsu, both on yourself and on others. That in and of itself is proof that you can interfere with chakra. But thank you, all the same."
"Don't mention it," she said self-consciously, massaging his temples to inject her chakra subcutaneously, into his blood vessels. "It's the least I can do, if you won't accept any other help."
"This is my burden to bear."
"Yeah, I know, and that's what Naruto has said all along about bringing Sasuke home. And look who it was who stopped Sasuke in his tracks."
There was a dry chuckle that came from the back of Gaara's throat; "Now you're proud of him, huh? After railing at him for using that technique, you're proud that he used it to stop Uchiha Sasuke?"
"Just trying to keep things in perspective," she laughed. "My point is, just because you think this is your burden to bear, doesn't mean you have to do it alone. There. Finished. Does your head feel better?"
"Yes. Clearer. Thank you, Sakura-san. Now please step aside; I have work to do."
She did as asked, returning to lean against the wall. For a while she watched the progress out in the desert, but eventually she turned her attention to the multi-story pyre that was rapidly rising out of the bedrock. By now the samurai had made enough of these pyres -- each pyre could hold at least two dozen bodies -- that they were accustomed to the setup, so the construction was going pretty quickly. Sakura found it interesting to watch the pyres take shape, so long as she kept her mind away from the thought of what these pyres were for. Remembering why they were being built, rather than enjoying watching the construction (and all its little mishaps and near-mishaps) for what it was, made her stomach feel heavy with sorrow and her chest feel tight.
She became so engrossed in watching the construction of a pyre some twenty meters away that she very nearly missed when Gaara finally finished his task and leaned wearily on the rampart. The sun was slung low in the western sky; the clouds were stained varying shades of orange and pink.
"That's all I can do for now. I barely have enough energy to breathe," the Kazekage said laboriously.
"You idiot, you overdid it!" Sakura said in alarm as she caught him when he slumped. "Kazekage-sama, you should know your own limits and shouldn't go beyond them, except when the very existence of your village is at stake."
"Don't lecture me," Gaara snapped. "You have no business judging my actions."
"What happened?" Baki appeared on the rampart right then.
"He overdid it. He's run out of chakra entirely, I'm guessing."
The older jounin crouched down and pulled Gaara's arm across his shoulders to support him; "We'll get you to someplace where you can rest, Kazekage-sama."
Now that Gaara was in someone else's hands, Sakura hopped down from the rampart and jogged out to where Naruto and Lee were placing the last of the exhumed corpses onto a makeshift sand-sled that Akamaru was harnessed to. Kiba was sitting nearby, panting with the effort of the excavation, and wiping sweat from his brow.
"That was hella hard work," he panted as Sakura approached. "You had the easy job, Sakura."
"It was boring, though," Sakura made a face. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were all trying to shield me from doing any work."
"Actually," Naruto said, wiping a line of sweat from his eyebrows, "I figured you were the best equipped to protect Gaara in the event of a surprise attack, what with those chakra-punches of yours. Plus, you can see through just about any genjutsu thrown at you. You've got pretty good taijutsu and you can break genjutsu. Gaara's got phenomenal ninjutsu. The two of you have it covered, enough to send a signal. Besides, I didn't want to listen to Geji-mayu whine about how hard this was likely to be on you!" The blond jounin then laughed and ducked as Lee threw a punch at him.
"You be quiet, Naruto-kun! Like you would not worry about her too!"
"But he's got a point, squirt," Kiba said with a laugh, tossing a clod at Lee. "And by the way, Naruto -- what the hell?"
"What happened to the scrawny, overstimulated little chump I clobbered during the first Chuunin Selection Exams?"
"Pah!" Naruto scoffed. "Who's the one who kicked your sorry butt during those same Chuunin Exams? Which of the four of us here was the only one to actually win, eh?"
"Hey," Sakura laughed, "my match ended in a draw!"
"Yeah, a mutual loss," Naruto teased. "You didn't advance. I kicked Kiba's butt in the end, even if he did kick me around a bit. And anyway, Kiba, you forget that I've trained with Obaachan and the Ero-sennin. I got whipped into shape."
"You would have been 'whipped into shape' if you had had Gai-sensei as your jounin sensei, you know," Lee said, blowing a raspberry at his long-time friend.
"Ack!" Naruto threw both his hands out in front of him, as if to create a barrier. "A fate worse than death!"
The blond jounin then went face-first into the sand as Gai-sensei appeared abruptly behind him and kicked him.
"What was that, you little runt?" The taijutsu jounin grinned. "Think you're too good for me? Did you forget I'm better than your sensei?"
Naruto came up sputtering and spitting sand. "Geez, Gai-sensei, what the hell was that for?"
"You deserved that, you idiot," Sakura laughed as she gave Naruto a hand up out of the sand. "You can't even beat Lee in a one-on-one, what makes you think you're better than Gai-sensei?"
"Freakin' sand, in my mouth!" Naruto pouted, spitting sand still. "I'm just saying, I survived Ero-sennin and Obaachan. Let's not pour salt on that wound, hey?"
Lee rolled his eyes. "It sounds like you learned nothing from your actual sensei."
"No one said I was a great sensei, did they?" Kakashi said from behind them. "Never was up to snuff. I just lucked out with my students, I guess."
"Are we done bickering yet?" Kiba grumbled as he stood up and put a hand on Akamaru's head. "Everyone else looks like they're done pulling."
"Sakura, where is Gaara-sama?" Lee looked over at her, as if realizing she was there for the first time. "I thought Naruto-kun told you to look after him."
"Baki's taking care of him," Sakura said as they started toward the front gates, following the sand-sled. Kiba was coaxing Akamaru with promises of large slabs of meat when they got home to Konoha. "He was on the verge of collapse. He went over his limit; it's actually kind of scary if you think about it. The last time I saw him that exanimate was right after Chiyo-baasama revived him. He wasn't able to move properly for a while after that."
Naruto was still brushing sand off his vest. "Damn, Gai-sensei, that was a rotten trick."
Gai-sensei shrugged; "You dropped your guard. Ask Lee: I do that for anyone who's dropped his guard."
Once inside the village walls, they let the samurai take over with the corpses, sorting them onto the pyres. The rest of the Konoha contingent started to gather around where Naruto was, and Jiraiya approached them as the last sparks of daylight lit the skies.
"We'll be departing for Konoha tomorrow morning, after the pyre-lighting. Hokage-sama would like to be fully debriefed, and we have a couple of patients to convey home anyway. We've been here long enough. I think Kazekage-sama has things under control, and the daimyou are stepping in. We need to get home. I would advise you all to get everything ready tonight, because we will most likely be leaving shortly after sunrise."
Even though technically Naruto was in charge of this operation, no one spoke against Jiraiya, who was of a rank considered higher than Naruto's, at present.
"I bet Tsunade-sama is really hurting for Shizune-san right about now," Neji chuckled as the teams dispersed to finish their personal business. He walked beside his current teammates, though somewhat apart from them.
"Yeah, you're not kidding," Sakura laughed. "Shishou is an absolute wreck when Shizune-san is gone for more than a couple of days!"
"I'm looking forward to getting home," Neji added, stretching his limbs tiredly. "Lame as it sounds, I miss Sachiko."
"Not lame at all," Naruto said. "I'm looking forward to getting home, if for no other reason than to see the look on Obaachan's face when I walk into Konoha with Sasuke. Also, I want some Ichiraku ramen. This instant stuff just doesn't do it anymore."
"You would be thinking of ramen right now!" Sakura thumped him affectionately. "Me, I'm looking forward to getting home so my mom and dad won't worry anymore. Also, Mom wanted to fix a nice big dinner for us sometime after the wedding, and we never got a chance. She makes some of the best breads you've ever tasted, and she always incorporates that into big meals. I'm definitely looking forward to that."
"I'm just tired of all the sand everywhere!" Tenten complained. "Everything is so damned dry!"
"It is a desert, Tenten. It is supposed to be dry," Lee reminded her, and ducked when she threw a punch at him.
"What about you, Lee?" Neji glanced at his teammate. "I know you like being here in Suna, but you must be eager to get home too."
"I look forward to some rest, and some more training with Gai-sensei." Lee grinned when everyone around him groaned and Neji commented that that was just like him. "Well, I need to build up my strength again. Gai-sensei is the best sparring partner for me because he knows my limits to the most exact degree and can push me right up to them without going over them."
"I'm looking forward to gettin' home too!" Kiba said, falling in with them; Team Shikamaru fell in as well. "In case y'all didn't know it, I gots me a new girlfriend I'm keen to spend time with."
"What!" Chouji and Ino both said at the same time. Ino elaborated indignantly; "But, Kiba, last I heard, you had a new boyfriend!"
Kiba grinned. "Heh. I haven't made up my mind which side of the fence I'm on, you got a problem with that? Setsuna was just too serious for my tastes."
"Well, I'm looking forward to getting home to my flowers," Ino announced. "As rotten as it sounds, I'm tired of being around sick people all day! I just want to tend my flowers and be a regular ninja now for a while, not a medic-nin. Plus, I kinda miss my dad's dumb jokes."
"I have a girlfriend," Chouji boasted. "I'm looking forward to getting home to see her. And I'm looking forward to Mom's cooking, of course. Enough of the trail rations. What about you, Shikamaru?"
"Meh," the jounin grumbled, hands shoved his pockets. "Can't say as I care. Once I get home, it's my turn to take care of the deer. And Mom has been utterly unbearable lately, since Dad got hurt so bad in that last mission. But it will be nice to not have to fight as much. I'm too lazy for this shit!"
"You really should never have become a shinobi, Nakimushi-kun," Temari startled them by replying. "You are so lazy that you complain about everything about being a ninja."
"Ah, bugger off," Shikamaru grumbled. "Not in the mood for you."
"Looks like the honeymoon's over," Neji muttered under his breath. Naruto snickered.
"Speaking of," Lee said abruptly, and scooped Sakura up into his arms, startling her. While their companions jeered them and catcalled playfully, Lee gathered his strength and launched himself up onto the roof of a nearby building. Leaving behind a bevy of whistle and bawdy comments, he carried his bride effortlessly over several buildings, and up the side of the Administrative building.
"What was that for?" Sakura asked, wide-eyed, when he landed on the balcony at the top of the Administrative building and set her down.
"We are still on honeymoon, after all, and I found myself rather desiring to be away from them. Is that a problem?" His pronouns shifted to the more aggressive, less formal forms, indicative of his intentions.
"You're an animal, Lee," she laughed, punching him lightly in the shoulder.
"You know, I have been thinking," Lee mused aloud. It was well into the nighttime. The waning crescent moon was visible out the window. The two of them had just finished packing their belongings, and were preparing to crawl into bed to sleep this time, rather than any other bed activities.
"Did you get a headache?" Sakura teased gently, tapping his forehead.
"Now that is not very nice! I happen to be very good at thinking. Unlike you!"
"Ooh, burn! Also, totally untrue!" She laughed. "Anyway, as you were saying."
"Humph. Anyway. I was thinking about names."
"Names. Surnames, to be exact. Yours and mine, and those of our prospective children."
"I see," Sakura climbed into the bedding, shivering at how cold the sheets were. This building wasn't very well insulated. "I never really gave it much thought."
Now that she thought about it, though, it was a valid question (even if he didn't word it as a question). For all practical purposes, Lee was clanless, while Sakura belonged to a clan, though not a ninja clan. Her father was part of a well-known merchant clan that had some clout up north of Konohagakure, on the northern fringes of the Fire Country. Although not even close to being on a par with the ninja clans in the Leaf village, the Haruno merchant clan was still considered to be financially formidable. Haruno Noboru was a lesser scion of the clan, but he was still a part of it.
This meant that, on a hierarchy, Sakura was higher than Lee. Technically, that meant that their children should take her name and join her clan. However, she had never really thought much on that. When Lee had asked her to marry him back in the summer, after she'd accepted, she had told him she had no intentions of changing her name right away. Mostly this was because she rather despised his surname, but didn't want to tell him as such. But now that she thought about it, there was reason for her to not change her surname anyway.
She pondered this as he slid into the bed and pulled the covers up.
"You're essentially clanless, right?" She snuggled up to him, grateful for his warmth. Because of his high metabolism, he was always warm to the touch. "So, really, I suppose that means our children should take my surname. But, you know, I'm not necessarily opposed to yours." Oh good, Sakura, lie through your teeth to him.
"Nice try, Sakura," he said. "My uncle used to say that the Rock Clan was an agricultural clan in the Grass Country. But I have had no contact with any relatives except him."
"I've been meaning to ask you about him."
"Yeah. You rarely ever talk about him. Is he dead?"
"I think so."
"You think so? You don't know?"
"I never heard. He was very ill when I last saw him, shortly before I graduated from the Academy. A wasting disease. Considering it has been more than a decade since, I think it is safe to say he is dead. But no, I do not know for certain."
"Doesn't it bother you? He raised you."
Lee's face became impassive. "He provided shelter and essentials. I would hardly call that raising. He did not even bother to educate me very much. I was barely literate when I entered the Academy. My first year in the Academy, I spent long hours after class with Iruka-sensei, learning to read and write."
"How long were you in the academy?"
"That's not so bad! I think Naruto was in it for six. Of course, he had to repeat the final year two or three times."
Lee chose not to respond to that, instead pulling her close and pressing a kiss into her hair.
"Perhaps we should discuss this matter, of surnames, with your parents." He reached over and snuffed out the lamp next to the bed, plunging them into darkness that was broken only by stray moonbeams from the waning moon. Sakura shifted herself and moved her pillow over next to him. As they settled themselves into the mattress, slumber overtook both of them. It had been a long, hard day for everyone.
The pyre-lighting ceremony was a silent and solemn affair that didn't take very long, but was very, very emotional anyway. Afterwards, Gaara requested that all Konoha shinobi adjourn to his office. There, he dispensed a number of messages to be conveyed back to the Hokage. The one handed to Naruto was sealed with a special Kage-level seal, that only a village kage could break. Gaara stressed that that message could not fall into enemy hands. If it was in jeopardy, Naruto was to destroy the message; there was information contained in that scroll that could jeopardize both the Fire Country and the Wind Country in the daimyou alliances, dealing with treachery on the parts of the Mizukage and Raikage. Gaara was insistent that he'd rather the message be destroyed than fall into the wrong hands; he could always send another copy to Tsunade.
The other scrolls were detailed reports of each team's contribution to the defense and restoration of Sunagakure, necessary paperwork that would speed the submission of an accurate report for such a highly-ranked mission.
"Which of you will be taking over the medical care of Fuuin no Sanami, from here until you arrive in Konoha?" The Kazekage looked at the healers in turn. Shizune indicated herself. Gaara then handed over a packet. "These are duplicates of her entire medical history, and what information we could find that may be of some use to Hokage-sama. It is the least we can do, seeing as she is taking one of our own in to treat."
Gaara then leaned his arm against the desk and propped his head against his hand; "I regret that I cannot spare Konohamaru to return with you. Although he is only a chuunin, he has enough chakra and strength to help defend Sunagakure for a short period of time if something happens to me, a possibility I cannot rule out. Temari and Kankurou are both still convalescing, whether they like to admit it or not."
Kankurou made a noise in the back of his throat, like he wanted to protest, but Temari shot him a warning look, and he quieted down.
Gaara was silent a long moment before he stood up laboriously. "Please convey my deepest gratitude to Hokage-sama for her prompt response to this. I do not know what I would have done had you all not been here to help. Like as not, Sunagakure would have been wiped from the map. As things are now, we are barely standing, barely surviving. However, at least now we have a chance."
The Kazekage dismissed the teams after that. There was a brief mad scramble as everyone made sure that they had all their personal belongings accounted for, and the healers made sure that their two invalids were prepared to leave. They met up in half an hour's time at the village entrance.
Due to the extent of Sasuke's injuries, which Hanabi had been unable to fully repair, the healers had decided that the safest way to move him was to have Yamato construct a sort of wooden cocoon around Sasuke, one that would keep him completely motionless and provide some level of support for his vulnerable spine. Yamato's ability to minutely manipulate wood meant that he could mold the wood around Sasuke's body exactly. Gai had been elected to carry Sasuke for the time being, and when he got tired, someone else would take over. At first Gai had complained that Lee should carry Sasuke, since he was the reason Sasuke was unable to move. Shizune had reminded him that Lee was still somewhat convalescent from his Sixth Gate attack, and wasn't really fit enough to carry nearly a hundred kilos of weight on his back. Kakashi had made an offer to do the honors, which had triggered Gai's long-time competitiveness to resurface.
As for Sanami, she was going to be riding her ninja horse Kurosuna, though they would be stopping regularly to tend to her illness. Although Sakura and Shizune had managed to remove the dangerous tumor and contain the diseased tissue in an attempt to stop the cancer from spreading, the cancer was still very aggressive and the "quarantine" required diligent reinforcing every six to eight hours. This would require both Sakura and Shizune, as well as probably needing one or both of the Hyuuga sisters. It was for this reason that the four teams would be traveling home together instead of separately, the manner they had come in.
As the teams gathered just beyond the gateway to Sunagakure, Kankurou approached carrying Sanami in his arms. (Amusingly, his little tabby cat was perched on his shoulder, in a manner very similar to the little raccoon Suna-chan riding on the Kazekage's shoulder.)
As they arrived, Gaara withdrew from the folds of his sleeves a sizeable scroll, and a kunai. Without a word, he unrolled the scroll -- which had a complex summoning script on it, surrounding the kanji "uma" in the center -- and handed the kunai to Sanami, who silently used it to scratched out a thin line of blood, which she then scraped onto the scroll.
Gaara took the scroll, set it on the ground, made a series of hand-seal gestures, and slapped a chakra-covered hand to the scroll, activating it. There was a sharp bang! and a puff of smoke, and then Kurosuna appeared directly over the scroll.
Lee, standing a matter of feet from the Kazekage, squawked in surprise and jumped behind Sakura. This sudden display of fear elicited a roar of laughter from his companions. Sakura grinned at him. "Don't worry, Lee, I'll protect you from that big bad horsey."
He snorted. "I was merely startled, is all."
"My ass," Naruto chortled. "You're afraid of horses, even a ninja horse!"
The Suna-nin ignored the banter as Baki placed a saddle on Kurosuna's back and cinched it up, the harness jingling as the metal rings shook. The horse tossed his head repeatedly. Then, true to his equine nature, he lifted his tail and defecated.
"Gah!" Konohomaru said animatedly, covering his nose and mouth with his hands. "What the hell have you been eating, Blackie?"
"Don't call me that," Kurosuna clicked his teeth and pinned his ears back, stamping his left rear hoof in annoyance. "And I've been eating what I usually eat. Don't make me kick you, runt."
Kankurou gently placed Sanami into the high-cantle saddle and he and Baki began strapping the weak kunoichi in, to prevent her from falling from the horse. Kurosuna would take good care of her, but in the event of an emergency, the straps would hold her in if the horse had to dodge suddenly.
All this was conducted in relative silence. When everything was ready, Gai hoisted the heavy wooden "crate" up onto his back with a mutter. "Shall we go?"
Naruto hefted his pack onto his back. "I think so. We're all ready, right, guys?"
"Ooh, before you go, Naruto-niichan!" Konohamaru said. "Give my love to Udon and Moegi! I'm sure they're worried."
As Shizune gathered up the lead shank attached to Kurosuna's halter, Gaara approached the horse. "Sanami. I know you are strong. Please try to come back to us. We need you."
She looked down at her kage. "Oh god, Kazekage-sama, don't start crying, that'll start me crying!"
Gaara's forehead wrinkled slightly and he brought a hand up to his eyes, dashing impromptu tears from his lashes. "Ah. It looks like they've returned, after so long. I think I will finally be able to heal Sunagakure." He reached up and grasped Sanami's hand. "I will look after your husband. You look after yourself. I need you as badly as Kankurou does, you know. You are one of my few remaining jounin, and the only experienced scroll sealer I have left."
"I'll do my best, Kazekage-sama. If I'm understanding correctly, believing in Hokage-sama goes a long way to helping her be successful, and I have total faith in my own kage; I can have total faith in Hokage-sama."
"She'll be okay, Kazekage-sama," Kurosuna said with a toss of his great black head. "I'll make sure to deliver her safely to Hokage-sama, and then we won't have anything to worry about." The certainty of the horse's words, while misguided and somewhat oversimplified, was somewhat comforting.
"Let's get going," Naruto said. "We've stalled long enough. Gaara, we'll be in touch with you about Sanami-oneechan. Obaachan will take good care of her, I'm sure of it. She's saved each of us at least once. She's the best there is when it comes to healing." The blond jounin held out a hand to Gaara, in offering of a handshake. Sakura suppressed a giggle at the change in personality for both young men from the last time they'd parted like this, at the gates of Sunagakure. Gaara had been stiff, sore and confused after his resurrection by Chiyo-baasama, and had been virtually silent most of the time. Naruto had been nervous and slightly awkward; it had been Gaara who had initiated the handshake, using his sand to direct Naruto's hand. Now, eight years later, here they were, considerably more comfortable in their roles and with each other.
As they shook hands, Naruto waved his teams onward. "Good luck with your village, Gaara! Don't hesitate to call us again if you need more help!"
Sakura glanced back as the teams started off across the desert at a leisurely pace. Gaara had his back to them now, facing Sunagakure, even as Konohamaru, Kankurou and Temari waved goodbye to the retreating Konoha-nin. Sakura narrowed her eyes a bit as she looked. Gaara's shoulders were shaking.
Abruptly, she remembered abstract comments from the Kazekage, and it started to fall into place.
Someday my tears will return to me, and I will weep for every life lost in this catastrophe; and I will atone for them all. Then we will heal. And we will rebuild anew... Thank you. I will not fail you again... Sunagakure is angry with me. Very angry. However, I think she will give me another chance.
She remembered Lee telling her once that the people of Sunagakure believed their village to be sentient. In the same way that Konohagakure ninja believed in the Will of Fire, the Sunagakure ninja believed in something Lee called the Soul or Spirit of Wind. They believed that their village itself was sentient and guarded them; in exchange for that protection, they served their village and their kage fearlessly.
It made sense now. For this level of a disaster to strike Sunagakure must have been a blow to the people. They must have felt that their village had turned its back on them. Gaara was taking responsibility for the failures and offering his grief as restitution.
It was rather humbling, really. The road that lay ahead of the Kazekage and all of Sunagakure was a long, hard road. And if the five daimyou couldn't reach an agreement about controlling Kirigakure and Kumogakure, everything could fall apart for the Sand village.
With that somber thought in mind, Sakura turned toward the east, into the rising sun, and joined her teammates on the trek home.
Coming soon: "Part Eight: A Hero's Welcome" wherein the teams arrive home in Konoha, triumphant from their successful mission in Suna.
END NOTES: Terminology, for those who are a bit rusty:
"Geji-mayu" is what Naruto calls Rock Lee. It translates as "fuzzy eyebrows" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Bushy Brow" and is Naruto's nickname for Lee. He doesn't mean anything rude by it, and Lee doesn't seem to mind.
"Ero-sennin" is what Naruto calls Jiraiya. It means "perverted hermit" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Pervy Sage" and is Naruto's nickname for Jiraiya. Jiraiya doesn't particularly like the nickname, but he seems to get used to it.
"Nakimushi-kun" means "Mr. Crybaby" and is what Temari calls Shikamaru, much to his chagrin.
Hitai-ate are the "forehead protectors" (headbands) worn by all shinobi with symbols of their home village. Because they can be worn anywhere, or not worn at all, I have chosen to use the untranslated word rather than the term "forehead protector" or "headband"
A kunoichi is a female ninja. It is often used in the series as a synonym for ninja or shinobi, when talking about a female. Thus it's used here sporadically much as it is in the series.
"ore no namida" means "my tears" ("ore" being a very masculine form of "I")
Konohagakure: "The Hidden Village of Leaves" is the principle village of the Fire Country (Hi no Kuni), and is headed by the Godaime Hokage, Tsunade.
Sunagakure: "The Hidden Village of Sand" is the principle village of the Wind Country (Kaze no Kuni), and is headed by the Godaime Kazekage, Gaara.
Kirigakure: "The Hidden Village of Mist" is the principle village of the Water Country (Mizu no Kuni), and is headed by the Mizukage.
Iwagakure: "The Hidden Village of Rocks" is the principle village of the Earth Country (Tsuchi no Kuni), and is headed by the Tsuchikage.
Kumogakure: "The Hidden Village of Clouds" is the principle village of the Lightning Country (Rai no Kuni), and is headed by the Raikage.
Fuuton: wind-based chakra; weaker than katon, stronger than raiton
Raiton: lightning-based chakra; weaker than fuuton, stronger than doton
Doton: earth-based chakra; weaker than raiton, stronger than suiton
Suiton: water-based chakra; weaker than doton, stronger than katon
Katon: fire-based chakra; weaker than suiton, stronger than fuuton
Mukon: wood-based chakra; a combination of suiton and doton; useable only by Yamato via his genetic link to the First Hokage.