In which Sand disturbs Sonmei, and Shikamaru thinks on his past.
It is cold here. She doesn't know how he survives. Has he been here this whole time? Whenever she comes here, she tries to get as close as she can to him. This is the first time she's really been able to get near, though.
Hinata takes off her jacket (she is wearing her old ninja clothes here, the ones she first considered giving up when her father was killed, the ones she finally did pack away when Neji died) and offers it to him. He blinks and shakes his head. "Like I'd take a girl's coat. You need it more than I do."
"No," she says, and she finds that for the first time in these dreams, she can speak. "I have other people to protect me if I need it. You're alone here."
"Not exactly," he says.
"Please, take it," she urges him.
He hesitates, and in that moment she takes a deep breath, steels herself, and pushes the coat at him. She is amazed at her own boldness. He stares at her for a moment, then shrugs into the coat. "If you catch a cold or something," he declares, "I'm not gonna listen to any excuses about how you don't need this."
She smiles tentatively at him. "Just wear it for now."
He looks away. "I didn't expect you here," he says.
She falters and looks down at the ground. "O-of course not."
"I'm not unhappy about it," he says, and that makes her smile a little once more. "Just surprised."
"We're coming," she says. "I promise."
"That's good," he says, "'cause things are going all to hell around here."
There was the faintest hint of light on the horizon when Hinata woke up. She lay in her blankets for a few moments longer, trying to recall the world of her dream. All she could remember was a dry chill that had nothing in common with the warm, dewy air she'd just woken up to feel.
It was impossible for a Hyuuga to be truly agoraphobic. There was no hiding from the world; walls were a state of mind, not a true hindrance. All it took was a thought, and the world stretched out horizon to horizon, stripped of all obstacles.
But it was possible to keep the world at bay, or pretend that you could. Once it had taken everything from you, the idea of taking yourself from it became compelling. For most people, this would have meant serious consideration of suicide. But Hinata had always known a place that wasn't quite of this world. It was a simple matter of retreating there.
In the estate of the Hyuuga, the laws of the outside had no meaning. There was only still air and empty halls. It was safe there. You could pretend that the outside world was cowering at your doorstep rather than the other way around.
It was not until the dreams had started that Hinata had remembered that once, she'd believed there were things worth braving the world for.
She pulled open the flap of her tent and stepped outside. The dew felt strange and not entirely unwelcome on her face.
Hanabi was standing guard not far away. As Hinata emerged into the clearing where they'd set up camp, Hanabi stirred and turned to look at her questioningly.
"It's okay," Hinata said, approaching her sister. "I just woke up early."
"The dreams again?" Hanabi asked.
Hinata found herself fidgeting; she stared down at her fingers. "What time is it?"
"Quarter after five. We start moving again in a little over four hours."
"I'll take the watch for now," Hinata said. "You get some sleep."
"I can handle it," Hinata said. "Really."
"You can't hold me like this forever," the Rain-nin said.
"No," Shikamaru agreed. He sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor of the cell. Across from him, the captive shinobi sat in a perfect duplicate of that position, unmoving, though not by choice. "That's where my teammate comes in."
Ino smiled at the Rain-nin from beneath her mask as she walked over to him. "What's your name?" They'd already checked him for any hidden weapons he could use to kill or incapacitate them or himself. Now it was just a matter of getting the information from him.
"Yamada Tarou," he said, looking straight ahead.
Ino slammed a foot down on the junction where his ankles crossed. Bone made a faint cracking noise as it splintered. "Wrong! What's your real name?"
His face crumpled in pain. "Sutehiko Hideaki," he managed to whimper.
Ino glanced back at Shikamaru. He shrugged; their prisoner mirrored the motion. "If it's not his real name, it's close enough. There's a Sutehiko family in Hidden Rain that's produced some shinobi. Tie him up."
Ino flipped open her pack and pulled out a length of what only looked like ribbon. Kneeling beside Hideaki, she told him conversationally, "You're lucky that first attack this morning didn't actually kill any of our ninja. Tsunade-sama's in a bad enough mood as it is, but at least you stand a chance of getting back home in less than a dozen pieces this way." She pulled a knot tight around his wrists.
"In Rain," Hideaki said, "we wouldn't let you hide your shame under a mask."
She paused in tying the cords around his legs. Shikamaru had released his jutsu by now. "What?"
"If a kunoichi lets harm come to herself," he said, "she should live with the consequences. They're not just on your face, are--" He cut off with a small, strangled noise as she slid the bindings down his legs and pulled them brutally tight over his fractured ankles.
"I'll go get Shizune," she said, standing up. "The drugs should be ready now." She turned and, not looking back at the prisoner, walked from the room.
"Aren't you going to redo the bonds?" Hideaki asked Shikamaru after a moment. His voice was a thready whisper. "Make them a little more comfortable?"
Shikamaru stretched idly. "Why should I? If a shinobi insults his captor, he should live with the consequences."
"That could have gone worse," Shikamaru said.
Tsunade rubbed her temples and started to call for Shizune to bring her more alcohol. She cut herself off at the last moment. Of course she knew that Shizune was down in the cells with Ino, coaxing information out of their drugged captive, but it was habit. She had a lot of pointless little habits like that, spread like leaves and debris over the emptiness of a hole in the ground.
"Not that it went /well/, either," Shikamaru said. "But nobody died, and damage was minimal."
"They're probably trying to get us to drop our guard," she said.
"We won't, then."
She sighed. "Let me know if you find out where the next attack is coming from. I'm going to try to get some sleep." She doubted she'd succeed, but she knew if she didn't try, Shizune would complain when she got back.
"One more thing," Shikamaru said.
She looked up.
"Three chuunin disappeared yesterday," he said. "Two of them are active shinobi--Inuzuka Kiba and Aburame Shino. The other was Tenten."
Tsunade looked back down at her desk. "I'd rather not lose them," she said.
"Unfortunately," Shikamaru said quietly, "we can't afford to look for them right now."
It was starting to rain--not a downpour that would make travel impossible, just a light drizzle that made it miserable. One of the three travelers stopped under the faint shelter of a rocky overhang.
"We have to stop," Shino said. "Just for a few hours. We'll collapse soon if we don't rest."
Kiba pulled himself to a halt, panting. "Speak for yourself," he said, drawing his lips back to bare his teeth. "Getting tired of slogging through the rain? Hinata not worth it to you?"
"No," Shino said. "Just getting tired."
Kiba spun around and snarled at him.
"Stop picking fights with your teammate," Tenten said sharply. "We do need to stop." She paused, then added, "Akamaru agrees." The dog was wedged between two clumps of weeds at the edge of the dry area, already dozing.
"They're getting further away," Kiba said. "We're losing the advantage we gained when they stopped to rest."
"And you know why we're losing it?" Shino said quietly. "Because they're better rested than us."
Tenten expected more argument from Kiba, but he merely crouched down by Akamaru and looked down at the damp ground. "Yeah," he said reluctantly. "You're right."
They're a team, Tenten realized. It should have been obvious to her, but somehow she'd missed it, and now the full force of realization hit her. It hurt. She hadn't worked with a team for a long time.
"Are you all right?" Shino asked from over her shoulder.
"I'm fine," she said. "I'll take the first watch."
He shook his head. "I'll do it. Go to sleep."
"Don't be soft on me," she said, eyes narrowing.
He regarded her expressionlessly for a moment. "I have a bug that can put you to sleep with a sting," he said. "Please don't make me use it."
She stared at him, trying to figure out if he was serious. He gaver her no help in determining this. Eventually, she put her hands up in defeat. "Fine. I'll sleep. Wake me up in two hours."
"Three," he said.
She hesitated, then stifled the urge to protest. "All right. Three."
Sonmei knew the instant he entered Sand that it was much older than Leaf. It was something not so much in the air as in the stones under his feet.
Kakashi had explained to him in his typically disinterested tone that Sand had only been a Hidden Village for as long as Leaf had, but where Leaf had been founded on its current premise, Sand had once been a royal capital. It had been like that for a very long time.
He noticed the faintest flicker of irritation shift across Kakashi's face when they began to proceed down the path to the Kazekage's palace at the center of the village. Sonmei mused on this for a little while before it occurred to him that perhaps it had something to do with Kakashi's senses. He dropped to the back of their group, quieted his footsteps, sniffed the air, and listened intently.
After a moment, he could make out a tiny skittering noise at the very edge of his hearing. It didn't stop, but it didn't have an even beat, either: it just went on, uneven but ceaseless, without any care for the pattern it failed to make. Sonmei thought that if anyone had to listen to that for long, they'd go mad. He wondered about the population of the village around him.
He quickened his pace until he was next to Kakashi. Since his new teacher lagged behind as well, it didn't take much effort. "Is that noise falling sand?" he asked quietly. Now that he'd heard the noise, he couldn't tune it out.
A beat; Kakashi slid him a thoughtful glance. "Falling sand doesn't have many tiny feet," he finally said.
Sonmei wished he hadn't said that. Now he couldn't stop thinking of dozens, maybe hundreds of little feet skittering in the empty spaces underground and inside the walls of the Sand. He didn't want to think about whatever they belonged to.
He realized they had stopped. They were not far from the palace now, and a slight woman in gauzy robes and a concealing hood stood in front of them. When her hands moved, he saw tattoos that extended beneath her sleeves.
She bowed slightly to the group in general and Hanabi, at the front of it, in particular. "The Kazekage will wait for you until you have settled into your quarters. He asks that you introduce yourselves to his assistant."
"His assistant...?" Hanabi asked.
The woman pressed a hand briefly to her chest. "Ichiru."
Hanabi frowned slightly, but nodded. She turned to look back at the others for a moment.
"Go on," Sakura murmured. They'd discussed this on the road.
Hanabi looked back at Ichiru. "The negotiations will be led by Nara Sakura, chuunin by training and civilian by choice." Sakura nodded, but did not bow. "The genin Nara Sonmei is with them to begin his studies in the subject of politics."
Sonmei bowed slightly. When he straightened up, Ichiru had turned to him. He could see just a little of her face beneath her hood. It was covered in strange swirls and patterns of makeup or tattoos. Her eyes were very pale.
Hanabi paused, then said, "Retired jounin Hatake Kakashi accompanies us to see to other aspects of Sonmei's training." There'd been fervent discussion of this part. It was Kakashi himself who eventually ruled that they should tell as much of the truth as possible about him, although he'd sounded very reluctant to do so.
"According to official records," Ichiru said, "Sharingan Kakashi is dead."
"Ah, well," Kakashi said. He had not bowed, merely tipped his head slightly. "Mistakes happen. I think we can forgive your records."
"As a gesture of good will," Hanabi continued before Ichiru could take offense at Kakashi's casual words, "Hyuuga Hinata, retired chuunin and clan head of the House Hyuuga, attends these talks with us."
Hinata dipped low. Sonmei realized that he'd been too caught up in the strange atmosphere around them to notice her nervousness. He looked away. It was a stupid reason to have been distracted, and he knew it was no excuse.
"Lastly," Hanabi said, bowing briefly herself, "Hyuuga Hanabi of the ANBU is here as a bodyguard."
There was a long pause. Sonmei suppressed the urge to hold his breath. Finally, Ichiru said, "It is acceptable. The Kazekage's servants will lead you to your rooms." Before any of them could ask questions, she made a sign with her hands and stepped back.
The skittering noise started growing, from an edge-of-the-brain irritant to a dry, unsettling noise that could not be ignored. Several stones slide aside from a nearby wall, and a number of multilegged, spidery things made of wood poured from the opening--one for each member of the delegation.
There were a series of scraping noises as the wooden creatures rearranged themselves. When they were finished, each bore a wide, flat surface on their tops. "The Kazekage's servants will take your luggage," Ichiru said, "and lead you to your rooms. See to it that the whole of the delegation meets the Kazekage's assistant outside the steps of the palace when you are ready."
She bowed again, made another seal with her hands, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.
In front of them, the Kazekage's servants waited.
They were staying in a suite on the edge of the palace. Sakura was the only one who had a room to herself; Hinata and Hanabi shared one, as did Kakashi and Sonmei. Still, the rooms were more than comfortable, except for one thing.
"The noise is...the Kazekage's servants, isn't it?" Sonmei asked Kakashi. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, watching as his teacher examined the room without any apparent purpose. The faint sound of skittering feet was just a little louder here, and Sonmei couldn't get it out of his head.
"Hmm," Kakashi said. Apparently that was supposed to serve as an answer.
"I think they're relaying information back to him," Sonmei said. When Kakashi did not object to his conclusion, he went on, "But that means he's spying on everyone, all the time. And he's paying extra attention to spying on us now."
Kakashi straightened up from where he'd been bent over a chest pushed up against one wall. "Did you expect him not to?"
Sonmei stared at him. "What?"
"He's a ninja, just like us," Kakashi said. He added, "You should also think about what it means that he knew how many of us there were going to be, and how we should be hosted, before we got here." Then he crouched, picked up the chest, and walked over to the other side of the room with it. He shoved it up against a minute crack in the wall. Then he walked back to where he'd taken the chest from and pressed a foot down on a patch of floor that seemed no different from any other. A panel slid aside in the wall. "Give me one of your spare shoes," he said.
Kakashi held out a hand. Sonmei sighed, pulled one of the extra shoes he'd packed from his luggage, and handed it over. Kakashi fitted it neatly in the gap in the wall; then he tapped the spot on the floor again. There was a series of grinding noises, then silence. Kakashi pulled the shoe back out, then grabbed the edge of the opening and pulled the panel back into place. "We are also ninja, just like him." He stood up again. "Start looking for other little spy tricks of his in this room that we can break."
They met at the steps of the palace almost two hours later. Ichiru was waiting for them. She'd changed into a garment as gauzy as her last one, but sleeveless, and instead of a hood, she wore a headdress with a veil. She moved no more than a statue. Sonmei found himself wondering if she, too, was one of the Kazekage's mechanical servants. But he remembered her pale eyes. They hadn't looked entirely human, but he didn't think they could be carved in wood, either.
She waited until they had finished assembling. Then she turned, walked up the steps, and reached out for the great doors, still several feet in front of her.
Something glittered in the air. Sonmei narrowed his eyes, and what it was shimmered into focus. Slender glowing threads extended from her fingertips, then grew too wispy to see. He had the feeling that if he turned on his Sharingan, he'd be able to see more of them. He also had the feeling that if he turned on his Sharingan, he just might get the entire delegation in trouble. Reluctantly, he let it go.
In front of Ichiru, the doors slammed open, apparently untouched. Hinata made a small, startled noise, but nobody else showed any evidence of being impressed. Ichiru continued into the entrance hall, and they all followed her.
Then Sonmei stopped. Towards the back of the hall, not far from the doors leading further in, was a large statue, at least life-size. He hurried to catch up with the group, but as they neared the statue, he found himself stopping once again.
It was a young man, only a few years older than Sonmei himself. The colors of the stone were muted, but there: the red hair, the green eyes, the tawny hue of the sand cupped in his hands. The red of the character on his forehead--
"One of the more recent treasures of Sand," a voice whispered in his ear.
Sonmei spun around, reached for his most accessible kunai, and found himself brandishing an empty fist at Ichiru before he could remember that Kakashi had made him leave most of his weapons in their room. Shaking, he let his hand fall back to his side. "Do you always sneak up on your guests?"
"By the standards of the Sand," she said, "Ichiru was not sneaking. Sonmei-kun was simply not paying attention."
He glared at her. "If you don't want visitors to be distracted, you shouldn't put up statues of freaks in your front hall."
The silence that followed this was profound. Sonmei realized that even the perpetual muffled patter of wooden feet had stopped--no, had never been audible in this hall in the first place. He also realized that the rest of the group was staring at him. He couldn't be sure about Ichiru, of course, but there was something about her stance...
"Ichiru recommends," she said quietly, "that you not say such things about Godaime Kazekage where the current Kazekage can hear."
Sonmei bit down on his urge to retort bitterly and swallowed hard. He was probably supposed to apologize, but the thought made him hot with anger. Instead he said, "Is there anywhere in Sand where he can't hear?"
He had the sense that Ichiru was smiling under her veil. "Sonmei-kun is perhaps not as slow as Ichiru suspected. Please, the Kazekage awaits you all."
The original design of the archaic throne room naturally drew one's eyes to the throne itself. A subtle application of furniture and plants had changed this. Now the eye was drawn first to a life-size statue of the same make as the one in the hall.
Once again, Sonmei found himself staring at the statue. This time, it was because he recognized it. It was the woman he'd seen in the pictures his father thought he couldn't find--the ones where Shikamaru had looked, if not happy, then at least not dead to the world. Sonmei had a feeling he knew who it was supposed to be.
Slow, deliberate footsteps finally distracted him. He looked up to see that the man who'd been in throne atop the steps a moment ago was now calmly descending the stairs to meet them. The hat of the Kazekage shadowed much of his face, but Sonmei could see swirls of makeup beneath its brim.
Ichiru turned to face them. "The Shichidaime Kazekage," she said. Then she spun around, dropped to her knees, and bowed very low. "Kankurou-sama's guests are here."
The Kazekage reached the bottom of the steps. "Thank you, Ichiru." He stepped over her and slowly walked past the members of the delegation.
It took a while. Sonmei found his attention wandering once more to the statue. There was something naggingly wrong with it, as if the sculptor had been struggling to capture a subject that needed to be in motion.
He looked up when the Kazekage finally reached him at the back of the group. "Kazekage-sama," he said.
Kankurou stared at him; Sonmei tried not to read too much into his expression. He was probably imagining the hunger and meanness there. Finally, the Kazekage said, "Do you know who that is?"
He meant the statue, and Sonmei suspected it was a rhetorical question. He answered all the same. "It's the Rokudaime Kazekage."
The Kazekage's eyes narrowed slightly in the shadows beneath his hat. "Yes. Yes, it is. She was my sister."
Sonmei felt the silence that followed tugging at him, demanding that he end it. So he said, "My father says she was beautiful."
He knew immediately that it had yet again been the wrong thing to say. Sakura, Hinata, and Hanabi stirred uneasily. Ichiru, who had not yet gotten up from the floor, stiffened. And the Kazekage--anger lit up his decorated face.
"Really," he said. He gestured slightly, and something whispered across the floor behind Sonmei.
Sonmei had a mental image of those spidery wooden servants gathering behind him. He wondered if they could attack as well as watch--or if there was another type of wooden beast made for that purpose, and that was what waited behind him now.
"What else does your father say about my sister?" Kankurou murmured.
Cold sweat gathered uncomfortably under Sonmei's shoulderblades. "He doesn't say much about her." A beat. "But I think he was in love with her."
Kankurou took a step closer to Sonmei. His fingers danced absently in the air; Sonmei heard tiny creakings and raspings behind him as the wooden creatures--puppets, that's what they were--shifted position.
"Your father," the Kazekage said, "is unwelcome here. You are lucky you and your mother are even allowed here." His voice lowered. "Your father killed my sister. Do you call that love?"
Sonmei bit down on his lip, hard. He could see his mother standing behind Kankurou, her expression drawn tight into unreadability, but he could see the tension around her eyes and in her jaw. She was scared--apparently too scared to defend her own husband.
He opened his mouth, and for a moment he wasn't sure whether it was to speak or to spit on the Kazekage. Then he saw Hinata.
She was just behind and to the side of Sakura. Her hands were clasped nervously in front of her, and she too was scared, but her fear was mingled with hope. He had never shown his sullen pride to her. She was counting on him to be able to swallow it so that they could have a chance to bring peace to the Leaf.
Bitter anger coated his throat as he spoke, but he ignored it, ignored even the way his pride stung. "I'm sorry, Kazekage-sama. I did not know."
Surprise flickered across Sakura's face. Hinata smiled a little. Kankurou merely stared at him for a moment longer, then stepped back, waving one hand as he did so. Wooden feet skittered away behind him. Whatever type the puppets had been, they were gone now.
"You may return to your rooms now," he said. "You'll be provided with a way to call my servants, who will provide you with food and drink. Sand is not responsible for your safety if you choose to wander." He turned and started back to the throne. Sonmei looked more closely at it, and he realized that none of the material of the seat itself could be seen; it was covered entirely in silks and a single cushion. He had assumed it was stone underneath, but it could as easily be wood, or even something more fragile.
"Sakura will be led back here tomorrow morning," said Kankurou. "The ANBU guard may attend the negotiations with her. No one else."
"I'd rather start tonight," Sakura said, finally speaking up. "We don't need to drag this out."
"Tomorrow," Kankurou said. "I won't have my guests deprived of their rest."
Back in the guest suite, Sonmei ignored his own room and went straight to his mother's. He found her examining the walls the way Kakashi had been doing earlier.
Her inspection could wait. He had to talk to her. "Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded.
"Not now, Sonmei," she said.
"It's never been now," he snapped. "You need to start telling me things!"
She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "It's never been proven that your father was the one who assassinated the Rokudaime Kazekage." She stared at a sliver of a crack in the wall. "I can't say for sure whether it's true." Her expression was wooden. "Leaf did have the motivation; intelligence told us that the next in line for the job would be less openly destructive in war than her, instead preferring deception and sabotage."
"So why does the Kazekage say my father did it, if all that anyone knows is that Leaf in general had motivation?" Sonmei didn't understand why she was finally telling him this now, but he wasn't going to object.
"It is said," Sakura said softly, "that he was the only one who could have gotten close enough to her to do it."
"He did love her," Sonmei said. "So why--"
"Like I said," Sakura went on, turning a warning expression on him, "there's no proof that he did it. Only suspicion." She unhooked a scroll from the wall and moved to swap it with a different one. "Go back to Kakashi, and do your best to be quiet around here from now on, Sonmei." She sounded strained. "Don't tempt the Sand to hurt you."
Sullenly, he tucked his chin against his chest and left the room. As he trudged into his own room, he realized why she'd told him anything at all: she thought if she gave him information about Shikamaru, she could distract him from the matter of his real father. Unfortunately, she'd been right.
It had long since gotten dark out when Ino stopped by the Nara house. Shikamaru got up from the scrolls spread out on the floor and answered the door without saying anything.
Her gaze slid to the paper chaos on the floor behind him. "Late-night studying session?"
He grunted a meager affirmative.
"That never worked when we were in the Academy," she said.
"I only ever did it then," he said, "because you made it harder for me to say no, I'd rather sleep than actually stay up with you. Are you going to come in or not?"
She stepped inside, pulling the door shut after her. "This time," she said, "I'm going to tell you to get some sleep."
He squatted down by the scrolls again. "Can't afford it."
"And we can't afford to have you falling asleep in the middle of a fight tomorrow," she said.
"I'm under orders to stay out of battle if possible anyway," he said. "Can't let the top strategist risk his life when others are risking theirs." He slid the quickest of glances at her.
"When are you going to stop feeling guilty?" The words burst out of her in an annoyed puff of air. They'd been held back for too long.
He didn't look at her.
"It wasn't your fault," she said. "You couldn't have known..."
"It was," he said quietly, "and I should have."
"She attacked us because we were Sand's enemies," Ino said sharply. "Not out of jealousy."
Shikamaru stared down at the scrolls, but he wasn't seeing them anymore. "She told me she would never attack me. I should have been there with you and Chouji."
Ino hesitated. "You never mentioned that before..."
He laughed quietly, without humor. "Still think it's not my fault?"
She stood up abruptly. "You're an idiot." She turned to go. "Get some sleep, idiot."
When she was gone, he sat in the dim light and tried to pay attention to the reports on the scrolls, but whenever he blinked, the characters threatened to twist into the names of the dead.