Of the Desert
A Naruto Fanfiction by Aoikami Sarah
A large campfire crackled and hissed under the din of hushed voices. A dozen or more swarthy men dressed in layers of thick fabric sat around the fire and ate couscous and mutton with their bare right hands. A pot of strong, aromatic coffee boiled in a tin pot hanging over the blaze. Their gaze darted from their meals to the black haired boy sitting at the edge of the campsite. His back to the fire, the boy could not see the hateful looks on the men’s faces.
“Man, this kid gives me the creeps.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Whenever he’s around I feel like he wants to kill me.”
“It is the same with me. I feel dread, My Friend. Pure dread.”
“’S’fuggin creepy, man.”
“If that’s what a genius ninja is like, then I’m glad I suck.”
“You sure do, Pal.”
“Hey, screw you.”
The boy stood and all conversation stopped.
“Panpora-sama!” one bandit shouted and stood with shaking knees.
“I’m going for a walk, you coward. Sit back down,” the boy growled.
“Right! Of course!” the man laughed nervously.
The boy called Panpora folded his arms and walked a short distance from the campsite. He knew his men were untrustworthy so he stayed in sight of them. It was common for the more cowardly of his underlings to take an opportunity like this to flee. Such men always followed him, greedy for a ravaged caravan’s bounty and willing to witness the horror of his jutsu to get it. With the campfire at his back his shadow was cast long and knife-like across the dunes.
“I can smell it,” he hissed, taking in a breath. His lips parted, revealing pointed, bright white teeth which stood out in sharp contrast to his dark skin. “Something exciting is close by.”
As morning broke over the desert, Kankuro and Temari’s team assembled outside a small tavern. The Chuunin ninja team was much more at ease with their teen leaders after being pampered by an overnight stay indoors.
“Don’t get used to it,” Kankuro laughed at the men’s comments. “That tavern owner owed us. It’s the wilds of the desert here on out.”
As they groused and put their packs on, Temari went to the bar to fill up her canteen. “You,” she barked at the barkeep. “You seen a kid with the word ‘love’ on his forehead recently?”
The three barflies to her left and the bartender stopped what they were doing and stared at her. “What if we did?” one of the more sodden of the flies asked, leaning in and squinting at her face.
Temari grabbed the front of his shirt and jerked so that she could look down on him. “That is my business. Have you seen him?”
“Sabakuno Gaara…? Sure,” he stuttered. “He was here just bout a week ago. Less than that, maybe.”
Temari released him and returned to her group.
“Let’s head out.”
The sky was shockingly blue and the sand seemed to glare white under the sun as Gaara and Rouzu followed the trade route south.
“We should be heading more westerly,” Rouzu stated.
She pointed to a distant oasis. “That’s only a few hours away.” She didn’t shield her eyes as she looked out at the brightness. Gaara squinted from between the layers of his turban. “They’re probably there already since they’ve only got a half a day on us. If we come up around from the western side we’ve got a better chance of taking them by surprise.”
“….” Gaara looked up at her as if she was the stupidest woman on Earth.
“Ok, ok. So a white-ass red-head and a pregnant woman sort of stick out…”
“Sort of…” he grumbled. “Look, it doesn’t matter where we come up on the oasis. If we go west it’ll just take longer to get there. If the enemy is already there, they’ve seen us approaching all morning.”
“Whatever,” Rouzu sighed and put her hands behind her head. “As long as you’re not worried, Short-stuff then I trust you.”
“….” Gaara pouted. ‘Trust… me…?’ he thought and squinted at the distant oasis. He wondered if leaving his gourd of blood-infused sand behind would be a problem should the situation get sticky. Gourd or no gourd, he could still use his power to manipulate the sand, and there was plenty of that in the vast desert.
Kankuro turned his head to avoid the stench. He swallowed hard. There were children and women among the dead. “Senseless…” he muttered. His sister nodded.
“Temari-sama!” One of the shinobi in their party jogged over to them. “It appears as if these people…” He pulled his face mask up further as he too got a good whiff. “These people all killed themselves.”
“This is horrible,” she hissed and walked around the caravan’s perimeter.
Kankuro jogged after her, thankful to get upwind. “Nee-chan,” he got her attention and pointed south. The sand showed a faint trail. “Looks like they went this way.” Temari nodded and they set out across the dunes.
The sun bathed the oasis in orange as it sank. As Gaara paused to listen for anything out of the ordinary, Rouzu stepped in front of him. “They’re just ahead. There’s a spring on the other side of that hill that they’re gathered around.”
He blinked a few times as he stared up at her. “Really?” he asked, sarcasm lacing his voice.
She sniffed the air. “No camels. No more than a half dozen horses. They’ve only just started supper.”
Gaara shook his head, but knew that she was right. Rouzu was a Bedouin. Her senses were keen when it came to the desert. It was part of her survival mechanism. He walked towards the hill and turned to her. Before he could open his mouth, she was shimmying up a date palm. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked in wonder.
She grinned from the top of the palm baring white teeth that seemed to glow in the fading light. “Copping a squat. Go on Short-stuff, clean house. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Gaara rolled his eyes and left her there. “Crazy woman,” he muttered and approached the hill.
Men’s voices echoed off the spring pool and around the hill. Gaara estimated there were perhaps a little less than a dozen of them, but wanted to be sure. He made a seal with one hand and closed his eyes. When the jutsu was complete, he opened his left eye and let his right see what the Third Eye saw.
Around the hill, eight men sat around a campfire. Their glances shifted from the fire to something just to the north of the camp. Gaara turned the sand-eye around and gasped as the black haired boy stared back at him. His lips moved. The words were slow and obvious for camera’s benefit. “Nice. To. Meet. You.”
The eye scattered as Gaara broke the jutsu and walked around the hill. He pulled his ghutra turban further down so that it covered the scar on his forehead before coming into view. The men were startled to see another boy in the middle of the desert and quickly got to their feet, brandishing edged weapons. They waited for their leader. Panpora gave a slight nod and they rushed the boy.
As the three fastest of them reached Gaara, the sand below them liquefied, sucking them under. The others practically fell on each other as they halted their advance. Gaara smirked. “Not so anxious anymore, are you?” Some turned and ran. “Oh no, the fun has just begun,” he said casually and raised his hand. The sand from the desert itself molded to his will and caught four of the men up. “Sabaku Sousou,” Gaara hissed and lifted them off the ground. Rather than waste more energy, he simply dropped them into the quicksand. When they were no longer visible, the last man standing came at Gaara with a scimitar. The sword struck his shoulder and sent reverberations up the man’s arm as it hit the armor of sand.
“What… what are you!?” he screeched.
“I am of the Desert.”
Anyone on the ground would have looked up into the palm trees and seen nothing out of the ordinary. Rouzu peered through the fronds at the scene below in wonder. “This shrimpy little ninja is something else!” she whispered. “Could he be…?”
Rouzu’s mind raced back to ten years ago when she was still traveling with her own family.
They had stopped in the Hidden Sand Village. While they were filling their goatskins full of water at a public fountain, she was minding her younger brothers as they chased each other around the square. They were excited to be in a city and weren’t paying attention to anyone around them. One of her many little brothers ran into someone, knocking both of them to the ground.
“Sorry ‘bout that, kid,” her brother muttered. People all around stopped everything they were doing and stared. Rouzu had the sense to see that something was wrong. The people were anxious, as if waiting for something bad to happen. She stared at the kid as he got to his feet. He in turn stared incredulously at her brother. His eyes were sunken and rimmed in black and the kanji for ‘love’ was etched into the pale, white skin of his forehead. She shuddered.
“Come along, Chora,” she ushered her brother and the others back to the caravan. “Alahn, please excuse him, Mu’allim. He is overjoyed to be in your wonderful city!” Rouzu played the ‘ignorant Bedouin’ card and hoped he would let them go without crying for his father. To her surprise and further astonishment, the boy shrugged and walked off. People backed away to let him pass. “Ma'assalama, go in peace!” she called after him and waved cheerily. When he was out of sight she frowned and slapped her brother upside the head.
“Moron!” another older brother scolded the boy called Chora. “You’re going to get us thrown out of here!”
“Come on,” Rouzu herded her siblings back to the caravan. “You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Chora protested, but the elder dragged him off.
Rouzu followed and in a few days they were back on the trade routes of the Seven Deserts and she forgot about the little boy entirely.
A shadow darting across the hill caught Rouzu’s eye and roused her from her memories. Soon several more followed. A small group of shinobi entrenched themselves in the shrubbery and waited for their leaders’ signal. Rouzu raised a brow and watched them like hawk. ‘And who do we have here?’ she thought. Her baby kicked. ‘I know, don’t worry. We’re safe where we are. That shrimp will take care of that murdering kid, just you wait.’
The scimitar thudded to the ground as its owner choked on three pounds of sand that filled his throat, nose and ears. Before he fell, Gaara turned, satisfied and narrowed his eyes at the remaining child.
“You’re the one they were following?” he asked coolly.
“I am Atemi Panpora: Scorpion of the Seven Deserts.”
Gaara grinned. “I’ve never heard of you.”
The boy laughed, exposing his small, sharp teeth. “Not many have. I don’t leave witnesses.”
Gaara scoffed. “You’ll leave your name here. No one will ever hear of you again.”
From their position in the undergrowth Temari gritted her teeth as she heard her brother’s words. “We’ve got to do something, Kankuro.”
“Why? Gaara’s perfectly capable of taking this pipsqueak out.”
She shook her head. “I’ve been thinking about that caravan and the stories. What skill is it that could make one’s enemy’s take their own lives?” Kankuro puzzled over this, but she answered her own question. “Genjutsu.”
“Mind tricks?” he repeated.
“What do you think will happen if he tries to mess with Gaara’s mind?”
“I think you’re going to tell me,” he moaned.
“It will come.”
Kankuro swallowed deep. “Right. We should probably either break this up or get the hell out of here.”
She nodded, recalling the last time she was witness to the transformation. Gaara had gone all out against that Naruto kid. He was forced that day to resort to using the Tanuki Neri. Temari had never been so afraid in her life. She wouldn’t let that happen to her little brother again.