Alive And Victorious
Chapter 1. The girl with balls of steel
Matsuri sighed deeply and picked up her jouhyou. She tried to hit the target with it but missed. She was determined not to give up so easily, so she whipped her weapon again.
She couldn't pretend any longer she was focusing on her task while the only thing she was thinking about was her teacher's absence. Since their return from Konoha Gaara hadn't shown up on the training ground. Matsuri supposed he must have been feeling ill after fighting Shitenshounin. It was the only explanation she could come up with till now, even if during their trip to Suna he didn't seem to be exhausted or weakened.
The girl hurled the jouhyou at the training dummy. The rope wrapped around it, immobilizing her imaginary opponent, but she wasn't satisfied at all.
It was the third day since she was coming here and waiting for her teacher. During their return Gaara wasn't talking much and was paying only slight attention to her, but she already knew he was just like that - quiet and withdrawn. She didn't ask about their training then since she was sure they would resume it just after arriving at the village. Obviously she was wrong.
Matsuri disentangled the rope from the dummy and held the dart in her palm, pondering. She vividly remembered her first accurate hit at Seimei after he activated Gariantou. She was able to immediately understand her teacher's words and discover that her fear of weapons could decrease considerably when she had to protect someone important to her.
Of course Gaara wasn't especially important to her at that time. The girl had known him for a few hours and didn't know anything about him. She chose him to teach her because he was the least intimidating from the three teachers-to-be. Matsuri was surprised by other's reactions, but she thought they were exaggerating. Gaara really didn't look dangerous. He was short and frail. He wasn't talking much, but it turned out he was very patient and didn't laugh at her fears. It was all she needed to put her trust in him.
When Shitenshounin kidnapped her, she wasn't hoping someone will rescue her. She'd been living in Sunagakure only for a few weeks and she didn't have any friends. As it turned out, Gaara had come to save his student and if it wasn't for Konoha shinobi's help, he could even die from Seimei's attacks. Matsuri had learned about what Shitenshounin attempted to achieve just after arriving at Konoha. They wanted to capture and use for themselves the power which had been sealed into Gaara. They challenged him and even if he realized they must've been quite formidable enemies, he rushed to claim his student back. The student he had known only for a few hours.
Matsuri coiled up her jouhyou and stuck it into her pouch. She had enough of waiting here. She decided to act.
Kankurou was lecturing his students on molding chakra, truly hoping that they would quickly catch the idea. The puppeteer just hated to explain things again and again. He knew perfectly well he wasn't cut to be a teacher for a severe lack of patience, but all he could do at the moment was quietly curse the elders to manoeuvre him into teaching the future shinobi. The council decided to establish the Shinobi Academy in the village, similar to the Academy in Konohagakure, but Kankurou was deeply convinced they didn't start well. Of course he was keeping his mouth shut and didn't complain even once.
Temari seemed to be better teacher than him. Well, she had two younger brothers after all. She quickly learnt how to deal with unruly brats, or rather how to deal with the ones she could boss around and how to deal with the ones nobody could as much as think of bossing around.
As for Gaara... Kankurou really couldn't tell if his sibling was pleased with having a student who chose him to teach her, but after Matsuri's abduction it was clear Gaara was ready to do anything necessary to save her. Kankurou watched the two during their journey from Konoha. Matsuri seemed to genuinely like her sensei and was staying close to him. His older siblings obviously were intimidating her.
The puppeteer chuckled inwardly. The girl was very stupid, or very brave, or - what was the most possible - she didn't know anything. Maybe she didn't come from Suna. Kankurou had never seen her in the village, but it wasn't enough to tell since he didn't know all the children from Sunagakure. The girl seemed to be Gaara's age, so she must have known who he was. And even if she really didn't know, she had seen him half-transformed into Shukaku. She must have been frightened... except for she wasn't. Or was hiding it perfectly. During the trip she was constantly cheerful and was chattering almost all the time, not discouraged by Gaara's reclusive attitude at all.
"Kankurou-san," Darui said coyly, interrupting his teacher's musings.
The kid pointed at something behind Kankuro's back. The puppeteer turned back and furrowed with astonishment when he saw Matsuri.
Gaara sat at the table and began to eat onigiri Temari had made in the morning. It wasn't exactly what he wanted to consume, but for a time being he had to be satisfied with rice balls filled with bamboo shoots. The meal was bland for his tastes but there was nothing else to serve himself. Temari was still gone and she was the one making the cooking here. Gaara would never do as much as even think of cooking. Besides, he hadn't been eating at Kazekage's house for five years, after being served with gobou karaage poisoned with strychnine. He almost died then and after that he had been going to canteen or restaurants whenever he was hungry. Of course he had never paid for his meals, but no one had ever protested. No one dared to utter a word. Sometimes Gaara was just walking into people's houses and demanding to be served with meal. Of course he was always getting what he wanted so why would he trouble himself with cooking.
Now he could also go to the canteen. He would wait in a line for his turn and pay for whatever they would serve him with, but he was certain that everybody would just leave after they had seen him. And Gaara wasn't in the mood for watching terrified faces and people fleeing from the canteen as if the leper had entered.
Those sombre ruminations have been interrupted by Kankurou's arrival. The puppeteer threw his hood back, sighing, and carefully lowered his puppets after unstrapping them from his back. He leaned the wooden dummies against the wall and poured the water into the mug. After that he collapsed on the chair and swallowed the water in one gulp.
"Man, what a day. Those brats will be the death of me."
"Hm," Gaara muttered and grasped the rice ball.
"Gaara," the puppeteer said and the redhead looked at him questioningly.
"Matsuri came to me today when I was at the training ground. She asked me about you."
Gaara was slightly surprised. He took a bit of an onigiri and chewed on it for a moment before glancing at Kankurou again.
"She was worried you're feeling ill and that's why you're not coming," the puppeteer said and began to eat, watching his brother.
The redhead sank in his thoughts. He had never revealed to his siblings that he wasn't training with Matsuri anymore. He assumed it was obvious she would never want to have anything to do with him. At first she was kidnapped because she was somehow related to him, then she could see him half-transformed into Shukaku. No wonder she would want to find another teacher. Gaara was absolutely certain she had already found the one.
"I didn't know what to tell her," Kankurou said, chewing on the rice. "I lied you were still recovering from chakra exhaustion after the fight with Shitenshounin. I think she bought it."
Gaara nodded even if the lie was transparent. The reserves of his chakra were restoring considerably faster ad his wounds were healing better than on an ordinary shinobi, due to Ichibi's influence. It was strange Matsuri didn't notice that.
Gaara thought to himself that apparently Matsuri gave him more acceptance than he supposed to get from her. He couldn't understand it at all, but he wasn't going to push her away, since he decided to cherish even the slightest bond he had.
Six weeks had passed. Matsuri had been learning shinobi basic knowledge, at first in theory, recently in practice. She almost forgot she had ever feared of weapons. She was constantly training with her jouhyou but Gaara also instructed her how to throw kunais and shurikens. The girl had learnt about chakra and began to train how to control its flow and mold it. Matsuri's chakra type was doton and as for advanced techniques Gaara couldn't help her since he didn't know any. Even if he was wielding sand as his weapon, his chakra type was fuuton. Besides, he didn't really need anything except for his sand.
This time Gaara resolved on training taijutsu. He himself wasn't expert on it, and even was seriously lacking in this area as his fight with Rock Lee had revealed earlier. Training taijutsu was in his case just attacking, since nobody could hit him with regular speed due to his automatic shield. Of course Matsuri was endlessly attempting to do that, to no avail. So he was just standing there with his arms crossed, waiting for punches that were never reaching him, and from time to time he assaulted his student as well, surprising her.
After a couple of hours of constant training, Matsuri was exhausted so they settled themselves in the shadow of the stone wall and rested. The girl took a sip of water from her canteen, watching a large, blue bruise on her calf. She pressed it with her fingertips and hissed quietly, reminding herself to put an ointment on the bruise after coming home. Her sensei, being short and fragile-looking, was pretty strong and his attacks were powerful, even if she knew he was considerably holding back while fighting her.
Matsuri could hear voices of other ninjas from here. Many people were practicing on near training grounds, but she and her teacher were alone. Sometimes she really yearned for a larger company since her sensei wasn't very talkative. It was not so long ago when Matsuri had met a few other students, training under Temari and Kankurou, and she realized at once how much she was missing having friends. She had her teacher of course, and she really liked him, but he wasn't someone one could easily befriend. She tried to do that with her all, but she couldn't cross a barrier he set around his heart.
"I've heard there will be a shinobi academy here," Matsuri said, wanting to drag him into a conversation.
"Hn," Gaara muttered. "It'll be designed upon the Academy in Konoha."
Matsuri had no idea what he was talking about since she was in the said village only once before. She glanced at him and waited for the continuation.
"Students attend the Academy for four years and usually graduate when they're twelve. After the exam they become genins," he explained. "They have lectures there, and jutsu classes with chuunin instructors. Our Academy will be modelled upon that."
"Will you be a teacher at the Academy, sensei?"
Gaara glanced at her.
"I don't think so. I'm still a genin."
Matsuri frowned. It was one of the things she couldn't understand - why Gaara was still a genin, if his skills were like jounin's?
She imagined herself attending such Academy. She would meet many people and make friends. It would be fun to go to school with them and learn together in the evenings. She wouldn't feel so lonely then. But on the other hand she doubted if any instructor could dedicate needed amount of time to every student, and she probably wouldn't be one of the most brilliant. What if she needed an extra explanation and everybody would laugh at her, or even worse, the instructor would belittle her? What if they found out that she was afraid of weapons? In that case she would be never allowed to continue her training, and no wonder.
Gaara didn't mock at her fears and didn't belittle her. He was patient and didn't care about her clumsiness. Due to his attitude she was gaining more and more confidence and number of her lapses had considerably decreased. Would it be possible if she was Academy student?
She didn't think so.
"Hey, Matsuri!" somebody called so loud that each and every passerby turned his (or her) head into the direction where the person who gave the scream was. Matsuri recognized the voice immediately. The girl turned around and waited for Sari, Yakku and Darui. She had met them just two days earlier in the canteen. She had been sitting there and enjoying her favorite snack, taiyaki, when she noticed them, whispering, elbowing each other and pointing at her. After a few minutes they approached her and introduced themselves. Yakku and Sari were Temari's students, and Darui - Kankurou's.
As it turned out, Sari was a cheerful, noisy girl, laughing and happily fidgeting all the time. She had ordered okonomiyaki, but was also taking bits of food from her friends' plates, continuously commenting on what everyone was saying.
Yakku was calmly enduring Sari's unkind remarks, interrupting her from time to time to lightly sneer at her. Not even for a moment did he stop watching the entire canteen like he was expecting to be attacked at any time.
Darui's attitude could be described only as nonchalance. Sari's light sarcasm and Yakku's distrustful attitude didn't seem to reach him at all. The boy was slowly chewing on his ramen and listening to his friends' bantering.
Matsuri greeted them with smile since from that day she hoped they will meet again. She really wanted to have friends.
"Going home?" Sari chattered. "We finished the training, maybe we could drop in on you?"
Yakku rolled his eyes and Darui muttered something about tactlessness.
"Did you say something?" Sari growled. "Nobody forces you to go!"
And they did. They arrived at the building and climbed the stairs until they reached the last floor. Matsuri opened the door and let them in. She was glad to have guests, hoping only for them not to mind the mess.
The three began to look around curiously. There was only one small room and even smaller bathroom. At the window there was a table standing and Matsuri asked her guests to take a sit. They pulled the chairs while Sari gazed through the window.
"Wow, what a sight! Nice view of the Kazekage Tower, by the way," she giggled.
"And pity there's no Kazekage there," Yakku muttered.
Matsuri glanced at him curiously, taking off her kunai pouch and placing it on the shelf.
"The last Kazekage had passed almost a year ago and the council still can't make a decision who should be the next," Yakku explained.
"I've heard something like that," Matsuri said. "How come it happened at all?"
The boy shrugged.
"Ask your sensei."
Matsuri frowned, since the answer confused her a lot. To stall for a time, she walked up to the window slowly and sat on the wide window-sill, her feet dangling in the midair. Yakku's words didn't go unnoticed and the atmosphere quickly became thick. Sari stared at the girl without blinking, obviously waiting for an answer. Yakku was also curious, but hid it well. And Darui... it was rather difficult to fathom what he was thinking.
"Why him?" Matsuri said, the edge of bewilderment lingering in her voice.
Sari eyed her with disbelief.
"Because he is the son of the last Kazekage," she announced bluntly and Matsuri was not far from falling from the window-sill. She clawed at the edge and fought to regain her balance.
"W-what?" she stuttered. "Gaara-sensei is Yondaime's son? Then Temari-san and Kankurou-san..."
"You don't know anything about him, do you?" Yakku asked suspiciously. "Where have you been living until now? On the moon?"
"When I was seven, my family left Sunagakure. We moved to Hanabira," Matsuri said proudly.
"Hanabira? This is near the border with Kawa no Kuni," Darui said and Matsuri nodded.
"How old are you then?" Yakku asked.
"Fourteen. And you?"
"I'm fourteen too," Sari beamed.
"Me too," Darui added.
"I'm fifteen," Yakku said, shrugging.
Matsuri was mute, digesting what she has heard. She just couldn't contain it in her head that Gaara was Kazekage's son. How come the demon had been sealed within him? His father ought to protect him from such a terrible fate. Why didn't he do this? Why didn't he save his child? The Kazekage was supposed to be the strongest shinobi in the village, for pity's sake!
"How long have you been staying in Suna?" Darui asked, interrupting her musings.
"And you really don't know who Gaara is?"
"My teacher," Matsuri answered angrily. "He's extremely patient, never rebukes me nor yells at me, thanks to him I stopped being afraid of weapons and began to believe in myself. Do you want to add something?"
"Do you know he has a monster sealed within him?" Sari said quietly.
"Yeah, I know," Matsuri snorted and rolled her eyes. "I've seen him half-transformed, and what ab-"
"WHAT?" Sari erupted, jumping to her feet. Yakku and Darui were gaping at Matsuri with their jaws dropped. "What did you say?" Sari asked with a calmer tone. "You've seen it? You've seen Shukaku of the Sand?"
"Shukaku of the Sand?" Matsuri echoed with astonishment. "This is how you call it? Ah, I see. That's why Gaara-sensei can manipulate sand, right? Because of that spirit?"
The three teens watched her with dumbfounded expressions.
"Yes," Sari said at last, her eyes sticking to Matsuri's face, "That's why."
Darui and Yakku exchanged cryptic glances.
"She really doesn't know anything."
"I do not know anything?" Matsuri said, her voice tinged with sarcasm. "So you could explain it to me, you know."
"Do you know how many shinobi from our village he has killed?" Yakku asked with serious face and Matsuri felt like the air has been sucked from her lungs.
"He was killing on whim, whoever he wanted dead, and when he was furious, he was changing into Shukaku and only Yondaime could stop him," Yakku blurted out.
"My friend's little brother didn't want to play with him. He still has huge scars over his legs where the sand wounded him," Darui added.
"My granny's neighbour looked askance at him-"
"My uncle's friend didn't go back from the mission. He was found dead deep in the desert with all his bones crushed-"
Matsuri was glancing at them wildly with her mouth open.
"My grandfather told me-"
"There was a shinobi with a scar on his face, do you remember?"
"...the sand broke his legs-"
"...he was only eight years old-"
"...her dad didn't come back home-"
"Stop it!" Matsuri screamed with her legs wobbling beneath her, blocking up her ears with her palms. "I can't listen to this anymore!" Tears ran down her face. "You... you like talking about that!'"
They were silent at last, staring at Matsuri with quite bewildered looks, watching her rub her eyes with the fists. Matsuri felt nauseated and scared, not knowing why would they blurt out such things to her.
"What are you up to?" she whispered, watching them with the miserable expression. "Even if it is true what you are saying-"
"It is true," Yakku interjected callously.
"So why do I feel we're talking about two different people? Gaara-sensei I know never hurt me. He never did as much as yell at me. Even when I'm clumsy and dense he never grows impatient. Never. He always helps me. How are you going to explain this to me?" Matsuri asked, yearning so badly she could answer those questions herself.
Gaara glanced at his student and for the next time could ascertain that Matsuri was acting awkwardly. Different than usual. Like she wasn't herself.
"Matsuri," the redhead uttered, attempting to draw her attention. "Today you're going to try another technique, Henge no Jutsu."
The old Matsuri would express her enthusiasm immediately, clap her hands, overrun him with inquiries, and shift impatiently, her entire being full with intention to learn. The new one only nodded in silence, apparently lost in her thoughts.
"Gaara-sensei, I'm ready," she said uneagerly, not looking him in the eyes.
The redhead deliberated what to do. It must have been a serious matter, to change his student's attitude to such an extent. However Matsuri didn't mention at all what was eating her, so he decided she wanted to keep it to herself. On the other hand her concentration was almost non-existent due to whatever was nagging at her. Sometimes he had to repeat the same line twice, after her absent-minded question: "Gaara-sensei, I'm sorry... Did you say something?"
He shook his head to himself. Having no experience at all in lending a sympathetic ear he couldn't imagine Matsuri choosing him to tell him about her problems, so he decided to simply continue the training.
"Seals you need to form to execute this technique are the following: dog, boar, ram."
The girl nodded indifferently and echoed in a low voice:
"Dog, boar, ram..."
"This is an E-ranked supporting technique."
"E-ranked supporting technique..."
Gaara suppressed the sigh. He just wanted Matsuri's grim mood to go away quickly since he didn't exactly know how to deal with it. He didn't realize earlier, how much he got accustomed to the sunny, cheerful traits of her personality.
Hoping to shake her enough to change her state of mind he chose to share the last news with her that he had previously decided to keep in secret until now.
"In a week we'll have to temporarily stop our training ."
"Why?" she asked curiously.
"I have a mission assigned," he said, adjusting the gourd on his back.
"A mission?" Matsuri repeated, frowning and eyeing him suspiciously.
"I volunteered for the regular troops."
His words had exactly such an effect as he expected since Matsuri parted her lips, gasping, and stared at him with disbelief.
Kankurou put a tray on the table, unwrapped his two puppets from his back and rested them against the wall. He sat down, raised the chopsticks and began to consume, listening to the rustle of voices of many shinobi gathered in the canteen. Suddenly his attention was caught by what he decided was Gaara's name uttered in a quiet tone.
"Yeah, I've heard about it," a shinobi said. "Who would have thought?"
"Why would he join the regular troops? It's odd."
Someone chortled loudly.
"Poor Reki! He almost wet his pants when they told him who leads the mission!"
The other men's laughter rippled through the air.
"Yeah, especially since Reki is twenty seven, and his captain thirteen!"
Kankurou listened carefully, trying to eat calmly like he didn't have the care in a world and wasn't eavesdropping to that particular conversation.
"Laugh until you can!" a younger voice has uttered. "What will you do when they assign you a mission with him?"
A silence fell at once, heavy, grim silence. Kankurou swallowed a bit of his okonomiyaki and wondered if they noticed him at last.
"They say he has changed," a voice uttered at last.
"Phew, I wouldn't believe it," someone mocked. "Piss him off and you'll see what happens."
"Poor girl, this student of his."
"A student? You're telling me he has a student?"
"Yeah, he has! He's teaching her for almost two months now."
"You just came back from the border post so you don't know any news."
"Unbelievable... And she's still alive? I have to see her!"
Kankurou winced. He knew people detested Gaara, but this was a bit too much. The chopsticks cracked in his palm and the puppeteer had to call for all of his self-control not to explode. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, reminding himself of how he used to hate and fear Gaara and how long it took him to trust his younger brother completely. Those people weren't any different and Kankurou was sure that the time would come when they will change their minds.
The shinobi, oblivious to his presence, continued talking.
"What is her name then?"
"Matsuri. The girl must have been born with the balls of steel!"
"Matsuri?" another voice interjected, an older, hoarse voice. "Aoba's granddaughter was named Matsuri."
"Aoba's? You mean the old Aoba, who died commencing the mission 1023-"
"SHHHH!" the shinobi, who sounded like Mukade, hissed loudly. "Don't talk about that! The walls can grow ears at any time!"
Kankurou froze, not listening to them anymore. It was a coincidence... it had to be. There could be more missions with respective numbers starting with 10, which stood for a high difficulty of the assignment and its top secrecy. The beginning of the reference number sounded awfully familiar, but the puppeteer forced himself to push that thought away. He quickly finished eating, slung the puppets on his back and quickly exited the canteen. The only unwelcome thought that dared to shot through his mind was if Matsuri knew - assuming his guess was correct - at whose hands her grandfather suffered the death.
Matsuri was trying to focus on her feet and sensed a diminutive tingling when the chakra began to accumulate at her soles. The girl continuously repeated the instruction in her mind. If the stream of chakra is too weak, you will lose your footing on the wall and fall off. If it is too strong, you will be pushed away.
She glanced at her sensei, who was effortlessly standing on the stone wall twenty feet above her head with his hands crossed upon his chest, patiently waiting for her. The loose strip of his sash was fluttering with the light breeze.
Matsuri took one unsteady step, then another. She looked at him again and after all her focus was immediately distracted, she fell off onto her back.
The girl slowly pulled herself to a sitting position and hissed, touching her shoulders and the back of her head, where she could touch the small bump. Gaara jumped down easily and stood next to her.
"Matsuri," he emphasized. The girl raised her head and gazed at him questioningly. "What is it?" he finished, his expression serious.
The girl grimaced and averted her eyes. He already tried to raise that topic with her once, but she managed to put him off. What was she supposed to say? To ask about the truth? About the crimes he committed? The cruelty? The bloodlust? Those were topics extremely hard to raise with anyone, and with him in particular. Matsuri's instinct was telling her there were many secrets lying in the shadows of her teacher's past. There was evil there, darkness, hatred, intent to kill but there was also something more. She could sense clearly the boundless sorrow, humiliation, suffering. If she could she would rather not learn all those things, but people made sure the blissful ignorance wasn't her option anymore. They were sharing the terrible details with her with almost sadistic satisfaction and Matsuri knew much more things about Gaara tha she had ever wanted to know. It was not only about Sari, Yakku and Darui, no. Since Matsuri became Suna's infamous monster's student people took the same unhealthy interest in her that they had in Gaara, with only one difference - they were never approaching him, but with her there was a different story. The strangers were pestering her on the streets, inquiring (or interrogating rather) and bothering her. And the things they were relating could make shinobi even tougher than her nauseous - and she wasn't tough. At first Matsuri tried to defend him, but they didn't listen at all and she realized no one was willing to learn the truth about him - her truth. Those horrible stories were exciting them and they seemed to be addicted to the sensation.
"What is it?" Gaara repeated and the girl sighed heavily, rubbing her bruised shoulder unconsciously. She knew she couldn't hide the truth anymore.
"People are... pestering me," she admitted and looked away. "They tell me... things."
"Things?" he asked, frowning.
"Things about..." Matsuri swallowed visibly. "About you."
Gaara didn't comment on that and Matsuri grabbed a fistful of sand, her gaze sticking to her knees. She could feel the burning rays of sun on her exposed neck. Finally she peeked up at him, troubled with the silence. Gaara was standing with his arms crossed, staring into space. The girl got up slowly.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. The readhead glanced at her wordlessly. His pale eyes were empty and Matsuri bit her lower lip. "I'm sorry," she repeated, her voice barely audible. Gaara shook his head, still silent. Matsuri scanned his face thoroughly.
She couldn't imagine these large, almond-shaped eyes glaring with hatred and fury.
She couldn't imagine this deep, calm voice spitting venom.
She couldn't imagine these delicate hands stained with blood.
She just couldn't.
The end of chapter 1.
The next chapter: The boy with X-ray eyes