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Time Travel Tango, or, Rasa and the Cat

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When Kankuro wakes up it's in a room he doesn't recognize with a view from the window he does.

Only problem is the Playhouse's storage facility was torn down eight years before the war began.

---

It isn't a genjutsu, or if it is he's in some deep shit because it's the best fucking genjutsu he's ever been caught in.

The bed is solid. The credentials in the desk are also solid. It's his face in the picture but the name isn't his- Kazuo. Puppeteer Brigade name Cat.

Kankuro remembers Kazuo.

Like the playhouse's warehouse, he's long gone.

---

It's the past.

It has to be the past.

Kankuro wanders the streets and everything is so familiar and yet so strange. Here is the playground. Here is the public mall. Here is the Kazekage's office and here-

here is a man walking by him, a slender blonde with gentle eyes, being dragged by a tiny redhead who wants a turn on the swingset.

There are the children, scattering in all directions.

Kankuro feels his spine turn to ice.

---

Three days pass and Kankuro Makes A Decision.

He's checked the calendar. If he's right he has six months before all hell officially breaks loose.

And it's not going to.

Not on his watch.

He can't get home, can't find anything in the libraries that might explain how the fuck he wound up here or how the fuck he can get back.

(There's a small part of him that is freaking the hell out, screaming about Gaara and Temari and the fight he has left behind and Kankuro knows that shutting that tiny part up isn't healthy in the long run but damn it he doesn't have the time.)

Kankuro goes digging in the Playhouse archives, unearths the books of Hero designs. He decides to go with Prince Shigamura the Mountain-Mover.

Red, of course.

(Purple would be a dead giveaway, wouldn't it? He didn't wake up with his purple paint. Didn't wake up with paint at all.)

It's not a hard design- two swoops up the forehead, three swoops down each cheek, and a half-moon on the chin. It's not normal for day to day wear to go full hog with the white base coat, but Kankuro's feeling both fancy and desperate.

When you're doing something as incredibly stupid as changing a past or a really fucking good genjutsu imitating the past, you want the backup of a man who moves mountains.

---

Getting close to Gaara is a task and a half.

Mainly because of Yashamaru.

Who, before he off and killed himself, was one of the best Suna Black Sands that Rasa had. Yashamaru cooks for Gaara, he babysits Gaara, he tutors Gaara insomuch as a five year old can be tutored, and most importantly he keeps Gaara away from the general populace as much as possible.

Kankuro can understand, really, he can. You don't want a kid with a badly-sealed demon just wandering off.

Doesn't make it any less of a shit idea.

Doesn't mean it didn't cause deep and lasting damage.

Doesn't mean he doesn't plan on fucking Yashamaru's program up as soon as possible. Gaara helps in that aspect. Gaara's good at wandering away from supervision. Always has been.

Like that time he wandered off to try and help that little girl he hurt.

(Kankuro won't lie to himself it's sheer luck that puts him on the street when she slams the door in his near literal baby brother's face and a part of him itches to drag her out by her ankles and teach her a lesson the ungrateful little brat.)

(but she's scared and he understands that, too.)

When Gaara's shoulders begin to slump, Kankuro moseys up to him. He can pinpoint five Black Sand nin in a starburst pattern on the surrounding rooftops.

He knows there's a sixth and he knows it's Yashamaru, because what feels like a cat in the next alleyway can't possibly be one.

Animals hated Gaara when he was small.

"Hey." Kankuro says, and Gaara tenses even more. "Are you okay?"

Gaara turns and his big green eyes are full of tears and he says "Why is everyone afraid of me?"

It takes everything in Kankuro to crouch like a friendly stranger and say, "People are afraid of what they can't understand."

Gaara sniffles.

"Hey. You tried. That counts for something."

More sniffles.

"Things is, you gotta keep trying." Kankuro straightens up. "Aren't you a little young to be out this late alone?"

Gaara sniffles some more. "''m not alone."

No, you're not, Kankuro thinks, and he says, "Okay. I'll see you around."

Walking away is so hard he has to drink himself to sleep.

---

Working the Mat Against The Wall is one of Kankuro's favorite things.

He'll never admit it- always told Temari he hated kids- but with just the right application of chakra strings and a few good stern looks, plus an invested audience, a guy could have a lot of fun entertaining the brats while their parents shopped.

Kankuro always lamented that Mat duty was taken away from him when he became Troupe Master. Cat, it seems, is assigned twice a week.

More than ample time for Kankuro to find Yashamaru's chosen path through the market, to make sure Gaara sees him, to tempt his brother in with just the right story.

Bless Yashamaru but the man can't deny Gaara anything. Kankuro does his best to keep the other children entertained, to be sure that they don't glance behind them at the shy redhead clinging to his uncle's pantleg. There's a genjutsu at play to keep the adults from seeing Gaara, Kankuro is certain of it.

His heart breaks just a little more for his Uncle, for his dead mother, for the whole cursed situation.

At the crescendo of the story, Kankuro strategically loses a puppet.

The Teaseller goes flying and the spell of his story is broken by Gaara picking the little wooden carving up.

The other children tense.

Gaara looks at them, and at Kankuro.

Kankuro holds out a hand.

Gaara looks up at Yashamaru. Yashamaru nods.

Gaara carefully, carefully, walks through the widening path the other listeners are making by shuffling away.

He puts the Teaseller in Kankuro's outstretched palm.

"Thank you." Kankuro says, and Gaara smiles.

---

"You're too good a puppeteer to lose control like that."

Kankuro looks Yashamaru over from the doorway of the little shed where puppeteers on Mat duty store their belongings. "Maybe." He says.

There is something in Yashamaru's eyes. Kankuro would call it hope but it is quickly squashed. "Gaara-sama would like to know your name." He says.

"Cat." Kankuro replies. "This one calls himself Cat."

It's an old, formal way of speaking. It dates all the way back to Monzeimon, and it's how a puppeteer shows utmost respect.

Does Yashamaru know this?

Maybe.

Yashamaru nods. "I'll tell him." He promises.

Kankuro is surprised to find he believes his uncle.

---

Gaara comes twice a week, and Kankuro makes sure there is room for him.

A few of the children stop shuffling away.

Then the full moon happens.

---

"Where?" Kankuro asks, and he's gratified to find that Yashamaru doesn't pull a kunai or in any other fashion try to go for his jugular, despite the fact that he just appeared out of midair in a part of the village that has been strategically emptied.

"Follow me." He says.

Kankuro does.

---

The next morning, Gaara cries over Kankuro's sand burns. Yashamaru examines Kankuro's face.

"Your paint is still on." He says.

"Jutsu incident as a child," Kankuro says, and lets Gaara slather balm all over his arms.

---

It doesn't take Rasa very long after Kankuro departs Gaara's rooms to find him.

Kankuro forgets, sometimes, how overpowering his father can be.

Even without the damn robes on.

(Never forgets how he looks, though; all he needs is a mirror for that.)

"Kazekage-sama." Kankuro says and keeps his head down because the last thing he needs is Rasa examining the lines of his face and seeing through Prince Shigamura.

"Yashamaru tells me your name is Cat." Rasa says. It is spoken with a hint of a sneer. Rasa does not like puppeteers.

"It is." Kankuro says.

"He tells me I have you to thank for stopping a rampage."

Kankuro shakes his head. "I did very little, Kazekage-sama. Your son," he stresses the word son, "contained himself."

(Gaara did, after a fashion, but he's only five for crying out loud any manner of control is a miracle and a gift.)

"That kind of bravery is commendable." Rasa says, ignoring or mentally filing away Kankuro's little snit.

Knowing his father? Probably both.

And Kankuro does know Rasa, knows him well.

"Report to my office this evening." Rasa says.

Kankuro inclines his head. "As you wish, Kazekage-sama." He says.

He waits for Rasa to be well away before allowing himself a satisfied smirk.

---

"You are a Jounin of the Puppet Brigade, yes?"

"Yes, Kazekage-sama."

"A fair amount of successful missions. Lady Chiyo speaks well of you."

Kankuro doesn't snort but he wants to. "I'm flattered Lady Chiyo remembers me. She always told me I was hopeless."

Kankuro doesn't know if Chiyo ever said such a thing to Kazuo, but she certainly said it to him.

Rasa turns a page in Kankuro-as-Kazuo's file. "Currently on Mat duty. What did you do to deserve that?"

"I told Dragon precisely what he could do with his favorite puppet, Kazekage-sama." Kankuro said.

Rasa's smile is tiny but it is there.

"And if I were to override this punishment?"

"I am at your service, Kazekage-sama." Kankuro says.

Rasa's grin grows wider.

---

Are there rules about time travel and paradoxes?

If there are Kankuro's certain he's about to break all of them because he is holding a file and it is his file, the him that is snot-nosed with thieving little hands, hiding in the deepest darkest room in the whole of the Kazekage's citadel. He's read it so many times he could recite every tutor's review and examination result. Almost all of it matches up, bar a few missions.

Rasa is impressed with Cat's quote 'resolve'.

Rasa wants Cat to leave the Playhouse and teach his oldest son Kankuro, filling out a talent roster that due mostly to Lady Chiyo's spite has gone unfulfilled.

(there's technically no mention of keeping a rein on Gaara but Kankuro learned reading between the lines from the best of them.)

"How the fuck?" Kankuro asks his room. The puppets in the corner don't answer him.

He takes a deep breath.

He'll figure it out.

---

 

Baki is almost as imposing as Kankuro remembers.

Almost because Kankuro knows all of his secrets now, and it's easy for Cat to smile like he caught the canary at the sour look on the Wind Sword's face.

"I take it you don't like the orders, Baki-san?" He asks.

Baki looks away. He has not, will not, admit to hating orders. Baki is a soldier through and through. He obeys.

"I am not in need of help." Baki says.

"Perhaps not," Yashamaru replies from the stove where he is making tea, "but it is a most fascinating assignment."

"Three teachers is two too many." Baki says. "Not to discredit your credentials, Yashamaru."

Yashamaru inclines his head.

"There is also the matter of- Gaara's.."

"Lack of control?" Kankuro supplies.

Baki nods.

"So three teachers is plenty." Kankuro says. "One to leash the demon, one to teach the boy, one to watch the backs of the other two."

Kankuro jerks a thumb at Baki. "That's you, by the way."

Baki growls.

Yashamaru shakes his head and brings the tea.

---

Kankuro meets Kankuro.

Or, more precisely, Kankuro tries to chakra-wrap Cat's ankles as he ascends the stairs for their first official meeting, and Cat tangles his strings with Kankuro's and flips the boy upside-down in midair.

"That one's so old it creaks." He says to his dangling younger self.

Kankuro flips Cat off and already he is trying to straighten his strings out and break the connection. A natural.

Cat grins. "Oh don't be like that or I won't show you the good stuff."

Kankuro looks both curious and suspicious, which Cat can appreciate. "The good stuff?"

"Come meet your brother." Cat says, setting Kankuro down on his feet. "We'll talk."

---

Temari is cautious and Cat can't blame her. With Yashamaru hovering like a nervous hen and Baki grumbling in the background it's easy to see all three of them go tense as overstretched puppet strings.

Cat kicks Baki and Yashamaru out of the room, on the excuse of "They know both of you but nothing about me so we're going to break the ice."

He closes the door on Baki muttering about there being no ice in the desert and he heaves a sigh.

When he turns around, Kankuro and Temari are watching Gaara like a poisonous snake.

Gaara is clinging tightly to the front of his poncho (he was not allowed to bring his bear) and is nibbling his lip.

"Sit down." Cat says.

Temari obeys, so does Gaara. Kankuro is slower but he does it, keeping one eye on Cat and the other on the door.

Cat pulls up a chair, sits on it backwards. He looks them over.

They stare back.

"Does your paint come off?" Temari asks in the silence.

Cat chuckles. "That's for me to know and you to never find out."

There are a thousand other ways he knows he could have done this- could have sparked this one moment. Any one of them would be less annoying than what he knows is coming.

Still, it's worth it. It's worth it to see Temari's sidelong-glance at Kankuro, to see the both of them eye Gaara speculatively, perhaps wondering what he can offer in this newest escapade.

It's worth it to see Gaara seeing them, and to see him smile.

---

In the bathroom of a suite cordoned off from his charges by a hallway and a locked door, Cat stares at himself in the mirror.

"Stop," he orders his reflection, "being such a goddamn baby."

It's just hair. He's toyed with the idea of dying it before, on the bad days when he looks at himself and all he can see is a dead man. He'd never done it because there had always been more important things to do, and then there was a war on and. well.

Cat wishes, ardently, for his sister. She would laugh in his face and help with the bottles. He knows he could go to one of the few professionals in Suna, could even ask another puppeteer to help with the work- he'd done it enough, especially for Rooster.

Cat wonders if Rooster is alive, in the future he may or may not come from.

He can't ask another puppeteer. That would require he return to the playhouse and Chiyo's favorites have made it clear how they feel about one of their own breaking ranks and obeying the Kazekage's command.

Besides that all it would take is one seeing through Prince Shigamura, one connecting the dots, and this whole house of fortune cards would come tumbling down.

So, back to the matter at hand.

Cat glares at the bottles of black dye, glares at his hands and tries to glare inwards at his mewling little conscience which is muttering under its breath about how troublesome everything is.

Keeping a full performance face on around the Kazekage's children- and his foremost Wind user, and his black ops brother in law- will be a chore. He can't afford to worry about his hood slipping off.

Hiding the scent of the dye and the fact that it is dyed at all will be child's play in comparison.

Cat puts on the gloves included in the kit and takes one last look at his ordinary, boring brown hair.

Much less pretty than golden blonde, much less interesting than a bloody red.

When Cat is done, everything is matte and smells like chemicals. The man who looks at him could be a puppeteer named Kazuo, with pretty eyes and a wide mouth. Certainly not a man named Kankuro, from a ruined future. Certainly not a master puppeteer lost without his Kazekage.

Certainly not a terrified boy cleverly disguised as a master ninja.

Cat uses a fire jutsu his brother in law taught him to get rid of the evidence, and keeps the window open that night to help with the fumes. He's certain the same jutsu that keeps his paint on can be applied to his hair. Why not? It's all just stage makeup, anyway.

---

It takes a couple false starts but together the three teachers work out a schedule. Baki handles basic chakra control and taijutsu. Yashamaru works with memorization and strategy. Cat teaches genjutsu and the finer points of stealth and misdirection. Together they run their team through drills, testing teamwork and adaptability.

When it comes to their specialties, they separate- Baki to Temari, Cat to Kankuro, Yashamaru to Gaara.

"It should be the Kazekage." Cat says to Yashamaru after a spectacular meltdown reduced Gaara to tears and Temari and Kankuro to an amazingly efficient game of hide and seek.

Yashamaru shakes his head. "The Kazekage-"

"Is their father, and responsible for this mess." Cat replies.

Yashamaru says nothing and neither does Baki.

Cat knows they agree.

---

When Kankuro tries for the nicer cogs in Cat's tool kit he finds himself trapped in the belly of a tiger puppet.

He stays still and breathes through his shirt.

"Smart." he hears his sensei say. "But you're still pressing up against poisoned wood."

Kankuro jerks and the tiger opens its maw and vomits the boy back onto the hand-hooked rug. Cat sits on the desk and quirks a scarlet brow at him.

"You know we could just go to the warehouses." He says. "You're the Kazekage's son. You have the money."

Kankuro doesn't look at Cat. He dusts himself off.

"You didn't poison the belly." He says.

"And how did you know that?" Cat asks.

"No residue. No smell."

Cat smiles and it makes Kankuro nervous. "There are poisons that leave neither." He straightens up.

"This is the third time I've caught you." He says. "You're sloppy. Overeager. You let the rush take over and the excitement overrides your mission and your common sense. That can get you killed, get your teammates killed."

Kankuro shrinks in on himself with each word until he's practically a little house-god statue fit to be left on a stoop to ward off sandstorms.

"But."

Kankuro blinks.

"There are better ways."

Something in his teacher's tone makes Kankuro finally meet his eyes.

"You know they can't be rude to you and make you feel small if they never know you were there." Cat says.

Kankuro's eyes go wide as the tiger puppet stands and pads around his Sensei, growling just like the real thing.

"Ever been on a raid, Kankuro?" Cat asks.

---

They bring back enough pieces for Kankuro to really start to work on his puppets, plus a better series of tools and chisels to get the job done. Cat allows the pilfered wood and hard clay panels, even allows for the lifting of a set or two of the fine glass eyes that channel chakra for particularly clever puppeteers but he draws the line at a hood.

"Why?" Kankuro asks him later as they stow their haul in his room.

"Because you earn that." Cat says.

"They won't let me." Kankuro whispers.

"Then you take it, kid." Cat replies. "You make them regret every second they made you feel like you didn't belong."

It's exactly what Kankuro needs to hear and Cat revels in that.

Screw paradoxes.

---

The first time Gaara really loses control in front of Temari and Kankuro, there's a near-sand coffin involved.

Neither of the children are in it.

Cat is, though.

He expands his lungs as much as he can, keeps his arms tight and falls into a well remembered breathing pattern. Yashamaru is talking and Baki has put himself between them, prepared to kill or be killed to defend their charges.

Yashamaru has run out of words and around him sand is starting to swirl. It isn't lifting, isn't heating to clear and deadly glass, but all it takes is a millisecond.

Unfortunately, it takes less than a millisecond for a fist to close.

"What do you want, Gaara?"

Cat's voice rings out clear and even despite the sand squeezing his ribcage.

Gaara clutches at his forehead. "B-blood." He whispers. "I want-"

"That's what he wants," Cat replies. "What do YOU want, boy?"

Gaara's little green eyes widen and so do Yashamaru's. Cat can't see Baki's face but he's willing to bet it's the 'Sand save me he's going to get us all killed' face.

A moment passes. Two.

"A hug."

Gaara's whisper is soft, ashamed.

The sand around Cat's chest drops.

Yashamaru looks like he's been punched. Cat strides forward and crouches down.

He hugs Gaara gently, aware of the sand grains dancing over his skin. Very much aware of how much damage they can do, very suddenly.

Gaara sniffs and Cat makes a decision.

---

Yashamaru was not happy with Cat's idea.

When he wakes up, he will become aware of how not-happy he is, likely after he finds something for the splitting headache that sleepy cactus tends to give a victim.

(Clearly Yashamaru needs to brush up on his poison detection, but it's worked out in Cat's favor so he can't really complain. He can't blame Yashamaru for not being on the ball. Who's stupid enough to try and poison the Glass Hawk of Suna?

Aside from Cat. Obviously.)

"There is a demon sealed inside of you," Cat says to Gaara, sitting on the floor so that he is near face to face with the boy. "You didn't ask for it, and it wasn't done right, but it can't be undone."

That's a lie. It can be undone, and Cat has seen it undone. In this world, Gaara doesn't need to know. In this world, things can be different.

Gaara looks down at his little hands, looks up at Cat.

"So it's not me they're scared of?" He whispers.

There's so much hope in those words that Cat almost does it, almost snatches his brother away and escapes out the window, to Konoha or to the Land of Waves, maybe through Rain and up to the Land of Flowers. Anywhere but here, in this harsh desert.

He knows he can't do that, knows he can't take Gaara from Temari and Kankuro.

"No." He says. "It's not you." He makes sure to look Gaara in the eye. "It will never be you."

---

If Yashamaru was unhappy, Rasa is furious.

Cat wasted no time in responding to the summons, and he lets the Kazekage rage insomuch as Rasa can rage, which is to say a lot of very pointed speaking while around him tiny particles of gold flicker like dust.

Control was and is Rasa's finest prize.

In a lull, Cat looks at the Kazekage and says, "How can you train a tool if it doesn't know where its cutting blade is?"

The fight doesn't necessarily go out of Rasa, but Cat knows he was always good at seeing through his anger. It is what made him the Leader Suna needed, in the dry times.

"You want Gaara to be a tool for the village." Cat continues, and Rasa has ceased his stalking behind the desk and is watching carefully. One false move and Cat knows it's his life- whatever life he's living, in this strange and not so distant past.

"Gaara cannot be an efficient tool for Suna if he does not care for Suna, and as he sees it all of Suna is afraid of him." Cat continues. "For now he's a bewildered boy, but someday he will not be so small, and his confusion will turn to hate."

"Hate can be powerful." Rasa says.

"When properly harnessed, I agree, Kazekage-sama." Cat counters.

"You think Gaara is not properly harnessed." Rasa does not phrase it as a question.

This is dangerous. Cat knows he should back down, should think carefully. He's manipulated peace treaties, dried the ink on tribal alliances, and managed units of ninja from the five great nations with the art of his puppetry.

Cat does not think carefully nor does he back down.

"You do not want to be their father." Cat says. Gold flickers at the edges of his vision. "Then be their Kazekage."

Rasa hasn't sat down, but he's got his hands on the back of the chair. Cat is grimly satisfied by the fact that the Kazekage can't seem to look him in the eye. Rasa says, "Expand. Now."

"You are their leader." Cat says. "They will fight and bleed and die in your name. Guide them. Yashamaru's talent lies in glass, not sand. Gaara is the single finest sand manipulator our village has ever seen, next to you. You want a weapon? Sharpen it."

"They do not need to be coddled."

"No, they do not," Cat agrees, carefully ignoring the fact that the conversation has moved from Gaara to all three children. "Yet the fact remains if they are to be your tools, they must be tools with absolute loyalty. There is a seed there already, they are your children. Now make them your swords."

Rasa is quiet for a very long time.

"You are dismissed." He says, and Cat bows low and leaves without turning back.

---

Sparring with Yashamaru is an Experience.

One Cat is happy to barely survive.

"You," he says to Yashamaru as he ducks another glass kunai, "need to work on your anger issues."

Fifteen more come flying and he bends around them with ease- spine like a cat, ha ha- and he draws in close.

Yashamaru isn't expecting that from a puppeteer and Cat presses the advantage with kicks that suit his longer legs, keeping his hands well away.

"Why?" Yashamaru spits when they are kunai-to-kunai. "Why does he listen to you?!"

"Because if he listens to you, it hurts too much." Cat says.

The match ends in a draw only because Baki comes down to break it up. He doesn't say to either of them that the children were watching but Cat knows they were. He spends the night in his rooms and lets Yashamaru fume for three days.

On day number four, the three teachers talk and come to an inevitable conclusion.

"The Kazekage is going to kill us." Baki says as Yashamaru pours tea.

"Probably." Cat agrees. "It was an honor serving with you."

"The Kazekage doesn't need to know." Yashamaru's words are frosty and clipped but Cat grins at him anyway.

---

Coming right out and telling Temari and Kankuro that their brother is the vessel for a blood-hungry demon doesn't seem like a brilliant idea.

Yet it helps.

It helps because Temari has always been a reader, something Baki cultivates in her. She has hunted down every scroll she can find, has harassed and bullied and sweetly smiled her way into the possession of some of the most dangerous and subversive materials in all of Suna.

She reads them aloud to Gaara who props himself up on pillows and holds his bear to his chest. Kankuro listens, too, spread out on the floor with cogs and pins and wooden panels creating a makeshift minefield about him.

"We should put a stop to it," Yashamaru says from where he stands by the door. Baki is at the window, Cat leaning on the opposite wall. "That isn't information we share with even jounin. The forbidden jutsus alone..."

"It's important to them." Baki says. "They are a team."

Cat says nothing. He listens as Kankuro sits up and asks his brother if the voice in his head sounds different than his own. Gaara confesses that it does.

"Then we gotta call it something else." Kankuro says. "Its thoughts are different, right? So there's, there's Gaara thoughts and then there's-" a moment's pause. "Sand rat thoughts."

"Sand rat?!" Temari sounds outraged. "It's a tanuki, Kankuro, not a desert mouse!"

"I like mice." Gaara confesses. "They're small and soft."

"But I bet you don't like rats." Kankuro says triumphantly. "Sand rat it is!"

"I can't believe you're the son of a Kazekage," Temari mutters, but their teachers can hear her lopsided smirk.

---

Rasa doesn't know what to do with children, and the children don't know what to do with him. Enough time has passed that Temari and Kankuro are suspicious. The father they once knew is long gone and this stranger is not welcome in the tiny universe which has been made up of them, their sometimes-scary brother, and their teachers.

Gaara a mishmash of emotions which include awe and terror. Cat counts himself lucky that 'hatred' is not yet on that list.

Yashamaru takes pity on his Kazekage after fifteen minutes of lackluster observation and guides Gaara through a basic sand shuriken jutsu.

Rasa imitates it, his shuriken intercepting Gaara's in the air.

Gaara's shuriken don't stand a chance. They crumble.

Gaara looks down. Temari and Kankuro both hold their breath.

Cat pretends he imagines Rasa looking at him before saying to his son, "If you draw more hard minerals from your sand, your shuriken will stick together better. I'll have Baki find the requisite scrolls."

Gaara lights up like a candle in the dark.

Yashamaru releases the breath he has been holding, Baki relaxes incrementally.

Cat thinks he needs a drink.

---

"The Kazekage is spending a lot of time with Gaara." Temari observes.

"It only makes sense, Temari-sama." Yashamaru tells her as he dishes out their rice. "After all, his talent is similar to Gaara's."

Kankuro shovels rice into his mouth and doesn't say anything. When he tries to make the saltshaker tip over into Baki's rice, it rights itself. He sticks his tongue out at a stone-faced Cat.

Gaara rolls his napkin up into a little ball.

---

"He hates me."

Kankuro says this over the pieces of his practice puppet, which has been completely obliterated. It was a tough match- the toughest Cat has ever put him through, because the Trials are soon and sometimes Kankuro spends too much time reinventing the wheel instead of following his instincts.

"He doesn't hate you." Cat says.

"Yes he does. He wanted it to be me. He didn't want Temari cause' she's a girl but then I didn't have sand or wind or anything I could just, just-"

A needle flies through the air with exacting precision, hitting a faraway target with ease. Kankuro releases the chakra string. Cat measures the distance with a thumb, gives a minute nod of approval, water in the scorching sun to his tired sad student.

"He hates me and he hates Temari and he has to hate Gaara." Kankuro muttered.

"Do you hate Gaara?" Cat kneels down beside Kankuro, watches him watch the pieces of his puppet.

Kankuro doesn't answer. Cat helps him pick up the pieces and gets him some paper.

He leaves Kankuro to draw blueprints.

---

The soap-and-water trick has proven powerless against Prince Shigamura and the siblings are starting to resort to desperate measures.

"There's sand stuck to your paint." Yashamaru tells Cat. Cat shrugs.

"But did Gaara sneak up on you properly?" Baki asks, because one has to be constantly evaluating one's students. Cat shakes his head. "He was too loud on the wood. He's too used to walking in sand or on stucco."

Yashamaru makes a note in his ever-present notebook. Cat wipes the sand off and eats his breakfast.

"When are you going to let them out of the closet?" Yashamaru asks.

"When Kankuro figures out how I tied the lock shut." Cat says. "Or Temari can make a wind gust small enough to mangle it, I suppose."

"Now that sounds like an efficient training method." Baki is impressed. Yashamaru is not.

---

On Temari's birthday she receives a handmade silk fan from her brothers, a new set of kunai from Baki, a book on the legends of the Demon Desert from Yashamaru, and cosmetics from Cat.

"What are these for?" She asks, and while Baki looks murderously on Cat replies, "I'll show you."

The gift from the Kazekage arrives that evening. It is a new tessen, to fit a growing Wind Mistress. Temari, still blinking at the feel of the black paste on her eyelashes, strokes the steel with a proprietary grin.

---

 

When they send Kankuro for the Trials at the Playhouse, Cat does his best to pretend he's not nervous.

"He'll do fine," Yashamaru promises, and Cat says, "I know," and he does know but that doesn't make it any better.

He sits on the rooftop of the Kazekage tower and Gaara soon joins him.

"You're worried." Gaara says, and Cat nods.

"Why?"

"I remember my Trials." Cat says. "I was terrified."

Terrified and angry because he had fought so hard and so long and still they looked at him like he was trash, like he didn't belong. He didn't belong anywhere.

"You're not scared of anything." Gaara protests, and Cat laughs. "Maybe not now," he says, "but I was."

The Trials last from sun up to sun down, and in that time Cat teaches Temari and Gaara how to properly apply kohl, gets scolded by Yashamaru for getting kohl all over the children's' living space, shows Yashamaru how to clean kohl up and successfully manages to get kohl all over Baki's face drape.

When Cat spots a little figure in black walking down the street, wearing the apprentice's cowl for the first time, his heart catches in his throat.

He lets Gaara and Temari run to the door first. When it opens he hears a clicking noise, and it is so familiar and at the same time so foreign. None of the puppets he has used since arriving sound quite the same.

"Wow." Gaara whispers in the silence, and Kankuro grins at him. His paint-purple, of course, the son of a Kazekage must wear purple- makes his mouth a little wider, makes him look a little meaner. The puppet hanging on his back is opening and closing its jaw, three eyes rolling in all directions.

"Showoff," Temari says, but she's smiling too.

"Congratulations, Kankuro." Yashamaru says, and Baki nods. Kankuro smiles at Yashamaru and nods to Baki like the adult he wants to pretend to be.

Then he looks to Cat.

Cat makes a single smooth gesture and the puppet he's been affectionately calling Tabby emerges from the seals stitched into his sleeves, hanging from his back like Kankuro's is, claws emerging from carefully carved sheathes to knead at the air.

Kankuro bows, and Cat bows back.

"This one," Kankuro says, "Calls himself Crow."

---

They have a small party which they don't call a party because it's no minor thing that Kankuro gained a name and a puppet in his first Trials.

Cat remembers a similar party, given only by Temari, who did her best to smile for him.

This time there is Yashamaru, and there is Baki, and there is Gaara who is carefully molding sand around Karasu's face, doing his best to make it look like Temari.

After the ogure dumplings and the sweet wine, after hanging Karasu up on his hooks, Cat is not surprised when Kankuro comes to find him on the roof.

"Why do you like the roof so much?" Kankuro asks, and Cat says, "I never used to. But my brother loved it. So I got to loving it, too."

Kankuro tentatively feels the two pointed tips of his apprentice hood. "It feels weird." He says. "Heavy."

"That's because you earned it." Cat says. "The things you earn, they're always heavier than the things you take."

"I'm never gonna be like Gaara." Kankuro says.

"Why would you be?" Cat asks.

"Gaara's special." Kankuro says. "A scary kind of special."

"Yes he is," Cat acknowledges, "and a scary kind of special needs a focused older brother."

Kankuro sits down beside Cat. "What about your brother?"

"I worry about him all the time." Cat says. "He had a hard time growing up. I think, is he scared, is he sick, does he need me? But we're both adults now. He doesn't need me like he did."

The sorrow stabs him unexpectedly and he boxes it up so that Kankuro can't see because Cat knows that Kankuro will.

"Will Gaara need me?" Kankuro asks.

"He'll always need you," Cat replies, and he hopes he's right.

---

"Whose idea was it to take the mission on the boat?" Cat asks Temari as Baki hurls over the side for the fourth time in two hours.

"I think it was Uncle Yashamaru." Temari says brightly. "Feel that breeze!"

"Mmmhm." Cat mutters. Kankuro hangs over the railing and Gaara hangs on to him, convinced he's going to lose his brother over the side. His gourd is stored safely below, lest any salt water get shifty ideas about wet sand.

"I hear that the island we're going to makes a fantastic coconut soup." Yashamaru says when he sits down beside Temari. Baki groans.

"Look Gaara!" Kankuro says. "Dolphins!"

"They look delicious," Gaara says, and all three teachers converge on him before he can summon his sand.

---

Cat stays for the dressing-down because he needs to hear it. Baki stays because he's a soldier and getting yelled at is pretty much his job. Yashamaru stays for his niece and nephews.

Temari is standing at complete attention and Cat watches the minute twitches in her shoulders with each word the Kazekage speaks. Gaara might as well be a statue. The only part of Kankuro that is moving are his fingers, hidden by his parade rest stance.

"-and furthermore, your actions were foolhardy and unbecoming of ninja of the Sand. I expect and demand better of my soldiers and my children."

An echoing silence fills the room.

"That being said." Rasa clears his throat. "I am pleased that all three of you made it back alive. It would be a blow to Suna to lose you. You are dismissed. I will be discussing punishment with your teachers."

They march out in time. Cat can see the wonder in their eyes. He makes a note to tell them about it. You need to be able to control what's in your eyes.

He can't blame them, though.

The Kazekage did call them his children.

---

It's a Bad Night and Yashamaru stays outside of Gaara's door, one hand on a kunai. Cat sits with him. Baki is further down the stairs. He will send word on the wind, should anything happen.

"I hate Rasa sometimes." Yashamaru whispers.

Buddy, Cat thinks, join the club.

---

Kankuro's arm is broken and it's all Temari's fault.

Well, Temari and her fledgling windsurfing skills.

"I didn't mean to drop him!" She keeps repeating until Yashamaru gently smacks her out of it. Baki isn't smiling and it's taking all of his concentration to do it. Cat reminds himself to tell Temari the story of Baki's first windsurfing disaster and examines an unimpressed and bedbound-until-cleared Kankuro.

"This is perfect." Cat says to his sullen apprentice puppeteer. "You can improve your strings with your left hand and Gaara can work on replicating gears in sand."

"Gears?" Gaara asks and Cat just grins.

---

The siblings spar against the Kazekage and Cat watches with his heart in his throat.

They're going all out, showing impressive teamwork. There's not a hint of murderous intent from Gaara but Cat knows that there are Black Sands in every corner, just in case.

When the Sand Coffin rises around Rasa Yashamaru tenses.

The coffin turns to gold and Cat swears he can hear Gaara repeating things he's heard in the lower markets on outings Cat definitely does NOT encourage or chaperone, Yashamaru, honestly, who do you take me for?

Temari clears the sand from the gold with a blast of air before Rasa catches her ankle. Karasu sends a rain of poisoned needles and one of those needles is Kankuro, full body tackling his father and knocking Temari free. A sand cloud gathers up both siblings and they fall back with Gaara, maintaining taijutsu stances they know from repetition, not necessarily execution.

The match isn't even close but Cat can tell by the crease at the edge of Rasa's mouth that progress has been made.

He ruffles Gaara's hair and the sand doesn't do a damn thing.

----

"I have to give you points for inspiration," Cat says to his students as he wipes the last of the lotion away, revealing a perfect Prince Shigamura underneath. "but faulty execution."

Kankuro throws his hands up in the air. Temari asks, without bothering to look embarrassed, "Why do you never change it?"

Cat thinks.

"Because," he says, "This face gives me hope."

---

Temari is triumphant and they are all there to see.

"THIS IS THE COOLEST THING EVER!" Kankuro calls across the expanse. Hanging onto Baki's waist and riding his invisible surfboard of air Cat nods in agreement. Temari grins and an updraft pushes her fan, with herself and her brother on it, to new heights.

"Keep an eye on the thermal, Temari!" Baki barks.

Comfortable on a cloud of sand a few yards off Yashamaru is smiling. Gaara is smiling, too. Beneath them the desert is painted pink and gold, red and orange, blue and gray and soft sage green.

Harsh and unforgiving, beautiful as death.

---

The Elder Council are making noise about testing Gaara's control again and Baki is at his wits' end.

"Every time I'm called in it's the same." He says to Yashamaru and Cat. "They think he's ready."

"He's not." Yashamaru said. "He might never be."

"We can't put it off forever." Cat replies. "Eventually they're going to want to see if Rasa gave them a weapon and once they're done bothering Baki they're going to bother Gaara. And he'll say yes."

There is a moment of silence.

"We ask him." They all say together.

---

Kankuro and Temari are against it but Gaara is thinking about it and Cat feels his throat close when the youngest agrees.

"If I can't do it now," he says, "I have learned nothing."

They are immensely proud of him and immensely afraid for him. When Yashamaru returns from relaying Gaara's decision to Rasa, Cat knows that the Kazekage feels the same.

Cat isn't sure he likes this, knowing how Rasa feels.

---

Showing a shriveled up group of war hawks that a child has control over a demon is not the same as an exhibition bout but people try to gather anyway.

Cat thinks at first that the killing intent that makes them keep walking is Yashamaru, but another glance confirms that it is Rasa, radiating menace.

The targets are bandits stupid enough to try for a disguised caravan of ninja, brought into Sand tied up like animals for slaughter.

Which is exactly what they are.

Yashamaru and Baki both gave impassioned speeches over the targets. Baki declared that a face worm would have been a better choice. Yashamaru was for anything that wasn't human shaped. They were over-ruled.

There was talk of disguising puppets as humans. It had been Kankuro's idea. Unfeasible, but creative all the same.

Five bodies in and Gaara is struggling but he's hanging on.

Then there is a Moment.

Cat recognizes it. He sees the flash of yellow, hears the growl. All around him ninja tense up, getting read to fight.

Cat remains stock-still.

You can do it.

He won't move. He decides that, then and there. Should this be the moment that all of their hard work falls apart, he will die with Gaara. He owes the boy that much.

The Moment passes with a shake of Gaara's head, and bandits six through ten die as quickly and as painlessly as he can manage- to thwart his demon? Probably. Gaara can be as vindictive as Temari.

"If the Council is satisfied?" Rasa asks.

No one says anything. It's good to see the old bastards speechless.

---

When Orochimaru shows his face, Temari says, "I don't like him."

"Neither do I." Kankuro agrees.

Gaara doesn't say anything but the sand in his gourd rattles.

---

Rasa paces and says, "He's up to something."

"Leaf is our ally." Baki says.

"But," Yashamaru points out, "there is the matter of our missions drying up. The Third Hokage has been growing fat on work that should be ours."

Baki is shaking his head. "That's so," he admits, "but this- Lord Kazekage this kind of plan is-"

"Anything that will save our village from ruin is no longer beneath us, Baki." Rasa says curtly. "Cat. You've been quiet."

Cat looks from his two colleagues to the Kazekage.

"We can't warn Konoha now." He says. "We're in too deep."

Rasa nods. "But?" He prompts.

"But," Cat says carefully, "if we work slowly- if we do our best- we can thwart the snake and steal the larder key back from Konoha in one blow."

"Prevent the invasion from the inside?" Yashamaru is looking contemplative and sneaky. It's a look he shared with his sister, one Temari has inherited.

"If nothing else Konoha will be thankful we upheld our alliance," Baki points out. "and negotiations for missions rights won't be so thorny."

"We keep the useful ally and dump the dead weight." Cat says.

"I see your opinion on Otokagure is not favorable." Rasa says.

"Not in the slightest." Cat agrees.

"I'll see what I can do with the Council." Rasa says, and they are dismissed.

---

It's the first A class mission they have ever been given where all three members of the team are of equal importance, and Kankuro and Cat sit with the Book of Faces.

"I didn't know there were so many." Kankuro admits as he turns another page. Each is marked with a painted mask.

"Every character, no matter how minor, has a page." Cat says.

They turn, and turn.

"Hey look, Shigamura!" Kankuro examines the design. "It looks different on you." He looks at Cat. "More, I don't know. noble?"

Cat snorts. "If you think flattery will get you out of training tomorrow morning you've got another thing coming."

"Worth a shot." Kankuro points out. He turns another page.

In the end he picks Genkuro the Fox. Crafty, quick, an escape artist.

Cat knows he should talk to Kankuro, should give him the 'pick the second face, never the first' lesson that every puppeteer learns. He doesn't. He's in no position to talk.

He helps Kankuro practice for three days to get it just right.

---

"You know the worst part?" Cat hears Kankuro say to Temari, walking down the street with Gaara between them holding flowers for Rock Lee, still in the hospital.

(Figures that Lee would go and startle Gaara this time, no not bloodlust just too much chakra applied too judiciously by a kid who isn't used to being approached so suddenly.)

(he'll make it. He always does, doesn't he?)

"What?"

"Sensei Cat's here somewhere. Without his paint. WITHOUT IT." Kankuro strangles air. "That bastard!"

"We could try and find him, when I'm done." Gaara offers.

"We'll never find Sensei, bro. Besides Temari wants to try that girly dango place-"

"How can a dango place be girly you idiot?!"

Gaara tries to calm his siblings and Cat walks by them, whistling.

---

"I had to kill the proctor." Baki says and Yashamaru pours him another cup of sake.

"You did what you had to." Cat tells him because it's true.

"Doesn't make it right." Baki replies.

Cat makes his report to the Kazekage and spends the night on Hokage rock, watching the leaves fall.

---

Orochimaru chose an ANBU to hide in and Cat feels bad for the poor bastard, he really does.

"This is no concern of yours." Cat hears Orochimaru say.

Rasa smiles. There's a hint of Gaara-who-never-was there. Gold begins to flicker around his head like a halo.

"Lord Hokage," Cat hears him say. "I believe your student needs a spanking."

---

They attend Hiruzen's funeral. Cat didn't know the man well, but he changes his face paint anyway. It's worth the look of utter shock on the faces of his colleagues and his students to have suffered through the annoyingly complicated swirls of Yukimura of the Ten Faces.

Naruto stands beside his teacher Iruka and Cat watches as Gaara edges closer until finally they are side by side, hand in hand.

Kankuro joins them shortly after, Temari taking up a position on Naruto's other side.

Rasa doesn't speak but he keeps his head bowed.

---

Negotiations over missions rights are one thing.

This is quite another.

"I can't believe he did it." Yashamaru says for the hundredth time and neither Baki nor Cat reply. Instead Baki refills Yashamaru's sake cup. The set belonged to Karura, and Yashamaru is celebrating. They all are, in a way.

Because Gaara's seal is getting fixed.

It's a tacked-on clause at the end of the new peace treaty, the one Rasa insisted on having when the talks began in earnest. Some muttered and called him coarse for his insistence but Konoha's own council had seen the sense in it.

It helped that Gaara had been on the verge of transforming during the invasion, that their own Jinchuriki had teamed up with him and that whispers had started, whispers Cat is enjoying immensely regarding inter-village cooperation and future alliances.

Fixing a faulty seal is no trouble for Leaf. Konoha has much better fuinjutsu, even without the Uzumaki.

(well. They have one Uzumaki and someday, someday. Someday, but not yet.)

Of course Chiyo will have some choice words but Cat can't bring himself to care about her, not right now. Her work was shoddy and for that his brother had suffered.

Gaara will not suffer anymore.

---

"I'm scared." Gaara whispers to Kankuro and Temari.

"Why?" Kankuro asks.

"Because if he's gone what if I don't know what the inside of my own head looks like?"

"With or without the sand rat," Temari says and ignores how Kankuro snorts when she says it, "You're you, Gaara. We know who you are. And you do, too."

Beneath the balcony Cat, Yashamaru, and Baki all smile at one another. They're three different smiles for three different reasons but still they're there and that is what matters.

---

"You are a very strange person, Cat." Rasa says to Kankuro's sensei.

"Why is that, sir?" Cat asks.

"In a way I can't quite put my finger on, you remind me of me." Rasa responds.

"Is that a compliment, sir?"

"I guess it depends on which way the wind is blowing." Rasa replies.

That night Cat stares at his face in the mirror for a long time before putting Shigamura back on.

---

"How is it?" Yashamaru asks Gaara as they sit in the decorative sand garden. The Konoha contingent have gone and Gaara can't stop touching his stomach.

"Quiet." Gaara whispers. "I never realized there was so much quiet in the whole world."

Cat gestures for Kankuro to disengage his eavesdropping strings. He waits until they are well away from the garden before gently reminding his student, "I told you to wear the waterproof paint."

"Shut up." Kankuro whispers hoarsely but he doesn't rub at his tears. He's learned the hard way that poisoned paint stings.

---

When the message comes that Tsunade has been declared Fifth Hokage, Yashamaru reads it to their students.

"Isn't she the scary one?" Kankuro asks. "The busty blonde?"

Temari whacks Kankuro over the head. "Don't say things like that!"

"But it's true!" he whines.

"Lady Tsunade can easily be described as scary." Baki agrees.

"Mm, she's quite the woman." Cat murmurs.

There is silence and when he looks up his students are staring at him and so are Baki and Yashamaru. "What?"

"You sound as though you have personal experience, Cat." Yashamaru says. "Care to share with the class?"

Cat grins, lazy and slow. "A gentleman never kisses and tells, Yashamaru."

It's worth it for the violent red flush that climbs up Yashamaru's face and Baki bursting into laughter. Temari and Kankuro both make faces and Gaara blinks a few times before saying, "So why did Kankuro insist on telling me about-"

"OKAY THAT'S ENOUGH!" Kankuro said. "All redheaded demon-bearing genin to bed!"

"I'm a chunin now, Kankuro."

"Same difference now come on-"

The siblings go to sleep and Cat stays up and watches the moon. He wonders how much trouble Naruto had finding Tsunade this time; wonders if Sasuke helped.

---

"When Gaara turns sixteen, I am resigning."

"You're kidding right?" Cat asks before his brain can catch up with his mouth. Yashamaru has stiffened like a desert lizard trying to avoid the detection of a circling hawk. "Kazekage-sama-" he began, but Rasa's raised hand stops his protests.

"Kankuro cannot be Kazekage." He said. "Chikamatsu's Law forbids it." His smile is wry. "And besides, I don't think he'd take kindly to having to deal with the Council all day long."

"What is wrong with Temari?" Baki asks. He is reeking offended dignity and Cat can sympathize. Baki has poured his heart and soul into Temari's training. She is as magnificent a mistress of the wind as has existed in Suna since its founding.

Rasa leans forward and steeples his fingers. "We need Temari free of paperwork and fools who want her to marry their second oldests sons." Rasa said. "Konoha has Tsunade. Konoha has a far higher rate of female ninja than we do. It is a weakness I do not like and Temari is the key."

Baki relaxes only slightly.

"Why Gaara?" Yashamaru pleads, not a ninja making an inquiry of their leader but a longtime caretaker trying to protect what they cherish most. "Kaz-Rasa. He's not ready."

"Not now, no." Rasa acknowledges. "Some view him as weak. I expect this to be fixed."

"Rasa-"

"Gaara collaborated with those young leaf ninja in the arena." Rasa cuts Yashamaru off. "Gaara did not lose control. He exhibited the quick thinking and tactical ability a Kazekage needs and besides, my tenure has had…bumps."

There are glances all around. Everyone is thinking about Orochimaru but no one is willing to mention it.

"There is time, Yashamaru." Rasa says. "I still need to work the Council around."

Cat wonders how many members will die of mysterious ailments in the next few years.

---

If Deidara expected this to be a run of the mill mission, Cat is happy to disappoint him.

It's sort of amazing to watch. Cat hesitates to say awe-inspiring because even now he doesn't want to give Sasuke Uchiha that much credit but he's come so far. Gaara and Naruto are as deadly a combination as Sakura and her green-tinted fists. Where is Sasori? Cat wants to see the look on his face when she pulls him from his trapdoor lair and punches his heart to pieces.

(He does get to see it and holy hell is it glorious.)

After Gaara has reduced Deidara to a bloody still-smoking smear, the young man has a strange look on his face.

"What is it?" Kankuro asks him on the long trek back to Suna.

"Nothing." Gaara says.

---

"This is a bit extreme." Cat says to Gaara.

It's the most reasonable thing he can say, pinned against the rock by a massive sand hand.

"You could get out of this." Gaara says.

"That's true," Cat acknowledges, "but it wouldn't get you to say what's bothering you."

Gaara comes in close, examines Cat's face.

"You always wear your paint." He says.

"I am a puppeteer." Cat reminds him.

"The man from Akatsuki. He said something before I crushed him."

"Oh?" Cat asks. "What was that?"

"He said 'I've found the one who came back'."

"Oh." Cat says. Then again. "Oh."

"There's no record of you before your Trials." Gaara says. "I asked Kankuro to check."

And of course he did. Kankuro was not meant to be a Kazekage, but a Kazekage's shadowy right hand, well. Cat knows all too well how good he is at that job.

"Father never probed any deeper. He didn't think it was necessary."

Cat picks up what Gaara is putting down and his eyes widen in affronted dignity. "You think I'm an imposter!"

Gaara is silent.

"How could you talk to your older brother that way." Cat muttered. "Honestly, no respect."

The sand hand tightens and Cat slips from it before it can break his spine against the rock. He neatly backflips to a safe -enough- distance because this IS a desert, and Gaara does manipulate sand.

He pulls Shigamura from his face in a single sharp movement, the paint a chakra mask. Untouchable, immovable.

Gaara stares at Kankuro- older Kankuro, wiser, bitter Kankuro, who looks so much like their father and yet nothing like him at all.

"Well." Kankuro says. "Cat's out of the bag."

---

Cat doesn't tell Gaara the whole story.

"It's being rewritten right now." He says. "It was rewritten the day I saw you in the marketplace."

Still there are some things he can share. Is it wise? Probably not but he's spent years training himself in the art of puppetry and Deidara saw him and knew him, so honestly fuck that.

"A war?" Gaara asks.

"A war." Cat replies. "You'd best be ready, Fifth Kazekage. It's gonna be a doozy."

Gaara mouths the number 'five' and Cat puts Shigamura back on.

---

"You were a mistake." Madara says to Kankuro. "A miscalculation. You were meant to kill your brother. Put him out of his misery."

"Oh is that all?" Kankuro asks. Puppets are assembling around him. Strings shine in the air, invisible as spider silk and just as tangible. "Sorry to disappoint you."

"You have no hope of defeating me," Madara says. "Not in your life, not in this one."

"Maybe not." Kankuro acknowledges. Behind him he can hear sand grains, thousands of them rattling together in a death roar. "But you know I'm sort of stupid. I'm gonna try."

---

Shit.

Shit, shit shit-

"Don't you die on me, old man." Cat says. "Don't you dare fucking die on those kids."

Rasa coughs. "I am not old." He says, eyes closed. "And they are not children. They'll be fine. You did a good job, the three of you." He takes a rattling breath. It sounds wet and wet is never good. "Better than I could."

"That's not true." Cat says. "You did alright, this time. You did."

Rasa's laugh is hoarse. "This time?"

The light is fading from his eyes as Shigamura melts.

"This time." Kankuro murmurs, and closes his father's lids.

---

The world is falling apart in technicolor shards because Madara is dead and so is this jutsu.

Cat can hear things- Baki yelling, Yashamaru holding his hand and begging.

God he's going to miss Yashamaru.

Cat's being torn in two and stitched back together backwards. Everything is strange and everything is familiar.

He knows his students stand by his bedside. No one can stabilize him. No one knows what's happening.

He wills his eyes open. He can't see their faces but he knows their outlines.

"Take care of each other." He forces the words out. "Stay together. Move mountains."

Silence.

"Promise me."

They do.

He smiles and relaxes.

---

When Kankuro opens his eyes he is in a tent and the War is over.

Gaara is asleep beside him- Gaara with his dark circles, his red 'love' scar. Gaara who should probably be somewhere doing Important Kazekage Things but is instead in a really uncomfortable chair waiting for his loser of a brother to get the hell out of bed.

Kankuro sits up and realizes this was a mistake. Gaara jerks awake when he groans.

"You've been asleep for a week." Gaara said. "what happened?"

"did we win?" Kankuro asks.

"We won." Gaara acknowledges.

"Then it doesn't matter." Kankuro says and it doesn't, really.

Not at all.

---

In a Suna that never was there is a puppeteer named Kankuro, who calls himself Crow.

He is the right hand of his brother, the Fifth Kazekage, who gained that title in blood and fire during the Fourth Shinobi World War after the death of their father Golden Rasa.

In the tradition of puppeteers, he wears a painted mask.

In a departure from tradition, he wears the same one and rarely changes it.

"Sensei?" His students ask him. "Why do you wear the same face all the time?"

Kankuro thinks of an empty grave and a tiger puppet.

He runs his thumbs over the two swoops up his forehead, the three swoops down each cheek, and the half-moon on his chin.

"Because," he says, "this face gives me hope."