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Just Pulling the Heart Strings

Chapter Text

The desert… When most people think of the desert they tend to think of the same thing.  They see the endless expanse of dust and sand, as far as the eye can see.  They feel a hot, dry wind, perhaps carrying a lone tumbleweed blowing across the empty landscape.  Imposing cliffs, showing just how trapped and isolated that you were in this desolate area. It is a punishing area, a way of life not for the faint of heart.  One wrong move is fatal for anyone, regardless of their status or home.  One wrong step, a simple wrong turn, can have you lost forever, wandering the bare expanse without drink or food, and no way home. The scorpions and spiders are extraordinarily poisonous, able to kill a grown man with a single drop of their venom.

Yes, most people only see the various shades of brown and black, sometimes red when they picture the desert, very few green things come to mind.  This land is too unforgiving for that.  Not much life can survive in this area.  Perhaps the great cactuses come to mind. Their crocked bodies jutting out from the cracked and damaged landscape, completely equipped with needles like senbon to protect themselves from anyone who was foolish, or even desperate to try to steal their precious water.

Water is scarce, comes in an unpredictable cycle of heat and rain and drought, depending on how much the sun wishes to torture its victims.  And the variety of food that is available?  Even scarcer.  All things need water to survive, plants being no exception. As I previously said, not much survives here.  Death lurks everywhere, even without the ninjas hiding, watching your every move.

The people of the Sand village are no different than the resilient cactus.  They are strong and capable ninja and people, ones who have been trained and born to master the skills necessary to thrive and live in these harsh conditions, to prepare for the next heat wave, or shower, or even war.  The Village of Sand must always be fully prepared for what our warring neighbours have to throw at us.  It is the only way that the village can survive without constantly pulling and depleting the reserves of its allies.  As a result, the sand shinobi as a whole has made a name for themselves.  

The people of this village have truly accepted the way of the desert life: only the strong and mighty survive.  The weak will die and make room for the strong, giving up their resources to others. To give them a chance at life.

Yet, perhaps one day they will speak of the flower that grew among the cactuses.  Weak and frail, unable to defend itself from the harsh sun and other predators, unable to protect its water and food supplies from other dangers.  Yet, still, it grew and blossomed, sheltered among the cactuses, defying the odds of the desert.  Defying the rules of the strong.

Besides, isn’t there always one special exception to the rule?

* * * * *

The group of four ninjas sat around the little table, getting progressively louder and drunker, beginning to disrupt the other people around them.  But no one said anything to them, at least, not to their face though they were more than willing to complain to you or the other wait staff about them.  These ninjas were four jōnin, one most of the elite levels of ninja around.  One you recognized as a teacher from the nearby school, the other two were covered in scars and battle wounds, and the last you couldn’t be sure of but there was an aura of danger around him.  There was no doubt that they were strong and powerful, worthy of their title… but yet they were just as brash as the common drunk around these parts. Loud and obnoxious, jeering and swearing.  They seemed to think themselves the only ones in the entire restaurant.

You allowed yourself a quiet sigh as you tended to the other patrons at the restaurant.  It was just past four, meaning that the restaurant was at its peak.  Everyone here was trying to catch an early dinner or beat the rest of the crowd of people… so that meant that everyone showed up at the exact same time.  As a result, the four jōnin where seated on the outside edge of the patio, waving their sake glasses, and throwing their arms out wide where no one else could be accidentally hit by them.

Seems as if the hostess had been thinking ahead when they sat them.

Retreating the inside of the restaurant, you exchanged your empty pitcher for a full one, glancing at the bartender.  Tony, the bartender for the night, had been keeping an eye on the four since they arrived, carefully watching how much they had to drink.  “Please, at least tell me that they ordered large meals?” he pleaded with you, watching them unabashedly gape at a woman’s passing backside.

You nodded to him. “Four country club specials,” you assured of him, “and that’s the last of the sake they will order. They already acknowledged that.”

The bartender groaned before nodding. “Good.  Perhaps we can keep the relations board away from us for a change.” Another bar patron caught his attention and he let you go return to your duties.

It wasn’t a bad job, you reminded yourself as you went around refilling everyone’s water glasses, double checking on them.  Sure there was a few bad customers and a few bad days, and the pay wasn’t the best, but the majority of them were nice, understanding. And the tips that you collected were able to cover your Grandmother’s medicine costs, and, if you picked up a couple extra hours, you were easily able to cover the rent. It probably helped that they were all fond of your grandmother, Franchesica. She had been a fabulous ninja in her day, strong and kind, and she had raised father to follow in her footsteps, even from a young age.  Of course, she had been disappointed when your condition became apparent, she had wanted more descendants to carry her bloodline and her techniques.  Instead, she had only been able to carry Dad to fruition, and he and your mother were only blessed, or cursed, with you.

Although he and your mother did not have long for this world, she continued to raise you as her own. Your parents had died when you were young, she could have given you to the state, or at the mercy of those who ran the excuse for the local orphanage.  Lived her own life.  Instead, she raised you like her daughter until she became sick, nearly paralysed in her own bed.  Now it was your turn to look after her.

She counted on you to help feed and look after her, though the day nurse was able to help you while you were at work.  Luckily she was covered by your grandma’s insurance or you weren’t sure how you would be able to afford everything…

Someone slapped your ass.

You reacted instinctively.

Blood now boiling with rage, you spun around.  Quickly spying the culprit, it was hard to miss that cocky grin, that half smirk and dazed eyes.  You immediately reacted.  With a simple flick of your wrist, you dumped the rest of the ice cold water on the man’s head.  “HOW DARE YOU SLAP MY ASS!” you spat, hopefully loud enough to catch Tony’s attention.  “IF YOU HAVE YOU ANY RESPECT FOR THE WOMEN IN YOUR LIFE YOU WILL APOLOGIZE TO ME, RIGHT NOW.”

That’s when you recognized the man.

The teacher jōnin was soaked, swinging his arms in an attempt to rid himself of the water.  His eyes were not full of apology, however.

Instead, they were angry.

“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO I AM?” he demanded of you, grabbing the empty pitcher and throwing it to the side. The glass shattered against the wall, the sound echoing through the patio.  The other patrons shrieked and ran, ducking for cover within the restaurant, unintentionally preventing Tony from getting to you.  You didn’t dare move. Instead, you watched as the teacher rose to his full height.  “YOU SHOULD BE HONOURED THAT SOMEONE SUCH AS I CHOSE TO TOUCH A CRETIN LIKE YOU! WORTHLESS WITHOUT ANY CHARKA, A SHAME TO THE VILLAGE ITSELF!” his hand reached out, seizing the front of your shirt.  “BACK IN MY DAY, THE USELESS ONES WERE KILLED AS SOON AS THEY WERE BORN. IT PREVENTED THEM FROM DEVELOPING SMART MOUTHS AND THINKING THAT THEY WERE SOMETHING BETTER, SOMEONE, WHO WAS DESTINED FOR SOMETHING BETTER THAN A LIFE OF PAIN AND SUFFERING.”

He shoved you, sending you toppling backwards.  Your foot became hooked on a chair leg, sending you tumbling to the chair seat, and then to the ground.  You hit your tailbone hard, and the chair that had been hooked on your leg fell on your ankle.  You grit your teeth against the pain.  You wouldn’t give this asshole any more pleasure than he already got.  Your vision was foggy, where were your glasses…?

“Are you looking for something?” he taunted you, taking a step forward.  “It would be a shame if something happened to them, now would it?” There was the smallest tinkling of glass.  He had stepped on your glasses, leaving you blind.  “Now…. how about you make up for your insubordination by…”

“That’s enough.” The cold, familiar voice sent a chill down your spine and sent fear to the man. Even without your glasses you could see the widening whites of his eyes, his shrinking pupils.  He began to tremble.

Three shapes carefully stepped in front of you, the smallest silhouette standing in front of you. It was easy to tell who they were. The wild red hair, the blonde double set of pigtails, and the head covering was more than enough to tell you who they were.

“Gaara… I…” the man sputtered, walking backwards to his other guests.

Gaara didn’t even blink.  His arms were folded across his chest, his ever-present gourd on his back. Those icy blue irises stared him down. For all his improvement that he had made, he still retained the look of murderer.  “Is this how you treat others when I’m not around?  I’m disappointed in the four of you.  I would have thought for sure a jōnin would know how to act in public, especially with them acting as the face of this village. Perhaps I should I strip you of that title?  That is, if it is too much responsibility for you to handle”

The man shuddered and shook, wildly shaking his head.  If there was one shame that was greater than a dishonourable death, it was the removal of a title, removal of power… “No, Lord Gaara,” he said bowing quickly, the others falling suit.  “I apologize for my actions.  The sun was too hot and I acted without thought…”

Temari sneered at them.  As always she was by her brother’s side, one hand on her hip, fan securely strapped to her back.  Ready to attack or defend should the situation present itself.  “Perhaps you should be drinking more water instead of sake then, especially in such… heat.” she managed, nodding towards the men’s empty cups.  Kankuro, said nothing to the men himself, but you could hear the little noise in his throat. He was unamused and agitated, standing tense and alert.

After all this time you could still read their body language and tone so clearly.

“You are absolutely right, my lady.  I will take that to heart….” he stammered.  “Please, allow me to go.  I have work that must be done.”

“Apologize to the waitress you brashly offended first, and then be on your way.  I hope not to see any of you in my sight.”

The man stuttered out a quick, half-hearted but fear-filled, apology to you before quickly trotting away, escaping with the rest of his crew.

Temari and Kankuro sighed in relief, dropping their imposing stare and stance immediately seeing the men flee.  Gaara did not. Instead his eyes stayed on the man’s back, eyes narrowing.  Watching like a hawk.

Kankuro sighed and bent to the ground, picking something up.  “Are you ok?” he asked, finally turning around to speak to you, something flimsy in his hands.  His face dropped the cold, unfeeling mask, instead there was something warm about it.

Something like concern.

How long has it been? Years…

Your shoulders sagged and you couldn’t quite meet his eyes.  Once upon a time, you had been almost close to the fearsome Sand Siblings, as they have grown to become known as.  That was before your lack of charka had forced your grandmother to pull you from the academy itself.  That was the death sentence for any chance at a normal life in this village.  “Well… would be better if they didn’t run off without paying their bill.” You said, getting up and dusting yourself off, ignoring the three’s odd look at each other. Make a bad joke, pretend that you didn’t hurt, you told yourself.  Acting… pretend you’re ok.

It was how you learned how to survive the desert of emotion that this village was.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THEY DIDN’T PAY? THOSE LOUSEY MEATHEADS…” Tony grumbled as he finally made his way over to the table.  “NOT A DIME! THEY DIDN’T LEAVE A SINGLE PENNY ON THEIR FUCKING TAB!” he continued to rand and rave as he picked up the seats and table.  You sighed, softly.  Yes it wasn’t your fault, and no Tony would never see it as yours, but still…

You felt partially responsible.

“I’m sorry, Tony….” You started to say as Tony came over to your small group.

“No, it is me that should be sorry,” Gaara said quickly, cutting you off.  The young Kazekage to-be watched as the men scurried away from them, his eyes narrowing as they followed them. “I should have specified that they at least pay and tip before leaving the restaurant.”

Tony just shook his head, pinching at his nose.  “Doesn’t matter, their food was still cooking at the time of the incident.  We can resell it.  All they got was the sake.” He sighed before looking at you.  He looked disappointed almost.  “You, just… just go home.  We’ll talk about this later.” he said, gesturing for you to go.

“But… my shift…” you tried to protest.

“Go. You can’t see, let alone work, without your glasses anyways. You’re useless here.”  

You opened your mouth to argue, before closing.  You knew he was right.  He may not have meant it in that regard, but he was right nonetheless.  You were useless.  And yet…

Another cheque without full hours and your glasses would be expensive, add in the new medication your grandmother was on… you winced slightly, thinking of your bank account.  Red was beginning to become a common look for it.

“Yes sir…” you said, trying to untangle yourself from the chairs.  Twmari and Kankuro were by your side in an instant, grabbing your hands and helping you up. “Thanks, guys,” you miserably said, taking your glasses from Kankuro.  They were well and truly destroyed. The lens was shattered and the frames were bent out of shape.

“But…”

“I guess I’ll catch you guys around some other time.” you turned and walked away then, no longer sure that you could hold back your tears.

Shinobi Rule Number 25 – A shinobi must never show their tears.