Kankuro turned and said the five words he never thought he'd say in this lifetime.
"So, Gaara, want a beer?"
Gaara sat motionless for a few seconds, and then slowly turned to stare at his brother. The gaze was clinical, as if checking for bruises around the head or any other sign of evident cerebral trauma.
"No beer, then," Kankuro sighed. With some reluctance, he turned to the person sitting at the corner of their table. "Erm, Shino? How about you?"
No answer there either; Shino didn't even look at him.
"I'll get one for myself then," Kankuro muttered. He was going to need it.
He glanced at Gaara as he stood up. His brother was sitting with his back to the wall, arms folded loosely over his chest. He'd been sitting like that since they'd arrived at the bar ten minutes ago. Only his eyes moved, twitching from one patron to another. Gaara didn't do too well in public places with a large number of rowdy strangers around him.
Kankuro leaned forward and murmured: "Please relax, will you? This is just a simple night out with the guys. Okay? Right?" Please don't attack anybody?
Gaara once again turned slowly towards Kankuro and gave him that 'Strange, he doesn't look like he's on drugs' stare.
Kankuro went to fetch a beer.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time...
He and Gaara had spent a week in the no-man's-land between Sand and Leaf tracking down a dangerous group of missing nin. The Sand council had been out of their minds at the thought their Kage was going to do a Jounin job, but Gaara had gone anyway, because it was Naruto's team who'd been assigned the duty on the Leaf side.
And it had been a good time. Kankuro had been glad to see that particular force of nature again, and Naruto and his Jounin team were great.
Shikamaru, the team leader, was an excellent strategist, getting everything done with the greatest efficiency and the least possible effort (that last seemed particularly important to him somehow; probably intent on sparing his troops like a good commander should, Kankuro had decided).
Shino was the scout, the defence and the ranged attack all rolled into one, a strong, silent presence at their backs. And Naruto and Sasuke...well, they were the heavy artillery. Damn, it'd been awesome watching those two. Kankuro and Gaara had had little to do but sit back and admire those guys work together - arguing incessantly, but it was apparently a habit and part of their synergy. They'd gone through the opposition with chilling efficiency, despite their semi-serious bickering. Kankuro had already seen a grownup Naruto in action, but he'd never seen the Jounin Sasuke fight. Man, he was glad that guy was on his side, and this was coming from somebody who'd grown up with Gaara.
But the best was seeing Gaara interact with them...it was almost as if Gaara had friends. He and Naruto got on like you'd expect from guys who'd shared similar childhoods, to use the term loosely. But the Kazekage also played chess with Shikamaru, who had the gall to beat him every time, something nobody in Sand ever dared. Gaara had been quite pleased, Kankuro could tell. His brother had also talked with Shino about the sort of insects you could find in the desert, and he'd spent a whole evening discussing earth-based Jutsus with Sasuke.
Kankuro had taken upon himself these past few years to ensure that his little brother didn't go through life with the mental age of a battle-hardened Ancient and a small storm-cloud over his head at all times. In that respect, the week had been all he'd hoped it would be.
So he'd foolishly decided to try to extend the moment. While Shikamaru was giving his report to the Hokage, Kankuro had asked Naruto and Sasuke to hang out at the bar that evening. In civvies, he'd added, knowing this was the best way of getting Gaara to leave the bloody gourd behind. Naruto had seemed all for it and Sasuke had silently nodded...it was gong to be great. Just a simple night out with the buddies. Maybe get Gaara to relax outside of a battlefield for once.
He hadn't expected Shino to show up. He'd forgotten the guy was there when he'd invited Naruto and Sasuke; you tended to forget Shino.
Kankuro discreetly examined 'the bug-man' - as he'd dubbed him - while absently flipping off the beer cap with his fingers. Shino had become a bit weird after his promotion to Jounin. His collar had gotten higher, and he now wore a knitted woollen cap over his hair and down to his eyes, which were covered in wraparound dark glasses. In fact, there was nothing visible of Shino most times. Kankuro had started to wonder if maybe there was just a huge heap of bugs walking around in a large long leather coat. Kankuro was well aware that he sometimes had a bit too much in the way of imagination. But he could swear he heard odd rustlings from Shino when he was near him...
"So," he asked, as cheerfully as he could manage, "when do you think your team-mates will show up?" Because sitting between Gaara and Shino was not making for the best of evenings.
There was a long silence. Shino didn't speak all that much, and only with deliberation.
"Shikamaru won't come."
"Oh?" Damn, that was a pity; there was a guy who knew how to relax. He could give a cat some lessons.
"He spends all his free time on his hobby," Shino explained.
Kankuro paused with his beer halfway to his lips. "Hobby? What, chess?"
Shino slowly shook his head. When Kankuro made a 'explain already' gesture with his bottle, Shino added: "Rock gardening."
"We have a lot of those in Sand," Kankuro said slowly. "It takes a cup of water and ten minutes of care every week, and then you leave it. How can he spend all his free time on that?"
He could swear he heard rustling beneath that bloody coat.
"He moves the rocks a bit. He tends the plants."
"And then he watches them grow."
Silence settled once more.
"Oh," Kankuro finally said, since nobody else was going to add anything. "Nice."
All high-level Jounin tended to get a bit weird. The more powerful they were, the weirder they got; it was like an equation. Kankuro hadn't thought Shikamaru was that powerful already, but he was starting to think he'd underestimated him.
"So, when's Naruto getting here?" Kankuro asked in something like despair. This 'simple night out' was turning into less fun than a tea party at the morgue. "He and Sasuke said they were only going to go change."
"Saki takes some time to get ready," Shino said.
"Who's- oh, there he is!" Kankuro waved, but Naruto, who'd just stepped into the bar, hadn't spotted him yet. The Leaf Jounin had turned back to hold the door open for somebody.
Naruto hadn't turned up alone. The first thing that amazed Kankuro was that Naruto, who normally had the manners of a cannonball, was being strikingly courteous and caring, as he took the brunette's hand to climb down the few steps, and got rid of her coat for her.
The second thing that struck Kankuro was that it was amazingly unfair for Naruto to score such a babe, when Kankuro himself was a bit short in the girlfriend department at the moment.
"Well willya look at that. That is one high-class chick our blond bonehead caught there," Kankuro murmured. Hell, even Gaara was staring at her! Now that said a lot.
She wasn't racked the way Kankuro liked them, but she was...it was hard to say. A Kunoichi, you could tell from the play of muscles beneath the dress, but she still managed to look...willowy, almost fragile in some way. Shy, from the way she was walking just a bit behind Naruto. And, bloody hell, she was pretty as sin. One of those chicks who achieved what others needed tons of makeup to do, just by getting up in the morning.
Something was knocking at the doors of Kankuro's mind, trying to get his attention. Something about the face...
"Huh. Hey, do I know her? Say...does Sasuke have a sister?"
"That is Sasuke."
"What? Where? Did I miss him?" Kankuro glanced from Gaara, to the bar door, to the people who'd stopped to greet Naruto and his demurely smiling girlfriend. The two were obviously known patrons here, they seemed popular with the other Jounin and Chuunin.
"That is Sasuke," Gaara repeated, his eyes still fixed on the girl.
Kankuro wondered if his brother hadn't overdone it a bit. Maybe the bar was a bit too much excitement for someone who spent all his days with paperwork and various shades of gloom-
Something in Kankuro's mind clicked.
He turned slowly back to look at Naruto and the girl. Really looked.
Later, he decided he'd taken it pretty well, all things considered.
"You spilled your beer," Gaara told him helpfully.
A few people turned to stare. Kankuro ignored them.
It wasn't possible. It just wasn't possible.
It wasn't just the fact that the guy was walking around in drag. No. Kankuro was a Shinobi; his life depended on his ability to size people up with a glance. And that...that pretty, demure lady over there was not Uchiha Sasuke. That elegant girl smiling softly at Naruto wasn't the guy who'd shoved a kunai up another man's spine this morning. There was just...no...way...
Shino leaned forward slowly.
"Should I perhaps have warned you about Saki?" he pondered.
Both Kankuro and Gaara turned to stare at the guy.
"Hey, you guys are here. Did you get something to drink already? Gaara, wanna beer?"
Gaara gave Naruto the same look he'd given his older brother earlier. Kankuro thought the look was a bit weaker than Gaara's usual basilisk stare, though it would have bounced off of Naruto either way.
Naruto pulled out a chair and offered it to...well, Kankuro's eyes were telling him it was Sasuke, but the rest of him was having a rather noisy debate over that conclusion. The fact that Sasuke-whatever and Naruto, the guy who always bitched at him, were a fast and firm item here, was lining up behind the other shock and ready to take the relay.
"Here you go, baby. You want anything to drink?"
She- no, he dammit - shook her head without looking up.
"'Kuro and me are not the only ones drinking tonight, I'm warning ya," Naruto said, grabbing a beer from a tray and grinning adorably until the waitress rolled her eyes and went to fetch another bottle for the original customer.
Kankuro stared at the girl -guy!- who glanced out of the corner of her -his!- eye at Naruto; trusting, demure- was he wearing lipstick? Uchiha Sasuke was wearing lipstick. That sort of nearly transparent sheeny stuff, Temari would know what it was, though she would never wear it- fuck it all to hell, Kankuro was going to have to tell his sister about tonight, as a cheaper alternative to therapy, and when she learned that Uchiha Sasuke was a prettier girl than she was, there would be a storm in the desert for sure.
...But he wasn't a girl...Kankuro's eyes were telling him that this was Sasuke, the same guy who shoved his fist through people and pinned them to trees, and the muscles were there, and the shoulders, and the legs under the ruffled skirt and stockings, they were all Sasuke's, this was a guy Kankuro was looking at, but everything else - stance, scent, look, face, smile, aura, attitude, the way Saki folded her hands neatly on her lap and looked coyly up at Naruto who'd leaned over to whisper something, warm and close...everything else was a contradiction...
I'm the one who's been working too hard, Kankuro decided.
"Yo," said someone right behind the Sand Shinobi.
Kankuro thought he was quite justified in being jumpy, dammit. He shot out of his chair and into a defensive crouch.
He was staring at a picture a couple of inches away from his eyes; a lascivious brunette in a negligee leaning back from a tall, dark bare-chested stranger. The word Icha was floating somewhere near his left eyeball. In Kankuro's rather stressed-out state, the chick looked a bit like Sasuke. He rather did have too much imagination.
"Sorry, did I startle you?"
Kankuro took another second to assure himself that yes, this was a book he was staring at, one of the latest of the Icha Icha series, and one Kankuro owned himself for those long girlfriendless nights. He glanced up over the edge of the pages to find an apologetic eye hovering over a mask and beneath a chock of unruly grey hair.
"My fault," Kankuro croaked, "I wasn't paying attention." He felt sure he knew this guy, but right now he wasn't sure he trusted himself to put a name to any face in the bar.
"Hey, Kakashi," Naruto said behind Kankuro.
"Naruto - hi, Saki." The new arrival waved at Sasuke as he leaned past Kankuro. The man obviously knew Sasuke. Like every other person in the bar, the fact that Sasuke was wearing a dress seemed to not have struck him as particularly odd or even out of the ordinary. "Naruto, you were down south before your mission to the frontier, right?"
"Yeah, solo op."
"I need your input on something."
"Tomorrow? We just came back from a week-long mission, it's our downtime."
"I guess it can wait."
"Care to join us?"
"No thanks, I've got my evening all planned out," the guy said, waving his book around cheerfully. Nobody at this table or the next seemed to find a man waving porn around odd or shocking. In fact, the only person who reacted was Sasuke, who looked down at the table, going a delicate shade of pink. Kankuro started drafting the ad in his mind: 'Lost, in Leaf, my sense of reality. Return to Sand if found'
"So, how's that new team of Genin?" Naruto asked with a smirk.
"Don't ask if you don't want me to break anything," Kakashi answered.
"Same as usual then."
The eye became mournful, the shoulders drooped and even the hair seemed to go limp as the Jounin sighed.
"After having you two under my command, it should be a walkover. Yet, every single time, they manage to sink to new lows."
"Sucks to be you," Naruto said with all the sympathy you'd expect from a case of tuberculosis.
Kakashi gave him a grumpy look, then glanced down at Sasuke. "Saki-chan, if you don't want anything to happen to your pet poodle, you should muzzle him."
"Kakashi-sensei..." Sasuke whispered, lips twitching up into something that wasn't quite a smile, the pink on her cheeks so charming...
Kankuro decided that he wasn't up to handling this situation. Fighting against a hostile enemy force, no problem. Outnumbered ten to one? Hah! But this? Nuh-uh.
"Say, Gaara, you were thinking of calling it an early night, right? You don't like crowded places," Kankuro said a bit desperately.
"I'm alright," Gaara answered, just to prove to Kankuro that yes, the world had indeed turned upside down when he wasn't looking. Then the Kazekage's fixed gaze rested on Sasuke.
Kankuro tensed, and he thought Shino did too, just a little bit. So did the guy with the porn. Kankuro suddenly had the vivid impression that insulting 'Saki-chan' and his/her choice of civilian clothing would be a terminally stupid thing to do in this village, and that was even before Naruto started pounding you into a pulp. That was assuming this strange version of Sasuke wouldn't do the honours first; Kankuro's guts were telling him 'Saki' wouldn't do that, but he wasn't willing to bet his brother's life on it.
"A pleasure to meet you, Saki," Gaara said gently, looking only at her.
Saki's eyelashes fluttered up as she glanced at him and smiled shyly.
For an instant that tipped on its edge like a knife, Kankuro thought he saw something. A bitter child/warrior putting aside the killer persona like you would a set of armour. A hardened sword sheathed into an elegant, chiselled scabbard. A hint of gentleness, even normalcy, taken from a life which had been anything but gentle and normal. It made him think of Gaara's decision to assume the mantle of protector when he was born a destroyer. It made him think of Naruto's love for those who had hated and feared him all his life.
Then Kankuro blinked and it was just a crazy - and quite lethal - Jounin in drag.
"I need a drink."
"You spilled your beer," Gaara reminded him.
"Oh, here, 'Kuro, have mine." Naruto shoved the bottle at him and stood up to go get another.
"I was thinking of something a bit stronger."
He glanced at Shino, who was covered up like he was expecting a blizzard in September. The coat was indeed rustling. Then Kankuro looked at Saki, who'd followed Naruto and delicately slipped her hand in his as he banged at the bar and asked for drinks as if he owned the place. A bit further along, that Jounin, Kakashi, was trying to read his porn, but he'd been accosted by another Jounin Kankuro remembered, the guy with eyebrows that should be on the illegal weapons list for both villages. The guy in spandex and legwarmers was trying to convince Kakashi to participate in a challenge regarding the numbers of beers they could down. Two other Jounin were egging him on, even though Kankuro, a stranger to the village, could tell that getting either of them drunk, and especially both, would be a Bad Idea on a scale rarely seen before.
It was like an equation. The more powerful the Jounin, the weirder they tended to get. Or, conversely, the more bizarre they got, the more powerful they'd probably turn out to be.
Fuck me, Kankuro thought, no wonder we got our asses handed to us when we attacked Konoha seven years ago.
"Yes?" Kankuro muttered, glancing at his brother who was looking at him curiously.
"You were right, I think this is going to be a nice night out. But I believe you need to revise your definition of 'simple'."
"You may be right, little brother. You may be right."