Gaara shifted his gourd on his back and looked again at his surroundings. He internally grimaced at all the green surrounding him and his siblings. He was tired of the forest and its wet leaves and dew. The forest sang with life yet he was not happy to be a part of it. He was ready to be back in the sand with the desert's harsh winds pulling at his hair and clothes. Looking ahead to his brother and sister he sighed and remembered why they were here. Pushing off of another branch he kept pace with them…

Baki looked at his three students and almost sighed. He knew why they were being sent on this mission and he dearly wanted to stop them from leaving the village. However he knew that nothing good would come of his insubordination. Forcing himself to maintain his surly expression he continued with his mission brief. "Your mission is B rank and will require your full attention. Suna has received word that a small family of potential shinobi that were moving back here have been delayed by attacks from other ninja. We have intel suggesting that they are shinobi from another great nation. This means they will not be easy to deter. Your mission is to aide in the movement of the family that is trying to come back to our village. They will need protection and a safe journey to Suna. Temari, as the oldest you will act as team leader since I am unable to join you on this mission." "We're doomed!" Kankuro wailed. Baki restrained himself from rolling his eye while Temari responded by smacking Kankuro on the head with her fan. Continuing on Baki said, "The land you're traveling in is occupied with bandits and more than a few are missing nin. I'm sure that I do not need to remind you to be careful" "Come on, Gaara can take care of anything that comes our way." Kankuro stated confidently. "Baka!" Temari reprimanded, "the bandits won't be our problem it will be the ANBU sent for…" Temari stopped suddenly unsure of whether to continue her statement. Gaara looked down at his feet, his expression unreadable. He had wanted to start a new path; to try and get away from his previous outlook on life. However, despite his father's death and his new attitude the council still wanted him dead. Thinking of the monster inside him he kept his eyes down, not expecting Kankuro's outburst. "Well we're not going to let anything happen to Gaara, right Temari?" Gaara looked up at his siblings for the first time since the briefing had started. Hope burned dully in his eyes. Could he really gain his siblings support? Widening her eyes slightly Temari nodded, determination furrowing her brow. She wanted to see her little brother survive to change his ways. Baki nodded, startled that Kankuro was so supportive of Gaara but ready to move onto the next part of the debrief. "Your scheduled departure time is at dawn tomorrow but to hopefully avoid any trouble I suggest you leave as soon as this meeting is over." The sand siblings nodded and started to walk away. As Gaara left he turned to Baki and nodded with understanding in his eyes. Gaara knew why Baki wouldn't be joining them. More than likely Baki had been ordered to leave his team to fend for themselves, leaving the siblings open for attack. Silently praying in his head for their safety Baki turned and left, not looking back. He knew he wouldn't be able to rest peacefully until they had returned so he decided to work on some long overdue paperwork…

Kankuro pushed off of the tree with more force than necessary. He knew he shouldn't let his temper get the best of him but he was angry at that the council had sent another squad after Gaara. However the fact that he was so upset about it scared Kankuro. He didn't want to get caught up in those types of emotions if Gaara was just going to go back to his old ways. Sneaking a look at his younger brother he wondered what Gaara was thinking about. Did he fear the assassins that were after him? Was Shukaku trying to gain control? Kankuro shook his head to clear his thoughts. He looked toward his older sister and smiled slightly; he knew that she was stronger than him if only because of her intellect. He had admired Temari since he could remember. She could keep her cool when Kankuro's emotion's overtook him and she alone was the only person he had ever known to stand up to their father, albeit subtly. He didn't want to lead their small group but it was too much fun giving Temari a hard time about it. Chuckling under his breath Kankuro recalled his earlier conversation with Temari.

"Sooooo, you're gonna lead us?" Kankuro questioned. Temari's expression hardened. "Yeah, I am…" "Well this is going to suck, considering you'll probably give us more trouble than we need." Temari snarled and smacked him over the head. "Baka! I'm more capable than you are." Jumping into another lighthearted fight the two tossed insults back and forth as Gaara watched quietly. At first when Gaara had started to watch his two older siblings they had reacted violently and would leave the room but soon they became used to it once they realized this was how Gaara interacted with others. It wasn't that he didn't stare before but it was more of a glare. Now he just stared in a different way and instead of looking murderous he looked… curious… Temari and Kankuro had tried to include him in their conversations but each time they did all they had gotten was a blank look that somehow made, the almighty container of the demon of the sand, seem pathetically lost.

Kankuro rubbed the back of his neck in remembrance of Temari's head slap. Suddenly he turned when he sensed people ahead of them. Signaling for Temari and Gaara to stop he paused on a tree branch and waited for them to come to him. "What's up?" Temari asked concerned. Ignoring Temari's question Kankuro looked at his younger brother, "Gaara is there any chance that the ANBU could have slipped around us and got into a forward position from which they could attack us?" Gaara frowned while Kankuro held his breath. A few weeks earlier a question like that would have possibly caused the small red head to try and kill him… again. But this time Gaara paused. "I highly doubt that anyone could have slipped past my sand without being sensed." Kankuro nodded while Temari waited for an explanation. "I can sense people ahead and I'm almost positive they're shinobi. I can feel their chakra being manipulated." Temari nodded and contemplated their position. On one hand the ANBU could have slipped past Gaara and tried a frontal assault but not only was that unwise but it was all but impossible in Temari's mind. Gaara's sand was absolute and if the young red head didn't think that anyone had gotten by them then Temari was almost positive that they hadn't. Not to mention the fact that head on attacks didn't work on Gaara ever… well almost ever. On the other hand the shinobi ahead could be those that had been supposedly attacking the young family they were supposed to escort. Nodding silently to herself Temari made her decision. "For now we'll proceed with extreme caution. I'm almost positive that no one could have gotten ahead of us but I don't want to take any chances. We'll continue to run in our current positions but I want to put out some distractions for the ANBU behind us. Gaara…" Temari hesitated, unsure of how her youngest brother would react to her request, "would you create some sand clones of us and send them in opposite directions. It might help slow our pursuers." Gaara nodded quietly and quickly formed the hand signs required to make the clones need for the task. Once he was finished the three siblings started off toward their destination again.

Temari watched the shadows as she ran. ANBU had a nasty habit of jumping out of them the moment she least expected them. Forcing herself to not look back at Gaara she wondered how he felt. For a long time she had stopped trying to care and the only reason she referred to him as her younger brother was because that was the only thing the villagers cared about. For as long as she could remember she couldn't do anything right. She was feared, ostracized, and hated by her village because she was close to Gaara in a way no one had ever wanted to be. However she was hated by her father because she wasn't close enough to Gaara and therefore had no way of controlling him. She didn't remember when her brother turned into the monster he had been in his most recent past. She remembered a quiet young boy that loved stuffed animals and then a blood thirsty kid that would kill you as soon as he looked at you. She had wondered a few times what had changed but now it was an ever burning question that wore her down like wind against a rock. Eventually she knew that she would have to know what happened; even if that meant asking Gaara directly. Pulling herself out of her thoughts she continued ahead; praying that the shinobi ahead were not the ANBU that had been chasing them.

The group paused when they heard fighting ahead. Gaara's pupils dilated slightly when he caught the scent of blood. He stopped himself from flinching as Shukaku roared in his head. Unaware of their brother's inner turmoil Temari and Kankuro paused and listened to the chaos. "What do you think Temari?" Kankuro asked, all the punk attitude gone while he waited for his superior to decide. Looking into the clearing where the fighting was going on Temari started to evaluate how they would proceed. One figure seemed to be cornered against the side of a small cabin while three other ninja threw various justu at them. Focusing on head bands Temari tried to discern who was the enemy in relation to their mission. The cabin looked like it had been burned by several ninjustu and bodies littered the clearing. Outlining their plan the sand siblings split up. While her brothers both jumped in opposite directions Temari took a deep breath and jumped into the clearing. Immediately the three ninja that were attacking together refocused their attention on Temari. Temari readied her stance and smirked. "So, do you guys have nothing better to do than fight unfairly?" Narrowing their eyes one of the three stepped forward while the lone figure tensed and turned her head to where Temari knew that Kankuro was hiding and waiting for her signal. She saw that the loner had a mask on while they held two sister dao blades. Noting that the one with the mask seemed to be at a higher level than the others were she turned her attention to the easier targets.

One of the three came out and attacked immediately while the other two tried to flank her. Temari smiled, now that she and her brothers knew who the actual enemy were they could attack. From seemingly out of nowhere Gaara's sand appeared and crushed two of the three ninja while Crow and the Black Ant trapped and killed the other. Temari smiled while her enemies screamed in pain. As one the three siblings turned toward the masked figure ready to attack again if necessary. "That was too easy." Kankuro explained. Temari rolled her eyes in exasperation and turned toward the other shinobi. "So are you going to tell us what's happened or are we going to have problems?" The figure paused a moment and cocked their head. "Well, I'm not entirely sure but a group of ninja attacked this house and killed the owners. Just as they were about to finish this young girl off I… stepped in…" The ninja's voice gave away the fact that she was female but her tone was level and cold. "Damn" Kankuro muttered. Narrowing her eyes Temari looked at the clearing and by glancing at Gaara she knew he was thinking the same thing. There were several dead ninja filling the clearing and from the looks of them they were all chunin if not jounin. It took a strong ninja to be able to kill that many without suffering any severe injuries. Kankuro had his mind on other things though. "Temari, it looks like we were too late." He stated, looking at two bodies that were lying next to each other. They were obviously not ninja so it stood to reason that they were the husband and wife that the three were sent to escort. "Where's the child?" Gaara asked in muted tones. He normally let Temari and Kankuro do all the talking but he wanted to speed along the process. He could feel the ANBU on the edges of his sensory sand.

Looking at Gaara Kankuro nodded, "You said there was a girl." He asked looking at the masked shinobi. She nodded and motioned toward a huddled lump at her feet. Upon closer inspection the sand siblings realized that the lump was the child they were supposed to escort along with her parents. "Well we"ll take her and be on our way." Temari said, waiting for the figure to object. "Fine." Suddenly she turned and vanished into the tree leaving the suna nin with their priority. "Well at least she left without a fight." Kankuro said relieved. "I'm not so sure that she did." Temari said quietly, unnerved by the strange ninja's actions. Hearing a whimper from the lump that was supposedly a girl they all turned their attention to their mission. Temari bent down, hoping to get information from the girl. "Hello Matsuri, we're from Suna and we're here to take you to back just like your parents wanted us to." After sniffling a few more times Matsuri looked up at Temari with a tear stained face. "How do you know my name?" Rolling his eyes Kankuro impatiently interjected, "From a mission brief, now let's get outta here." Hiding her face again Matsuri started to sob again. "Baka!" Temari yelled and hit Kankuro. "You're making her feel worse." Looking up Matsuri couldn't stop herself from giggling. Surprised Temari looked over and her gaze softened. "Well at least she knows to laugh when she's looking at an idiot." She said as she looked back over to Kankuro. Grumbling Kankuro turned away and stiffened. "Temari." He said suddenly serious, "We have to leave if we're going to make it back home without any… accidents." Temari looked at Gaara while he focused on something not even Kankuro could sense in the distance. "They're getting closer." He confirmed in a soft voice. Nodding Temari looked back at Matsuri and held out her hand. "Will you come with us?" Temari asked quietly know that if the girl didn't agree she would have to knock her out so they could complete their mission and stay alive. Pausing only slightly the girl nodded. Without even stopping to gather Matsuri's belongings the group started back to Suna while trying to avoid ANBU. Kankuro and Temari were forced to carry Matsuri and took shifts while they stayed moving. Gaara, ever vigilant, kept tabs on the ANBU and update his siblings on their progress.

Well into the night Temari signaled for the small group to stop. "We must rest or our pace will slow down considerably. Nodding tiredly Kankuro jumped to the ground with Matsuri. The girl had fallen asleep a few hours into the trip. She was exhausted physically and emotionally after having lost both her parents in one day. Following suit Temari and Gaara jumped down after Kankuro and started to make camp. Keeping their weapons close, Temari and Kankuro leaned against trees and dozed while Gaara kept watch. Matsuri had been laid on the ground in a blanket and she slept deeply. Running his hand through his hair tiredly Gaara slumped slightly into the tree covering his back. The events of the day running through his head like a mad bee distracted him from his solitary sentry duty. 'Why had the lone shinobi interfered and why had she left so quickly without even giving an explanation?' Shaking his head from his thoughts Gaara turned his focus on his sand and kept watch for the ANBU that would inevitably show up.

Mai jumped from tree to tree following the small group that included Matsuri. 'Why was she following them and why had she interfered in the first place?' The words of her sensei echoed in her ears, "Do not involve yourself in matters that do not concern you. They will only cloud your judgment and force you to become attached to this dream of a world." Mai had followed that rule without deviation since the day she had heard it... until today. For some reason she had not been able to leave the young girl to die at the hands of cruel shinobi. However Matsuri would not have been the first person that she had seen murdered. She had walked away from everything from petty robbery to genocide (never getting involved) since she could remember but for some reason she could not leave Matsuri to die alone after having saw her parents murdered. And for that same strange reason she was now following the Sand shinobi that had come to escort her back to Suna. Internally rolling her eyes Mai resigned herself to following her impulse and tailing the small group. About a half hour into shadowing the group she felt the presence of several strong shinobi. Jumping down into the brush so as not to be sensed or seen Mai watched as they moved past her hiding spot and followed the route she had been taking. It seemed as if she were not the only one that was following the Sand shinobi and by the feel of their chakra Mai knew that they were more than likely Sand shinobi as well. Raising an unseen eyebrow behind her mask Mai started to follow both groups. Maybe she would get in another fight before a new day dawned. The idea of fighting again caused her muscles to tingle in anticipation. Picking up her pace Mai smiled slightly. If another fight was coming she would be ready.

After having slept lightly for an hour Temari and Kankuro woke up and started to ready themselves to finish their mission. Just as they were about to leave again they were attacked. Gaara immediately started throwing around the ANBU with his sand while Temari and Kankuro pulled out their weapons. Fighting furiously the sand siblings started to realize that there were too many for them to get away without serious injuries. Temari had been doing fine until an ANBU threw a kunai into her right leg. Hissing with pain she finished him off with a swipe of her fan. Kankuro was concentrating on his puppets when he heard Temari. Quickly dispatching the current shinobi he was fighting he went to cover his older sister. Gaara looked at his older siblings and narrowed his eyes. He could fight like this all day and then some but he knew that neither of them could keep up much longer if they sustained any more injuries. Just as Gaara was contemplating giving into Shukaku and letting the beast kill his enemies for him a large pack of coyotes leapt from the bushes and attacked the ANBU squads. Strangely they were all black and their eyes were dull and held no inner light. With them came the shinobi girl from earlier. Watching her movements carefully Gaara was astonished to realize that she was fighting with the coyotes and against the ANBU. Concentrating on his current enemies Gaara got his sand into the position to crush the assassins. However instead of killing them like he normally would have done he crushed a few of their bones and let them live. He realized that if he wanted to get away from the path of loneliness that he was currently on he would have to stop hurting his village; no matter how much they hated him.

Mai sighed as she readied herself for battle. She had given up on trying to reason with herself and had just decided to go with it. Forcing her coyote tattoos to take form and join her in the world of the living she let them loose. They were only too happy to kill anyone they came across. It was easy for them since not a single one of the ANBU's justu's were capable of physically affecting them. Moving into the battle herself Mai used her blades to cut a bloody circle around herself. The Sand siblings glanced over to their temporary ally's position and saw her fighting the ANBU. She would not allow herself to be killed in battle, let alone a battle that she didn't really need to fight in in the first place. Feeling a blade cut through her right side the masked shinobi turned and killed the ninja that had caused it. However once her attention was taken away from those to her left, they cut through the armor on her arm and sliced deep into her left bicep. Without even pausing Mai turned and killed them with her blades. Coldly she continued to fight, making sure that she did not make the same mistake twice. Mai didn't take notice of how much time had passed since she had joined the fight until it had ended. However she knew that it had been longer than any of them had expected it to be. When the last ANBU had fallen she pulled her coyotes back onto her skin. Kankuro's war paint was smudged from his sweat while Temari sat down, her leg bleeding with the kunai still stuck in it. Gaara simply watched his siblings reactions. Matsuri was in hysterics and it was to her that the masked ninja moved first. While she calmed Matsuri until the girl wasn't sobbing so hard she was hiccupping the siblings moved to ensure that they were all relatively unscathed. Kankuro could feel the effects of chakra exhaustion coming on and he sat down quickly; hoping to derail the nausea he was feeling. Gaara watched both of them and worry started to form a furrow on his brow. Temari had her eyes closed in pain as she was trying to work herself up to pulling out the kunai that was in her leg. Seeing their condition Mai internally sighed and moved toward their small circle. They tensed as she moved toward them but then relaxed slightly when she slowly pulled her first aid pack out of her small bag. Moving first toward to Temari Mai slid down next to her, momentarily forgetting her own injuries Mai inspect the wound and her eyebrows rose slightly behind her mask. She was impressed that Temari had been able to continue to fight despite the painful wound in her leg. Quietly she said, "This is going to…" Temari yelled as Mai pulled out the kunai before she had finished her sentence. "hurt…" "That was pretty good" Temari complimented her as Mai started to wrap the rapidly bleeding wound. "I live to serve." Mai said with sarcasm dripping from her voice. Temari snorted and then looked over toward Kankuro. Nodding Mai understood what she was trying to convey and moved toward the puppeteer. "Hey!" Kankuro protested lightly as Mai began to examine him. Realizing that chakra exhaustion was his worst injury Mai quickly dug in her bag and pulled out a soldier pill along with a canteen of clean water. "Here," She said softly as she pushed both into his hands. "Take the pill with the water and keep your head near your knees for a few more moments." "I don't need your," Kankuro was cut off just as another wave of nausea hit him. "You were saying?" Mai said dryly. Kankuro started mumbling under his breath and took the pill with a look of approval from Mai. Just as Mai was about to turn to Gaara to make sure he didn't need any assistance she winced from her wounds. They were deeper than she had originally thought and she was going to need a few basic first aid treatments. Both Gaara and Temari heard Mai's swift intake of breath while Kankuro was busy trying not to throw up. Moving slowly toward her as if she were a wounded animal Gaara crouched down next to her. "You were hit." He stated solemnly. Temari looked at Gaara in shock. She hadn't expected him to pay any attention to their apparent savior. "Here let me help you." Temari said as she painfully drug herself over to Mai. Mai looked at her suspiciously until she said, "To return the favor…" Mai nodded and then let Temari help her pull her shirt over her head so they could get a better look at her side and shoulder. Mai was wearing her forest green sleeveless top that showed her midriff with black harem pants. Her dao sheathes were strapped to her back and they had to be removed first before she could pull off her top. Mail armor covered her right arm and both of her legs underneath her pants and shirt. Upon closer inspection Temari and Gaara saw that Mai was covered in tattoos. All were of animals and if you looked at them sideways they seemed to move as if they were alive. Gaara focused on the coyote pack that seemed to be moving from the back of Mai's neck to her face beneath the mask. Hesitating only slightly Gaara pulled out some of Mai's supplies and started to clean her wounds. Astonished and fatigued Temari just sat back and watched the red head work. "Your name…" Gaara said looking at Mai while trying not to stare at the girl. Without her shirt and armor on she only had her pants on with a breast band. "you never told us." "Ahh, I believe I didn't get yours either; however since you asked my name is Mai." Gaara nodded, his sea green eyes met her startling silver eyes as he said. "Mine is Gaara." Smirking underneath her mask Mai nodded and looked toward Temari and Kankuro. "And yours are?..." Temari smiled slightly and said, "Well I'm Temari and this baka is Kankuro." She said indicating toward the slightly green puppeteer. "Kankuro." Gaara said, "Why are you so fatigued, you had not yet reached your limit when the fight was ended." Kankuro chuckled slightly into his knees as he said, "I'm tired cause besides saving my own ass I had to save Temari's as well after she got hit." Gaara nodded and frowned slightly. He would have to work harder to understand peoples instincts to protect each other, especially his siblings. Looking up Kankuro saw that Mai was partially undressed and he openly stared. When Temari caught him staring she forcefully shoved his head back toward his knees so that he couldn't continue. After finishing up with treating Mai's wounds the kunochi looked and Gaara and smiled from behind her mask. "Do you have any injuries?" She questioned the red head. "No." Gaara said while Kankuro snorted and Temari smiled. The group decided to rest a few hours before they set off again since they were no longer being pursued. Matsuri had fallen asleep once more while Temari had been treated and she now snoozed fitfully next to Mai. Mai had rested her back against a nearby tree and her eyes rolled behind her eyelids. Temari and Kankuro rested with Gaara taking watch from between them. Gaara watched the group until it was time for them to leave. Getting up quietly he woke Temari and Kankuro first; giving them time to get ready before they had to move out. Walking over to Mai he leaned down to shake her shoulder when her hand shot out and would have stopped his hand if his sand hadn't stopped her. Gaara was almost startled into attacking when he saw that her eyes were still unfocused and he realized that she was still partially asleep. Temari and Kankuro had tensed, ready to come to Gaara's defense if he needed them when Matsuri woke up and stretched. With that movement Mai's eyes seemed to clear and recognition shone in her gaze as she looked back up at Gaara. Nodding toward her Gaara moved away and waited for everyone to get ready. Humming quietly to keep Matsuri from going into hysterics again Mai helped the young girl get ready and pull her up piggy back style so she could keep up with the group. "Just let us know when you get tired and we'll switch off." Temari said while slightly limping. Kankuro was still a little green under his paint but he looked much better than he had right after the battle, indicating that the soldier pills had helped considerably.