Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of its characters.

Chapter 26

"Ah, Kai-san, right on time."

Minoko gave a formal bow, "Kazekage-sama. You wished to see me?"

Rasa nodded and gave her an evaluating look. The silence that followed the gesture stretched for an uncomfortable amount of time, the air in the room slowly growing thick with tension. Minoko tried valiantly to not shift in agitation.

After a good, solid five minutes of quiet, the Kazekage nodded again, "I believe that you have adequately rested since your return from Kiri, have you not?"

"Hai, Kazekage-sama. I thank you for allowing me to do simple missions within the village since then. I am fully recovered and rested. Is my next mission outside of Suna?"

The Kazekage stood and walked to stand in front of his desk. Out of the corner of her eye, she absently noticed Yashamaru-sensei standing guard near the window. She guessed that his mission for the day consisted of guard duty.

"Yes it is. You should know that the missions you will be partaking in from now on will become your sole specialty over the course of your shinobi career."

Minoko straightened at the declaration as a trickle of unease traveled up her spine.

The leader of Suna slowly walked toward her and stopped when he was only a foot or so in front of her, causing her to look almost straight up. Sometimes, she really disliked being so short.

"In all actuality, the reason for your rapid promotion was solely so you could take on missions such as this. With your young age and innocent demeanor, you are ideal for a certain…branch of missions that are to be carried out for the safety of Suna."

The uneasy tingle up her spine pooled into a cold dread that settled in her stomach, "Sir, may I ask which branch you are referring to?"

"Assassinations."

Minoko felt her breath hitch, but she couldn't form a coherent enough thought to respond.

"Normally, I allow for my shinobi to choose their own specializations, but you are a unique case," he said coolly. His eyes almost looked lazy, if not for the sharp gleam that came from behind the half-mast lids as he stared down at her, "I was told by Yashamaru that you have been improving rapidly in several aspects regarding stealth and undercover work as well as your continued education in ninjutsu," he went on, ignoring the look of panic that had to have crossed her features, "You've also had your first kill a while back, so you shouldn't freeze like most young shinobi do. That combined with your previously mentioned demeanor, means that you will be able to get close to a target without raising their suspicions."

She swallowed thickly, trepidation causing her to fumble over her words, "W-who…who am I supposed to... k-kill?"

The Kazekage regarded her for a moment before he smoothly turned and strode over to his desk, "Your first target will be a man suspected of slave trade in a trading town called Mie. It's on the north eastern outskirts of Kaze no Kuni."

Minoko barely registered the words as a sense of relief hit her. For a moment, she had been worried that he would send her after Gaara. But that would be insane. She'd never hurt him.

She automatically caught the scroll that her leader tossed to her.

"You will be leaving for this mission in the morning before dawn. I don't expect it to take more than three days. You will find your target's information and your instructions in the scroll. Memorize it and burn it before you leave."

"Hai, Kazekage-sama," Minoko stated with a bow, clutching the scroll to her chest.

"Dismissed."

The mission was fairly straight-forward. Go to Mie, act the part of a homeless child looking for food and work, make contact with the target, and kill him. Do not leave any witnesses.

That last line caused some trepidation to course down her spine. She didn't want to kill random bystanders. She didn't want to kill innocent people.

She honestly didn't want to kill at all.

But she didn't really have a choice. Minoko figured that she would just make sure that she was alone with her target whenever she killed him. That way she didn't have to spill too much blood.

Nodding to herself with a bit of false bravado, Minoko burned the scroll in her hands and dumped the fiery paper into the waste basket in her room. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm her nerves. She could do this. She could.

"Minoko?"

Her eyes snapped open as she looked to her door. She hadn't even noticed it open.

She forced a small smile when she saw Taru standing in the doorway with a concerned frown on his face, "Everything ok sweetheart? Why do I smell smoke?"

"Yes, Daddy. Everything's fine. I just have a mission in the morning that I'm not looking forward to," she said as she rubbed the back of her neck.

The worry lessened on his face and he bit back a small, teasing smile, "Another cleaning mission?"

"A-ah, yeah…something like that," Minoko affirmed in a hesitant tone, eyes darting to a very interesting wall. Oh, would you look at that. The paint's started to chip. She should probably touch that up when she had some free time.

She still saw her daddy's frown return out of the corner of her eye, "Minoko? What's going on? Are you really ok?"

Minoko shuffled her feet and looked back to him with a shrug, "Sorry, Daddy, but I can't really talk about it. Shinobi stuff."

The concern returned despite his efforts to conceal it behind a smile, "I see. I guess I'll just have to make you a big breakfast before you go, then."

"Ah, you don't have to," she said, waving her hands in a negative fashion, "I have to leave before sunrise. You've been really tired and should get some sleep. I'll be fine. You don't have to worry about me."

A minute scowl crossed his features as Taru strode into the room and knelt before her. He looked so serious…more serious than she had ever seen. He gently took her by the shoulders, "Minoko, I want you to listen very carefully. I don't care how old you get, how smart you are, or what your rank is. I will always worry about you. Do you understand me?"

Minoko opened her mouth, but no words came out. Instead, she slowly inclined her head.

Taru looked in her eyes for a moment before his features smoothed out and he pulled her into a warm embrace, "I love you. So much," he said as his voice cracked, "So, so much. I know you can't tell me some things about your job, but never doubt that I'm here for you if you need me, ok?"

Minoko clenched the fabric of her daddy's shirt as she returned the hug. Somehow…it felt more solid, and yet more fragile, then ever before, "I-I understand Daddy. I love you, too. Bunches and bunches."

Taru gave a gentle squeeze and released her, a suspicious sheen to his eyes and he sucked in a deep breath and rose to his feet, "Now, what do you want for breakfast tomorrow?"

Minoko smiled as she realized some of her nerves had settled with that question.

Gaara had to wait four days before he saw Minoko again. During that time, he acquired a picture from Taru-san to add to his notebook that contained all the information he could think of about his best friend. It was of the two of them at his birthday party. Gaara's cheeks were slightly red as he looked at the plant in his hand with a shy smile. Minoko stood next to him with her hands behind her back and a huge, joy-filled smile lighting up her equally rosy face. Yashamaru-oji-san probably took it since Gaara could see Taru-san in the background aiming a mild, annoyed glare in his direction.

He still didn't know what that was about.

Gaara had waited at the gates on the fourth day, the day she was supposed to return, and meditated in the shadows of the wall. He could feel the guards' chakra spike in nervous intervals, but he wasn't about to move from his spot. Yashamaru-oji-san had given him the day off and Gaara had already attended to his cacti. He had nothing else to do that day. He was determined to greet Minoko the moment she stepped back into the village.

It was just past eleven in the morning when he felt the shift in the sand a kilometer or so out from the village. He opened his eyes and rose to his feet, ignoring the jumpiness of the guards with practiced ease. He looked out over the dunes and saw a small, cloak-covered figure trudging over the last crest. It only took a moment before her dark hair and crimson eyes were clearly visible. He smiled.

After she checked in with the guards, he walked over and handed her a canteen without a word. She looked at it a moment without moving. He started to get worried. Her eyes weren't as lively as they usually were. A crease formed in between his brows as she continued to look through the canteen. Gaara raised his other hand and gently touched her arm.

Minoko's eyes snapped down to his hand and, seemingly in a daze, followed it back up his arm and looked into his eyes. Recognition slowly started to dawn over her features as she sucked in a breath.

Gaara didn't really know how to react. This wasn't like her at all. Should he hug her? He didn't really know how to. The concept was simple, sure, but he had never really initiated that particular form of contact…except that one time in the hospital, but he wasn't sure if this was like that. Maybe he should stop touching her? Maybe he should find Taru. He usually knew what to do with emotions and-

Minoko flung her arms around his neck and squeezed tightly, but not uncomfortably so. Gaara's hands were suspended in the air above her back, mildly taken by surprise and still not really sure what he should do as he looked down to the crown of ebony waves under his chin.

Before he could make up his mind, Minoko gave a sigh and stepped back, "I'm home," she said.

Gaara was pleased to note that some of the spark had returned to her eyes. He gestured toward the canteen again, "Welcome back."

Something eased in his heart as she took a drink of the water with a smile.

Minoko went through the next three weeks in a bit of a haze. Oh, she remembered everything that happened and what was said, but it almost felt like she was watching the events of someone else's life. Like she was just a spectator.

The Kazekage would give her a day or two off after her return from each mission, then sent her off on another with a new scroll of information on the next target burned into her mind immediately after.

She remembered each kill. She remembered how determined she was during that first mission in Mie to not allow witnesses in order to minimize casualties. She remembered how she snuck into the man's room late at night after his breathing evened out. How he was so confident in his standing that he didn't even bother hiring guards. She thought it would be simple. And it was.

She just wasn't thorough enough in her reconnaissance.

A quiet gasp had come from the other side of the large man after she had slit his throat. Minoko had never bothered looking closely at the other side of the bed before then. It had just looked like a balled up blanket at a quick glance. But instead of a blanket, she saw a pair of frightened eyes set in the face of a young boy not much older than she was.

Minoko knew that the man was scum. He dealt in human trafficking and didn't really care about what happened to his "merchandise." She just didn't know that he…danced…with the people he took, too. The kids he took.

Minoko had put on a fake smile and dredged up all of her acting talent in order to calm the child. She found him some clothes and talked to him in hushed tones. He seemed happy. Hopeful.

Minoko never felt more disgusted with herself than when she snapped his neck when he turned his back to her. No witnesses.

She made sure to never make that mistake again. She surveyed whatever room her target was in to the point she could tell you if a single speck of dust was different from one second to the next. She pushed her senses to the limits to make sure there was no possible way another person would walk in at the wrong moment. She would not make that same mistake again.

Minoko knew that her dad and Gaara were getting worried about her. They didn't say anything about it, but she could tell. She wasn't sleeping very well and she knew that the rings under her eyes were starting to get fairly pronounced. Her dad even tried joking that she was spending too much time around Gaara because she was starting to look like him. She forced a chuckle at that.

Honestly, she felt like she wasn't spending enough time with him. Her friend was one of the only things keeping her grounded to the here and now. He made sure to be by the front gates to welcome her home after each mission. He never asked for details, but always seemed to know when her mind wondered into unpleasant memories. The redhead would make an extra effort to distract her during those times.

He would buy her some dango or take her to the greenhouse. He wouldn't even drag her to his cactus room. They would just wander around the greenery in the main part of the building.

Occasionally, they would stop by the shrine and visit Kana and Yuri. Minoko knew that Gaara still felt a bit awkward around the child that seemed obsessed with catching his fingers, but he was slowly warming up to the toddler.

Kana was still as kind as ever. She made sure to make them feel right at home. She was a bit sneaky though…for a civilian. She somehow managed to get both her and Gaara to hold Yuri at some point. Minoko didn't know how. One second, the child was in her mother's arms, and the next, Minoko was holding a squirming, giggling bundle. The panic that crossed Gaara's face when it happened to him, though, was priceless.

Minoko inwardly sighed and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She was lucky to have such wonderful people in her life. She didn't know what she would do without them.

Rasa looked over the latest report with a critical eye. The young chunin had successfully completed her sixth assassination the day before. Other than the negligible mistake on her first mission that she rectified immediately, she was proving to be thorough and efficient. It would almost be a shame to lose her. But he knew that, for the good of the village, he had to risk it.

She would either take care of a problem that had been a thorn in his side for the last several years, or she would die trying. Either way, he would be able to test the fragile stability of the faulty weapon. There could be no loose ends. No weaknesses.

"Yashamaru, bring me Kai Minoko. I have a new assignment for her."

A/N: I apologize for the late update. Unfortunately, I still don't know how frequently I'll be able to update, but I am not giving up on this story! Please review and let me know what you think :D