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Sacred Rituals

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Five Months Before

Azumi slowly woke up, groaning softly at a weird pain in her legs. She heard a book being put down beside her. She vaguely remembered what happened before she went unconscious and recapped the night, gasping as she sat up when she remembered what happened. She almost died. "Fuck," she mumbled, running a hand down her face.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, sister," Yashamaru said as he watched his sister, letting her wake up.

"Thanks," she groaned. She gasped, realizing whose voice it was. "I can say the same to you," she smirked. "For a good while, I thought you had died."

"Who's to say I didn't," he smirked, crawling on to the bed and wrapping an arm around her giving her a squeeze. "Father sent this up." Staying in the bed, he reached over to grab a tray with a glass on it.

She took a sip from the glass. "Mhm," she hummed with a slight laugh. "It's cold."

Yashamaru chuckled. ''Should I ring for Kabuto so he can warm it up?" He watched her drink, picking up the cloth napkin to wipe away the little mustache she had made for herself.

"No, it's fine." She set the glass down. "I missed you," she said, hugging him. "You left me alone with our father which is unforgivable."

He chuckled again, resisting the urge to squeeze her for fear of hurting her further. "You're right. I'm sorry." He pulled back, looking at her. "But I'm here now."

"But you're probably going to leave soon," she mumbled.

"Not just yet," he assured her. "My little sister was hunted and I have some business to attend to here."

"Oh?" she smirked. "Business? Is it a murder you have to commit or someone owes you money?"

Yashamaru held a hand out, looking over his nails. "Oh, it might be both if I have my way." He smirked playfully at his sister.

"Save some of their blood for me," she said. She decided to see if she could move out of the bed. She sat at the edge for a moment, looking at the bullet wounds in her legs that she knew would scar for a while before she completely healed. "How long have I been unconscious?" she asked, fixing her hair and dress.

"Father said about a week. I arrived two nights ago."

"I should probably go to see our father. To show him I'm alive." She started to stand up.

"Of course," Yashamaru smirked, moving to the other side of the bed before her feet touched the ground to offer his hand. "Yes, that would probably be the right thing to do but have you heard from your future husband?"

"Sasuke?" she laughed. "No. I haven't. He's probably with his boyfriend right now."

"Boyfriend?" Yashamaru questioned, making sure she got out of bed carefully and helped her to the door.

"He met the One last week. No doubt they're doing it under the stars right now as we speak."

"Ah, sounds like a case of the One, dare I say," he laughed, opening the door for her. "Congrats to him. Have you seen our other brother?"

"Not since before I was almost killed," she laughed. "But he might be in the lab."

"Excellent." Yashamaru's smirk darkened a bit. They went down to the library which was the main way to get into the lab that Orochimaru was always holed up in. They descended down the stairs quietly, listening to where their father was located in the lab. They found him at a desk, over a bunch of documents.

"Hello, prodigal children," Orochimaru said without looking up. "It's nice to know you still exist."

"I think he's talking to us," Azumi whispered.

"Can't be," Yashamaru whispered back. "He might be talking to a hatchling."

"Wow. He considers his baby snakes his prodigal children."

Orochimaru spun around on his stool, leveling his children with a glare. He opened his mouth to make a witty reply but was hit with the image of his only daughter being propped up by his eldest son. "Well, come and say hello to your new siblings since you two seem so eager to give them a complex," he smirked, gesturing down the hall.

They followed him towards a tank of recently hatched snakes. "Oh," Azumi smiled.

"They're already smarter than us," Yashamaru joked.

"Smarter than me, too?" Mitsuki asked, approaching the group.

"Unfortunately, Mitsuki...they are."

The boy cracked a small smile, putting a hand to the glass. "Can I have one then?" he asked, looking up at their father, "so I may learn."

"Yes, you can have one," Orochimaru nodded. "Just take care of it."

Mitsuki nodded and then turned to his sister. "Are you doing better, Azumi?" he asked.

"I'm doing great," she said.

Yashamaru picked up one of the baby snakes and handed it to Mitsuki. "He's the smartest. I can tell."

"I'm glad. Kimimaro told me the hunter who attacked you could have killed you," Mitsuki said as he took the snake, letting its little pencil-sized body twist around his fingers. "I prefer you not dead."

"Are you going to name him?" Yashamaru asked.

They all watched as the baby snake stretched out on the back of Mitsuki's hand and let out the small infant equivalent of a hiss. "He's a leader," Azumi said.

"I think I'll name him Tatsuo."

"A good choice," Yashamaru ruffled the boy's hair. "Say, Mitsuki, do you want to help me beat up Log?"

Mitsuki's eyes widened at the thought of spending time with the brother he never sees and helping him beat up the brother he sees all the time. "I would be honored!"

"Wow," Azumi and Orochimaru whispered.

"And this is why you are my favorite little brother." He smirked, turning to Azumi and their father. "I told you I had business to attend to."

Orochimaru shook his head, turning to Azumi. "How are you feeling?"

"Good enough to move on my own," she answered. "But, uh, the trauma is still there. Is he still out there?"

Orochimaru looked her over. "Yes, he is. Still prowling around the hills and town which means I do not want you going out there," he said firmly.

"Of course," she said with a nod. It was understandable to her but she knew it would not be long before she did venture back out there. One traumatic event was not going to stop her. Plus she was not going to make the mistake of going through the forest again. From then on, she was only going to use the tunnels that went through the hills.

"Follow me, Azumi," Orochimaru said, turning away from the little group.

Yashamaru took this opportunity to kiss his sister's head then wrap and arm around Mitsuki's shoulders. "Let's go find Log," he said with a grin.

Azumi watched her younger brother excitedly follow her older brother before she followed her father. He led her up to the library right outside the lab and they sat down in the small sitting area in the corner.

"I've been thinking, Azumi," he started, taking an offered glass from Kabuto who seemed to have appeared from thin air, "that we start considering who you will marry."

An immediate glare was shot at Orochimaru. "Marry?" she scoffed. "Why?"

"Because you're of age," Orochimaru said simply. "And it would probably be good for you to have a companion other than the Uchiha boy."

"What I have with Sasuke is perfectly fine," she said, crossing her arms. She then realized that Sasuke just found the one on top of already having a couple of wives. The wives did not matter to her though. He did not love them. Yet, she could not come between him and the person he was meant to be with. Orochimaru folded his arms, raising an eyebrow knowingly. "Shit," she whispered. She lowered her head and sighed deeply as she closed her eyes, preparing herself for this conversation. "Who do you have in mind?"

"I have a few in mind," Orochimaru said with a smirk. "A few choices that will keep you out of trouble."

"I don't need a babysitter, Father," she said.

"I told you she'd take it that way," Kimimaro said as he stepped up behind Azumi.

"You discussed this with him?" Azumi looked at her father, almost offended.

"He is one of the choices," Orochimaru nodded.

"No," she said simply. She was not going to deny that he was attractive, but she did not need someone to babysit her.

"You haven't even given him some thought," Orochimaru sighed.

"I don't need to give him thought, Father, I already know him. And I know I don't want to marry him." She looked behind her at Kimimaro who was standing there and despite the sense of his feelings being hurt, he kept a professional look. "I mean you no offense."

"It is fine, Lady Azumi." He walked over to one of the counters to grab a vile. "I tried to tell you, sir." He gave a smaller bow to Orochimaru. "I told him you wouldn't like the idea." He shrugged, not particularly upset. Sure, he was a little insulted but he knew his ladyship enough to know it was coming.

"I'm so disappointed," Orochimaru shook his head.

"You should have seen it coming," Azumi told Orochimaru. "Try again. And expect the same results."

"Fine, fine." Orochimaru huffed. "I will give you some more time to find your own husband, however, you are still not allowed to leave the castle until this hunter is dealt with." He looked at Kimimaro. "See to it she obeys orders."

"I don't need a babysitter," she repeated.

"That's debatable," Orochimaru said flatly. "But as I said, you may find yourself a husband with my approval."

"You disapprove of Sasuke being around, finding another man that you could approve of is almost impossible."

"I do not disapprove of Sasuke but as we've established he is taken." Orochimaru turned back to his work. "I'm sure you'll find someone. But your safety and happiness is my priority."

She sighed and turned to Kimimaro. "You want to help me find a husband?" she asked.

He laughed softly. "I don't think I'd be much help, Milady, but I will offer my assistance."

"Perfect," she smirked, grabbing his hand. "Then let's go."

He allowed himself to get pulled along. "Where are we going, Milady?"

"We're going to go out and 'find me a husband.' I'll buy you a drink. Maybe we can find you someone while we're out. Just don't tell my father."

"I'll take you up on that drink." he laughed softly. He figured she would leave the castle as soon as she could. As much as he knew she did not want a babysitter, he knew he could protect her if needed, even if it was disguised as merely hanging out.

She led him out of the castle, the normal way she would sneak out. She took him through the tunnels, leading him out to the town. "We just need to be careful," she said simply. They went to the bar that she and Sasuke went to when they went to the town the week before. Kimimaro had known her long enough to know what her preferred drink was. He went up to the counter and ordered them both drinks. "I said I was going to buy you the drink," she pouted when he came back with the drinks.

"It's okay," he chuckled as he sat down, sliding her the beverage. "We haven't been out like this in a while."

"I know," she smiled. "I remember you surprising me by not being able to hold your liquor, so I'm cutting you off at three drinks, okay, mister?"

"I should be some level of offended," he chuckled, sipping his drink afterward, "but three sounds reasonable." He looked out over the crowded, bustling bar. "Outside of Sasuke, have you given anyone any thought? The Nara boy isn't so bad."

"Shikamaru?" she laughed. "He wouldn't stay awake long enough to make it to the ceremony."

Kimimaro laughed harder. "You're probably right. I'm surprised the Nara clan's even lasted this long in all honesty."

"I'm surprised they're up long enough to reproduce every three hundred years," she mumbled.

"One of the many mysteries of the world," he smirked.

"What about your love life?"

"My what?" The man choked, quickly wiping his mouth. He coughed a few times.

She laughed. "You heard me. Who are you interested in?"

"What makes you think I like anyone?"

Azumi smirked. "I just know things." She pushed another drink towards him. "Who is he?" She had seen the way he looked at a certain someone.

He felt his cheeks burn. "Juugo," he said with a soft smile.

"I knew it!" she exclaimed. She jumped over the table to hug him tight. "I knew it! That's so great! I'm so happy for you."

His face burned hotter but he smiled shyly nonetheless. "I...haven't told him I like him just yet though, Milady."

She gasped. "Why not? You have to." She backed away from him slightly. "You need to tell him now."

Kimimaro laughed a little nervously, shaking his head slightly. "No, no, I think we can save that for another day."

"Hm. Fine. Suit yourself." She sat back down in her seat. "But promise me you'll tell him soon. Things like this shouldn't go on for too long."

"I'll try to tell him soon." He smiled softly, finishing off his second drink. "You know...animals follow him?"

"They do? That's adorable." She took a sip of her own drink.

"But maybe I should tell him. You think he likes me?"

Azumi smiled. "I'm pretty positive he does."

He looked at his cup, smiling fondly. "I hope your One comes along soon, Milady. You deserve someone."

Azumi shook her head. "I had my chance and I messed it up. I don't need to find my One." She smiled at him again. "I just like to be there for other people when they find theirs. It's a very special thing to witness."

"Please," Kimimaro leaned against Azumi, "that jerk was not the One."

"I know. I know he wasn't." She had come to terms with the fact that she was going to be alone for a while. "But it's fine. I've moved past it. But now Sasuke has his One so now I have to tell my father I'm looking for a husband to get him off of my back."

"Well...we could try looking at some human boys. People watch."

"If there's one thing I like doing, it's looking at human boys," Azumi smirked. She sat back and scanned the room with him. She saw Sai, the bartender she met when she came with Sasuke. He looked like he was training a new bartender. "That bartender is new. Very cute."

Kimimaro chuckled, following her line of sight. "Oh?" he hummed, his eyes widening a little in surprise. "Neither of them is human," he commented softly.

"Huh?" Azumi looked closely at the other man and realized he was a new vampire. "Oh." She scanned the room again, seeing a young, dark blonde boy sitting alone at the bar. "Oh, he's human. And he's very cute."

"Yes, but his fashion sense is lacking." Kimimaro stifled a laugh, pointing out the boy from the waist down.

"Ugh, you're right." She slumped over and rested her head on her arms on the table. "It's like my taste in men was destroyed."

He clapped a hand gently on her shoulder. "Or maybe this town has a bad selection," he said reassuringly. Kimimaro turned his eyes on a sad-looking redhead in the corner of the bar. "He's not bad-looking. He looks sad. Maybe a drink from a beautiful noblewoman would cheer him up." He nudged Azumi up from her seat and towards the corner.

Gaara stared intensely at his glass of wine. He was wondering why he even used a glass when he knew damn well that he would finish the bottle sitting on the table. His day—much like all of his days—had been shit. However, for it to drive him to drink meant it was a particularly shitty day. He finished the wine in the glass and then pushed it aside, pulling the bottle closer to him. He took a long swig from it and sighed. His father had given him another lengthy 'talk' about why he was a shit son and he ought to sell him off. He considered it a couple of times, figuring that living literally anywhere but with his father would lead to a better existence. Before he knew it, the bottle in his hands was almost empty.

"You know," a woman's voice said. Suddenly, there was someone sitting across from him. He heard the sound of a new bottle of wine being placed down on the table. He looked away from the old bottle to the new bottle. He was prepared to tell this newcomer to kindly fuck off and let him wallow in his own self-pity until he looked at her. "Emotions can be felt by other people if they're powerful enough...and your sadness could be felt from the other side of the room." She nodded to the bottle between them. "Have at it." What Gaara was not ready for, was her. He looked at the bottle between them. She was beautiful and something about her made his heart jump suddenly.

"I do apologize," he chuckled, patting the space next to him. "Care to join me? Wine tastes better with company and so does misery." He laughed softly. He wanted to kick himself because he was not sure if he was okay that this stunning woman had crossed the room to tell him he looked as depressed as he felt. But she was there now and maybe the company would not be so bad.

"I'd love to," she smiled. She opened the bottle and poured herself a glass then gave him the bottle. "But you can drink out of this. You seem like you need it."

His fingers curled around the neck of the bottle and he thanked her with a smile, feeling a pang of embarrassment. He really was at the point where beautiful strangers could tell he was sad enough to just drink from the bottle. He wanted to care more but he could not. He looked at her with searching eyes for a moment. She felt so familiar but they had just met. He felt like they should have known each other—like she was a missing piece or just the person to fill in the void his father had created.

"The most beautiful girl in the whole town chose to share her bottle of wine with me," Gaara said, almost like he was in a dream-like state. Though only for a moment because what he said seemed to strike him quickly and he blushed as red as his hair, hiding his face slightly. "S-sorry." He could not believe he just said that. The wine must have really gone to his head at this point. His eyes lingered on hers. They almost looked golden in the low light of the bar.

"No need to apologize," she smirked. She moved to the seat next to him. "What's hurting you?"

He chuckled softly, sadly. "Ah, it's actually someone." He smirked darkly at the wine bottle. "I don't expect you to know what it's like to be a politician's kid, but it's rough," he said softly. He was not sure how much he wanted to pour out to this beautiful stranger. He trusted her for some reason. 'It's probably the wine, but you know, I'll also probably never meet her again.' He reasoned with himself. He decided to let himself live a little.

"Oh, you're a politician's son," she smirked. "Living under the pressures of your parent? That's something I can understand." She took another sip of her wine. Gaara nodded. He was sure that if he was just a tad soberer, he would have tried to redirect the conversation and find out more about her.

"It's not right," he sighed. "I'm drunk, so...I'm going to spill too much." He smiled, looking at her. "My father hates me and is trying to either kill me or sell me off. Isn't that fucked? And all I did was...be born." He laughed, taking another sip of his drink. He kept laughing and it started to sound a little manic.

"Aww, you poor thing," she frowned. She put her arm around him and pulled his head onto her shoulder. "Sometimes you just need to let things out. And sometimes it feels better to do it to a total stranger."

Gaara laughed again but it trailed off. He sniffled, trying not to cry. It was not like him at all to be like this. None of this was like him. "Thank you," he smiled. "Kind and beautiful."

"I just don't like to see handsome men like you this sad," she smiled. "I hope you find a way out. I hope you find someone that can care for you the way you need."

Gaara felt his face burn. Maybe he would regret this tomorrow, but right now he did not care. "Maybe. I'm not liked by many."

"I'm sure you're wonderful." She noted the bottle that she brought was practically empty. "Want another one?"

Gaara looked at the bottle then chuckled. He was well and thoroughly drunk. There was no way he should have any more. Especially if he wanted to continue talking to this mysterious woman next to him. "I shouldn't," he slurred, still leaning into her. She smelled nice. Like a pure smell that was interrupted by a hint of almond. He smiled against her, burying his face a little into her chest when she lifted her arm to cradle him slightly.

"Suit yourself," she smirked. "Let me know if you want me to leave. In case you need some space."

He felt her run her fingers through his hair. His heart ached at the thought of her leaving him already. "No...I... don't know why, but I'm content here." No one had ever run their fingers through his hair like this before. It felt nice.

"Not a problem with me. I have an eternity." He felt her shift to look at something. He glanced up to see a man with white hair raise a glass to her. He watched her lips curve into a smirk again, never faltering as she stroked his hair. He wanted to know her. He wished he had not drunk so much now so he would remember more.

"I probably won't remember, but," Gaara shifted to look at her, "may I know your name?"

"Azumi..." she said. "And it's okay if you don't remember. We may never meet again."

"Safe residence." He said the meaning of her name with a reverence not usually held by strangers. "You're right, we might not, but a man can dream, can't he?"

"You deserve to dream."

"Maybe." He laughed softly, closing his eyes. "Or maybe I'm dying and this moment is the end. Maybe not, though," he said softly. "This feels so good, too happy for someone like me." He said it more to himself than her. He loved the way her fingers felt in his hair and just this strange woman being there...felt like something that was missing in his life was suddenly there in this dingy bar, holding him while he tried to poison himself to death. Maybe she was an angel sent to take him away. Dying alone in a dismal bar from alcohol sounded like the sad death he would wind up having.

"I know you're belligerent right now...and you may not be able to remember much after tonight, but there is a fireworks show going on soon...would you like to go with me?" Gaara's eyes fluttered open. He thought for a moment. When was the last time he had gone to see those fireworks with someone? Or at all?

"The fireworks..." he said, his voice still soft. "I haven't been to them in years. I'd be honored to watch them with you." He felt his cheeks heat up once more. She smiled at him and grabbed his hand.

"Let's go." She pulled him up and led him out, stopping by the man who raised a glass to her earlier. He saw her give him money to cover what he supposed was her drinks and the bottle of wine they had just 'shared.' "I'll see you at home, Kimimaro," she told him. Who was he to her? She did not look like any noble he had met in town. He could not find it in himself to think too hard. If she wanted to leave the person that she had come with to leave with him, he would take it. Gaara grinned, waving to the white-haired boy as he followed Azumi out. She led him to the edge of the town to a nice spot on top of a hill with a great vantage point. "We can watch from here," she said as she helped him sit down.

"This is perfect, Azumi." He said her name softly, looking up at the open sky. He did not get to leave his house often at night. And when he did, he rarely thought to venture outside of the town itself.

"I was supposed to see them last week, but I got into...an incident that got in the way of that."

Gaara looked at her, debating if he should push to ask about said incident. He decided not to. It was not his place right now and just because his tongue was slippery with wine, it did not mean hers was. "Well, let's hope nothing of the sort happens now. This is my dream so nothing bad will happen to you," he said with all the confidence of a man two bottles deep in wine.

"Good to know I'm protected by your dream," she laughed. She sighed and laid back to stare up at the sky. "You deserve to be happy. You seem really sweet. And it seems like your father deserves to be taken out by a hitman."

Gaara laughed a real, genuine laugh. "I don't know if I'm any of those things but I know you're very kind and I'm glad I met you." His voice ended softly. He looked into her eyes as the first of the fireworks went off. They reflected off of the gold in her eyes and he could not help but marvel. They were nothing like he had ever seen before. Or maybe that was just how they looked because he was drunk.

She sat up straight and smiled sweetly at him. "I'm glad I met you, too. Even if you won't remember me."

"I hope I do." He reached out, tucking a piece of her hair behind her ear. He was not one who believed in love at first sight but at the moment he felt like that phrase was the only thing that fit how he felt. He felt at peace with her. He felt—for the first time in a long, long time—that he was not all alone. The fireworks made a halo around her and he leaned in close, pressing his lips so softly against hers that they felt like they were barely touching. She placed her finger under his chin and pressed their lips together gently to kiss him back. It only lasted a couple of seconds before he pulled away from her. Gaara's face was even brighter. "I-I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have," he stammered, his face going a few shades darker.

Azumi laughed. "It's okay. You don't have to apologize."

Still blushing, he rubbed the back of his head. "I'm so rude," he said softly. "I haven't even told you my name." They were still close to each other. The fireworks cast colorful shadows over them. "My name is Gaara."

"I enjoyed my night with you, Gaara." Her eyes flickered to the sky above them. It was then that he noticed the sky turning pink, meaning the sun was going to rise soon. "But I must go. I can't stay out for too much longer." Gaara watched her pull away and as she stood. He got up with her, catching her hand.

"Thank you, my dream, for making tonight the best I've had in a long time." He placed a soft but passionate kiss to the back of her hand.

"Hopefully, I can make more best nights in the future," she smirked. She gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Until next time." She backed away from him and turned to leave. Gaara watched her go and with every step that she took away from him, the loneliness crept back in. The only thing that kept his grin in place was the memory of their kiss and how lovely she looked under the fireworks. He laid down once she was out of sight, the wine finally settling in enough for sleep to whisk him away. He fell asleep repeating her name, desperately hoping he would meet her once more.

Azumi waited for Kimimaro by the edge of the town. "You followed me," she said casually. She knew he had been watching her since she left the bar with the sad redhead.

"I did promise to keep an eye on you and I wouldn't be able to live with myself if that monster got to you again so soon," he shrugged.

"I appreciate the concern," she said. "But I was fine." She grabbed his hand and led him back home, knowing that he was probably too drunk to get back on his own.

"Oh, I could tell you were just fine." Kimimaro's smile was a little more sly than it ever would be sober.

Azumi gasped and hit him in the shoulder. "Shut up!"

He laughed. "Kissing under the fireworks." Kimimaro sighed, batting his lashes.

Her fangs came out as she pounced on him. "Shut up!" she repeated.

He laughed letting her take him down. "I can't, I'm drunk." He laughed. "Did you find out his name at least? Oh, god, what will Sasuke say!"

"I did find out his name. And Sasuke already found the One, so me kissing another man shouldn't bother him in the least."

"Oh, please, you know he's just going to be upset that he didn't get to witness it."

"Stop!" She threatened it but she could not help the smile on her face. "We have to get home before the sun comes up." He laughed, linking his arm with hers and hurrying to the castle. They made it home just in time for sunrise.