Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. All rights belong to Masashi Kishimoto.
A/N: This is a short-chaptered story and it is complete. Enjoy. :)
"We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love."
― Sigmund Freud
The night falls. The night falls. The night falls and falls and falls and falls until the glister of the sand dies and cold bites its viscera and sinks deep in the gritty flesh of the desert and howls from within the hollow throat of the world he lives in.
Gaara stands on the edge of the cleft between the two cliff faces that allow passage into the village. It is quiet and calm, all the things that he isn't, despite what shows on his face. No one is there to witness what is and what isn't. He stands there night after night after night after night until everything around him ebbs into sibilant breaths and sleep.
He never sleeps. Shukaku never sleeps. His mother never sleeps.
Sleep is a little death; sleep is a suspension of control. Sleep is being devoured; sleep is the time when the beast gormandizes, the soul-flaying terror of human parts forsaken, melting inside the magmatic pit of the tanuki's belly to settle in layers of sediment in its bottom. To sleep means to wake – wake with copper-lust on his tongue, raw instinct wound around his senses, coagulation of blood-silence and nothingness. Alone. Alone.
Alone feels different now. Being alone isn't the proof of existence and love he has sought in the quicksand of carnage. Self-love is rejection of human nature. A boy who feeds on his own heart will become the beast when there is nothing left to englut, and even then will crave for more of the sweet-tender-pure ecstasy that is the taste of human soul. Never sated, always hungry.
Gaara wants to be human. He wants to die a little every night.
The Kazekage's office is a mausoleum of sabulous walls and dreadful decisions. A babeldom spreads among the council elders after the news Baki has brought. He waits as they digest shock and revelations, his eyes trailing over the statue of the Yondaime. Rasa's absence is twice as heavy as the weight of his statue, and beneath its shadow, his children stand silent and miniscule. He can see no similarity, except perhaps Kankurō, but the paint that slathers his face hides it well. Baki half-believes Kankurō's choice to study the puppet technique and don the color on his skin stems from that resemblance. Rasa's middle son is peculiar like that. Kankurō's love for his younger brother is as subtle as it is glaring, and Gaara's animosity of their father the same.
Slowly, the noises shift lower, morph into denial and umbrage. Tension sharp, tongues sharper.
"This is a disaster. As if things weren't bad enough before." Sajō shakes his head. His lids rise by a margin, merely enough to pierce Baki with his stare. "And now you're telling us to sign a treaty with Konoha? That's the primary reason we're in this mess, Baki."
Nothing Baki hasn't predicted. His gaze meets Sajō's squarely, grim and resolute, just like his voice. "With the Kazekage gone and our resources depleted, what other choice is there?"
Jōseki's scoff drills into Baki's ears.
"Gone." The word is vitriolic and dipped in sarcasm. "Why don't you just come out and say it? Rasa went and got himself killed by the very person who was supposed to be our last hope – and we can't even avenge him. Not that it'd do us any good at this point."
Baki grits his teeth at the blatant disrespect, in this very room of all places, but Gōza mediates with his too-calm manner.
"Watch your words, Jōseki." Gōza's voice spills out of his throat in too-soft nuances, doesn't sound like reprimand, but it is all that and more. "Everything Rasa has ever done was for the benefit of the village." His neck tilts in the direction of the Yondaime's statue with meaning. "Don't speak ill of the dead, much less in front of Rasa's family."
"Family." Another scoff. More acid and sarcasm. Jōseki's lip curls as if the meaning that family encloses offends him. "They are shinobi of the Sand. Blood means nothing in this room." Gaze narrow, skin tight around his mouth, he studies the youngest of the Sand siblings. "Rasa knew that better than anyone."
Baki can see revulsion in the tightness of Jōseki's mouth, in the glint of his eyes, pitch-black with acceptance of that revulsion. Gaara lives by Rasa's decree, or at least that is what Jōseki wants to accept, because the truth Baki knows is unpalatable to the eleven elders at this table. Gaara lives by his will alone – and no one can change that.
"Enough." Baki's voice echoes, one lash of command. He's had enough – enough of this hypocrisy. Gaara might not care but he does, if only for the fact that Rasa has been his liege, his charge, his friend. Such insolence and discourtesy to Rasa's legacy cannot be tolerated. His eyes slash through each and every one with the glare of his intolerance. "Since Rasa's replacement hasn't been decided yet, we'll vote."
A susurrus encroaches in the wake of his demand, hands being raised, some low and unsure, some high and firm. It doesn't matter, only that they raise them. A dip of his chin concludes the matter.
"Majority is in favor. Gōza will draft the treaty if there are no objections?"
No dispute follows, though Ryūsa raises another question, brings another matter to discussion.
"What about the Kazekage position? We need it filled as soon as possible."
It is more statement than question, but Baki has no answer to give, none of them does. There has been no other but Rasa for years; there will probably be no other for still more.
"There aren't any notable candidates, not to mention that we must have the Daimyō's approval."
Silence reigns, then Jōseki clicks his tongue, his face an ill grimace of rancor.
"He won't care even if we appoint a genin, that petty bastard."
"Jōseki –" Gōza is too late to mediate this time, his reprimand withering away with a sigh, but perhaps consciously. Someone has to say it, and Jōseki always does.
"You know it's true. If it weren't for him cutting our budget and choosing to employ Konoha nin, Rasa would have never involved himself in Orochimaru's schemes. The sooner he steps down and his successor takes over, the better for us."
Baki doesn't like the connotations meshed in that last sentence. It is open with careless ease but sealed with dark intent. A shiver creeps down his spine, coiling around his vertebrae with foreboding. Even if he warns Jōseki against any ploys brewing in the other elder's mind, he can't stop him. Without the Kazekage, the elders only answer to themselves. Still, Baki tries.
"I hope you're not planning anything foolish."
A smile is all Jōseki gives, one twist of cracked lips and vileness. Baki pretends he never sees it but he can't pretend he never sees the way Jōseki's eyes flit to Gaara for a split second. Nothing good will come of this. Baki's mouth clamps down on itself. Words are useless. Why is that the only thing he has? Rasa…why did you die before me?
The council comes to an end after more useless words, more denial, more umbrage. Baki regrets his rash decision to have Rasa's children attend the council simply because they are part of the events that have led to this quagmire. In truth, they don't need to be here. Temari doesn't need to endure the lewd stares of men thrice her age; Kankurō doesn't need to know Rasa's failure when he looks so much like him; Gaara doesn't need to draw Jōseki's attention when he is recognized as nothing but an instrument.
Baki can only stand rigid and forbidding as Jōseki approaches them with measured steps.
"Gaara." There is such repulsive overtone in Jōseki's voice when he speaks the name – demon-spawn, demon-love – that Baki hopes it will be enough to deter him. But it isn't. "Come see me tonight."
If Gaara has even listened, nothing reveals it. The child is as cold and unmoving and lifeless as the statue of his father above him. Baki clears his throat. A vain attempt to forge some excuse in case Gaara has listened slithers down his tongue.
"The Kazekage's burial will take place tonight."
Temari is the one who nods. "We'll be there."
Her voice carries the strain of the eldest and her eyes gleam like blue copper but softness reflects in the cutting sheen.
Baki's gaze falls on Kankurō. So much like Rasa…so much.
"Kankurō." What Baki says is addressed to all three but more to Kankurō, and that is why he speaks his name, seeks his eyes. Baki will never hide behind hypocrisy like the rest of them. It is the least he can do, and he owes it to Rasa.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
A distortion of purple paint and eyes and lips. Kankurō smiles but there is another kind of pain in his smile, not the one Baki expects or wants to see.
"Your loss is greater than mine."
He understands then. The man Baki remembers has always been more Kazekage than father.