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

Chapter 3

After that first meeting, Minoko and Gaara met every day to play, and everyday Gaara seemed surprised to see her waiting for him by the swings. Minoko would smile and wave so enthusiastically that he wondered how she didn't fall over. He would give a shy smile as he walked over, then she would take his hand and pull him in a random direction to start the day's adventures.

The first time that they took turns pushing each other on the swings, he had been nervous. He knew that his sand never really let anyone touch him before and he didn't want to hurt his new friend. He slowly got on when it was his turn and took hold of the chains, his body tensed and eyes closed tightly.

Minoko didn't really notice any of that , thinking he was just shy, and smiled at his back, "Ready?" she asked.

He hesitated, then nodded slowly. Minoko placed her hands on his back and slowly started to push him. Gaara's eyes snapped open when he felt her hands on his back. The sand didn't react! As he slowly started to go higher and higher he chanced a glance behind him. Minoko had her eyebrows scrunched in concentration, focusing intently on timing each push.

Gaara couldn't help it; he let out a soft, disbelieving laugh. His eyes closed in pure happiness and his features softened drastically. He finally looked like the four year old that he was. One without the burden that he carried in his everyday life.

Minoko stared at him in awe. She had never seen anyone that pretty in her whole life! She decided then that she was going to do anything that she could to make him laugh again and again and again for the rest of her life!

They played until the sun started to set each day. Minoko needed to be home before the sun sank below the outer walls of Suna and Gaara would always insist on walking her home. Yashamaru-oji-san said that that was what you were supposed to do for a girl.

Each night, when they reached her front door, Minoko would say goodbye in the same way. She knew that Gaara wasn't sure how to hug people or say goodbye, so she said that she would make sure he did it right. She would stand directly in front of him, take his hands and place them around her waist, and throw her arms around his neck. She would then say "You're my best friend, I love you bunches and bunches, and we'll be together forever!"

The first time that she did that, he had frozen and turned bright red. She had giggled and went inside while he remained frozen in place for a few more minutes. After repeating the same ritual every night for the last three weeks, he was finally starting to get used to it. If he was honest with himself, he was starting to look forward to it. Minoko was the only person that had ever hugged him. Even Yashamaru-oji-san had never done that. The most that he did was place a hand on Gaara's head. It was comforting, but not as much as Minoko's hug.

Gaara found Minoko sitting on the swings in the afternoon about three weeks after they started playing with each other. They had to meet up later in the day because he had a meeting with his father that morning. Gaara's features hardened slightly at the thought of that man. He really didn't like him. Not only was he cold, but he didn't even seem to look at Gaara as a person. The man even told his siblings to stay away from him. The meeting had been about Minoko. He said that Gaara needed to be careful, because if she got hurt, it would be his fault.

Gaara looked across the park at her as he walked over and a small smile broke through. She was staring into space like she sometimes did while they were together. He didn't know why she did that, but she never responded to him while she was like this. He didn't question it too much though. After all, he sometimes missed what people said on the outside whenever Mother spoke too loud on the inside. Maybe something similar was happening to her?

He waited patiently on the swing next to her and watched her as her facial expressions changed. Her eyes were almost the same color as his hair, maybe one or two shades darker. When she got like this though, something about her eyes seemed to…shift…in some way. He couldn't really explain it.

He looked at her long, waist-length, wavy black hair piled on top of her head in a messy ball. He thought it was called a bread…or was it a roll? …something that he could eat.

"I should have eaten lunch when Yashamaru-oji-san asked," he whispered to himself a bit self-consciously. He had already been running late because of the meeting lasting longer than he thought it would and he didn't want Minoko to leave.

She was his first friend. The first person other than his uncle that seemed to actually care about him. Everyone else ran away when they saw him or just glared. He was almost waiting for the day when Minoko realized that everyone else was right and would leave him too. He knew that she was kind, but he had never had someone that stayed this long. Even his brother and sister were scared of him. The moment she found out about Mother, she would probably be scared too.

He was drawn out of his miserable thoughts when Minoko blinked rapidly. Her nose scrunched up in a way that made her look really cute. Almost like a puppy that got its nose tapped for doing something naughty.

"That's still a really weird dance," she said to herself.

"Dance?" Gaara asked. Minoko jumped and almost fell of her swing when he spoke. Gaara giggled softly when she turned to playfully glare at him. He felt his chest get warm. Her glare never made him feel cold like the others.

"Don't do that!" she scolded.

Gaara tilted his head to the side slightly, looking innocently confused, "Don't do what?"

"Sneak up on me," she said with a small humpf. She righted herself on the swing and looked around her, "How long have you been sitting there anyway?"

Gaara shrugged and she sighed in response, trying to look at him sternly. He smiled at her when her lip started twitching upwards. Pretty soon both of them started laughing at how ridiculous the situation was.

Minoko wiped a tear from her eye and looked at her best friend, "So what do you want to do today? It's your turn to pick."

Gaara's face lit up and he started bouncing lightly in on his swing, "I want to show you one of my favorite places!" he said excitedly.

Minoko nodded and hopped off her swing, "Lead the way!" she said.

Gaara's stomach chose that moment to give a loud rumble. His face turned bright red as Minoko giggled, "Maybe we should get something to eat first. How about that one stand that sells salted gizzard? I know it's your favorite," she said with a kind smile.

Gaara bobbed his head as the blush started to recede and jumped down from the swing. He started to walk in the opposite direction of her apartment building and Minoko moved to walk alongside him. They started to talk and laugh about different things along the way. They were both always surprised when they realized that they could have real conversations. That had both been told that they were smarter than most kids their age, so it was nice that they could talk normally with each other.

They chatted about when they would go to school and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Minoko talked about the possibilities of being a baker, painter, or seamstress and the pros and cons of each profession. From skill level, to studies, to demand for each job in Suna and pay differences. Her daddy made sure she knew about this kind of stuff so she would be more responsible when she got older. Gaara nodded along to each possible career and assured her that she would do well in anything as long as she tried hard at it. When she asked him what he wanted to do he shrugged, "People in my family always become shinobi, so I'll probably have to be one too."

Minoko changed the subject when she noticed his slightly uncomfortable look and started jabbering about different ways to bake a cake and the flavors that she thought were best. They both continued talking, well, Minoko talked and Gaara mostly listened, as they arrived at the food stand and as they ate.

They finished quickly and threw away their trash. Gaara's face brightened when he remembered that they were going to his favorite place. He started walking, gesturing for Minoko to follow him.

Minoko soon noticed that wherever they went, there weren't any crowds. She looked around and saw people looking at Gaara with fear. Some sneered at him in a way that made her angry. She saw him notice the same thing when he started to get even quieter than usual. She reached out and took his hand as she walked a little quicker, sending the occasional glare back at the meanies.

Gaara looked down at their joined hands and a small, shy smile appeared on his face. He wasn't alone. He looked at the tiny girl in front of him and gently squeezed her hand in thanks. She glanced back at him and grinned. He knew then that he would make sure nothing happened to her. If she was with him, it didn't matter what anyone else did.

The two children ended up walking for about twenty minutes before Gaara started vibrating with barely contained excitement, "We're here!" he said as he let go of her hand and ran up to a glass building. He looked over his shoulder at her as he stretched up on tiptoe to open the door, "Come on!"

Minoko looked at the massive green-tinted glass building in confused curiosity. It was at least three stories high and longer than any building that she had seen before. After pausing a moment to take it in, she just shrugged and followed the red-head inside.

When she entered the building, she had to take a moment to remember how to breathe again. There were colors everywhere! And more green than she had seen in her whole life combined! She looked around in awe. There were trees that she had only seen in books surrounding her, some that went all the way up to the ceiling! Closer to the ground were flowers of every color and size. Some were in pots while others were planted in a slightly raised area of dirt near the trees.

She was so mesmerized that she almost forgot to look for her friend. She glanced down the different paths that lead away from the front door and saw a messy mop of red hair pop out from one corner, "Come on, this way!" he said. Minoko had never seen Gaara look so…lively…before. He was almost glowing in this place. She jogged a bit to catch up with him before he went around the corner. She didn't want to lose him. If she did, she would probably be lost in here forever!

"Wait for me! Why are you going so fast?" she asked when she caught up. She took a breath and looked around them, "This place is amazing! I can see why it's your favorite spot!"

Gaara looked confused for a moment, "This isn't my favorite spot," he said seriously, "it's further in the back in its own section of the greenhouse."

She gaped at him incredulously, "Somewhere better than here!? Seriously?"

He nodded his head enthusiastically and started to walk quickly again. She walked with him through the winding paths of greenery. After a while they came to another door that Gaara opened eagerly. Minoko was brimming with so much anticipation and excitement that she rushed in after him…and stopped abruptly.

Cactuses…or was it cacti? ...were everywhere. Big, small, fat, thin, flowers, plain. Everywhere she looked, she saw a prickly, green blob that would stick you like a desert rose if touched…and she wilted. This was what he was so excited about?

She looked over at the boy and saw that his whole body relaxed as he looked around. There was a sense of peace surrounding him that she had never really seen before. She sighed lightly and gave a small smile. Well, if he was happy…

"This place is pretty cool too. Are they all the same type?" she asked.

She didn't expect the offended look that crossed his face, nor did she expect it to look so adorable.

"The same?" he repeated in disbelief, "They're completely different!"

"Really?" the crimson eyed girl asked, doubt lacing her voice, "How so?"

What followed was something that she could not have prepared for. Gaara launched himself into an hours-long speech about the differences between the prickly death traps. Gaara's eyes lit up when he was explaining how each one was different and how to take care of them. Some needed more water and lived on the edges of the desert, some survived on a small amount of water each year. This one was edible after you cut off the thorns, but this one was poisonous and used on some shinobi's weapons. This one flowers once a year, these bloom all year, and that one over there never has a flower.

Her head was spinning from the information overload, but she liked seeing him happy so she just continued nodding along while he talked. She didn't think that he was even capable of talking this much!

"How do you know so much about cactuses anyway?" she asked a couple hours later when he paused to catch his breath.

He looked down and gave sad smile, "Before you came, I was alone. Except for Oji-san, no one really talked to me or wanted to play," he paused and looked at the cacti around him, "Growing these gave me something to do. They kind of inspired me."

Minoko blinked and digested what he said. She was unusually observant for a four year old. Her parents always said so. She was smart and collected knowledge like Gaara collected cacti. So after a few seconds her eyes widened in realization, "Wait, you grew these?"

Gaara's face turned bright red as he looked away from her. He gave a slight nod.

"When did you have the time for all this?"

Gaara paused and looked like he wasn't sure if he wanted to tell her. She waited patiently for his answer. She found that if she waited, he would tell her things more easily than when she tried to pry.

He took a deep breath and looked at her. She was surprised to see a hint of fear in his eyes when he said, "I can't sleep at night."

"…ok, why not? Do you have bad dreams?"

He shifted from foot to foot and took another steadying breath, "I…I…well, you know how people avoid me and call me a monster?"

Minoko's eyes hardened when she thought of those meanies. She nodded and he slowly continued, "Well, they're not really wrong."

Minoko opened her mouth to protest, but snapped it shut when he continued, "Before I was born, the Kazekage sealed a demon in me. It's why I can control sand. And it's why I can't sleep. If I do, it will try to escape and people always get hurt when that happens." His voice grew softer with each word until Minoko had to strain to hear the end. He had closed his eyes at some point during the explanation and was shaking slightly.

Minoko did the only thing that came to mind. She quickly walked over and hugged him as tight as she could, "I'm so sorry Gaara."

She felt him shaking and felt a wet patch begin to grow on her shoulder. She started to cry a bit, too. Gaara was hurting so much and she never noticed. So much for her being observant. She was going to change that. She was going to be the best friend that she could so he wouldn't be sad again.

It took several minutes for Gaara to calm down. He slowly moved away from her and looked her in the eyes, "You're not scared?" he asked in a soft, scratchy voice.

Minoko shook her head immediately, "I will never be scared of you. You're my best friend."

Gaara smiled and wiped the last of the tears off of his face and nodded, "You're my best friend, too."

"I am curious about something you said earlier though," the raven-haired girl said with a confused look on her face.

Seeing Gaara's inquisitive look, she continued, "How in the world do cactuses inspire you?"

Gaara's mouth dropped open. It took him a few moments to speak, "You…I tell you that there's a demon sealed in me… and you ask me about my cacti?"

Minoko shrugged, if she wanted to learn more about the demon sealing thing, she'd ask later.

Gaara chuckled quietly and shook his head in disbelief, "Well, cacti can survive in really hot weather with very little water instead of dying like other plants that need water every day. They're strong, but people don't like them because of the thorns that cover them. Kind of like me," he blushed a bit, but continued, "I figured that if they could survive with only a little water, I could survive with the little acceptance that my uncle gives me. I didn't need anything more. At least, I thought that until I met you."

He looked up and she almost started crying again because of how he looked at her. Like she did something amazing for him that he could never repay.

"I thought my uncle was enough, but you were the rain I needed."

She smiled brightly and he joined her. Both laughed a bit and they relaxed into a comfortable silence.

Gaara glanced up at the glass ceiling and his eyes widened before he looked at her, "We have to go."

"What? Why?" she asked as she hurried after him. He didn't reply and just sprinted as fast as his legs would let him through the twisting paths back to the exit of the elaborate greenhouse. Minoko kept up with him and when they ran outside, she saw why he panicked. Her parents were going to be sooo mad!

The only rules that they gave her while she went out to explore the village were to stay close to the building they lived in, don't make trouble for others, and to be home before sunset. She was definitely further away from the apartments than she usually was and now the street lamps were starting to be lit. The sun had long past the walls of Suna and she could even see some stars start to appear in the dark blue sky.

"Oh no," was all that she could get out, "I'll be grounded for a week!"

Gaara looked at her as she freaked out and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked at him as he gave a small smile, "I'll walk you home. Don't worry, I'll tell them that it's my fault you were late."

"But then they would be mad at you! That's not fair!"

"I don't mind," he said calmly as he started to walk towards her apartment complex, "I'm used to it coming from people that actually hate me. Your parents are nice. They'll get mad, but forgive me after a while."

Minoko looked over at him with a raised eyebrow, "You're too smart sometimes, did you know that?"

Gaara scoffed, "Like you're any different? I'm pretty sure most kids our age would be lost if they heard us talking. Plus you know I can't sleep. When I'm not working with my cacti, I'm either walking around the village at night, or I read. I've gone through all of my older sibling's books already. I even snuck a look at their books for the Academy."

Minoko looked at him with an excited gleam in her eyes, "Do you think you can sneak me some of those books? I love reading! My dad tries to get me more, but my mom says I'm already too smart for my age and tries to get me to do things that are more 'age appropriate;' whatever that means," she said as she rolled her eyes.

As they continued to make their way to her house, the streets got darker and the lamps were all lit, causing shadows to form and lengthen and a creepy, inconsistent glow illuminated the road at odd intervals.

Minoko nervously glanced at her companion and saw how relaxed he looked, "Aren't you scared? It's getting kinda scary out here."

He looked at her and said, "I just told you that I can't sleep at night. When I walk around Suna, I usually watch the villagers from a distance. Most of the people out here aren't that bad. Besides, even if something happened, nothing's ever hurt me before because of my sand. Don't worry, I'll protect you." She nodded and smiled, feeling better already.

But when a wall of sand suddenly rose in front of her, she nearly screamed. She turned to her friend to accuse him of scaring her when she noticed the shocked look on his face as well. He didn't know what was happening either.

Just as the wall started to lower, a different wall rose next to Gaara. This time, Minoko heard a dull thud as something hit the grains of condensed sand.

"What's happening," Minoko asks in a startled voice.

Gaara turned to her with a serious expression on his face, "You need to run. The shinobi that are attacking are probably after me. It's happened before. If you run, you should be safe."

The scared girl just looked at him like he had lost his mind. There was no way that she was going to leave him. What if he got hurt? She would never forgive herself. So, while shaking almost uncontrollably, Minoko tightened her grip on his hand and pulled him with her as she started to run.

The sand around them followed their footsteps and so did the consistent thumps coming from the other side of the barrier that now surrounded them in a circle. Her heart was beating like crazy! Were they going to die? She didn't want to die. She finally made a friend. She wanted to hear him laugh again like when he was on the swings or talking about his cactuses or when she said some stupid or embarrassing. She didn't want to die, so she ran with Gaara's hand firmly clasped in hers.

She didn't get very far with that, though, before she slammed face first into the normally protective wall of sand. She turned to Gaara and asked why he stopped. He just stared at her with wide eyes and whispered in horror, "They're in front of us."

Minoko felt tears start to go down her face. She was shaking as she turned to face Gaara fully and grabbed the hand she held in both of hers.

"What are we going to do?" she asked, her voice quivering in fright. Gaara saw her tears, wiped them away with his free hand.

"I promised that I would protect you and I will."

Minoko felt her vision start to gain a fuzzy appearance and at first thought that they were more tears. Then she felt that faint sensation in the back of her mind and knew that it was a dream bubble. She was about to pop it when she noticed something that made her gasp. She popped it quickly and looked up yelling, "Something's coming from above us!"

Gaara quickly raised his free hand up and the sand below their feet came out from under them to create a shield above their heads. Minoko almost fell at the sudden shift when the grains slipped from under her feet. She did collapse when she heard and felt the rumbling boom that came from all sides. Something huge exploded above and around them. She couldn't help it.

She screamed.

A/N: This is my longest chapter yet! I was going to break it up into two, but I liked how it flowed together.

So what do you think? Secrets revealed and a threat unveiled! If you liked it, please leave a review! Until next time! :D