Special Note: This chapter is a little intense compared to the previous chapters. There is some blood and death, and may be a touch disturbing. Just wanted to let you know.

Drifting Sand

Chapter Five

The Devil Within – Farewells and Departure

The four of them stood in an alley in the South West part of the city. They had tried the direct approach in returning to the Boss' office, but they had found it empty, and none of his minions seemed to know where he had gone. So they found themselves combing the areas that they knew the Otoka Gento gang to work.

The sun had nearly set and the alleyway was sorely lacking in light. Only the faint glow of orange clouds and the electric glow of the lit signs in the street crept into the rat infested space. All four were standing, with one sitting in a chair made of sand.

Ino was trying her way of intelligence gathering, infiltrating the body of one of the thugs and walking amongst them. It was taking far too long for Gaara's taste, however, and he had snatched a potential intelligence source of his own.

The blond haired girl had left specific instructions to not let her body touch anything in the filthy alleyway. She warned that if she found a single smudge anywhere, she would be sure to make them pay when the trio returned to Konoha. Thus Chouji was obediently holding up Ino's limp body under the arms, her feet barely on the ground. Shikamaru was simply standing next to the Sand nin, watching with what passed for great interest from him.

"I'll only ask this once before things become uncomfortable for you," Gaara stated, "Where is the head of your gang?"

"How the hell should I know?" he asked, noticeably scared out of his wits. After all, a large mound of sand had just grabbed him off the street, he obviously didn't know what to think. The skinny guy with a comb over started to get extremely nervous when the sand from the chair began to reach out and grab his index finger, pulling it uncomfortably far backward. "I swear I don't know where he's at! I never even met the guy! Please don't hurt me, I just run numbers! I never hurt nobody! Aaahh!"

The crack seemed to echo off the walls of the alley louder than the middle aged gang member's screams did. Both Shikamaru and Chouji winced slightly at the noise, but Gaara didn't flinch. "I suggest you impress me with your knowledge before I decide your life to be completely worthless."

The man began rattling off how he rigged different games and how the money was moved around the city. He was in the middle of talking about methods of hiring new thugs when Gaara lost his patience. Without warning, another finger snapped. As he screamed, an arm of sand reached around from behind him and wrapped tight around his neck. As he struggled to breathe, another tendril came around and formed a very sharp looking spike, aimed at the man's chest.

"Let's not do anything unnecessary here," Shikamaru said as he put his hands up in a placating manner, "He's just some peon. He probably doesn't know anything we need, if he did he would have told us by now."

Chouji backed his friend up, "Shikamaru's right. Loosing our cool now wouldn't do us any good. We just need to be patient and let Ino get the information for us."

Gaara considered their words as he watched the man cry freely and soil his pants. As he made certain his sand stayed away from that particular area, he took a slow breath. They were right, though he didn't want to admit it. He was letting his emotions control his actions, something he had tried to avoid for some time. They made him cruel and worse. He realized that he had very much wanted to kill the man before him. He also realized that the thought of doing so did not repulse him.

See, killing is a part of who you are. You claim that you have turned over a new leaf, that you would no longer walk the path of a murderer. And yet here we are, on the brink.

I didn't do it. I won't do it.

If they had said nothing, you wouldn't have thought twice about it. That man would be soaking the sand with his vitae.

It doesn't matter. They stopped me.

You don't have to listen to them. You could kill all three of them.

Shut up. I won't listen to you.

Oh but there's a fourth person here, isn't there? You've been feeling so lonely lately, and you are a growing boy. You could always use her to…

Shut up!

Oh come on! I'll bet you can't wait to see the look on her face when she comes back to her body, only to find that you're doing all sorts of perverted…

"Shut up!"

"What's wrong?" Gaara thought he heard Shikamaru's voice through the haze. He saw the man, still crying before him, and his confusion was dispelled. He turned and saw that Ino was standing on her own, though still slightly woozy from her jutsu. "Ino was just telling us what she found. Are you okay?"

As Gaara looked at the dazed girl several images flashed forward from the dark areas of his mind. When he realized that she had met his gaze with a questioning eye, he quickly turned away. "You know where he is?" he asked quietly. His odd behavior caused the three to glance at each other briefly before Ino replied.

"Yeah, I know where he is," she smiled, proud of herself "and I happened to learn that a girl named Kotori had been brought there an hour before he arrived."

The chair of sand suddenly enveloped the terrified gang member, wrapping around his body but leaving his head exposed. The Konoha shinobi all reacted to the sudden action with wide eyes.

A tendril of sand reached out and grabbed the lid of a trash can, which whipped forward and smashed the man across the head with a resounding clang. As the now unconscious man's head lolled around, the seemingly alive grains picked him up and slung him into the darkening sky. As his arms and legs spread around him while he spun slowly, his not so graceful arc carried him just high enough to land him on the third story roof of the seedy motel they were next to.

The 'disposal' of the numbers man had started just as Gaara began to speak, and ended while he was saying, "If we know where both are, then let's go."

The three shinobi all but gawked at the red haired boy as he began to walk toward the street. Realizing that they weren't following, he found them all looking up at the place their prisoner had flown to. "His injuries are far from life threatening."

They took the hint and began to move. Ino moved out in front, leading the group to their destination. Gaara found himself glancing toward her periodically, then feeling guilty about the images that his dark side had conjured about her. It was stupid for him to think things like that about her. The Yamanaka girl was pleasing to the eye, there was no doubt, but she was not the one he wanted to be with.

His thoughts flashed to Kotori. Gaara remembered when she first walked into his room, how he was thunderstruck by her appearance. Her blushing smile when he asked her what ungentlemanly meant. Her radiant green eyes as she motioned him to sit with her on the couch in his room.

Then he remembered how she had been forced to smile as she spoke of her debts, and the men that prevented her from ever leaving that hotel. It struck him just how different he felt when he remembered her cheerful look, and when he imagined her crestfallen. He actually felt glad when he recalled her smile. He wanted her to look at him warmly again.

With a renewed surge of anger at the men who took her away, and he again vowed to himself that he would not only get her back, but he would force them to stay away from her, with lethal force if needed. As he thought that, he became aware that some part of him hoped that lethal force would indeed be required.

"This is it," he heard Ino announce as they all came to a stop on a rooftop. Looking over the edge, he saw a run down looking building that might have been a hotel at one point. "They're in there."

Scowling in distaste, Shikamaru spit on the roof beside him before he spoke, "Geez, how troublesome."

"Why would they be in this dump?" Chouji asked, pulling out a piece of jerky and gnawing on it.

Shikamaru wrinkled his nose, "Can't you tell?" Gaara didn't know what he was saying, but fortunately for him Chouji didn't either. As the larger shinobi shook his head, the Chuunin sighed. "It's a whorehouse, and a cheap one by the looks of it. They brought her here because they're going to put her to work as a prostitute in this rat trap."

Gaara shook his head. This can't be true. They can't sell her off like a piece of meat for some strange man's pleasure! I won't let them!

That's it, let your blood boil! It's a silly reason to kill, but as long as you squeeze all their blood out…

I'll crush their bones to dust. I'll break every one, a single bone at a time. If they have done anything to Kotori…

No! For what they want to do! They don't deserve to live after what they wanted to do!

Yes, they all deserve to die. I'll make it rain with their blood. I will let them all feel the final pain of their bodies being crushed by my power.

The look on Gaara's face betrayed his murderous intent. Shikamaru, who had seen something very much like it directed at him before, became nervous. "Hey," he spoke with some uncertainty, "Are you okay? I think I've come up with a plan, but I want to run it by you first. It won't even require any killing!"

The last word grasped the red haired ninja's attention. As he looked at the person speaking to him, he began to realize that he had met this person before. As if a dark haze had been banished from his vision, Shikamaru's visage became clear. What was I thinking? I almost let myself loose control! He did his best to make his face neutral as he listened to the Chuunin speak. He only heard bits and pieces of it.

Why are we coming up with this elaborate plan? They could be doing horrible things to Kotori as we speak! "That will take far too long," he stated, impatient to save her, "When we find her, we can follow your plan. Until then, we will do it my way."

"And what way is that?" Ino asked.

Gaara looked at her for a moment, the dark thoughts about her that had plagued him earlier banished as he thought of Kotori. "I will clear a path for us. You will ensure no one harms her."

"I thought you didn't want to be known as a ninja," Shikamaru said with a strange look on his face. Gaara considered the strange gaze coming from him, unable to determine what was behind it.

"It is of no consequence," Gaara finally replied, "I will not allow them to harm her."

Shikamaru seemed satisfied with the answer. "We're right behind you."

The four leapt forward. Striding up to the 'hotel', Gaara didn't even wait for the bouncer at the door to protest their presence. Within a second he was rolling to a stop, unconscious, in the middle of the filthy street.

Gaara made short work of the first floor, loudly knocking holes in the thin walls of each room to peer through. He might have been highly embarrassed at some of the compromising positions he saw during his search, but he was far too focused on his objective.

When he had filled the halls with screaming, half naked women and their screaming, half naked clients, Gaara's patience was beginning to buckle. He could hear the two other men yelling questions at people as they passed, trying to find the ones they were looking for.

As the people thinned, Gaara began to realize that with only two stories, the building couldn't have held many more people than he had just seen run past him. If Kotori and her captors were in the building, there was only one place that they could be.

"Below us," Gaara said, looking back at Chouji.

Nodding in understanding, he placed his hands in the proper shape, "Baika no Jutsu!" In an instant he had tripled in size, looking more round than he did before. As Gaara noted how much like a ball the Leaf nin looked, his head and limbs seemed to disappear within his clothing. "Nikudan Sensha!" he yelled as he used his chakra to spin his body at incredible speeds. Instead of tearing forward, however, he began to rip away pieces of the floor. Ino and Shikamaru sidestepped into a nearby doorway to keep from being hit by the bits of debris being slung out of the spin like a wood chipper.

Suddenly Chouji broke through, disappearing into a great hole in the floor with a resounding crash. Not missing a moment, the remaining three shinobi jumped through the opening into the basement below. Gaara quickly glanced around as he landed next to Chouji, who was back to normal size and swaying slightly from dizziness while he slowly stood.

The room itself was dank and smelled of sweat and other unpleasant odors he couldn't identify. There were several devices that Gaara assumed were meant for torture. Shelves filled with dusty bottles and filth covered pans of various sizes, ropes and leather straps, and many things that the young ninja couldn't imagine a use for.

The Boss was laying nearby, apparently having leaped out of the way just before the human cannonball had crushed him. Several other men and two women were scattered around the room looking more angry than frightened. Out of everything in the dank basement, only one thing held his eye.

Kotori was hanging from several pulleys on the ceiling, ropes holding her wrists together and running through the wheels above and back to tie to each of her ankles. What little was left of her clothes were in tatters and there were red welts all over her. Something was tied around her head, acting as a gag. Her green eyes, filled with tears that were falling down her wet cheeks, were red and irritated, while one had a dark bruise developing under it. Eyes widening, he found his voice almost refusing to give sound to his thoughts, "Kotori?"

He heard her try to scream, but it turned into choked sobs when it failed. "Quiet bitch!" one of the other women shrieked as she snapped a piece of frayed bamboo across her back. Kotori's pathetic cries of pain were threatening to overwhelm Gaara.

"I see you turned my employees against me," the Boss said, looking at the Konoha shinobi that had followed him down. He was certainly not nearly as confident as he was before, though he tried hard to remain in control of the situation. "I was wondering what was causing all the commotion upstairs. You can be sure that the whole world will know that Konoha betrayed its contract with me. Also, tell your superiors to expect a bill from me demanding compensation for the unwarranted destruction of my property!"

"Unwarranted?" Ino snarled at the man, "You stand there with her in that…that…" Her anger began to overpower her ability to convey coherent thoughts, something Gaara was not unfamiliar with. Shikamaru noticed her waning rationale and quickly took over.

"Your contract with us was a fraud," his voice calm compared to the others, "We have a new contract now. I suggest you give the girl to us before things turn ugly."

"And trust us," Chouji added from behind the others, finally in full control of his balance again, "You don't want things to turn ugly." He was giving a nervous look at Gaara as he warned them.

For his part, the Sand nin was dangerously close to leveling the entire block. The Boss' words were lost on him as his cold eyes were focused squarely on the middle-aged woman who held the frayed length of bamboo, "You will not harm her again."

She huffed a laugh at the red haired kid. She didn't know how he had gotten down there, but she obviously thought that he had no idea what he had stepped in. "Listen here runt, this isn't a place for youngsters like you to be playing. This is where adult come to play, and this girl," she slapped her prisoner in the face, drawing another muffled cry, "needs to be broken so she can service the adults properly."

"If you value your life," the Sand nin growled, tired of listening, "you will run as fast as you can, and hope I never catch you."

The workers all laughed at the boy. The ninjas they might worry about, but this little punk was nothing compared to the five of them. Plus, the Boss was there, and they wouldn't dare do anything in front of him. His money could buy the whole city if he wanted. Even these teens would realize that he could make their lives miserable.

"What are you going to do kid, take us all on?" one of the men laughed, "We've all taken a turn beating her."

"Yeah, it's too bad they interrupted us," another man said, "I suppose we'll have to wait to really break her in, right?" The laughs of the men echoed through Gaara's mind, their voices igniting and intensifying the inferno of anger that were flickering across his consciousness. He felt as if he could almost see the tongues of flame in the periphery of his sight.

They deserve it…

With a twisted grin appearing on his face, he crossed his arms over his chest. In a voice even deeper and intense than normal, his words were dripping with his intent, "So, all of you have hurt Kotori, is that right?"

The Konoha shinobi were startled at the powerful hatred that emanated from their ally, and each felt a strong urge to run from the coming storm. At the same time, however, they dared not move, fearful that they might draw attention to themselves.

Even the Boss was perceptive enough to see that something was far from right with the boy who stood ten feet from him. He felt a nervous fear that he hadn't felt for many years. Without understanding the intense desire that filled the room, he instinctually doubted his ability to leave the room alive. He began to creep backward almost imperceptibly, moving as fast as he dared to escape the feeling of dread he was filled with.

The man's subordinates, however, seemed less intimidated. The woman who had previously been silent let her spite be heard. "Don't try to intimidate us with your pathetic glare, you little punk! Yeah, we all hurt her, so what are you gonna do about it?"

The smile on the Sand ninja's face widened to the point that his eyes began to narrow. A few grains began to float into the air from over his shoulder, increasing to several writhing tendrils of sand as he made his reply, "I'm going to cover the walls with you."

Their expressions had turned from amused or hateful to something closer to confusion and fear as they saw the arms of sand curling around the red haired boy like the tentacles of an octopus. Suddenly noticing the reaction their employer was having, the first woman and one of the men began to act more appropriately humble.

"Wait a minute, we were just doing our jobs!" The man seemed ready to bolt as he felt more and more of the hatred that filled the room.

Y-yeah," the middle aged woman stammered, "I-I don't enjoy it or a-anything!"

In the span of a heartbeat, a limb of sand crashed into the wall. The sudden movement and noise startled nearly everyone, involuntarily drawing their eyes to the point of impact.

As the dust settled, the cracks extended out like a spiderweb from the huge glob of sand that built up before the center of the collision. The only visible parts of the middle aged woman were her right hand, which barely extended out from under the heavy blow, and the copious amount of blood that had spattered out across the buckled wall.

"You need a much more impressive excuse than that," Gaara almost sang, the darkness seeming to permeate the basement.

The other man, who was already frightened, had found his excuse to run. Much to his horror, he couldn't. Looking down, he found sand around his foot and slowly climbing up his body. His breathing sped up, and the pitch of his voice was considerably higher as he begged Gaara to let him go. He called for his mother just as the sand engulfed his face.

"Sabaku Soso!" The mound that had engulfed the man moved inward at the will of its master, crushing the gang member in an instant. He reveled in the expressions of fear he saw in the remaining people. It had been too long since he felt that good, and he wanted more. There wasn't enough blood. Looking at the remaining woman, her terror evident, he laughed evilly, "I think I told you that I would cover the walls with you."

She fell to the floor as she frantically tried to run. Her horrified mind could barely allow her to blubber incoherently and flail her arms and legs as she tried to crawl away. As the sand coiled around her neck, she let out a pitiful cry of despair. As he brought her closer, he looked into her tear filled eyes. "Of course, I don't think you would be enough for walls this big, so I'll have to use your coworkers, too."

The other two men looked at each other and ran for the stairs. They were both yanked into the air as an arm of sand grabbed their legs. Almost shaking in anticipation, Gaara's evil laugh filled the basement. A moment later, the three gang members were being violently whipped into the walls and ceiling. The terrified screams of the Otoka Gento members quickly vanished.

"Stop," came a shaky yell, "Stop right now, or else!"

The three bodies were suddenly hanging in place, still as could be. Gaara's smile vanished in the blink of an eye as he turned toward the Boss. While the sand master had toyed with his prey, the man had taken what he saw as his best chance to survive. In his irrational desire to shield himself, he had cut the ropes that suspended Kotori and now held her in front of himself, a knife to her throat.

Kill him! He deserves it more than anyone! He begs for death!

He has Kotori. Even he would be able to kill her before I could do anything.

It doesn't really matter, she will die eventually anyway. You always seem to cause death to the ones you care about.

No, I won't let that happen.

Yashamaru died because of you. Your mother. She will be no different.

I can't allow that. I will not allow someone precious to me to be hurt again!

The Boss saw the wavering emotions in Gaara's eyes. He knew he had made the right choice. "Here's the deal, you let me go and leave me and my business alone. I'll give her to you and forget the debt she owes me." He looked at Gaara, waiting for him to accept the terms. The Boss felt his frustration and fear get the better of him when no response came. "Well? What's your answer? You know that your little sand trick can't get me before I slit her throat, so either you agree and take her, or she dies right here in front of you."

"You are correct," Gaara was forced to admit after a moment, "I cannot get you before you kill her. It would seem that you have the upper hand. However, there is something I want to ask you before I give my answer."

"What's that?" he replied, patience growing thin.

"How can you harm Kotori when you cannot move of your own accord?"

The Boss felt cold. What could the boy have meant by that? He tried to shake his hostage in defiance of the foolish question, but could not. His fear threatened to overwhelm him as he felt his arms begin to raise, but not from his will. It was then that he noticed one of the Konoha ninjas, the one in the vest, was raising his arms in exactly the same fashion.

In a flash, the blond haired kunoichi appeared and caught Kotori as she fell from his grasp. He watched as the female shinobi pulled away with the only thing keeping him alive. Eyes widening, his eyes rolled back to the red haired boy who, to his horror, was smiling again.

The tendrils of sand began to wrap around his limbs as Shikamaru released his Kagemane. The Boss felt utter hopelessness set in as his body rose into the air under the ice cold, murderous eyes of Gaara. Having no other recourse, he began to plead, "I'll let her go! I promise I'll never cause her or anyone she knows trouble again! Please! I'll give you anything you want! I can get you more than a billion ryo by sunrise, anything you want I'll get you! Please let me live!"

"I think not," Gaara intoned, "I'm afraid your fate consists of a painful death. You will feel the agony of having your limbs ripped from your body."

The Boss struggled in vain as he felt the pressure increase on his left arm. The pain was excruciating as the bones began to fracture and break. His cry of anguish was drowned out by another voice, however. "Gaara!"

All expression left his face as he turned toward Kotori. She was shaking in Ino's arms as she looked at him. "Please don't, I can't…don't…" her words, uneasy to begin with, completely failed her as she sobbed into the younger girl's shoulder.

Without even realizing it, Gaara released the Boss from his hold. The sand sat stationary, softening its grip just enough for the man to fall awkwardly to the ground. He scrambled as quickly as he could out of the room.

Glancing at the thud only for a moment, the young shinobi turned his attention back to the girl he so wanted to make happy. He began to take a few slow, shaky steps toward her. "But, he hurt you," Gaara said uncertainly, "I wanted him to hurt more." His voice strained in worry, his desperate hope for her approval painfully obvious in his words. "I just wanted to make you happy."

"Stay away from me, you monster!" Her entire body was shaking as she screamed at him, quickly breaking down into terrified sobs again. All Ino could do was cradle the frightened young woman as she curled against the ninja, her stream of tears already soaking through her purple shirt.

The moment she had yelled at him, all the sand in the room immediately fell to the floor. The look of fear on her face made his insides feel like they were being impaled by icy spears. He grasped at his chest as his eyes squeezed shut. It felt as if he was being pressed to death by his own sand, unable to breathe or feel anything else.

Without thinking, he ran. He didn't hear the voices of the two male Konoha shinobi calling after him, all he heard were her cries. Gaara flung himself from rooftop to rooftop, trying to escape the claustrophobia he was experiencing.

He had no idea how long he had been going, or where he was when he missed a step and sprawled out across the roof of some building. The half moon shone down on him as he pushed himself up from the cushion of sand that automatically protected him. His breathing was harried and he still couldn't form a coherent thought.

"Stay away from me, you monster!"

His strength gave way as he fell back to the rough roof beneath him, his legs curled up till they touched his arms, which were wrapped protectively around his chest.

An image of his childhood came to him, and he saw himself standing with the only person who had ever treated him kindly. "Sometimes injuries of the heart never heal," Yashamaru had told him.

Another memory, this time of Gaara knocking on a door, with a package in his hands. He had gone to buy the ointment for the girl he had accidentally injured. When he offered it to her, she became angry and yelled at him, "Go away, monster!"

"Stay away from me, you monster!"

I want to die! I hate this feeling!

He could see her bruised face, and the intense fear in her emerald eyes as she called him monster. He had seen it so many times before. The eyes of the people of Hidden Sand Village looked at him that way all the time when he was young. It was the only way he remembered anyone from his hometown looking at him.

Gaara opened his eyes and realized that he had been crying. His throat felt slightly raw from his anguished sobs and his face felt as though a great pressure was pushing out from within his sinuses. Sitting up, he crossed his arms over his knees as he looked up at the sky, hoping to find comfort.

She's as terrified of me as anyone in the village ever was. Kotori hates me because she thinks I'm a monster. Why? Why did it turn out this way? I wanted to help her! I wanted to make her life better. I wanted to see her smile at me.

His heart seemed to twist in his chest as he thought that. Kotori hated him, and she would never smile at him again. It was the same feeling he had when Yashamaru told Gaara that he had never been loved by anyone, and that even he hated the red haired misfit.

Gaara set his head down on his arms and cried.

Shikamaru rubbed his eyes as he jumped across the rooftops. He had only slept a little when they had taken Kotori back to the Hotel Daioh. Some deskman there was taking care of her with Ino's help. When they realized that Gaara was still gone, he and Chouji split up and went out looking for him. He was their employer, after all.

Chouji had given him a food pill that was designed, in part, to keep the consumer awake for an extended period of time. It was a mixed blessing, in his opinion. Shikamaru didn't feel sleepy, but his body was telling him that it was time to sit down for a while. Rubbing his eyes again in irritation, he kept looking.

It was mid morning before Lady Luck smiled on him. Jumping down from a water tower, he landed on a three story building. The roof was expansive and mostly empty save for one thing. In the dead center sat a red haired shinobi, surrounded by sand, looking up at the sky.

As Shikamaru walked slowly over to the boy, he knew that he had been noticed before he even landed on the building. Deciding that there wasn't much need for talk, he said only what he needed to, "Mind if I sit?"

Gaara didn't respond, or even give an indication that he knew the Chuunin was there. He took that as a 'go ahead' and sat down on the roof next to him, crossing his legs and leaning back on his hands.

The two sat in silence for some time. Shikamaru's body was thanking him for the rest while his mind lazily watched the clouds drift by. He knew, though, that eventually he was going to have to say something. Shaking the thought from his head, he figured that there would be plenty of time for that. He just wanted to be lazy for a few more minutes.

"She's afraid of me," Gaara suddenly spoke, "She hates me because she thinks I'm a monster."

Shikamaru was thrown for a moment, not sure what to make of the fact that Gaara of the Sand was initiating a conversation with him. Looking at the guy next to him, he shrugged a little and gave his reply. "Well, I don't know that I'd go that far. Still you did kill five people right in front of her." That didn't seem to help, as Gaara's face seemed to fall a little. Thinking to himself a moment, he tried to come up with something to make the guy feel a little better.

"I just wanted her to be happy," he said, keeping his voice supremely neutral, though his face showed just how badly he felt.

Scratching his head, Shikamaru tried to give a good answer. "Listen, women, and I mean all women, are troublesome," he spoke as if he were going on about a cup of bad coffee, "I know I use that word a lot, but women personify it. They get emotional all the time and say stuff that they don't really mean, and they expect you to figure out that they meant something else."

"She called me a monster," Gaara retorted, "When Kotori looked at me, she had fear in her eyes. She meant what she said."

"Think about what she had just gone through," he told the other ninja, "She wasn't being rational. I don't know if she meant it or not, but if she did, it will only matter if you let it. People can change who they are if they try." Shikamaru sighed, looking back at the clouds when the other boy still didn't seem convinced. "So you've got an anger problem. Everyone has issues, but we don't just sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. We just do the best that we can. It's tough sometimes, but it's the only thing you can do."

Gaara was silent for a moment, then asked, "What problem do you struggle with?"

Shikamaru grinned as he lay down on his back, hands cushioning his head, "I'm lazy and a coward, and I don't like to do much of anything besides watching the clouds."

To Shikamaru's surprise, he heard a sober, quiet laugh from the other shinobi. He watched as Gaara lay back on the roof, looking solemnly up at the white streaked sky. "I don't want to go back yet. I want to see what there is to like about watching clouds."

Shikamaru laughed, "What isn't there to like?"

It was mid-afternoon when Shikamaru and Gaara returned to the large hotel. The red haired ninja observed the bustling of people getting ready for a night on the town as they walked in. He knew that no one else would act differently just because of the pains or fears of a few, but he still thought it strange that so many people could laugh when he felt so hollow.

"I'm going to go find my teammates," the Chuunin told him, "I'll meet you back here in fifteen minutes."

Gaara nodded as the other shinobi diverged from him. Going up to his room, he noted that the cracked doors had already been replaced. After entering, he stood for a moment, looking around.

Catching his eye, he walked to the bed. Laid out neatly was a set of black clothes. The coat was long, but seemed as though it would fit relatively snug to his torso. It had a line of green that followed the seam in front all the way up around the top of the high collar.

They were the clothes he had asked Kotori to get for him. He had intended to spend at least some of his time in the hotel, taking in the experiences it offered. That would not happen now. He had all the experiences he could stand in that city. He turned from the bed and moved into the bathroom.

After he had washed his face several times, he took one last look at the room before he closed the doors behind him and returned to the lobby. He was greeted by the Konoha shinobi, Nikkuro and some of his staff, and Kotori.

Gaara found that he was unable to meet her emerald green eyes. He did notice that she looked better, and that she was dressed a simple and light kimono, probably so as to not aggravate her wounds.

Apparently noticing that Gaara was not going to speak anytime soon, Nikkuro spoke up. "Your friends here told us that you would be checking out early. We don't normally give refunds for something like this, but since you saved Kotori from those men, I think the least we can do is make an exception to that rule."

"It's my fault she was taken," he replied flatly, "I do not want compensation."

"Come now, Young Master," Nikkuro prodded gently, "You were trying to do something good for her. Just because things didn't go according to plan…"

"According to plan?" Gaara asked, "I almost destroyed her life! Because of me, someone important was hurt badly! Someone like me doesn't deserve a reward for anything."

Everyone was silent, Nikkuro was at a loss for something to say, and even the Konoha trio looked a little uncomfortable. Without meaning to, he looked over at the young woman he had been speaking of. She was looking at him with a pained expression, seeming as though she was searching for something to say.

Gaara didn't wait for her words, however. "I am leaving," he said simply as he walked past them. No one said a word, though Shikamaru's team slowly followed him toward the main doors.

That was when Gaara saw him. A young boy, about twelve or thirteen, was walking into the hotel. He had a messy mop of black hair and clothes that were even less suitable for the high class establishment than Gaara's. He looked familiar, but the Sand nin couldn't quite place it. When their eyes met, the boy suddenly pointed at him, "You! You're the one who stole my book!"

Gaara had time to blink before he heard Kotori's voice call from behind him, "Kotaro!"

The boy looked a little surprised, "Onee-san?"

"Onee-san?" Chouji asked as the trio looked at each other questioningly. Shikamaru shrugged as he turned back to the unfolding scene, while Ino looked as if she wanted to pose more queries.

"Where have you been? You were gone for days," she continued until she saw the confused looks on the shinobi. She forced a smile as she explained, "Kotaro is my little brother. He's been living here with me, but he's been developing some bad habits lately." She shot the boy a look, causing him to lower his head slightly.

Gaara, who had been rustling around in his pockets, found what he was looking for. "This is yours, right? You can have it back."

The boy went red as Gaara held the book out in front of him for everyone to see. Chouji and Shikamaru began to snicker while Ino didn't seem to believe her eyes. Nikkuro and his three bellhops were straining hard to keep from laughing out loud at the sight.

"Th-that's not mine!" Kotaro yelled. He was holding his hands up as if to shield himself from the little orange book. "What are you doing, trying to give me such a thing?"

"Kotaro," his sister said slowly, "What's going on here?"

Gaara beat the other boy to the punch. "I took this from your brother when I arrived in town. I had intended to give it back, but I haven't had a chance."

"Lies!" Kotaro cried out, looking nervous under his elder sisters glare, "I would never have something like that! I know how you feel about those things!"

Gaara heard a noise behind him. Turning to look over his shoulder, he saw Shikamaru and Chouji leaning on each other for support as they laughed out loud. Ino quickly thwapped both on the head as she blushed, "Stop acting like idiots! It's embarrassing!"

To say that Gaara was confused would have been fairly accurate, if not a slight understatement. He looked blankly from the Konoha shinobi, to Nikkuro and his men as they tried to hide their amusement, to Kotaro as he looked fearful of what his sister was about to do.

Kotori, in the meantime, had made her way over to her brother. She stared at him as he searched for something to say. Finally coming up with something, he murmured out uncertainly, "I hope you're feeling alright. I didn't know you fell down the stairs."

Her back eye twitched at his words. It seemed as if time stood still for a moment before, faster than the shinobi could see, she had grabbed her brother by the ear. "I'll show you falling down the stairs! I ought to take you up to the roof and throw you off!"

Gaara took an involuntary step back from the siblings as they struggled. She had him in a headlock as his arms flailed about. "I'm sorry, Onee-san! You look really good!"

It was an odd scene, and one that made him think for a moment. Is this the way a big sister was supposed to act? He found it impossible to imagine Temari doing such a thing to him. As Kotaro's face turned blue and his soul seemed ready to escape through his mouth, Gaara wondered if he really wanted Temari to act like a normal sister.

Finally releasing him, she growled at the gasping boy, "Go get cleaned up, you look like you just crawled out of the dumpster. And don't try to get any sympathy from Nikkuro either!" Kotaro slinked away like a scolded dog. Gaara watched as he went straight to Nikkuro when she turned away from him. The older man ruffled the boy's black hair playfully as he smiled at the boy, who now wore a mischievous smile.

It only took a few seconds for Gaara to realize that Kotori was looking at him, and she didn't seem pleased. "You lied to me," she spoke just above a whisper. He began to look away as her hand darted forward. Startled by her sudden move, his eyes quickly returned to find the young woman smiling at the orange book she now held in her hands. "You told me you didn't know what ungentlemanly meant."

He wasn't sure what she was talking about, but couldn't bring himself to ask. He was far too busy trying to figure out why she was smiling.

"I didn't figure you the type to read something like this," she continued, handing the book back to him, "You seemed so shy when we met."

"I haven't read it," he managed to reply.

Her smile faded as she looked at nothing in particular to her right. "I couldn't face you," she explained, "until just now, when I saw Kotaro. That was when I realized that what you did would free him, too. He's everything I have left, and you gave him a chance at a normal life." He considered explaining to her that he had actually forgotten to mention her brother when Gaara had made his demands to the Boss. After thinking about it for a moment, he discarded the idea, deciding it would be better not to challenge her facts on the subject.

"I'm not really sure what to think of you, Gaara. You had no right to do what you did. I was happy before. Not that happy, but it was good enough for me. You almost destroyed what little I had in life."

Gaara dropped his gaze at the marble floor of the lobby. "I know. I didn't mean for you to be hurt at all."

"What you did to those people in the basement," she went on, "I had never seen someone die before. I was so scared of what those people were doing, but I was more scared by the look in your eyes. I thought that you would kill me, too."

He felt hurt as he listened to her words. "I would never have done anything to hurt you," he said quietly.

"I know, Gaara," she replied, causing him to look up in surprise. "Your eyes aren't the same as what I saw when you killed those people. I don't know who those eyes belong to, but they aren't you." He wasn't sure what to say, or what to do. He only blinked at her as she continued, "I guess what I'm trying to say is sorry for calling you a monster. I'm still afraid of those eyes, Gaara. I hope that you can find a way to leave them behind you."

Does this mean she doesn't hate me? Why can't she be more clear?

Suddenly feeling warm, Gaara looked at the ground once more as he asked in a whisper, "Can…can I come back and see you again some day?" He felt as if everyone would point and laugh at him at any moment. Even worse, he feared that Kotori would do the same.

"Maybe," she said, just as softly, "Maybe when I'm not afraid anymore, and you're a little more grown up." He looked to see a warm smile on her face, and it felt as if something had jumped within his ribcage. "Until then, be good."

As she turned to walk away, Gaara suddenly called out, "Wait! I have something for you!" She turned back to him, surprised as he pulled out the envelope that Ryoto had given him for protecting his mother. "Please take this."

"You don't have to give me anything, Gaara," she blushed a little as she put her hands up.

"Please," he implored, holding it out to her, "I want to give you something to help you and your brother."

Reaching out and taking it, she gave him a small smile, "Thank you, for everything."

Gaara felt much better than he had when he entered the lobby. Not wanting to do anything to ruin it, he gave a quick nod to Nikkuro and left. The late afternoon sun felt pleasantly warm on his face as he stepped outside, the Konoha nin following behind him.

"Are you sure you just wanted to give her that?" Shikamaru asked, causing Gaara to look at him in confusion.

Chouji nodded, "Yeah, I mean that was money, wasn't it?"

"Probably," Gaara nodded, unsure where they were going. "I never opened it."

"Well, that thing was pretty thick." Chouji continued, "It must have been a lot of cash. You really want to just give it to her like that?"

"You guys stop pestering him!" Ino snapped at them angrily, causing the two boys to flinch. In the time it took for her to turn to look at Gaara, however, her face had become quite warm, "I think it was sweet of you to give that to her." Her face became frightening again as she looked back at her teammates, "You two ought to learn something from him!"

Unnoticed by the quarreling Konoha shinobi, a smile crept onto Gaara's lips as he looked up at the clouds above. It was worth it to see her smile at me again.

He barely noticed when Ino began to give Chouji karate chops to the back of the head, or when Shikamaru ran behind the Sand ninja to escape her wrath.

"That was rather nice of him," Nikkuro gave her a fatherly smile as she watched the four ninjas leave the hotel.

Kotori grinned back at him, "It think if just a few things in his past were different, he would have been a great guy."

Nikkuro laughed a little, "Well, it seems like he may be trying to make up for things that he lost out on. Maybe in a year or two, he really will be a great guy. Maybe even the great guy, eh?" He gave her a playful nudge with his elbow as she let out a small yelp, giving him a playful slap.

"C'mon, Nikkuro," Kotaro groaned, "He's my age! It'd be weird for someone as old as Onee-san to…uh, I mean for someone as beautiful as Onee-san to-ack!" He began to turn blue again as she ensnared him in another headlock.

"So you think I'm old, huh Kotaro?" she growled at him, an evil smile on her face as she contemplated what punishment would suit him.

Nikkuro chuckled as the siblings fought, even though it was always a one sided fight like the one he was watching. A little worried that Kotaro might pass out from asphyxiation, he decided a little distraction was in order, "Why don't you open it, Kotori? Let's see what he gave you."

Her diabolical thoughts disrupted, she released her little brother and looked curiously at the slightly crinkled envelope. She hadn't noticed how thick it was until then, and she too began to wonder just what was inside. Opening it, she peered inside at the bills within.

Nikkuro and Kotaro began to worry a little when she didn't move for more than ten seconds. "Onee-san," her brother spoke as he gently shook her arm, "Are you okay?" He noticed her eyes were wider than he had ever seen them in his life. Nikkuro, seeing that she was completely out of it, gently pried the envelope open enough for him to see over her shoulder.

"Are these all ten thousand ryo bills?" he asked, his voice almost failing him. When Kotori nodded, her breath began to increase on a pace that threatened hyper-ventilation. Kotaro, not believing his ears, snatched the envelope out of his sister's hands and began to examine it himself.

"There's five hundred thousand ryo here!" he started to laugh, "Holy shit, we're rich!"

"Kotaro!" his sister was instantly brought out of her reverie by his swearing, "I don't ever want to hear you talk like that again!" Her voice held the threat of horrible things to come, and quickly dampened the joy of the youngster, but not totally.

"I'm sorry, Onee-san," he smiled at her, "It's just I can't understand why he would have just given us this much money!" He seemed to think for a moment, then snapped his fingers, "I must be to pay for the book! But still, it was a great read, but he could have bought a copy for two. Why would he want mine so bad?"

When he looked back, he saw Nikkuro shaking his head with his hand over his eyes. Before he even saw the fire in his sister's green eyes, Kotaro feared for his life.

"I thought you said the book wasn't yours, dear Kotaro."

In a dark office across the city, a man refilled his glass with a harsh, dark whiskey. The pain in his left arm was still very much present, even after he had spent all day at the hospital. They had told him that too many of the bones had been crushed, and that he would never be able to use his left hand properly again.

That damned red haired bastard, he had done it. The boy could have killed him, but hadn't. He had been saved, ironically enough, by the girl that had brought the boy down on him in the first place. She had no reason to save him, but she had anyway. He had decided that her act had more than cleared her debt to him, and told his men to leave her and her brother alone. There was some honor among thieves, it seemed.

However, the demon boy would not get away so easily. Yes, he had to be a demon. His powers could have been that of a talented ninja, but the pure evil that had emanated from him could only have been the aura of a devil. And that devil had tried to kill him.

The door opened after a weak knock, and a weasel looking man in his fifties poked his head in uneasily. "You wanted to see me, Boss?"

"Close the door," he said before downing his glass with a grimace. When he heard the click of the latch, he continued, "The red haired boy. Hire more ninjas, not from Konoha this time. Get them from Rain or Sound or something. I want him dead."

"But sir," the underling replied, "From what you described, it would take some very powerful ninjas to kill this boy. It'll be very expensive."

"I don't care," the Boss said as he felt another shooting pain through his left arm, "Spend whatever you have to. Tell them he's even more powerful than what I described. Money isn't the concern in this matter, his head on a plate on this desk is what matters." He poked his desk with his right index finger to accentuate his point before refilling his glass.

"Sir," the older man said, "I'll make the necessary inquiries. We'll hire the most talented men that we can find and make sure that this boy gets what he deserves." With a bow, the man moved to the door and backed out of the room.

The middle aged man decided to sip at his whiskey, as he was beginning to feel the numbing effects of the alcohol. It felt good to take the first steps toward his revenge, but he hardly felt like smiling. He would spend whatever it took to avenge his hand, and to punish the brat for making him look like a fool. If it took every ryo he had, the Boss of the Otoka Gento gang would have his vengeance.

The boy had tried to kill him. An eye for an eye, but where the boy had failed, he would succeed. His honor demanded it.


My longest chapter yet. Sorry it took so long, work kept getting in my way.

While I (again) feel that the chapter could have been better, I kind of like how the story progressed. I couldn't help but put the little part in where Shikamaru and Gaara watched the clouds together. (Future brother-in-laws bonding! HAHA!)

I'm not sure how well I developed Gaara's feelings for Kotori during these three chapters. The whole point of this little 'arc' was to tell a story about what might very well be Gaara's first crush. I hope it came out all right.

I hadn't originally intended for the fight scene to be quite as, er, vicious as that, but it seemed to fit for me. Gaara has been keeping his killing urges under control until now, but when his emotions were thrown into extreme disarray (because of Kotori), his control was gone and he lost himself to the monster within. I personally wanted to keep seeing the Gaara we've seen so far in this story, but it just didn't seem right to me. Hopefully all this made sense before you got to the author's notes, cause if it didn't, I screwed up.

Anyway, thanks to all my readers, and doubly to my reviewers. I'm glad that everyone seems to be enjoying this so far. I'm going to put out a chapter of my other story, then we'll see what I feel like after that. Check my profile page for the latest info.

Katamari Damacy