WHERE THE SAND BLOWS
These Silences story 2

- the 2nd story of a series I'm planning involving a singular theme, each featuring various pairings I happen to favor. I don't own Naruto, but I have shamelessly borrowed Kishimoto Masashi's characters, and at times liberally added some of my own little concoctions.

- this story contains impliedyaoi, and if you are uncomfortable with this, please do us both a favor and stay away. I shall also be alluding to a lot of other works, which are duly credited at the end of this long one-shot. This is set ideally after the series is over, to which I would daresay is, for now, an AU, precisely because it hasn't ended yet. ; And I'm making my own conclusions, literally, but that's not exactly the point.


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Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I'm clean again.

. - from "Lovesong" by The Cure


The scar bled once in a while, and for all nine—ten? Was it already a decade hence?—years he had inflicted it upon himself, he could still not predict when it would irritate the tender skin around his forehead, causing blood and clear fluid to ooze out of the etchings on the worst days. He noticed though, that it hurt in time with the spectacular erg storms they seemed to have during the dry season—the doldrums from the northeast would come sweeping across the land, causing sandstorm alerts all throughout the country.

It ached enough for him to keep it open; when he pressed a light bandage on the wound, it would irritate some more, and he would have the compulsive urge to scratch at it thoroughly. It wasn't that it bled profusely, dribbled down over his eyes (yes, like that time. The first time he had cut it out for himself. Blood and sand pooling over his lids); it was just… it was the kind of hurt that bordered between the mildly tolerable and the intensely stinging and he wasn't quite sure what to do with it.

Temari always insisted on covering it up with soft medic cloth. She would frown, able to detect its swelling even when he said nothing about it, and wordlessly nudge a folded square of gauze towards him when they convened in the meeting desk.

This gesture left him with a warm feeling, he decided, especially from a person who had, for the most part of his life, had been less than a sister to him as she was merely an addition to the team.

Today, it had started with a slight sting when his arm grazed his forehead as he roused from bed (sleep. It was still for him such a curious activity). It grew to a synchronized throb as the day wore on, however, annoying him, and putting his patience on edge. It had been an episodic morning too, what with three smugglers caught selling forged Genin papers in the outskirts of a southern flatbeds town.

"Confinement," he muttered, barely keeping from ordering their termination, barely keeping from terminating them himself on the spot, and watched as Kankurou herded them out of the Mission Room.

"Baki," he said, addressing the stoic jounin stationed by his side, "will you check with Temari to see if there is an erg storm coming up?" It was ridiculous, but it was almost as if his pains were antennas that signaled these storms; inwardly he smirked, amused despite himself, at the coincidences that linked him with the village.

The tall jounin cocked his head questioningly. "But Kazekage-sama, the dry season has passed. And surely the weather team would have detected the presence of a sand-hurricane by now."

"A small one, at least." He placed a hand casually over the scar; he felt a wetness on his palm. "Accurate as our teams are, the desert never really gives formal invitations of the sort."

His former mentor understood. "I shall check with Temari-san, Kazakage-sama," the older man conceded, before disappearing.

Alone, he leaned back into the soft leather of the Kage armchair, in the way that all of his predecessors before him had, when they too found a chance to relish their solitude. He closed his eyes, feeling the dull throb of pain: there. The swelling usually subsided after its worst peak, settling back to the deep maroon color of scar tissue. "Love" it seemed to say, almost mockingly; that which wounds, that which inflames, that which is.

How ironic, he thought. The Sandaime Kazekage before him had felt the enigmatic pull of the desert in his very blood; the man was said to have spent a lot of his time studying the dune patterns and the sand formations in the glass outlook of his office. Many used to say the Strongest of Sunagakure was in fact mad. His father, he recalled, had chuunin-old scars that ached coincidentally when a drought would befall the Wind Country.

It seemed that a Kage always shared the pain of his land. In addition of course, to the various tests of character that one who lived in such a harsh society might need to go through.

There was indeed a small windstorm on its way from the east, that much was clear, and he felt almost pleased at his prediction. The desert was a harsh environment to live in, and it barely allowed for comfortable living. It was a roiling enigma of sand; those who tried to understand it lost their reason and succumbed to what the older folk called "desert madness."

He sat alone in his office, dabbing at the scar. It dotted the bandage he wiped over it red, a curious pattern that diverted his attention from the sense-dulling pain. It was no joke, being a Kage; one had to forget one's self, one's concerns, one's bias.

He sifted the files on his inbox once more, noting the registration forms that needed stamping, the mission reports that had been neatly filed, the list of genin, chuunin and jounin teams out accomplishing missions. A pine-green missive scroll rolled out from the pile when he slipped out an envelope; eyeing it curiously he picked it up and read the note inside. He was quite sure it wasn't in the mailbox earlier.

As he unraveled the short scroll, he felt the tightness that had bound his demeanor together like a compressed ball slowly loosen and make way for an anticipation, a welcome tickle that outshadowed the pain, even for just a short instant.

Ah, but the Hokage of Konoha knew these things, he thought. In the same way that he could tell when a storm was coming, the Leech Summoner could somehow understand the way unsaid things worked. He had only met her formally (with all the necessary diplomacy due their rank and position) a few months hence, during the Oto Summit. Things had begun to settle in the meetings with other countries so much so that he was confident in letting his sister sit in for him during the monthly meetings.

We are to be expecting a guest.

Despite himself and the still-strange feeling that the pull of muscles brought on, Gaara felt himself smile ever so slightly, the pain forgotten for a moment.

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His guest arrived with the storm: earlier than expected and completely by surprise. He had looked dazed, disheveled, completely disoriented, but thankfully in one piece. Those who were there to escort him (and there had been only two) watched with weary and wary eyes as the outlook teams initially met them with defensive stances but who breathed inward sighs of relief when Temari, back from the council meetings, caught up to them.

"Good heavens, all of you," she thundered, her tone more grating than the erg wind bellowing about them. "Do not tell me you do not recognize the shinobi who rescued your Kazekage!"

It was frightfully disconcerting to look into such lackluster blue eyes, when they finally left the ground to meet his gaze. Gaara almost took a step back; the Naruto that stood before him now seemed like a shell of his former self. Eerily quiet when he should have been bursting with warm greeting, an uncomfortable furrow in his brow was in the place of the typical face-splitting grin.

Something large and predatory awoke in his chest, sniffed around defensively for the possible culprit. It surprised him, that feeling, even while he sort of expected it.

"Hokage-sama sent Gaara-sama a missive some days ago, if I recall correctly," the blank-faced jounin named Yamato, who had been one of Naruto's escorts, explained to Temari as they sat in the Administration lounge. "I hope this visit has not been unprecedented, and we are sorry if we caused any concern."

Temari smirked apologetically in response. "I believe it is I who must apologize in behalf of the scouting teams, they just tend to be very testy when a storm blows over to the village. I'm sure you and your companion, as well as Naruto-kun, must have traveled for a full three days?"

"Well… you could say that I suppose. We took the Border of Rocks because we heard it was quicker, bypassing the Roan Town—"

"So, I see…"

All the while the conversation carried on, he scrutinized his fellow Jinchuuriki (and corrected himself; he was no Jinchuuriki any longer) from across the small coffee table. It seemed as if Naruto was heavily uncomfortable with the company and the soft chatter of voices around him, and Gaara could sense a silent turbulence that pervaded his being.

Naruto fidgeted. His gaze swept erratically all over the room, taking in everything, but him who sat in front of Naruto. The tips of his fingers looked skinned, chafed, bitten.

Without another word, he rose, lightly took Naruto's arm, and led him down the hallway, leaving the blinking party behind. Naruto did not object. Only breathed his name (did he really hear his name? Or was it just a confluence of syllables? A prolonged and weary aah—) and walked briskly beside him.

The office was empty, spacious and quiet. The two boys stood beside each other, facing the big round windows that overlooked the village.

A rust-red wind swept over it now, carrying debris, dust, sand, an occasional errant piece of cloth. It looked like something alive that scoured through the spaces between the dun buildings, searching for the little bits of filth that it would blow away. It rattled the wooden planks outside the office, and its distant howling could be heard faintly. A storm bell tolled once, twice, four times; inside the office, there was no other sound.

The boys stood like so until the storm had died, until the streets looked impossibly clearer, like the desert had taken away all that didn't belong or all that didn't have the right to stay in its vicinity. The wind blew clear across the village, leaving it with all its clean spaces.

It blew between them, silently, and the humming of the air filter was steady and rhythmic like the subsiding pain Gaara felt on his scarred forehead. He felt the narrow, empty space between himself and Naruto start to settle with what the latter had wanted to say, but kept quiet about.

A particularly strong pang lanced across the side of his head, and it made him wince and raise a hand to his scar; Naruto immediately turned, blue eyes wide with concern.

Nothing, he was going to say as he retracted his hand, except that Naruto had already taken his wrist and was staring at the small dots of blood on his palm as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world.

Embarrassed much, Gaara pulled his arm away and fisted his palm to hide the evidence. He caught Naruto stealing a look at his scar, and turned away deftly to hide it from view. By then there was no trace of the storm, and the villagers had slowly moved out of their shelter to see to the last business of the day. By the West, the sun cast a fierce orange glow against the dunes, and the purple clouds of twilight steadily began to move across the sky.

Naruto brushed past him, clearly intending to leave for his room. In the smallest fraction of an instant before he completely turned away, Gaara thought he saw the ghost of a smile cross his friend's scarred face.

Gaara did not see it, nor could prove to anyone who would have asked (least of all himself), but he thought he felt the other sort of…lighten a little. As if in the span of a few seconds, something had been pressing down on Naruto had been chipped away.

As if the storm that had its way outside and had brought the pain on his scar, had similarly swept clean an avenue in Naruto's soul.

Gaara did not know these things about souls but he did know a thing or two about pain, and the look of someone relieved of some of it. And he felt that predatory creature inside him purr contentedly and considered tolerating a few more storms if it meant perhaps—

Turning, the Kazekage followed Naruto out of his office, leading the latter to his quarters for the duration of his stay.

Not a word passed between them, even as they walked down the darkening corridor to Naruto's room, even as the chill of a desert evening sank slowly over the village.

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He never saw Naruto during the day. Not that he had time to see anyone else besides those who had scheduled for an appointment, at any rate: recompenses were to be approved; missions needed to be handed out; the quarterly Genin exam was coming up, and he was to meet each qualifying class in the afternoon.

They all stared up at him now, sandshawls draped smoothly over their shoulders, hoods folding sharply behind their necks. There were about close to eleven this time, a pretty fair batch considering the standards the Academy imposed on its children.

They all stared up at him with the same expression of adoration, eyes bright with the promise of graduation. They kept their place, even as they stood for nearly an hour (true children of Sunagakure), rapt attention directed at their spectacular Kage only some years older than they.

He wondered when he had looked up at his father with the same look on his face. He wondered if his siblings did too. His father was a cold man, even to his children, preferring to regard them as one would regard his best set of kunai: with a sense of proud utility attached to every expectation.

Gaara paused to spare a glance at the constantly shifting dunes outside his window.

"Way back even when the Sandaime was Kage, there used to be a very special method of proving that a student was fit for wearing the Sunagakure hitai-ate." Even when he spoke, in his characteristic quiet voice, the children seemed to hold onto his every word with invisible, eager hands.

Without turning to regard them, and keeping his eyes to the dunes, he continued: "They would teleport the applicants out to the middle of the desert, with nothing on them but a water gourd, and three days' worth of rations. They were to find their way back to the village before the third day. That was supposed to teach a student everything that one needed to become a strong shinobi."

He remembered how he had been placed several long kilometers away to a flat playa, at the age of five. It was high noon, and his escort had been quick to leave him. He remembered the surprise in the lookout team's faces when he reemerged along the outskirts of the village late that afternoon, making short work of the exam.

"Next week, you will also be teleported away from the village, without your sensei to supervise you."

He nodded to their mentor, who stood in one corner of the room.

From the doorway, Baki signaled for him; an important matter that needed his attention.

Gaara rose, and walked across the room towards the door. Without turning he felt every child's eyes glued onto his back as he moved.

"You will be teleported—but you will go with a partner. Work with her, or him, and come back to serve your village."

With that, he stepped out of the office to attend to the case of a Roan Town ex-shinobi, hearing behind the closing door several small sighs of relief. They would certainly be taught important things like surviving the desert, conserving their water, and keeping a sharp sense of direction, but his little improvisation to the tradition would teach the children the most important thing about being a shinobi.

Gaara could almost see the children unconsciously grasp the hand of the schoolmate closest to them, feeling his fingers curl slightly to hold thin air.

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It was late at night, but the light on his desk lamp flared bright. In front of him, a small pillar of papers that comprised the notes his sister had taken on the Summit meetings waited to be halved. Playing on a low volume was the sound of the meeting recordings, and the transcript lay to one side of the table, duly marked and reviewed.

These nights, Gaara almost wished he didn't need to sleep, like before. But all those years of keeping himself up with the fear that Shukkaku would break out anytime soon taught him a few techniques at staying awake for hectic nights like these.

Gaara leaned back on his chair, closed his eyes. The disembodied voice of some representative from the Republic of Grass (from where Kusagakure served) droned on and bounced off from the walls, escaping through the half-opened window. There was a very slight heaviness to the air, but he thought it was only his fatigue.

"It is not a question of whether or not these insurgents should be punished because they trespassed against the boundaries of our respective nations. These individuals have performed devious acts even within their village premises that have been sorely overlooked. We are gathered here today to discuss the court martial of the members of what is known as the 'Akatsuki' group—"

There was a low shuffle from the landing, and the sound of the sliding glass panel being lightly pushed aside. He had dissipated his special sand around his room and outside of it, so that he felt the movement of every creature that moved. It repulsed those he had no interest of seeing, but this—

Without opening his eyes, Gaara acknowledged his evening visitor with a slightly raised hand, but otherwise did not move.

"--have moved under procedures unknown to most until now. Such crimes delivered to their own kind include, but are not limited to: parricide, mass homicide of citizens, arson and terrorism, human experimentation, cannibalism, mutiny against a Kage, murder of a Kage."

Gaara slowly opened his eyes, the slight reprieve invigorating him and the sting on his scar (why did it not go away, even after the storm had? he thought) was a mere tickle that evening. He focused his eyes on the only other person in his room, the only other person he allowed ingress without interference.

"Your sand let me in," his guest said, without looking at him. Naruto was leaning against the small veranda from whence he had come in. In the dim light of a quarter moon, the boy's hair was the only thing about him that caught light; he had his jacket off, and his black shirt looked threadbare, worn.

"You need not knock," Gaara replied, turning placidly back to the booklet he was leafing through. What he really meant to say was that there was never any barrier in the first place, for which to knock on.

You entered wherever you willed.

"I think I like the desert in the evening better," Naruto continued, and Gaara noticed a wisp of his talkative, raucous self reemerge for a while. "I thought I'd go out and take a walk around, you know, never really got to say anything to you these past few days, and I thought 'well, it's kind of rude. Gaara's feeding you and putting a roof over your head and you haven't even said a single thing'! but I figured you were always busy, and I didn't want to disturb you—I mean, Kage is Kage you know what I mean, and you've got lots of stuff to do—"

The Republic of Grass representative continued to deliver his speech but Gaara wasn't listening. He felt a small, childish joy at hearing Naruto's bright voice layer over the representative's obviously schooled vehemence droning through the speakers.

"—and I've been taking walks, really I have, but only the late afternoons. It's chilly! Far chillier than a normal Konoha evening. But I'm more used to the cold than to the heat—man, it's baking during the daytime! But you know, I think I kind of like the desert. I kind of like it, yeah. It's scary, and it's confusing sometimes but—I like it."

He trailed off, his words spent. Embarrassed, Naruto scratched the back of his neck sheepishly and turned his face towards the evening again. A pity, thought Gaara, who would have wanted to listen to his friend's chatter over anything else.

He closed the folder over Temari's neat cursive, marking where he left off, and quietly rose to move around the table. There would be time to read them later. Perhaps it would mean only a very small amount of sleep for the next few days, but (and this was rather tongue-in-cheek, he noted) hadn't he stayed up for almost twelve whole years of his life?

"--were known to have traveled in pairs, as mentioned. Originally numbering ten, with the departure of Orochimaru of Konoha's Sannin, the odd-numbered organization re-grouped themselves. The two-man cells are as follows: Sabakuno Sasori of Sunaga—"

Naruto wasn't paying attention. He was staring off, mesmerized by some far-off object that perhaps only he could see, in the muted light of the moon. He nearly started when Gaara came up next to him, to lean on the balcony as he did.

Gaara thought he did not know these things. He was far removed from the nuances of human emotions after all, with all his eight years after Yashamaru spent turning inward, diminishing his outer social self.

But perhaps it was just that—as much as he thought himself incapable of feeling anything for anyone other than disgust and revulsion, perhaps the reason why he instinctively just knew that he had to come close to Naruto was because it made him all the more susceptible to the subtlest stirrings of another's pain.

Naruto's silent anguish reverberated from his slightly hunched form, and spoke to him louder than the speakers in the room (now forgotten). The boy lifted his face to the stars, and the Kage could sense that ghostly smile linger awhile around Naruto's scarred features.

"Hey… the sky looks deceptively like the sand, doesn't it, in nights like these?" With one hand, he absently picked on a patch of hardened sand that clung to the edge of the railing. "In the morning, the land looks yellow or white, and the sky looks very blue. But at night, it looks like they're both a strange color of red. I never really got to notice it until now."

"--whose moniker was 'Aka-sunano' because his most distinguishing feature was his red hair. Sasori's partner: former Iwagakure Flying Brigade Major-General Diedara—"

It wasn't something one needed to study for, extensively, in the superior archives of the Ninja Academy. It wasn't something that one learned, after perhaps a decade or two of battlefield experience, or harsh apprenticeship under some jounin mentor.

"Back in Konoha, when the sky would be red that would mean rain the next morning, well, that's what Iruka-sensei always said and he was right more than half of the time, but here—it seems to be red all the time, isn't it? Maybe it's the opposite; maybe when the sky is clear here that means there's rain…"

It was, when he thought about it, something extremely instinctive. It wasn't something you'd call "human" as much as you'd call "beastly."

We, of course, are covered by both extremes, Gaara thought with an inward smirk, the phantom oppression that Shukkaku wrought in his consciousness making its emptiness felt. A child would have known just as simply as any wild desert wolf. They both would still have understood the need to reach out to one of their kind who was suffering.

"—all for the objective of obtaining the nine Jinchuuriki, or 'Human Sacrifices' as one might call them, of which, at the date of infiltration to Sunagakure, already numbered three of nine--"

The distance was small between them. There was no distance between them.

Naruto's eyes widened a little at the contact, more from the surprise that it was Gaara who had initiated it, than anything else. He stiffened slightly, for a very quick moment, as all creatures who are afraid do, before he laid his head, completely and wearily, against Gaara's shoulder.

"as these Jinchuuriki are today."

The last few words of the representative drifted off unheeded into the night, but the record continued to play, replacing the speaker's clipped voice with a soothing low scratching and humming.

The office was silent. The whole village slept on.

The two boys stood, with Gaara's arms loosely about Naruto; neither forceful nor intrusive, unaccustomed as they were to holding someone else within them—merely, there. As if to say: I who was Jinchuuriki as you are, probably know best what you are undergoing. I who was, will become as if one again.

It came so quietly that it was almost smothered by the hum of the recording. The very light rush of water drizzled over the cooling land almost hesitantly, a widespread spray of moisture that seeped slowly into Gaara's hair, and clothes, and cooled the scar on his head.

It was Naruto's grip that finally pulled them together, as the other's arms came up to hold onto him almost for life. It was Gaara's turn to be surprised, at the faintly quaking shoulders of the one person whose strength he never doubted for a single moment. Perhaps, it didn't falter. Perhaps it only needed to rest too, for a little while, because battling one's literal demons took time and endurance.

Gaara lifted his face up, his hair plastering itself against his eyes as the very rare rainshower softly spent itself over his village. It passed after some time, and the sky cleared enough for the moon to shine through, but the two boys remained where they stood, looking deceptively like one person from a distance.

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He had written a letter to the Hokage of Fire Country with regard to his village's guest, because he had to know if any of his home village experts had taken a hand at examining his condition. Tsunade was well-known to be the best medic in her time, even surpassing the powerful poisoners of his village (his grandmother had been one of them).

She replied quickly, a day after he had sent his query.

In the Battle of Oto, she wrote, at that point when the Uchiha and Naruto were facing off, the seal on Naruto's stomach, which was supposed to have acted as a medium and thin barrier between host and Bijou, was accidentally tampered on when Sasuke attempted to draw out the Kyuubi chakra.

It worked, she continued, but only too well. before they knew it Sasuke was suffocating in a cloud of very oppressive, very hot chakra to the point that the boy suffered massive tissue damage from just being exposed to it. I believe that Naruto had been forced to re-seal the Kyuubi within himself at that moment, wrestling with it in his mind, pushing it back to where it used to be.

He knew the difference now of the methods used on him and Naruto, when the demon beasts were sealed. That had been the first thing he had looked up when he had the chance.

Naruto had been subjected to a more merciful sort of sealing. He had been born first, which was why it was necessary to draw the seal-tattoo on his abdomen. The seal acted as the very thin separation between Naruto's consciousness and the Kyuubi's; and because it remained, he was able to live apart from the other.

For himself, Chiyo-baa had incorporated Shukkaku into Gaara even when he had been in his mother's womb, thus needing no physical drawing of a seal to keep the beast inside. His mother's body was enough to do that in place of a seal, at the expense of her life. Because her physical form died, the barrier between himself and Shukkaku broke as well, mingling his boy's consciousness with that of a demon other-than-human.

He knew what happened when one's personal spaces shattered.

"It rained last night," Kankurou was musing in disbelief. His brother was sitting on the receiving chair across his table, fresh from the morning rounds. He was readjusting the straps of his puppet scrolls. "I don't suppose it was strong enough—there were no puddles on the plaza—but still, the reservoirs left an evidence of rainfall."

"It's the end of the dry season, that's probably why." Baki was carefully setting aside mission logs, grouping them under specific categories and assigning teams to them.

"But it's still something you would not expect, it raining all of a sudden." Kankurou had finished, and was now stacking them carefully against each other. "I don't think even the oasis towns have had rainfall this early in the wet season."

His former mentor and his brother talked in low, casual voices, but he could sense that there was still a bit of awkwardness in their tone. Talking about seemingly mundane matters in front of someone whom they had jointly regarded highly was one thing; talking about such affairs in front of someone they had once feared with all their selves was another thing entirely.

It will never leave, Gaara thought, as he set aside the Hokage's letter, tucking it into his robes. This sudden shift of regard—from the unwanted brother-turned-human-weapon to a greatly revered Kazekage—will forever leave those closest to him with a sense of vertigo. Temari seemed quick to get over it, but he could still sense a small nervousness about his sister when she accidentally touched him.

"The desert," muttered Kankurou with a click of his tongue, "you could study its noted weather patterns, sand formations, but in the end it will behave like a wild animal. You try to tame it, teach it tricks, but once in a while it will still surprise you." He fastened the biggest of the scrolls ("Black Salamander") onto his back and put his improvised sandshawl-puppeteer's headdress on.

"Will you be taking the children today?"

Kankurou was still surprised when his little brother spoke out of the blue, and could not help the small stiffening in reaction. "I will be overseeing the teachers teleporting the first class today, yes. The second and last classes will be done in three days from now. We decided to merge them, because there were very few from the last class who actually qualified."

On the table before him, the names of the children to be tested on that day. Gaara imagined his very father as the Yondaime looked through the list, and wondered if he smiled when he saw his youngest son's name. Perhaps, it was a smile that said, typically, ah, to test the best kunai I own.

"There…is a bit of a problem though," Kankurou hesitated to say, but already Gaara knew what it was, based from the list before him. "The first class is odd-numbered. Mibuya Kouno doesn't have a partner. Shall we take a child from the next class? Or shall we deploy him out on his own as usual?"

As usual. Gaara thought back to the faces of the children in his office the other day, wondered which one was the odd child out, the one nobody wanted to touch, nobody wanted to pair up with. Too keenly he felt exactly what it was like.

"Move him to the next class. Find the boy a partner."

The quiet determination in his voice surprised even him, and Baki raised an eyebrow to the tone. Kankurou didn't seem to notice. Instead, he nodded, took his leave, and left the room.

"Kazekage-sama," Baki ventured when Kankurou had left the room, "you seem intent on enforcing this new improvisation to the Academy." Baki too, Gaara knew, was a product of the one-child desert ordeal, and he understood the childish pettiness that somehow underlay the question.

It wasn't a matter of softening up as what some thought of the new regulation. He did not mean to devalue the grit that characterized Suna shinobi in favor of making the more sentimental shinobi (and non-shinobi) parents sigh with relief. In fact, if anything, he was aiming for the opposite: to create true warriors who truly understood the meaning of existence.

They have to realize that in the face of the most trying and the most unpredictable, one must not exist for oneself. That had been the lesson he had learned. That was the lesson he wished every child to learn, especially those who, like one Mibuya Kouno, nobody liked to be involved with.

The old echoes still resounded. Bakemono.

"I am," was all he said in response, as he stood up to go to the Mission Room.

Baki seemed to understand what his Kage was not saying, and allowed a small, satisfied twitch of the lip to break his crusty demeanor.

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The scar began hurting again, unexpectedly, and he wondered if it was really a result of the weather, or if it had something to do with an infection. As far as he could remember, it had never been infected once. While the sand that got in an open wound typically irritated it (and this was a source of annoyance to the medic teams in generations past), the opposite worked in Gaara's case.

He could not help the small grimace of pain, and tried to hide it from his companion.

"Gaara?"

But Naruto was very perceptive. He was the only one who would not flinch even in the slightest, when he reached out a hand to gently turn the Kazekage's face towards him. And he was the only one whom Gaara allowed to do so, now running dry calloused fingers in an endearingly clumsy manner along his chin.

"It's bleeding, I think." Naruto furrowed his brows to stare into Gaara's forehead. "It looks very raw. Shouldn't you put some healing ointment on that?"

"It will pass."

They were both sitting atop the dome of the Kazekage office, and it was a clear-sky, darkening afternoon. Below them, the lights of the village began to come on, and just outside the administration building milled the successful batch of newly-hailed genin; all ten of them made the three-day cut. The children were still laughing and chattering excitedly among themselves even hours after the ceremony had ended, telling each other stories, showing each other their first mission scars, comparing their forehead protectors and the contents of their first shinobi utility kit.

The gritty-sounding dialect of Wind Country came up to them in between giddy laughter and childish boasts; Naruto only knew some of the words, but it was only obvious what they were talking about.

"How…" began Naruto, and Gaara heard the soft, sharp intake of breath as if his companion readied himself for a fall, "how does it feel like to be, you know. After that thing they—they did back then, to you, taking out Shukkaku. I mean, yeah. After that. What is it…like?"

He might as well have spoken in the most obscure sub-dialect of his country as far as other people were concerned, because anyone else would have thought that he simply made no sense.

He had his left hand over his abdomen lightly and Gaara knew what Naruto meant, knew that perhaps, this was what was bothering his friend all along. They were vessels of things far larger than they were, and no matter how securely the process, or the seal for that matter, was placed, there were drawbacks and repercussions.

It was a funny irony that Jinchuuriki ended up looking like the creatures they hosted. For himself, he had learned (from Yashamaru no less) to smear the special kind of kohl that could only come from Wind Country around the areas of his eyes. It was common for Suna nin to smear some on their faces because the kohl had a sort of chemical that helped prevent eye irritation caused by the sand; and besides, his eyebags were terrible as he could not sleep.

Naruto had six curious-looking scars that ran diagonally from the bottom of his jaw to his cheek, three on each side. It gave him a whiskery appearance, and while nobody really knew how it came to be (and Naruto himself was rather vague about it), Gaara suspected it had something to do with the demon fox in his body.

He thought about the question for a bit before answering.

"Clearer," he decided, carefully choosing the word that came closest to the experience. 'Empty' would have implied that Shukkaku had been a part of him that was taken away. 'Vacant' on the other hand would have implied that part of himself had been taken away along with the Bijou, but the opposite had occurred.

It felt like he had been handed a part of himself that he had missed out on all the time that the demon raccoon resided in him. That part of him that had slept a long, twelve-year hibernation.

Naruto nodded, and Gaara knew he understood. It amazed him sometimes how, between them, nothing much was needed to be actually said, because what they wanted to convey seeped in through their words and floated in a sure, steady stream from one to another.

"It never really bothered me in the way, I suppose, it bothered you," the blonde Jinchuuriki replied. "And it's a good thing, and I'm glad the Yondaime did the sealing, no offense to your grandmother. And I've been trying to figure out how the Yondaime did his special Fuuin jutsu, and it's really complicated but I'm sure it must have been a great struggle for his part to cram the Kyuubi into a baby's body." A small hesitation that could have fit in several heartbeats, "My body."

How does it hurt, Gaara wanted to say, but because he had been so unused to saying things like that, the words died in his tongue, dissolved into the silence. Instead, Gaara chose to extend his hand to cut the small distance between them, and laid it lightly above Naruto's hand on his belly. A question.

The fingers beneath his hand clenched in response. "Feels like it's boiling. I know how to mentally utilize its red chakra, but the more I do it, the thinner the 'walls' become. And everything starts to hurt because, the ero-senin says, my body is expanding in small amounts to accommodate the Kyuubi that's slowly seeping out of its sealed place."

The group down below had begun to disperse, as the children's proud guardians collected their newly-promoted little nin. The kids were a little reluctant to go at first, but hastily reverted their attention to a new audience.

They both watched, silenced, with keen and observant eyes as, one by one, the children were led home. Gaara watched, an ache spreading inside him with the knowledge that while he had a working 'family', none had acted accordingly towards him when he needed them most. Naruto watched, bittersweet, wondering what a family must be like, forever regretting his long orphaned years.

Together, Kazekage and Hokage aspirant, Jinchuuriki both, felt the pang that was both similar, yet different. Both remembered only too well the rapidly emptying playgrounds, the lonely groan of the swing, the looks they received that made them feel like rabid animals, the echoes: Bakemono.

In the end, they were still children, comparing their scars together in a lonely rooftop.

"It's clearer, huh," Naruto said after a long silence, and his voice was so soft that the chilly evening wind almost blew his words away again. There was a telltale longing at the tail-end of it, a wispy, almost sigh-like quality that wanted more privacy, more inner room, to explain itself.

Gaara understood.

Without another word, and almost in concert, both boys stood up and made their way down from the roof deck, just as the rest of the village flared to life, lights resplendent against the cloudless sky.

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You have to admit, you worried about the children. Worry is an instinctive prerequisite to the position you hold, but you have the advantage of being able to smother its flashier manifestations because you, you've smothered tougher things before (hatred. Bloodlust. People.) with efficient ease and compared to these, worry is a delicate flower discreetly quashed underfoot.

It still stirs, this worry, but it finds a new object, and you slide your eyes to the companion who walks beside you, pads really, he is barely making noise, and the way the shadows of the gas lamps outside frame his face makes something flicker inside your chest. It is almost alarming, you think, because this flicker moves against your quietest corners almost like a living thing. You have every right to be alarmed, of course, because you have never had this sort of warmth inside you for the longest time, and what had lived off you, that shadowy-eyed monster that was you and a part of you (but not a part of you), had been taken away.

And now, you are alone.

You find yourself in your quarters, but that isn't out of the ordinary. It is barely evening, and it is probably only first twilight watch. It's dinner at the administration mess, but they've learned to excuse you especially on busy days. And you are certainly busy; apart from the usual, there are transcripts to leaf through, and you must be thorough with them, extremely so.

He has followed you here.

Standing just beside the doorway, in a gesture meant to reassure you that he respects your privacy and would leave if you wished. He has followed you, because wounded creatures follow their instincts, and you have accorded him safety.

Or you may have led him, because that little warmth inside your chest begins to stir itself only when he is around. It's as if he can sense it; your feeble warmth, your uncertain warmth, it calls him as the campfire calls the traveler on a long desert night. The thought of him trails you like a curious animal you cannot shake off; the scent of him (and you begin to ask yourself when you noticed things like that, on people who are not your "mission objective") waits for you in unexpected corners and slinks up to you unseen.

And it sidles up to you now: it rubs its muzzle along your nose and you breathe the scent of a forest, on skin slightly damp with the sweat of those unused to the desert heat. He carries the scent of a forest even in a land where few trees grow. You wonder if you carried the scent of the desert, if indeed there was a scent to be had in the desert.

The scent of dates, of dried leather, of canvass water skins, the smell of something coppery as your tender wound swells beneath its skin.

Between you, a hedge of silence grows thick, and without even thinking, you reach out a hand slowly to part it, willing some word to come out of your mouth in the place of his: "Aaah."

You have no words. You realize that all words are a lack, an endless and futile attempt to define the immeasurable, ever making it deeper, harder to retrieve. Language is a system of differences after all. One word is what it is because it isn't another. When you wrote "love" you were unsure what it meant, but you knew what it was not.

All your life you knew what it was not, and the word reminded you of that. All you remembered was that you were "The monster who loves itself."

He looks away, quite sure perhaps that you've remembered again. You're not sure you've forgotten. Awkwardly, you two stand, a pale orange bar of light from a gas lamp outside the only illumination. He looks paler in the darkness. You look at your hands; they are whiter than paper and the blood in your veins runs blue and pale.

You want no words.

The lack is lurking underneath his scent, and if you say something, you know it will skitter away. You know that if you say something, he would have to reply to you too, and you would have a conversation, not so different from the ones you hold at plenaries, or when you speak to the elder's council, or when your siblings ask for your advice.

You will pour your words into his mouth, allow not a single one to escape to the night air.

Below you, the faint, cantankerous noise of the mess. Their words fly up from the window, past you, through you, up to where the voice of the other night's recordings had gone. Reverberating forever and coming back, an egg-shaped universe.

He will tell you too, of everything he cannot say. Pain likes to be vivid and holds its own conceit. It will not allow itself to be expressed half-heartedly. No broad strokes in pen and ink, no conjugated adjective in a sentence, but this: his fingers gripping your arm as you slide them about him, gripping with a force a notch lower than a stranglehold.

You become your words.

The spaces between you are irrelevant and troublesome, and you press yourselves closer, so that every pore, every finger, every breath escaped, would be consumed by the other. He is paler in the darkness, but you notice that his eyes become bluer too—like a cat's that absorbs all the light it will. You begin to tell him then.

You begin to tell him how grateful you are. You begin to tell him how difficult the road to Kage, more difficult still to muster the effort to consider all your villagers—the very ones who had refused you, called you monster, affirmed everything you knew love was not. And you tell him that he saved you. That the reason why you are breathing into him like this (and here you feel his chest hitch, when you press your lips to his spine) is because you hold his life inside you—in the chakra transfer, you remember him reaching out to you.

He tells you everything as well. Of the demon he had to fight when the Kyuubi broke out of him, when Kakashi came too late to press the seal onto his head. How he presses his head against yours tells you that he had fought a merciless inner battle. How it burned him.

And he burns you too; fevered beneath you, blue eyes wide as the brightest blue sun. The lamplight deepens as the evening follows suit, and between you there is very little space for words to escape. Air, just air, and the way you rework each other's meanings: You are no monster, says his tongue on your wound, tracing the etching that seeps black blood down your face; this is where I am, says his head against your shoulder; This is where you must be, and he moves to let you enter, this final, welcome intrusion.

It is building up inside you, larger than the monster you used to house. His scent is a frenzied fox surrounding you, a forest of sensation that can only congeal into one word: his name. Like the Kyuubi you are within him, but you are not the Kyuubi; you are its most valiant antithesis.

What is pain?

You move, as if this was the most natural thing to do. Both of you move, as if it was meant to be this way and you knew what it was from the start, but only ever remembered how to. Like a memory that never really disappeared, only one that wasn't remembered.

I wonder what it's like.

Your scar blooms and as you bend over him, drops fall onto his cheek. A gasp, a question, a look of concern; the look that makes something young and bitter inside you relax and dissolve into joy. You shake it away; the pain is nothing to this. And he will trust you, as you've never trusted yourself, and because of this, you will continue, to reach into yourself for what you really mean to tell him.

There is only one thing, that can stop such an ache.

You remember the only other person you thought you cared for, and you remember his deceit. You remember how dangerous a business it is to trust another, precisely because they are not yourself. "The Demon who loves Itself"; and you wonder if, by doing this, this most intimate of actions, you are betraying yourself.

For a life given back to you, for a life restored, you are willing to give up your name. You are willing to give up your lack. You are willing—

And inconvenient as it may seem, this cure can only be given to you by someone other than yourself.

—you are willing to become something more than Gaara, something embedded, deep into the core of his being. You are willing to give of yourself, and this is a beautiful and a terrifying thing because you have never given of yourself to this great an extent.

It's—

This is. And in that final, crucial moment, he looks up to you, the clearest, serenest face you have seen, and traces the character on your head, whose meaning to you was everything it was not until this moment.

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Outside, through the window, you see stars. It is a clear night. You wonder if it will rain. The sky had never seemed clearer in all the years you've lived in this village.

You think you hear them laughing. The stars, caught up with the words and the conversations that had been part of someone's breath, someone's mind, someone's speech. Celestial music that comes back in the form of a dream, a sudden burst of insight, an old memory.

You think of Kankurou, possibly up refurbishing his beloved puppets, all in the silence of his room. You think of your sister, the one your father loved, who will still call to him like a child in her sleep. You think of Baki, sleeping beside his dearest, dying wife. You think of the Grass Country representative, and wonder if he is writing his next speech with the fervor of one who commits himself to justice.

You think of the children sent out, and wonder, for the first time, how it feels like to be alone between the desert and the universe as they pitched their small tents on the ground. You think that perhaps it would not be so lonely, because one could simply reach out to another, there, cocooned in his sleeping bag, warding off the desert cold.

You reach out to the one snuggled beside you, and feel a slight tremor at your touch. The forests of the north are cold, but the nights in the desert are colder, baring their teeth against the sun. Somewhere, a sentry turns on a transistor, and the voice of a weary weather reporter erects itself in the air to join the starlight crowd.

You close your eyes. The wound on your forehead cools, like something slowly dying. Inside you, something wounded stirs, the first in a long time, and rests its head in perfect trust against the other.

And slowly the rush of whispers strike your window, a slow and heavy patter, and the smell of dates accompanies you to your sleep.

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The next day, everybody was wondering about the sudden downpour that had left deep furrows in the sand. Even by mid-morning and under the harsh glare of the sun, some puddles stubbornly kept their places. The second batch of children was sent off with full water gourds strapped to their backs.

He watched them as they bravely stood inside the teleportation circles, clasping each other's hands. Some would not make it, he knew, and it was only by sheer luck that the previous batch had all come in safely. But that was the way of the desert, and that was the way of the village.

The desert, after all, took what was unnecessary and claimed it for its own.

The country left a season of drought, and entered into a new season of rains. Scarce the rains were in the desert, but they came nonetheless. These days the nights were clear and the sky seemed crowded over with so many stars that the astronomers at the Academy spent every night setting up their equipment at the local planetarium.

He watched it all from the vantagepoint atop his office. Beside him, head nestled on his shoulder, Naruto dozed, lulled by the lethargy of the early afternoon. Soon, he would have to leave for his country, because he was a Konohagakure shinobi, and he did not belong to the desert. The desert brought him here for a reason, and one day, it would take him back.

But far larger than the desert, he knew Naruto belonged to someplace else that neither country nor village could lay claim on. And he knew that one day, when Naruto too would ascend to become Kage, and if and when circumstance has it that their villages would collide, this place they held within themselves would transcend such trivialities.

For within us, it is as deep as the sea.

And Naruto would be one puddle that would stay within Gaara's soul for the longest period of time. He was a Kage, and therefore, he was a desert: adapting, changing, becoming what his people needed him to be most of all. He would be a sea of sand, undulating. But all deserts must have their rainfall, and Gaara knew where to lean his face against the wind, against the hair of one who had taught him the meaning of the one word he never knew.


Notes:

(1) On the windows: According to chapter 248, Gaara's office had windows with long, rectangular frames, and a round pane that overlooks the city. These would be the windows behind the Kazekage's desk of course, and I've taken the liberty to add bigger, thicker glass ones that would line the room's breadth up to its entrance (presumably on the opposite side of the room from Gaara's table)

(2) On the glass: Glass is made from fired sand. I would expect the Wind country to at least have glass as its export, judging from the abundance of it in their natural environment. Ideally the people would only put up a thick, specialized kind of glass for their windows, and it would not be dissimilar to that put up in the Kazekage's residence.

(3) On the language: I'd expect them to be speaking different languages since they come from different countries. The way Naruto and Gaara would communicate would be in what should be a common tongue (say, English in our world), or what I would believe to be a "formal" tongue. The kids would be speaking in Wind Country dialects because they're speaking amongst themselves, and therefore don't need to be formal. Kishimoto never said anything about such things, but it's just me playing with realism. ;p

(4) Language is a system of differences. Taken from Jacques Derrida's Post-Structuralism. We know one word because it is not another (i.e. "bat" is "bat" because it isn't "cat" or "hat"), and this goes for all the languages in the world. I am referring to the Japanese kanji, used in the series. Therefore the kanji for "love", when paired with other words could mean many things, among them "relic", "giving up reluctantly", "sadism".

(5) Egg-shaped universe. Allusion to J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron. I recommend you pick it up, it's a LOVELY read.

(6) Dates: I'm assuming that, like the desert societies of our world, the Sunagakure grows a lot of dates. They're the "poor man's bread" as I know, and they're very invigorating. They make college students who forget to eat and have tons of exams to study for very, very happy.

(7) …look that makes something young and bitter inside you relax and dissolve into joy: I'm taking from Chapter 130 of the manga, when Gaara kills the drunk because of the look on his eyes—presumably one of fear and revulsion. In this case, the antithesis of this would be a look of concern, to imply a genuine affection and willingness to care for another's welfare. I am also taking from Yashamaru's attempt to explain to Gaara what pain is, from the same chapter.

(8) For within us it is as deep… Taken and quote-unquoted from Rainer Maria Rilke: "The world is large, but in us, it is as deep as the sea," when the poet contemplated about space.

(9) Before I drown everyone in notes, I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to you for reading this. ;3 I'd love to hear from you. This is the 2nd story in my project, featuring a pairing I particularly like from the Naruto world. The 1st story features Kakashi & Iruka. I'm at work with the 3rd! This one goes to my dear friend Schu, who probably mightn't read this, but whose love for the pairing made me want to write it too. XD