Warning: I don't do fluff. I don't own Naruto and I know that for most fans that's probably a good thing too. Enjoy!

by Blue Jeans

He feels strangely empty these days. No one looks at him the same anymore. People in the village approach him now, more confident and less fearful. Even without demonic senses, he could tell by the softening of features that was once so stiff and filtered and distant, that to them, he was no longer a threat.

Gaara doesn't know what to feel.

People touch him now. His advisor pats him on the shoulder after shaking his hand when the meeting closes. His brother punches him softly on the arm. His sister caresses his hair, and looks at him kindly. They never used to be so open about these things. They were never so sure, even after they had returned from Leaf. Even then, when he had been battered and broken and put back together, tentatively stretching his hand and wondering, at last, is this human? to himself...

Not even then.

Now, Temari cooks him dinner and brings him bento and teases him about when he'll get a girlfriend. Now, Kankuro will voice his disagreements and argue with him whenever he feels like it. Now the villagers go to him with their troubles and their complaints, more vocal and less fearful. And no one calls him Gaara-sama outside of his office, not anymore. There might have been a day when this might have been a distant dream, but now the smell is too strong, the solid touch too much, and Gaara cannot help but hate the excessive need that others have to be near him. He hates it because he doesn't feel any more loved, he is just no longer feared.

Gaara is just a young man now.

There is nothing to fear about him. They like to forget that he had been a container for a monster all of his life. They like to think that he was only dangerous because the sand moved at his will once and now that the monster is gone, his sanity is back in his control, surely. They like to reassure themselves that he had always been human and that monster that lived in him was separate from himself, even though the monster in him was placed there by them, for them.

Gaara wants to ask them: Where were you when I needed you? He wants to know why the silence in his head is more frightening now than the nightmares he used to have that made him unable to sleep. He doesn't understand why, when at last there are people willing to be around him that he has finally started to understand what it means to be truly alone. Why now, when the nightmares are no longer a threat, that he can no more sleep than that time?

At first it had been paradise.

Finally, people treated him like he mattered. Finally, his life had meaning and no one said that he was just a container or a monster they didn't want but needed. Finally, he wasn't alone or simply a tool.

But when Kankuro pretends that he has never been afraid of Gaara. Or when Temari acts like the sister she's never been to him... Gaara feels as if the bottom of the glass has fallen out and the cold liquid is pouring itself over his heart. Even though Naruto with his determination and his smiles made Gaara want to see the light with less fear in his heart, Gaara is still uncertain of what it is that he really wants and what it is that he is searching for. Now that he feels more alone than ever before he is once again unsure what it is that he had been fighting for all this time. Has his whole life been no more than a lie, now that the constant struggle ended so quickly that it was like waking from one nightmare into another?

What is his worth now? What should he struggle with now?

Gaara is just a young man. He was once powerful, the most powerful ninja in the Village of Sand. His subjects used to fear him and respect him as a leader. But Gaara is just a young man now. He has good ninja skills but his siblings are better. He used to be a tolerable Kazekage with the diplomatic tool called fear driven by that thing called power. But all of that is now useless and valueless in the face of his enemies. He wishes he were dead and that they had never revived him, but he can't turn back time or voice his discontent, not while facing the smiling lips of his siblings - the ones he never really felt that he had until he had died and was reborn. Better a martyr than a tool that's lost its worth, he thinks in the secret passages of his mind. The doubts linger there in the dark and fester like wounds, creeping and growing, blanketing Gaara's crippled and lonely world in black.

He wonders through the labyrinth there, where once a monster had waited for him, day and night. Behind the closed lids of darkness, he expects the monster still. The absence leaves him feeling empty, though he dared not call it nostalgia, though it was once all that he knew. Now, the labyrinth is silent and bare, and he wonders it alone and lost. Wondering, wondering, wondering. Where will he emerge from next? Who will he be now? In the silence and the darkness that is no longer created by the beast inside of him but the beast that he has become in its absence, he finds only slippery sand for answers and darkness for company.

Gaara sometimes takes out the gourd and fills it with sand. He presses his forehead to it and wishes that he could feel the warmth. He has had nothing then but this container and the monster he had always known, the other half of himself. Now, he has nothing at all, not even the warm sand to surround him, not even that crippling power to sustain him.

Gaara looks in the mirror and knows that the demon is gone, yet somehow, that was all that seems to be different. There are still dark circles under his eyes and the word of love imprinted at his brow that he doesn't understand. Gaara looks in the mirror and he is just a shell of the man he was before, the off-spring of the beast torn from his body after he had finally tamed it into a part of himself that he could accept.

Now he knows that monsters don't die that easily, and that its seed rests securely at his breast. He has no power now, but the borders of death had allowed him to see himself more clearly than he had ever wanted to before. Gaara is as monstrous as the beast that was taken from him those days ago. And in the darkness, he could not escape that truth anymore than he could escape the beast that pounds from the center of his heart, all those years ago.

Thump. His heart speaks.

But Gaara fails to understand.

The end.

I disagree with most. I think the original story-line was better. Gaara should have died back there. It would have been far more consistent with the ninja world and more realistic if he did not survive. Any type of fluff that may be added for him surviving is not possible. I think the road for Gaara is even more difficult now that he survived. Saving him is almost cruel, I think. He could have gone out as a powerful character, and now that he is Shukaku-less, his power over the Village of the Sand will begin to crumble. I see a lot of complication in this later, whether or not the series touch upon this, I wouldn't know. But I don't see happy ending at all, not if you want to be realistic. Well, nothing to worry about, the manga stopped being realistic a while back... if you want happy endings, be my guest. I just won't be rooting for it, much less writing any.

Author's Note: A number of readers has written to me that Gaara can still control sand. Yes, that is true in chapter 281, but this story only goes up to chapter 280. Consider it an AR, but I am well aware of where the manga is heading. This was, however, not written at a time that this information became available to me. I think I was pretty clear on where this continuation is coming from.