Author's Note: The setting for this story is after the conclusion of the "Rescue Gaara" arc of the manga (Chapters 250-280) and as-yet-unproduced episodes of Naruto: Shippuuden. There isn't a whole lot of point to this story, no real action or drama. Mostly, I'm just playing with a few canon characters. If Gaara seems a bit OOC, try to consider how his life has been upended by the removal of Shukaku from him. That's what I'm trying to do -- reinvent Gaara to some degree while staying true to his foundation. I don't know how successful I've been at it, but I'm trying. I've tried to stay true to his character while at the same time changing his personality a little as a result of his death and revival after Shukaku was extracted. Since that event is a major turning point for him, I can't help but think that his personality changes after Shukaku is gone.

Disclaimer: I do not own any part of "Naruto" or its characters. Not even any characters mentioned herein. It all belongs to Kishimoto-sensei. I'm just playing in the sandbox (no pun intended XP) of this amazing world.


"Soul of Wind"

"Dammit!" The jounin's angry voice resonated off the clay walls.

"What's the matter, Kankurou?" The Kazekage responded mildly, his light green eyes shifting over to where Kankurou sat on the floor of the office, attempting to reassemble a broken ninja puppet.

"Ah, nothing, I just broke the piece I was working on. Sorry to bother you, Gaara."

Gaara regarded his older brother benignly, privately amused at how easily Kankurou could be shaken up when trying to repair his weapons.

"Baka," laughed Temari, their mutual older sister (older than Gaara by three years, and older than Kankurou by a year) as she tossed a dull shuriken at Kankurou, bouncing it off the top of his head. "You're a master puppeteer but you suck at building them from scratch!"

"Shut your face, Temari," Kankurou said peevishly, without rancor. He was used to her heckling. "I don't see you doing anything but making this harder on me."

Gaara leaned back in his chair a little more, lacing his fingers and momentarily closing his eyes. The silence inside his mind was...

He felt a slight change in the proximity and opened his eyes to find Temari sitting on his desk, her face about a meter from his, looking him over critically.

"Is something the matter, Temari?"

"Are you sure you're all right, Gaara? After what you were put through..."

"I'll be fine. You don't need to worry about me."

"Dammit Gaara!" Temari slammed her hand on the edge of the desk. "We damn near lost you! I'll worry about you if I want to!"

"I didn't say that you couldn't, only that you don't need to," Gaara replied, unfazed. "Don't twist my words around. As I said, I am just fine. I am tired, but..." he trailed off as he searched for the right description for what he felt.

His eyes lost focus as he mentally traveled back along a dark, lonely corridor, with a great, evil weight bearing down on his shoulders. He could hear Shukaku's cruel laughter in the distance... could taste Shukaku's insatiable bloodlust in the back of his throat... could see with Shukaku's otherworldly, rage-filled eyes... and yet...

"Gaara!"

He started, his eyes snapping open. Kankurou was standing beside the chair with his hands on Gaara's shoulders; Temari had leaned forward and placed her hands on Gaara's forearms, leaning considerable weight on him. They were both just centimeters from his face.

Curiously, he felt completely at peace. The seering rage that once had consumed him when anyone dared get too close was no longer there. In its place was a mild, tickling annoyance, a novel sensation Gaara had never felt before. He'd never realized just how invasive Shukaku had really been.

"Do you mind?" he said softly, focusing his intense gaze on Temari's eyes. Temari had always shown a little more backbone with him than Kankurou had.

True to form, Kankurou backed off, releasing Gaara's shoulders, though from the look in his eye, it wasn't because he was intimidated or afraid, which is what the old Kankurou would have been like. Rather, he had backed off because he took what Gaara had said as an order.

"That's it," the kunoichi said angrily, her hands moving to grip the Kazekage's collar. "I'm taking you to the infirmary, and strapping you to one of those beds until you've had a chance to recover. You just keep pushing yourself, and for what? What are you trying to prove, anyway? We know you're not the hateful monster anymore that everyone thought you were." Her voice got snagged on an emotion. "Gaara, I don't like this... this... you've become something else entirely!"

Gaara closed his eyes slowly, held them closed for a full minute, and opened them slowly to Temari's eyes, maintaining perfect calm as he did so. "Temari, I appreciate your concern, but I do not need to go to the infirmary. And also, if you're not careful, you'll spill my tea."

Temari released his collar in surprise and recoiled, knocking the mug of tea off the desk as she did. Kankurou reacted with lightning speed and caught the mug before it could fall far.

"I'm perfectly fine, Temari. A little tired, yes, but a little fatigue never did me any harm before. Have a little faith in me, eh?"

Kankurou and Temari both physically backed away, as if frightened. Gaara felt his blood chill a bit at their reaction. Somehow, he hadn't expected them to be so frightened of him, not now that Shukaku was gone.

"You..." Temari said frantically, pointing directly at him. "You're not Gaara! I don't know who you are, but you're not our little brother!"

Frank bewilderment replaced apprehension.

Baki, the other jounin in the room, who had remained silent until now, placed his hands on Temari's shoulders and pulled her away. "Calm down, Temari. Getting worked up over this won't help."

"Would it help if I said 'shut up or I'll kill you'?" Gaara said mildly. "Even if I don't necessarily mean it?"

"She's got a point though," Kankurou said. "You're not... you're not the Gaara we know."

"You're right, I'm not the Gaara you knew," the Kazekage said wearily, turning to look out the window. He raised his left hand and summoned forth a small tendril of sand from his gourd. The sand spiraled around his arm and orbited idly around his wrist. He watched it glimmer in the faint light. "It's all still so new, these emotions. I never realized how much emotion the human body is capable of. Shukaku suppressed so much of it." His thoughts continued the soliloquy, though he was a little uncomfortable speaking aloud. If I were to speculate, I'd say that any emotion that wasn't a catalyst for living was suppressed. Shukaku had no use for things like happiness and contentment, and so it suppressed those. Things like rage and hatred fueled its power, and so it amplified them.

No one spoke, leaving the silence to lengthen. The only sound was the steady whirling of the sand cloud, dancing around his arm as if to music only it could hear.

"Not just emotions, either. Feelings. Sensations. I can feel the particles of sand touching my skin now. I can feel the breeze in my hair. I can feel twinges of pain in the wounds left behind. It's like I'm really alive now. Not only can I control my movements, but I can feel the consequences of each tiny decision. It's..." he looked over at his siblings. "It's something you've always taken for granted, I'm sure, but... it's so new to me. I'm a little overwhelmed." The chakra-infused sand retreated into the gourd again, and Gaara lowered his arm to the armrest, leaning back against the chair's backrest and closing his eyes wearily. There was another sensation that he wasn't quite willing to admit to out loud, but a very potent one.

It's almost like my body's too big for my soul, he thought abstractly. It's so... empty in here. And yet... I don't want Shukaku back. I'd rather die than have it back. Now I know what it is that I've been missing for all these years. Now I know what it feels like to be alive. Now that Shukaku's gone, I feel like I have control over my future and my soul.

He heard movement and opened his eyes to see Temari standing beside him, her expression one of uncertainty. She looked like she wanted to say something, but was afraid to say it.

Baki approached, causing Temari to back off instantly.

"Kazekage-sama, perhaps you should lie down and rest. Despite what you say, you look very fatigued. If Shukaku is indeed gone, then there should be no reason for you to fear sleeping now. You're of little use to us if you're strung out with fatigue. Please take our advice to heart."

Gaara sighed heavily, feeling the weight of fifteen years of insomnia settle upon his eyelids rather suddenly. He braced his arm against the desk and propped his forehead against his hand, trying to align his thought patterns to induce a semi-hypnotic state, in order to stave off the wave of fatigue. It was out of old habit that he did this, and for a moment, he tapped into his chakra reserve to reinforce it, before he realized that it wasn't necessary. Shukaku's reign of terror over his consciousness should be over with.

"Very well. I suppose it can't hurt to try," he said wearily, standing up slowly, feeling his joints complain as he did so. I feel like an old man. How long was I...? He couldn't quite bring himself to believe what he'd been told: that his body had died, his soul departed from it, when Shukaku was extracted, and that it was only thanks to Chiyo-baa that his body had been revived and his soul coaxed back. It had taken quite a bit of time for the stiffness of receding rigor mortis to disappear, but even now his joints still complained.

Temari surreptitiously slid her hand down to grib his elbow, giving him some stability and support. "I'll escort you to your chambers, Gaara."

"I'll go with you. My room's on the way," Kankurou said, packing up the puppet he had been trying to repair. "I'm pretty well beat, I could use some shut-eye myself. I don't seem to have your stamina, Temari."

Bracketed by his older siblings, Gaara had little choice but to proceed down the long hallway toward the private chambers he barely knew, barely spent any time in. It was a long walk at the pace they were going, but Gaara wasn't in any hurry. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he enjoyed their silent company, and was reluctant to be left alone.

As they walked, Gaara reflected on both ninja walking beside him. In retrospect, he could see now that they had been devoted to him for a lot longer than he'd realized. Even back at the height of Shukaku's power over him, during the failed attack on Konohagakure, when the sand-demon's bloodlust had reached its peak, Kankurou and Temari had been there for Gaara, repeatedly putting themselves in danger to keep him safe. It couldn't have just been because they were ordered to by Baki-sensei, or even by the imposter Kazekage. And even despite how he'd viewed and treated them, still they had served and protected him out of a loyalty he had never noticed and still couldn't quite comprehend.

Was it possible that Yashamaru had been wrong all this time?

Gaara stopped, his thoughts spinning in a new direction he never expected them to.

"What is it?" Kankurou was the first to respond to Gaara's abrupt stop.

"Something has been bothering me," Gaara said softly, looking at the floor with an unfocused gaze, like he was looking through the floor to the grounds below. "Do you suppose...?"

Temari looked over at Kankurou, who shrugged. Generally Temari was able to understand Gaara better, even though Gaara tended to confide in Kankurou more.

"What? What is it?"

"Do you suppose it's possible.." Gaara hesitated. He wasn't sure he wanted to ask this, but somehow he feared that if he didn't say it now, he'd never have the courage to say it. "Is it possible for someone like me to eventually be loved for who I am, not just what I represent?"

"What do you mean?" Kankurou asked, bewildered.

That being the response he'd rather expected, Gaara backpedaled. "Nevermind, forget I said anything."

You were never loved, Gaara. Never. Not even by your mother. And you never will be loved. No one can ever love a monster like you. Yashamaru's words, both real and implied, haunted his every emotion now. More than ever he craved that elusive, intangible bond called love. It wasn't enough just to have the respect as the Kazekage, not like he'd thought it would be. He wanted to be loved by his siblings.

I will never be satisfied, I think, he thought as he resumed walking. I wanted to be accepted. And I was. I wanted to be needed. And I am. I craved being respected. And they do, the fact that so many came to me when... that... happened... it's proof. I desired to be rid of Shukaku forever. And now I am. So why am I never satisfied? Am I really nothing but a bottomless pit of desires, even now that Shukaku is gone?

As they walked, Gaara noted that they passed Kankurou's quarters, but the puppetmaster didn't split off from them. He continued walking as though his destination was further ahead. He didn't even hesitate at all, not for a single stride.

Fatigue was beginning to cloud his physical judgment, and he unceremoniously tripped over his own feet at one point turning a corner. He felt something attach to his ankles as his feet were uncrossed and his gait resumed as if nothing had happened. His eyes darted to the right. He saw Kankurou move his fingers slowly. Chakra strings glimmered from his fingertips. Just as I thought. He saw me trip and used his puppetry to right my steps before I fell. But why? It's not like anyone was here to see it, for me to lose dignity over it?

Abstractly, he noticed that Temari and Kankurou were carrying on a bland, boring conversation over his head. Kankurou was complaining about the lack of quality in the puppeteers' corps, and Temari was lecturing him gently about their recent loss of numbers all over, thanks to that Akatsuki attack. She hoped that the present Chuunin Exams produced an ample supply of chuunin, to make up for some of the recent losses. It was the kind of conversation that Gaara, as Kazekage, should be taking some interest in, except that right now he had other thoughts on his mind. He just couldn't bring himself to give a damn about these things right now, not with his emotions out of control.

He almost stumbled again as they turned another corner and came to a stop at the end of the hallway. The big double doors before them were decorated with a huge stylized "wind" kanji superimposed over the village's sand symbol, the same symbol that adorned all forehead-protectors.

Kankurou pushed the doors open, revealing the antechamber of the Kazekage's lavishly decorated but sparsely used private quarters. Gaara had always spent far more time in his office than here in his private chambers. The office was open and centrally located, which meant that he encountered people more easily, reinforcing his bond with the village. And being that Gaara never slept, it made sense to be where he could continually reinforce his commitment to Sunagakure.

But now?

Well, it wasn't like he was far removed from Suna's heart. Only a few corridors away from his office, actually. And most people knew where to find the Kazekage's living quarters.

Gaara found himself drawn to the far window, the one that overlooked all of Sunagakure. Only someone with a deep bond with the village could appreciate just how beautiful the view was, given that most of Sunagakure's beauty was internal, because most of its wonders couldn't be exposed to the desert weather. To the average viewer, it was a boaring view of a bunch of clay residences that all looked the same. No one bothered to paint or decorate the exterior of their homes, because the arid weather and frequent sand storms would erode any decor attempted. The buildings were spartan in appearance, function over form. Hardly artistic at all, but they served their purpose.

No, it wasn't what most would call a beautiful view. But Gaara, who had been raised to love this village -- it had been the one constant thing through all his hellish life; the previous Kazekage had wanted to make Gaara into the ultimate weapon for the sake of Sunagakure, and so Gaara had been carefully conditioned to love this village, insomuch as he could love anything -- found this view to be both beautiful and soothing. There was nowhere in the world he'd rather be than right here, in Sunagakure. Even Konohagakure, beautiful and lush as it was, was not as appealing. Gaara felt like he belonged here. Sunagakure accepted him, had always accepted him, even if its people had hated and reviled him at one time.

He was proud to be the Kazekage, proud to serve this village. After the fiasco with Yashamaru, Gaara had come to believe that the sand that protected him was, rather than being his mother's dying gift, the village's attempt to protect him. Since this was the Village Hidden in the Sand, he'd believed it was Sunagakure's way of protecting its most prized weapon. It hadn't been until Baki-sensei had given him formal training as a shinobi that he'd learned that the sand shields came from Shukaku, not from the village's spirit itself. But this didn't lessen Gaara's attachment to his home.

"It looks like the Akatsuki didn't do much structural damage," he observed, letting his eyes drink in the sight of all of the village in one panoramic sweep.

"The only structural damage was to the outer walls," Kankurou said. "And that came later, after they abducted you. It was a series of traps meant to slow us down that brought those walls down. No residences were damaged beyond superficial scratches and gouges."

"I'm relieved. It wasn't easy, putting up that sand shield that far away from me. I suppose I was something of an idiot, attempting that, but I didn't exactly have a lot of time to think of something. Perhaps if I were a better shinobi, I could have done better. Perhaps if I was a better Kazekage, there wouldn't have been any casualties."

Kankurou put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "You did your job perfectly, Gaara. The only casualties we had were because we were careless after they abducted you. If anyone else had been Kazekage at the time, I don't know that all those buildings you see down there would have made it through. I do believe you will become the greatest of Kazekages, Gaara."

Temari approached, placing a hand on his other shoulder. "You're an idiot, Gaara. You still don't see it, do you?"

"What?"

"You are loved. Kankurou and I both love you, and we're not the only ones anymore. All of Sunagakure loves you. When you woke up, didn't you see how many people came to you? No other Kazekage has ever been so dearly loved by his people. But you know, don't you, that you are loved by your own family too." She tightened her grip on his shoulder. "We may not have shown it properly all this time, out of fear, but we have both loved you and cared for you as best we were able, all this time. Kankurou nearly died trying to save you. And I would have given my life in an instant to save you, if it had come to that."

"I don't know what you've been told in the past, Gaara," Kankurou said softly, his eyes becoming vacant, "but Temari and I have always been here for you, even when you haven't been able to see it, and we always will be. We're siblings. We're all we have."

Tears stung Gaara's eyes, and he closed his eyes to prevent them from forming further and falling. Thank you, Kankurou, Temari. I needed to hear that.

"Now go get some sleep, Gaara," Temari said affectionately, giving him a gentle push toward the bed. "You've more than earned it, and I'd say you're overdue for a good long sleep."

Awkwardly, Gaara removed the cowl and robe and climbed into the oversized bed. It was like having a pair of warm arms wrap around him, and before he really knew what was happening, he was falling, tumbling, cascading, into the pleasant, inviting darkness of slumber.

Welcome, a voice seemed to say, as he slipped beyond consciousness into a state of relaxation he'd never experienced. I've been waiting for you.

The all-consuming invasion of an awakening Shukaku never came, and for the first time in his life Gaara gave himself up to the call of sleep.