Top AN: After much stumbling over my words, misgivings and contemplation, I decided to split this chapter in two, as was originally planned. I'm sorry that we'll have to drag out a bit the whole "children" episode, but since I have no clue whether you like that or not, there's nothing I can do with my low productivity at current time than to reduce the size of the chapter in order to decrease your wait for an update. I can only hope that this way, everyone will be happy. You tell me if I'm right after reading, eh?

Chapter title courtesy of the lyrics from a positively awesome anime's sound track—Wolf's Rain. The song proved to be great inspiration and—since I had no clue what kind of a title to pick not to sound too corny—I decided it sounded good for this story, rather appropriate for the developments of the chapter. But I'll let you be the judge of that.

Chapter Two: A Kind of Paradise in a Flower's Bloom

The incessant weeps and oft sobs were the only sounds coming from the Fourth's offspring's room for a long while.

Being a discarded child—hated, cursed, looked down upon and sneered at from any and everyone in his home village—Gaara had no idea how to deal with the situation he had on his hands, especially with his next to nonexistent people skills. And namely, he had no idea what to say, what to do, to make this girl stop crying.

He hadn't known her for long—hell, they hadn't even been able to play together decently!—but something about her wordless anguish made a weird feeling in his gut coil and his insides constrict painfully. He didn't know what having a friend was like for he had never had one in his entire life; he had no experience at compassion or offering any kind of comfort and had never cared enough to look how other—normal—people dealt with their day-to-day relations with others so he was left with the nagging feeling of being completely and utterly helpless, useless, a dead weight that he'd always been—to his father, to his siblings, to his peers and to his village in general; and now to her as well.

It made him angry—puzzlingly so—that she wouldn't stop crying even after the ordeal was long over. That she was so damn inconsiderate not to think of how awkward she made him feel with her constant hiccupping and sniffling. How could she be so selfish? The skin over his eyes narrowed over the bright marine orbs.

"Are you injured?" he asked suddenly, in an attempt to find the source of her distress and hoping he'd be able to quell it. Regardless of his soothing, calm tone and the fact that there was no longer any danger looming over them, she didn't reply immediately. He scowled firmly at that in a way that only a child far too mature for his age could manage.

"N-n-n-n…n-no," she said finally, her speech shakier than ever before in her fit. Her head would start hurting soon from all the crying and whining but she didn't care. She was so overwhelmed—she just wanted to be home at once – was it that much to ask for? She wanted to be on familiar ground again, with familiar faces again and—as much as she liked Gaara-kun and was thankful to him for saving her when she thought all was lost—she wanted to leave there as soon as possible and never look back at this place that the remembrance of would leave her a scar for life.

"Why are you crying then?" he demanded, this time with more edge to his voice than was absolutely necessary. He couldn't understand why she couldn't calm down, couldn't get a grip on her emotions because it was shameful for a shinobi to show weakness and their tears to anyone—friend or foe. "Stop," he commanded, his irritation with her inadequate behaviour getting the better of his intestine-warming feelings for her.

"I-I-I… I c-c-can't!" If she was capable of wailing in despair, she didn't show it, but the urgency in her voice was enough to convey the feelings just as well as a shriek of utter desperation would have. "I w-w-was j-j-just…" She hiccupped again, "S-s-so scared!" She began rocking back and forth, her small arms wrapped tightly around her knees in a vain attempt to calm her down—it failed spectacularly and if it managed anything, it made her even more apprehensive than before. "I-I-I w-w-w-was s-s-s-so a-a-afraid they'd h-h-h-hurt us! I'm s-s-so af-afraid! I w-want t-to go to m-m-my daddy! I w-want my d-daddy! I want my daddy here!"

By the time she was in what could be best described as hysterics and she was bringing Gaara along with her for the ride as the boy had no idea how to reply to her quite whimsical—and obviously impossible to meet—demand of her father figure's presence. What do you say to a girl that is hyperventilating, sobbing and crying rivers at the same time? There weren't many things that sprang to mind.

Grimacing in agony as her grief wrenched at his little heart, Gaara put two chubby palms over his small pale ears and turned his face away from her, unable to watch her pathetic tantrum anymore. He wanted to yell at her to stop her whining, that she wasn't accomplishing anything but getting both of them a headache but figured that she was probably too far gone at that point to listen to him at all.

That's when he saw his savior.

If his facial muscles had been capable of it, they would have stretched into a wide grin.

Oblivious to the boy's actions and fussing around the room in all the subtlety only a tailed beast vessel could pull, Hinata kept sobbing and trembling uncontrollably all over. She was ashamed of herself and so anxious and relieved at the same time.

She was ashamed that she was being so weak and petty in front of someone who could have been a potential friend, someone who had protected her and promised to continue doing so in the future. She was ashamed of her incompetence and annoyed at her uselessness. She had made Gaara-kun say a bad word—the taboo for someone of such superior breeding "b" word—and her incapability at protecting herself had caused him to hurt people of his own village, surely respectable shinobi who did as they were told who weren't at fault for kidnapping her—they had maybe even done so on her father's request, to test her strength and fighting skill. She'd failed her father, failed herself and failed Gaara as well, soiled his creamy white hands, small and innocent just like any child's, with the blood of his kin.

She was anxious and strained because she didn't want to spend another second in this village full of malevolent people who wanted to hurt her for no apparent reason anymore. She couldn't stand them, she couldn't stand her own uselessness, couldn't stand it all! She wanted to go home, back to her room and her bed where she could curl into a ball and cry all her fears away, bottle away all the terrible memories in the back of her mind where she would never see them again, where she would be safe and sound beyond the walls of the Hyuuga mansion where she was convinced was the most secure place in the entire world. She just wanted to be home again, in her father's securing embrace again. Why couldn't she? Why wouldn't they let her? Was she that terrible of a girl not to take any pity upon her in the pathetic state she was in?

Before she could lose any more of her dignity to her self-bashing thoughts, something soft and fuzzy was shoved in her face, pulling her out of the world of pain that she was locking herself inside. Her blotchy reddened face was revealed as she studied the object and found it to be a stuffed bear—the cutest stuffed bear she had ever laid eyes upon, she decided immediately in her distressed mindset.

Her opalescent gaze traveled further up the outstretched pale arm that was offering the toy to rest on a frowning young face of boy. She blinked adorably a few times to clear her vision of another onslaught of tears, suddenly more interested in his intentions rather than her personal drama.

"I'll give you my bear for tonight," he began and her eyes widened in disbelief. He was giving her a present while she was demonstrating how unworthy of one she actually was? "Don't get any weird ideas though—I'm just lending. So you stop crying. Tomorrow you'll have to give it back." The joy in her eyes dimmed somewhat and that sent a pang of something—was that how guilt felt?—washing over all of Gaara's insides. "But for tonight, he's all yours." She took the proffered bear tentatively, with shaking fingers and hugged it to her chest. "He's always there for me when I have a hard time. He'll help you calm down as well."

But it wasn't the comfort that hugging an inanimate stuffed bear provided that calmed her crying. The feeling of relief that she felt earlier had seized control of all other emotions, of all her fears and uncertainties. She was once again, more than ever, glad that Gaara-kun was by her side through it all. She was sure she was a real pain when she was whining but she couldn't help it. Her father had probably betrayed her in his intent to make her that much stronger, he was still nowhere in sight and she couldn't feel a familiar chakra signature in a kilometer radius with her Byakugan, the scenery outside was weird and completely unlike Konoha whatsoever and there was that much more to cry over.

And through it all, he hadn't left her on her own, to wallow in her sorrow endlessly. He even lent her his favourite—she could tell by how dirty it was from being carried around all over the place—toy so she would calm herself. He was such a sweet boy. She couldn't possibly imagine why he had no one to play with, the incident from before completely forgotten in her linear thinking style.

And as the offering of a favourite toy was an unspoken and unwritten rule for little children to confess that they trusted you completely, Hinata lifted her head, eyes still puffy and red from her crying but her smile as brilliant as ever. The accursed thing in Gaara's little chest constricted again yet this time it wasn't in that painful way from the time she was crying her eyes out. It was a teasing—almost itchy—sort of clench that made it a little harder to breathe.

"Thank you, Gaara-kun!"

She said it without stuttering, with that bright grin on her wonderful childish features. And she was smiling all for him, all because of him. He had never made anyone smile before. He found the feeling awfully addictive. He wanted to see more of her smile, feel the radiance of her aura even brighter.

He had no idea why those goons of his father's had kidnapped her, or where they had kidnapped her from, but he didn't want her to return wherever she was coming from. It was selfish, cruel and perhaps very inconsiderate since she was so displeased with staying in Suna, but he didn't care about her feelings in the matter. He could easily make those feelings change, right? He'd find ways to make her forget about her home, he'd make her see that she was better off living there, in that room, in that building and that village, where he was. He had a friend for once in his life and he was unwilling to give her away to anyone—not to her family, not to her other friends, not to her fellow villagers. He'd be all the protection she needed from that father she always whined about—the thought made some darker emotion in him stir; it was what we all call jealousy that Gaara had no previous first-hand experience with—and show her all the devotion of a doting family; he'd give her anything she wanted and needed; he'd make her smile for him forever.

Looking at her amicable grin made it almost impossible not to grin back. That is why he looked away, self-conscious.

"Just for tonight though," he muttered in an attempt to bring the torrent of unfamiliar before that day feelings under his control.

But how much willpower could a boy of five possess? It was a losing battle.

Fortunately, it was a battle he didn't mind losing.

Being Kazekage wasn't really as great as everyone made it out to be.

One rarely ever engaged in battle anymore for fear of "making the village look weak to other countries and thus endangering its people" but that suited the Fourth Kazekage of the Sand perfectly well. He was more of strategist and tactician, a well-endowed manipulator that preferred to create the plots and let others do the dirty field work while he drank his green tea peacefully in his Kazekage Dome. He was just that kind of person—a man of silent but steadfast determination and endless ambition. It was those as well as many more valuable qualities in these times of war that earned him the position after the tragic disappearance of the Third Kazekage, the greatest warrior the village had ever had protecting it.

The Fourth and his village elders had created an exceptionally cunning plot lately and he was still waiting to hear the result of the operation, drinking said tea in something akin to apprehensiveness. For some reason, he had a bad feeling about the outcome of the plan. There were too many variables, too many uncertainties, too many risks for failure. If the plan failed and only alarmed the Leaf of the Sand's wavering loyalty, the situation could get much worse than it already was. There were so many ways things could go completely wrong.

And yet none of those countless ways that the Fourth anticipated to hear came even close to what really happened.

When he heard about the procession of things, he had to summon every ounce of control that he had in his body not to scream at his underlings for not taking better care of the Hyuuga girl or for their failure to match up with his idiotic nuisance of a son. But there wasn't really much to say, was there? How could one expect of a five-year-old girly to be capable of breaking out of her high-security prison cell? Who was supposed to foresee that she'd be stupid enough to enter into Gaara's room and—more importantly—that she'd actually earn the boy's trust instead of getting herself killed right off the bat?

For all the villagers knew, Shukaku's vessel had proved to be mentally unstable on more than one occasion, going on a blind rampage and annihilating everything in the vicinity several times already for his rather short existence. He was as antisocial—what with his lack of experience and everyone's reluctance to change that fact for fear of their imminent demise—as they got so why had he let this pathetic, sniveling little girl into his room, into his life?

It was an event truly impossible to predict so he had no adequate reason to vent his frustrations on his subordinates, however pleasing it would be to him, and—while many would probably argue such a point—the Fourth was a good Kage (if not very much of a father to his three offspring).

He set his tea cup down impassively, looking at the smoothness of its surface and his own concerned façade in its reflection. He released a restrained sigh and closed his dark eyes thoughtfully in silent contemplation.

"How should we proceed, Yondaime-sama?" One of the gathered men urged him to wakefulness again but instead the Fourth just creased his brow further.

This was a delicate matter and had to be dealt with accordingly—the Kage realized that perfectly well but what was there left to do? If he tried to pry the girl out of his son's grasp, it wouldn't end well for anyone—especially for those he sent to take her away from Gaara. There wasn't a Jounin alive in the village yet who could stand on equal ground with Shukaku's vessel. Just sitting and waiting it out didn't sound like a good alternative either, as his son could go berserk any minute and destroy what little chance the Sand had of gathering information on the Hyuuga clan Bloodline Limit. Things were going downhill too fast too soon.

"Yashamaru!" the ruler called out to the small crowd of men in his tea room and a rather short, sandy-blond young shinobi stepped up and kneeled in respect in front of him. "Your task has just changed. You are to observe my son and his girl toy at all times—see to it she stays alive long enough for us to come up with a plan to free her of his attention."

The youth's jaw squared visibly, making the rest of the Jounins around him glare daggers at his plain rudeness, but he bowed obediently regardless of his obvious feelings in the matter.

"Yes, sire," he muttered silently as he bowed so low his forehead touched the straw-like carpet of the floor.

"Observe their actions and find weak spots which we can exploit in a time of need." The man took another tentative sip of his refreshing green tea while the other mumbled through clenched teeth.

"Certainly, Kazekage-sama."

"And try to be a good actor with them, will you? Make them believe they have developed a bond with you or something—so when it's unveiled for the lie that it is, they will be vulnerable." The robes rustled when the Kage brandished his arm disinterestedly.

"As you wish, sire," the young man going by the name of Yashamaru agreed begrudgingly. The head of the village seemed unfazed by his ill-concealed malign.

"Very well then. You're dismissed."

"Yes, Kazekage-sama." With one last bow, Yashamaru was gone, leaving a room of bustling Jounins in his wake.

"Kazekage-sama!" one of the nameless faces exclaimed in protest afterwards. "You shouldn't trust Yashamaru with such important matters to the village. You know his feelings for you and his dubious loyalty! He cannot be trusted!"

Chuckling softly, the ruler set his cup down on the tea table in front of him calmly, looking up at his devoted followers.

"It is obvious to me that you do not understand the nature of my relationship to Yashamaru, Captain Yuura."

"But what is there to—" A raised hand prevented him from finishing his sentence.

"It is certainly obvious that the boy bears me a grudge in his heart that he is more than unwilling to let go of—and I daresay righteously so." The Fourth clasped his hands in his lap in a well-mannered fashion. "But it is exactly that hate for me that makes him obey my every command so devotedly, so desperately yearning for recognition. The closer he gets to me, the more pleased he keeps me, the bigger the possibility that I show him an opening for an attack. Surely, the boy is cunning, secretive and quite the actor around everyone, hiding his real intentions and feelings behind countless masks that are nearly impossible to peel all off but exactly those qualities make him an excellent shinobi as well as a valuable cadre. In fact, he could be even as loyal as you, Captain Yuura, if just to find a decent spot to stab with a knife in my back."

After his elaborate explanation that had a few unseasoned ninja that weren't used to his distorted thinking leave their mouths drop agape, the Fourth straightened his back and his face was adorned with a sly grin that could have made Satan himself shudder in disgust.

"So, you see, gentlemen—there isn't anyone else I'd trust in such a dire situation than dearest brother-in-law Yashamaru." His smile was highly unnerving and every person present in the room yearned for a change of subject that would surely wipe that expression off his face. "What's the situation with Konohagakure, Baki?"

The addressed Jounin started at the sudden change of subject but gathered his wits quick enough before his weakness was noted by all his peers.

"The Hyuuga clan is in a state of chaos at present, sire. They don't have a clue who might have attacked them and kidnapped their successor with such precision. We are still clear of suspicion and the Hyuuga still haven't come to a solution to their problem. Should we send a word for our wants, sire?"

The Kazekage rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"No, leave them deal with it for a while. In the time it should take them to come to a decision, we should have adjusted to the situation here as well and figured exactly what we want from them. Dismissed."

In a cloud of smoke and sand, the Fourth was left to his musings on his own again, mulling over his next move.

"Are you calm now?" Gaara demanded none too gently, making his counterpart wince at his tone and clutch the teddy bear closer to her young bosom.

"U-uh huh…" she mumbled almost indiscernibly, burying her face in the stuffed toy.

"You're not going to burst in tears anymore? No more tantrums?" He made sure suspiciously, not completely convinced by her uncertain affirmation.

"N-…no…" she murmured again, barely above a whisper. She was suddenly very shy of her outburst, ashamed to meet Gaara's gaze again, afraid to see the disapproval surely written all over his face at her display of weakness. She was a kunoichi, and kunoichi had to be strong, regardless of their age, her father had always told her. But she was a disgrace—she couldn't control herself and her feelings and more often than not they got the better of her, like a little while ago. How completely unbecoming of an heiress of her stature she had behaved!

"Good," the boy deduced with new sternness in his voice that wasn't there a moment ago and she heard his clothes rustle by her as he stood up, drawing his absolutely unremarkable height-wise frame up completely, walking away from her. She lifted her gaze half-curiously from the toy's body to spy on her friend's movements. "We can continue where we left off then." They were rather interrupted but he preferred to ignore the whole ordeal, like he usually did. It was easier acting as if something never happened rather than breaking your head trying to comprehend why the hell his father wished Hinata harm, much like he chose not to contemplate why exactly there were so many villagers and shinobi that bore him ill-will.

So, with practiced ease, Gaara plopped himself down in front of his building blocks and continued putting more and more atop of the last under Hinata's intense—or as intense as a five-year-old girl who felt completely out of place in her current surroundings—scrutiny. At last, the little kunoichi shook herself out of her stupor and slowly scooted next to Gaara to observe his building process closely.

"D-didn't… didn't i-it b-bother you a-…at all?" She queried shakily, grasping the reassuring toy closer to her small body. At the boy's nonchalant snort of incomprehension, she elaborated uncertainly. "D-…didn't w-what h-happened… j-just now b-bother you… at all?" She swallowed, her throat still dry from all her crying. "H-how can y-you… b-be so… so calm after… after t-that… k-kind of thing h-happened?"

He didn't even look at her. He was strangely distant even when he was within her arm's reach. She couldn't understand why he was being so odd with her. She just wanted to know was all. She couldn't understand his nonchalance whatsoever.

"If I was as shaken up as you every time it happened, I would have gone crazy by now." He shrugged noncommittally, reinforcing the base of his structure, stunningly perceptive for a boy his age. "You'll get used to it too in time."

At the revelation that this was not the first time some unknown shinobi stormed his room for no apparent reason, Hinata felt a new wave of childish sympathy for the little guy next to her. Adults could be so terribly mean at times she almost found herself thinking bad things about them. And she was supposed to be raised too well to resort to such pettiness like calling—or thinking, as was the case—people names, if even just to her own mind.

"Th-this… isn't t-the f-first time… t-this h-happens… to you?" He made it a point not to look at her face because he was sure he'd see unbridled pity and sympathy in them—she was too sincere in all she did not to have her feelings written all over her face like that—and he wasn't sure if he wanted to see those. He'd never been on the receiving end of them, but wasn't all eager to be either. He'd lived through quite a lot for his few years but he was convinced that the last thing a man—like him—needed was pity.

"No," he told her in a clipped tone that didn't leave room for any further questioning on the matter.

So she didn't. Instead, she sulked over it. She was sad that those mean people could treat such a careful and—if not a little cold—gentle boy like Gaara in such a manner. Surely, she had deserved it—been a bad girl, disobeyed her father deliberately on several occasions and had earned his disapproval, but what could have Gaara done to anyone to make them assault him the way they have assaulted her? Nothing sprung to mind. She was once more overcome by the unfairness of it all, of the ugliness of them all, of their twisted-ness and rudeness towards someone who she heard they turned to with a most respectable honorific. What insufferable hypocrites they were!

"You're not playing." It was her companion's cool and collected voice that jolted her back to reality with a start. When she met his marine eyes, they narrowed beneath his hairless eye brows. "And you look like an old lady."

Hinata rubbed roughly her small fists against her eyes, trying to rid them of their drowsiness.

"I-… I'm sorry. I'm… j-just a little… t-tired." She told him while adorably rubbing her eyes.

"You shouldn't apologize about everything. There's nothing to feel sorry for in being worn down," he informed her sternly with those overly focused gaze of his boring directly into her. Unable to hold it anymore, she looked away from him, ashamed.

"I-I'm sorry!" she sputtered hastily and upon realization covered her traitorous mouth with the hand that wasn't busy holding the teddy to her.

She looked up, bracing herself to see the disapproving stare—one that she was so familiar seeing in her dearest father's eyes—in her new friend's eye but instead she was met only with an eye brow raised in slight amusement. He then shook his head in a manner that conveyed that he knew perfectly well at that point that arguing her ways was more than hopeless, and made a move to collect his toys into a semi-tidy pile in one corner of the room. She watched him with as much interest as her drooping eyes would allow her while he took out a solitary futon out of a build-in wardrobe.

"It's not like you did anything to get tired anyway…" he muttered under his breath and for some reason she felt the urge to explain herself. She didn't want to look like a weakling—the weakling she actually was, as a matter of fact, but he didn't need to know that, did he now—to her precious new friend and protector.

"I-I hadn't had a-any r-rest… w-when I was k-…kidnapped! A-and I… I haven't slept w-… well since! S-so… s-so it's n-…normal to be t-tired!" She insisted with urgency in her voice that made him eye her dubiously but regardless, he said nothing about her outburst. Girls were hard to understand, he'd heard his older brother say about their older sister after one of their countless fights. Naturally, Gaara hadn't been a part of it but they had failed to notice his presence barging in on them so he had made full use of his welcome there. He chose not to tell her that the closest village to theirs was on a half a day trip so it was impossible for her to have been up the entire time—it was just too mean to burst her bubble like that.

A look of recognition—though barely perceptible—crossed his features for a brief moment.

"So you're sleepy… huh?" He sat on the side of the futon, looking much older than his actual age with all the ruefulness in his clear marine orbs. Hinata blinked rapidly with her girlishly large eye lashes.

"A-aren't… you?" she asked cautiously, subconsciously realizing—or maybe not—that she was walking on thin ice there.

"I don't sleep." The reply came almost instantly, snappily, as if suggesting otherwise insulted him.

Hinata flinched back visibly at the tone he was using with her but he paid her no heed. He was too immersed in a world of his own to notice anything in his surroundings. She bit her bottom lip guiltily, looking down at the teddy in her arms. He was being so nice to her and all she managed to do was make him sad and distant. No wonder she had no friends. She wasn't fit to be a friend to anyone, much less to Gaara-kun.

"Here, you can take my futon since I never use it anyway." He pointed at the bed that he had made with staggering precision for someone who made no use of such a piece of furniture. When she made no move to acknowledge his kind offer—not that he had a real grasp of what the word meant but surely letting someone use your things as they pleased classified as "kind" in other—ordinary—people's books, right?—he scowled his disapproval. "What's wrong with it?"

"Wh-…why sh-should there b-be… s-something wrong… with it?" she didn't understand. Gaara's frown only deepened but didn't manage to crease his perfectly fine forehead.

Spotless, scar-less, flawless skin—there wasn't a trace of all the pain and suffering he must have surely lived through if he was used to being manhandled by the Jounin around here. And somehow, that just made her sad—really, really sad—that no one could see the traces of his anguish because it didn't take on any physical shape yet the scars that marred his inside were probably much uglier and deeper than any physical scar could ever be. Wasn't it terribly sad, just thinking about it?

"You're not taking it," he once more pointed out the obvious, making her look down at her clasped fingers around the teddy bear that looked so adorably up at her with its lifeless buttons of eyes.

"It's-it's perfect!" she squeaked out and clambered over the sheets hastily, not bothering to shed herself of her clothing—mainly because she was quite self-conscious about doing so in front of anyone that wasn't her personal maid at the mansion and even more so because that person happened to be of the opposite gender since her father had always taught her—even though her too young mind failed to wrap itself around the meaning behind it—that it was inappropriate undress herself when there were boys around.

In a matter of seconds she was underneath the warm covers, bear still tightly clutched to her as she laid her head contentedly on her pillow. Her droopy eye lids closed in bliss as she felt the stiffness in her body slowly but certainly ease.

"Th-this is… so great!" Her eyes snapped open in the span of an inhale and she was up in a sitting position, bowing respectfully to her host repeatedly with all her inbred courtesy and good manners—if a little late. "I-I'm sorry! I-I forgot my m-manners i-in my h-haste!" She bowed again. "Thank you h-humbly… f-for y-you g-generous… h-hospitality t-to me!"

Gaara could only look on as this girl, who was the same age as he was yet they differed so greatly. Where did she come from and how could she be so polite with someone who was on the same eye level as her? It was beyond him. Yet he didn't say anything. She looked comfortable, hiding behind her routines like that, searching for some familiarity in this village that was completely foreign to her and so far had shown her nothing good.

She stopped her frantic bowing after a while and he idly wondered if she was finally content and calmed herself enough to go to sleep at last. She peeked at him from beneath her dark eye brows with her wide innocent eyes pupil-less and white as snow. He met her gaze with well hidden curiosity of his own.

"Wh-what will… y-you do… G-Gaara-kun?"

"I told you I don't sleep," he said with a roll of his black-rimmed eyes.

"That's… that's not what I meant." She covered her legs with the soft covers once more, round opals boring into him once more. There was a determined shine in them and if he had learnt anything about this girl for the evening that they have shared in each other's company, it was that when she lost her stutter, it meant that it was a really serious matter to her. Either that or it meant that she wasn't thinking—there was no other explanation.

He turned his dark red-haired head towards the farthest wall from them.

"I'm sick of this room so I'll probably go out for a little while, to take a walk. Nights in Suna can be really long and exhausting to endure." He heaved a sigh and got ready to march for the door when something gripped at the back of his shirt. He spied a glance at the tiny fist that was clutching his top and then to the person it belonged to.

The boy was partially taken aback by the fresh torrent of tears that brimmed in those sincere to Kami opalescent orbs as well as the desperation and fear that bred in them.

"P-please… d-don't leave…"

For a moment he considered telling her off. There wasn't anything he could do in the room while she was asleep and he meant it—eleven hours of darkness wasn't something he daily looked forward to. Eleven hours during which unburdened people could take a rest in dreamland but once more he had to prove just how different he was even with such a simple thing as his perpetual insomnia. Well, it wasn't as if he couldn't sleep—he just really didn't want to. Every time his mind drifted off, there was this hideous shadow inside him that laughed with a horrible voice, muttering unintelligible promises of his imminent demise as well as that of the whole village and its inhabitants. It spoke of horrid things and enforced images in his mind's eye that haunted his vision even when he was awake. He was better off not sleeping at all if he had to face that kind of torture in his slumber.

But then he realized how much more she meant by that. She was afraid. Just as afraid as he was to fall asleep alone. She was afraid in the same way that she wasn't sure what she'd wake up to next time her eyes opened. She was afraid to let her guard down in such an unfriendly community as the Sand, where she didn't have anyone, where she couldn't trust anyone enough to sleep in the presence of.

Yet she trusted him, asked him to stay around her to give her enough comfort to nod off. They were in the middle of a war but she so easily gave her trust to the son of the man who ordered her kidnapping—although he didn't exactly expect her to know that kind of thing nor did he plan on telling her himself. She was so naïve and innocent that it could probably draw tears in someone more weak-minded than him.

But to Gaara, Hinata was just odd. Odd in so many ways he already lost count. Yet she managed to touch a nerve somewhere in him—she managed to stir something that he had thought he didn't possess, that he was made to believe that he was born without. He had always thought of himself as vastly different from everyone else around, as incapable of being part of a normal relationship. He'd always believed that he had grown out of this that now made him painfully aware of its presence within him—humanity. Despite the elaborate attempts of those around him who made him believe he was a monster, that he couldn't be a part of anything that involved normal people, there was still something in him that could be friendly, that could understand the need for company, that was compelled to stay when asked to.

Because he, himself, desperately needed a constant soothing presence in his life as well. Because he needed something, someone, to anchor him to this world, to stop his mind from wandering this world pointlessly, to give him a reason to exist, if just for a little while.

So he sat by her side on the futon while she curled sideways in a fetal position, teddy bear tightly embraced in her small fingers. He rested his back against the wall just behind her pillow and exhaled heavily. There was surely a long and boring night ahead of him but he'd made a promise to her. A man did not go back on his word—especially not him, especially not to someone who suddenly felt so strangely special for a person he'd just met. He didn't understand bonds at all so there was no way he could even consider that their meeting could have held much more meaning than he would credit it to.

She cuddled up by his side snugly, tired eyes once again shielded behind creamy white lids. He looked at her calm form for a while, feeling her relaxation seep into him as well. When he thought she was asleep, she did the most startling thing to prove him wrong—her tiny fingers covered the hand that was holding part of his weight propped up against the wall. His eyes snapped to her immediately, alarmed at the sudden contact and almost expecting her to be shifting in her sleep but instead he saw her kind gaze looking up at him from in between the thick feminine lashes in a way that made his chest constrict in that playfully teasing way that he had come to look forward to feeling.

She smiled blissfully at him as she said in the smallest of voice, in less than a whisper, "Thank you, Gaara-kun."

She'd thanked and excused the entire day but somehow, this time it felt completely different. While she was the incarnation of sincerity the entire time, he couldn't help but feel like this was the first time she'd spoken from her heart to him. It made his body go through a confusing torrent of emotions which battled for dominance over him and none of which he could put a name to.

But when Hinata finally hid her opalescent gaze behind her small lids for the last time that night and her fingers weaved boldly with his in a gesture that sought security in the most heart-meltingly adorable way, he couldn't help but squeeze her hand lightly back in reassurance that he was indeed staying the night by her side, however long it may be. He didn't care if it was happiness that he felt or how confusing it was to experience all those new emotions because there was a girl within an arm's reach that was just as puzzled as he was, just as afraid and a foreigner to the world as he was. Her fingers were cold as his were, but the remainders of the smile etched onto her sleeping features made her grip much warmer than any physical temperature could have reached.

Warm enough to melt some of the defenses that he had built up to keep anyone out of his life.

It was truly odd, how two people so different could yet be so much alike. It was mystifying how they met and how well they got along, despite the staggering difference in their characters and upbringing. It was most wondrous how in the midst of times of war, of blood spilling, of ruthless carnage and betrayal where you can rely on no one but yourself, two lonely souls found solace in each other's presence, in one another's existence.

It was a kind of paradise that Gaara would have never hoped existed, much less that it would allow him—the cursed one, the abominable and unlovable one—entry into it. It was a kind of paradise that he could surrender to.

The calm of the night relaxed his senses, the coldness of the wall worked the knots of his muscles and his mind went blank enough to allow him some level of rest, of absolution if even just for a little while. He was not afraid of his inner demons because the radiance of the little girl, even in her deep sleep, was much greater than any evil on this or any other world, he was naively sure.

And, shrouded by the darkness of the night, an eye was peering at the resting pair of younglings from the crack of the slightly open door with a promising, calculating gaze of a lurking beast stalking his prey.

Bottom AN: I have no excuse for my tardiness but I decided not to sacrifice quality over quantity. I thought that you'd support that kind of thing if the chapter came out well enough. I'm not as pleased with it as I would have liked—definitely not as much as with the previous one—but that's for you to decide. As for me, I can't wait to get to the real action as this is just something of a prologue—yes, quite an elaborate one, isn't it—but we have one more chapter to go before we can do that. I hope you don't mind the chibi action too much and that it isn't way too sappy. Keep in mind that they're still kids and that they haven't yet been hardened by the terribleness that is real life. We're to see some of that in next chapter though, but I'm not telling you anything more, ku ku ku.

Oh, and, feel yourself warned when I say this; I seem to lack understanding for the word "brief". I don't do brief, I can't do brief. I like to interact with my characters and to show different sides of them so a reader can understand why I like them so much. So… Yeah… From now on it may seem at times like it doesn't have as much action or plot development but I have the good intention of having everything holding some meaning, or at least to the character development. It would make me sad if someone stops supporting me just because I can't keep myself from going all out when it comes to development, but I'd rather you be warned than blame me later on. It's just the way I am.

And, by the way, I appreciate constructiveness and helpful comments very much. If you have something that you want to see more of, something that you justly believe shouldn't be there, any thoughts, complaints or other comments, feel free to tell me what it is and why it should or shouldn't be the way you want it to. You just might see things happening the way you want to later on. (winks)

Sorry for the rant and thanks for the attention once more! I hope you enjoyed the new installment to this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!