AN: A bit of Gaara character introspection that went farther than I thought it would. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed exploring this character, and I hope you enjoy reading the result. Spoilers through Gaara's arc in Shippuuden. Possibly Gaara x Naruto if you squint really hard. Mostly just a friendship.

This is Part I of four. Reviews are greatly appreciated.


Mortality

What shocked him was the reality of his own death.

The horror of killing had abandoned him a long, long time ago. He saw no God, no power, no hope of heaven in the eyes of the dying, when the inner light faded and all that was left was dull and blank. He saw nothing at all.


Part I

There was a smell to Konoha that was vastly different from the desert. The desert smelled like wind, like burning, like wild animals: a fierce smell, terrible and joyful. Konoha smelled like leaves and sunlight, like warmth. He would never confuse the two, not if he went blind and deaf and dumb, not in a thousand years.

Gaara opened his eyes, knowing already where he would find himself.

A rusted fan revolved slowly overhead, creaking softly. The window was wide open. He looked at it, feeling the warm summer wind on his face and wondering how it was that Konoha slept safely with its windows thrown open to the sun and the sky and the birds, and all the creatures that lurked in the shadows. In the desert he would have shut the window; he would have closed and barred it, and made sure everyone beneath him was closed and barred, hidden away, protected.

He loved the desert and its sands that shifted like the sea, its fierce winds and terrible storms. Nothing was still in the desert, nothing was ever entirely safe.

But Konoha…Konoha was still, and bright, and beautiful.

It was a near-cloudless day, and there was a tree outside his window, deep green against the blue sky, that swayed back and forth, gently, with the shifting of the breeze. He watched it, letting the sight of it draw his mind away from the pain in his legs. He didn't want to look at them, and there were sheets and a white hospital yukata covering him, sparing him that unpleasantness, at least. They felt stiff and bulky, wound with bandages, no doubt, and there was an aching throb to them where there should have been agony, as though the worst of the pain could not quite make it to his mind. Drugs, probably. He watched the tree.

He thought some time had passed, though he wasn't sure, when the door opened and someone entered. He looked and saw a girl, a woman, someone familiar to him, and he tried to remember her name. He didn't know her, not really, but he did know her face, because she was often with him.

"Haruno Sakura," he said slowly.

"How are you feeling?" she asked. She hovered in the space between his bed and the door, neither close nor far, and he remembered after a moment that she was a medic, probably meant to attend to him, which meant that she would have to touch him.

He never had learned how to soften his features at will, and it was probably the same stare he gave to nearly everyone that he fixed her with now, but he twitched his fingers, a little gesture that was almost a beckon: It's all right. Do what you need to do.

It seemed to work. Sakura came forward and lifted his wrist carefully, turning it over and feeling for his pulse. He watched her impartially and said in answer to her question, "I can't move."

"You won't for some time," Sakura said, not unsympathetically, but distant now, in her element. "You nearly died. You're still badly injured, so what you need to do now is stay in that bed and rest."

He sensed that she was uncomfortable giving him orders, and there was something else, some shiftiness on her part that made him think that she was neglecting to tell him something serious. He didn't pursue it. "What happened to my squad?"

Sakura hesitated, her fingers still over his pulse. "They're all dead."

He closed his eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said, lowering his wrist to his side. "Naruto and I tried to get there in time…we were too late."

He opened his eyes and looked at her again. "Why did you bring me to Konoha?"

She appeared startled by the question. "It was Naruto's idea," she said after a moment, as though that explained everything, and in a way it did.

He knew that Sunagakure would be looked after in his absence, and it didn't bother him, not really. It bothered him to be here. Everything was too soft, too bright, too peaceful. He wanted darkness and solitude, a place where he could be still and contemplate the abyss. Not sunlight. Not trees.

"Where is he?"

The question was out of his mouth before he even realized he had spoken, and it hung in the air between them. He didn't expect Sakura to understand, but she did. She looked at him and said simply, "With Hokage-sama. He'll come later."

That was too much to contemplate at the moment. Gaara looked at the ceiling and watched the slow revolutions of the old fan while Sakura did what she needed to do, seating herself by his legs and folding the sheets up onto his torso. He sucked in his breath the first time she touched him, but she was gentle and efficient, with a coolness in her hands that sank into his legs and numbed the initial agony. The absence of pain was a curious thing. He took no notice of it day to day, but now it was a huge and tangible presence, to be embraced with open arms.

The process of changing his bandages was slow and terrible, and he could not look, but he said, "Thank you," when Sakura was done so she wouldn't be afraid.

She nodded and looked reassured. "Do you want anything for the pain?"

"No."

"Can I get you something to eat?"

"No."

She pursed her lips. "I'm bringing some food later. You need to eat."

He met her eyes. She swallowed but did not look away.

"All right," he said at last.

"Rest now," she told him, and she left.

He allowed his head to sink back onto the pillow. This thing, this great hurt that he had inflicted so many times on so many people, it was his now, it was here with him, if he would see it. He wouldn't. He watched the fan turning over his head, the scudding of clouds across the blue sky, the tree swaying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.


In the balmy evening Gaara slept, but he woke when Naruto came. Naruto, too, had a huge and tangible presence, an unmistakable one. He would have woken for anyone, friend or foe, but blindly, unknowing, in that vulnerable moment. With Naruto, he knew. That he could not was impossible.

Naruto was sitting on the windowsill, looking him over. It occurred to Gaara that he had probably come up by climbing the tree, which was such an absurd and laughable idea that he very nearly smiled.

"Ah! Gaara! You're awake!" The room which had been so still and peaceful in the dark of the night now seemed bright and loud and small, or maybe it was simply Naruto who was too big. "Are you feeling better? You look better. It's been five days, did you know that?"

He had not.

"We thought you were going to die, but old lady Tsunade came and she did something and you started getting better," Naruto went on enthusiastically. "Then she made me leave for a mission—Sakura-chan said it was just so I wouldn't hang around the hospital and disturb you, which isn't fair because old lady Tsunade let Sakura-chan watch you, but I guess that's because she's a medical-nin."

Listening to Naruto, Gaara found, was exhausting. "I see."

"But you're awake now so it doesn't matter, though I'm still not supposed to bother you—oh, old lady Tsunade said to tell you that we sent a message to Suna and everything's fine there; Kankuro and Temari are looking after everyone and they want you to get better."

"Good," Gaara said absently.

"So it's all okay, and old lady Tsunade will help you and you'll get better." Naruto's voice abruptly lowered. "Though your squad…your squad's dead. We couldn't…"

"I know," Gaara said.

"We wanted to save them," Naruto said unhappily.

"I know."

"We almost couldn't save you."

"I know," Gaara said softly.

Naruto gazed at him, bereft of words for this brief moment, and Gaara gazed back. Looking at Naruto was like looking into a pool of clear water, and the reflection he saw there was painful and wonderful. He saw himself in Naruto's eyes more clearly than he ever had or ever would, and he was not horrible, not an abomination, not something to be feared, but human, and worthy, maybe, of being loved.

"You brought me to Konoha," Gaara said.

"Yep."

"Why?"

Naruto, too, appeared startled by the question. "Our hospital's better than yours," he said in his tactless way. "And old lady Tsunade's here, and—"

Gaara didn't hear the rest. That was the second time Naruto had mentioned Konoha's head. He had been right about what was wrong with him. Before she was ever Hokage, Tsunade had been a famous medical shinobi. A very effective one.

The abyss stretched out before him, and Gaara opened his eyes and faced it at last. He looked down at his legs.

It all appeared innocent enough. There was nothing to see underneath the white sheets, but he knew. The flesh of his legs was mangled, the bones crushed. He was crippled. He might never walk again. The peculiar irony of it was that it didn't matter, not really—he had the sand, and the sand would always carry him.

Naruto had gone silent as well. After a while he said, "Tsunade will fix you."

There was a seriousness in his voice, an earnestness in the way Naruto spoke his Hokage's name. Gaara envied him his faith.

"Maybe I deserve this," he said.

Naruto stared at him as though entirely affronted. "Deserve it?"

"I've done the same to dozens of people," Gaara reminded him. "I did it to your friend. I would have done it to you."

Naruto waved that off. "You wouldn't do it now, would you?"

"To enemies. I would. I do."

"To protect people," Naruto said.

Gaara stared at him.

"Is that all it requires?" he said at last. "To make it right? Protecting someone?"

Naruto frowned, seeming to consider that for a moment.

"Well," he said, "maybe. I don't want to hurt anyone, or kill anyone...but I'd do it, if I had to. For my friends. I don't like it, but they're too important to me for me not to."

"A necessary evil," Gaara put in.

Naruto scratched his head. "I guess so." But he still frowned, as though dissatisfied with the entire conversation. "I want to save people," he said at last.

Gaara understood that. "You will. You do. But I'm a murderer."

Naruto scowled at him. "You're not."

He didn't want to argue. "I'm not hiding from it," he said, and stopped. There was something in him that he wanted out of him, but it was bigger than words, bigger than his ability to express. He tried anyway. "People die when you kill them. It doesn't matter why you do it. Or what they did. That's all gone, and it's empty. And it lives inside you, that emptiness." He and Naruto knew so well about things living inside them. "I didn't understand. Even when I died, that time…and I've killed so many people. But I didn't understand. I was trying to protect myself. Even though I thought I knew what it means to kill." The warmth of the summer night seemed to have fled his little hospital room. Gaara closed his eyes. "There's nothing in death, Uzumaki Naruto. It's all empty."

He rarely spoke this much, and it had exhausted him now. He didn't want to open his eyes and look at Naruto, who would undoubtedly be regarding him with the same sort of wariness and fear that they all did—even Kankuro and Temari, a little—on the very rare occasions that he spoke of killing and death. The silence stretched on and on, horribly.

"Is it easier?" Naruto asked at last, his voice unusually quiet.

Gaara did look at him then, and he didn't see fear or even pity, no matter how hard he stared.

"I don't know," he admitted at last. "It's too soon. I wonder sometimes if I am dead, because I don't feel anything." His voice was soft. "That's an emptiness, too. I do feel things, Naruto. I did." He closed his eyes again and sighed. "I'm tired. I need to sleep."

He heard Naruto pad across the room and drag something toward the window with a soft metal scrape. It was the stool Sakura had used, he found, opening his eyes again. Naruto put it in front of the open window, between Gaara and the world outside, and sat on it.

"Go ahead," he told Gaara. "I'll stay."

Gaara didn't know if he liked that idea, but he was entirely too exhausted to think about it. The sleep that came over him was deep and heavy, tainted neither with his discomfort at being watched over or old, familiar fears of the monster that had once lived inside him. He fell into it without resisting, and slept, it seemed, forever.


To be continued.