"Right this way Lord Kazekage. The meeting room is just down the hall."

The 20-year-old red-haired leader of Suna, the Village Hidden in the Sand, sighed under his breath as he followed an aide to the leader of the Village Hidden in the Branches. The tiny Branch Village for forming an alliance with the larger Suna. And Gaara, Suna's Kazekage, was meeting with the leaders of the Branch Village and surrounding lands to cement the deal.

Gaara huffed quietly to himself as he entered the council room. He hated attending meetings. He found them boring beyond belief. Just a bunch of bureaucrats making themselves feel important. But it was his job to run Suna, and the job came with meetings galore. He took his seat at the head of the table, nodding absently to the councilors and feudal lords already there.

An hour and half later, after a bunch of arguing and compromises, the meeting finally ending. Gaara couldn't wait to leave. He decided to take a walk around the village to work out the kinks in his back. For the Branch Village, though small, was beautiful.

It was set in a canyon, surrounded by gigantic trees of various kinds. And almost every tree was covered in vines and flowers. It was mid-spring, so most of the flowers were in bloom. The was color everywhere, as though a large group of people had had a paintball fight. Gaara enjoyed the sight, and the scents the flowers gave off. He had grown up in the desert and seeing so many plants was a novelty for him.

"Get out of here! Get lost! You're not wanted here! Little freak!"

Gaara froze in shock. He glanced around wildly but there was no one in sight. He relaxed slightly, realizing that nobody had shouted at him. He could still hear yelling though. It was coming from around the corner.

The young kazekage walked forward slowly. He didn't like yelling, especially when the yelling was like that. It reminded him far too much of his childhood. The former Kazekage, Gaara's own father, had sealed a demon inside of Gaara, and the villagers had feared and hated him. Later, his father had ordered him killed.

"You little freak! Monster! We don't want you in our village! Just die already! Freak!"

The shout were closer now and louder. Gaara turned the corner and his eyes narrowed. He didn't like the sight in front of him at all.

4 men were gather in a circle. They had nasty, hateful looks on their faces, and were kicking a little boy that was sprawled out on the ground. The boy couldn't have been older than 7, and was crying bitterly. His brown hair was matted with dirt and blood. He kept trying to get up and scramble away, but each time one of the men would kick him back down and stomp on him.

"What's going on here? Leave him alone," Gaara said. His voice was calm, but anyone who knew him would be running for their lives from the tone.

"Get lost Red. This don't concern you," one of the men said. He was a big guy, and apparently the leader of the group. He stomped on the boy's hand, and the boy wailed.

Blue-green eyes narrowed further. The sand Gaara always carried with him began to rustle, leaking out of the gourd strapped to his back. The men didn't notice, most likely drunk, but the boy saw. His eyes went very round as the watched the sand pool around Gaara's feet.

"I'll tell you one more time," he said softly. "Leave him alone."

Anyone with half a brain would be long gone by now. But the men didn't seem to have any brains at all. They ignored Gaara and continued to beat the little boy. He sobbed harder, his brown eyes pleading for help.

"I gave you fair warning," Gaara said, just before the sand leaped forward.

It quickly covered the 4 men, immobilizing them. Gaara concentrated, causing the sand to constrict enough to hurt, but not enough to kill. He wanted to give them a bad scare, but for some reason he didn't want the boy to see any bloodshed. He was frightened enough as it was.

He wasn't sure why it mattered. The old Gaara wouldn't even had warned the men. He'd have simply killed them all without blinking, including the boy. Even now, he really didn't care about other people's feelings. But something about the boy…

He squeezed the sand a bit more, causing the mean to pass put. The sand then released them and they flopped to the ground. Gaara walked forward and knelt by the boy.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

The boy nodded jerkily, but didn't say anything. Tears were still running down his cheeks, but they were slowing. He stared wide-eyed at Gaara. He seemed confused, like he wasn't used to people helping him.

"What's your name?" Gaara asked. The boy just shrugged. "You don't have a name? Where are your parents?"

The boy winced and looked away. He bit his lips as the tears started up again.

"Don't you have any family?" Gaara was getting concerned. Did the boy not know how to speak? Did he really have no family at all?

"Lord Kazekage! Lord Kazekage!"

Gaara groaned. The voice was from one of his bodyguards assigned to him. He didn't need them, but Suna was a bit paranoid when it came to protecting it's leaders, since the last 2 kazekages had been assassinated.

"Lord Kazekage! Where are you?"

The boy's eyes opened wide and he scrambled to his feet. Gaara saw fear in his face before the boy bolted. He stood up slowly, watching the fleeing form disappear behind a building. He frowned thoughtfully. The boy had been scared, but not of the moving sand. It seemed like he expected to be beaten again. Gaara dismissed the matter from his mind as he turned to leave.

The next day was filled with meetings upon meetings. As far as Gaara was concerned, it was hell on earth. Nothing but a bunch of politicians arguing about inane details and making themselves feel important, repeating themselves over and over. Gaara had to fight the very strong urge to kill everyone in the room. Was it his imagination or had the clock on the wall stopped?

He stopped paying attention to the arguing around him and let his mind wander. His thoughts kept drifting to that boy he had seen. He couldn't get him out of his mind. The boy had seemed so sad and lonely when Gaara asked about his parents. Was the boy an orphan? And why had those men tried to beat him to death?

After what seemed like forever, the meeting finally ended. Gaara left quickly, ignoring the Branch leader's invitation to lunch. He wanted to find the boy and talk to him. Something he had seen in the boy's eyes kept bugging him, and he wanted to find out why.

Gaara searched the entire village, looking for the little boy. Night fell and there was no sign of him. Gaara felt disappointed. He was about to give up, when he spotted a pair of small brown eyes peering at him from an alley. He smiled slightly and walked over.

"Hey there," he said. "I've been looking for you."

The boy from the day before blinked up at Gaara. His small round face was bruised and he was covered in dirt. His clothes were ragged and filthy, barely more than rags.

"I wanted to make sure you weren't hurt," Gaara said as he knelt. "You ran off so fast yesterday. Are you alright?"

The boy nodded, dropping his gaze. He fidgeted and a small smile appeared as he looked back up.

"My name's Gaara. What's yours?"

"Hirokumi," the boy said, so softly Gaara almost didn't hear him.

"Well, it's nice to meet you Hirokumi," he said. He reached out to pat the boy on the head, but he flinched away. "What's wrong? I won't hurt you."

"Yes you will. Everyone does," Hirokumi whispered. "Everyone hates me."

"I promise I won't hurt you. And I certainly don't hate you," Gaara said firmly. Why was he doing this? Why was he so concerned about reassuring the boy?

Hirokumi smiled shyly. Gaara gently brush Hiro's bangs out of his eyes, and this time he didn't flinch. Hiro grinned and dropped his gaze again.

"Why were those men beating you?" Gaara asked. "You said everyone hates you. Why would they?"

"I don't know. They just do. They call me a monster and beat me all the time."

"And you really don't have any parents? No family at all?"

"No, no one. No one cares about me," Hiro said, his happy smile gone and his eyes tearing up. "I've always been alone."

"I know what that feels like. When I was your age, everyone hated me too. They were afraid of me," Gaara said. Hiro looked up in surprise. "Well, it's pretty cold tonight. Why don't you stay with me for a while."

What was he doing? Did he really just say that? He just invited the kid to spend the night with him. He never did stuff like that. What was it about Hirokumi that Gaara just couldn't ignore? He just didn't understand it.

No, that was a lie. He understood it quite well. It was because Hirokumi reminded him so much of himself. All alone, no loving family, everyone hating him. Gaara knew how painful it was to be all alone. He didn't want the boy to feel it too.

He looked down to see Hirokumi smiling again. The boy's smile was so warm, it could melt even the most icy of hearts. Gaara could feel it tugging on his own, something no one had ever managed to do. It was strange to feel this way, so concerned about someone else.

"Lord Kazekage? You're out awfully late. Why are…"

Gaara turned as the voice behind him trailed off. One of the Branch Village's guards stood in the entrance to the alley. He was staring at Hirokumi with hate and fear in his eyes. Hiro gulped and began backing away, his face pale.

"Lord Kazekage. Why are you with that… that thing?" the guard asked, anger in his voice. "That boy is a blight on the village. Nothing but a monster. You shouldn't waste your time with him."

"A monster? He doesn't seem like a monster to me," Gaara said calmly. "He's just a little boy."

"Trust me. That's the last thing he is. You should get away now."

"I don't think so. I just told him he could stay the night at my hotel, and I won't say he can't just because of what you say," Gaara said as he stood. "Now if you don't mind, we'll be going now."

"I don't think so sir. I can't let you do that," the guard said, blocking the alleyway.

"See? I told you everyone hates me," Hirokumi whispered, trying to hide behind Gaara's legs.

"You shut up!" the guard shouted.

He stepped forward and punched Hiro, who fell to the ground. Gaara growled and grabbed the man's arm as he swung again. He twisted and the guard yelled in pain. He staggered back, rubbing his wrist and glaring.

"Leave the boy alone," Gaara said menacingly. "Get lost or I'll-"

Gaara was interrupted by a yelp of fear behind him. He turned to see what was happening. Hirokumi was staring at his arm, where a gooey white substance seemed to be leaking from his skin. It spread out and settled on the walls and ground. The guard yelled in terror and fled. Gaara just stared, as moss and vines began to grow from wherever the goo touched.

"No, not again!" Hirokumi shrieked. "Not again!"

Gaara stepped forward, reaching out to Hiro, but he scrambled back. His eyes were wide in horror, tears streaming down his face. The walls were covered in moss. The white substance kept oozing out of Hiro's arms, coming out thicker.

"What are you doing?! Run!" Hiro yelled at Gaara. "Run! If it touches you, you're dead! Go!"

Gaara ignored him. He knew his sand armor would protect him from whatever it was. He knelt beside Hiro and stroked his cheek, trying to calm him. Hiro just looked at him in panic.

"It's ok," Gaara said gently. "This stuff won't hurt me. Just calm down. It'll be alright, I promise. Take a deep breath."

Hirokumi was shaking hard, but he took a breath as he was told. The trembling slowly stopped, but he kept crying. Gaara embraced him, holding him close until the tears finally ran dry. Gaara stood, holding Hiro in his arms comfortingly.

"It's going to be alright. It's alright."