Author's Note:

The narrative tends to shift from third to first person, as it moves from Gaara's thoughts to the text. I hope this isn't too confusing, although it's meant to be, a little. Similarly, the writing fractures at certain points, to echo Gaara's thoughts.

I'd like to thank OmniDreamer and Ednama for helping me work through some kinks in this story, but my most profound gratitude goes to MiLuCha, who has been endlessly kind and patient for these past months. Thank you!


Part I Chapter III

Gaara sailed past the house and through the open door, down the steps and into the night.

Shocking – the act of being torn from the calm warmth of the house, and cast out into the brutal chaos – the wind and sand that wailed and writhed grittily about his skin and hair – the world he knew vanished, gone, replaced by this dark and sobbing madness. Gaara nearly flew across the street; compelled by the wild pulse that shrilled and beat about him, the bare soles of his feet barely brushed the ground. Into this cold and windswept sweep of roads extending out into the darkness, he went, plunging deep into its embrace and down into its heart. For a breath, a moment of pure motion and sensation, Gaara's thoughts fractured, stilled, and let him be.

Unconscious of the light that flared behind him in the distance, he stumbled finally to a halt, gasping, his throat burning from the exertion and the frigid air.

Standing there, head thrown back, gazing upwards, Gaara drank in Suna's darkness, inhaled the black – felt it fill his mouth – his throat – his chest – felt its chill working deep in him, raw, sudden, there. His heart beat in his chest, alive, alive! – a panicked pulse shocked awake and reverberating all throughout his self.

He pressed his hands over his chest, felt the muscle pound against his ribs and into his palm. The flush of heat in his face and body began to fade between his fingers, almost as quickly as it had come; for the wind, cold and painful in its eldritch flow, held him like a paramour, like an attacker, drilling the sunless eve deep into his bones. It rushed over his limbs, scouring them even as it gathered him close, scraping him and shaking his head forward and back as it rocked him into its embrace. He felt it seize his hair, fill the red strands with breath, and whip his clothes about his arms and legs, lash his hair against his face. Violent, intimate night, everywhere; against his skin, within his skin; a black and empty second soul, a small storm that had taken to Suna's streets.

Below his feet, the ground was rough, a grainy texture of sand and rock packed tight beneath a thousand steps, loose enough so that it roiled in the wind and spilled across his naked toes and heels, dancing to its own manic rhythm. Above him, stars sparkled, desolate and bright. The quarter moon hid from the world, a shy and frightened thing that wished to be alone.

There was no anchor in this world, he realized, nothing to hold him still; although he could see his clothes moving all about him, the sound of flapping cloth was lost in the howl of the wind, leaving him to close his eyes and wonder if it was even here at all.

Gaara rolled his head back, watched the stars shine their icy midnight shine, and felt his breath freeze on his teeth, saw it ghost into the air. Those stars gave no light to see by, too aloof were they to alight upon this city tucked low into the earth; thus were the buildings that rose about him transfigured into dim, monstrous shapes, hungry fears without the definition illumination would have leant those columns and rounded tops. Blank, unknowable – they could be holes in the world, places to fall through, and Gaara would never have been able to tell otherwise.

Odd, he thought – the dichotomy of this night – the wind hurtling through the streets, casting itself against him, against the buildings, against the sky above. The rest of the world seemed separate, a different sphere of being: the motionless sky, the unmoving black structures that were, in some other time, to eyes other than his own, homes, businesses: safe and sturdy places. Only the wind stirred. Only the wind.

What a world this is, to not move, to just be; and I am the only one here.

Gaara bowed his head, turned his eyes down to the length of his thin chest and abdomen, his legs, and feet nestled in the grit. They were real, they existed – he existed – he did – he must – and yet, Gaara could not shake the feeling of disassociation, of unreality. It was as if he was a spirit himself, like the wind that blew his clothes to and fro about his body, something unilluminated like the evening; and those small white wrists and ankles, those hands and feet, disembodied, the night having swallowed the somber color of his clothing, were not his, were not even real.

He closed his eyes, and stayed for a moment in the phantom lights of his own darkness, the alien patterns streaked across his sight; maybe, maybe, when he opened them, he'd be somewhere else, somewhere . . . somewhere . . .

But when he opened his eyes, it was still here, all of it, crowded up around him.

Gaara drew another breath, and started walking, into the heart of the disturbed air. His footsteps made no noise, coming down upon cold sand packed hard into roads. Small indentations wavered in the ground, and were promptly swept smooth again. Behind him, a voice called out his name, faint, a ramble of sounds drawn out and made hollow by the wind.

Walking, moving his legs, step by step by step, Gaara alternately sped up and slowed down, going without thought. The buildings ran together in the early hours, so that it was almost as if he himself stayed still, and the earth rolled up to meet his falling step. Past these stores and shops and homes, places he had never been, places rendered indistinct by the lightlessness. Past the playgrounds with their thin spidery silhouettes and crouching benches, with their memories of children's voices raised and wailing in alarm. Past alleyways that gaped and brimmed with garbage cans and sleeping forms huddled tight against the wall. The world slipped by him, step by cold, unbroken step.

It was Suna as he remembered it most clearly, Suna asleep, half-dead and dark. No human being walked these streets; they were locked behind their windows, guarded by their doors and walls. No, this night was his; this souless city was his; this pain growing in him, the ache from his patrol, was his.

He looked down from time to time, examining the streets as they gave way to other streets, well-kept sidewalks melting into the ground and rising up again as he moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. Bruises had bloomed on his bare feet, and red impressions of rock and debris had marked themselves on the soles of his feet. The face he caught sight of in the windows was a small oval of near-blue white, with its wide eyes rendered grey.

Wandering close to those windows, Gaara raised his hands, touched them to the freezing glass. The interior seemed almost smoky, opaque through the thick glass; and he, pressed up against it, could barely make out the shapes within. When he drew away, it was to notice that the glass was smeared with patterns, oils from his skin. They hovered on his reflection, not touching it, but looming over it.

He stared at this picture through the smudges, trying to discern their boundaries, where they came into being, the edges where they were cut off, or thinned to nonexistence. I am, I am, I – yet for a moment, a shift in his step, he couldn't see the marks, and it seemed suddenly that he had never stepped close, never touched, only imagined, only – only – and then the blurs, there . . . there . . .

"You can't, you can't, I'm still here, you all fell, I'm still here . . ."

His voice? Gaara pressed both hands over his face, but his lips were still. Had he only thought of that, those small sounds he'd thought he'd heard, under the wind?–


He spun around, the sand materializing in a whipping, whirling cloud about him, the window shattering with a rush of pure, crystalline syllables, because that sound, that sound, footsteps –

But there was no one.

The streets were deserted, the tatters of cloth on vendors' carts fluttering viciously in the wind.

Gaara stared hard into the darkness, into the vast dim, indefinable world about him, straining to hear a sound, that sound, that step. Thoughts turned and wheeled through his head, images of men, fire, knives – of thing emerging from the desert – of blood –

He breathed hard, trying to reconcile himself to the emptiness around him, the presence of no one but himself. His face felt frozen, eyes wide, though from the cold or from his own dreadful shock, he did not know.

Nothing there.


Something bubbled up inside, something powerful and wild that tore from him even as he reached up to hold it in – though it may have only been his breath, his hallucination – the laughter, cracked, like the glass breaking apart again – just the wind – just the wind –

Me, here.

Gaara looked down, breathing deeply. About him, the sand stirred and twisted, coalescing into the familiar gourd shape. He looked at it for a long moment, not understanding, but – had he forgotten it? Temari, waking up, unexpected, unplanned for, questioning, shoving her voice at him–

The cloth wrap and harness had been brought with the sand; collapsed, they both lay crumbled on the ground, barely discernable beneath the gourd. Gaara bent, smelling the familiar smells, of blood and hot dry stone, as he wrapped his arms around the sand and pushed it aside. New freed, the cloth twisted weakly in the wind, white on black in the moonlight. He pulled the harness on as best he could with his shaking hands, and then positioned the wrap around himself. He'd left it. Never imagine. He . . .

"Can't do that again . . . don't be angry . . ."

Gaara rubbed his mouth, found that the lips were parted, and quickly shut it. His teeth and tongue were cold from the sudden gush of air inside his mouth; now that he thought of it, he could taste the fine film of sand mixing with his spit. The texture was gritty, unpleasant. He spat it out, and rubbed his head. More sand was there, clinging to his hair, his skin, his clothes. Gaara clawed at it, scraped his nails hard against his skin, but it was useless, and after a moment the pulse of frustration and energy faded, leaving him standing listlessly by the broken window. Glass sparkled darkly on the ground behind his feet.

Still nothing in these streets, no soul cupped in the palm of the earth that stretched up around this city. The moon shone down on him and him alone, and it did so with supreme, pale indifference.

Gaara bowed his head, away from the moon, and went on into the street. The gourd's weight settled reassuringly on his back, comforting him, and bringing this dark world into a slightly sharper focus, a slightly richer color, even as it forced his feet deeper into the sand. The wind was moaning, faint and faraway, into his ear, the lullaby of this sleeping desert, and the narration of his many dreamless evenings here. Desperate, crestfallen voice; and the colors that ran together in the windows of the shops, flat and lifeless . . .

He looked down, found his bare feet, the things that kept him there, and kept going. This winding path; step by step, the same tall pillar-like buildings, the walkways, slumped drowsing bundles by the mouths of alleys. And he knew these alleys, these buildings, didn't he? Knew them well, having spied on them from afar, sometimes in fear, sometimes in bitter victory . . .

When he raised his head, when he drew his feet together to a stop . . .

So, Gaara thought, tilting his head up farther, allowing his eyes to travel over the upwards sweep of stucco, to see the rounded tops that crowned the buildings, this had a purpose, after all. So . . . more than to simply walk off the days spent too close to others . . . but, why am I here . . . this place again? . . .

Home . . .

Home, where ragged warning signs tacked over the makeshift wall still blew. Where white ANBU cones and yellow tape clustered together, tossed over and scattered about the ground. Where he kept walking, through the broken wall, the bits of brick littered everywhere; past the yellow tape, the warning signs.


Here, the house he had shared with Yashamaru, for his youngest years, the familiar dome that topped the two-story structure. The surrounding houses, too, huddled together grimly within the uneven ring of warning, fear, destruction. All his home. All known, all remembered, the cracks in the plaster of the walls, the panels in the windows, the scents, the abandoned furnishings, the deaths . . . hopes . . .

Gaara, hey – we're home now.

"Yashamaru . . .." Gaara whispered, or thought he whispered; the wind snatched the name from his mouth, flung it to the stars.

Why had he come here? And even as the question unfurled into Gaara's thoughts, he knew the answer, felt the emptiness that told him that there was no surprise in him, none. These were beaten, bloodied buildings; here, Gaara had stayed in the aftermath of Yashamaru's suicide; here, for more than six long years, he had fought for his life and his sanity. Before this place, standing near its doorstep, Gaara fought to hold to the memories of the previous months, the voices and the sounds, the people, the colors, because they were real, no hallucination, no dream like those round blind windows would have him think they were – real –

Why this place again? . . .

A shudder wracked Gaara's body, bent him forward into the wind, into arms that dropped him down onto his knees on the scraps of brick and stucco and yellow tape.

He remembered here, the memory of this place – the black hole that was center to his mind, an empty nucleus that spread its reminder of its existence, his existence, his nightmare, through his being, every day – every night he sat on the rooftops or tucked against the bed and the wall, thinking of that which he tried to ignore when he had to move and interact and do – dwelling in the past as its claws reached out to hold him close – remembered the assassins that had come to him. Terrifying, in the beginning. Boring, a distraction from his daily activities, the things he assigned himself to do to relieve the crushing sense of there being nothing to do, no reason to go on. And, in those moments when the colors were too bright and the edges of the world were far too sharp, they had been pityingly, maddeningly laughable, the men, mere playthings, toys as surely as the stuffed animals his father had given him were toys. Those who had pitted their existence against his own; those who had taught him, in his world of himself and no one but those who ventured forth to do battle for their lives, that he lived to kill them. The ritual of his days; rise, and be aware; answer the challenge, defeat the threat. His reason for living, protecting and loving the entity that was himself, and by doing so experiencing the joy of this mechanical and bloody act called life – because if they were not there, the other shapes and sounds in this small circle of floors and doorways and courtyards linked by battered fences and pathways gouged into the gardens, then how would he know that he was there . . .

"Crossed me, hated me, wanted to kill me . . ."

Gaara pressed his arms onto the sand, shoved himself to his feet. His legs burned with pain, even as his mind turned the past over and over again, searching for meaning, for order. When he folded his arms together, tight across his chest, it was to realize that his skin had puckered in the fraught, unhappy wind.

Standing there before the doorway, Gaara closed his eyes, and remembered coming home that night, that one night, and crying on a rooftop.

It had been so clear, after the sand had slipped away, after he had crawled as close to the burned and wet gash upon the roof as he dared. Dark, as it was dark now; both nights drawn together by his mind, and the intervening time growing less real with every step away from that first night.

The notes Yashamaru had been wearing had been strapped across his chest; there hadn't been much left of his torso, or head. Scraps of flesh had been thrown across the area; the biggest of these had been no larger than Gaara's little hand. The blast had thrown Gaara back a step, to his knees; and although the sand had saved him, it could not block out the drips of blood and fluids, or the burned scent of meat.

One flash, one burst of light, and Yashamaru, his face, his hands, had been gone. Gone.

So clear. So much sense.

No one exists as you exist; no one matters as you matter. You, you – me – the most precious, the most important, the onlyperson – and the rest, just entities to make contact with your own, to die by your existence, to reaffirm that you were there and that you made an impact on the fabric of this world. Moths to flame, crumbling away, fed upon, with the flame only growing, in gratitude to the newfound fuel.

Gaara had never forgotten Yashamaru, disappearing into the light. The image was part of himself, uncontrollable, coming without being summoned, and sometimes going away only when he forced it to. So abrupt. The fragility of existence, the fact that you could vanish so quickly, so suddenly, and that there was nothing left but smoke, and blood, and blackened crusts of skin . . . shards of bone . . . cracks in the ground.

No warning, no apology or reason. Because that's all you were, all humans really were. Mere hulls of flesh. Nothing any more meaningful than that.

So final.

It had taken weeks for him to wash the smell out of his life, to cleanse it from himself, and years after that to be able to cook meat without fearing that doing so might trigger any number of emotional or bodily reactions; even after the raw scrape of the pain had faded, Gaara had found that he would still be forced to leave the room, or endure nausea, or even, rarely, spontaneous spells of distress. Gaara supposed now that those early, violent behavioral patterns had simply been his body and his mind attuning itself to a life that included having to kill those who wanted to kill him. Well, it had worked: the fierceness of these reactions had dimmed over time, and, although the act of eating meat was still rather distasteful for him, he no longer needed to throw up or cry when confronted with it.

His hair was in his mouth. Gaara swatted the strands away, and sat up a little when he noticed that his hands were cold against his face; he knew they were there, one wrapped around his head, one at his mouth, only because of the feeling of pressure. Startled, he opened his eyes, and it struck him then, how cold he was, how cold. It was always cold in Suna's nights; and it had been cold the night he had come home from that girl's house, hadn't it? Cold when he had let himself into his own home, walked up the stairs to the second floor, and went out onto the roof, too miserable to wonder why all the lights were off inside and why Yashamaru wasn't home . . .

Gaara eyes fell to his hand, which had slipped down onto his knee. Everything was blurry in the darkness, but he could make out, at this distance, the shape of his fingers against the color of the pants. The nails looked slightly damp, ragged: he had been biting them, unconsciously, until just now.

He had always known that he had emotional issues, and could not feel what other humans felt. It was a point that his father had been very specific on, in their training together. His mind turned now to memories of Yashamaru sighing when he had asked about a man and a woman, and why they were kissing and touching each other, You'll never understand, Gaara, it's best not to worry about it; of his father, frowning grimly down at him, You can't feel for others, Gaara, can you? Not with Shukaku in your mind. You can't give love, affection . . . help . . . and aside to Yashamaru, later, the two of them ringed by troops in strange white masks: He can hurt others very easily, and I suspect that's all he'll be able to do. The child has no empathy. It will make him a good weapon.

No empathy . . .

Gaara blew on his hands, and stared up at these buildings, at their black windows. What did others feel, that he did not? What was empathy? What had been in that girl's house six years ago, the light, the warmth? Why had she rejected his medicine, called him a monster to his face . . . Naruto Uzumaki, Rock Lee, Kankuro, Temari, that girl who had stood over Sasuke Uchiha's body, teeth gritted, ready to die for the boy with the brittle black eyes? What did they know, that he could not?

These are dead windows and this is a dead place, Gaara thought numbly.

What would Naruto Uzumaki say, if he was here? If he had been here, all those years ago? I know your pain . . . it's not trivial . . . it hurts . . .

It hurts.

It hurt, as the cold hurt, this stark and looming monolith that held only horrors and sins. Was there not a room in these group of buildings that had not seen death? Gaara had used soap, water, and bleach to clean dozens of colors of carpets, had scrubbed blood and fluids from so many walls and floors and shapes of furniture, his mark on this world, this life. How many stains, how many phantoms of his memory, had been rubbed away by a cloth beneath his hand? Gaara closed his eyes, and remembered the second assassin, the first one after Yashamaru; the men had ended up torn in two, his lower half bouncing down the front steps even as his hands clawed at the door, spilling blood and glistening flesh over the stairs and across the ground. That scene, oddly flat, as his reflection in the store's black window had been flat; undramatic; real.

And yet, no one but he remembered the man, the death, the blood splattered everywhere. Now that the sand had pushed the body from the steps and swallowed it into the earth, now that he had knelt and rubbed the blood from the steps until the color was all gone . . . now . . . if Gaara forgot the man, his face, his desperate clawing hands tearing away the nails, the jagged scrapes on the door . . . who would ever know that he existed?

And the body – was it still here, mummified, sucked dry? Gaara had been too upset to think rationally, that day, so soon after Yashamaru. He had smothered the corpse where it had fallen . . . not ten steps from where he not stood. And the others, the hundreds of others, the ones who had just kept coming and coming . . . they lay all around here, buried beneath his feet. A graveyard.

How many had he crossed, walking over to here? Who was beneath his knees?

Gaara touched the ground again, the cold sand rough beneath his fingers. Images flitted through his mind, too quickly to catch, to examine; dead hands splayed beneath the earth, bones reaching up to him. Death was so easy for him, so close to him.

The wind screamed wildly, picking up and hurling itself about Gaara, frosting his skin and eyes. He closed his eyes, hid his head in his arms, kneeling on the ground. Cold. Cold – and he couldn't stay –

Something crystallized in the broken ebb and flow of Gaara's thoughts.

He was out here, in Suna's night, in the cold, without any protective gear, without even a sweater. The word hypothermia came to him, along with a sense of alarm and urgency – He needed to go inside, now –

In that moment, the dead fled his mind, returned to that locked part of him, ceased to matter; what was important was getting inside.

Shaking, Gaara stood once more and walked up to the house, up the steps. His foot fell on the topmost one without sound, and yes, those marks were still on the door, desperate gouges in the grain. The handle was smooth and cold beneath his hand, a familiar shape and weight. Gaara drew it open, stepped inside, and let it shut.

The sounds of the wind were cut off; the silence was surprisingly loud in Gaara's ears.

He shuddered, and realized that he had been shaking like this all along; for just how long that had been, he could not say. The pain was very bad, twisting inside him like a living thing, pounding within his head; and he was covered, nearly shrouded, in a fine layer of grit and sand. It clung to his hair, slid down his back and throat, scratchy and uncomfortable. When he sank down onto the chair near the door, the chair that had been near the door since time beyond Gaara's memory, the chair Yashamaru had read to him in, it was to discover that he could not get up. His legs twitched, and then simply refused to move. The bruises on his feet had grown.

Gaara turned his gaze away from his body, looked over the room. The couch. The windows set in their ledges, places where he had curled up, close to the glass, in years gone by, when it was too hot to play on the rooftop. Chairs, table. All black, barely seen; but he knew they were there, had memorized this room long ago.

How many men and women had he killed here? In this long, dark room, with that table in the corner, and the windows small and tight, holding their breath for fear against the stucco walls. A thousand? More? Certainly one for every day of that first half-year; at least three a week in the years since then. The last year, the last months, when he turned twelve, the assassins were coming one a week, one a fortnight, one a month. Gaara remembered that he had grown irritated with the lack of them; they had broken the monotony, given him something to do. Always, they had come. Always . . .

He closed his eyes, and sat, breathing in the old, baked scent of this place, this house.

That first time, the house had been as dark as it was now. Distraught child he had been, he had hidden in the closet when he had first heard the door open; and he had burrowed into the very back of that cluttered little place as the steps had grown louder, moved to the bedroom.

What had the man been thinking, walking into his home? Gaara neither knew nor was particularly interested in figuring it out. Decrypting a dead man's thoughts was a task he had often tried, in those early years – trying to work out why, why. Vain, frustrating task: one that yielded no closure and certainly no comfort. The facts, the concrete happenings that Gaara turned to for the truth when no guess or inference made sense, were simple: the man had walked in, and he had hidden from him.

And he'd been found.

Staring at the wall of this too-familiar room, Gaara let the memory draw into focus. He'd been found, and the expression on the man's face was his to keep, even this day. The wide eyes, the mouth, the nose – as if his face had been thrown open. A jonin, with that vest that Gaara would soon be able to pick out even from the third floor of the eastmost house, balancing on a chair to see who was coming to hurt him today. A Sand shinobi, in the employ of the Kazekage.

A Sand shinobi, and he'd ran past this man, out the open door, into the light of the hallway, thump-thump-thump down the stairs.

Gaara chronicled the chase in his head, one of the many he had endured that first year. Down the stairs, around the first floor. Yelling. Fear. Panic. And, eventually, the man's legs rolling down the stairs, messy, red, the body bludgeoned in half. Desert Coffin hadn't been powerful enough back then, and he'd had to squeeze the man over and over again while someone – he himself, the assassin, both of them – screamed and cried. Just the sun, the blank windows, the voices too flat and weak to rise beyond the buildings, too little to touch the sky. And then . . . silence . . . eyes looking up at him, blood everywhere, everywhere, and the tidal waves crashing inside Gaara, exhaustion, sorrow, horror, anger, and most of all that numbed, bright panic, that feeling that had kept his hand clenching and clenching long after the body was a soupy, pulpy horror on the floor.

He had wept his heart out for the first one, gone inside and cried, and cried, and cried, that raw throbbing place within him cut open a little deeper with all the minutes that went by. There had been more throwing up, more periods where time ran past in too many colors, more time to lay down and stare at the wall.

The memory was dull to Gaara's mind, passionless and mechanic.

Nevertheless, he winced slightly, recalling that first one. He hadn't been able to force himself to open the door he'd slammed shut – he hadn't been able to leave Yashamaru's bedroom, much less enter the entrance hallway, for a very long time. When he'd finally plucked up the courage to get around to it, cleaning up had been nothing short of hellish.

The six-year-old Gaara had been had simply never done it before. Clean up a dead man. Even those early days, when the red swallowed him and surged through him and – killed – he wasn't five, no one was skirting the issue and begging him not to talk about it, he could now admit that the empty space in his mind had a name, and that name, for whatever it was supposed to mean, was murder – them . . . even then, he'd never cleaned up. He'd just left, to be dragged away if he didn't wander off on his own.

The body had passed out of rigor mortis, and into decay. Bugs had swarmed it, writhing and clicking, and Gaara had had to dash inside and vomit into the bathroom before being able to go back out and face the body. Even now, he had only snatches of what he had seen – something damp in places, dry in others, browned, ragged. The corpses of others were clear in his mind's eye, the men and women who had died to reaffirm his existence, the assassins he had killed to reach inner peace – or whatever shocked, numbed calm that "peace" was – had been – different.

Yes, different, Gaara decided. There had been reason and method to their execution; they had been his justification, his joy, for by fighting for himself did he prove that he loved and cared for himself: each death had been another expression of love, another cause for the happiness of a being who knows that he is valued, wanted.

Those first deaths, however, had possessed all the stigma of sin. They had hurt, for, over and over again, they had been his father's hand, extended in hate and resentment . . . proof that no one loved him, Yashamaru all over again . . . and those bodies had been hideous, frightening. He hadn't wanted to kill them . . .

Gaara blinked into awareness, drawn from his thoughts. He was sitting on the floor, the room turning slowly about him, a measured spin that blurred the edges of his sight.


No answer, save the creak-creak-crack of some distant window, rocking in the wind.

Gaara held his eyes shut again, thinking of them all, the little sounds that preceded them – footsteps, the whine of hinges, the creak of boards beneath the unexpected weight, Father, looking for him, wanting to kill him – end his life – somewhere, hating Gaara, even as he sat curled on the window-ledge, eyes closed against the sunlight –

That noise, the rise and fall of the wind – too loud – it could cover a man's footsteps, couldn't it, these stormy nights . . . what if–?

He touched his forehead to the ground, huddled on it. Cold and hard below it, it gave neither succor nor softness, and yet its presence was grounding, relieving. How stupid – supposed to be no more assassins – and Father was dead –

Father was dead . . .

The man's face flashed before Gaara's eyes, before guttering to black. He drew in a breath, cold still in this dark room, and let that darkness once again fill him, unmarked, uncolored, blank.

The fifth, his mind refocused on, reaching around the triggered reaction and tapping into the previous, meandering vein of thought – the fifth – that man – he had simply killed him, as soon as he spotted him. Too much hassle, to hide, to do everything to not have to kill the man. Too much pain, when he finally gave in, when they finally forced his hand. And he'd had the gourd then, a little voice whispered in his mind, Mother to protect him . . . he'd been safe, she wouldn't let him get hurt, she'd loved him . . .

The sixth he had lain in wait for, knowing that she loved him, knowing that she would fight for him when everyone else had left.

Because they had evacuated these buildings, he knew. Not that there had been many people in the first place. Most of them were ANBU or jonin, the brave ones who didn't mind being within walking distance of the Kazekage's child, and the obedient ones who didn't dare move. They'd all left, until there was a wide circle of abandoned structures about his and Yashamaru's home. From house to house he had moved, as a child; it took the assassins longer to find him. That wall, abandoned after being hastily thrown up, had marked the edge of his world; and there had always been those narrow white cones, the yellow police tape.

Here, in this silence, he'd spent the rest of his hours. Wandering from building to building, inspecting each new house. The stuff the people had left behind during the sudden, panicked evacuation. Gaara had taught himself to read and write, continuing what Yashamaru had begun, on the books he found on shelves and in attics and on kitchen tables. He would curl up for hours in a chair, his teddy bear in his lap, reading away the time. He had taught himself to cook, because there had been no one to cook for him, and he had needed to eat. He had taught himself to clean himself, to clean his clothing, to clean the homes he stayed in. He'd taught himself to stay healthy, to care for himself when he was ill, which had been frighteningly often in those first years. He'd taught himself to steal what he needed, from markets and stores, a tiny thing that swept in and out of the other world, the loud world, the people world, hands filled with what he needed, toothpastes and clothing and food . . .

He recalled the terror of that first time, cloaked and veiled, slipping from the door and over the wall with the gourd strapped. Now, crouched on the floor of the living room, Gaara realized how pointless the veil and cloak had been – the gourd announced to everyone who and what he was, even if few had understood, or paid him any heed. But they'd felt protecting, just as having the gourd felt comforting. My mother is here and she won't let them stare, won't let them run away or hurt. My mother. Words he had never used aloud, words that had been new then. My mother. Had she hated him, or had that been Yashamaru's lie . . . regardless, she had wanted him to live, to be . . . if, if, Gaara amended, pushing himself back into the chair, she was there.

Settling back into the cushion, Gaara closed his eyes, and let the memories run their course. There was something refreshing about thinking of all this, of letting it come to him and drift on.

He'd taught himself to play the piano, tapping out melodies that filled the silence. He'd taught himself to draw, by studying every book he could find on the subject. He'd taught himself how to write in foreign alphabets. He read up on anatomy and psychology and drugs and cooking and knitting and . . . and so much. He'd drunk it all in. The books were his friends, speaking to him in the voice he gave their words.

He had dwelled in the quiet, filled it with music and the small sounds of books and paper and water, and had spoken to his toys, to the walls, to whatever he was doing. Gaara wondered now if he had missed anyone, truly missed the presence of other beings. His father and Yashamaru had been the only ones he'd ever really had, aside from the small strange children, sister and brother, who had been introduced and quickly taken away several times, before he turned five and hurt that bully . . . now that he thought of it, a lot of stuff had changed after he'd hurt that child.

Gaara sighed, and rubbed his hair. Assassins. Voices. First the jonin, then the ANBU. And he'd never really missed anyone, had he? His mind had drawn a black mark over his years, crossing out his father, crossing out Yashamaru. It had been easier to not think of them.

Sometimes he captured the assassins, and experimented on them, years into his solitude, when they were simply targets and monsters and things, unhuman, unfeeling. Unimportant. One woman he had cut apart with a kitchen knife, in the room right next to the one in which he now sat. To see her organs. To see inside her, to see what made her. Just meat – he'd been disappointed. One man he captured, kept alive for days through force-feeding before he finally grew bored and eliminated him. Several he practiced killing in intricate, artful ways, when it didn't hurt to see them in pain, as it had hurt those first months, too see those people die . . .

Most of them he simply imploded as soon as he caught sight of them.

Because there had been nothing to do but kill them. Never mind the raw ache that had filled him, those first few times, the feeling of being scraped open, torn inside. Never mind the numbness that had come after, gradually turning into that darkness that had fallen to the bottom of his voice, his limbs, his mind.

They had wanted him dead, and would have actively sought his death if he let them live; ignoring them, hoping they'd go away, had not worked. They had accumulated like rats . . . and Gaara had always hated hiding, anyway. He couldn't have kept them alive – the only way he could have begun to do that would be to chain them up and force-feed them, clean up after their wastes and try to get them to speak. Eventually, they would have died anyway, refused to eat. Always, they would have fought to be free. It had been so much easier to simply kill them and have done with it.

Gaara had, ultimately, simply refused to cry over any more of them. Had this been when he had buried that woman in the brown suit, a ninja with a slash across her headband? Had it been when he had knelt to scrub the blood and bits of flesh from a man with two scars running down his left arm, curving together in a crescent shape over his palm? Gaara turned his eyes to the windows, searched their empty eyes, and found that he didn't remember. It hadn't been a conscious decision, not crying. Not like just after Yashamaru had vanished into the light, breathing that ragged, broken breathing that had come to walk with Gaara on nights when the moon was full; not like when it had struck him that no one loved him, that he could only love himself. That knowledge, like the revelation, months later, that taking away the lives of others defined his own life, validated his existence . . . these had been the lightning that stabbed Konoha's night sky amidst the patter of the rainstorm, realizations that had pierced him through. Not crying for those who died . . . Gaara couldn't pinpoint when he had stopped grieving for those who came to kill him. One day, when faced with an assassin, he had simply pressed his lips together, sighed, and did away with the man. And it hadn't been a man, not really. Just a shape that bled. No pain; no fear; no mourning. No difficulty in pushing the man out the door and pulling him down into the earth, miles deep. No difficulty in walking to the kitchen, picking up a cloth, grabbing the bucket of soap, water, and cleaner he had kept handy by the door. No difficulty in mopping up the mess, draining the water into the bathtub. If Gaara's memory was correct, he had paused halfway through the task to clean his hands, drink a glass of milk, and finish the chapter he had been reading before he had been interrupted.

Now, his eyes moved to the hallway, revisiting the memory, and seeing it play out in that stretch of tiled floor by which he sat. A child, seven years old, perhaps, or a little younger, facing a man clutching a scroll and two kunai, and calculating only how big a mess the man's death might make, and how much effort he'd have to put into cleaning it up.

There had been some spectacular attempts on their part, Gaara remembered. Some of the ninjas had fought with jutsus of fire and water and earth – yet another reason he had sat on the rooftops of his homes, waiting to engage them outside, where they couldn't damage his home too badly.

Regardless of when the feeling had come to him . . . it didn't matter. Not now. Gaara traced the tiles with his gaze, imagining the steps he'd taken to cross that threshold, time and time again. After a while, the choked feeling he had gotten whenever he killed, the guilt and the horrible, empty pain, had fused with the heavy weariness of too many hours to think and too much time to dwell in, and had fallen away into some dark, locked place. Perhaps it had left altogether, sunk beyond and away.

Naruto's face swam up into his memory, along with the two ninja who'd approached him before he'd fought Uchiha . . . those two, the ones who had threatened him, the disrespect that had rolled off of them, made their voices oily and slick. But then it had been there, under Gaara's mind, above it, through it . . . It . . .

Gaara stood abruptly, and moved across the room, walking past the couch and to the window. It was very windy tonight; years ago, he would have stayed inside, wrapped up in a blanket on the couch. His hand touched the wall left to the glass, ran over scorch marks in the plaster. Perhaps the assassin who had snuck in and done this had been from Konoha, from the Land of Fire.

He drew his hand away, folded his arms tightly across his chest, eyes moving back to looking about the room, untouched for all the months, the noisy, hectic, crowded months, that he had spent away from here.

The assassins, every last one of them, he had cleaned up after. Every one of them, he'd buried. They lay in the sand about these buildings, in streets and in back yards, some of them; most of them, he'd tossed to the edges of his world, where yellow police tape marked the boundaries of his territory. The blood and the juices he always cleaned up, which was why he always tried to catch the assassins out doors, when possible: it was far less messy.

Gaara let the thoughts come to him, and stared with unfocused eyes at the couch, the chair, the floor.

He had been tired a lot of the time – but then, he was always tired. Those first few years, he'd had crying spells, sudden tears that came and went without cause or reason, or so it seemed to him; tears that had turned to ice in that cold place within his chest. Early, in that first year, he'd had a frequent upset stomach, and he'd spent a lot of time throwing up or having pains in his head and abdomen. In the nighttime, when his eyes were tired of straining at the tiny types and his fingers were sore from drawing and playing, he'd sit in front of a window and gaze out at the moon.

Other people, people who had thoughts and emotions, had seemed unreal to him. He had doubted that they existed. Yashamaru had seemed unreal to him, a wraith of a memory, the mere sketched outlines of voice and face. His father, even less so.

How shocking it had been, after all those eternities of silent moments, to go back to the world of movement and people and . . . noise. Human beings were loud, they were fast, they were strange and disturbing and irritating. They threw off the rhythms Gaara had grown accustomed to, clashed with the realities he had established.

He stood, and remembered the envelope nailed to his door, one morning, the envelope that had brought him out of here, out to Baki, Temari, Kankuro.

The man who'd done it had been obviously unarmed, stripped down to the barest of clothing to show that he had nothing to hide. Gaara had thought about killing him, had been distracted by the novelty of the envelope, and had let him scurry off. Shukaku had been angry, but, then, Shukaku was always angry.

The envelope had held two things, folded up and shoved into the very corner of the paper, as if the person who had put it together had done so with more force than the task had called for. One had been a note; it had been a declaration of truce, a summons to appear at the Kazekage mansion the next day for a noon appointment, accompanied by "any small items you wish to keep with you", for assignment to a genin team of three. He was not to return to home. He would not be attacked, or his assassination attempted, from this point on, and he was not to attempt to attack anyone else. He was to wear his forehead protector, which was also in the envelope, and he was not to bring any clothing, as new clothing would be provided for him. All this by order of the Yondaime Kazekage. If he did not cooperate, measures would be taken to insure that he cooperated.

It had not been an apology, or an explanation, or a congratulatory note. The last part was a blatant lie; they couldn't get him to do a thing. Gaara remembered thinking of Yashamaru's bloodstained face as he read it, turning it over and over as if it was an alien thing that might have bitten him.

Inside the envelope had been a metal protector, sewn to a blue cloth, with the symbol of Sunagakure pressed into its surface. The image of the first jonin, of so many of the ones that had followed. The image on Yashamaru's apron.

Of course he had not gone.

Gaara sank onto the floor, resuming his kneeling position, and slowly rubbed his legs, thinking back. It was almost a year ago, now; it had been just a month after his twelfth birthday, when the man had come with that letter. He could remember the cycles of feeling that had turned in him, rising and falling, shocked finally to nothing. Pain had been the first, that dark and desperate feeling that had haunted Gaara all his life; and then the anger had swept in and drowned out the pain. Sitting here now, Gaara rubbed harder, and wished he could feel anger again. Everything had burned out after Naruto Uzumaki; what was left was a kind of cold, black feeling that had settled to his feet.

There had been more letters. By order of the Yondaime Kazekage . . . by order of the Yondaime Kazekage . . . by order of the Yondaime Kazekage . . .

Insubordination; refusal for reconciliation; measures will be taken.

Gaara had lit them on the stove, and then had sat and watched them burn. He had always liked to watch things burn, had even taken to burning several of the assassins' corpses when the whim took him. It was like making miniature suns, fashioning them with his own hands.

Needless to say, that hadn't been the end of it.

Several ANBU had shown up soon after the fourth letter, a circumstance that hadn't particularly frightened Gaara at all; he'd killed his fair share of ANBU before his father had stopped using Suna's troops and had gone on to hired assassins and ninjas. Those white masks had been . . . unsettling. Like looking at walls. Gaara had been struck by the urge to kill him, just for that, but he hadn't acted on it, mostly because he had been cooking at the time and hadn't wanted to deal with them. Blood wasn't something he appreciated in his food; it had a hard, metallic taste that he simply didn't like.

If he had been surprised, he might still have struck out at them. But they had entered his home – what he'd heard several groups of assassins, when conversing together, call "the danger zone" or "ground zero" – while being completely obvious and direct, carrying a white banner and marching loudly enough to be audible.

Gaara had taken a cursory look at them through the window, completed his cooking, eaten, and then gone to play on the piano in the house next door.

It had been a test, he thought, recalling the event. Not a very long walk. Pull his cloak on, walk outside, glance to the three lines of troops. Walk on when they didn't react, aside from the usual tensing of their forms. Down the steps, along the walk, up the steps of the second house, and through the door. The sun had been high and bright, outlining the grey and white and black of the ANBU, and the sand frisking at their feet in the noontime breeze.

Gaara had taught himself to play the instrument, and he had done just that: play. He had rarely studied other compositions, preferring to invent his own, and what efforts he had made on the device were powered by simple whim and the desire to hear sounds other than his breath. Music had been soothing, and Gaara had found that working his emotions into that sound, or manipulating it to mimic other sounds, was engaging and absorbing.

So it had been that day, the slow working of low notes to higher ones, of higher notes to lower ones. He had been disturbed by the troops, and had wondered about their presence, but Gaara had decided that, if they made a move on him, they'd die; otherwise, he could tolerate the intrusion as long as his mood, that flat calmness that came and went like a moon waning to black, held in his psyche. If it suddenly vanished, as his good moods were wont to do . . . well, there had been only twelve of them. Messy to clean, but if they stayed outside and died without too much hassle, he wouldn't have had to take too much time to bury the spent sand and gravel.

They weren't aggressive, however, and Gaara passed them on the way back without only the flimsiest of desires to kill. He'd been tired, and a little hungry, and it had been getting cold out.

They had still been there when he had finished eating dinner. Still standing in rigid formation, the white banner rippling with wind's caprice.

He had gone to the door to look at them, and they had stared solemnly back with those wide, white masks. There had been something blankly frightening about those masks, and yet something fascinating, something that had stirred Gaara's fingers and sent a small shiver down his spine. It had felt almost pleasurable – the way, Gaara supposed now, that sour gruel would taste pleasurable to a starving person. He had never been in a situation quite like that one, two beings on the cusp of interaction, him and those staring white eyes. Even as it agitated him, it intrigued him; and equal parts of the voices that circled in his heart had wanted to talk as well as destroy.

He had not said anything. He had simply stood, in the doorway, arms crossed, the gourd resting against the frame. And those faces had stared back.

The first to speak had been the Black Ops soldier at the forefront of the three lines.

"Suna no Gaara," she had said, and even now, he could remember her address, the depth and richness of her clear voice, so sudden and so vivid in the silence of his memory, "will you come with us?"

And she had waited, arms at her sides, back straight. And he had waited, the wind brushing his hair against his cheek, so that he felt the sprinkle of it slip and bounce on his skin. Some quick code of air. Like laughter.

When he had not answered, she had spoken again, and he detected the flatness of the voice, the slight echo of porcelain about her words: "Lord Kazekage has ordered it so. Will you come with us, and serve Sunagakure and its Kage, as a shinobi of the Land of Wind? No one will hurt you. We are to be your guard, if your choice is to rejoin Sunagakure."

He had gone back inside before the name had left her mouth, slamming the door shut.

Too many words, Gaara knew now, glancing impulsively to the door, the same door that he'd stood at, those months ago, watching them as they had watched him. Too much sound to hear at once, for him. It made him think of the quiet of long hours spent sitting on a couch, running through the motions by which he channeled a restless spirit with neither friend nor foe to occupy its energies.

They hadn't followed him, and Gaara wondered now what he might have done if they had. They had been too sudden, too unreal. They had made no sense. Come with us?

That they would try to hurt him, he had had no doubt. And as his mind had turned the situation over, examining the coming evening, the lines of white-masked bodies, he himself standing at a second-story window, looking down at them, he had felt that cold feeling grow.

I should kill them, he had thought. I cannot let them take away my existence. I will not.

But before he could go downstairs and kill them all, they had picked up their white flag and left.

A man in long white robes had come after the ANBU, but he had seen the man coming, and had not wanted a repeat of the previous day. ANBU waiting beyond the wall that ringed his home had dashed to surround the man and drag him to safety, and Gaara had let him go; the scrapes, burns, and cuts of his play had been enough to convince them all to leave, and Gaara felt too tired to not feel unsated with the little splash of blood.

A group of them had come the next day, but by then, the dark spark of energy he had felt the days before had worn thin. No longer had it been fun to drag the humans around by the wrist, tossing them to the floor and pricking at their skin; what Gaara had felt that day was the simple want to pick up a man and crush him. He did not know if that desire came from his own psyche, or from Shukaku, or even his mother's desire for revenge – what he saw in his mind's eye was his hand picking up someone and crushing it, and no thought had interrupted the process of shifting will into actuality. Gaara had simply done it to one of the soldiers, picked him up and held him. There had been no direct threat from the man, and the hand that closed around him did not close tightly enough to kill, only to warn. There had been blood nonetheless, red scrapes on the man's shirt and back and arms, on the ground, on the ANBU, and the men looking over in horror. For the first time in nearly six years, Gaara had seen a group of medic ninjas, zooming inside the wall, seizing the broken body, and rushing back outside.

He had been left alone for a full month. No assassins, no intrusions . . . nothing.

Empty windows, the brilliance of morning, the flat black of night. What had he done for those empty days, when he could sit out on the roof for hours, watching sunrise turn to noon and noon to night, and not see a single assassin, coming like a dusty colored specter from the buildings and the ring of yellow tape? Soldiers out of storytales and books, coming to duel him in the sand and the hot dry air, while the sun glowed down on them both, savage, gloriously powerful . . .

That sun, omniscient, uncaring, bright, had been the only power Gaara could not conquer, the only thing he couldn't bring down to the earth. This had never troubled him. Haughty on its blue and burning throne, it had been the acknowledged superior of the two forces, his writhing sand stabbing at the sky that neither balked nor bled; and Gaara had always taken care to veil himself when he whiled away his life on the playground of the rises, dips and slants of the rooftops. It had felt almost comforting.

He had wondered about them in passing, the assassins, and the new men, but they had failed to register on the lower levels of his mind, the levels that had assured him that the ground he stood upon was firm; sitting later by himself, alone, he had wondered if they had even existed, or had they simply been hallucinations, things he'd dreamed up? Something had failed to engage and to be impressed by their presence; they hadn't felt there to him. His mind was like clay pressed up against some thing that should have shaped it, should have touched it and marked it in some way, coming away smooth and clean, blank as the moonlight shining in a corpse's glazed eye. It was if they hadn't been.

But then, that was how most of the world had always felt, Gaara reflected. Dreamlike. Illusory. Something he had passed through whole, not touching it except for those rare moments of violence and noise, flames, music, blood; and it not touching him, save for the dark hours when everything was too loud and too close, too much energy packed into his limbs and chest, and he had wanted to claw it all apart and scream.

The last letter had come then, when he had started to question if those ANBU, if those letters, had even existed.

The Kazekage's personal bird had delivered it, and that alone had sent Gaara curling under the blanket in Yashamaru's bed, grabbing at his hair. Because he'd known that bird, had fed it, held it in his hands, when he was little, a distraction for the Kazekage' child while the adults Talked across the room. That remembered weight, the thin claws against the glove, that feeling of feathers sleek and long beneath his touch, and grave voices lowered just beyond the door of the aviary . . .

The creature had been gone by the time he had left the room and the voices behind, and for a wild moment, Gaara had thought that he had imagined it. The issue of the bird had been a moot point, however, not only for the reason that he had hallucinated a number of things in those years, and it hadn't bothered him too badly; but also because of the letter that had been left on the table, by his mother's picture.

This one had been from his father.

He had burned it later, much as he had burned the previous material. He had memorized it, ripped it up, ad burned it, as if doing all that could somehow fix the screaming pain his father conjured up, the shocked grief that hovered by Yashamaru's name, the terror of being all alone, the early horror of killing, and the sheer insane rage that all this had been done to him, the wrath that was his nourishment and his protection from the dark uncertainties and dreads that had haunted him and told him of his deepest fears and how they all were true.

He had burned it, and yet even now Gaara could remember every word of the letter.

He had never held a conversation – a true conversation – with his father. Not like the give-and-take that he had created and maintained with Uzumaki and his friend; they had shared information – or, rather, he had used his information as a weapon, to discourage their interference – but, regardless, they had talked together. As he and Yashamaru had talked together, giving information, receiving it. Sharing their feelings.

Now, thinking back, Gaara thought that Yashamaru, for all his lies and manipulations, had ultimately been honest with him, at least, those years ago. Those moments on the rooftop didn't feel as if they made up for the false comfort and hope the man had given him before; Gaara wondered now if it would have hurt more if Yashamaru hadn't hid his resentment and rage. The man had, by his own account, tried to feel affection for Gaara. He himself could not help but feel that Yashamaru had, by convincing Gaara of his love, given him a period of comfort and hope; for good or for ill, Gaara had that tiny piece of his life tucked away inside himself, something not as ugly and terrible as the rest of his heart's contents. It was exquisitely painful to reach that deep and touch, perhaps, and it burned with helpless misery and anger in Gaara's grasp, but it was there.

Had his father done that?

Gaara's memories of the man were distant, and painful. His father had infused Shukaku into his being, and the Bijuu had undeniably impressed itself upon his being, both physically and in subtler ways. But that had been the least of it, perhaps.

Quite simply, he admitted to himself, he had trusted his father, and he had trusted Yashamaru, in a way that had been utter and complete. It had never crossed his mind that either of them would try to hurt him –

– No, that was not true. It had never crossed his mind that Yashamaru would ever try to hurt him. Gaara had liked Yashamaru in the way that he had liked none other. Yashamaru had felt . . . safe. Yashamaru had seemed to accept Gaara, no matter what blood stained his hands; he had tried, or at least he had pretended to try, to calm Gaara's fears and reassure the child he had been that he was loved and valued. That had been so very important to him when he was little; now, in the same room that Yashamaru had lied to him in (for why would he try to kill Gaara if he had loved him?), Gaara clenched both hands and closed his eyes.

Yashamaru had been kind to him. Even if he had resented and hated him for causing Mother's death, even if he had harbored the desire to damage him, even if every gentle word had been accompanied by a ghost of a violent desire . . . Yashamaru had been kind to him.

He pitied me, Gaara thought. I saddened him. A child from whom others fled, a child adults scorned even as they feared . . . no one had liked him, and Yashamaru had known it. Yashamaru himself hadn't liked Gaara, and that was almost forgivable; Gaara knew now that he had been disconcerting as a child, a threat to others' lives, and that the man had certainly had cause to want to harm Gaara, on that instinctive level where feelings didn't obey the human laws of decorum that governed the reasoning mind.

He had killed his first person when he was three. The details were misty in even his memory, reinforced in part by the reports he had read, and the scoldings he had received later. Gaara knew now that he had killed the boy out of fear. He had been bullied and threatened by the fellow child; and fear was a violent feeling, striking hard and deep. He had panicked. He had wanted to strike back. Yashamaru had told him later that such feelings were only natural, and that being hurt instilled a desire to hurt in the victim. In Gaara's case, however, he had been able to retaliate, and he had overestimated his own strength. And they had underestimated their control over him.

That act had alienated Gaara from the other children. It had affected how others looked at him, how they treated him. Gaara could not imagine if they had been kind to him before, but, as the body count had mounted over the next three years, grown more random as his powers soared above their predicted level and out of his control, fueled by his emotions and the hunger of Shukaku . . . after all that, they had treated him as a weapon. Something to placate and appease, something to keep calm at all costs, something to defer to in order to prevent a negative reaction. Yet, they had feared him; and they had pitied him; but, more than that, they had all hated him, and resented his imposition on their feelings of security.

Yashamaru alone had been kind to him, Yashamaru alone had tried to understand him, to look past the horror and the panic that Gaara had seen so vividly etched on every face but his uncle's . . . Yashamaru had understood that Gaara had been terrified by the merchant, the bully in the alley, the man who had doused him with gasoline, and all the others, and that their deaths had been reaction, instinct, accidents . . .

Regardless of the sincerity of the gesture, the mere fact that it had existed had been something Gaara had clutched to himself, before . . . he had . . .

Gaara searched for the word to describe what he had felt in those years that Uzumaki had pulled him from, the distant recognition of the past and the coldness that came with it, the feeling that he was the only one and that all else was hallucination, shapes, sounds, mere things to play with . . . then, nothing had mattered . . . then, he had pushed everything from his mind, pressed himself into the moment . . . forced it all away . . . hid from it, he admitted.

The knowledge brought nothing with it. He turned it over in his mind, examined it, and realized that he didn't know what to do with it.

His father . . . had the man had felt sadness for him? Regret? Gaara knew the man's disappointment and his anger well, and he knew how much he had failed the man's expectations and desires. He had tried, and he had screwed up miserably. And the man had abandoned him for that.

Gaara could remember the emotions burning in his throat when he had read that letter, those months ago. The shame that had struck him as hard as Uzumaki's punch, walking back from killing the merchant, something that had risen up from a dark pit inside; the frustration of nearly six years' worth of constant attack and imposition; the all-consuming, empty loneliness; the tiny voice that cried out in pain and sorrow, why did you betray me? what do you want of me? And the rage that had cushioned all of it, made the brilliant scintillating kaleidoscope inside grow still and melt to one manageable, if ugly, hue.

Rage had been no Lethe, but it had been good enough to draw his mind from the past, and direct it to the present. Rage had enable Gaara to pick up the letter and continue reading, even after he had thrown it down and shrieked at the wall. Verbal outbursts – throwing his feeling out into the air, on his voice – had not done much for Gaara in all his life; they neither quelled what he felt inside, nor fully expressed it. Hearing his voice, however, did help to focus his thoughts and make some sense of his feelings, both of which had grown a thousand times more important to him, being, with Yashamaru dead and everyone else either gone or too dangerous to feel for, the sole focus of his attention over the years. It was why he talked aloud to himself. Screaming had helped him calm down that day and move on.

You are no child of mine, and yet, for the good of Suna. I reach out for you now. For these years, you have shown your perseverance, your resilience, and your skill .. . . In the stead of a position of harm to Sunagakure, your village, I now ask you to take on the role of her protector and her servant, so that we all may prosper . . . obedience . . . maturity . . . control . . . serve Sunagakure as a shinobi, and we may bring these years to a close. I did what I had to do. You did what you had to do. It is ended . . . we are at a cease-fire . . . we are even. Can you imagine how I have felt? What a threat you have been to the village that you were created to serve? I cannot risk Sunagakure's existence. You can be of use yet. Prove to me that you are no longer a wild threat. Come to the Kazekage's mansion tomorrow, at whatever time you choose. Someone will meet you. No one will attempt to harm you. You will not be held responsible for your previous actions, and you will have shelter, medical care, and education provided for you by Sunagakure, if you will not attack a Sand shinobi without my order from now on. Prove to me that I can trust you as a shinobi, prove to me that you are capable of obedience, or I will be forced to take extreme measures that I have refrained from taking as of today. Make no mistake – you are not invincible.

It had been stern and impersonal, a command. As if, Gaara thought, the man had refrained from providing alternatives to obedience until the very last sentence on purpose, in the thought that Gaara might not think that he could disobey. As if the man was trying to anticipate him. The note spoke of rapprochement, but the tone reminded Gaara of the disdain and anger on his father's face, the severe disappointment seething in his eyes. Now, Gaara thought that he could maybe make sense of this – he had been a threat to his father much as he had been a threat to Uzumaki's friends, and his father, like Uzumaki, had raged at Gaara for hurting those whom he had wanted to protect.

But if Gaara had been Sunagakure's specter, then the Yondaime Kazekage had been Gaara's. Every dead man and woman at his feet had been an expression of his father's desire to hurt him, and the memories that persisted in his mind were armed with his father's hatred, disappointment, and resentment. The man was every bit the constant threat to Gaara; shadowy, ill-understood. Unlike the shinobi, whose deaths had repeatedly assured Gaara of his ability to overcome them, Gaara had not understood the Kazekage's abilities, and his paranoid nature had lingered over the phrase "extreme measures" with something like doubt, fascination, and disdain all rolled into one..

You can be of use yet

The Kazekage had wanted to use him. They all had. It was why he had been created, after all. So, yes, the man had been honest with him, had never hidden the truth of the circumstances from him.

Why had he gone?

A good amount of it had been self-preservation; skeptical as he had been, Gaara had not liked the idea of "extreme measures." Now he felt that that fear had been justified: after being injured by no less than three separate twelve-year-old genin, his confidence had been shaken a little. They had all nearly destroyed themselves to hurt him, and they had paid for it with their own pain . . . but they had hurt him, and if their intent had been to do that, and their powers extraordinary beyond Uchiha's or Uzumaki's, and if they teamed up . . . their mission would have been accomplished, even if they died with him, if they penetrated his defenses for that one crucial moment. Sacrificing themselves to kill him was not something his younger self, the self that had not been hurt by a fierce blond idiot named Naruto Uzumaki, would have understood, but now, Gaara wondered if the assassins had seen themselves as protecting those whom they loved. It didn't change anything, for he did not regret their deaths; it just made the fact that they had had to die feel . . . frustrating.

Gaara didn't know the alternatives his father had faced, but isolating him and attacking him for six long years now seemed . . . wasteful.

The other part, the part that had frustrated him, the part he was thinking he might understand . . .

The other part, Gaara thought, was that he had wanted to . . . not trust, exactly . . . not love . . . not . . .

He opened his eyes, turned them to the windowsill, to the ground, to the couch he sat on, to a table empty of the picture that had once adorned it.

He had wanted to obey, he guessed now. The feeling had enraged him, been hateful, abhorrent . . . but it had been there. He had been tired of the situation. It had bored him, moved him beyond pain and terror and into a sort of weary half-life of mere survival. He couldn't have imagined what would have happened next, but it would have been change, it would have been . . . a chance . . . to prove himself? To finally see respect, approval? From his father? To do something other than to read the books he had already read and stare at walls he had memorized?

And so, Gaara remembered, sitting alone in the black room, he had gone.

He had brought nothing with him, except a toothbrush, a pad of drawing paper, some pencils and ink, his comb, and several books he was in the middle of reading. He'd worn the leather harness he'd fashioned for himself, and the red cloth that held the gourd; and, of course, Mother's – Shukaku's – sand. He had gone to the door, holding what he was carrying, and taken the steps that had led him from the front door down onto the ground, and across the boulevard, to the gate. Over the gate. Past the clutter of tape and warning signs, warding seals and police cones.

Suna, the Suna he had seen then, as he had only seen when he had crept out to steal food from the throng of people in the market-place. Deserted that day.

He had known the route to the Kazekage's mansion. Yashamaru had walked him there every day for three years for his lessons with his father. Walking them alone had been surreal, almost amusing. Gaara had taken his time, studying each corner before he turned it, and starting more than once in surprise at an innocent piece of the street, a flapping banner or a swinging sign. The sun had burned in the sky.

He had shown up at last, in his black clothing, his sandals, his cloak, and his bag, at the door of the lofty dome that was the Kazekage's mansion, wondering if this was all delusion, or a rare dream, or if he was about to fight again.

Gaara had not been kept waiting long at all. A gruff man, robed and bandaged, answered the curt knock he had given the door, a habit trained into him, one that he had not used for six years. Again, the sense of unreality, of uncertainty. Gaara had almost laughed when he had performed that polite little gesture.

The man who had come up to him, clasping his big hands businesslike behind his back, had introduced himself as Baki.

Just like that.

"I am Baki."

How weird it had been, to be talked to. To be addressed, directly – even long ago, people had generally addressed Yashamaru when speaking to the pair. And to not be attacked, threatened – how supremely weird. And something in Gaara had marveled at the interesting turns his life had taken, even as he had felt more and more as if he was hallucinating the entire thing.

"I'm Gaara," he had replied, when Baki had not spoken. His voice had not been as smooth as Baki's, and not as loud; the words that had left his tongue were like beads on a crooked wire, each sound separate, the touch of his mind moving carefully from one syllable to the next, almost in a whisper. How this human had stared at him, nervous, attempting to look unfazed, in control.

"Hello, Gaara," Baki had finally said back, his one eye watchful and wary.

He had told Gaara that he had Sunagakure's gratitude for obeying the Kazekage. He had told Gaara that he was his sensei and the leader of the three-man cell Gaara was going to belong to. Baki had told Gaara that he would explain everything about Gaara's life from then on to him later, after he was acquainted with the other two members. And Gaara has stood, listening, letting the man's voice roll over him, foreign and rough, before falling silent.

Then Baki had asked for the forehead protector. Gaara had adjusted the strap to show him where it was, not particularly sure of, nor caring for, the reason the man was interesting in the little thing.

"Please come with me," Baki had bade him, holding the previously closed door wide open after a cursory glance at the metal. Together, they had stepped through, Baki carefully closing the door behind them while Gaara watched in silence.

And it had struck him, as that door had closed, leading him into the dim hall of the Kazekage's mansion, that he had left something behind, closed a chapter in his life. There had been something final, and almost fatal, in that click. Baki had frozen for a moment, as if suddenly realizing that he was in a closed space with Gaara.

Had Baki been scared? Or expecting Suna no Gaara to be anything but smaller than five feet tall, too short to come up to his chest? Gaara had smelled the fear, had detected it in the flicker of the man's gaze and the tremors in his hands.

The man had talked in short, clipped sentences as they walked, Gaara remembered. He had moved slowly, purposely keeping pace with Gaara's smaller step, and never moving too close to the jinchuuriki. He had explained that he was a special jonin, and had spoken about the three-man cell, and missions, and his leader as a jonin.

Gaara had listened silently, absorbing the voice, not speaking while Baki lapsed into silence silence.

They had stopped at a bland door, and Baki had led him in.

"Do you have any questions?" He had asked, rather bluntly.

"Why is your face hidden?" Gaara had asked.

It had been a whim, an impulse; the words formed before he realized that he was about to speak, but Gaara let them be.

Baki had looked slightly taken aback.

"This was a lesson for me," he had said shortly, drawing the veil away from the hidden part of his face. It hadn't been an answer long enough to satisfy Gaara's imagination, but his curiosity had disengaged itself from this strange figure, and moved on to examining the room.

Baki had spoken briefly of Gaara's new teammates while he did so, his voice measured, careful, as if he wasn't sure how to proceed; he had informed Gaara that they were his elder siblings. This had surprised Gaara, so much so that he had actually looked back at Baki. The mad had been standing across the room from Gaara, hands clasped behind him, feet slightly spread in the gloom.

"They are still here?"

Why had he asked that question? Because the "elder siblings" that Gaara had remembered were mere blurs of blond and brown, the remnants of a time before that one, things that belonged with Yashamaru and his father and the picture of his mother, and not to that orderly, military room . . .

Baki had nodded, Gaara remembered, explaining that they would all share an apartment from now on, and would begin training as a three-man cell that afternoon.

"Sharing an apartment?" He had echoed.

"Well . . . yes." Baki had peered at him, with that expression of sternness and confusion that Gaara would see directed at himself many times over the next few months fixed across his face. "That is what the Kazekage has ordered."

"I am not going home?"

Baki had shrugged. The movement had been uncomfortable, fearful. "Well . . . no."


The house had meant nothing to him then; letting go of it had been effortless, if his memory was correct, and Gaara was sure that it was. Certainly the house had not had the appeal it now had, as a refuge before a world too complicated and difficult to understand, something with "bonds" and "love" that had not been there before . . .

Baki had studied him after he had said that last word, and had then asked if Gaara had brought anything with him. Gaara had shown him the books and the comb and the toothbrush without comment, drawing them from the bag and dropping them back in, one by one. It had been something amusing to do with his hands.

Temari and Kankuro had shown up only shortly after that, their sounds reaching Gaara and Baki from across the floor, making Gaara stiffen at the unusual noises, the rush of steps and conversation, and causing Baki to tense up in what Gaara now assumed was a response to his own body language. Both of them had watched the door swing open.

How strange . . . these two who had entered, froze, and stared at Gaara, even as Gaara had stared back, and Baki, in the background, had watched them all warily. He had remembered them, but they had grown – the male hooded and painted, the female dressed in white and black, her hair drawn up; no more the small blond girl who had wrinkled her nose at him, no more the scowling boy who had called him a freak. Gaara had made a quick assessment of them, decided that they were younger than the assassins he had faced and therefore less of a threat, and had gone back to examining the paintings on the wall.

Baki had relaxed a little then, Gaara had noticed, and if he had been able to correctly judge by the two teenagers' expressions, their fear had been diluted with confusion. Uncertain, they had looked to Baki.

Baki had cleared his throat.

"Gaara, this is Temari, and this is Kankuro. Kankuro, Temari, this is your new teammate."

Silence from all three. Gaara could remember saying nothing. Kankuro had given him a closed, locked expression, and Temari's mouth had curved, as if she was trying to communicate a message to him; and he had ignored them both.

Now, Gaara opened his eyes, and let them gaze unfocused about the room. Temari. Kankuro. What was he supposed to feel for them? Sister? Brother? He had never known them; they had been introduced as children, when he was very small, but Gaara barely recalled that. They had been noisy and weird, and he had not had the faintest idea of how to interact with them. Since they hadn't threatened him, he had ignored them for the most part, scolding or controlling when it was needed.

They had cared for him, though. They were weak, they were strange, they were annoying . . .. but they had cared for him. They had come back for him after his fight with Naruto . . . had brought him food, when they returned home . . . why?


It made no sense to Gaara at all. Was this a lie of theirs, as Yashamaru had lied to him? It must be. It had to be. Or, rather, it was not so much a lie as it was a gesture of theirs, fueled by fear. Gaara couldn't understand why else they acted this way, if not out of a desire for self-preservation.

His gaze settled on his knees, and Gaara frowned, blinking away the memories that had pulled him under, into a state almost like mediation. His clothes were gritty with sand and dirt, and he was still very cold. His hair, too, was filled with sand.

He stood, and walked to the bathroom, not really making the decision so much as acting it out, and swallowing the sense of deja-vu that pricked at his mind, like a child's hand plucking at a sleeve, as he went.

Having checked the faucets to determine if they still worked, and finding the answer to be affirmative, Gaara stripped off his clothes and rolled the small brush in water and soap. The hot water burned against his skin, causing it to blush and warm, as he scrubbed away the grime and the sand, before stepping into the tiled shower to rinse off. It was a relief to wash in his own bath, one that he didn't share with anyone else; here, there was no one who would care about . . . anything, really . . .

The brief patter of water on the tiles was soothing, gentle. Gaara turned beneath the spray, rubbed the last suds of soap from his skin, and took the time to examine his legs and feat; bruised as they were, aching as they were from the excursion, they seemed fine. So too his limbs and extremities; it hadn't been quite cold enough for serious damage, just plenty of discomfort. Washing felt good, in a way that went beyond the satisfaction of cleaning his body. Gaara almost felt like he was rubbing away the coldness, rinsing the memories he thought too often on off of his mind.

Heated by the wash, he wrapped a towel about himself – they were still stacked on the cabinet where he'd put them, all these months later – and went to the room that was his, that had used to be Yashamaru's, for new clothing. A short walk, a hallway he knew well, and a room that stilled smelled, so faintly as to perhaps be only his memory, of antiseptic.

They were months old, the clothes he brought from the closet, but they fit. He pulled on pants, a shirt, a sweater, socks and sandals, and a cloak. The colors were hard to discern, but Gaara thought that they were all dark, perhaps blue or grey. The cloth was comforting against him, and the feeling of dreadful exposure eased a little; it was least in this place, of all places, because there were none who would scrutinize him here. Stolen clothes; he'd taken them from the markets when his own six-year-old ensemble had stopped fitting him, as sparingly as possible.

Glancing around the blackened room, he frowned, wrapping his arms about his chest as he moved back to the hallway, the high ceiling and bland brown floor.

What thought had so possessed him to come back here, of all places?

A whim, he thought; something about the aura of this place, something blue and magnetic, something . . . melancholy. Watchful. Wary . . .

He made his way to the kitchen, stiffly, with pain in his feet. Yes, he had walked too far this evening, though the sensation was starting to ease after all the time he had spent resting in the living room.

This hallway, and now this kitchen . . . this little room, the cabinets, the sink, the stove, the table. The table. Standing in the doorway, Gaara looked down at the table. Yashamaru had made him hot milk, here; he'd put in cinnamon and vanilla and chocolate shavings and whipped cream, for his sixth birthday, before putting Gaara into his room. Yashamaru, taking care to spoon the whipped cream so that it formed a smiley-face in the pale milk. Yashamaru, smiling.

He stared at this table, and blinked into the memories that came back.

Here he'd made Yashamaru a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, for breakfast, on Father's Day, and set it out nicely on the table while his uncle slept. Yashamaru hadn't said a word about the soggy cereal when he woke up; now, Gaara thought, it must have tasted cold, wet. Yashamaru had just smiled and laughed and thanked him.

Here he would walk in every morning, to find Yashamaru cooking breakfast, sometimes humming.

Here, he had killed several men. All assassins, all gone, snap, squeeze, and – gone. The floor beneath his feet, the one he had played on when he was younger, while Yashamaru cooked, the one he had swept brownie crumbs from and traced with colored waxes, he had had to mop blood from with bleach and soap. Acts of necessity . . .

Gaara gazed at his bare feet, the floor peeping through his toes, and ran the image through his mind again, color on a roll of film flickering on and off before his eyes; red stains sliding over the floor, water blushing furiously as it dripped from a damp and heavy mop, the sand awkwardly guiding it to and from the bucket, while he sat on the counter-top, legs tucked up tight to his chest, watching, his own hands raw still from performing the same chore himself the day before and the day before that, unable to manage the task themselves.

He walked around the kitchen, listening to his footsteps, focusing on them. When had the house acquired that scent, of cleaning fluids, ammonia? And blood? Gaara was accustomed to the scent of blood, the twang of iron that was always on the edge of his senses, hovering about the gourd in an unseen miasma. The smell brought its own muddled feelings with it: pride, protection, safety; and memories of being young, and very small, kneeling in his room and clutching the sand to him in handfuls pressed against his mouth and nose, inhaling that scent, when The Bad Thing inside squirmed and yearned for screams, that feeling of being sated, appeased, soothed, both It and him . . . Do you like blood?

Shut up, Gaara thought automatically, strangling the memory, and laying his head briefly against the wall. He had been it, their bodies fused together, his own mind brimming with the demon's thoughts, coalescing from the wisps of fury and longing into a pure and exhilarated malice; he did not need to remember the demon's activities, not while it slept inside him.


Gaara closed his eyes, tilted his head up. It was not awake now.

He could tell. Gaara knew the currents that swept around and under him, his world, his mind; knew the sounds, like rustles, like vibrations, stirrings that sang their distracting whisper-hymn and which shivered through his body. He felt the demon in him, much as he felt his organs in him. He didn't feel their definitions, their boundaries and their shapes, or even their pressure, very much, but they were there, they were him, and . . . it just was. It had been explained to Gaara that the core of Shukaku was bound tightly in his body, and that that intensely powerful chakra, enveloping and spreading beyond his body only when he released Shukaku to its full potential, simply radiated a sphere of chakra, a halo. This chakra merged with Gaara's own – they were both innately familiar to him, since Shukaku had been introduced when his body was only six months created, still in his mother's womb, and Gaara could barely tell the two apart – and was at his fingertips. The only way he could tell what was his and what was Shukaku's was that the demon's chakra controlled the automatic sand shield; Gaara's chakra could manipulate the sand by his desire, but the activity that happened without his needed to tap into his own chakra, that was Shukaku.

Listening to Shukaku, to the sounds, trying to feel the feelings, to discern what they were and how, just how, they felt . . . that was a trap. Gaara had slipped into those deep cracks, had been enveloped by the whisper-hymn, the red shiver, and there was a point where it widened and broke apart, filled him. That wild feeling, everywhere, in him; the deep purity of it; glee. The desire to flow, to crush, to spread out and shatter. And the blood, exciting him, agitating him, at the point where it was no longer Gaara and him, but them, limbs that felt too heavy and too light, the red blood thrilling him to the very core, electricity, bright and black.

The world, seen with Shukaku in his mind, was a dangerous, beautiful thing, so vivid and breathless. Each corner, each angle, each detail, stood out in precise, painfully detail. Each color took on life, each mote of light burned and was a sun. The black and the shadows were rich and dark, turning the world into a half-there mix of too-bright colors and too-sharp image; but it was immediate, there. And the emotion! The feeling, in him, physical pain, and the deep pleasure of just cutting loose – of falling free – of sleep – so much deeper, so much more, then when he was just himself. No longer cold, no longer distant and removed from the current, but up there, right there, in that pulse of feeling, at the heart of it.

No, he did not need to remember Shukaku, especially not while it slept inside him. Gaara could think of nothing more pointless than trying to understand the very thing that made him inhuman.

He listened for a tick of a clock, and remembered that there was none here; the silence seemed too full, without it. Huddled against the wall, Gaara closed his eyes a little tigher, feeling the firmness and the cool temperature of the wood against his skin. His hand stole out, felt around, and flicked the light-switch on.

Artificial light swelled in the room, casting the darkness back beneath the table and into the crevices of the cupboards. It had a shake to it that the generators of Suna always had during storms, a quiver and a flicker that moved Gaara's senses a little closer to an edge.

Staring at this little room etched as finely in his mind as it was ever etched into his sight, he remembered coming back in from the rooftop, with that terrible splintered feeling twisting itself within his chest, stabbing him inside, and coming to this room, and stopping in the doorway to stare at the apron tossed casually over the chair. As if it was normal, as if the rooftop hadn't happened, as if Yashamaru was coming back – not the strange, whispering Yashamaru of the rooftop, not the man who'd rasped out his words into the night, blue eyes distant and removed, and so very cold, watching him cry without a flicker of feeling . . . not that, not that at all . . . but a Yashamaru as Gaara had thought he'd known him, warm and gentle with his voice, sad but smiling . . .

He had accepted it, Gaara thought hollowly. He had wanted the mission. And he could have lived with the knowledge the Yashamaru had followed orders to kill him, couldn't he? It was the knowledge that Yashamaru had wanted to do it that had hurt.

But it was old knowledge, and it didn't hurt him now; Gaara couldn't name quite what he felt, if anything. Something like a structure, some loose form; but a skeletal structure, a form without anything to give it solid definition, something empty. The bones of a burned-out building, perhaps, or the outline of a house no one had ever finished building.

He straightened, and circled the table once more, moving to the far left, to the little drawer in the corner, the one with fingerpaints decorating the inside, product of a lonely day. Gaara opened it, drew it out, and found, after a long moment of searching, what he wanted huddled in a tight, crumpled bundle in the corner, crowded up with other memoirs of spent moments.

Was this what Yashamaru had felt? Watching him on that rooftop? Not the surge of fury, no – but a settled, compact feeling, brittle and . . . cold.

He seized it, pulled it out into the light, and let it unfold, the impressions of six years' worth of time of remaining balled up and locked away pressed deep into the fabric. It fell open without grace, bent and ragged now, the outline blurring slightly in his tired eyesight.

Yashamaru's apron.

Below that, in the drawer, the short, stubby knife, the one with the nicked handle. The knife he tried to cut himself with, all those years ago. He had found it, years later, high up with the rest of the knives, in a cupboard his six-year-old self couldn't have reached unassisted.

He turned the apron over in his hand, holding the soft cold cloth aloft; the other hand reached out for the drawer, and paused just before the knife.. . .

It worries me when you do that, Gaara

He snatched it up convulsively, and slammed it down, hard, once, onto the counter. There was a stern snap, of metal striking wood; the room rang with it. Gaara closed his eyes, drew himself to the disturbance, to the newborn memory of the sound, and drowned out Yashamaru's kind and worried face.

"You hated me," Gaara said aloud, without the strength of a voice in his words; only the dry whisper of his breath. "You hated me, so now leave me be."

He let the knife slip from his hand, ignored its pitiable clatter, waited until it was still, before turning back to the drawer. It was a big drawer, wide and deep, which was why he had chosen it, two years ago, to house some of his things, to keep them from getting damaged . . .

Impatient now, he grasped the handle and drew the drawer all the way open.

Crayons, paints, pencils . . . his eyes searched the clutter, dislodged from its neat piles and places. Some special papers, drawings he had placed away, older than the ones stacked beside the bed or under the desk in the other room; a small blanket, a comforting object of his, and . . .

And . . .

A curve, a fuzzy outline.

Gaara blinked down at the drawer, and pushed his hand into the mess, drew away the blanket. There, in the corner –

His bear.

Gaara felt a wave, distant, faint, but powerful, the tune the captivates when only an echo of it is heard, playing at the corner of the mind. That bear – his bear –

He remembered Yashamaru on the couch, a wide book spread out on his lap, the colorful wings of paper across his knees. And he himself next to him, close to him, the warmth and smell of Yashamaru, soap, coffee, paper.

Yashamaru had had long hands, gentle hands. Gaara remembered watching them move about the paper, touching down onto the book below each character as he read it aloud, moving up to the pictures above the text, pointing out which one was the elephant, which one was the panda, which one was the bear . . .

Like mine?

Yes, Gaara, just like yours.

And now he picked up the stuffed animal, held it by the dusty light. The soft hourglass shape that fit into his hands, the curve of the head, the rounded body. The little limbs, fur worn down to ragged patches, sturdy still. Round dark eyes, watching him. The reflection of the bulb lent them a weary cast, something close to alertness.

Gaara blinked down at the bear in his hands, trying to place it. He'd had so many toys; his father had showered them on him, rewards for good behavior, compensation for the times he had lost his temper and said something that had made Gaara cry, and bribes for continued caution. So many; the victims of his rages, the comforts of his lonely nights. Most of them were gone by now; he had stopped needing them somewhere in the pace of his days, and if he had ever felt affection for any of them, it had long since withered. The assassins had done away with quite a few before Gaara had learned to confront the damn nuisances outside whenever possible; the idiots had always seemed focused on wreaking something of Gaara's, be it a piece of furniture, a book, or a toy.

But this bear . . .

Gaara drew it, slowly, experimentally, close to him. The bear's head pressed into the hollow of his neck, tucked beneath his chin. Its body settled into an oval between his hands, against his chest.

This bear, his father's birthday present, the day he had turned four years old. Thinking back, Gaara thought that his fourth year must have been his last good year; by the time he was five and a half, the red, Shukaku, had slipped from his control. By then, his father had taken him to the cemetery twice – once for a fisherman who had called Gaara a dumb kid, once for a teenager who had stolen a toy from him.

Gaara could remember those days, the merciless sun, and his father's hand tight about his wrist; even now, he could mouth the words along with his father. Do you understand, Gaara?

Yashamaru, stumbling back from him, wide-eyed and pale, falling down with that lookon his face, and everyone backing away from him. The Kazekage – Father – yelling. Everyone else yelling. The other children screaming and crying, panicked in the afternoon sunlight. And he himself, confused, scared, that fear that had clenched everything inside, turned him cold.

It had been Yashamaru who had taken his wrist and pulled him away, stooping finally to pick him up when his legs stayed locked in place. Yashamaru in the bathroom, scrubbing him as all the pieces clicked together, as the reactions, delayed until then by that dreadful, all-consuming shock, began to occur. Yashamaru who had set down the brush, both of them soaked, Yashamaru who had held him weakly through the hysterics and the crippling pain. Yashamaru in the nighttime, both of them cleaned of blood and grit, buttoning a sweater slowly up below his chin, his face drawn and sad in the lamplight. Gaara, you can't do that . . . please, try to understand. Death is final. You can't undo death. Gaara, please . . . no more.

Is he dead, Yashamaru?

Yashamaru's hands stilling like moths, the eyes wincing shut.

. . . Yes, Gaara. He's dead.

He had already said those words, and Gaara remembered himself clutching at Yashamaru's hands, wanting that warmth, that contact, wanting to talk, to say what he had sobbed at the Kazekage's knee all over again –

I didn't mean to kill him.

And Yashamaru's weary face, the lines of worry and fear, of trepidation and sleeplessness, already nodding.

I know . . . I know, but . . .

The ghost of hands on his shoulders, blue eyes level with his own; the memory of a grip. Gaara, please, no more.

And this teddy bear in his hand, in his arms, then, as it was now.

Because there had been more. Because there was always more.

The night Yashamaru had died, he had gone to his bedroom, and lain still in his uncle's bed, the way he used to do when he was frightened, or upset. Gaara closed his eyes against the bear, remembering. The lamp, turned on because the darkness burned and blurred; the blackness in the windows. And the pain, the emptiness, the crush of terror, of loneliness, of wanting for a voice, a face, a touch, anything . . .

Gaara stared past the kitchen, into the mouth of the bedroom, through the years, and remembered crying on Yashamaru's bed, into his pillow, the teddy bear wrapped in his arms, and remembered the smell of soap on the sheets, the imprint of his uncle's body in the mattress.

This teddy bear, this was the one he had kept with him, through the pain, through the emptiness. The deaths, the aftermaths. The red, the rising, burning red; Shukaku; the demon that drowned his mind and body. The years and years afterwards, every moment of every day.

This bear had been his comfort, his consolation. Eventually, as the anger overtook the sadness, locked the pain and the fear where they were safe, inside, and hardened into armor that could take the blows of the world and fight back, Gaara had stopped carrying the bear around with him. It had ended up on the bed, seated where it could stare out the window. And then it had ended up in the drawer for safekeeping shortly after he had turned ten, as the attacks ramped up, assassins arriving sometimes three times a day in groups of three and four each. In the lull that had followed – now, Gaara knew that a good portion of the Sand's funds had been exhausted in hiring ninja for increasingly exorbitant prices, as his reputation went up and the years flew by; a good portion of his father's motives for bringing him back into the human fold were simply that the man had lacked the money needed to fight him – he had not fetched the bear. In the months of duty, following Baki and the others around villages and foreign lands, he had thought of the bear, but never with any urgency or particular longing.

But now he had it. In his arms, against him, an experiment that made Gaara feel frustrated and sad. Did he feel anything for this thing? Had he ever felt anything, for anything? Could he name it?

He turned, still holding the toy, and walked away from the drawer, back into the living room. Now illuminated with the light from the kitchen, it seemed a softer place, a warmer one. He could see the stacks of books against the walls and in the corners, piled like the child's blocks he had played with when he was far younger than six; and the boxes that held his paper and his pencils, pushed up next to them.

Gaara set the bear on the couch, where it slumped drowsily against the arm, its large head drooping onto the cushion, and crouched down by the boxes. One of them was almost empty. He peered into it; two or three drawings lay at the bottom, with one of them scribbled out, full of mistakes.

On impulse, he drew the box closer to him, and examined the books behind it, and the ones to either side of those. The scant light was inconsequential, for Gaara knew the names and pictures and smells of these books, remembered them all – and he thought passingly of his white room in the other house, the books Baki had placed there in his absence, "to occupy a restless mind."

Gaara stared at the box again, at its high sturdy sides and deep shadowed mouth, and the decision made itself.

The teddy bear, retrieved from the couch, he placed in the corner of the box, its arms tucked tight to its chest. Books – ones he remembered, ones he had read, several of the few that he had never read, whatever his hand fell on. His favorites – big, small, uniform, soft-covered, hard-covered, thin, thick, they all fit into his hand, they all went in. The other boxes he over turned, riffled through; drawings filled most of them, ranging from ones he appreciated to ones, obviously old, that made him wince. Several joined the books.

Gaara hoisted the box in his arms; it wasn't any heavier than the gourd, and moving to the kitchen was fairly easy. He shoved Yashamaru's apron atop the teddy bear, and, after a moment, he threw in the knife as well, for reasons that he didn't quite understand and didn't feel like examining. His headache was growing steadily worse; weariness was catching up to him. He wasn't particularly surprised. He had, after all, walked practically the entire length of the village, for his house and the room he slept in with his teammates were at roughly opposing, diagonal ends of the village.

The picture of his mother that had once adorned the little table in the living room had been one of the things Gaara had taken with him when he had left this place, all those months ago. It was now in his room, the white one across the village. Several other pictures, however, were still in this house; Yashamaru had been fond of them. Gaara, flipping quickly through a slim dark volume of the man's, found several photographs of his uncle, some older, for the Yashamaru captured in them was obviously younger than he had been when Gaara had known him, and some taken not so long ago. Some more pictures of his mother were grouped in the front of the album, as well, and these Gaara had seen before; he had been shown them when he was little. His mother on her wedding day, dressed according to Sunagakure's old custom, her hair drawn back in a style too severe for her small features; sitting in a chair, smiling at the camera; with Yashamaru by a window, her hands busy with a plant potted discreetly in the corner.

There was a picture of Temari as a very young girl, sitting with her blond hair loose a wispy halo about her head; and one of Kankuro, mouth firmly together, hands stiffly at his sides. One or two of the pictures were of Gaara himself, a tiny child with wide, black-rimmed eyes, peering up without a smile.

The very last one was of him and Yashamaru, both standing outside, together; it had been taken from the side. Gaara ran a finger over Yashamaru's face, turned slightly away from the camera, looking down to him, and then looked to his own face, peering around Yashamaru's leg to see the camera, one hand held securely in his uncle's. The expression on his face in the picture was wide-eyed, the little mouth slightly open – in surprise? That openexpression, the one he remembered from the assassins, from Temari and Kankuro – had he been surprised, back then? At what? Why?

He was a bad judge of age, but, calculating from the date at the back of the photograph, he had only just turned four when the picture was taken. Gaara pulled the photograph the rest of the way out, and it slid free from its case without protest.

Who had taken it? There was no name besides his own and Yashamaru's, and the year scrawled out in handwriting that looped about itself. Gaara ran his fingers down the edge of the photograph, turned it in his hands to catch the kitchen light. Whoever it had been, they had given it to Yashamaru, and he, for whatever fathomless reasons, had kept it.

Gaara studied Yashamaru's face in the photograph, touching his nail to the gentle smile that he remembered on the man's curved mouth. It was the expression that he had known well, the soft one, the one that had made him feel warm, safe . . . important. The blue eyes were unreadable, too small to really see. He searched the man's posture for tension, stress . . . had Yashamaru hated him, resented him, even as this picture was taken?

His eyes went to their clasped hands, Yashamaru's fingers and palm, so much larger than his were then, wrapped around his own.

Gaara turned the picture over, placed it back in the album, face-up so that he could see it. He brought both of his hands up before himself, palms facing each other, and mimicked the gesture in the picture; one palm against the underside of the other hand's fingers, the former's own digits wrapped around the latter. The hold was at an angle, the first finger of the hand that was holding the other pressed firmly against the thumb of the hand being held.

Gaara checked the position in the photograph, and maintained it for a moment, studying his own clasped hands intently. He could hold his own hand, yes; but that wasn't the same as someone reaching out to him, wanting to touch him . . . to love him . . . what had it felt like, Yashamaru touching him? . . .

He dropped his hands, let them break apart, then gathered up the album in his arms and put the entire thing into his box. The old headache, the pain and tiredness that signalled that his body needed to rest, was starting to come to him. He could try to work this all out later.

Securing the gourd, he drew the cloak around both himself and the box in his arms, and moved a small portion of sand along the front of the protective fabric, to hold it shut and keep it from blowing open, freeing both his arms to carry the box. Gaara flicked off the light in the kitchen, pulled the door open, and closed it firmly behind himself. He'd have to come back for his worn clothes, sandy and still folded up in the bathroom, where he'd left them; and perhaps some more books as well. Regardless of the bad memories this place had, knowing that he could return gave Gaara a sense of freedom that he had felt only very few times in the past months.

It was a welcome sensation. Ever since the chunin exam, Gaara had felt trapped, caged. His injuries had healed quickly, and he had been soon able to move well enough on his own; and he wasn't actually confined to the house. Baki had said nothing regarding Gaara's movements, after all, and no one had voiced any complaints.

Yet he had chosen to stay in his room, in the new, small house. And he thought he might know why.

Gaara shifted the box onto his hip, adjusted his grip, and paused a moment to draw some sand from the gourd to layer the box's bottom. Its support lightened the load considerably, made it easier to walk down the steps and across the boulevard with it in his arms. The wind was starting to die down now, and his sharp eyes picked out the faintest blue lightening across the eastern horizon.

Time to go. Back to that white house; back to teammates he did not know how to interact with, and whose company he had been purposely avoiding.

With good reason, Gaara thought, pulling the hood low over his eyes. Naruto had shown him that bonds with others, fighting for others, made one stronger, and Gaara had apologized for behaving coldly towards Temari and Kankuro, for refusing to – he guess the word would be "bond" – with them . . . but it was best to stay away . . . even though . . .

But surely not . . .

Gaara had the passing urge to stomp his foot. Frustrated, he slowed as he approached the wall, scowling to himself.

Temari, Kankuro, Yashamaru – he didn't understand them, they all had acted in a way that would indicate one thing, then they all had acted in a way that indicated a totally different one – it made no sense, none at all. Surely they couldn't like him. Of course they hated him. They were Suna shinobi, and the entire village hated him, its own special little freak. Even Yashamaru, who had, by his own account, tried desperately to love him, hadn't – also by his own account – liked him. He had said so. And yet, he had held his hand, had done . . . so much . . .

Gaara frowned down at the grey apron in the box; even though it was now folded neatly, creases and wrinkled still marred its surface. Was it possible . . .

No, that still didn't make sense . . .

"Damn you all," Gaara muttered, hiking up the cloak as he jumped the wall, not bothering to find an entrance point. No – no more – he had too much time to think, too much time to try the same vain exercise over and over again, to come up empty-handed and thwarted a thousand times a night. Gaara wondered if he was even capable of trying to figure out what it all meant, why they did what they did, what they really intended. Human behavior was like a code, a piece of special knowledge, that everyone else knew but him.

Temari and Kankuro, laughing in the kitchen. How did they make that noise, that full, complete noise, the gasps and breaths of voice that did not break apart? How did they do it? Why did they do it? What did they know that he had somehow missed?

"No sense," Gaara addressed the box, shielding his cleaned face against a gust of wind. He couldn't hear his voice; unlike the too-calm silence of his home, the storm outside still continued, though it was losing strength. Gaara wondered if that might seem that way because he was now dressed properly, or because the storm was quelling. Maybe it was both.

Regardless, the thought of returning back to that house, back to Temari, Kankuro, expressions on their faces, the tension, the thick air that had no reprieve . . . that cramped little room . . .

No. No no no.

Gaara wheeled around, that trapped feeling encircling his throat. Not again. No. Out here, in Suna's streets, he was free – and – just, no.

He didn't want to go back. His home, with all the desiccated bodies wrapped in the sand below the ground, was better, so much better, than going back to that little house: no one was staring at him there, no one hated him . . .

He went left rather than back or forward, turning at random into an alleyway, and nearly tripping over a bundle of cloth crouched against the wall. Muffled swears and groans followed him as he went by, entering a wider street and crossing that as quickly as he could.

Up; left; the side; he doubled back once, and actually did trip over a man slouched on the ground, earning him a sleepy scowl and a few muttered words. Gaara paused; earlier, he would have wanted to hurt the man for looking at him like that, speaking to him like that. But now . . .

I'm tired, he thought dully, pushing on past the man and rubbing his eyes with his free hand as he went. It's too late for –

He nearly stumbled over a crate on the other side of the alley, and, had the sand not stopped him, he would have fallen. The crates were a deep brown color, blending in easily with the early morning. Admonishing himself to watch out, Gaara weaved around the obstacle as best as he could in the dark, and went past it. There was probably a shop nearby – indeed, closer examination of the buildings on either side of the alley confirmed his suspicion: one of them was a blacksmith's store. He could smell the iron and the acrid scent of burning things.

Gaara went by it, walking briskly as he drew his hood down even lower. He was in Suna's westernmost section; and, whatever Baki had and had not said, he had the faint suspicion that he wasn't supposed to be wandering around, not after losing control so very badly in Konoha. The westernmost section . . .

Gaara drew to a stop. He knew where he wanted to go. In hindsight, since the idea of hiding out in a shop did not appeal to him today, it was really the onlyplace he could go.

He veered left, and noticed, as he went, that it wasn't his imagination – the wind really was dying down. For one thing, he could see the scratches of his feet in the road behind him. Gaara sent a wave of chakra into the sand, smoothing it.

Months ago, he had left the designated training area while Baki, Temari, and Kankuro were practicing, and had gone off to, actually, the same place he was heading now. Baki had chased after him; since he hadn't hidden his tracks, it had been fairly easy for the man to find him. Baki hadn't said anything to him beyond a mild "You should not be wandering about," but Gaara had decduced from Kankuro's comments later that afternoon that the village had been in a complete, if mostly silent, uproar.

Gaara shrugged off the memory. Baki, who did and said very little, was tolerable to have around, even if he did try to control Gaara, something that the latter, with his years of independence and total self-reliance, did not understand and could not help but resent; unlike Temari and Kankuro – especially Kankuro – he didn't run off and do stupid things. Like accosting eight-year-olds half his size and trying to fight a Leaf genin. Gaara was still a bit annoyed with Kankuro for that; it had been an utter waste of time and energy for Kankuro, and doubly so for Gaara, who had had to go looking for his siblings when they weren't in front of the Embassy like they were supposed to be.

He cut off his musings as he neared the end of the city, where the buildings had begun to drop away, leaving calm, wide desert in their wake. The sky was a little lighter than before, blue darkening to black across the heavens. He judged that he had been walking for a little less than an hour, at the most; he must have spent more time in the house than he had thought.

No matter. Gaara rubbed his eyes again, and pushed a wave of chakra through his body, soothing some of the aches in his legs and back. It was an old trick, and while it did not compensate for rest, it helped him keep his body functional. Gaara thought it was only prudent, considering that he planned to avoid going back to Temari and Kankuro for as long as he could get away with.

Though, he amended, he would be sitting down soon, and that was probably best. He had been eating very little this past month, and Gaara ran a finger down his ribs in illustration to the thought; as he had noticed earlier, he could feel the rises and dips of his bones, even though the skin was still smooth. He was not in danger of starvation – Gaara had seen people starve before: the ninja whom he had tried to keep alive, even as they had resisted his efforts to feed them, had been but skeletons at the end – but he should consume more, for his body to function more readily. Already, he was feeling fatigued.

Skeletons. The thought was fitting, considering his destination. Gaara shook his head to focus himself, and kept going. He was almost there.

The village's history was long, generations into the past, to the time when the Shodai Kazekage had gathered the ninja of the desert together for mutual support and survival. Consequently, the village's cemetary was large as well, situated to the very west of the city, where the huge walls that ringed the rest of Sunagakure slunk lower into the desert.

It was a sprawling piece of land, fenced in and grim. Few came here; pragmatism was deeply engrained Suna's people, and only the recent graves held tokens of mourning.

Gaara hopped the fence without trouble, and continued on through the many ordered rows, past the graves. "People move on," was how Yashamaru had put it, when Gaara had asked him about death; and now, walking until the fence thinned into the distance, Gaara noted the long ripples in the earth where the color of the hourglass-shaped markers contrasted with the natural shade of the sand, even in the dim light, and wondered what Yashamaru had meant. "Move on," a sparse and puzzling phrase; perhaps they locked their memories and went on without them? Gaara had never experienced the life of those about him, the regimented hours of daylight and sleep; perhaps sleep helped with this? Perhaps humans, like Temari and Kankuro, didn't return to think about their losses and the thoughts they had already mulled over and tried to dismiss.

If so, Gaara envied them their peace.

He turned eastward, following the grid of paths leading through the graves. It would be this way; he'd seen them bury the man through the Third Eye, and they'd be very near . . . . and he could see it already, the symbol Wind rising up out of the ground, not to far away.

His father's grave, like all the Kazekages' graves, was grand, and situated at the east of the cemetary. Decorations of blue and white streamed into the sky, capering with the wind of the little corner of the land that this man had once ruled. The family members of the Yondaime were buried in the man's shadow, afforded the simple graves that spoke of duty well performed and little else. No cloth flowers or tokens were scattered on these graves; and Gaara, drawing near, noticed that the deep etchings in the granite were already fading. Both were old, but one half as much as the other; Gaara could make out "Yashamaru" easily, but he had to move close to the grave to read "Karura."

The wind moaned in the silence, nearly covering the thumpof the box, and then the gourd, to the earth. Gaara rested the gourd automatically against the grave, to keep it upright, and then drew back to look at the scene, which seemed so fitting to him; her body and her protection, together, touching.

"Mother," he said.

The word was strange on his tongue, too quickly voiced, too quickly gone, only half-heard in the infant dawn. He tried it again, a little louder, and put his hand out to touch the stone. It was cold, as it would be cold, until the sun rose; and then it would warm with the desert. Its texture, beneath his palm and fingers, was somewhere between smooth and rough, almost pleasant, almost painful, like remembered affection.

He let his hand dip, brushed his fingers over the characters of her name, rubbed his thumb against the stone.

Yashamaru, what is that? What're they doing?

They're hugging, Gaara.


Well . . . that woman is the child's mother . . .

Do mothers hug people?

. . . Um, yes.

Do I have a mother?

It had been one of the earliest conversations he could remember having with Yashamaru, the one had had led to his uncle explaining the truth behind woman in the picture on the table to him. The words remained, his to keep, while the expression and the bigger context was lost to Gaara's grasp; nevertheless, he could guess at Yashamaru's expression, the slightly crumpled look of sadness and worry that had been marked into his face ever since Gaara had been able to look up into it. He recalled it now because it had been the first time he had really been able to put a finger on how he was different from the other children, the ones that wouldn't play with him. They had had "mothers," and these people "hugged," while he had had only Yashamaru, and if Yashamaru had ever embraced him, Gaara could not remember it.

He wondered what it felt like, to be held. "Hugged," that silly child's word, the one that rocked out clumsily on a serious voice. "Hug." What you would do to a teddy bear.

"Hug," he mouthed. The word felt strange, tight against his teeth. He tried other words, sounds that he had heard spoken by others, letters and concepts he had read of in books or seen displayed, but which he himself had never uttered. "Kiss, baby, giggle, cradle, rock-a-by, cute, cuddle."

These words had a taste both ludicrous and sad. They weren't angry words, or bitter words, or sorrowful words. They were happy words, words that took light to speak, words that lit up one's whole face. Without that brightness, they were just sounds, stupid, ridiculous, and meaningless.

Light, brightness . . . what was it, how was it achieved, why was it there? . . .

"Happy," he whispered, sounding it out, letting it fill his mouth, and moved on to others, speaking them to the dust. "Peaceful, hopeful, gentle."

He fell silent, gazing at the graves. Yashamaru's, Mother's, and the Kazekage's looming over him, facing a horizon that had begun to burn.

"Love," he said, and saw again the curve of his mother's smile, frozen forever in ink and paper, and the depth of Yashamaru's sad blue eyes. "Love. I . . . love you. I love you."

The words were awkward in his mouth, and hollow. Gaara sat down on the ground, ignoring the hood that slipped from his face, and drew his legs up before him, staring at the grave. Hollow. How do I fill them, how do I make them mean something?

He stayed there a long time, letting the wind play with his hair as he sat, tracing over her name with his eyes. The sun slowly began to rise behind him, and the sky muted its indigo to blue, and then to shades of hovering pink, green, yellow and red; weak in the first hour, but steadily growing, magnificent and bright, as if he had taken a brush and ran it across the canvas of the sky. The stars faded, and the moon, not quite gone, shied from the sun as it broke the surface of the world.

Gaara let the heat fall over him, faint at first, but growing, touching the rough wind that whipped his hair against his cheek, dusting him with sand. That baked scent, ever present in the desert, grew a little stronger as time slipped by.

What did she look like, below him? Had her body turned to dust, gone back to the earth? Was she somewhere, above him, watching him?

"Karura," he said, testing the sound of her name. "Mother."

Elder sister.

Yashamaru up spoke from his mind, kind and smiling, even in auditory hallucination. She loved you very much, and she must have wanted to protect you, even unto her death . . .

Loved you.

Maybe someday . . .

On impulse, he pulled the box closer to himself, and dug into it to find the bear. Dragged from its corner, the ragged thing looked smaller in the light, old and strangely Buddha-like, its round nose worn down to grey.

"Remember this, Yashamaru?" Gaara asked aloud, rubbing the dust from the toy's eyes, and shielding its head with his hands, trying to keep the sand and wind off it. He shifted back into his previous, cross-legged position, and settled the toy into his lap, its little face turned to the graves. "I just found this again . . ."

He rubbed his mouth, the gesture reflexive, automatic. Talking to himself was a habit Gaara had picked up in his isolation, and while it had comforted him then, he had quickly realized that it was not something that many people shared. Kankuro had been quick to tell Gaara to "stop the psycho talking-to-yourself stuff," in the first month he had known them, when he seemed quite comfortable telling Gaara just how he felt; like all of his interactions with others, this had changed after Gaara had killed someone in front of him.

Killing. The cure for the pain in his chest, the only way he had been able to ease the tightness in his throat, a constriction that Gaara had discovered had come back to him sometime while he sat. He coughed, failed to soothe the feeling, and felt the faintest prickle of anxiety.

Gaara bit the feeling away, closed his eyes, and held the bear as the urge subsided.

He waited for a while in the darkness, with the early warmth at his back, his hands still on the bear, feeling it yield to his grasp, the cloth fur bunched beneath his fingers.

What was this thing? Nothing but threads, as much an illusion of companionship as a hallucination. Nothing but threads. And yet, opening his eyes, and looking at it, touching it, Gaara could feel the weight of every moment he'd spent with this . . . this thing. This bear. Again, as he had done in the house, he brought his hand up to its head, and seized it, its little head bent up in surrender, looking unflinchingly into his eyes with its dark glass.

No ghosts in this bear. No . . . nothing. Just a bear. Just a dusty bear. Impossible to cast to the desert; and this, more than anything, disturbed Gaara. He peered down into it, scrutinizing it.

"Why can't I throw you away?" he whispered.

The words were unbidden, unthought of; they came and went before he had reviewed them, studied them, in his mind. Something, something too deep, something that hurt to be struck, was tightening and vibrating within him. The hands that held the bear shook. It only stared back, blank and mute, as unthreatening as anything could be, almost dead. But when you really got down to it, the dead were the safest people to be around, weren't they? The dead didn't hurt you. The dead just lay still.

Love yourself, and fight only for yourself.

I love them!

You are very dear to me!

I won't let you hurt them, even if I have to kill you!

I tried to love you.

But why?

This is the end . . .

Why would you care about others?

Because they saved me, from that dark and empty place . . .

Please die . . .

The voices churned in his head, Naruto Uzumaki's bloody, tearstained face, and Yashamaru's, sad and empty, cold, a stranger so unlike the man he had thought he'd known . . .

Gaara drew in a steadying breath, and let it out slowly, allowing his head to sink forward, so close to the bear's small, upturned face.

Because now, he thought he might – just might – understand. This bear, this bear had meant nothing besides the pain it had brought a younger him. Long ago, he'd set it away. No need for love, even if it was affection for a toy. No need for anything. And there was no comfort in this stuffed animal, now; it was a relic as surely as he was, and what he felt as he adjusted it in his lap, if he felt anything, anything . . . he could not name it. Just the pressure, light and round, of it, in his lap, under his hand.

What, Gaara had to wonder, would Uzumaki Naruto do with this sad little thing?

He drew another deep breath, one that quivered in his throat, and released it quickly, sharply, even as he passed his hand over the bear's top in a half-hearted effort to smooth the wrinkles from its fur. Another breath, this one a gasp, a hitch in his inhalation. Alarmed, Gaara coughed and rubbed his eyes, trying to calm his body, willing it to stop shaking. He bit his nail, focusing on that one point, pulling himself together from where his thoughts had scattered.

Eventually, he felt his body grow still. The memories left, stranding him before his mother's grave, blinking tiredly at her name with eyes that felt weighted, almost too heavy to lift all the way open.

Gaara was glad to put those voices away, glad to feel weary. It felt almost good. It felt as if he didn't care anymore.

What was time to him?


Just hours and hours. The sun watching him, its regard warm on his back; the air on his hands and through his hair; the graves, lonely in this desert, and the slight weight of this little scrap of a life in his lap.

Still holding the bear with one hand, feeling almost reluctant to let it go, he leaned over and drew a book from the box. An old one, thick, with tight lines of text, and illustrations that seemed starkly black in the sun's full gaze.

Somewhere in the distance, a desert bird cawed, and something made a skittering noise against the rock.

Gaara opened the book's hard cover, and tucked the teddy bear between his arms and the pages, its back against his stomach, so that he could see the long lines of type over the small head. He turned to the opening chapter, settled his hand at the corner of the page, and began to read.