Author's Note. As someone who does not really dig the whole GaaHina thing, this was really frickin hard to write. Fun, nonetheless. :) Thank you V for the mad beta skillz and what not.
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, months, which are the rags of time.
-John Donne, "The Sunne Rising"
The people that had lived here in the heart of the desert long before shinobi nations existed had worshipped the sun. In some of the older places around Suna you sometimes found traces of them – a pictograph, an archaic name, or a building whose odd features were built around the sun's position at an equinox or solstice. Gaara had sometimes looked at these things with curiousity once he became Kazekage. It made some vague sense to him at that time that people living in the desert would worship the sun.
But as he thought about it this morning, he couldn't understand it at all. Why should they? The sun made natural rivers die before they reached Suna. The sun killed every attempt at irrigation any of their forefathers had thought of. The sun stirred winds that drove the sandstorms; it burnt the skin; it sucked the wells dry. At the dawn of Suna, vagrants and traitors and all others who displeased the Kazekage were put to death by being buried to their necks in the sand and having their eyelids cut off – their eyes having no barrier to block out the penetrating light, the dying men and women would first go blind. Eventually their bodies would succumb to dehydration.
In a rare moment of awareness, it occurred to Gaara that death by sunburn wasn't something a normal person would have on his mind while staring at his lover.
But at the moment he couldn't feel anything but blind hatred for that evil, ugly patch of sunlight that had started off high on his bedroom wall, let in by a gap in the side of his windowshade. At first it had been a weak and pitiful thing, but now the light was strong. It had crawled down the wall slowly – he had watched it the whole time from his chair by the wall, suspicious, distrusting – and had finally reached the bed, where the angle and the crumpled state of the sheets broke it into a strange pattern, at the center of which was the ridge created by her left foot under the blanket.
It was undeniable now: the night was over, and she was going to wake up any minute and leave him.
She was still sleeping soundly, one hand curled up by her face. The daylight was quite clear now and he couldn't afford to be any later to his duties than he was, but he allowed himself to feel that human pull for just a second, the desire to forget time, block out the light, and pretend that it was night, still. Never before in his life had he ever wanted the night back. Never in his life had he been anything but grateful to see the shadows recede and the sun take over.
It was another in a string of firsts that had started the evening before.
How had this happened? If it had been a diplomatic event, a breach of border security - something easy like that - he could walk calmly over the facts and reach a conclusion. He could dispassionately resolve the situation like he did every other.
But this had taken him completely by surprise. Kankuro had been the first one to notice it, somewhere between the Konoha team's arrival in Suna and the cataclysmic battle that brought one of their shinobi close to death. "She likes you," he said.
Gaara didn't need to ask a question, he just looked at his brother in that special way that seemed to make everyone else uncomfortable. But dead glares from Gaara just rolled off Kankuro like water. Ever since the day he figured out that his little brother wouldn't kill him for looking at him the wrong way, Kankuro had taken advantage of it. It made him look macho when everyone else in the room was cowering.
This time, however, they were alone in the Kazekage's office, and Gaara's pen was frozen in the middle of a correspondence with the Mizukage while he waited for Kankuro to elaborate. "Don't play so naive. You're not a kid anymore."
"Did you have something to report about your border patrol?" Gaara muttered, shifting his attention back to his letter.
"This is a perfect opportunity. She's not from around here, she's pretty, she's nice, and she's already into you… I'm telling you, you'd be stupid not to do something about it."
Gaara expressed his opinion with another quick glare and went back to his work.
"Well?" Kankuro said.
"What are you going to do?"
"I am going to finish this letter," Gaara said. His pen went back to the paper and his thoughts went back to where they were more comfortable as he scratched clean lines down the page.
Kankuro's gaze darkened. He flopped onto one of the chairs in the office and leaned back, studying the ceiling. Gaara idly wondered when he would get fed up and leave.
"Seriously, little brother… are you gay?"
Gaara's pen stopped again.
"It's not a big deal, but just let me know and I won't bother you about a girl ever again."
Never in his life had Gaara sighed, rolled his eyes, rubbed his forehead, grimaced, or smiled enough to show his teeth. He'd spent his formative years either ignoring or subduing his humanity, so he didn't have a lot of the necessary tools to express emotion. So it was easy for him to keep his face blank when he said, "You are asking if I feel sexual attraction to men?"
"How would you react if I said yes?" he asked out of curiousity.
Kankuro snorted. "I'd wonder why you were lying, first of all."
"If you're so convinced, then why did you bother to ask?"
Kankuro apparently didn't have an answer for that. "Look, quit changing the subject. I'm just saying that opportunities like this don't come along for you every day. Mostly the only girls you run into are your own subordinates or foreign officials, and it's hardly right to go after them."
When Gaara didn't respond, Kankuro stared at him impatiently. It took his older brother a minute to realize he was being ignored. He sighed once noisily through his nose. "Fine. Don't come crying to me when you die a virgin."
A few days after his conversation with Kankuro, he found himself staring at her eyes, but it was not out of attraction.
He joined them for dinner once or twice because it was only polite. Temari and Kankuro ate with them every night they were in town – Kankuro because he'd struck up a sort of friendship with Kiba that dated from when he'd saved his life, Temari because she had manners. Temari was not exactly good company in general, but she knew how to act civil to guests. She got on well with the bug-user solely because he seemed to have the exact same social graces. They each spoke as little and as politely as possible.
When Gaara joined them the first night, he recognized them from the chuunin exams, but he had a hard time remembering the white-eyed girl. At first the only thing he recalled about her was that she had been beaten badly in the preliminaries. And then he remembered that the odd white eyes were a bloodline limit. For some reason he found them compelling. They seemed dead, barren. Eyes should be the window to the soul, but hers seemed like clouded glass, dull and opaque. They reminded him of his own. Temari had to clear her throat twice to remind him that it wasn't polite to stare.
She didn't act interested, if you asked Gaara. He thought Kankuro was probably wrong. She never voluntarily approached him, and even when he spoke to their team specifically about their mission she seemed barely willing to meet his gaze. It was not a tremendously difficult mission, but because of Suna's relationship with Iwa it had the potential to become a sticky diplomatic situation, and for this reason a favor had been called in to the Hokage and a team of Konoha jonin requested. Because the mission involved difficult tracking, this team had been the first choice.
The closest he'd ever come to romance was with his former student, Matsuri.
The girl was shy enough not to scare him away, pretty, talented, and she admired him so much that even the stories of his more bloodthirsty days didn't deter her. And he was sure there were stories. He was sure that she had overheard his history even if no one had the courage to warn her explicitly. Still, there was nothing but blind trust in her eyes when she looked at him, and it charmed him.
And scared him. Anyone with blind trust in anything scared him.
Even though it would have been easy to reach out to her, he didn't. He trained her, on and off, from the time she was eleven until she became a chunin and he became Kazekage. After that he saw her only when giving her missions. He didn't miss the softness in her eyes when she looked at him, and he knew he'd rather keep her locked in a safe room than send her out into the knife-edge shinobi world, but it wouldn't be just to treat her any differently than the others just because she had been his student.
"She'll be legal in a few years," Kankuro had said to him, helpfully. "You'll be legal, come to think of it."
He'd ignored this comment and all others along those lines from Kankuro.
There were only two instance when he'd had the opportunity to speak to Matsuri alone after he became Kazekage. The first was immediately after she became a chunin, when he was assigning her her first solo mission. He'd risen to the occasion by asking her a single question about her training, giving her the mission, and dismissing her. He knew he didn't imagine the disappointment on her face when he did, but because he was the Kazekage and only doing his job, he ignored it.
The second time was years later. She'd requested an audience with him specially so that she could make a request for an extended leave of absence. She was getting married. He almost questioned her, but she was at an age where she could think for herself, and Gaara never thought his shinobis' personal lives were any of his business.
The whole mission had gone completely to hell, and two weeks after their arrival Suna was in a much worse diplomatic situation with Konoha, having gotten one of their more valuable ninja almost killed in a mission that looked like a sly setup. It didn't help that he was the heir of his clan. Gaara at least had the trust of the Hokage and some of the Konoha shinobi of his generation, but to the Aburames, along with most of the rest of Konoha, he was still a barely reformed murderer, and he was Kage of a village that had viciously betrayed them before within living memory.
It helped that the Aburame's team didn't believe they'd been set up. It was another surprise to Gaara – logically, they should have kept quiet and let their village use the situation as leverage, but instead they quickly and earnestly defended him. For a very brief few moments he allowed himself to believe that it was the Hyuuga's supposed affections at the root of this, but he swept the thought aside. It wasn't an entirely pleasant one.
When he was finished dealing with his own council's overreaction to the situation he'd had to go to his chief surgeon and diplomatically explain that medics were on the way from Konoha since the Leaf village didn't feel that their hospital staff was competent. And then he'd found out from Temari that there were some nasty rumors flying around about a secret liason with the daimyo of Iwa, something about their supposed coolness to the stone country being nothing but a cover. So when he arrived in the hospital room he was grateful, first of all, not to be under attack.
Like all hospital rooms in Suna, it was painstakingly bare, but the floor still had that fine scattering of dirt grain that no room in Suna was without, hospital or no. The Hyuuga had looked up as soon as he entered. She was sitting by her teammate's bed. They'd done all they could for the man. All there was left to do was wait. If he woke up within the next week, it would be all right. If he didn't, it would not. Gaara knew that this kind of vigil was customary, but he also knew it would not have an effect one way or the other on the patient. It was another one of those things that seemed to be so obvious to everyone else but was inexplicable to him.
"Kazekage-sama," she said, nodding at him politely.
"The Hokage is sending a medical team to assist. They will arrive in two days," he said.
Hinata looked confused. "I thought there was nothing else that could be done."
"There isn't, as far as we know," Gaara said gently, and he let her figure out the rest.
She dropped her head suddenly, blushing. "I apologize for the allegations… I have tried to explain that…"
"Don't apologize," he said. "It is not unexpected."
He felt that he should say something else, maybe try to reassure her, but he didn't know what words would be both appropriate and true and he was not going to say anything unless he was sure it was both. This was not the first time that the exact same logic had kept him quiet.
There were times when he could easily deal with people: when they were ninja, or when they represented a state or a feudal lord, or when they operated based on a set of motives defined by what they wanted to protect and who they wanted to kill. When it came to just being normal people discussing normal things, his wealth of knowledge and insight ended. He preferred to write. Facts could be laid out easily and impersonally in writing. He wrote easily and fluidly. His written communications were usually so direct and clear that they made face-to-face meetings unnecessary, which was another thing that made him unusually good at his job. Words on a page stayed where they were, and he liked them that way. Words spoken aloud were not as easily tied to meaning. Were more dangerous, in his experience.
"Shino is strong… stronger than most people realize. If there is any chance for him to live through this, he will," she said simply. She looked up at him again. He saw the signs of worry on her face, but her eyes were somehow calm. Placid. Glasslike. He couldn't help himself. He was staring at her again, and he couldn't understand why. It even occurred to him that Temari would clear her throat if she saw him like this, but he couldn't stop. There were some snakes, he knew, whose eyes had this kind of power, that could hold their prey in thrall until they struck. Was this part of her bloodline limit? If so, it was an extremely useful tool.
He only stopped when she forced him to by ducking her head demurely, and when that happened he saw that she was so flushed, even the backs of her hands were red. He'd been so busy staring at her eyes that he hadn't even noticed.
He thought about opening his mouth to apologize, but what would he say? He was not sorry that her eyes were white, and he was not sorry for seeing them. Again faltering for the appropriate thing to say, he turned and left in silence. And silently planned to avoid her for the rest of her time in Suna.
On his way out of the hospital, he ran into Temari. She appeared perfectly unruffled, but she pulled him aside to speak to him in an empty exam room. "Atsuhiko is the source of the stories that are going around. I don't know yet if she's just trying to destabilize us again or if she might have some other motive. Her family is still loosely allied with their root clan in Iwa. One way or another, it plays into her ultimate plan."
"What is her ultimate plan?" Gaara asked.
"Damned if I know. Get us all killed and drink all the sake in the basement when we're gone, possibly." He could feel his sister's searching gaze on him. "Oh no. What else is wrong?"
Gaara didn't blink. His siblings were sometimes able to read him better than other people, but he pretended not to hear her. "There is nothing else we can do. Can you make sure that there is somewhere in the hospital where his teammates can sleep?"
"Already done. Stop. Please tell me what is wrong."
He felt guilty, a little. Temari had worked harder than any of the others to gain his trust. But this wasn't something he could put to words. It was one of the many things, in fact, that he couldn't put into words. "It's nothing important. I'm going to rest."
He never used the words going to bed. Even now, without a demon to gnaw on his mind, he didn't sleep as often as others. Instead of resting that night he sat at the desk in his room and looked over a scroll, not reading it or even dwelling on the bad situation that had developed from the Konoha team's mission, but letting his mind wander to the Hyuuga, wondering whether Kankuro was making things up to try and get a human reaction out of him (it had happened before), and wondering about her eyes. And wondering why the simple human interactions that came so naturally to everyone else were still so difficult for him. He always felt, secretly, that there was still some lingering part of him that was permanently inhuman. He'd missed some step of development that everyone else was granted, and as a result even simple things like greetings and goodbyes, and even smiles, were incredibly difficult and painful.
Aburame Shino woke up the next day, completely lucid and extremely annoyed to be at the center of an international debacle.
The strangest part of the whole Matsuri affair, or non-affair, had been the ensuing argument with Temari.
There was a time when he had seen his siblings as nearly identical – they were equally annoying to him, equally afraid of him, equally insignificant. If he noticed anything, it was that Kankuro was somewhat more reckless and Temari had a tendency to play the diplomat. She was always the one trying to calm the beast – in earnest but never successfully. He had brushed her aside but let her live. She was irritating but not completely useless.
Nowadays she didn't bother to try to curtail his inhuman tendencies – he took care of that on his own, for the most part. Like Kankuro she'd easily fallen into the position of an advisor and seemed content to leave things that way. She kept him carefully informed but never tried to overstep her bounds.
Until the argument over Matsuri.
He'd walked into their house to find Temari waiting for him on the sofa. There was a pot of steaming tea in front of her and two cups next to it. "Gaara, can you sit down for a minute?"
The fact that she'd called him by his name and not Kazekage-sama, as she did when they were around others, told him that this was not work-related. It was unusual for her to corner him like this, but he decided to let her reveal herself in her own time. He sat down next to her, conscious of how strange it was for him to be so near someone else he could feel their body heat, and she poured the tea, and for a few minutes they sat together and drank in silence while he grew comfortable with her proximity.
"Did you hear about Matsuri?" Temari asked him out of the blue.
"Yes. She came to me today to ask for permission."
Temari turned her head in surprise. "She asked you for permission?"
"For extended leave." He went back to drinking his tea.
"What did you say to her?"
"I granted it."
Temari set down her half-empty cup and stared at him. "Just like that? Didn't you talk to her at all?"
"I just told you what I said."
"That's not what I mean – I mean didn't you ask her about it?"
"No," he said and drank his tea. Temari was gaping. He could tell that there was a lot she wanted to say in response to this, but she knew how to bite her tongue when talking was useless. Usually.
"Gaara, how could you? She's making an incredible mistake! She's throwing her whole career away!" Her voice became higher and louder as her attitude took a sharp turn from caution to anger.
"She'll only be gone for a year."
"Are you blind? Have you even met the man she's marrying? You cannot let this happen. You're the only one she'll listen to – you have to do something."
"She hasn't been my student for years."
"That has nothing to do with it!" Temari snapped, and snapped her mouth suddenly shut as if she had just realized how loud she was. Gaara had never seen her get so worked up over something. Like any good ninja, she usually kept her emotions well below the surface. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke again her words started out much softer. "Goddamnit Gaara, you know she was always in love with you. I don't care what you say, you have to care about her a little. You're telling me you'll just let her walk away from her life here?"
"She's not leaving Suna."
"That's what you think," his sister said bitterly. She sat forward and put her head in her hands. She seemed depressed all of a sudden. "I had no idea she'd gone to see you already. I thought there was still time. Shit." She templed her fingers in front of her and stared at her teacup. "She's a little fool. If she had any family someone would have stopped her, but she's been alone for years. … I can't believe you just let her go like that. Maybe you never had any affection for her like she had for you, but you should have at least asked her about it, Gaara. Maybe if she talked to you about it she'd have the sense to think things over herself."
"It's not any of my concern. Or yours."
Temari turned her eyes on him again. He saw barely-tethered fury. "If you care about your shinobi, it's your concern. Hell, if you care about her as a human being, it's your concern."
"Maybe I'm not a human being."
"That's bullshit. That's utter bullshit. You can't hide behind that anymore. You use it as an excuse not to get near anyone, but that's all it is – an excuse. If you hadn't been so fucking afraid of talking to her you could have put a stop to this whole mess."
Temari got up in such a hurry that she bumped the table several inches, causing her cup to tip over and roll onto the floor, where it shattered. She was already on her way out of the room and didn't look behind her.
He stared at the fragments of teacup on the floor and wondered what had gotten into his sister. He did care about Matsuri very much, but he didn't understand what he had done wrong. And it was only later that night, when he was sitting on the roof alone and remembering what she said, that he wondered if Temari was right. About being afraid.
The next day everything was back to normal – Temari was in his office at the appointed time and was given her next assignment. They went on as if she'd never said anything to him at all. Matsuri got married and dropped suddenly out of the ninja ranks and out of his world. No one had mentioned her to him since.
The night before the Konoha team was due to leave, he found himself at his desk again instead of in his bedroom. He was writing out new Iwa border protocol for his jonin patrols. There was something about the simple act that he found pleasure in, even though it was apparently mind-numbingly boring to the assistants that could have been doing it for him. He liked to write – when written, words stayed in one place.
Unlike spoken words that seemed to morph and drift once they were out - they could be misheard, misinterpreted, misspoken. Or never spoken at all.
His pen stopped.
He knew he would always be separate, different, Other. He would never be able to walk down the street without being noticed. The knowledge of his killing power would always give him an aura whether he wanted it or not. He had, with the help of his siblings and their sensei, swung that characteristic into a position as Kage. So why try to be anything but what he was? There was no physical need for him to interact with other people unnecessarily, let alone women, let alone that one – foreigner, noble, beautiful and strong and humble and very, very strange. She was someone of value in more ways than one. But not for him.
Stuck in his thoughts in the early morning hours, his let his pen settle on the paper for a few minutes while his mind drifted, and when he looked down he was faced with an ugly round blot of ink that had surely leaked through to his desk. He stared at it and saw its opposite instead: an opaque circle of white.
He concluded that the situation would not resolve itself without confrontation. This was not border protocol. It would have to be settled aloud. And there was not much time remaining for action.
He set down his pen. Was he afraid? He wasn't sure. Fear was still an unfamiliar thing to him: it was an emotion he was used to seeing in other people, but not feeling himself.
He stood up and went out onto his balcony to breathe and clear his thoughts.
It wasn't hard to locate anyone in his city, especially not a foreigner who wasn't even aware of how easily she could be watched. He'd gotten to the point where he was so in tune with the sand that he could sense chakra if it was within the city walls, much like a spider sensing the motion of something caught in its web. Along with his portable eye, that allowed him to find her within minutes. It was several more minutes before he decided to go to her instead of going to bed and leaving the question unanswered.
She was on her way back to the quarters where she and her teammates had been staying, walking along the dark street and occasionally staring at the moonless night sky. He allowed himself to appear silently on the street behind her – and given that she was a jonin-level ninja, she sensed him immediately. Her eyes having activated almost automatically, she saw him without turning around and stopped. "Hyuuga Hinata," he said.
She turned around then, and he was able to see her bloodline limit activated for the first time up close. The veins were thick and distinct, and the opacity of her eyes was even more obvious. Their lightness created the illusion of the eyes pushing out further than ordinary eyes should sit in the human head, and he was struck, again, by what a useful jutsu that was for distracting an enemy, even if nothing more.
In this state of distraction he had failed to notice that she was blushing again.
"Kazekage-sama," she said, ducking her head modestly.
He felt the rising bile of discomfort in his chest as the uncomfortable silence stretched out. He hardly knew why he wanted to talk to her and certainly could not put such a thing to words. He started to walk past her instead, and it was only at the last possible moment that he paused and said, "Walk with me?"
It was half question, half command, but either way, she complied, and he found himself walking down the quiet, echo-filled Suna street with her. The wind stirred the sand at their feet and he noticed that she blinked to keep it out of her eyes. The veins had receded, her eyes had gone back to their normal state, but he still found his attention drawn to them, although he fought the urge to stare. They walked in silence, and with every step the tension grew, a great big dark appalling thing hanging over them. Gaara was taking the time to sort through the thoughts in his mind and try to come to a suitable statement, one that was both true and appropriate, and he was coming up with nothing. Once again he wished that all social transactions could just take place on paper. He knew exactly how the dialogue would proceed. Is it true? And if so, why? Why? And what should he do about it?
"D-did you want to speak to me, Kazekage-sama?"
He could hear his heart beating in his ears, and his palms were starting to sweat. His sand would soak it away – a precaution in the event that this happened in battle, so that no one would smell his fear – but the fact remained.
He stopped again and she stopped with him. They had reached an open square in the city, one of the ones that had a well in the center, one where the people used to get their water before Suna had indoor plumbing. It was deserted this time of night and there were about half a dozen boarded-up stalls at the edge, and it was a strangely eerie sight now that he thought of it – the very public place and the very private nature of his thoughts. "Kankuro says that you are interested in me romantically," he stated bluntly.
Hinata's head jerked in his direction, and then quickly away. Her hands joined together suddenly, and then haltingly, as if she was fighting against an involuntary reflex, returned to her sides. He noticed that her breathing had quickened.
He asked in a dead voice, "Is it true?"
She hesitated, then started to answer, "I…I…"
He didn't interrupt her, but she didn't seem to know how to finish her thought.
And then she clasped her mouth shut with an audible click and closed her eyes, breathed once deeply, and opened her eyes again and said, "I suppose that is true, yes."
He looked at her skeptically. "I do not understand."
Even though he only had the light of streetlamps to see her by, he could tell her blush was unabated. "What do you mean?"
"You hardly know me. You cannot know much more than that I was a monster and I am now a Kage. We have not spoken more than a few moments and we have not worked together directly. I am from a different village and I am a stranger to you. Why should you have these feelings?"
Hinata looked aghast, but he wasn't sure if it was at her own admission or at his blatant questioning. She looked down demurely. "I… I don't know… I am very sorry if I have offended you, Kazekage-sama." This time her hands did clasp together, grabbing so hard that her fingers were white at the knuckle. She even closed her eyes.
Slowly her anxiety appeared to recede; her eyes opened again, her chin rose, and she looked him in the face. He stared at her for a minute, watching her try to gather her wits. The play of restraint that she'd shown over the last few minutes was entertaining. But now, either she had remembered her training or something else – she had struck the emotion from her face and stared back at him now, almost in challenge, although her cheeks were still blushing vividly.
He couldn't explain why, but he was disappointed with her reaction. And besides that, as far as he could see, it left nothing else to be discussed. This had been less interesting than he imagined. If this had been a simple mission report, he'd simply nod at the ninja and go back to work, and whatever chunin it was would know he was dismissed. Here he just turned away from the well and started back toward the tower, leaving the village square and the foreigner who still stood in it, taking with him nothing but a sense of leftover unease.
The voice was so small it would have been lost if the wind had picked up. He stopped and turned around. She avoided his gaze, looking at the sky instead. "I lied," she said. "It's because I look at you, and I think… I think we may be very much alike."
He stared at her blankly. The silence wound knots around them.
"I do not pretend to know you, or to know what you have been through in your life. Your past is no secret, but I know there is much more to you than the stories about you. I look at you and I … see you so silent, so far apart from everyone else, and I think I understand.
"When I was a child, much was expected of me. My father trained me relentlessly, but I was always a disappointment. Because I had his disapproval, and he is the head of my clan, no one in my clan wanted to recognize my strength. I felt alone, always. I thought I had a friend in my little sister, but my father drove us apart too. He thought he was making me stronger, but the effect… was very much the opposite.
"I lived in my own world, finding happiness only when I was alone. I didn't believe in my own strength… but nonetheless they wanted me to be a ninja and uphold the family traditions. I followed through and became a ninja because I had honestly started to believe that I was disposable. But away from my father, I was in a different world. Once I had real friends, people who even told me they cared about me, everything changed, and I realized how important it was – not just to have friends around me, but to know that Icared about them. It took a long time for me to change too – and sometimes I'm not as strong as I want to be, not yet – and sometimes I still feel like there's a part of me that will always be that scared little child.
"And I th… I think you know what that is like, too."
Her eyes finally met his. He stared hard at her.
There was something truly audacious in what she had said. What she had presumed. There had been plenty of people who had pitied him before, and he had despised them all for it. But somehow he couldn't feel anger at her. Maybe it was the starlight on her hair, the blank white of her eyes, or maybe the way it so obvioulsy disconcerted her to look at him, yet she did so anyway – something compelled him not to turn away. In fact he took a step closer, curious to see what her reaction would be. It was apprehension. He took another step closer and saw her steeling herself as if for an attack.
"You think I am afraid?"
He knew he didn't imagine the fear in her eyes, but she answered anyway. "Perhaps."
He cocked his head to the side, his stare unwavering. "And what do I have to be afraid of?"
She took another deep breath before answering. "If you open your heart to anyone, it makes you… as vulnerable and defenseless as any other person. If you invite someone in, they have the opportunity to refuse you. You can kill them or beat them easily, but you can't make them want you. That's why it's so hard... That's why I've always found it so hard to… to act on my desires."
He was now uncomfortably close to her, his eyes narrowed as he studied her. He could see a thin sheen of sweat on her forehead. She was clearly very nervous. "And I think," she continued, "that is why you don't let anyone close to you. It's not because you're a… monster, as you say. You're just like anyone else. You don't want to get hurt."
"Are you calling me a coward?"
"No," she said resolutely. "I told you, everyone feels that way. You're just like anyone else."
"Then the world is full of cowards."
"But not you," he noted, leaning closer toward her. "You told me the truth. You gave me the opportunity to reject you. You are not a coward."
She swallowed. "I'm… working on it."
He was now so close that he could see the facets of her white irises. He wasn't sure why he was doing what he was doing, but he had given her the chance to run and she hadn't taken it, and maybe that was invitation enough.
He moved slowly, so that there could be no mistake about his intention. He leaned his head toward hers, inch by inch, anticipating her look of horror at any moment but not allowing himself to shy away. This kind of closeness should paralyze him with fear, but tonight he didn't feel it. Closer and closer, until their breaths were mixing, and she could reject him simply by turning her head, but she didn't.
He'd never done this before, and he'd barely ever even considered it, but now the moment was at its crisis and he couldn't - wouldn't - let that stop him. Even if he was still a child in some respects, and still a monster in others, he wouldn't use either as an excuse.
Their lips touched.
He was unsure of what to do. She had closed her white eyes, and her mouth was slightly parted. Her lips felt warm and strange against his, dryer than he expected, softer than he imagined. He felt her inhale through her nose and part her mouth further, and all at once he was closer to another person than he had ever been in his life. He was distracted by the thought of physical vulnerability – this would have been the perfect opportunity for an assassin to strike, because he was not alert enough to protect himself. The kiss deepened and he felt a weird energy that seemed to spring up between them, and somehow he didn't even flinch when her hands gently clasped around his elbows – and then released, quite suddenly.
He pulled back a moment after she did. She would see no emotion cross his face – not relief at the ordeal being over or consternation over the abrupt stop. He felt both. It was confusing and unpleasant; he focused on her instead.
Her breathing was rapid and shallow, and even though it was too dark to see clearly he was sure that her cheeks had brightened. Her gaze was directed low to his right, her chin falling at every moment. He concentrated on her forehead – he could see tiny beads of sweat forming in the moonlight.
Was she beautiful? Did she love him? Did she mean anything she said? He found himself lost. He could read the surface signs – the blush, the breathing, the sweat – but everything else was a mystery – her motives especially. He was completely without guidance here. He didn't know what was normal and what was not, if this situation was something strange or something that would never happen to anyone but him. Again it was whatever he had missed, that last key knowledge that everyone else seemed to have naturally, and it had held him back as a child who didn't know how to play without bloodshed, and it had held him back all his life, and it was holding him back now, here, alone, in front of one other person, who for all signs of weakness turned out to be the most violent opponent he'd met. She hadn't scratched him, but she was tearing him up. A step away from him, yet he didn't know what he was supposed to do with her. It was terrible and traumatic and wrenching, and he was sure it should not be.
And was she beautiful? Her hair was pitch black, much darker than the night sky. It reminded him of a slick of tar gleaming in the sun. Her skin perfectly white, like a corpse. Her eyes barren like the desert. What did beauty have to do with it? He wasn't beautiful, but for some reason she was driven to this.
She started to catch her breath.
And then she looked up at him.
What he saw was not what he wanted to see – fear, pain, confusion. All things that he was feeling as well. She opened her mouth and no sound came out – not a breath, nothing. And suddenly, out of nowhere, a tear slipped out of one of her eyes, tracing down her cheek. It startled him, and it must have shown through his cool exterior, because she looked doubly embarrassed by it.
She looked away from him again. "I… I'm sorry. I'll go now."
She turned and walked away from him.
He was stuck in place. The confusion and aggravation had wound into a tight knot in his chest. Why was it so hard for him? Why didn't it seem this hard for anyone else?
The knot tightened, and he felt like he had when he was a child. The demon wanted one thing and some small sane part of him wanted another, and the two were always wrestling each other, a wreck of spirit and fury and paralyzing fear – until he didn't know where the monster started and he began. His hand went to his forehead out of habit, clenching at the symbol, still not understanding the meaning.
There was still a choice. There was always a choice. He hadn't acknowledged it until he'd met Naruto, but there was and always would be.
He breathed deeply, drawing in the night air, and the knot snapped.
And then he was nothing but human.
Hinata walked determinedly back to her team's quarters. Tears were now streaming down her face. She hadn't felt so pathetic since she was a little girl failing to impress her father. All at once she was twelve again, and all she wanted to do was to find a room where she could curl up in bed alone and cry it out of her. There was no use holding it back; it would just make her edgy during the return journey to Konoha if she did, and she knew that her teammates would sense it, and inevitably they would ask questions she didn't want to answer. Kiba had already started looking suspicious just that afternoon.
She was a mess of disappointment and frustration at the moment. She thought she had grown out of this kind of thing, but apparently deep inside she was still that little girl who preferred to pine away for things she could never have. She wasn't sure how she'd allowed herself to take it this far, to actually believe that he might return her feelings, even to try and justify them. Looking back now, she couldn't tell where she'd gone wrong, but somehow nourishing a crush past the point of reason had brought her to this.
She wasn't paying attention to her surroundings until someone suddenly appeared in front of her. Startled out of her misery, she saw Gaara straightening, his face still a perfect blank.
"Kazekage-sama?" she managed, trying to be polite and formal again, ignoring the fact that her voice had cracked.
To her shock he grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled her to the side of the street, to a deep doorway inset in one of Suna's tan facades. Her mind raced; was there an attack on the village? Was he trying to get her out of the way? Was he angry because she had –
Before she could say a word he crushed his face clumsily into hers, stealing her breath.
Her thoughts ground to a halt in the face of her second kiss ever. He didn't move at first, and it was unnerving enough for her just to have him so close again suddenly, and for no reason she could see, that she didn't move either, and for one moment that might as well have been infinity she froze and thought about nothing but his wet mouth on hers and the odd feeling of their teeth clicking against each other. And when she started to think again, all she felt was disbelief. He wants me?
His hands reached behind her head, fingers meeting at the back of her neck, and he pressed so hard against her face that she was sure if he was trying to kiss her or suffocate her. Then it was his whole body bearing down on her, squeezing her against the cool stone, his hands still curled around her jawline. She was starting to panic. He wanted her? She could feel her heart racing ridiculously fast. What was going on?
She was so overwhelmed that she wasn't sure how to react. What was a girl supposed to do when she got what she wanted? What she thought she wanted. Was this what she wanted? Was it just another silly crush she'd let outgrow her feelings, or was it something else? Could it be something else? After a few heartbeats, all she knew was that it was happening. He wanted her; for the moment it was enough.
She reached out and her hands pressed tentatively against his chest – she tried to act like it was an easy thing, as if she'd done this before, as if she hadn't had her first kiss only a few minutes ago. How long could she fool him? His chest lurched toward her hands and her fingers fluttered uneasily, unsure of what to do; she ended up letting them drift down to his hips for lack of a better idea. His hands let go of her face suddenly, and he grabbed the front of her vest and clutched it to himself. He pulled her head close to his own, and closing his eyes, he stuck his nose into the crook of her neck and breathed her in. It was more of a sucking through his nostrils than a breath. If it had been anyone else, anytime else, she might have laughed.
And then he was still, almost disturbingly still – but at least she had a second to think about what had just happened, what was still happening. Miraculously, she found her voice. "Gaara… you-"
"Will you stay with me tonight?" he asked suddenly. His mouth was still uncomfortably close to the skin of her neck, and she felt his nose graze against her chin. It made her shiver. "Hinata?"
She froze again. What was he asking her? To stay with him? "If… if it is what you want."
Could she do it? Her thoughts raced. He was very close to her and it was difficult to think clearly. His hand on her neck, his chest only separated from hers by clothing, his nose now bumping against her cheek.
"Hinata," he said. "Is it what you want?"
It was now. Now that he had said that.
She answered by reaching up to his chin with her hands, cupping his face (for a second all she could think of was how much he looked like a child), and reaching out to him tentatively with her lips, wanting to feel his nervous kiss again, his uncertainty, his inexperience, his perfection. And she got what she wanted.
He hadn't ever really been a child, but he felt like one that night. Clumsy and slow, he was far from the expert shinobi he was in all other ways. She was hardly any better.
He didn't stop again to consider her motivation or his own, and he didn't wonder whether this brought him closer to a normal kind of humanity or farther away from it. At some point all the questions of why had suddenly turned into questions of why not, and because she failed to reject him at any point he decided not to stop. Why should he? Why not let things run to their natural conclusion?
She was shockingly, unexpectedly soft, and what surprised him the most was the simple feeling of his hand on the side of her arm after she'd let her jacket fall off. The softness of her – just the underside of her bicep – had him baffled. He realized that she was completely vulnerable to him, and that the opposite was also true.
It was strange to try to do the things he had once watched, as a child and monster, with detached curiousity. From this perspective, from the point of view of one involved, the act was quite different than he'd understood it to be. It was infinitely more confusing. His actions were unsure, and hers were worse. It was a case of the blind leading the blind into the dark of his bedroom, and the only reason he was able to keep going and not let these moments devolve into an awkward, untouching silence was that she continued, relentlessly, to try to kiss him, no matter what else he was doing. As if she didn't care what else he was doing. She tried to kiss him while he stood in the hallway and grappled with the handle on his door, and he could feel the red-hot heat of the blush on her cheeks while her lips scrambled against his. She continued to try to kiss him after he shut the door behind them, and any movement on his part, no matter how subtle, only seemed to encourage her further. Whether she was staying in motion to overcome her own nerves or simply acting on instinct, he was not sure. She kissed and kissed across his face as if she didn't know what else to do, and he didn't deny her. Wouldn't.
Kankuro was right. She liked him.
And Temari was right. He was afraid. In fact he was terrified.
And Hinata was right. They did have something in common.
This was the crux of the matter. This was why he couldn't let himself near anyone. This was probably a mistake, he thought, staring at her in the light of the morning after.
He'd let himself become attached to something fleeting. He'd poured out what was in his heart with his actions, and there was nothing for it to do but leak away. This was what he had always been afraid of more than anything else – more than fear from others or rejection or any other emotional reaction. The words sweet and tender, the kisses, the touches, the breaths. Thousands of moments binding him to someone else. Thousands of moments giving himself away. Nothing good could come of this except for the ethereal pleasures of now, and their time was quickly drawing to a close.
He was overcome by an absurd desire to keep her here forever, and for one insane moment thought that if he used his sand to block out the window she would never know that it was already day. He'd close the room up like a tomb, and they would never be apart. Never. And for once he would be able to love something without fear.
The thought passed as quickly as it came. He breathed deeply, and then he unfolded his legs from under his body, shifted his weight off of the chair carefully to prevent the wood from creaking, and made his way to the door, where his robes had been unceremoniously dumped the night before. Luckily they didn't wrinkle easily, so it wouldn't be obvious to his subordinates that they had sat in a pile all night. He dressed himself in utter silence. His hand moved to the door, but before he opened it he looked back at his bed, at her, one more time. He felt something strange in his chest tearing at him, something like the desire to block the light from the window, and so he swallowed and turned around and left the room.
Once he reached his office that morning, he found himself lost in thought, staring at his door. It was illuminated by the morning sunlight.
The sun kept rising, just like it did on any other day, and after several hours of assigning missions he told his assistant he was going home for lunch. The chunin was clearly surprised – Gaara notoriously forgot about mealtimes.
He went home, and by chance both of his siblings were there when he walked in. Both were sitting on the couch where he had sat with Temari the one time she'd been openly angry at him. Kankuro was face-deep in a bowl of fried rice, Temari leaning back on the couch with a cup of tea in her hand. They were clearly surprised to see him "Gaara… are you all right?" Temari asked immediately.
He looked at them in wonder. They were able to make these connections and sever them at any given time. They had friends in many villages. They had lovers. Did everyone? Did everyone but him? "The Konoha team… they left this morning?" he asked.
"Yes. They're long gone by now," Temari said
Did normal people go through this every day, he wondered? Did others grow attached and sever the bonds like they were nothing? Did they ever get used to it? Did the soul callous over?
He opened his mouth and found himself, again, at a loss for words. The truth came out before he realized what he was saying. "I slept with Hyuuga Hinata last night."
For a moment there was dead silence. His brother and sister stared at him, expressionless.
Kankuro, at least, should have made some kind of vulgar comment, or maybe congratulated him. It would have broken the silence, for which Gaara would have been grateful. But Kankuro said no such thing. Maybe he was more mature than Gaara gave him credit for, or maybe he was just unnerved at seeing his brother in this state. Or hearing those words.
Probably the latter, given that he was the one to ask, "Are you okay?"
Was he? If it had been just a physical act, maybe he could have walked away from it unscathed, but it wasn't. And that was the problem. She'd broken through. She'd talked to him… it was strange and he couldn't explain it, but the connection was there, and he'd felt it, and now he felt like something had been ripped off of him – like a limb or a patch of skin, something that would leave a scar that would never really heal. Temari and Kankuro still looked deeply concerned, and he realized he hadn't answered Kankuro's question.
"I'm not sure," he said honestly. "What do normal men do when this happens?"
Temari's mouth quirked into half a smile. "Pretty much whatever they want."
He looked to Kankuro. "Does it mean that she likes me?"
Kankuro laughed noiselessly and rubbed the back of his head. "It's a pretty good sign."
Gaara crossed the room and sat down carefully in one of the other chairs, crossing his arms over his chest. He stared at the floor. "Why are these things so difficult?" he asked.
The question was rhetorical, not really directed at either of them. He knew why they were difficult. They were difficult because he was Gaara, and he didn't have whatever humanity was needed to make dealing with other people anything less than difficult, no matter what the situation. He couldn't make a friend as easily as everyone else and certainly couldn't keep one. He couldn't care like everyone else did, and no one would care about him.
Somehow, his siblings understood. "Maybe you should write about it," Temari said softly.
His brow creased. "What do you mean?"
"If you were anyone else, I would say you should talk about it with someone who understands. But you don't have anyone who can understand you. So maybe you should write it. Get it down on paper. Get it out of you. It'll help you to see things more clearly."
She looked thoroughly embarrassed at what she'd said and quickly looked away from him. Kankuro looked surprised. And then he smiled. "Yeah. That makes sense. 'Dear Diary, last night I had an actual social interaction that…' … ow!" Temari had elbowed him in the stomach.
"It's a good idea, dumbass," Temari sneered at Kankuro.
"I didn't realize you were a doctor of psychology."
"I don't hear you offering any solutions."
"Who says he needs a solution? Maybe you should just back off of him and mind your own business."
"Maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself."
They fought, and whatever tension had been present in the room dissipated. Gaara leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
Hours later, finished with his last meeting of the day, he returned to his office and sat behind his desk. He picked up a blank scroll and stared at it for several minutes. Images flashed in and out of his mind as he did: Yashamaru smiling, villagers cowering, Matsuri throwing a kunai, Kankuro lurching across the desert. Hinata sleeping on his bed in the darkness.
Temari had been right once before.
His pen moved in quick jerks, just as it always did.
He never said anything unless it was both true and appropriate, but here he didn't worry about what would be appropriate. He wrote his pen dry. He wrote every worry that had gnawed at him since he was six years old. He wrote about the synapse between two people and how impossible it was to cross. Writing had always been easier for him than speaking. Words on paper stayed in place. He wrote until the Suna sunset in his office window dimmed from orange to dull yellow-green at the rim to blue, to black.
In the courtyard of the Hyuuga compound, Hinata stared at the fish in the pond and wiped the sweat off of her forehead. She'd been training with Neji for half the morning, but he'd vanished… a mission, or maybe more training. There were few ninja in the world who would interrupt training for more training, and not only was Neji one of them, he was on a team of them.
So now she was alone. Again. The fish flitted around under the glassy surface of the pond and she crossed her legs nervously. She didn't know what to do with herself lately – she had been restless and uneasy for some reason she couldn't name. She didn't know if she was depressed to be so alone or just overwhelmed by… by all of the nothing, all of the everything that that night had been. She tried not to let it affect her work or her training, but she couldn't get it out of her mind.
"Are you too tired, or do you want to fight me for a while?"
Hinata looked up to see Hanabi with her arms crossed over her chest. Hinata smiled sheepishly. "Let your poor sister off the hook this once?"
Hanabi rolled her eyes. "Fine. But what's gotten into you lately? You're not yourself," she said bluntly. Hanabi was never a very gentle personality, and although her friends had cured her of some of that she still didn't pull any punches when it came to her older sister.
Hinata wanted to say, I haven't been myself since…
Instead she smiled and shrugged, deciding it was better left unsaid. No one else would understand. "Nothing to worry about."
Hanabi looked concerned for half a second, but apparently it didn't weigh on her. "Well, anyway, rest up so we can fight. And hey, did you know you have a letter? It looks like it came from Suna, and it's practically a book."