by kathlaida-princess

Summary: Stripped of all his beliefs, purposes and motivations, Gaara returns home after the Chuunin exams trying to understand what more is there left for him. His siblings are there to help, though, and so are Naruto's teachings. SANDSIBS, SHUKAKU

Author's Notes: This is a prize request for a friend of mine at dA, since she won a contest with her beautiful fanfiction, That Smile, that you can find in my favorites, by Dancin' Andy. I'm sorry it took so long, but here it is!

The title and the story were inspired by three A Perfect Circle Songs. Orestes (the title is basically from there), The Noose and Gravity.

The front door to the Kazekage mansion opened after months of silent emptiness, after all its inhabitants left under the burden of the same mission, after one of them lost his life to betrayal, three of them were humbled by the loss of their leader (and, in two of those three cases, father) and the last one of them saw his entire life make a 180 degree turn.

The oldest of the group, an adult man harboring a masked expression of loss (masked, perhaps, for the cloth covering half of his face), was the first to step inside the building, followed immediately by many eager beams of moonlight, the first clarity to greet that space in ages, and not as enthusiastically by three teenagers.

Baki led the way he learned to know so well over the years to Gaara's bedroom, while Kankurou and Temari offered their youngest brother support to walk the same path. The boy in question paid little attention to his surroundings, to the worried looks all these familiar and somewhat kind people seemed to be directing at him, for quite a while his world had been swallowed into a restless turmoil, his mind had become an impatient chorus of yelling voices, and this personal hell of his was consuming all of his energy, all his focus.

The redhead was used to dealing with Shukaku. For half of his life he had considered the tailed beast even an essential part of himself, belonging to him like his name did, his tired jade eyes did, the vibrant red of his hair. Because of that, he had stopped denying him of his requests and desires when he realized only himself could take care of his own requests and desires, and that misconception, that wrong belief that he was the monster had led to six years of actually becoming the monster.

Yes, Gaara was used to dealing with Shukaku… What he wasn't used to dealing with was that other voice, the other more acute, infinitely human voice that actually called him Gaara and saw him as an independent entity from Shukaku, a normal person with so much potential despite all he had done, that filled his heart with something to pleasantly powerful yet so painful… But, above all, the redhead wasn't used to dealing with the two voices arguing with each other inside his head, one attempting to drown him in loneliness but safety forever, the other allowing him to finally taste heaven's light for once, after a long trial…

The boy knew exactly where that second voice had come from, he even knew whom it sounded like. Gaara was well aware how Naruto's words made an impact on him when their battle ended, when he finally realized true force came from the bonds he'd make if he made an effort, because (according to Naruto) even monsters like him and the Nine-Tailed Fox bearer could make friends, if they could only see that they were not the demons they harbored and kept on being themselves... Gaara could feel the hope that second voice gave him every single moment of that time and, during the painful time during which his wounded body was delivered to the Sand Village's (chaotic) health services to be taken care of, that second voice, fiercely fighting off Shukaku's, had actually managed to show him a new path for him, a new hope, the way to start over and become someone he could actually be proud of.

And, after a long month of recovery, of being under the influence of that discussion, as the young redhead stepped his way to his bedroom supported by his siblings' embrace (his siblings, he could now see that not all was lost through them, especially through Kankurou's concern!), he had made his final decision. Finally, he would start his real path in life.

During the last few meters of his journey, Gaara stopped in his tracks behind Baki, making Kankurou and Temari halt as well and eye him, confused. The youngest knew that his decision wouldn't be easy to hear however gentle he was in putting it, so he chose being blunt.

"I… I will need some time alone now…" Gaara began, avoiding their look. "I can make this last part by myself and I will need time to attend to some… matters…"

And the redhead even released himself from his siblings' grip and started heading towards his room in a steady even if careful pace, until Baki asked, stopping him once more, "What matters?"

The irritation in his tone was almost palpable (which was understandable, for who but him, after the Fourth Kazekage's death, would pick up the shards the Sand Village's betrayal had left behind and would repair them?), but now wasn't the time for Gaara to start fearing others, so he replied with all his conviction, this time facing the man, "I believe I have found a way to stop him," the boy placed a hand upon his chest, over his heart, "It will take me time and I need to be alone, but… I believe I can do it… And I can understand if you cannot place your trust in me after… after everything that has happened, so I will not demand it from you, but… I would very much like it if you would let me at least try…"

Both Baki and Temari shook their heads determinately in denial as soon as they realized where Gaara's speech was going, but it was the older man's thunder-like voice the first to growl in an answer, his face a mask of rage, "Don't even think about it, Gaara! Look, we appreciate what you're doing, we saw you've changed, but right now we can't afford another royal fuck-up involving you and Shukaku of the Sand!"

"Besides…" now it was the blond young woman speaking, "… what makes you think you are strong enough to face him in the state you're in now? You can barely walk by yourself, let alone face a demon!"

The redhead sighed lowly, already expecting the others' reaction. He was so used to disbelief, to disapproval, that it no longer stung (and most of the time he could just ignore or kill its source), but the idea that he would now need more than that scared him… He would have to argue harder, and he was about to do just that when the last person there spoke, to his surprise, helping him…

"Oh, come on, stop it!" Kankurou yelled, frowning strongly, making his face-paint more prominent. Kankurou, he had been the only one who had always confronted Gaara and defied him, unafraid, the middle child that had always believed his baby brother would fix everything even before he was born, that still hoped that belief would come true after all went wrong and his brother was lost… And he would now use that chance to make it all right… The redhead's older brother carried on, "Stop being like that! He's trying to help, or can't you see that? He already said he'd do it alone, so he won't bother you, can't you just let him try?" Then, the brunette merely turned to Gaara, his expression then much softer, "What… what would you need to make it work? How can I help?"

And the redhead, more grateful than what his short kindness-related vocabulary could express (he could count with someone's help after all!), nodded solemnly and replied, "I… I appreciate what you have done this far, Kankurou… I will only need time and space for myself, and very little supplies brought to my room to sustain me throughout my trial. Temari is right, I cannot promise this attempt of mine will work and… and I do not want him to cause any more trouble to our village or to you all, it is time for this to end… So… so if I am weakened and I fail my purpose… this way it will… it will…"

"… be easier to stop you and the beast…" the puppeteer completed. Kankurou, for the first time in his life, could understand how his brother's mind was working and, most importantly, could agree with him and be proud of him, and he wouldn't let this opportunity past by them because of mere distrust… Something had deeply changed inside Gaara on that fateful day, everyone could see it, it was now time to give him a second chance…

The redhead nodded once more. "Can you… can you do it?"

Kankurou's immediate answer was a sure yes, but Temari and Baki still took their time deciding if they should agree to a plan they believed came too soon (or perhaps too late…). The female of the group, however, was the second one to give Gaara her support, maybe motivated by the blind trust she could see in her brunette brother's expression, even though she still could foresee endless unpleasant consequences to the redhead's decision. But their master agreed only reluctantly. He was certain the event would become one more crisis to be added to the crescent list of the past few months, but he knew better than to argue with all three of the Fourth Kazekage's children (especially when one of them had been motivated by the most stubborn shinobi in the Leaf Village), so, in the end, he promised his help as well. That was enough for Gaara to go through with his mission. In fact, he wasn't expecting as much.

There weren't many preparations to be had, because not even Shukaku's host was sure how much effort it would take him to face the demon. That said, the youngest of the Sand siblings demanded only the basics. He would be locked inside his room, and he would only open the door to receive food or water, or when his purpose was finally accomplished. His siblings and Baki would only see him or get close to the room during those times when the door opened, in all other times they should keep away, for their own safety. If Gaara should emerge from his room looking distressed or like he was about to take the tanuki's shape, all of them were to put him down as soon as possible, which would be easier in the redhead's delicate state… Gaara made sure there was no discussion there. If he failed, he at least wouldn't be responsible for any more deaths other than his own. The task ahead would demand all of his psychological strength, but he had no means of preparing himself for that.

When all was ready (or as ready as a situation such as that one could be), the redhead silently entered his room and turned the key in its hole from the inside, for the first time in such a long while feeling afraid of failure. His siblings and Baki were as silent as they watched the boy turn to the other side (almost to another reality), and after that, it all began.

At the time, Gaara's room was far simpler than after he gained the ability to sleep, and only then did he actually find the need to decorate it. Nonetheless, a small, individual bed was placed near a wide window and the redhead half-crawled his way to it. He was already used to communicate to Shukaku, for six years he had been his only companion, and he intended to start his mission with just that.

Sitting on his bed, his legs crossed, back straightened and dark eyelids slid down, Gaara assumed his preferred meditation position, his fingers curved to summon the beast. And, after a low mantra flowed through his lips endless times, ancient and powerful, his mind blackened and slid out of the waking realm, Shukaku appeared, bright yellow eyes and flailing thick tail, his bestial voice clear in his mind…

"It's been a while since you've called my name, my son…"

And this will be the last time, Gaara wished he could say… But he merely followed with, "I have been thinking a lot. And I have found a better way for me to be stronger. One that does not require your assistance."

The One-Tailed Beast's cackles made the darkness around Gaara tremble.

"Don't tell me you actually believed that idiot's words? It was luck that made him weaken us, depending in others is a fool's illusion! Or don't you know that, after your sad tries? You are the way you are, you were born with me as your guide… You can't change it. Embrace that!"

The redhead had heard that explanation far too many times, enough for him to actually believe it, live by it. But something had changed this time… A boy had looked him in the eyes and had seen the true him, stripped of Shukaku, and the way Naruto accepted him, guided him, changed everything in his world.

"The way you put things, it isn't true," Gaara insisted. "I never truly wanted to take lives, to sacrifice their blood to you. You made me believe those were the things I needed to be loved and cherished, to gain power, the only way to do that, but I failed to realize that this was only driving me away from those purposes and then it was too late to go back, I had already become you in mind. If you abandoned me, and you did it many times, I would not have anyone else to count on. But Naruto Uzumaki has others from whom he can borrow strength in case his falters, and even though he is the host of a monster far scarier than you, he is nothing like the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox. You were wrong about everything. Although he is like me, Naruto Uzumaki has found love in others, a much nobler form of power, and he taught me I could find it too, if I know to stand my ground. I… I believe him. And, from now on, I will hold onto that belief."

The sand spirit had noticeably become more enraged as Gaara kept defying him, but it didn't scare the redhead. That second voice, which was born from Naruto's speech and was Shukaku's nemesis, had become his own, as well as the hope that came with it. The boy was confident, he could win the right for his own life.

"The brat is a fool for denying the power of his tailed beast, not like you, who has my chakra running all across your soft, weak body!" the tanuki growled. "And you disappoint me by telling he is the strongest one! But even if you believe him, how can the brat be of any help when he's so far away and you're here? This village has shunned you, their supposed hero, as soon as you stepped up to them and tried to connect with them, what makes you think they'll do differently now? We are far above them, my son, and we will always be… You'll always need me, no one else can understand you…"

The redhead had to admit the monster had pointed out a strong obstacle then, but he was reminded of Kankurou, and the way his brother stepped up to defend him made him see that he wasn't alone in the Sand Village, not anymore…

"I have my siblings. Kankurou, Temari. I might have ignored that in the past, set as I was in my hunger to satisfy you, but I ignore it no more. If Naruto Uzumaki deserts me, which I doubt, I'll still have their support."

To that argument, Shukaku was much less merciful, replying, "Ah, you have to be kidding me! As if you can trust your own flesh and blood, as if you haven't heard those words before and been betrayed right afterwards! We'll see how it works… In fact, we shall see to it now. Stay in this room for an entire month. Have your siblings bring you food, if you want, if they still care. You'll see if I'm not right in the end… If you happen to be right, then I'll leave you to your own fate…"

Gaara wasn't expecting a straight-out challenge from the beast, but he wouldn't complain, he wouldn't have arranged a better confrontation with the demon if he had planned it himself. He solemnly agreed to it, to all its implications. And, after that, his connection to his tailed beast closed.

The redhead would always remember it as the most complicated month of his life.

Even though he was in his own room and, at the time, the whole world didn't hold anything against him, that room was still working as a prison for Gaara. He couldn't leave it and no one could enter it and, simple as it might be, that still had a profound effect on the boy.

The worst part was the silence, the worst part had always been the silence, the solitude. While most people would consider hearing voices a sign of insanity, Shukaku's voice inside the redhead's mind was the only thing always holding him to peace of mind, and whenever it failed, so did Gaara's behavior. And, during the test, the demon had closed his connection to the boy, his siblings were far away by his order and Baki was ruling the broken village, drowning him in the absence of sound.

Restless as he was, he had to find a sure way to distract himself. Before Naruto's words, Gaara would have gained Shukaku's presence with a decent sacrifice, obsessively finding the right opponent until the demon was satisfied with his choice, but he obviously couldn't resort to that now, and he couldn't succumb to that weakness. The boy would rest his back against the door and would wait angrily for the moment his siblings would bring him food or water, just the sound of their shinobi vests rustling was an anchor to his sanity. And, when they were away, his thoughts would focus on big, bright and benign eyes of a multitude of beautiful shades of blue, and that mental image settled his heart.

However, Shukaku still influenced him many times. Gaara could not speak to him, but the demon still corrupted his thoughts with distant, unpleasant memories, triggers of despair that sometimes managed to take away some of the motivation he had gathered. Sometimes the boy even found himself at the verge of crying, of giving up, of thinking himself a fool for having denied the demon's help. Sometimes the hostility coming from that figure he had considered a mother for so long was too much to handle. But the redhead still held his ground against those past moments, the first image of benevolent cerulean protecting him, his own conviction that he was (for once) doing the right thing guiding him through time and the ordeals.

The food wasn't much, but he actually never ate much… The water was sparse, but he had always lived in a desert… He might be weak in body, but his mind, hidden for so long, still had a lot to give…

And the redhead even found little pleasant surprises along the way… Unlike what Shukaku had predicted, his siblings did not stop coming to nurture him, in fact, their actions even helped to keep a smile in Gaara's lips. After Kankurou left the food next to the door and his younger brother got it, the puppeteer would remain leant against the wall outside the room and would merely stay there quietly, but just his chakra signature, just the sounds of his breathing hearable in that silence would be a precious presence to the redhead. Gaara noticed with joy that Temari would join them some time after and he could feel her support too, now without boundaries. One day, she actually spoke to her youngest brother, apologized for not having started acting like a sister earlier, and even though the redhead didn't find the strength in himself to reply to her at the time, he had forgiven her immediately, once again confident on his quest against Shukaku…

And concerning the demon, obviously the worst moment in Gaara's trial was the full-moon night…

It was at the end of the month and at the end of the challenge, but it was also the time when the urge to kill ran freer, deeper, hotter and hungrier inside the boy's veins. The monster's excitement stung like a rush of electricity across the redhead's body and it was the only time Shukaku's voice shouted in revelry in his mind. It was also the only time when the sand manifested itself, and since Gaara stubbornly refused to give into the tanuki's instincts, the blood-drenched dust crawled painfully all over his skin and clothes, scratching them, and he couldn't do anything but take the pain. He must have screamed, moaned or whimpered, he couldn't remember. But he had reached so far, he wasn't going to stop now, and it was with all the good things he had saved inside his mind that he saw the full moonlight hide from his window and fade away from his room…

The challenge ended the next day, by dawn, when everyone was still asleep.

Gaara panted heavily from the effort of keeping Shukaku away from controlling his body, but he had won. And even a demon had to honor its promises.

"It seems I have underestimated you…" the One-Tailed Beast admitted, finally speaking after a month of absence. "But I'm still right, you'll see… You think this will all be as easy as this, you think you will just start over and everything will be alright, but you are so very mistaken! There is no starting over for you… not when you have killed so many, not when you are so stained with blood… You foolish humans always shun the strongest of you and in the end only I will be here for you… Make no mistake of that…"

The redhead didn't reply, but he didn't ignore Shukaku's last warning either. But he already knew that the absolution for his sins, the forgiveness for his crimes, the amendment for his mistakes would be the most complicated part of his path to true strength, and even himself wasn't sure he deserved them, for now he could begin feeling in his skin how precious one single life was, and how many he had taken.

So, on the first moment after the challenge finished, Gaara questioned himself if he actually deserved winning it, deserved even starting to cleanse himself of his past life. And it was only with great effort that he remembered Naruto's words again and understood even him deserved a second chance, no matter how ruined his first one had been.

And, only after that was he ready to step out of his room and face this new path in front of him, scary but exciting…

As soon as he entered the corridor outside, Gaara found both his siblings asleep and leant against the wall, and he couldn't avoid smiling, even if weakly. They must have heard him hurting the previous day, and their new-found concern had led them to do that…

The redhead didn't wake them up. Instead, he headed to the kitchen and filled a tray with many types of food, since he wasn't sure of his siblings' preferences. For himself, he surprisingly prepared a bowl of steaming instant ramen…

As soon as he was ready, Gaara headed back to Kankurou and Temari and set the full, wonderfully-smelling tray in front of them, then sitting down in front of it. His siblings were quick to wake up with the overload of varied stimuli, and the expressions of dumbfounded surprise upon their faces were priceless, and the redhead wished he could remember them forever. He himself knew he was smiling.

Gaara was the first to dig in, strangely hungry as he was after his month of probations, but the blond and the brunette followed soon after. Kankurou even ventured to ask, after a good slice of buttered toast, "So… we take it whatever you did went well?"

The redhead nodded, resuming his meal. "It did. Perfectly well."

The puppeteer nodded as well and no one else spoke after that. But Gaara didn't mind this kind of silence, not when he felt so warm inside, so fulfilled, with such desire to smile.

Worse days would come, he was sure, with times when he would find himself at the brink of falling once more. He knew this moment of peace meant nothing, it was nothing but the calm before the storm ahead… His journey for acceptance, for Shukaku's disconnection would take its toll on him more than he could imagine…

But for now, Gaara was sure that it would all be alright, in the end, as long as he kept going. For now, he had his first breakfast in ages with his siblings and knew their concern for him was genuine. For now, he had Naruto's smirking, mischievous yet determinate blue eyes lighting up his mind and felt protected. For now, he could relax and feel, finally, happy…

In the middle of his meal, he looked down at his own clothes and noticed how the sand had ruined them… He would have to get new ones soon.

But, for now, nothing would worry Gaara of the Desert.


Goddamnit, finally!

It took long, but I'm really happy with how it turned out!

I hope you all are too ^^

kathlaida-princess logging out…