A/N: This is the first installment of a multi-chapter story. The title, Just Wear That Dress, is a line from the song Cactus, the David Bowie cover. ;)
Many, many thanks to Troublesome Shikamaru Fan for the cheerleading and beta, and to Scarlett71177 for always being there. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.
Chapter 1: And Some By Virtue Fall
I did not look up from my work but closed my eyes against the sound. It was intolerable. Impatience ruled her, showing itself in the simple act of eating dates.
With a juicy slurp she dropped the last seed onto her plate and swallowed. "Sorry, Gaara."
That she no longer concerned herself with my petty irritations was further evidence I was a changed man. But I still had limits. I wished her to go and go now.
"You don't need to wait for me." I closed one scroll and opened another, smoothing it flat upon the desk. "I will meet you in the council room."
Temari did not move and merely licked her fingers before she turned the next page of her book. "I don't understand why you're dragging this out," she said, making an effort to sound more casual than accusatory. "She's been waiting outside for ten minutes and you keep signing papers."
"My signature is required on many things," I said, ignoring her point. "It is a Kage's responsibility."
"So is sending your people away on missions." Temari suddenly snapped the book shut and got to her feet. "And yet you've been signing your name slower than you did when you first learned to write."
Although Temari would never dare to lecture me, she always spoke her mind if she felt it was right, and I valued her thoughts. Even when I knew I didn't want to hear them. I dipped the brush in ink and began writing again.
"Meaning you're stalling, brother, and it won't get any easier. She is your friend and I know you count them dearly, but let her go. The sooner she leaves, the sooner she will be home again."
When had I become so transparent?
It was true. The Kazekage had chosen Matsuri for this assignment. The Kazekage was willing to send her to distant Iwagakure, knowing her intelligence and gentle ways would serve to strengthen the relationship between our villages and lands. The Kazekage was prepared to endure her absence. I, Gaara, was not.
In the beginning, all those months ago, I had set out only to befriend Matsuri. She was alone, without any family, but her heart remained with the village and I admired her dedication. I offered her purpose, entrusted her with tasks. I spent countless hours with her, sharing my interest in cacti and glassworks while in return she taught me the pleasure of music and painting. She was strong, bright, and resilient, and in time I began to rely on her faith and purity of spirit.
I had not known what would happen.
A breeze drifted in off the desert, through the south window and back out through the north, announcing that the cool of early morning was over. The air that now surrounded me was scorching, stifling. Perhaps it was only my sense of shame.
The print on the tedious bureaucratic scroll before me slowly blurred out of focus. In its place sprang the vivid memory I both cherished and reviled. I could hear the primal music again…see Matsuri among the festival dancers, her lithe body arching and undulating as she performed for our people…the ritual dance of life that had bound the men and women of Suna for generations. Every detail of her dress conspiring with the seductive moves to reveal only glimpses of curved and creamy skin, the fabric shot with gold thread and beads that flashed like fire in the sunset. I could feel that fire even now, and imagine she had danced only for me...
The Kazekage had presided over that festival, official robes and hat veiling him in respectful silence. It was I, Gaara, whose flesh had burned to join with hers…to possess, taste, ravage. It was I who nearly lost control as the carnal madness crept into my wild senses. Until that night I had believed myself free, separated from the old ways through my death and return to life. But I was not. Shukaku, it seemed, had left a deeper scar upon me, and I was not the normal man I wished to be.
I once told Naruto that I knew how to be a friend, that I understood the word's meaning. But many weeks had passed since the festival and I had not yet regained balance. Each time I was near Matsuri I felt the fiery madness stir again. She didn't know. She could never know, and her trusting smiles haunted me. It was best if she were safe. Beyond my reach until...
"Gaara, are you all right?" Temari was still waiting.
"Yes," I said, but it was a lie.
I had been wishing Temari would go so that I might suffer this goodbye without an audience, but now I was uneasy. Perhaps it would be wise if she remained to act as an unwitting chaperone? No. If Kankuro were here he would remind me that I cannot let personal feelings get in the way. It was too late for that, but it didn't matter; the Kazekage would never fear the charms of a beautiful girl.
I finished signing my name and set the brush aside. Rising from my chair, I met Temari's gaze. "I will see you in the council room. Please send her in as you leave."
She moved toward the door, sparing a final glance of concern for me. Nodding, I turned away toward the south window and focused on the shimmering line where earth met sky. It was no strain to overhear the words of support Temari offered, encouragement to a young woman who would soon find herself in a world very different from her own. I was grateful for my sister's kindness.
Their brief conversation over, they exchanged sides of the threshold. I heard the door close and each of her footsteps as she drew near. I could smell her perfume. This was only a formality. Believing myself prepared, I turned to face her.
"Kazekage-sama," she said, her eyes averted out of respect.
"I'm sorry I kept you waiting."
And I meant it, now that I was with her. She was dressed in travelling clothes, ready to leave upon my final instructions, and I regretted those minutes we might have shared. I noticed that her hands held a small ceramic pot. It contained the delicately-spined cactus I had given her, the one she had been growing the last few months with my help.
"I understand. You are an important man."
"I asked Baki to attend to all the details. Has he put you at ease? Do you have everything you need?" I said, at a loss for better, less official words.
Still she did not look at me. "Yes. Sensei is waiting for me outside. He is anxious to leave."
"That is because Baki knows the Iwa nin are expecting your arrival in a few days. He knows this is an important mission of cultural exchange, and that if you are late the Tsuchikage will be merciless in his criticism."
"Then I will not be late. I will serve Suna well, Kazekage-sama. I won't fail."
There was a trembling in her voice I had not heard since the first days of our friendship. I resisted the strong impulse to lift her chin.
"I know. I have faith in you, Matsuri."
Her dark eyes finally met mine then, so large and clear I could see my own reflection. A shy smile curved her mouth, and I knew my simple words of praise had made her blush. I could feel the heat of the blood beneath her skin…sense that her heart was beating faster. As was my own.
"Could you — would you look after Ki-chan while I'm away?" she said, indicating the cactus she held.
I didn't know she had named it. As if it were a child.
"Yes, I will. Don't worry."
I watched her face as she placed the pot in my hand, her fingers resting against mine for a few moments before they slipped away. I did not understand how a touch so soft, so innocent, could burn like a brand.
"You will write to me." It was spoken as the Kazekage's order, for I, Gaara, had no right to ask it of her.
"Yes, if you wish, Kazekage-sama."
Silence fell between us.
"Well, Baki-sensei is waiting. I should not try his patience even before we've left the village," she said, meeting my gaze once more. "If there is nothing else, then—"
I searched for conversation that could hold her here, but Temari was right. I had to let go. This had been the Kazekage's decision. My decision. It was for her sake.
"Only this," I said. "Beware the Tsuchikage's methods. He has proved himself an honorable ally, but he is a volatile man — one whose pride can drive him to ruthlessness. You will be in his service at my personal sacrifice, to learn about their culture and enlighten him as to our own. I expect him, and his people, to respect you. To insult you is to insult the Kazekage. If you are mistreated in any way I will know, and they will all answer to me."
I had not known I would say those words, or mean them with such conviction.
"Gaara—" she whispered, a sudden shine in her eyes.
She had spoken my name. In the space of a heartbeat the fuse of madness had been lit. The hissing sparks raced along my veins while instinct clawed at my resolve. Unwilling to stop and think I stepped closer, a ribbon of sand gently coiling its way around her wrist.
The door to the Kazekage's office opened and Kankuro burst in. The sand hovered like mist in the air around us, scattered by my guilty conscience. These dark feelings I could not control, the very reason she must go. In the seconds that remained I tried to memorize her, the almost unearthly expression of trust on her face. She was my friend.
"I wish you…safe journey."
"Thank you, Kazekage-sama," Matsuri said, her voice so soft that I doubted Kankuro had heard it.
Bowing, she turned to leave. She bowed slightly before Kankuro as well, then moved past him and disappeared from my sight. He craned his neck to watch her walk down the hall, and when the sound of her footsteps began to fade on the stairs he finally faced me once more. Tipping his head in the direction she had gone, he let out a low whistle of appreciation that set my teeth on edge.
I leveled my gaze at my brother. "What is it you want, Kankuro?" I said coolly.
He gave no answer until the entire scene had fully registered. Very little ever escaped his notice.
"I see she's left you with a raging prickly pear," he said, using his chin to point in my direction.
He did not mean the potted cactus Matsuri had left in my care, but I refused to encourage his academy-level sense of humor by admitting any embarrassment. I returned to my desk instead, set the cactus in a safe place on the corner, and sat down.
"What is it you want, Kankuro?" I repeated.
I stared at him, irritated by the self-satisfied grin on his unpainted face. It was times like this when he most reminded me of our father. It wasn't Kankuro's choice to look so much like him, but it was his choice when he acted like him. That smile – the one fashioned at someone else's expense – was Father's, and I was pleased to watch it fade.
"The council is getting restless," said Kankuro. "They want to get the meeting over with before the heat of the day."
"All right," I said. Still I made no move to go.
"All right…what?" His hands resting on his hips, he was as impatient as Temari. "What should I tell them?"
I wished to say that I would not be bullied by my own staff – or my brother, for that matter – but I would not. I sighed such that he could hear me, and that was message enough.
"Tell them I will be there in a few minutes."
"Got it." Kankuro stepped back through the door, and before pulling it closed, said, "I'll give you some time alone with your, uh, cactus."
He sometimes placed too much trust in my reclamation.
Finally and mercifully alone, I closed my eyes and tried to restore my sense of calm. My heart was still beating wildly and I was at a loss to explain my actions. This had all begun with a simple dance. This desperation…the incoherent lust that Shukaku had used to control me, to blind me to all reason…for so long it had been gone. No trace. Why did it threaten only this girl?
Even now the thought was in my mind to use the Third Eye – if only to see her again, to follow her, to watch her as long as I could until she has passed beyond the border of Suna. I had believed that if I sent her away it would stop. What insanity was this?
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes again was her cactus, Ki-chan, and despite everything I wanted to smile. I could not lose myself and all that I have gained. Every man must be greater than the sum of his frailties. Through prayer and meditation I would restore control. I would devote myself to work and studies.
The Kazekage had responsibilities, and the council was waiting.