A/N: I wanted to mention, if I haven't already in a previous author note, that all the chapter titles in this story are from Shakespeare. This chapter's title is a reference to Romeo's description of love in Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet.
As usual, many, many thanks to Scarlett71177 for the listening and support.
All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.
Chapter 9: A Madness Most Discreet
I was no longer disoriented by fatigue. There was far too much adrenaline in my blood for that.
Matsuri was suddenly standing before me and I was staring, just as I had a few hours ago on the practice field. In the dim light I could see she was dressed in a plain black shirt and pants, her face flushed and her hair loose and swept to one side. I could smell her perfume. My silhouette was reflected in her luminous eyes, and in the quiet stillness her heart was beating as wildly as my own.
All the feelings I needed so desperately to control – the anger and jealousy, the chaos and lust that I had sought to master in private meditation – instantly overwhelmed me once more, and I felt utterly exposed. Kankuro's manipulative trick to force this conversation was an outrage and tomorrow he would pay. Tomorrow I would do more than peel the skin from my brother's arm…
Unable to make myself presentable, or to even calm my ragged breathing, I folded my arms across my bare chest and choked out the only word I could manage with any confidence.
"Please – please don't be angry with Kankuro," she said, her voice low and breathless. Matsuri reached out a pleading hand but stopped just short of touching me. "I asked him – I begged him to bring me here to see you… Kazekage-sama."
Her use of my title tightened the grip of pain in my chest. So I was merely the Kazekage to her, here in my own room in the middle of the night.
"I am not angry," I lied.
Matsuri nodded slowly but I knew she did not believe me. She studied my face for some time, her own shadowed with apprehension, and I could sense an intense, conflicting panic within her. The Kazekage should put her at ease. The Kazekage should encourage her to speak her mind without fear of consequence. But I, Gaara, could not make such a promise.
"I came here because I need – I need to talk to you," she said.
Although I had not consciously summoned it, a thin ribbon of my sand streamed from the gourd that was leaning against the wall in the corner and began to form a loose coil around the space where we stood.
"I wanted to talk to you before – when I saw you at the kite flying. I had hoped—" She tried to hold my gaze but looked away, a subtle shrug rolling like a shiver through her small frame. "Well, I know you're very busy and – and there isn't always time… between friends." Matsuri raised one hand to her throat in a self-conscious way, her fingers fidgeting with her shirt collar before drifting down to rest just over her heart.
The savage inside me screamed with rage. I was not her friend. A friend would not feel this way. A friend would not imagine his entire future lay hidden in her smile. A friend would not be tormented by his dreams of shared intimacy with her. A friend would not lose himself – would not have to risk his happiness, his recovered honor, his very sanity to perform his duty and let her go to another man if she chooses. No, I was not her friend.
My arms still folded, I closed my hands into tight fists and resisted the temptation to reach for her and lay claim to everything I wanted.
"What did you wish to say?" I said, my tone formal and deceptively indifferent even to my own ear.
The coil of sand curved around Matsuri's shoulders, and the havoc inside her became more distinct. Just like the sensations I had experienced in my dreams of her, I could feel her energy almost as tangibly as my own. Fear. Confusion. Kindness. Love. She was afraid… of me, of the truth, of causing pain, and I braced myself to hear the words.
"Setsuji is… he is determined to meet with you," she began, her voice uneven. "He wants to ask you… I mean—" She was twisting her hands nervously. "He has – he has asked me to—"
"He intends to marry you," I said, unable to withstand a drawn out explanation. My clenched fists ached. "I am aware."
Matsuri stared at me, her expression nearly as blank and colorless as if I'd struck her. "H-he has already spoken to you?" she said in a disbelieving whisper.
"Th-then – then how – when—?"
"I received a communication from the Tsuchikage the same day I recalled you," I said, struggling to keep all my fury and frustration from welling to the surface and blinding me. "He informed me of the match and officially requested my immediate approval."
Repeating the same strange gesture she had made earlier, Matsuri pressed her fingers against her lips, but not before a sort of strangled sound escaped them. After a few seconds she reached out again but still did not touch me.
"You have to believe," she said, shaking her head slowly, "I never wanted – I never thought you would find out that way… before I could tell you myself."
I said nothing.
Tears were forming in her eyes then, and I did not have enough strength or courage left to look at them. I focused my attention on the swirling sand instead, directing some of it toward the bedside lamp to switch it off.
"Is that your way of dismissing me, Kazekage-sama?" she said softly.
I turned away from her and faced the nearest window. "No, I am thinking of your reputation, Matsuri. This tower and my position are under constant surveillance by the village guards." I had to pause and force air into my lungs. "An offer of marriage means you should not be seen in another man's room in the dead of night – even if he is only the Kazekage."
Silence fell between us and the conflict that tortured my spirit reached an unbearable, fevered pitch. This morning's dream burned like white-hot fire in my mind – deep kisses, trust, contentment, declarations of love, the inevitable doubt and separation…
"I'm so confused," Matsuri said suddenly. "I don't know what to think anymore. I don't know what I'm supposed to do, Gaara. There's no one else I can—" Her voice had broken when she said my name and she could no longer hold it steady. "Please… please help me."
She was crying and I could not bear it.
Don't be like Father.
"What can I do, Matsuri?" I said, in little more than a whisper.
"Would you answer just one question for me?" She sniffled.
"Of course. Anything."
And I meant it. Perhaps I could never be her casual friend, and perhaps what she was about to ask would destroy me, but in that moment I knew there was nothing I would not do for her. I would do anything, promise anything to see Matsuri happy. I had learned more from Naruto than I realized.
Another wave of fear and love shuddered through her as she hesitated.
"Anything," I repeated.
"In your last letter to me you said – you said that the man who loves me… that no matter how it might seem, my welfare is always at the heart of his actions." Matsuri waited for me to reply but I only nodded. "You said that when the time was right, the man who loves me would not leave me in any doubt."
Was she carefully pointing out that Setsuji had met those conditions? That he was offering her security and an honorable life? Was she using my own words to argue for my approval on the marriage? I had already given my assurance that I would answer whatever question she asked, and yet I could not bring myself to speak any word that might separate us forever.
Matsuri stepped up close behind me. "I'm sorry to come here and ask you this," she said, "but I can't wait any longer for the time to be right – if it was ever going to be right – and I have to know or I will never forgive myself." She sniffled again. "Even if the answer breaks my heart."
"What is the question?" I said, my chest jarring too painfully to go on much longer.
"Are you that man, Gaara?"
Time seemed to stand still. Tears blurred my view of the stars and I closed my eyes. As it was with so many other important and inescapable truths I had faced in my life, my first instinct was to deny it. To hide. To insulate myself from the agony of vulnerability and rejection. But I could not lie. Not to her.
She made that strangled sound again. "You… you love me?"
"So all of this – everything since I've been home – the way you've avoided me, avoided Setsuji's requests – the anger and pain you're feeling right now… it's all because you don't believe that I love you?"
When I could neither admit nor deny it, Matsuri gently set her hands on my sides, her lips brushing my bare shoulder blade for an instant before she rested her tear-dampened cheek against it. I had never felt anything like it in my life, and my heart pounded harder still.
"Then this is me, not leaving you in any doubt," she said.
She loved me.
I finally released the tension in my fists, my arms awkwardly at my sides when I turned to her. I simply stood there, staring. Despite the tenderness I felt for her I still feared the burning madness. Hissing sparks were already racing along my veins, swiftly disconnecting what was left of my control and judgment. I did not know how to touch her with both passion and respect.
Matsuri was not as uncertain. Although she did not look me in the eye, her hands began to slide up my chest, very slowly, as if she couldn't stop them. Lost in this new sensation, I was only vaguely aware that the ribbon of sand was twisting and floating around us like an aurora. I seemed unable to breathe as she drew closer.
"I'm not one of your delicate pieces of glass, you know. I'm a kunoichi, trained by the most elite Kage in the shinobi world." Her hands eventually met at the back of my neck and she leaned flush against me, thick lashes outlining her eyes even in the relative darkness. The heart that had been beating so frantically beneath my sternum nearly stopped. "You won't break me," she whispered.
They do not fear the way they make us feel.
My hands sought her waist and found it bare, the edge of her shirt riding up with the reach of her arms. The feel of her skin was as soft and warm as I had imagined – as it had been in my dreams of her, and the realization gave me courage that I knew what to do. That I already knew how to please her.
I kissed her. Gently, tentatively at first, then deeply and continuously.
One of her hands slid into my hair. I held her as close as I could, to feel every curve, only too aware that I was betraying my own desire. But it did not embarrass me. After so much longing and self-restraint, I wanted her to know what she did to me.
"You cannot marry him," I said against her lips, unwilling to stop kissing her long enough to say it properly. Indulging the fiery madness had emboldened the jealous savage within me. "I would see him dead first."
After a moment Matsuri drew back, her expression one of shock. I reluctantly relaxed my hold until she could stand on flat feet, but I did not let her go. Her hand drifted down over her heart once more and clutched at her shirt.
"You would really kill him, wouldn't you?" She tried to search my face.
"Yes, you would." She reached inside her collar then and slid her finger under a thin strip of leather, pulling a necklace from beneath her shirt. The glass pendant I had made for her glinted in the starlight, and a tendril of my sand immediately encircled it. "It was your first instinct, and one strong enough that I could feel it in this little bit of sand."
"My sand," I said.
For a few seconds I stared at the pendant as comprehension dawned. The sand it contained was charged with my chakra. It was a permanent bond, a part of me, and I had chosen it for her gift out of sentiment, for what it represented. At the time I had bottled it and sent it away in Chiyo's bird, I'd had no idea it would connect our energies… our spirits in this way.
"I thought you knew," she said. I shook my head. "It's the reason why I've been so confused."
"What do you mean?"
"It all started months ago… after the festival. You started acting so strangely. Hot and cold, hot and cold. Sometimes I thought we were getting closer… that you wanted to kiss me, other times I thought you never wanted to see me again. Then… then you sent me to Iwa." Matsuri hesitated and looked away, and I could sense the hurt I had inflicted by that decision. "I thought… well, whatever this was, it's over."
I did not want to interrupt, but I felt compelled to reassure her and pulled her closer again.
"Then you sent this." Her fingers smoothed over the pendant but she would not look at me. "I could feel a connection to you right away. It was vague… nothing more than impressions, really, but it got a little stronger every day. I hinted about it to you in my letters, but couldn't come out and say it. I had a feeling that by some means… everything I sent – especially to you – was being read."
That the Tsuchikage or some member of his staff might have been reading Matsuri's private correspondence was a useful detail I would have to remember to ask about later.
"And then?" I said.
"And then things got really confusing."
She still had not met my gaze again. "Tell me," I said gently.
"At first I thought… well, I thought you loved me. I thought that's what I sensed. I was so happy." She smiled but it faded quickly. "But then you stopped writing as often, and most of the impressions I got were so dark. Fear and anger and distance – like you were at war with yourself. Or me, maybe. So I started to think I was wrong… that I'd misunderstood." She closed her eyes for a moment. "But I kept having the dreams, and they were so—"
A blush warmed her face. After a moment of consideration, she leaned in close to whisper in my ear – as if she feared that somehow, someone else would overhear. "Of you and me… together… in bed. You know."
I could not control the shock that vibrated down my spine. "Yes. I know exactly."
She drew back to look at me, her eyes wide with surprise. "Really? You had them too?"
"Yes. It is the same dream each time. We are together, just as you say… honest, trusting, in love. But then you doubt me and disappear." It was my turn to avoid her gaze. "I wake up breathless and shattered, my sand hovering above the bed."
And it made sense to me now. In sleep our defenses are down, and the will we use to control our instinctive chakra is weakened. I had learned this truth the hard way when I was one with Shukaku; if I slept, even for a minute, the beast could emerge and my conscious will would cease to exist. Although our waking minds remained unsure of each other, Matsuri and I shared a deep instinct for intimacy that had become a connection when we slept, formed between her chakra and mine, through my sand in the pendant. Each time I had experienced the dream, or relived it in vivid detail, my sand had streamed from the gourd in response to its missing measure hundreds of kilometers away, and I had not realized the meaning.
"I did doubt you," Matsuri said softly, resting her head on my shoulder. "I was too afraid to believe the dreams… to get my hopes up. I'm sorry. Like I said, I've been confused – by you… by Setsuji."
"What about him has confused you?" I relaxed my hold on her. Although I tried to keep my tone and attitude calm, I now knew the pendant would reveal my anger.
She straightened her posture and looked me in the eye. "He is nice, Gaara, and decent. He's typical of Iwa – determined, demanding, arrogant, kind of pushy and really tactless sometimes, but he's been very good to me. Just like everyone else, he assumed I had no serious ties when I was sent there." I could feel the hurt again, hear it in her voice, and it nicked at my conscience. "It's not his fault I'm in love with someone else."
Her free admission should have satisfied my jealousy but it did not. "Does he know that?"
"You mean does he know I love you?"
"Yes, that's what I mean."
"No! Of course he doesn't know!" She gripped my arms and shook them in a way that no one, not even Kankuro, would dare. "What was I supposed to tell him, Gaara? Until tonight I didn't know how you really felt or what you wanted – if you wanted me at all! For all I knew you would ask me to accept the match for political reasons! I was sent there as a cultural liaison, wasn't I?"
Matsuri sighed heavily and I could feel her frustration with me. She had always been plainspoken and honest when we were alone, and yet restrained out of respect for my position and personal reserve. But our relationship was different now. It was intimate and between equals. I could not act this way. I could not be selfish and unreasonable. Like Father. I was to blame for everything, for all the misunderstandings, for all her hurt and uncertainty. Not her.
"I am sorry," I said.
"You can't be jealous of Setsuji," she said, slipping her arms under mine and pressing against me until I held her again. Physical contact was so natural for her. "And you can't kill him."
I breathed the clean smell of her hair. "I give you my word that he will be safe from me so long as he never touches you."
A strong bolt of fear shot through her then, and my heart instantly began to pound again. He had already touched her.
The savage screamed with renewed rage. Matsuri held her breath, waiting for the reaction I knew she could sense, but I said nothing. I would deal with this man in my own time. As for Matsuri, I was a fool. As much as I hated the thought of his hands upon her in any way, for any reason, I would be a childish hypocrite if I judged her. I had done so much worse myself.
"Come with me," I said, releasing her.
I flexed my hand and sent all the sand that had been floating around us back to the gourd. How long it would stay there I did not know.
"Where are we going?"
"My other terrace. There's a small bench there that will be hidden in the shadows."
Matsuri was momentarily confused by my request, but she nodded easily. The truth was I did not wish to have this part of the conversation in my bedroom – the room I hoped to share with her soon. I did not want any negative associations for her here. Even if it was only in a small way, I preferred to keep my horrific history from staining the future if I possibly could. The terrace would be a safer place. It was neutral.
I headed down the hall and about midway she took hold of my hand. I wondered if I would ever get used to the novelty. We walked through my studio and I led her out onto the small terrace. It was perfectly dark, as I had expected, and the air was cool and sweet. We sat in silence for some time as I considered the gentlest way to tell Matsuri the truth about my past. The truth she needed to hear before this went any further.
"You're starting to scare me, Gaara," she said, her voice hushed. "What is it?"
Let yourself be open and life will be easier.
Matsuri stared at her hands and listened quietly as I explained how, since childhood, Shukaku had groomed me for the unspeakable. How the demon had controlled my body, mind, and spirit with whispers of incoherent bloodlust. She was aware of some of it already. She knew that when I had reached my majority I had murdered enemies at Father's command. Every shinobi in Suna knew that. But she had not known I had also murdered merely for hate's sake. For my insatiable vanity. She had not known that my soul was once so darkened by evil that I had forced my own physical pleasure on innocent young women as I took their lives. I confessed everything to her. I confessed that I had no right to touch her, to love her, or to be jealous of better men, and it was that knowledge – the reality of my unworthiness – that had kept me from admitting my feelings for her. That my unworthiness, my fear of defiling her, was the reason I had sent her away. For her own sake.
Now I could only pray she would not hate me for it. The feelings I had sensed within her when she first arrived in my room – fear, confusion, kindness, and love – were all still there, but there was no panic. As the minutes ticked by I envied her calm.
Finally, she turned to me. "No matter how it might seem, my welfare will always be at the heart of his actions," she said. Trying to read my face in the dark blue of night, she reached up and wiped away the tears I had not realized I had shed. "It's time to let go of the guilt and pain now. The man who did those things was sealed away even before the Ichibi was taken. Then you died and returned to this life as yourself. Clean. It was a new beginning."
"Are you sure you can accept me?" I whispered.
Her fingers moved to my forehead and slowly traced the kanji I had carved there years ago. "Let me ask you… have you ever shared yourself with another person out of love?"
"Then in the way that matters most, Gaara, we are equals."
I had no chance to reply before Matsuri kissed me. It was one of many. So many that I no longer knew when one kiss ended and the next began. She was melting me down with fire, slowly and deliberately, but I was grateful that the madness she inspired did not overwhelm me. After some time our pace slowed until, finally, she broke away and rested her head on my shoulder while I held her close.
"You're tired," she said.
"As my brother has said about some of his own late nights, 'nothing wrecks you like girl issues.'" Matsuri giggled and I sighed, realizing just how spent I was now that she had mentioned it. "It is really no reflection on you. I have struggled with insomnia my entire life. Are you not tired?"
"I am, but after waiting literally years to be alone with you like this… I don't want it to end." She huddled closer against me and nuzzled my ear, another sensation I had never felt before.
"It will be light soon."
Her fingertips began to glide like warm feathers across my skin. "Do you want me to go?"
"No, but you can't stay much longer. Until this political matter with Iwa is carefully resolved, we cannot reveal our bond." I lifted her chin so she would meet my gaze. I could see the heavens reflected in her eyes. "You can trust Kankuro and Temari with anything you would say to me, but no one else."
"I understand, Kazekage-sama," she said. I forgave her for the formality when she kissed me.
When she had settled against my shoulder once more, I said, "Matsuri, why did you not simply say no when Setsuji first asked you?"
"Because I didn't know what you would want me to do." She had said it softly, but I could still sense pain. "You sent me there – I thought – to improve the relationship and understanding between our lands. Do you remember the day I left? How in your office you warned me that the Tsuchikage was ruthless and I should not provoke him for any reason?"
"Yes, I remember."
"Well, I would have done just that if I'd humiliated Setsuji with an insulting rejection."
"Not wishing to marry someone you have only just met is an insulting rejection?"
"In Iwagakure?" Her empty laugh was warm against my neck. "Yes. Because from their perspective I have no right to say no."
"I don't understand."
"They're not total chauvinists, exactly, but… I have no family, no money, no position, and no man in my life. What sensible woman would reject a young, handsome guy from an elite and wealthy clan who's been nice to her? In their world it's not done."
"You consider him handsome?"
Her finger tapped in the center of my chest. "Don't get wound up again. I mean he's considered – in general – to be good-looking." Matsuri lifted her head from my shoulder to look at me. "Honestly? Setsuji reminds me too much of that Deidara of Akatsuki. I try not to think about it, because I know it's not Setsuji's fault, but—"
She shivered then, and I tightened my arm around her. I had not noticed the resemblance, but there were significant gaps in my memory from that time. I had only recently learned from Temari that Matsuri had been among the first to volunteer for the recovery mission the night I was captured by Deidara. It was strange to look back on those events now and know with certainty that she had loved me even then.
I took my time kissing the frown from her lips. "And you do have a man in your life," I said.
"Now, maybe, but Setsuji knows I didn't when he asked me to marry him. That's the problem."
Every answer she gave drove home the point that I was responsible for the circumstances we found ourselves in. "I'm sorry, Matsuri. I never meant for any of this—"
"And it wasn't like I was expecting him to propose," she went on, skirting my useless apology. "I was so shocked. I panicked, and the only loophole I could think of to diplomatically put it off – until I could talk to you – was an old Iwa custom I had come across while I was studying their culture."
"That I have the final authority to grant or withhold approval of the marriage because you are fatherless and under my command," I said.
She squinted in irritation. "You mean the Tsuchikage already wrote you about that too?"
Matsuri growled. "See what I mean? Pushy."
"Yes, I am familiar with the Tsuchikage's ways."
"Suna doesn't have the same custom, so it doesn't apply. Setsuji is here to study our culture now. It won't take him long to figure it out, and then he'll know I lied to them, Gaara. It's going to make them question my respect for their values – my motives, and the credibility of my mission there. It's going to make them question your motives and credibility, too." Matsuri was quiet for a while before she said, "He's going to keep asking to meet with you, and you can't avoid him forever. He expects to easily win your approval."
I tilted my head back and cast a grim smile at the stars. I did not fully understand my options yet, or have a clear idea of the best way to manage this situation within the demands of my duty, but there was one thing I did know: Setsuji was never going to win my approval.
"It is not what Setsuji expects but what the Tsuchikage expects that concerns me," I said, gently urging her to sit up straight. Although we were still in shadow, I stood and shielded Matsuri from view. "We need to think and act carefully, Matsuri, and that means you must go home."
She did not protest, or speak at all as we made our way back to my bedroom door. Once we reached it she slid her hands behind my neck and leaned against me, and I did not hesitate to kiss her. Perhaps it was because this love was new that it seemed to mean everything. Perhaps it was not knowing when we could be together again. Maybe it was both. But I did not want to let her go.
I had managed to keep the fire from burning out of control before, and yet now I was kissing her too hungrily, too desperately, and Matsuri did nothing but encourage my searching hands. I had to stop now or never.
"Take the service stairway and stay in the shadows until you are home," I said, breathing raggedly against her ear.
Matsuri nodded and began to back away, slipping out of my grasp. She opened the door and crossed the threshold, hesitating just long enough to smile at me before, together, we slid the door closed.
She was finally mine and yet she was not.
A/N: Heartfelt thanks to all who have left reviews. It really means a lot. I said I was going to reply to them, and I will, but I decided to use the time I had to work on this update instead.
This was a difficult chapter to write, and I'd love to know what you think.