The First Shifting Grains
The silence in the room was stifling.
Every eye turned to the door and just watched. They watched as they pulled him in by his hands, chained and cuffed with chakra-suppressors. He was still wearing a dehumanizing hospital garb that reached to his calf and draped off one shoulder. They could see him limping with partially atrophied muscles, and the clatter of metal from his chained feet was the only sound that permeated the council room. Seven ANBU guards surrounded him like a human barrier made of demon masks.
It looked less like an entrance and more like an execution procession.
The jinchuuriki looked ahead without acknowledging the world around him or the numerous eyes stinging his skin. He was quiet and docile – like a lamb to slaughter.
When the boy reached the centre of the council, the static in the room snapped and everything became still.
"Welcome Gaara-sama." Masa stepped forward, and a smile made of brittle glass stretched across his face. "Hero of Sunagakure."
The sound of rattling chains danced obnoxiously in between the silence.
Several beats later, it was ruptured by wet coughing and dry wheezing. The jinchuuriki coiled into himself as he struggle to suck air in. If they could see Gaara's shaking fingers and his failing limbs, they ignored it.
Yuudai let his eyes trail over the boy's body and curled his lips in indignation.
"What is the meaning of this Masa? The boy was detained in secure quarters, he shouldn't be here! He shouldn't even be awake!"
Masa directed a barely glanced at the councilman.
"The senior council asked for his presence should he wake. The boy's fate is being discussed, so it only seems fair he takes part in it." Hushed out the ghoulish man. "This is a civilised council, not an execution."
The other elder stood up, "I know the game you play Masa but I'm afraid it's too late to negate my plans. As everyone in this room can see, the jinchuuriki is barely fit to stand, let alone continue baring the weight of being a demon vessel. Let us take that burden from him."
Masa gave the man an eerie blink that looked more suited on an amphibian.
"How generous Yuudai-sama, for caring about the boy's condition, but surely we must protect the hero."
"Hero?" The elder scoffed incredulously. "Your mind has left you Masa. The jinchuuriki is not a hero, he is nowhere near it."
The tall man's head tilted to the side and he suddenly looked like a sharp-eyed bird. Predatory with talons sharp.
"Did you know, that out of the major four sectors of Suna, the southern part had the least amount of casualties and little to no infrastructure damage? The North, East and West took up eighty-percent of our death toll and needed the most dispatched ninjas to contain it." Masa's voice was flat like cold marble as he spoke his statistics. "Tell me council room, what made the south sector so different? Why did it have the least amount of casualties? What made it different to all the other places that had been under siege?"
A beat later, Kankuro answered out without meaning to, "Gaara."
Masa's swollen pupils darted towards the puppeteer and the genin flinched. A pale smile was Kankuro's reward.
"Yes." The tall man nodded. "The jinchuuriki never moved from the South sections of the outer ring. What's the next thing about the South that makes it different from the rest of Suna Kankuro-sama?"
The puppeteer didn't answer as he avoided the man's eye, his skin crawling and mouth dry.
After a moment Temari answered for him. "The southern sector houses only civilians exclusively. Shinobi don't live there."
Masa gave the blonde kunoichi a most unattractive smile. "There was no back up in the south sector. No shield, no ninja to protect our civilians. Except Gaara-sama."
An incredulous laughter burst from the other end of the room.
A man with a regal moustache sneered at the suggestion. "You think the vessel was helping? Those fumes in that cage of yours has finally driven you mad Slaughter Man."
Masa tilted his head and added tonelessly, "Of course he was helping."
"He was murdering our own shinobi!" Moustache elder growled. "My son was killed by that boy, so don't suggest that it is a hero!"
A familiar story and a repeated rage.
It always felt awkward and frustrating when they lost their own to someone they were meant to call comrade.
"If your son was killed by Gaara-sama, then it was because he was beyond saving." Masa added with very little feeling. "That includes the other twenty shinobi that were killed by his sand. We marked and identified the uniforms and serial numbers from his victims." With a heavy pause the tall man added, "They were all on the first rotation of the wall patrols that night. All of them were the earliest carriers for the chakra parasite, members of the first wave."
"What are you saying?" Yuudai snapped, his patience wearing thin.
Masa gave a dead-eyed stare at Yuudai and answered, "It's quite obvious. Gaara-sama was shielding the unguarded civilian sector single-handedly from the bomb carriers." After a pause he added, "He was protecting them."
The silence that followed was more telling than any loud cries of protest could ever be.
When Gaara managed to gather what little oxygen he could suck in, his ears finally picked up on the end of Masa's speech.
"…was protecting them."
Pins and needles assaulted his limbs. It was getting too difficult and his mind was barely aware of what was happening in the room. Also the sharp-eyed looks Masa kept giving him was something akin to Kabuto's worst pre-surgery-bloodlust.
When the room exploded in protests and indignant scoffs, his eyes throbbed. Why wouldn't they stay quiet? Someone yanked at his chain and Gaara was forced to look up at the council of men and women perched on their thrones. The man in front of him was saying something, but it was hard to make out the words behind the flood of static behind his eyes.
"He killed my son…"
"Shall we question the –"
"The boy is falling."
Indeed he was. He couldn't recall when he fell to his hands and knees, and there was still the incessant tugging on the chains wrapped around his wrists. Suddenly his vision was filled with large pupils, eyes too large and a thin face that was similar to pale stone.
"My apologies Gaara-sama. It seems you've not recovered enough for this." Masa's words were soft but devoid of anything sincere. "So I'll keep this brief."
The ANBU pulled Gaara up by his chains and all he could do was follow their firm manoeuvring.
"So hero," When the man spoke, his teeth were bleached like shark teeth. "Is it true that you remained in the civilian residential district in the southern sector for the sole purpose of eliminating shinobi already infected by the chakra parasite as pre-emptive strike to control collateral damage and loss of civilian life?"
The man smelt like ammonia and bleach. It stung the genin's nose.
When he looked up, the occupants of the room seemed like looming statues hanging overhead as they waited for his response. Vultures.
He swallowed and licked his lips and ignored the sharp pain in his throat when he spoke:
A thin smile stitched across Masa's face.
Had Gaara been more aware, he would have realized he should have said no.
The Kazekage gazed out of the small window and into the glaring white of high noon. The sounds of arguing and righteous indignation were thrown past his ears and against the walls of the courtroom.
The elders questioned his actions. Always, always, always.
How unaware they were of their own decay. Relics. Fossils. Dust. The council wanted his downfall. Their own alliances split and unwittingly digging their own grave.
A new leader they wanted and a new village they'll never have.
Isamu Yuudai was an opportunist leech – chasing glory that belonged in fairy tales than reality. Misguided and woefully blind, chasing his own tail. So he let the man run and run and run.
The Slaughter Man eyed the jinchuuriki as his. How well he played the board. Flittering in the shadows and pulling strings from his cage. Swollen eyes full of questions that could never be answered, even under his scalpel. How well he mimicked gentleness. A moth with fangs.
And these were his advisors. The Kazekage closed his eyes and grieved.
The leader of Suna watched his son, wrapped in chains and strung up like a marionette. So much power in such a small pawn piece. Chipped and broken. He looked like his mother when he was pale and shaking.
Voices argued on.
Let them play.
The tall man ignored whatever chaos had ensued in the room and ploughed on.
"Step forward Baki-san." Masa rasped as he moved away from the jinchuuriki.
The jounin did as he was told and stood in the middle of the room, only a few feet away from his chained student. He didn't look at the genin once.
A scribe came forward and addressed to the council obediently:
"In the aftermath of the attack, there have been reports that indicate that the jinchuuriki was also the one to have…" the reader paused and looked at the page as if the words were crawling of the sheet. "Intervened with the attempted annihilation of half the village. These sightings have described a person matching the jinchuuriki's description to have carried the explosive material high enough into the atmosphere, subsequently removing Suna within the blast radius."
The announcer cleared his throat when a curious hum descended in the room.
"Baki-san, you were last seen with the parasite carrier. Are these statements true? Did the jinchuuriki neutralise the threat?"The announcer inquired. Did he save us?
Masa blinked as he added two more eye drops into his pupils. Excess liquid dripped from the side of his eyes.
The courtroom watched on as jounin Baki gave the question some thought, then huffed out a small sigh and answered with unmistakable clarity:
"No. They are not true."
If his student looked at him from the floor with confusion or question, he did not know. Baki's eyes never left his interrogators face.
"Do you speak the truth?" Masa asked again, his eyes sharpening. "Remember you are under oath."
Baki gave the man a bland stare. "Yes. It was my clone I sent to carry the source into the sky." He added monotonously. "My student was unconscious at the time and detained in his room whilst in the presence of several ANBU. He was not aware enough to have further involvement in the attack. Also, as his jounin sensei, I can vouch that Gaara-sama has never been taught to create a duplicate with a level of complexity such as a shadow clone."
"Enough of this farce Masa!" Yuudai snapped from the side, thoroughly fed up with the line of questioning.
The ghoul did not respond to the elder's complaints. "But you agree that the boy was irreplaceable during the attack? His role as a defender of the civilians?"
"I don't know. It seems very plausible considering the alarmingly detailed facts you've collected." Very detailed. How long have you been watching Gaara? How close do your swollen pupils track his every movement? "But like I said, I don't know. I wasn't there."
Perhaps Masa was attempting to peel Baki's skin with his eyes because the narrow gaze was like a hot scalpel on a twitching nerve.
Baki blinked languidly and asked politely, "Will that be all Masa-san?" The man said nothing in response. "Because my student needs to be taken back to his quarters. The floor is an unacceptable place of rest for the Kazekage's son."
The jounin didn't wait to be dismissed.
In an instant, he was crouching by an unconscious Gaara, whose eyes had started bleeding to the floor. The boy was lifted with one quick movement and then they were gone.
The meeting had come to an abrupt close. An unresolved ending.
Had they looked, the occupants of the room would have noticed the Kazekage's seat had been empty for a while.
Temari and Kankuro followed the Kazekage back to their home, uneasiness coiling in their gut.
The kunoichi watched her father's coat sway gently as he walked and suddenly asked, "Father…will Gaara be alright?"
The older man stopped, and then turned to face the children. But as he did, the henge melted away, revealing who was underneath all along. "I don't know Temari." The man answered.
"Baki-sensei?" Kankuro drew back. "Hang on. What's going on?"
The blonde kunoichi blinked and then frowned at her teacher. "Wait…were you henged as our father during the meeting all along?"
Baki sat down on the chair by the window and shook his head. "Only at the end."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I was ordered by the Kazekage." Their sensei answered simply.
"Then where's father?"
"He was disguised as me at the end of the meeting. He's with Gaara right now."
Temari's frown depended. "He knew. He knew all along what would happen during the meeting. The power play."
"Multiple power plays." Baki corrected.
Kankuro scowled in annoyance. "I didn't get any of that."
"That's because you're dense. Don't you listen?" Temari scoffed.
"Shut up! I was listening…I just didn't get why everyone was being so…intense. It was like they were playing tug-of-war with Gaara. They all wanted bits of him."
"Pretty much." His sister agreed dryly.
"By the way, who the hell was that guy?" Kankuro pointed to his eyes while looking at Baki. "You know the one with the freaky eyes?" The genin gave a full body shudder. "Man he makes my skin is crawl."
"Masa is a…specialist." Baki answered neutrally.
"What does he want with Gaara?" Temari questioned with increasing suspicion. "Because that was some weird amount of attention he was forcing onto him."
Their sensei didn't answer for a moment, and then sighed.
"I need both of you to understand that our village has come to a point where normal etiquette and 'fair play' can't be implemented anymore – not that it was ever really there considering our occupation. Suna is quite frankly so far gone, that everyone is grappling to keep it up. This creates factions and division within our own leaders and councils trying to revive the village. They all mean well, and at the end of the day, we're all reaching for the same goal. Keeping ourselves alive."
"But that's illogical." Temari argued, a small frown deepening on her brow. "Everyone is using different methods and they believe their means is more justified than the rest."
The attack had struck Suna where it hurt the most.
Not only was Suna down on military power, but the cost for repairs had hit the village finances dramatically. But the true damage lay within the inner workings of the village. The elder council was questioning the Kazekage's rule and he was now being pressed from all sides – politically, economically and militaristically.
The Kazekage was losing power and Suna was no longer a united front.
They were divided and cracked into multiple arms that chose to tear one another instead of lifting each other up.
"Yes." Baki confirmed with something akin to exhaustion. "Everyone has their own plan and everyone thinks theirs is the best idea."
They were all so desperate. A ninja village that fell from an invasion or an outside attack made sense, and in a way, it was clean, preferable and oddly respected. But when a ninja village was destroyed 'quietly' through politics and poverty, the death was slow and diseased. Shameful. It was harder to recover.
Shinobi would rather burn to death then quietly drown in stagnating water.
"And this Masa guy?" Kankuro asked again.
Baki shrugged. "He's just another faction trying to keep Suna alive – along with Yuudai and the senior council. While Yuudai wants to destroy Gaara and the senior council wants to cage him – Masa plans are more…experimental."
"He wanted Gaara to be a hero." Temari added with some caution.
"Isn't that weird? What purpose would that serve?"
"The idea of a hero is very potent." Baki rubbed his temple. "I suspect he wanted Gaara to function as more than just a weapon. If done right, it can change the entire mindset of a population. Imagine being the one to campaign such a hero. A jinchuuriki rehabilitated. Regardless of people reservations, it's a very tantalising idea." Their teacher crossed his arms. "If he managed that, Masa will become the hero's new handler, his champion. He could control the crowd by proxy. Psychological warfare with a powerful reward."
"You can't be serious?" Temari raised her eyebrows. "That would never work. We're shinobi, not glorified samurais." Not Gaara. They'll have to find a hero in someone else.
"Normally no, but like I said, Suna is weak. Men like that can come out to play with the most ridiculous ideas and make them a reality."
Kankuro chewed his lower lip. "Sensei…there's something not right with him. They kept calling him slaughter man."
There was apprehension in both his students' eyes. He knew their concerns.
The teacher sighed and replied simply:
"He is an asset and Suna is in no position to be picky about our weapons." Then with another accepting shrug, he added, "Every village has their own Orochimaru."
When Gaara woke again, the sky was deep orange. Naruto would have liked the colour, he thought absently.
After a moment, he deliberated that it actually might be pink.
It was hard to tell through the spots behind his eyes.
He twitched his feet under the covers and was relieved the ache had somewhat diminished, although the pins and needles he could do without. The chains were gone, but the abused skin remained. He closed his eyes and felt for Shukaku. The containment was weak, bound together with breaking rope and hanging nails, but it was there. The cage still held.
When he looked down, he was covered in a sea of cotton sheets that smelt familiar.
Like tea, dust and paper.
His pale eucalypt coloured eyes blinked tiredly after a few minutes of gathering his memories of the rather disastrous day, then drifted towards the only other occupant in the room.
The Kazekage sat at his large desk by the window, reading an intimidatingly long scroll. The sound of pen on parchment scratched away regularly, followed by shuffling of dry paper. Surely the older man knew Gaara was awake, but he showed no interest in moving his eyes away from his documents.
The genin appreciated the time he was given to collect his wits. He wasn't sure he was up for conversing.
So with a small hiss, Gaara propped himself up into a sitting position and rubbed his eyes. It took longer than necessary to realise the room was his father's private quarters. Although, Gaara didn't understand why he was was resting in his father's bed instead of secure facility underground.
Seven minutes and four scrolls later, the Kazekage finally put his quill down and looked at his youngest son. Gaara repressed the sudden urge to look away. When the boy attempted to leave the bed, his father made a clicking sound with his tongue. Stay he wordlessly demanded and Gaara reluctantly obeyed.
With slow graceful movements, the Kazekage reached for the small jug on the table and with steady hands, poured water into a spare cup, starting low then gradually elevating his shoulder to extend the stream. The movements echoed deft gestures found in habitual tea drinking. Once finished, the Kazekage walked over and slid the glass within Gaara's reach. The genin decided to drink it without inspection. After all, it felt like a peace offering of sorts.
"I laced the water with jyn." His father suddenly spoke.
Gaara nearly sprayed the water back out through his nose.
Thankfully he controlled his nasal reflexes and avoided showering the Kazekage. After a moment of gathering his wits, Gaara pointedly looked at the man in the eye and took another sip. He sorely wished he could sleep a few more hours.
When the genin emptied the glass, he placed it back on the table as if it were a warm cup of tea and smoothed away his discomfort.
"I appreciate the muscle relaxer." A husky sound that was supposed to be his voice crawled out of his throat. "But I didn't think I needed the alcohol as well father."
"It loosens the tongue." It's my turn to interrogate.
Several beats later, his father sat down, the man's sharp eyes never moving away from his son.
"You slept for seven days." His father suddenly informed. "Your body all but died. No breath, no muscle movement and next to no blood flow. It was only this morning you began to reanimate. Had you remained in your sleep for a day longer…" The man paused. "I would have ordered to cremate you."
Gaara felt ants trailing under his skin.
"But you're awake and you've now put me in a very difficult position musuko."
Son. The jinchuuriki never understood how his father managed to weaponised a word that was meant to be an endearment.
The Kazekage produced an object from his sleeve and placed it on the table.
"We found this capsule in your pocket."
The gift Itachi had given him gleamed dimly in the light. It was rather unassuming now that he was looking at it without the fear of imminent destruction. Gaara picked the shell up and ran his thumb against the metal. How a vessel so small had caused such chaos and loss, it still made little sense to him. Even in his forced sleep, Gaara lived in a loop of watching his own hand extinguish the life out of his comrades.
They were yours. He pushed the capsule away. And you killed them.
He knew who did this.
It was a good thing that Gaara was not as impulsive as Naruto, because the world would never be ready for his blinding rage.
The Kazekage's never looked away from his son's face, cataloguing his reactions and analysing the tense muscles coiling in the genin's back.
"You really were protecting them. The civilians."
Gaara leaned back on the pillow and rubbed the knuckle of his thumb. He nodded.
His father looked at him in consideration, showing no sign that he was suspicious or surprised. However, there was a sliver of curiosity and confusion leaking its way behind the man's brow.
Gaara opened his mouth to say something but quickly shut it again.
Because they're my people, my comrades and I'm their Kazekage. The reasons were so obvious to him that it felt redundant to even ask. But Gaara knew that he couldn't expect the people around him to understand who he truly was and what dictated his actions. They would have to know everything. And that couldn't happen.
But for a forgotten second, a miniscule moment, Gaara considered telling his father all of it. Everything. Beginning to end.
They were yours. And you killed them all.
His eyes grew hazy with indecision as he fought off the compulsion to – gods forbid – not cry but something dangerously close to it. Had the blanket on his body always felt that heavy? Did his father always look so large? Has he always been this weak?
Gaara must have sat there ploughing through his own turmoil for so long that his father knew he would not answer.
The Kazekage sighed and leaned back in his chair.
"You've been moving on your own agenda. You've attracted the attention of not only me, but the other factions within Suna's power chain."
Gaara swallowed trying to regain moisture in his mouth. "Sensei told you what happened."
His father gave him a levelled look. "Baki has informed me of your clone's actions. I assume you'd left it with instructions before you lost consciousness?"
Gaara nodded, knowing it was pointless to lie. "I left it on the outskirts of the desert before I re-entered the village. It was a failsafe." The genin looked down at his hands. "Why didn't you tell the council?"
They want all of you. "It's not for them to misinterpret. And whether you're a hero, murderer or a weapon, it doesn't matter. They can't have you." You are mine. You were made for something more than their fruitless plans of grandeur.
Even now, Gaara knew his father was playing a complex game against his own council. Hiding, lying, coveting secrets and collecting it like a horde of gold. The genin almost forgot how exhausting it was being the Kazekage. How tiresome it could become when you couldn't even trust the people that wore your uniform.
"Masa thinks you're a hero." The older shinobi added bluntly.
"I'm not a hero."
The Kazekage pinned his son with his gaze. "But you did know about the attack before it happened." He looked at the capsule on the table. "You found a capsule before the first wave even hit." Had he not known the man so well, Gaara would have missed the suspicion blooming behind his father's eyes. "You even had a clear enough idea on the weapons behaviour to think of leaving a failsafe. The amount of chakra in a jinchuuriki would've made the parasite a supernova – you would've destroyed not just the village, but part of the desert as well. You knew this and you made actions to prevent it."
Gaara remained silent.
The next moment, he felt a blade suddenly pressed under his chin.
His father was looming over him, the man's hands like a vice around his throat. Blood gushed into Gaara's ears and he read the accusation in his father's eyes. Even your sand does not behave as it should, he seemed to say.
"Who are you?"
His heartbeat buried itself behind his eyes, pulsing and cold. He opened his mouth to answer…but found his words obliterated by the trenches carved into his father's furious gaze.
"Who are you?"
Gaara swallowed. "I'm not an imposter."
Fingers tightened and the blade inched closer.
The Kazekage remained impassive, as if doing nothing more interesting than reading those dry scrolls curled on his desk. As if he wasn't ready to slice delicate tendons and pale skin.
"I know you're not an imposter." The man suddenly cut in. "No one can fake being a jinchuuriki." His father's voice was cool like steel underwater. "But despite it all…"
The kunai glinted in the candlelight.
The genin didn't know where to look, for surely the alarm he felt was dancing on his face.
It was terrible, because Gaara knew what his father meant.
He no longer made sense to anyone. He was suddenly too unpredictable, unreadable, undesirable, little volatile jinchuuriki. Even blind and deprived of the knowledge that Gaara was not even a native of their timeline…the Kazekage could tell his son was something else. His father was too clever. He could smell the foreignness off Gaara's skin.
But they would never guess. No one could ever know. Will never know that their instincts were right.
That Gaara was an aberration.
How well he wore his younger counterpart's face, his body, his space, but could never hope to eradicate the man he had become in the future. How could he suddenly stop being a comrade, a brother, a mentor, a high commander of the Fourth Great Shinobi War? The man Gaara had become simmered beneath his skin, the indomitable heart of a Kazekage.
Who knew kindness was so hard to hide?
His father's shadow loomed over him, closing the void between their bodies.
"I am the Kazekage and I have a duty to protect." The older shinobi's tone was almost conversational. "But when I look at you, I think it would be easier just to do as my incessant advisors keep telling me to do." His father admitted quietly.
And what could Gaara say to something like that?
The Kazekage didn't move the blade away. Instead he tilted the blade flat against the flesh, not positioned to slice anymore, but positioned to skin.
The genin held his father's unforgiving scrutiny.
"You won't kill me." Gaara choked as the blade dug deeper.
The older ninja move his gaze from the kunai and directly into Gaara's eyes.
"Oh, but I've tried so many times before musuko. Why not now?"
"You're not going to kill me." Gaara repeated in between gasps as the hand around his throat tightened.
"Have you forgotten the ANBU by your window? Every dark agent I sent to kill you?" He wasn't taunting. It was just fact. "Yashamaru."
The genin blinked up at the Kazekage.
Hollow guilt flooded the cavity behind his ribs. The name still made him bereft with child-like loss. His father was being unusually cruel.
"They still weren't you." The boy winced.
Suddenly the Kazekage was pushing his weight onto Gaara's weak body, caging him, suffocating him. He waited for Gaara's sand to appear, forcefully poking and prodding a dormant dragon into baring its teeth. And when the genin thought his father would press no further, whatever scare tactic he was trying to implement would stop…the blade broke skin.
"Father…" Gaara choked.
Where had his strength gone? He hadn't recovered from the parasite infection and his muscles had partially atrophied from disuse. No sand, no demon, no power. Left open and flayed out in his father's bed. But Gaara could still move. Perhaps even manage to kick the man's stomach. He could press the sensitive bundle of nerves in his neck and render him unconscious.
Even his weak thumbs could still muster the strength to gouge out his father's dark eyes till they were empty sockets.
Weak and shaking, Gaara could still kill his father. They both knew it. So why…?
Who are you?
The genin looked at his sire.
Unlike all those times before, he couldn't push away the swelling sadness left to fester in his gut when he remembered he had been robbed of both his parents. It rarely bothered him. But when it did, the fractures in his chest made it hard to breathe.
He didn't know what to do, didn't know what to say.
I'm your son.
Suddenly, without much warning, Gaara gripped his father's hand and pulled the blade towards his own throat.
The Kazekage's eyes widened ever so slightly when he suddenly felt Gaara's small hands press the blade forward. Those small, pale fingers driving the blade further into his own skin.
Inch by painful inch.
His son never looked away. Never flinched.
"You won't kill me father." Gaara repeated again, saying 'father' like it tasted raw. His son pushed further.
Cracks began to splinter the shell of sand his son always wore around his body. As the weapon dug in deeper, the skin eventually fractured like broken porcelain and fell away in small flaky shells. Then, without much fanfare, the kunai slid in the boy's flesh.
Blood pooled in pearly droplets and seeped through the hairline gaps in his sand armour. The boy winced.
Slowly the Kazekage watched as he son reached for his father's face. Gently, as if he was touching something delicate, Gaara brushed the Kazekage's cheek and let it rest there. The touch was all wrong. Too soft, too careful. He was frozen.
Hot fluid continued to run down the boy's throat, staining the older man's blade a lovely red. Like liquid rubies coated in honey. Honey that smelt like rust and iron and tasted like desperation.
There was something wrong. There was something wrong with the way the boy looked at him.
"You won't do it." Gaara's voice sounded like sandpaper against silk. The boy's hands shook in small tremors. "So let me do it for you."
There was something like barbwire tightening in the Kazekage's muscles. His hand felt ice cold underneath his son's. You look like your mother when you're pale and shaking.
His son didn't smile. But it was close enough.
With one quick movement, Gaara sliced his own throat open.
Another week passed with little fanfare.
Suna was rebuilding itself and its people were recovering slowly. They ignored the sluggish heat and pushed forward like tumbleweed, sturdy and robust.
They were people of the desert. They were indomitable.
Their mass grave was honoured by obsidian pillars and white lilies.
It was dawn when a bird landed on Temari's window sill with a scroll attached to it leg.
She rolled it out while holstering her weapon pouch to her hip. She slipped her fan on her back and burned the message.
"Kankuro!" the kunoichi rapped on her brother's bedroom door.
"Yo!" the genin answered through the door, the sound of wood and steel hammered away within his chambers.
"Did you get the message?"
Kankuro opened the door with his puppet on his back, his hood push forward and his face paint bright and purple.
"Yeah, I got it a few minutes ago."
"Baki's waiting for us at the main gate. Let's go."
Baki-sensei waited for his student as he watched the dust swirl out into the open desert. Dawn was the most agreeable part of the day for the one-eyed jounin.
"Sensei!" the puppeteer called out. "We got your message, are we really going on a mission?"
Their teacher turned to them. "Yes, we leave in a few minutes."
"Finally!" Kankuro pumped his fist. "I thought we'd never get out of the village."
Temari checked her backpack and counted the weapons in her pouch. "I've got everything and Kankuro's already packed the food rations."
"Good." Baki looked back at the village. "Now we have to wait for Gaara."
"He's coming too?"
Their teacher nodded. "It's been a week since you brother woke up, he's recovered enough to join us. It won't be physically taxing since it's a diplomatic mission. Besides, this particular assignment would be more in our favour if we sent all of the Kazekage's children."
"All three of us?" Temari gave her teacher a thoughtful look. "They requested that specifically?"
"No, your father did." Baki handed both his students sealed scrolls. "This is the mission description."
Temari read through the scroll and frowned. "Wait…it says here we're supposed to secure a diplomatic contract. What does it mean we have to? Isn't it already confirmed?"
"This mission is…a little unusual." Baki crossed his arms and explained. "I'll explain when Gaara arrives."
Gaara had woken long before dawn, when the sky still looked like night and the stars had barely dimmed.
The jinchuuriki looked down at the letter in his hands and leaped out his window.
She was waiting for him on the swings at the old park.
Her twin braids swung around her face, making her look younger than she was and sweeter than the bread rolls she carried in her basket. Even her apron smelt like sugar and honey and comfort. She shifted her feet together, her elbows tucked in close as she nervously waited.
When her eyes finally landed on Gaara, she jumped back nearly falling off the swing. An embarrassed flush crawled up her face and burned her ears. She clutched the basket tighter to her chest.
The jinchuuriki waited for the young woman to collect herself.
"Um…" She floundered, suddenly unsure how to proceed.
The bread woman suddenly extended her arms, offering the hamper of pastries whilst bowing at the same time. Her eyes were shut tight and her cheeks ruddy red. "Please accept this offering as a token of my gratitude Gaara-sama!"
The genin blinked once, then twice, and eyed the basket of sweets like he didn't know what it was.
The young woman looked up when she realised she had been standing there for a while without response. She looked at the boy then back to her gift.
"It's...it's for you." She clarified even more flustered than before.
Gaara frowned and decided the situation needed more clarity. "Who are you?"
If he thought she was pink before, she now turned an alarming shade of cherry red. He suddenly felt bad, she reminded him of skittish mouse. Or a bashful Hinata.
"I…I'm so sorry!" she bowed again so suddenly that Gaara wouldn't be surprised if she got whiplash. "This…this was a bad idea."
She stumbled back, trying to make her escape without tripping over air. She eventually did trip over air and turned a new shade of colour that Gaara had no name for. She really did remind him of a mouse.
Gaara took pity on the poor woman.
She stopped immediately. Her long lashes did very little to hide her deer-in-the-headlights expression when she peeked over the shoulder to look at Gaara who had moved closer.
The jinchuuriki crouched down and picked up the hamper and gave it back to the clumsy woman.
"I received your letter." Gaara finally explained.
Something like relief bloomed on the woman's face. "Oh you did! I wasn't sure you read it…it was so many weeks ago…" her voice trailed off awkwardly.
"You said you wanted to meet with me."
She suddenly perked up. "Yes, I wanted to thank you!"
"You thanked me in the letter." The boy pointed out.
"Yes but…I wanted to do in person and I wanted to give you this!" she pushed the hamper back into Gaara face once more, unaware how close it got to hitting his nose. "Please accept this as a token of my gratitude Gaara-sama!" There was a moment before she shook her head and muttered, "…I've already said that."
Gaara looked at the pastries and tilted his head. What a strange woman.
"And…why are you thanking me?"
At this, the young woman looked up with wide eyes. "Why I'm thanking you…?" she blinked, her large doe-eyes confused. "You saved my life."
Gaara frowned. "I saved your life…?"
She nodded vigorously. "Yes! Back at the markets weeks ago, when I fell down, father always tells me I'm so clumsy that I make baby geese look graceful but he doesn't mean it in a bad way." She shook her head when she realised she was digressing. "Remember? You pulled me out of the path of a moving cart?"
When the jinchuuriki did nothing but blink at her uncomprehendingly, she felt her tongue go dry.
"Remember…?" she meekly hushed out again, her embarrassment coming back full-force. "Oh kami…um…never mind!"
For the second time that morning, Gaara watched her trip over herself trying to escape him.
"Wait..." He rubbed his brow. "I remember. I apologise, it's been a while." The boy suddenly amended.
"Oh!" a fluttering smile graced her face, it was a pleasing sight. "Oh…that's good." There was a breathless laugh, a bashful shuffle of her awkward limbs when she held the gift out again. "Please accept this gift, it's all I can give to repay my life debt."
She bowed deeply, this time with more grace than her previous attempts.
Gaara didn't take it.
She looked up confused again. "What is it?"
"There is no life debt to pay, you can keep your gift and give it to someone who will appreciate it more than I."
"Please. If…if the food is not to your taste then tell me what I can do."
The boy directed a curious gaze. "Why does it matter to you so much?"
She leaned back a little and rubbed her arm. "I know it's silly…people tell me I can be a bit…overwhelming." The bread woman suddenly straightened and gave him a half-smile. "But my mother raised me to always give thanks where thanks should be given. No matter how small or large. And…it's not much but all I can give you is sweets and pastries. Food is my life and I want to share it with someone who saved it."
After a moment, the boy stated, "I'm a jinchuriki."
She blinked then asked simply, "You still eat don't you?"
Gaara pushed away his surprise and hid the pool of warmth back into the darkness of his belly. He assessed her continence and decided to soften his words. "It's not appropriate for you to be giving unknown food to shinobi. Thank you, but like I said, it isn't necessary. Consider your debt paid in full."
With a respectful bow, Gaara turned to leave.
In an impulsive move, the young woman shot her hand out to halt the boy, but a curtain of sand shot up and blocked her limb. It wrapped itself around her digits, caging it, and then crushed her fingers together in a tight hold. Gaara's eyes widened and immediately retracted his sand away.
The boy couldn't move his eyes away from the grazed skin and chaffed knuckles. Speckles of blood began to surface underneath her skin, making blotchy patchwork of bruised purple and red stains.
The woman pulled her hand back and cradled it to her chest.
Eyeing the swollen fingers, the jinchuuriki took a step towards her, but paused when she flinched back. It was oddly satisfying to see, as well as disappointing. With a sigh, Gaara restrained the urge to rub his forehead in annoyance at both himself and the woman. It had turned sour as he predicted, so with carefully orchestrated steps, the genin slowly retreated.
But before he could disappear, she blurted out, "I'm sorry!"
Gaara had no idea why she was suddenly apologizing, and from the woman's expression, neither did she.
They both blinked and the woman repeated, "Sorry, ah…I didn't mean to…I wasn't trying to…" she flushed as she moistened her dry tongue. "What I mean is…"
With some sense of incredulity, Gaara registered that the woman really was trying to sincerely apologize to him. He continued to watch with curiosity as she fumbled with her words and tripped over her syllables.
The boy eyed her injured hand and cut in softly. "Get that hand bandaged."
She jumped at the command. "O-okay."
Cool dew green eyes narrowed at her in something that looked like anger, but wasn't quite.
"And never do that again."
She froze at the ice chips in his voice that was both rough and smooth, both calming and terrifying. The baker swallowed and repeated, "Okay."
With an eerily placid stare, the genin finally asked, "What's your name?"
Startled, the woman quickly answered, "Mori. Risa Mori." Her voice lifted in a little bit of pleasure at his question. "I'm the baker's daughter."
With one last nod, the jinchuuriki disappeared in a blanket of pale gold, leaving a startled woman behind him.
When Miss Mori looked down, she realised he took the gift with him.
The sky was a cool periwinkle, like cotton-candy exposed to too much air.
Dawn looked lovely from the grave field.
They honoured their dead with black stone, polished till they were dark mirrors reflecting the faces of the mourners. Sheltered from the sky under a dome of terracotta, the headstones lay silent in hundreds of rows, like soldiers waiting in line. Obedient even in death.
The earth on the new graves were still raw.
He closed his eyes with silent apology. They paid the price for Gaara's weakness. He still dreamed of fallen metal protectors and bloodied flak jackets.
The jinchuuriki traced the scar across his throat.
The stiches itched.
The boy nearly laughed hysterically at the memory. How willing he was to carve himself open.
But his laugh died wretchedly in his throat when he remembered the fire in the Kazekage's eyes. He remembered how quickly his father tightened his hand around his thin neck, clamping the gaping trench Gaara had opened, the same hand that had threatened to suffocate him. How easily he could press a little further and snap his spine. But with a grim line of his mouth, the older man silently pushed chakra into his son's throat, weaving and stitching the muscle and skin together. Somewhere in between the pain and exhaustion, Gaara wondered uselessly when his father learned to heal.
Later, when they were both covered in Gaara's blood and possibly catatonic with a muted kind of disbelief, the Kazekage pulled himself off his son and moved away.
Gaara remembered the lines of his father's back when he reached for the door. It looked like the back of a man siphoned of all energy, tired and functioning on nothing but breaking resolve.
Gaara wanted to apologize, but his throat burned and he coughed out blood when he tried.
He remembered his father's back.
"I don't know what to do with you." Then he left.
Gaara didn't let anyone see him curl on his side and bury his face into his father's pillow. "I'm sorry father." And he meant it. He really did.
A messenger bird circled above him. A mission scroll attached to its leg.
The jinchuuriki lifted his hand and pushed his sand towards the new graves. With a silent flick of his wrist, Gaara moulded his sand at the base of every tombstone and solidified the letter into a solid plaque. Simple and glittering pale gold, it read:
The jinchuuriki bowed his head.
The Sand Siblings and Baki-sensei left Suna when sun peeked over the horizon.
"So what's so special about this mission?" Kankuro asked while picking his ear.
Baki answered, "We need economic support, even more so since the attack, so it was good fortune that our sister village had announced they were open for a new contract with Suna."
"That's good isn't it?" Temari chimed in.
"They offered the contract to another village as well." Baki explained. "So we'll have to convince them they should choose Sunagakure as a potential future partner. The other village they asked will be sending their own team to do the same."
Kankuro frowned. "So it's like a competition?"
Baki nodded. "Don't worry about it for now. We have a long journey across the western wasteland, so conserve your strength."
"Who is the other village?"
Three pair of eyes glanced to the far right where their smallest member was walking. Gaara stared expectantly at his teacher.
Note: For the past two months, I've been editing all my chapters. Too many adverbs, no commas and – to my everlasting shame – I even found a sentence where I didn't put a full-stop. It was gruelling, but my readers have been so supportive of my fledgling attempts at writing, that I believe you guys deserve my best.
If you have the chance, reread the story.
Thank you for sticking by me all this time. Sometimes your responses have overwhelmed me so much, that I had to give myself a moment to grin like a fool into my pillow. My sister caught me doing this. She just commented that I forgot to feed the cat.
My readers are my companions, my lovers, my soulmates and I adore you.
Give me reviews like you give me the flu. Always happy to get a little sick.