Please see first chapter for disclaimer, rating, warnings, pairings, etc.
Special Thanks: goes out to ssspooky, BlueSpiritFire1, rao hyuga 18, McKazekage, shyprincess82, sailorangelmoon1, QueenP19, and lidianm for all your reviews! And also to all the people who keep putting this story on their alerts and favorite lists - it makes my day whenever I see a new alert in my e-box, thanks!
Important Author's Note: Just in case you missed it, I updated early and posted chapter 10 last week, so if you haven't had a chance to read it yet, please go do so, or a lot of this chapter won't make sense... And for those of you who already have (or just went back and read the last chapter, and are now returning for chapter 11), I give to you some more answers ... and some more questions. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy this chapter!
She stared listlessly down at her hands, folded together in her lap. Though her skin was as lily-white as the blankets covering her legs, she could still see bright, sticky red blood staining them. She longed to lift her hands to her face, to see if there was still blood there, too, but did not dare. If she moved, the monster might come for her.
At the thought, she shivered. The past few days had been wonderful, so different from the usual drudgery. Even though big brother Neji didn't want to play with her like usual, she had a new playmate. One who smiled and laughed and treated her like a princess in one of the fairy tales her mother read to her before bedtime. He gave her flowers and came to find her when she hid and...
The memory of blood found her again, and she cringed despite herself. She could still see his formerly cheerful face twisted into a monstrous snarl, inhuman growls tearing from his throat, his red hair gleaming the same color as the sticky ropes of blood dripping from his hands, staining his skin and her skin and her clothes and the walls and the floor and-!
Across her room, the door opened. She flinched into the pillows, then relaxed when she recognized her father. Her mother woke from where she'd been asleep with her head resting on her daughter's mattress, her anxious pale eyes seeking out her husband's.
"They're gone," Father said. "They took him with them."
The monster was gone? That was good, but at the same time she couldn't help but think it wasn't right. Didn't anyone else see what was wrong? The monster had stolen her friend, the boy who had burst into her life and brought with him the warmth and brightness of the sun itself. Since the monster was gone, it must have taken her friend with him.
A silent tear traced down her cheek, but neither parent noticed.
"The agreements?" Mother's voice was tight, full of exhaustion and anxiety.
"There are none to make. Not after their duplicity." Father's eyes darted briefly to her face, but he didn't see her tears. He never did. Only Mother, and big brother Neji, and her gone friend ever saw them...
Mother turned back to her, finally noticed her daughter's tears, and immediately leaned over to wipe them away. "Shh," she crooned softly. "It's all right now, my little sunflower. No one is going to hurt you. You're safe. I promise."
"Don't promise her that, Hoshi," Father snapped. "Where there's one, there's more. Mark my words, this isn't the last we've seen of those desert dogs."
"Don't scare her, Hiashi." Mother's hands were gentle, but though her voice never raised an octave, it was lined with a commanding steel which had never been there before.
It made her flinch, which brought Mother's soothing attentions back to her.
There was big brother Neji, peering around the still-open door. His wide pale eyes looked big as moons in his pale face, full of fear and anxiety. "Are you okay, little sister?" he whispered.
Father turned with a sharp flick of his hand. "Away!" he commanded. Neji flinched back from the door a moment before it slammed in his face. Had he not moved so quickly, his hand would have been mashed between the door and the frame.
She whimpered. "Big brother!" she whispered. Please, don't hurt big brother. Her father was angry, she understood that, but he shouldn't be angry at Neji. He'd done nothing wrong. He was not the monster, had nothing to do with the monster.
Had not, in fact, liked the monster from the beginning.
"Gaara," she whimpered again. Her poor, possessed friend. Her storybook prince who had been devoured by a monster. Was she the only one who wanted to save him?
Father stormed across the room, jerking to a halt at the end of the bed. "I do not want to hear that name again," he said, voice and expression dangerous. "Do you hear me? That name is never to be spoken under this roof, in these walls, ever again!"
More tears streaked down her face. Didn't Father understand? Why couldn't he see the monster like she did? He had the strength to make it go away, to make it leave her friend. But instead of doing that, he sent her friend away and forbade her to think or speak of him again! Why? Why?
"Hiashi," Mother started, face full of sorrow.
"Silence!" Father thundered. When his eyes, full of frightening icy fire, fell on her again, she clung to her mother and tried to hide herself in the comforting lavender-scented folds of her kimono. But she couldn't hide from her father's voice. "You are to forget about this night. What happened here did not happen." His voice dropped, but his final words rumbled with the power of an explosion. "You will forget that boy ever existed."
Hinata jolted awake with a gasp, realizing the explosive power of her father's voice in her dream had a very real echo. Startled, she froze in place, sitting up in bed, hands clutching the covers as she stared toward her high windows.
Instead of the usual nighttime darkness, they were lit with an eerie orange glow. It was too early for sunrise.
We're under attack.
The thought had barely formed itself in her mind before her bedroom door burst open. Matsuri stood there, barefoot, her hair mussed, still dressed in her pajamas. It was the most ruffled Hinata had ever seen her maid, but that was not what startled her.
It was the knife clutched in her hand, the blade giving off the barest gleam in the orange light from the window.
"Milady!" Matsuri hurried across the room, her brown eyes darting around suspiciously before at last resting on Hinata's fearful face. "Are you all right?"
Hinata at last released her stranglehold on her blankets. Her mind briefly flashed to her dream - surely it was a dream, brought on by Gaara's story, and not an actual long-repressed memory? - before pushing it from her mind. "What's g-going on?" she whispered.
Matsuri tossed a tense glance toward the windows. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "But I promise you're safe, milady. Lord Gaara and the others will have this sorted out before the night is through, I'd wager. And I am here to fight for your safety, should the impossible happen and someone slip through."
Confused, Hinata dropped her gaze to the knife in her maid's hand. "I d-didn't know you c-carry a knife," she whispered. Somewhere in the distance, a gong sounded, and then silence reigned.
At least there had not been another explosion.
A tight smile turned up the corners of Matsuri's mouth. "'Tis part of the reason why I was assigned to you, milady," she said. "I am not just your lady's maid. I am also your bodyguard."
Hinata blinked. Since Shikamaru's departure to Konoha yesterday (or would that be the day before yesterday now?), she'd not given any thought to having or needing a bodyguard. Though she appreciated his loyal friendship and service, she had thought his leaving meant there was no further need for protection. Suna was, after all, a fortified village. It was nearly impossible to get through the barriers, and the palace was guarded best of all. What threat could possibly reach her here?
Well, she silently ammended, apparently the walls aren't quite as impenetrable as I thought.
The two women fell into tense silence for a while. Hinata remained seated on the bed, feeling utterly useless as she strained her ears to discern some idea of what was going on outside. Though there had been no other explosions, thank goodness, there were also no sounds of fighting. Did that mean the threat had been taken care of swiftly, before any further damage could be done? Or did the silence indicate something far more sinister?
Matsuri stood alertly next the bed, her knife still in hand. Hinata noticed for the first time the pouch cinched around her maid's small waist, its open zipper revealing the gleam of more weaponry inside. Standing there like that, with her knife at the ready, more directly at hand, and her eyes and ears alert for any sign of danger, she looked absolutely nothing like the timid lady's maid who had been in her service for so short a time.
Had it all been an act, then? Or did Matsuri find some sort of inner confidence when it was required of her? Hinata wished she knew, so she could find out how to find and gain hold of some of her own.
Time crept by painfully slowly. The windows lightened - not with the coming dawn, but as more lights within the city came on to help those hurrying to take care of the danger to the village and her people. Hinata wished she could turn on her own bedside lamp, but Matsuri cautioned her against doing so. "The darker we keep the mansion, the better," she advised. "On the wild chance someone managed to sneak in, we want to make it as hard as possible for them to find you."
So Hinata sat in the dark, wishing she knew more about what was going on outside. Matsuri stood between her mistress and the door, knife still in hand, remaining utterly still and quiet as she, too, waited for some sort of signal that all was well and everyone was safe. She looked worried but in-control, so Hinata didn't dare break the silence and distract Matsuri from her duties.
At long last - a little over an hour, according to the clock on the table next to Hinata's bed - the gong rang again. Hinata jumped at the suddenness of the first note, but did not at the second. "What d-does that mean?" she asked in a tense whisper.
Her maid, however, relaxed. Lowering her knife to her side, she turned to smile at Hinata. "That's the all clear," she said. "The threat is gone. You're safe." She moved swiftly to the door of Hinata's bedroom, then smiled over her shoulder. "Excuse me for just a moment, milady." She curtsied, then disappeared. A moment later, the door between the sitting room and the hall clicked open.
Hinata closed her eyes and let out a long, shaky breath. The events of the night - which, she noted with surprise, took only a little over an hour from the explosion to the sounding of the all-clear signal - seemed all the more frightening in light of what Gaara had told her at breakfast.
Was this danger related to her? Had she somehow, even though she'd had no say or choice in the matter, brought her father's danger, the danger of her childhood, to Suna?
Gaara slipped through the palace with practiced steps. He took back stairways and hidden doors without thinking, habits put in place thanks to long practice helping him keep to the shadows and out of sight of the servants. It was especially important he stay out of sight now, when every person in Suna was awake and on high alert.
Not even the fact he was the only one who could slip through barriers and past guards, even in his own place, helped reassure him. It was yet another unwanted reminder of a past he'd much rather forget.
Shame scorched him as he headed down the last hall toward the door into his suite. His body felt heavy, leaden with tiredness and the weight of his own guilt, as he walked on silent, tired feet. He closed his eyes and shook his head sharply to dispel the laughter ringing in his head, the familiar, maniacal laughter of his father.
The laughter was the ghost of a past he had been trying so hard to leave behind. Had talking to Hinata earlier brought the monster he thought he'd tamed back to the surface so easily?
As he was reaching for the doorknob of his room, the door to Hinata's suite opened and Matsuri appeared. Her brown eyes swept quickly over him from head to toe, and though she made no comment, he could see the flicker of concern in their depths. But she did not judge him. She never did. Not even his brother and sister had shown such unswerving, almost blind loyalty.
It was, he mused almost regretfully, what made her such a perfect person to guard Hinata. Even, when necessary, from him. She was the only person he could trust completely to do what needed to be done.
"Everything is taken care of, milord?" Her question was spoken softly, and he understood immediately it was to prevent Hinata from hearing.
Gaara nodded once, thankful she was one of the few people from whom he didn't have to hide his exhaustion. Taking a few steps closer to Matsuri, he looked over her head, toward the door to the bedroom. It was mostly open, and he couldn't see the bed from where he stood, but he knew Hinata was listening. "It was the Akatsuki," he said, keeping his tone hushed.
Though her eyes flickered briefly with fear and anger, Matsuri's facial expression did not change. "They are gone now." It was not a question.
"Yes." Gaara did not tell her only one of them was dead. The other - the one who had set up and then detonated the explosives which rocked the entire city and destroyed part of their protective wall, but thankfully had not fully penetrated it - had somehow escaped.
You're growing soft, the scornful voice of his father whispered in his mind. There was once a time where no one would have gotten past you.
Grinding his teeth, Gaara shoved the voice away forcefully. "Is Hinata all right?" He longed to see her, to reassure himself with his own eyes she was fine, but he didn't dare let her see him like this.
Masturi nodded. "Frightened, of course. And surprised when I told her I am not just her lady's maid but her bodyguard. But she was very brave through the entire thing."
High praise indeed, Gaara mused. Matsuri, though a usually cheerful person by nature, was not often given to complimenting people unless it was well deserved. Pride flared in his chest at the thought of Hinata being so brave, even though she had no idea of what was going on. And, he thought, if I have anything to say about it, she won't know exactly what went on tonight. He looked down at himself and winced again, reminded of why he'd taken the long way around to his room and left Kankuro, Temari, and Itachi in charge of cleaning up the mess for now.
The one outside, anyway.
Once again, Matsuri said nothing about his state. "I will tell milady all is well," she said, understanding his silent reasons for not doing so himself. In some ways, she knew him even better than his own siblings.
Gaara nodded gratefully. "Thank you, Matsuri."
She bowed. "It is my pleasure to serve, Gaara-sensei."
He did not bother to correct her slip-up in addressing him. "Good night, Matsuri." He longed to have her deliver another message to Hinata, but refrained from asking. There were some things he could - and would - never entrust to others. Not even Matsuri.
"Good night, milord." The door closed, and a moment later Gaara heard the lock engage.
Nodding satisfactorily at that business taken care of, Gaara continued on to his room. Leaving his shoes by the door, he headed for the bedroom, intending to go straight on through to the wash room. There was still a great deal to do before he could head back outside to help his siblings and brother-in-law.
And, though he was certainly exhausted enough, he knew there would be no sleep for him tonight.
Movement out of the corner of his eye drew his attention in that direction. He tensed, for a moment panicked at the thought an enemy had sneaked past him and made its way in, then relaxed when he realized it was only his own reflection in the mirror.
He met his own gaze squarely and froze. Granted, Gaara could not see much due to the mirror's size, but he saw enough. His tunic was heavy with blood; the same bright red liquid, rapidly turning to dirty brown as it dried, splashed across his face, neck, and arms like strokes from a madman's paintbrush. Even his hair was thickly matted with another man's life force, spilled in a horrible, bloody ritual Gaara had vowed repeatedly to himself he'd never carry out again.
How easily it had all gone to waste when push came to shove. Hinata has every right to be terrified of me. Gaara longed to look away from his own piercing gaze, but couldn't. How can she not, when I terrify even myself?
The soft gasp from behind him was what he needed to tear himself away from the demon in the mirror. He spun toward the doorway even as his instincts screamed at him to run for the wash room, to lock himself inside and not come out at least until he'd scrubbed away the evidence of his own monstrosity. Or, preferably, not at all.
"G-Gaara?" Hinata's tremulous voice made him feel like he'd swallowed broken glass. He was being shredded from the inside, and he closed his eyes and turned away from the censure and terror he knew he'd see if he looked into her eyes.
His legs, however, did not obey his commands. Instead of carrying him away from her, into the washroom, they collapsed under him, dumping him onto the floor in a graceless, ungainly, bloody heap. The irony of being prostrated like this, not exactly at Hinata's feet but close to it, was not lost on Gaara. He would take advantage of the position and beg for Hinata's forgiveness and mercy if he felt like she would give it, but he knew she wouldn't.
Just like he knew he didn't deserve it.
"I'm sorry." He choked on the words, halfway surprised he'd even been able to voice them. Curling into himself, he pounded his fist against the floor and then rested his forehead on it, shivering at the intensity of his own hatred of himself, his own despair at his unchanging nature. At the knowledge he'd made a terrible mistake by answering Hyuuga Hiashi's desperate plea for help protecting his daughter, because in his eagerness and desire to protect Hinata, he'd done nothing but drag her down with him into the blackest pits of the terrible past he now knew with heartbreaking certainty he'd never be able to escape, no matter how hard he tried. "Hinata, I am so sorry." The words were not enough. There were no words which would be enough to apologize for what he'd done.
The time had come to mourn for a relationship which would end before it even had a chance to begin.
*~To Be Continued~*
Author's Ending Notes: This chapter was a very interesting one to write. In some ways it was difficult, but in other ways it was a relief - I was able to get out some things which I've been eagerly awaiting for a while, important to the story and Gaara and Hinata's development, as individual characters and as a couple. Plus, I was able to reveal a little more about Matsuri, and her purpose in the story. Also, I want to take this opportunity to reveal I've got a oneshot prequel to Shadows in the works currently, which will reveal more about Gaara's time in Konoha when he and Hinata were little. I'm not going to post it yet, but you can be looking for it to be posted fairly soon. I'm having so much fun writing little Gaara and Hinata, and I look forward to sharing it with all of you! Sorry for the enormous ending author's note, and I'll be quiet now. Hope to see you next week, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter!