7. *********/********************** *** ***!!!1 (Dear God, frown, what am I supposed to write for this?)
Hey, surprise! I've been told that the version of Gaara's past that this fic presents is pretty violently different from the finer details that've been established about his past. It's probably better to read this as an AU version of his past where does NOT get taken over by Snakeboy, his father is still alive, etc.
The tattoo on Gaara's brow and the shapes underneath his eyes weren't actually made with ink and needle: instead, the second or third time he killed using the Iron Coffin, he reached out, took some of the bloody sand, and forced it underneath his skin. It had been burned black with chakra and blood, but it was surprisingly dry in the palm, so he'd just had to push it into the right shape.
When he passes his fingers over his face at night, Gaara can feel the individual grains of sand, still humming and trembling under his finger tips. Some nights, in fact, the sand in the tattoo will shift out of pattern. There'll be this itching on one side of his face, faint enough so that it won't wake him out of sleep, but when Gaara goes to wash his face and brush his teeth, there it'll be, covering half his face or sliding down his cheek from jaw to temple, and he'll have to set it back into shape after he washes his face but before he brushes his teeth.
Six months ago, Gaara killed his father. Six months ago, Gaara came to the Village of the Leaf.
After he washes his face and brushes his teeth, Gaara gets dressed. He buys breakfast from one of the vending machines in the hostel that he's living in, then walks down to the Hokage's office in the heart of town, and he sits down on one of the wooden benches outside her office.
If he isn't done his breakfast by the time he's done the walk, that's where he finishes it up. Gaara has a spot by the door where he can look into the courtyard, see the schoolchildren during their outdoor exercises. There's a water fountain at the end of the hall; people leave him in peace. He studies the dots of the filler board on the ceiling, waits for the enforcers from the Village of Sand to come and take him back for execution.
Sometimes, when Naruto is back from missions and has a moment, he comes and sits by Gaara for a while. He's been gone on a mission for the past three months, though.
Gaara remembers killing his father pretty clearly. It'd been in the afternoon, so the old man had been sitting in his office, administering business. Gaara came up through the hallway. He blew the doors off their hinges, stunned the two bodyguards and knocked the breath out of the two shinobis whose case his father was hearing, and then he called up a whirlwind of sand that came pouring in through the windows and the broken-down doors, rising up from under the floorboards and from the stones that made up the walls of the building -- they were sedimentary rock and had been made by sand pressed together by the weight of glaciers rolling over them. The sand in them was older than the demon inside of him, than anything else on the face of the Earth, but Gaara called it out of the rock first in streams, then as sort of a fountain arching up in the air, and finally as a torrent that filled the room shoulder-deep with sand.
While his father was trying to get his arms free of the sand long enough to make some kind of protective seal, Gaara walked on top of the sand like it was water and he was a genin learning how to control his chakra by stepping across a lake. He walked over, and he put his foot on top of his father's head and pushed it back and back, towards his spine and up beyond the sun, until he snapped the neck.
Sometimes, in the morning, Gaara can see where his fingers touched his skin -- he'll see one of his own fingerprints raised on the skin or the outline of his hand, pressed over the left eye and the outline of the fingers -- sometimes, he'll see that. Other times, the sand have pulled out of shape without his fingers being involved at all.
Sometimes, the fingerprints raised on his skin won't be his at all.
The first time Gaara's father tried openly to kill him, Gaara was five years old. His father stood aside and thus given his implicit blessing to attempts by parents or relatives or loved ones that Gaara had killed, but the first time he tried it himself, he did it by sending a pair of shinobi in the night with kunai to smother Gaara while he slept. They ended up as smears on Gaara's bedroom wall, and when his father then tried to have his throat cut in the morning while Gaara was bathing and separated from the gourd of sand, he came down to breakfast to find Gaara sitting at table and listening to the radio. Gaara's father had been ready to ask Gaara how he'd slept when the housekeeper came tearing in, screaming about a dozen dead bodies all over Master Gaara's bathroom and bedroom.
Gaara had looked up, frowned at her, then walked over and turned the radio up louder.
He ignored his father for the rest of the morning not because of the previous evening but because his father then shouted at him and overturned the breakfast table with all the food on it, and well, Gaara came to Lee's rescue. He had sympathy for Kimimaro. Gaara has never held grudges because someone had tried to kill him, and after he came back from the Leaf Village the second time, even though he'd ruined all possibility of a future alliance with Orochimaru and helped the Leaf to boot, his father gave up trying to kill him.
Three months into Gaara living at the Leaf Village and sitting outside the Hokage's door each morning, Naruto shows up at Gaara's spot on the bench outside the Hokage's office and insists that Gaara come out with him and his three-person team. They're back from a B-rank mission, and Naruto is in the mood to do a little celebrating.
Naruto is sixteen. So is Gaara. Gaara gives Naruto his coldest look, but Naruto yanks him off the bench and shoves him towards the stairwell and starts chattering about the ramen places they're going to hit tonight. There's no formal drinking age in Leaf Village, but Naruto explains, by way of a side note, that they're not really going to do much drinking that night because Sakura is going home to see her parents, and Neji doesn't drink anyways, but he promised to pay for two ramen dinners the next time we were in town, so you have to come along, and there's this brand new place that has pretty good miso ramen and shrimp ramen and --
Gaara has told the Hokage about the situation, but he hasn't really told anybody else. He wonders if Naruto knows the whole story; he wonders if Naruto ever feels Nine-Tails moving underneath his skin.
Like Neji, Gaara doesn't drink. This is because first of all, he can't really taste anything well enough the grain-thin layer of sand across his tongue and the inside of his mouth. Second, it takes a lot of effort for him to get drunk -- his body recognizes alcohol as a poison and if he doesn't pay attention, it'll start spitting the alcohol out in little streams of sand from underneath his fingertips. Gaara can keep the stuff inside his body, but it takes concentration, and the drunker he gets, the less able he is to make sure that his fingertips and the corners of his mouth and all other points of exit stay sealed.
The more he drinks, the more sober he gets, but Naruto, of course, gets roaringly drunk that night. He parks them at the one ramen place in town that also serves sake, and he starts drinking with his first slurp and keeps drinking through the tempura that they end up getting after the ramen and then the second round of ramen noodles even though Neji swears that he's not going to pay for the whole tab. Two bowls of noodles. No more, no less.
Naruto gets utterly, roaringly, notwithstanding-his-increased-metabolism-c
Apparently, the boy could still be seen, crying and clawing at the inside of the rock where he was sealed.
Gaara watches Naruto lie in a limp sort of pile over the edge of the bar. He lifts his eyes up from Naruto's back and sees Neji looking back at him from the seat on the other side of Naruto, steady as steady.
Neji knows from experience and Gaara can guess from what he knows about Naruto that, in about half an hour, he'll probably be up and about and perfectly hangover free. He'll feel more or less recovered from having to lock boy who reminded him of himself at a slightly younger age away for eternity inside a rock, and yes, Sakura has gone home to be with her family because she's so upset about the whole thing, but Neji is cold-blooded enough to know that it was the right thing to do and not to feel a single twinge of conscience about the whole thing.
Gaara looks up from Naruto's shoulder to Neji. Neji looks back at him. Gaara is pretty sure that Neji has heard about what happened with him and the Sand.
After Naruto and Neji and Sakura leave for their next mission, the Hokage calls Gaara into her office and shows him a package that she's received from Sand: it's a short letter covered with neat, compact script that Gaara vaguely recognizes as belonging to his father's second-in-command. There's the seal of the Village of Sand at the very bottom.
The text says that the Council has decided that Gaara's punishment for killing his father and attacking all those other shinobi is being outlawed his village. They have disowned him, but they haven't exactly outlawed him -- they haven't declared him a rogue shinobi. They aren't going to be sending their own ANBU after him, nor have they set a bounty on his head.
There will be no extradition proceedings. There will be no trial, no punishment. The Sand has just decided to wash its hands of him entirely.
The Hokage clears her throat, then hands Gaara a cloth-wrapped bundle. He unwraps it, finds his father's head protector and while he's staring down at it, looking at the grains of sand caught in the tracing on the plate, the Hokage clears her throat again. She tells him that the Sand sent along a large bag of gold as payment that was the balance of what they owed him for his last few missions.
After another pause, she says that she can give him a safe-conduct pass out of the Fire Country.
That night when he and Naruto and Neji had gone out together, it had taken Naruto longer to wake up from his drunkenness than any of them anticipated. The owner of the food stand wanted to go home, so he kicked them out, and Neji and Naruto carried Naruto back to his apartment between the two of them.
It turned out that Naruto and Neji both lived in the same temporary housing block that Gaara had been staying at. Naruto even had a mess of things over at Neji's things because he ended up crashing there so much, and Naruto kept rubbing his face against Neji's shoulder and saying things in a low voice that Gaara couldn't quite catch but would make the faintest of spots come out on Neji's cheeks even though Neji would also shook his head and snort and sound irritated.
After Neji carried Naruto and dropped him in a giant boneless mass in the middle of the floor, he'd turned and looked at Gaara standing on the other side of the door. Considered him for a moment.
"Do you want to come in?"
Gaara can guess that Neji has heard about what Gaara did before he came to the Leaf Village, and yes, in the six months that he's been sitting outside the Hokage's door, Gaara has also eavesdropped enough to learn all about how Neji's father was murdered and how Neji has repeatedly refused, in the past year or two, to let the head of the clan adopt him and lift him into the First House. Neji has even gone so far as to refuse to use the traditional honorific of "father" in formal ceremonies.
Maybe, at that point, there'd been something that Neji had admired about Gaara. Maybe there'd been something that he thought Gaara had done right when he killed this supposed father and walked out on his old life.
Sometimes, Gaara will wake up with the black marks under his eyes and in the character for love that he wears over one eye shaped by fingerprints. Sometimes, they'll be shaped by his own fingerprints, but other times, it'll be the fingerprints of people he's killed -- the sand remembers what it's had contact with. If he's surrounded them with sand and killed them that way, the sand has slipped into every crook and cranny and pore of their body. If he's killed them with his hands, he's touched them with the shell of sand that covers his skin.
Sometimes, Gaara will be able to call the particular fingerprints from memory. He'll recognize the fingerprints of his aunt, the hands of an old playmate he killed in a tussle. Sometimes, he thinks he sees his father's hands lying on his skin.
The morning he wakes up in Neji's place, he pulls himself out of the pile of bodies and arms and goes to the bathroom to wash up and leave.
The bathroom in Neji's rooms is the same layout as his, and Gaara stands there for a moment studying himself in this same-but-not-quite-the-same mirror. The reflection of the toilet is in the same place; so is the shower curtain, and there is the line of the hand-bottled, custom-made medicines that Sakura has bottled for both Naruto and Neji disturbing the parallel between Neji's bathroom and Gaara's, but the angle of the light coming in through the frosted glass window high up in the window is the same.
The mirror is the same, too, and this morning, the ai and the shadows underneath his eyes have mixed together and slid down to his chest. As Gaara watches, the black sand on his chest dances into the shape of Neji's hand, then Naruto's, and then, while he watches, the characters of their name form and line up running straight down his chest on his sternum and over his heart. They're reversed in the beginning, but while Gaara watches, they flip so that they're the right-side-up in the mirror and wrong-side-up on his chest.
Gaara lifts a hand to his bare chest to feel the letters under his hand, but as soon as he makes contact with his skin, the letters shift and turn -- instead of showing Naruto and Neji's fingerprints and names, the sand bunches up together and suddenly spells out Gaara's full name in thick black characters that tremble and shake before they break apart into individual dots of sand that eventually spread across Gaara's entire torso.
The Sand refused to execute him. The Hokage of Leaf wants him out of her village with as much speed as possible. Gaara waits for anothre three weeks past when she tells him that, waits until it's been almost four months since Naruto, Neji and Sakura left for Water Country and seven months after he's killed his father.
Now, Naruto is standing fifty feet away and shouting something about coming with them peacefully, about all of this being something that can be fixed, but Gaara looks over at Neji and sees that the pupils of Neji's eyes have already faded, that the Byukagan's veins are already spidering out over the whites.
Sakura is standing behind them, healing chakra gathering around her hands. The medical supplies on her back are mostly for the smoldering Leaf village around them; most of the shinobi have fled into the deep caves for shelter, and Gaara didn't chase them if they went there, but he did also make sure that anybody who stayed among the buildings died. He sent a sandstorm roaring down the streets of the city, smothering and breaking everything in its path, and well, Naruto has a healed-over gash over his eye from the mission that he's just completed. Neji has bandages on both arms up to the shoulder; Sakura looks drawn, and they were looking forward to rest back in their home village after a long hard mission, but Gaara timed things this way for a reason.
He can feel the beginnings of a fresh sandstorm lashing around his feet. The demon on his skin is starting to wake; he had barely needed it to break the village, and now, he can feel the demon creep out from under his skin where it's been lying so long, and as is usual when he starts to fight, the vision that he has with his eyes starts to blur since the sand-shield is thickening.
In combat, he relies mostly on feeling, on chakra movement and second sight, but at this stage, he can still make out enough physical movement to see Naruto start to step forward and say something that's lost in the rising wind.
Gaara settles back, tests the spring in his feet, and feels the smile spread wider and wider on his face until it reaches from cheekbone to cheekbone, and it moves even wider when he reaches behind him to rest his hand on the cork of the gourd holding his sand demon. With the last of his normal vision, he sees Neji step forward some more and put his hand on Naruto's chest and hold him back from rushing forward into the storm, and Gaara smiles and tilts his head to feel the sun on his face, which is rapidly being blotted out by the storm. There's a strange, high sensation in his throat and a matching sensation in his chest and head. The sand is wrapping around him, chest and throat and hands, but if there are three shinobi who can kill him when he's in this state, it'll be Naruto and Neji and Sakura working together -- Neji using his Byakugan to find the weak places in the sand storm, Naruto with his tremendous amounts of supernatural chakra to use when finesse failed, and Sakura keeping them all safe.
Through the sand and while he has his head tilted up to the sky, Gaara hears Neji snarl and feels Naruto start to reach into his red chakra. Sakura whispers an seal that will regenerate their chakra more rapidly. Gaara feels the sand on his face, thinks that the burning hot chakra whirling and churning around him feels a lot like the heat of the desert.
Gaara closes his eyes. He thinks to himself that he is going to make Naruto need a drink after this. He is going to make Neji admire him again, and then, at that point, right before he uses the hand he has on his gourd not to draw out the stopper but instead to crack it down the middle and let the demon out in its full rage, Gaara feels this strange prickling behind his eyes.
It's been so long since he cried that Gaara thinks it almost feels like sand.