I was able to get this out this weekend, somehow :P Fortunately it was already written, just needed polishing, which happened at work while I should have been doing something a bit more important *le sigh*
Oh, on another note, I believe I once read a blurb by Kishimoto-sama saying that creating costumes wasn't something he was very good at. *stares at a certain costume in latest manga* I find myself agreeing with him. But it's nice to see the guy inside it ^__^ I think he's gonna hurt people's feelings though.
Note: I hope this isn't a problem, but I'm going to stop answering a lot of the reviews I get individually. I will answer any questions, pointed remarks or con-crits individually, probably a lot faster now, but not systematically every review. I just don't have the time anymore, my schedule has gone ballistic, and I'm tired enough in the evenings where even my writing schedule is getting hectic. This does not mean I don't appreciate people reviewing, of course. I really, really, really appreciate them a lot ^_^ In fact, when I get stuck on a chapter, or my motivation flags, I go and reread a few from chapters that had similar problems in the past, so I can remember what works and what doesn't, and that often gives me the key or the lead-on I was looking for. Short reviews or long debates, I love them all, bring them on XD
So, thanks for all the previous reviews ^_^ To answer a recurrent question, there's nothing wrong with Chiro. Apart from the fact he was orphaned last week, spent a few days being passed around his family like a bundle of dirty rags, and then got hauled to Suna to live with the ogre from a fairy tale. I've very loosely based Chiro on the reaction of real-life accounts of children facing serious family problems or loss of kin; trauma is not expressed all the time, in fact a lot of the time the kids act fairly normally, but there are certain aspects of their behaviour which show that all is not well inside. Of course, Gaara, whose POV this is, is gonna miss that most of the time, since he has no idea what normal is either.
Day Two - 6AM
Gaara looked up from a complicated diagram on interrelated heraldry. Upstairs, Aki had started crying again. It was shortly after six in the morning; the kid was indefatigable.
The baby had cried a good portion of the night, starting shortly after eleven o'clock. He'd stopped and then picked it up again like a miniature warning siren going off at random intervals. Gaara had felt his patience wearing thin after a scant two hours, so he'd slipped out as discreetly as he could and went to nap in his office. It wasn’t as restful as it should have been; he didn’t have Lee there with him, he just had one of Taidaka’s men trying to be discreet on the roof of the opposite building. Gaara had grimly reminded himself that all this was necessary, and that he would get used to it.
It seemed he was getting used to it, at that. He'd felt better after an hour’s sleep, and Aki had been quiet for almost two hours after Gaara had returned. When he started crying again, it barely disturbed the Kazekage, who continued to work at his desk with determination. Gaara even felt a faint satisfaction that he was getting inured to the fuss so quickly. Maybe this meant he was making progress in acquiring human mannerisms and conditioning.
He had just plunged back into his reading, ignoring the noises from the bedroom and bathroom, when he heard Lee's feet clattering down the stairs. His lover was calling his name; Gaara stuck a bookmark in the tome on Rules of Etiquette that Temari was making him read, and went to see what this new fuss was about.
Lee was in the reception room near the front door, putting on a sandal one-handed; Aki was hanging from the other arm.
"I have to go to the clinic," Lee said, speaking quickly when Gaara appeared at the door to his study. "Aki’s not well."
Gaara scrutinized the baby. The early-morning light wasn’t too good in the grand reception room that led to their front entrance, but the kid didn’t appear to be badly ill. Maybe a bit paler than when Gaara first saw him.
"He’s not stopped crying, he’s got the runs, he’s dehydrated and he’s hunched over as if his stomach hurts," Lee efficiently reported like the Shinobi he was, as he moved on to the next sandal. "Chiro, put on your shoes."
Chiro was sitting on the first step of the stairs, looking sleepy, rumpled and uncooperative.
"I don’t want to go," he muttered.
"Chiro, please-" Lee straightened up. "Your brother’s not feeling well. We have to take care of him. Okay? Put on your shoes."
"I don’t want to go." Chiro didn’t sound particularly fussy. He’d repeated the words like an automaton, his voice a soft drone. He had that brittle look about him again. It reminded Gaara of the way Chiro had tossed the plate off the table last night.
"We don’t have a choice." Lee kicked off his sandals again. Gaara had told him a number of times that he didn’t mind if Lee walked around in the house in his shoes; they were Shinobi after all, not proud homeowners bound by traditions. But Lee had been raised to be extremely respectful of the houses he’d lived in like a tolerated guest. Gaara had the morbid certainty that if they were ever attacked here, Lee would insist that the assailants remove their footwear first. Since he’d probably have to render them unconscious to get them to listen and comply, Gaara didn’t worry about that foible too much.
The Jounin walked over to the stairs and tried to pull the recalcitrant child to his feet. Chiro didn’t fight it, but he moved like putty. It looked like Lee was going to have to carry them both.
"Come on, Chiro. We have to go get your brother looked at, he’s-"
"He can stay here."
Lee blinked repeatedly at Gaara. "W-what?" He really looked tired and stressed-out.
"He can stay here," Gaara repeated. "I’ll be working in my study, I can watch him."
"But-but I can’t ask you to-"
Gaara’s eyes narrowed. "I’ll make sure he doesn’t come to any harm."
"I was thinking about the inconvenience to you," Lee sighed. He glanced down at Chiro, who was hanging from his hand like a sack, then up at Gaara again. "Are you sure you don’t mind?"
Chiro would be the one who would mind, but if he stayed fearfully hidden in a small corner, then they’d both have a quiet day, and so would Lee, within reason. Remembering that plate incident, Gaara had a feeling that the child would be problematic. Lee didn’t need that on top of his worries for Aki. Gaara hadn’t wanted to find himself in this situation, but keeping the child out of trouble for a few hours was something even he should be able to do, for all he lacked most human reflexes besides the most basic. As for Chiro, maybe a morning locked in the house with Gaara of the Desert would persuade the little snot that quietly putting up with Lee and his brother in the future was infinitely better.
Aki was making noises; not crying exactly, but a hiccupy whining sound that ended in sniffles. He had snot, tears and slobber all over his face. Even to Gaara’s ears he sounded exhausted, and he wasn’t wiggling with the same energy today.
"Lee, when you get to the clinic, talk to Doctor Masaki directly."
"Okay!" Lee replied seriously, as if he’d just received an A-rank mission. "I’ll try to be back as soon as I can-"
"Take the time you need."
"Are you sure you don’t mind-"
Lee left, though not before dragging Chiro aside and talking to him in a stern whisper for a few minutes. Chiro looked at him blankly, then gazed at Gaara. He looked wary, but no longer terrified. After living in the same house for over twenty-four hours now and not getting eaten or bled dry, Chiro must have realized that the danger wasn't acute.
Then the front door shut with its usual healthy and enthusiastic thump - laden with perhaps a touch of anxiety this time- as Lee belted away towards the clinic.
Gaara and Chiro stared at each other in the sudden silence.
"I’m working in my study. Go and get what you need from the bedroom and take it down there," Gaara finally ordered, hooking a thumb over his shoulder towards his den.
Chiro didn’t respond, but he turned on his heels and trotted up the stairs, hopefully to comply. Gaara dropped by the kitchen to fill a glass of water and grab some ration bars for the kid’s breakfast and for himself, and then he went back to his desk, leaving the curtain to the study partially pulled back.
Chiro came in slowly. He only had the thick pad of paper and the red pencil with him.
"You can sit over there," Gaara told him, pointing to the window seat. It was a pleasant little spot; solid flat cushions made it comfortable, it was out of the direct sunshine with a nice view of the stone garden in the courtyard and it was quite a good distance away from anything dangerous or frightening such as Gaara, the gourd or the weapon’s rack. It should do until Lee got back. Gaara had put the glass of water and the rations on the sill.
Chiro stared at the window seat as if he thought it was a trap. He finally crossed over to the patch of morning light and hoisted himself onto the cushions. He sat there stiffly, notepad and pencil clutched to his chest as he stared about the room. His gaze flinched away from Gaara, but rested on the gourd for awhile.
Gaara didn’t think the kid looked comfortable, but that was Chiro’s own fault. Should have gone with Lee. Gaara put aside the book of etiquette and grabbed the next stack of mission reports covering the past three weeks. This was the downside of having missions away from Suna, there was always so much paperwork backed up when he returned.
Chiro’s presence was only a minor irritant; the kid was quiet and still. The only time he moved was to put down the notepad, twist around and grab the glass of water with both hands. He drank a bit noisily, but still without comment. He ignored the ration bar. Gaara felt no need for concern; the kid wouldn’t collapse from inanition in the time it would take for Lee to get back and feed him.
He could feel Chiro’s eyes on him now that he was bent over his work, but as long as the kid didn’t freak out, let him stare.
He was halfway through the second report when Chiro finally moved. Gaara glanced up automatically, to see Chiro pull the two cushions from the window seat and put them on the floor. The seat was a thick piece of wood inserted into the sides of two large bookcases framing the window; the bench was wide enough to support two people sitting side by side, and left a sizeable space beneath it. Chiro put the cushions down on the floor inside the nook, sitting on one and leaving the other on the ground unattended. He brought the notepad up to his face and started drawing, despite the way the pencil bent the wad of paper without proper support.
Gaara turned back to his own work. The next hour was blissfully quiet, with only his pen and the pencil making any noise. Gaara could feel eyes on him occasionally, but the child didn’t speak to him.
The room got warmer. A tepid breeze drifted over the village of sand and wind, doing nothing to cool it. The faint gust brought to Gaara’s ears the clack-clack of the wooden clappers signalling the changing of the guard on the northern rampart. Gaara’s eyes flicked towards the clock on the wall, though that noise and his instincts were much better timekeepers. Eight o’clock, and all was well.
As if the distant noise had been a signal, Chiro stood up and took two steps towards Gaara.
"I need to go to the bathroom," he said, almost in a whisper.
"Go then," Gaara grunted, scribbling a note for Tetsuyo on the report he was reading.
There was a pause from near the window. When Gaara glanced at him, Chiro was staring back, biting his bottom lip.
"You know where it is," said Gaara.
Chiro looked at him as if that hadn’t been the point, but when Gaara didn’t add anything or do anything other than stare at him, unblinking, the boy turned towards the door and walked out.
Gaara tracked him with his senses as the child climbed the stairs, heading in the right direction. Five minutes later, the small footsteps were on their way back, and there had been no alarming sounds from the bathroom. No flush either. Gaara, who saved water as religiously as his fellow villagers, didn’t particularly care, though Lee probably would when he got back.
Chiro appeared at the study entrance and walked back over to the nook beneath the window. But he didn’t crawl back under the wooden seat. He stood beside it, and Gaara could feel himself under observation once more.
He didn’t pay it any mind, until the child took a few steps in his direction.
"Are you really him?"
Gaara turned his head to look at the boy.
"Gaara of the Desert?" Chiro prompted. His voice was lower, as if the words were something dangerous he was handling.
"...Really?" Apparently seeing his bogeyman as a flesh-and-blood creature was still hard to accept for the child.
Another long stare.
"Do you really kill people?"
"Yes. When I need to."
Chiro appeared to be impressed with that answer. He stared at Gaara for a few more minutes.
"Lee says you don’t drink blood," he finally said
The child nibbled at a fingernail and frowned. Gaara had the feeling his answer had somehow fallen short of expectations.
"They say you do."
"But they say you do," Chiro muttered, as if that was an obvious and irrefutable argument.
Maybe it had been better when the kid was scared of him.
Gaara picked up the next report. Team thirteen. A-rank? Hadn’t their cell-leader been injured last month near the border? What were they doing taking A-rank missions?
The kid was still staring at him, and it was nibbling at his concentration. One look at Chiro’s pinched face and eyes told Gaara that the child didn’t believe him, though he seemed less upset about Gaara being a bloodsucking demon and more by the fact that he was refusing to own up to it. Which even Gaara found a bit strange.
"When I was a bit older than you are now, I believed that the Sand that protected me wanted blood, and I made sure it soaked up a lot of it. Maybe that is what you heard about," Gaara suggested at length.
Chiro blinked and then his eyes went very wide. There was still some fear in his demeanour, but a lot less than yesterday. Yet this reaction didn't feel like bravery, either. Gaara didn’t know how to define it. An absence of something that should be there, perhaps. A normal human should have been repulsed, at least.
"You give blood to the sand," Chiro breathed.
"No. I used to, but I’ve stopped. It served no purpose. It was just something I believed when I was a child." Along with some very confused transference between the chakra-rich protective Sand and his dead mother. He’d been a proper little psychopath by the time his age reached double digits. Gaara felt some past memory brush him like cold, dead fingers. He shook the feeling away with annoyance.
The brown eyes were now fixed on him with something like fascination.
"Do you kill a lot of people?"
"These days, I generally try diplomacy first," Gaara stated, flipping through the report trying to find the Injuries section.
It was as if Chiro hadn’t even heard what he’d said. Maybe he didn’t know what ‘diplomacy’ meant, but he didn’t ask for clarification; it was as if Gaara’s answer had not been understood or had not fitted into his expectations and as a result had simply been ignored.
"Did you kill anybody yesterday?" he asked intently instead, taking a few more steps towards Gaara. He was now only seven feet away.
Gaara looked down at him again slowly. "No," he finally answered.
"The day before yesterday?"
The small face scrunched up in concentration. "The day...before...before yester-"
"I haven’t killed anybody yet this month," Gaara said with a trickle of hard, uncaring irony. "I was forced to defend myself and my troops during a mission back in March, so I’ve killed two people so far this year and injured two others."
"Did they fight you?" Before Gaara could answer- "Did you kill a lot of other people? How many?"
That gave Gaara pause.
"I don’t know."
Chiro blinked, and then he looked...Gaara struggled to analyze that expression, and decided that Chiro looked hurt. That brittleness was back in his eyes, his face. That was when Gaara realized that during his interrogation, the boy had looked intent and...present, in a way he hadn’t since Gaara had scared him the day he’d come home.
Gaara didn’t have to answer to the child, but something, the need in that look, caused his instincts to trigger, and he spoke before the thin veneer of normalcy Gaara had diffidently cultivated could wonder if this was appropriate information for a four-year-old.
"By the time I was your age, I’d killed one person, somewhat accidentally. At twelve, my body count was one hundred and eighteen, though I was too young at the start to confirm all of the kills. I assumed that if you hit them hard enough, they died. Most of them did. When I was older I stopped counting, and I tried to stop killing as well. But some people don’t always leave me that choice. Does that answer your question?"
Chiro stared at him in amazement as Gaara’s uncaring monotone listed a few highlights of his blood-soaked career. There was something almost hungry in the way Chiro accepted that answer. That hollow look was gone. He was silent for a minute, as if thinking that over. Gaara, who could read fear after having provoked it his entire life, thought the boy was taking the news remarkably fearlessly. Which should be a good thing, yet Gaara’s vague sense of Wrong stirred.
Chiro’s mouth opened as if he was about to ask another question, but suddenly his eyes flinched away from Gaara and darted around the room. Small white teeth, a bit crooked, nibbled at his lower lip as he hesitated. Then his gaze fastened on the gourd.
"Is that the jar you keep the blood in?"
"I don’t do anything with blood. And it’s a gourd, not a jar."
That earned him a blank stare.
"They have different shapes," Gaara said, after having to think about it for a second; he supposed shape would be the defining difference. He’d never had to explain that before. He never had to explain anything, the people of Suna already knew all this and rarely questioned him.
Chiro’s eyes were fastened once more on the gourd; he appeared to be concentrating on the shape. "Why?"
Why? Why what? Gaara frowned, annoyed at some indefinable lack of logic in the child’s questions and whole attitude. He was tempted to simply not answer, but if Chiro gave him that long, silent look again, he’d be answering sooner or later anyway just to get rid of the annoyance and return to his work.
"It’s made of Sand," he answered brusquely, taking a stab at guessing what that ‘why’ was about. "It has the shape I tell it to. It makes it easier to carry with that bend in the middle of it; it allows me to fit a harness to it."
Chiro took a few steps towards the gourd, not paying Gaara’s answer any heed.
"What is that?"
"That." The boy pointed to the tags pasted onto the sand. His gesture was cautious, as if it were a savage animal at the end of a leash of unknown length.
"Warnings and seals."
Chiro took a few more steps. He was now closer than some adults would dare to go if Gaara wasn’t carrying it. Gaara hooked an arm over the back of his chair and turned to keep an eye on the brat. The movement made Chiro look back at him quickly, but then the boy returned to examining the gourd.
"It’s just sand," Gaara said, and realized that this was the first time he’d ever referred to it as ‘just’ anything. "No blood," he added, to clarify.
Chiro didn’t seem to be listening to him.
Then he turned and gave Gaara a drill-like stare. Once more he seemed to be on the verge of asking a question. But he spun around and bolted away instead. He burst out of the study, galloped up the stairs, scrabbled at the bedroom door before sliding it open. Then sudden silence.
Gaara stared at the swaying curtain. Chiro’s reaction had caught him completely off-guard, though in hindsight that could have been his usual lack of human empathy and understanding. All those details might have been a bit unnerving, though surely the truth was better than those stupid scare stories the child had heard before.
He hesitated, but decided that he wanted Chiro here where he could watch him. He’d promised Lee that no harm would come to the boy. If Chiro grew fretful at the sight of the gourd, Gaara could put the thing outside the room.
Chiro was sitting against the wall in a corner with his brother’s plastic cube in his hands. When Gaara appeared in the doorway he looked up quickly with an inward-turned expression, like the one he’d had last night at dinner. It was more obvious now that Gaara had seen him somewhat animated and intent before.
"Did I frighten you?" Gaara asked him directly, since that was the only reason for Chiro’s flight he could think of, though the kid was hardly a picture of abject dread at the moment.
That question earned him a stare, and then a shake of the head. He looked a lot like Lee when he did that.
"I won’t harm you. Come back down to the study. You can take that if you want."
Chiro put down the cube, stood up and walked towards the door. Gaara moved out of the way, but the child showed no particular fear of him or of his close presence. Gaara wondered if this would all make sense if he had a better understanding of human nature in general and children in particular, but at this point he did not feel sufficiently interested to find out, as long as Chiro stayed where he was supposed to and shut up.
Chiro was ensconced under the window seat once more and drawing in the pad with the red pencil. He did not ask any more questions. He only moved again to go to the bathroom, this time without asking. While he was gone, Gaara noted that the pencil was now well blunted, but it didn’t seem to matter. Squares marched and tumbled down the paper of the notebook in different sizes, cross-hatched and boxed in, overwritten, squeezed into corners and savagely scratched out. Chiro hadn’t turned the page, even though the rest of the notebook was available.
The rest of the morning was quiet, yet Gaara felt unaccountably relieved when Lee showed up just before noon.
He gave his lover an interrogative glance as Lee pushed back the study's curtain. Lee looked a bit better, and so did Aki for that matter, though the baby was still fussing and making burbling noises that were almost words, the way a tadpole was almost a frog. There was a band-aid in the crook of his chubby arm.
"He should be fine," Lee said, in answer to Gaara's look. "But Doctor Masaki said it was good I brought him in. They put him under saline perfusion for a couple of hours, and ran some blood tests to be on the safe side."
Probably more than they’d have done if it hadn’t been the Kazekage’s lover who’d turned up with a somewhat sick child. Gaara didn’t give it a second thought. Temari occasionally hinted that a good leader should keep his private life and his work separate, but Gaara had never understood why; they were both his life, they were both important, and if one could make the other easier, all the better.
"He said it’s a tummy bug, and I wasn’t giving him enough to drink as well. Add to that the change of climate and the fatigue of the journey. I’m also to stop giving them Shizune’s medication. The doctor said they have to get used to sleeping normally again. He gave me some mild herbal extract to add to Aki’s juice, and exact instructions," Lee reported. He looked a whole lot more confident now; the doc must have been reassuring, Gaara reflected with a touch of gratitude towards the dour medi-nin.
"Ah, Chiro." Lee had spotted his cousin. "Did you behave yourself? He didn’t disturb you, did he?" he added, glancing at Gaara.
"He was quiet," Gaara answered, which was only the truth.
"Good! Chiro, do you want some lunch?"
Chiro had been looking at Lee as if he’d never seen him before - which was strange, and not the first time it had happened, now that Gaara reflected on it. But at the word ‘lunch’ he leapt to his feet and ran towards the door, looking fairly lively all of a sudden. Lee followed Chiro’s noisy progress to the kitchen with a pleased look on his face, while Aki twisted around and mumbled excitedly after his brother.
"Thanks," Lee said to Gaara, eyes warm. "Thank you so much. Looks like it went well! Tell you what, let me get the kids fed, and maybe they’ll sleep or play, and we can have lunch together."
Gaara nodded and got back to work, shaking off the faint unease Chiro’s earlier questions had left him with.
Next chapter probably out next weekend, and the problems in Chiro's head finally boil over.