Yosh! The next chapter. Thanks for all the reviews ^_^ They certainly fed the bunnies; I wasn't sure I'd be able to get enough chapters in advance to post this one this week, but lo and behold. As always, any reviews, questions, pokes, comments etc. most welcome.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the brainchild of Kishimoto-sama, and I am not worthy. I merely borrow the manga's characters and situations, and make no money off of them.
Day Three - 3AM
The previous day had ended quietly enough. Lee had kept the children amused that afternoon, or whatever he did to make sure they were somewhat quiet. He'd fed them, leaving some food to warm for Gaara, and the three Rocks had all gone to bed early.
The night wasn't anywhere as peaceful. Aki was still not well, but he was now feeling strong enough to let that fact be known at the top of his lungs. It was well past two in the morning before the irregular noises stopped. Gaara had managed to get a little work done when a scream echoed from the first floor.
He was up the stairs the next second, the strap of the gourd snatched up in his hand, when he heard Lee going ‘shhhh'.
"Nightmare," Lee said without looking up when Gaara slid the door open.
The spare bedroom had not been set up for the children, and Gaara had realized at some point in the past forty-eight hours that it probably never would be as long as they stayed here. Chiro was sleeping in Gaara's spot in the large bed, while Aki's crib and play area lurked like the cage of a small, wild animal near the far window.
Chiro was sitting up in bed, clutching Lee's arm, eyes wide, blind and absolutely terrorized. Gaara turned on his heels and left. He was hardly qualified to calm down a frightened child. Lee could handle it. He'd handled a lot worse than that when he and Gaara had gotten together, and at least Chiro wouldn't be able to kill him in a moment of temporary insanity.
Since it looked like the rest of the night was going to be just as noisy - Chiro's shriek having woken up Aki again - Gaara went to his office. He'd gotten out of the habit of working there. He preferred his study now, with nobody but Lee coming near him. People knew where to find him in case of emergency, and otherwise they waited until he showed up in the admin building once or twice a day to bother him with less important details. But he had a couple of meetings in the morning and he had to prepare for them, so his office would have to do. Gaara stopped on his way to get the patient Tetsuyo out of bed and went to work with something like relief.
A few hours later, he was heading back home for lunch along the ninja highway, Suna's series of flat roofs and ledges. His mind was turning over some of the Council's international policies he needed to ratify, when his senses twitched. At the same time, a hail stopped him in his tracks.
Gaara spun around, poised on the edge of a roof, a few blocks away from home. The hail had come from the street below. In a small, quiet alleyway off the main road, two ANBU stood on either side of Chiro.
Gaara was at their side in an instant. One of the Shinobi was Taidaka, mask covering his scarred features. The other one Gaara recognized by her demeanour and chakra as one of the extra ANBU Taidaka had assigned to guarding the Kazekage's house and office.
"Where's Lee?" Gaara asked sharply. In the gourd, the Sand hissed and roiled in alarm.
"Safe," Taidaka immediately answered. "Lee-san's taking a nap back at your residence. The boy slipped out the front door. He seemed to be heading out into the village at random. We were walking him back to your residence when we saw you, sir."
They were walking him back...five streets away from the house? Gaara frowned. The guard must have seen Chiro leave, and Gaara knew why she had let him get this far. Because she - and Taidaka, once warned - would have wanted to see where Chiro was going and who might contact him. The Kazekage appreciated having this information, but on a personal level Gaara wasn't sure he liked having his lover's four-year old cousin used as potential bait.
He turned the frown on Chiro, standing hunched and silent between two dangerous masked killers. Chiro stared back at Gaara's knees. He did not look afraid. He did not look like anything. For a moment Gaara thought Taidaka had slapped some kind of Genjutsu on the kid, but then the brown eyes travelled up Gaara's chest to his face. Chiro stared at him as if his whole being was waiting for something. Something final.
"I'll take him back," Gaara said, motioning Chiro to follow him.
The two Sand Shinobi nodded and disappeared in a faint wash of displaced air, making Chiro start.
"Move. Quickly," Gaara ordered the boy. He was angry, in that cold, controlled way of his. What had the boy been thinking? If Lee woke up to find his cousin gone, he would be out of his mind with worry. Besides, Sunagakure was not a playground for someone who didn't know where the jutsu training range and weapon depots were.
Chiro followed the Kazekage at a few paces. Gaara could feel the boy's stare drill him between the shoulder blades, but Chiro made no attempt to apologize, explain, protest or bolt again. Gaara cut through the courtyard and the rock garden, heading towards the front door. Hopefully Lee was still sleeping. These damned children were giving the Jounin very short, choppy nights at a time he should be recuperating from the arduous run that had brought them here.
Behind him, Chiro's footstep's stopped. Gaara glanced back, eyes narrowed in warning. The child did not run away, but he did not move, either. He was staring at Gaara's knees once more, small fists clenched at his side.
"You kill people," Chiro suddenly said.
"Is that why you ran away? I told you I won't harm you." Even Gaara could tell that his cold, emotionless tone didn't make that sound like much of a reassurance, but he was too irritated to care. He motioned abruptly to the child and moved towards the door.
"Could you kill anybody in the world?"
Don't tempt me, Gaara thought, but didn't say it. He didn't want to have to start chasing after a frightened child-
"Could you kill Lee?"
Gaara stopped. He turned around slowly.
Chiro watched him, intent, waiting like a trap for the answer. He'd pressed his fist against his mouth, but otherwise he didn't move.
Gaara slowly crossed his arms over his chest. He didn't think to ask why. His instincts had stirred. Gaara's nature took over, the thin veneer of normalcy crumbling.
"Yes. I could. He's strong; it would be hard, but I could. If I wanted to."
He was tracking the kid's reaction. Chiro's eyes widened immeasurably, until the brown of the pupil was surrounded by white. He was staring at Gaara's chest now. His legs and left arm were stiff as if he was about to have some kind of fit, and he appeared to be biting his knuckles.
"Is he coming back?" Chiro finally choked out around his fist, as if the question had been forced from him by some pressure inside too great to resist.
Gaara frowned. The boy had heard Taidaka say that Lee was asleep-...
Ah. Those darker instincts stirred, and finally, Gaara knew.
"You mean your father."
Chiro's entire body flinched, but nothing in his expression changed.
"I don't know. Probably not. Even if he came back, you wouldn't see him."
In the silence of the courtyard baking beneath the late morning sun, the only sound was the quick rasp of Chiro's breathing.
"Was he the one who hurt mommy?" Chiro finally asked, voice high and tight.
The question elicited no surprise. Chiro's attitude was starting to make a bone-chilling sense. Gaara didn't wonder how Chiro had learned the full truth, when Lee believed the boy to be blissfully ignorant of the details of the murder; it didn't really matter.
"Yes. He did."
Chiro's second hand went up to grip his wrist, arms locked together as if to ward a blow.
"Your mother is dead. Your father is responsible. He's gone and he's not coming back."
Chiro jerked his hands away from his face. "You're lying." The words were immediate, said on a gasp, yet the child had been looking for the very answer he was now denying.
But the boy wasn't listening. His breathing went ragged and his eyes blind, his face twisting into an expression that was hateful and much too old for his four-and-a-half years of age.
Chiro spun, grabbed a stone from the rockery's border and hurled it at Gaara with all his strength.
Gaara could have easily dodged it, or caught it with barely a flick of the wrist. But he didn't. The Sand hissed through the air like a dagger sliding from the sheath, lethally graceful as it formed an arc over Gaara, the rock embedding in it with a dull thud.
Chiro froze, staring at him, eyes huge, mouth hanging open in amazement and fear. This was the first time he'd seen the Sand.
"No. I think we've established that I do not lie."
Chiro didn't seem to believe his own accusations. Gaara had truthfully answered every single probing question Chiro had thrown at him, even the raw and ugly ones no other adult would have thought to answer. The boy must have realized over the past two days that Gaara was a monster who didn't care enough about him to lie.
Gaara took a step forwards. Chiro jerked like a fish on the line and stumbled back, falling into the rockery. He didn't seem to notice the stones tearing at his bare legs and shorts. He stared at Gaara walking towards him and he didn't try to run.
Gaara crouched before the boy so their faces were more of a level. That hollow, empty look was back, but Gaara was not going to let the boy run away from this. Not this time. Because this...Gaara knew this. In the end, it could not be escaped. He grabbed Chiro's chin, forcing the child to make eye contact, and he spoke very slowly and clearly.
"Your mother's dead. Your father's a traitor."
This time there was no sign the boy had heard, the brown eyes met Gaara's blindly as if he was staring at an empty landscape. But Gaara knew how to break through the silence in Chiro's head.
"I know what he did to her. And I know what that feels like. My father killed my mother too."
He waited, watching as those words wound their way to where they had to go. He felt the flinch through his fingers when they did. Chiro was staring at him, trembling like a line under high tension.
"It's all right to hate him for it; never let anyone tell you otherwise. But it won't change anything. His choices were his own, they were not your fault and you had no share in them. Your choices start now. If you go on behaving this way, you'll lose what little you still have."
Chiro stared at him without comprehension, so Gaara repeated the same harsh words again. He would have done so a third time and until the child had fully understood him, but as he opened his mouth, Chiro jerked away and went scrambling backwards over the rockery. Gaara leaned forward, plucked him up and sat him back on the gravel path, not wanting the child to injure himself.
Chiro sat there like a broken doll, his breathing high, fast and shallow, his face slowly twisting. Gaara waited. He couldn't have said for what, but when Chiro started screaming, he wasn't surprised.
Chiro shrieked like he had last night, one long, high wail, but this was no nightmare he could wake from. Gaara looked down at him with a faint stir of cold recognition. Then he glanced around. The child had faced his demons, or whatever Gaara had incarnated for him. Now he needed-
As if conjured by his thoughts, the front door slammed open and Lee tumbled out. It looked like he'd gone from fast asleep to battle-ready in about a second. He had a kunai in one hand, which automatically disappeared when Gaara made an all-safe gesture. Lee was at the child's side the next moment.
He'd barely touched the boy's shoulder when the scream broke, and turned into a good old-fashioned and much more healthy bawl. Lee tried to check Chiro over, only to find his charge stuck to his arm like a limpet, small fists knotting in his uniform, snot and tears smearing all over Lee's opened flak jacket.
"Is he injured?" Lee asked, a Shinobi's question. His free hand was feeling up and down Chiro's limbs and head, checking for fractures.
Lee looked like he wanted to ask another question, but Chiro's crying was distracting. The Jounin picked the boy up and headed towards the door. Gaara followed him as his lover carried the bawling child upstairs, since he didn't think Chiro would even notice his presence in his current state. The little face was visible over Lee's shoulder, all red and twisted, the eyebrows making it a strange parody of Lee's. Gaara frowned.
"Your cousin Katsuro. Did you two look a lot alike?"
Lee half-turned as he walked to give Gaara an incredulous stare at the bizarre question.
"Does he look like you?" Gaara insisted. "Eyebrows, face, eyes-"
"Yes, a bit I guess," Lee threw hurriedly over his shoulder, sliding open the bedroom door. "He wore his hair long last time I saw him, and his face was a bit different, but yes, I guess we look alike."
‘Could you kill Lee?' Or had that really been, ‘Could you kill my father?' Chiro's attitude towards Lee since the start had seemed to vacillate between treating him like a distant cousin who'd taken him in and could be somewhat trusted, and an apparition Chiro didn't know how to react to. If Lee looked like the boy's father, maybe that explained it, but it was mere speculation. When something was this broken, it was hard to make any sense of the pieces.
"Here, Chiro," Lee murmured, laying the sobbing child on the bed. "Are you sure he's not injured?" he added with a worried glance back at Gaara.
"What happened? What were you two doing outside?"
"He got out while you were sleeping. One of the guards caught him. ANBU."
"Damn it. I put him down for a nap, and I sort of fell asleep too. I should have locked the door...Chiro. Shhh. You shouldn't leave like that...did the man in the mask frighten you?" Chiro was crying into the pillow and probably didn't even hear him. Aki, who'd been sleeping in his crib, started crying too, apparently unwilling to be left out.
"This is the first time I've seen him cry," Lee whispered, sounding confused as he patted Chiro on the shoulder. "He didn't even cry when they buried- when he had to say goodbye to his mom. I don't understand, what-"
"Don't worry about it," Gaara said softly. "Crying like that means there's still something left. He'll be the better for it."
Lee gave him a fleetingly puzzled glance, but he didn't ask any questions. Gaara suspected that Lee had filed that remark under the heading ‘my boyfriend is being weird again, figure it out later if that's even possible', something Lee had unconsciously gotten used to over the years. The Jounin concentrated on soothing the boy, who seemed to cry all the harder and clutch at the pillow, at Lee, at anything that gave him some solidity.
At this point, Aki was sitting in his crib and bawling too, so Lee had more to worry about than wonder what had happened exactly. Gaara had no intention of telling him. Gaara rarely lied; in fact his siblings and his lover often complained, half indulgent and half exasperated, about his brutal honesty. But being honest was far from the same as being open. He'd spent too many years alone, he would never be able to trust and share that easily. And there were things he'd never shared, not even with Lee.
The words that had broken Chiro had come from those hidden currents in Gaara's life. If he tried to explain to Lee why it had been necessary to wound the child like that, he would have to talk about things in his past he did not care to discuss, and that Lee would not, at a fundamental level, truly understand. Ironically, his small cousin would. In some aspects the child was a bit closer to what Gaara had once been than Lee would care to learn. It would just worry him, and he had more than enough to deal with caring for Aki.
Gaara hadn't liked the words. In fact, he hated that he'd had to do that. But he was not going to lie and tell the kid everything was fine when even Chiro obviously knew they were not. Yashamaru had done that to Gaara; lied for years and let the young boy believe he was loved, let him hope, and then when the man had tried to kill him...Gaara would not do that to this boy in turn, feed him falsehoods and platitudes, because when the truth finally caught up, as it always did, it would destroy him.
Gaara did not know what Chiro had learned about his mother's murder exactly, but the boy had heard enough to know his father was involved and it had eaten him inside. He'd been looking for the truth. Fearing it too. Best he know the full extent of it, however much it hurt. Now Chiro would turn towards Lee, who hadn't hurt him. The boy still had a chance to make it, in Gaara's opinion. Chiro had gotten off relatively easy after all. Gaara's cut had run much deeper; his father had been the one to sacrifice his mother for some imagined greater good, but Gaara had been the reason behind her death as well as her accidental executioner. By contrast, Chiro was entirely blameless. He wasn't possessed, he wasn't a monster, he wasn't feared and despised and above all...
Lee was holding Chiro, whispering something about Shinobi not crying, but it was obvious by his tone he didn't mean it, was barely listening to his own words; the gentle murmur was what counted. Chiro's fit of hysterical crying was lessening, turning to big, tired sobs in Lee's strong arms...
...Above all, Chiro was loved. He still had a chance.
Gaara turned away, since he no longer had any part in this. Well, not directly, he reminded himself, glancing at Aki who hiccupped and abruptly stopped his whining when he caught Gaara's gaze on him. Gaara had never had any part in this, except to make sure Lee was safe, healthy and happy, and for that to happen, something really had to be done with these children.
He walked down the stairs, unslinging the gourd from his shoulder with a weary gesture. It wasn't even noon yet. ‘Kids make life complicated'? What an understatement. Gaara wondered what kind of leave his Shinobi got when they bore children and if it would be financially possible for the village to extend it. Or better yet, hire a bunch of- of specialist carers and build a really big...crèche or whatever they called it in the cities...
He propped the gourd against the desk, walked to the study window and flicked his fingers in a signal. He stayed at the window, motionless, until Taidaka had appeared in front of him, still masked. Presumably the two ANBU had followed Gaara home earlier to do a perimeter check; it was what Gaara would expect of them. They might have witnessed that scene in the courtyard, but they had not interfered. For that, Gaara was grateful.
"You said your sister would be willing to take the children in, correct?"
Taidaka was silent for a second, probably in amazement. His Kazekage was not a man to change his mind ordinarily.
"Yes sir," he said, recovering quickly, his shoulders unbending a hair from their usual hard battle-ready stance. "She would be honoured to-"
"Then I would ask a favour of you and your family."
It was over half an hour before Lee came down the stairs. Taidaka had had time to check with his sister and confirm the arrangements for the children.
Lee looked troubled and sad, but Gaara didn't think he'd gotten any information out of Chiro. Gaara hoped Lee wouldn't think to question him more closely on the incident. He didn't want to cause his lover any pain. Or anger, but the thought that Lee would be mad at him for making Chiro cry like that had barely brushed Gaara's mind and had not influenced his decision to stay quiet. Lee was occasionally cross with him, and he always got over it. But the full truth would hurt him and leave him feeling sad and helpless, and Gaara didn't think Lee could do much more than he was already doing; loving the boy unconditionally and sheltering him as much as he could.
Lee sat down on the couch in a boneless motion that was at odds with his usual dynamism.
"Chiro's asleep," he said quietly. "So is Aki. They kind of kept waking each other up, but they both nodded off in the end. I...guess something like this had to happen sooner or later. I was actually getting kind of worried, but he didn't want to talk about it. Maybe things will be better now..." Then he put his head back against the cushions and rubbed his eyes.
Gaara put down his brush.
"Do you know Taidaka Minne?"
Lee looked at him blankly. "Should I?" Then he frowned. "Taidaka, like..."
"Yes, she's Taidaka's sister."
"...He has a sister?" Lee's eyes were wide. He looked like he was trying to imagine a female Taidaka, something Gaara had been steadfastly trying not to do.
"Yes. She's ten years younger than he is. She has two boys; the youngest is Chiro's age. She knows how to take care of children and toddlers."
Lee's tired eyes flinched. "You…think I should foster them out to-"
"No," Gaara said with a flash of irritation. He'd concluded from day one that this wasn't an option. He was admittedly brutal, but he knew Lee better than that. His lover should have more faith in the little humanity and empathy Gaara had managed to scrape together over the years, especially since Lee's influence was the main reason Gaara had even bothered with them in the first place. "She has offered to let the three of you spend a few hours a day with her and her boys, starting tomorrow, so she can show you how to take care of children that age. That way you don't have to manage with only minimal information, the conflicted advice of half the village and the help of my ANBU."
The shining look Lee gave him made the arrangements with the Taidakas worthwhile. It even made the past two days, the scene in the courtyard and the children's very presence here worthwhile. Then a flicker of hesitation crossed Lee's expressive features. "Um, that's very kind of her, but won't I be imposing-"
"Do it. Please. For my sake. I don't like to see you this worried," Gaara said quietly, knowing it would be much harder for Lee to refuse that way. "It will be better for the children's health, too. I'm sure they'll be fine here with you, but I don't think it's wise to figure out their care by trial and error, especially with a baby."
He had every faith that Lee would learn quickly and well once this woman had shown him the works. That should take care of the problems they'd been having with Aki. Lee would be able to get some proper sleep, recover from his journey from Konoha and be less stressed overall, and that could only be good for the children by knock-on effect. This scheme had the added advantage of getting Chiro out of the house for a few days, so he wouldn't be getting constantly hysterical when he caught sight of Gaara.
"I guess you're right," Lee admitted ruefully. "For the kid's sakes, I really should. I'll find a way of thanking Minne-san for this later. I just didn't think it would be this complicated to figure out on my own, but then again, I'm no genius."
"They say I'm a genius and you're doing better than I would," Gaara pointed out, picking up his brush from its inkstone. "We need a woman's help. They're conditioned to take care of children; they're built for bearing them and raising them after all. If my sister were here, she'd take care of it." Gaara had heard of the term ‘maternal instinct', and now that he'd come into contact with children, he figured it was a good thing this was wired into half of the population.
Lee was giving him an odd look. Then he smiled faintly.
"Right, it's settled. I'll go to Minne-san's tomorrow and learn everything I can from her, but I'd really like it if you did one thing for me."
Gaara glanced up from his work curiously.
Lee stood up, went over to the desk and kissed him gently.
"I'll do anything you want as long as you never say any of that ‘women are conditioned to take care of children' stuff to Temari," Lee whispered into his ear, "because you know how I hate it when you get yourself badly injured."
Lee left before Gaara could ask him what he meant by that.
AN: It goes without saying that this is so not the way to treat a traumatized child, or anyone suffering from depression or PTSD. But I think the Naruto-verse doesn't know much about psychology, and besides, Gaara has no mental guardrails to tell him ‘try not to traumatize kids' which would make most of us back off in that situation, or say something bland and soothing. Gaara realized what was wrong, and hacked at it. He did say a few important words, more by accident than design, that will eventually help the kid. Not that this is quite over for either the kid or Gaara quite yet; Gaara for one may have some things to work through as well.