November 4, Yondaime Year 5
Suna guards closed in as Sadayo, Minpei, and Team Six left Kawase’s townhouse. Eight guards this time, not just the four who’d escorted Team Six from the embassy, and all were visibly armed. Their close-held chakra was jounin-sleek.
Ryouma kept an eye on the rooftops as they walked. He saw movement there, too. Shadows ghosting against the evening sky. They weren’t bothering to conceal themselves: probably they meant Konoha to take the warning.
Or possibly they meant it as some weirdass backwards Suna form of reassurance. You’re going to see a monster, but you’re not alone.
Sure. And Sadayo was planning her ‘welcome to the family’ party for her son’s boyfriend right now.
Sadayo walked ahead, beside the Kazekage’s elderly counselor, Minpei. Kakashi stalked at their heels, bracketed on each side by an armored guard. The remaining members of Team Six only merited one guard each, with the final three guards taking point and rear. They made the back of Ryouma’s neck itch.
No one tried to talk.
No one accosted them this time, either. The main streets looked almost as crowded as before, but Minpei led them down narrower side streets and empty alleys where even the lantern light didn’t pursue. They were moving out of the wealthy district near the palace; the townhomes gave way to apartment blocks, and then to tenements.
And then, standing on its own at the end of a city block, with a ragged burst of rubble around it, an unobtrusive building so tightly shielded by genjutsu that Ryouma’s first glance skidded right on by.
The rubble drew his eye stubbornly back. Some of it was old, weathered, easily ignored, but across the street a massive hole gaped in a tenement building like some giant had scooped out a handful between the second and third floors. The air still smelled of raw dust and broken sewage pipes.
Minpei said apologetically, “There’s been trouble getting construction crews to work here. Understandable in the present circumstances.”
“Of course,” Sadayo said, gazing at the center point of the older rubble. Her brows pinched, as if she was getting a migraine.
Kakashi had pushed up the cloth band that covered his Sharingan eye. He stared at the solitary working streetlight on the corner. Then his gaze swept sideways, towards the building Ryouma didn’t want to look at.
“This way,” Minpei said, and started across the street. Sadayo, Kakashi, and half their guards followed.
Raidou shifted his weight from foot to foot. His chakra rippled, tight against his skin; for a moment the pressure of the layered area-effect genjutsu surrounding them almost made his chakra shield visible. Behind him, Genma squinted towards the rubble and shuddered, touching the wide sleeves of his kimono as if seeking the reassurance of his hidden senbon. After a moment he managed a step forward to bump his shoulder, almost accidentally, against Raidou’s.
If they could do it, Ryouma could too. He gritted his teeth and trudged after Kakashi.
Kai wouldn’t help, not against area-affect genjutsu this strong, this layered. They must have anchored genjutsu in seals and baked them into the bricks. The destruction of this neighborhood had shredded some of those genjutsu and left their ghostly remnants tattered and unmoored. Unsettling sequences of suggestions caught at Ryouma’s eyes and mind: Don’t look here look over there you left the stove on something’s over your shoulder better turn around GO HOME—
Closing his eyes helped. Of course, that probably meant he would just walk face-first into whatever second layer of iron-spike defenses they’d set up to guard this place. Hopefully Kakashi would warn him in time.
But the last queasy compulsion slipped away after eight steps, and on the ninth Ryouma opened his eyes, still unimpaled. He was standing just outside a small two-story building, circular like much of Suna’s architecture, with a solid front door and a windowless ground floor. Minpei was on the doorstep, with Kakashi at their shoulder and the guards hovering around. Sadayo stood a little further behind them. The smooth curves of her coiffure gleamed directly under Ryouma’s nose.
He took a sharp step back, nearly bumped into Genma and Raidou, and was saved from apologizing to anyone when the house door opened.
A thin, pale-haired man peered out from the doorway. “You can’t all fit in here,” he said brusquely. “You’ll frighten Gaara.”
Kakashi had pulled the cloth band down over his Sharingan eye, but his face was still unmasked, intent. “How many can he tolerate?”
“You’re the Konoha sealing expert, I take it.” The caretaker studied him for a moment. “You can bring an assistant. One assistant. The rest of you can hang out with the other crows on the roof.”
“Surely you don’t include me in that number, Yashamaru,” Minpei said mildly. “And her Excellency the Ambassador—”
“You can have the kitchen,” Yashamaru interrupted. “What’s left of it.” He held the door open a little wider and looked back at Kakashi. The light from inside the house caught the haggard hollows of his cheeks, deepened the purple bruises under his eyes. “Make your choice quickly, Konoha,” he said. “We’re running out of time.”
Kakashi considered this deeply tired man, the lone guardian of a war crime, and found it within himself to be gentle. “My team has three others,” he said. “Their impressions will be useful to me.”
Yashamaru slouched against the doorframe for a moment, as if dealing with politeness cost him more than an argument, then pulled himself back upright. “No more than two in the room at a time. And none of you are coming in.” This last was spat at the guards. Apparently there was a history there.
Lines drawn, Yashamaru held the door open and stepped back.
The house had probably been nice once, before someone had decided to redecorate it with the foresight of a three-year-old and the abilities of a sandstorm. The walls were pitted and patched. The floor was stone, but it had an odd satiny sheen in places, as if parts of it had been repeatedly buffed. There wasn’t much on the main floor except a little foyer to collect shoes and sand, and a short hallway leading to a staircase. A doorway with three-quarters of a door hanging in the frame interrupted the wall just before the stairs.
“Kitchen’s that way,” Yashamaru said, indicating the broken door. Then, to Kakashi: “We go downstairs. Sorry about the chakra limiters.”
He didn’t sound very sorry. Kakashi, eyeing a set of four deep, parallel gouges in the wall, couldn’t blame him.
Minpei and Sadayo allowed themselves to be directed to the kitchen, where Minpei made pleased noises about a kettle. In the doorframe, Sadayo glanced over her shoulder at Kakashi. Her mouth was tense and her eyes were urgent, but whatever she was thinking didn’t make it past her teeth. Lips pressed together, she followed Minpei.
Kakashi put that little moment of strangeness out of his mind and focused on his team. None of them were thrilled to be in the house. Raidou looked like his skin was actively crawling. Of the three of them, he might be the best at children — or at least the most calm — but his blunted chakra sense wouldn’t give Kakashi much. Genma was a stronger sensor; he might glean some insight. Ryouma would probably be the most nervy and awkward, but he had a unique approach to jutsu, chakra that could filter corruption, and a mind that went sideways at the lightest provocation.
Kakashi said, “Taichou, Fukuchou, would you sit with my mother for now?”
Raidou didn’t exactly sigh with relief, but his shoulders loosened. Genma just nodded with perfect, easy understanding, and asked Yashamaru: “Will we be within hearing distance, if our colleagues call for us?”
Something like a tiny flicker of humor kindled in Yashamaru’s dry, tired voice. “If they call loud enough. Though if they need your help, you’ll probably hear that anyway. We’ll only be one floor down.” He was already heading for the stairs as he spoke, evidently expecting to be followed.
Ryouma swallowed, a little pale, but he shadowed Kakashi resolutely downstairs.
“It’s just that he’s calmer underground, usually,” Yashamaru said, as they descended. “No street noises or windows or startling things. And of course it’s cooler. The heat doesn’t usually bother him, but sometimes— Tanuki aren’t desert animals.”
Kakashi made an interested sound. “Kushina used to get itchy in fall. Said the Fox made her feel like her hair was growing.”
Ryouma gave Kakashi a startled look, as he often did when reminded who Kakashi’s inner circle included. Had included.
“That’s Uzumaki Kushina, the Kyuubi’s last vessel?” Yashamaru looked back. “You did know her. Minpei said they’d got an expert from Konoha but it’s— Oh, that Hatake Kasomething, of course.”
“Kakashi,” Ryouma said brightly. “Like a scarecrow.”
He was so helpful.
Kakashi reached the bottom step and paused, adjusting to the queasy sensation of chakra-limiters flattening his senses. The downstairs level was low-ceilinged and windowless, making it somewhat burrow-like. Yellow lamplight left puddles of shadow. There was a central area with two deep, comfortable-looking couches positioned on a thick rug. A heavy television occupied a low, squat table in the corner. Three doors suggested connecting rooms — bedrooms, perhaps? It would all have been sweetly domestic, if not for the rents in the couch cushions, the giant crack through the center of the television screen, and a dark, musky animal scent bleeding through the air.
Kushina had only ever smelled like the Fox when she let it well close to the surface.
“Sit there.” Yashamaru jabbed a thumb at one of the couches. “Not the other one. Don’t fidget. Don’t try to take notes — he doesn’t like pens scratching.” Yashamaru started towards a door, then hitched awkwardly to a stop. He turned and flung at them: “He’s not a monster. He just— doesn’t know how to control the one inside him.”
“I know,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma darted a sideways look at Kakashi, then straightened his spine and settled his shoulders. His voice came out the deep, soothing rumble he used for fraught non-combatants. “We’re here to help.”
“If you can…” Yashamaru went to the door furthest from the stairs, slipped inside, and closed it behind him.
Kakashi and Ryouma sat on the couch. Ryouma’s knee bounced, stopped, bounced again. Kakashi put a hand on it. Ryouma grimaced and dropped his foot flat.
Distant and muffled, Kakashi heard: “Gaara-kun, you’re still coloring? Not sleepy yet? Good boy. Uncle has some… some visitors over, do you want to see them?”
Kakashi murmured, “Forgot to tell you. Did you know Yashamaru’s his uncle?”
Ryouma, whose hearing wasn’t quite as sharp as Kakashi’s, looked startled. “Rasa doesn’t have a brother.”
“Mother’s brother,” Kakashi said.
Ryouma winced. “Ouch.”
“No, they won’t come in here. This is Gaara-kun’s space. They’re on the couch. Not your couch…”
Gaara’s responses were too soft to hear.
Eventually, the door opened. Yashamaru came out first, followed by a small, red-headed boy. Kakashi removed his hand from Ryouma’s knee, but made no other movements. Yashamaru led the way to the other couch, but didn’t sit on it. Slowly, Gaara followed him.
When last seen, the Kazekage’s youngest son had been anchored to Shukaku’s forehead, wearing threads of pajamas, before his father had gilded the tailed beast back into its cage. Kakashi’s memory was a blur of chakra chains, a pale face, the thin sound of shocked tears.
In person, Gaara was small even for a three-year-old, dressed in new pajamas with soft, frayed cuffs. He also appeared to have no eyebrows.
Gaara blinked sleepily at them, glanced at his couch, then back to Kakashi and Ryouma. His hands were dirty, though an effort had clearly been made to clean them. With slow, well-practiced movements, he laid his palms on his thighs and executed a perfect little bow. When he righted himself, his voice was soft but clear. “Nice to meet you. My name is Gaara.”
Kakashi realized he’d been expecting some version of a feral, mute child, and had to make rapid mental adjustments. He stayed seated — it seemed unwise to stand and loom — and offered his own bow in return. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “My name is Kakashi. This is my friend, Ryouma. We’re from Konoha.”
For a moment, Gaara’s gaze unfocused, as if something had tugged his attention. He had pale green eyes, like sunworn glass, but no eyelashes. His pupils were almost the same color as his irises. Thick black lines ringed his eyes — not shadows, not makeup. It almost looked like someone had tattooed eyeliner on him, but Kakashi thought it was likely an effect of housing the Ichibi. Bleed-through tanuki markings. Then he twitched and focused up.
There wasn’t a shift in expression, which was blank, but Kakashi felt the change from absent to present. Gaara stared somewhere around the region of Kakashi’s collarbone, and Kakashi realized, as Gaara fiddled with the cuffs of his sleeves, that the kid was nervous.
Very slightly, Gaara leaned against his uncle. “Am I in trouble?”
“You’re not in trouble, Gaara-kun,” Yashamaru said, very calmly. Kakashi almost couldn’t hear the bitter exhaustion. “Kakashi-san is here to learn if he can help make things quieter for you.”
“Will it hurt?” Gaara asked. “Shukaku doesn’t like it when it hurts.”
“No, it won’t hurt,” Kakashi said. “We’re just going to talk. And if you’ll let me, I’d like to look at your seal.”
Gaara’s attention slipped sideways again. “Shukaku says you’re lying.”
The hair on the back of Kakashi’s neck prickled.
Gaara refocused, looking as high as Kakashi’s throat this time. “I say you can talk to me.”
Kakashi said, “Mind if I sit on the floor?”
Gaara considered this too. He was the stillest child Ryouma had ever seen — none of Naruto’s bouncing energy, none of an ordinary toddler’s sleepy fidgets. Almost an unsettling level of self-possession, until you remembered that the entire problem was that he wasn’t self-possessed. Then it was just unsettling.
“You’re wearing shoes inside,” he said. The bleached gaze traveled to Ryouma’s sandals, which had also stayed on past the genkan. “So are you.”
There wasn’t a good way to say Nobody offered us house slippers and also I thought maybe we might have to fight our way out. They were already hampered by the cumbersome formalwear they’d worn to Kawase’s dinner; no one had wanted to go barefoot as well.
“I’m sorry,” Ryouma said, keeping his voice as soft as he could. “We’re foreigners. We’re very rude.”
Gaara accepted this with a single nod. “Are you going to talk too?”
“Um… Not if you don’t want me to. Is it okay if I talk to him?” He tipped his chin in Kakashi’s direction. Touching seemed ill-advised at the moment, like making sudden movements in front of a predator.
Which was ridiculous. This was a child. Not even three yet, barely taller than Ryouma’s knee, wearing soft sand-colored pajamas with little green cacti on them. He didn’t even have any chakra presence that Ryouma could feel, although probably that was due to the chakra limiters dulling Ryouma’s senses to the edges of his own body. He just… stood there, not quite meeting anyone’s eyes, and sometimes looking at nothing at all.
He was the most dangerous thing Ryouma had ever met.
And he was staring at Ryouma’s hands with an unblinking intensity. “Shukaku says you smell like rotting things.”
Ryouma hadn’t used his jutsu in weeks. The kid would have to have chakra senses as keen as Naito-sensei’s to perceive any lingering taint. And with the limiters…
“What do I smell like?” Kakashi asked, as calmly as if he were asking Naruto which bedtime story he’d prefer.
That moment of unfocus happened again, as if Gaara were looking behind his eyes instead of gazing out. What did he see there? Did he hear the bijuu, locked somewhere inside? “Cold. Dog.” His tiny nose scrunched in an animal’s annoyed snarl, and then his face was placid again. “Shukaku doesn’t like you.”
Kakashi’s mouth twitched into a little smile, astonishingly bare. He seemed less tense with every minute, as if the simple announcement that an ancient monstrosity of living chakra didn’t like him was enough for him to know where he stood, and where he was going next. “Dogs and tanuki don’t usually get along.”
Slowly and deliberately, signaling every movement, he slid off the couch and settled cross-legged on the floor. He pulled his zori off and stacked them neatly beside him. “What does Shukaku like?”
Gaara’s face didn’t change. But his little hands pressed together, tugging at the cuffs of his sleeves, twisting and pulling at his thumbs. “Shukaku likes breaking things. Hurting people. It makes him laugh.” His voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I don’t like it when he laughs.”
Yashamaru knelt beside him, all his calm drawing taut. “Let’s not think about Shukaku for a moment, Gaara-kun. Do you need your bear? Do you need to say your words?”
Gaara leaned against his uncle again, tilting his head up close to Yashamaru’s ear. “I want Kuma-chan please,” he whispered.
“Uncle will get Kuma-chan for you. Do you want to come with me? Or do you want to stay here? They won’t talk to you while I’m gone.” He shot Kakashi a threatening glare.
Kakashi tilted an ironic gaze back, and mimed zipping his lips.
But as Yashamaru disappeared into the bedroom, Kakashi produced a coin from one of his enormous sleeves and tossed it glinting between his fingers, making a little show of it appearing and vanishing. Gaara’s lips parted in wonder. He watched the coin disappear into Kakashi’s closed hands like—
Like he’d never seen sleight of hand before, Ryouma thought uneasily, or even played those silly little toddler games, peekaboo or handstacking or got-your-nose. When Kakashi offered both closed hands to Gaara, inviting him to pick one, the boy pointed immediately.
Kakashi opened an empty hand. Gaara pointed at the other hand.
It was empty too. Gaara stared. A tiny crease folded between his bare brows.
Kakashi held up his hands — open, safe — and slowly, carefully, reached out. Ryouma held his breath as his lunatic boyfriend pulled the coin out from behind the jinchuuriki’s ear.
Gaara gasped, a tiny little noise of shocked delight. His mouth snapped closed on the sound; he shrank back into stillness, but his eyes darted up almost to Kakashi’s face before they dropped again.
Was he worried Kakashi would be upset with him for showing emotion?
Kakashi smiled, eye curving, mouth tucked up against the scar, and showed him again. This time he pulled the coin out of Gaara’s nose and dropped it gently into the boy’s hands. Gaara turned the glinting metal over like he’d never held it before.
Then he looked up, at Yashamaru. “Look. He put this in my ear. And my nose.”
“I saw,” Yashamaru said. He’d come back before the end of the nose-trick and stood frozen, clutching a ragged stuffed bear, as if he thought merely breathing too loud would trigger the trap. Now he knelt cautiously beside Gaara and held out the bear. “Do you still want Kuma-chan?”
Gaara evidently did. But he didn’t clutch at the stuffed bear the way he’d wrung his fingers, as if the tightness of his grip would soothe the storm inside. Instead he plopped down on the floor, legs splayed out on each side, and sat Kuma-chan on his lap like the bear was just another audience member for Kakashi’s show. “Do it again please.”
Kakashi produced another coin and did the trick again. This time he pulled the coin from Kuma-chan’s ear. “Want me to show you how to do it?”
Gaara’s arms closed around his bear. He looked at Yashamaru in mute appeal.
Yashamaru chewed his lip. It couldn’t be that hard of a decision, but he hesitated like a man crossing splintered ice, scared of every step. “Kakashi-san… How does this help?”
“Not everything has to be frightening,” Kakashi said, gently.
“Ah,” Yashamaru said. His face twisted, wretched with pain, before he smoothed it back to that forced calm. “Yes. Of course.”
He said nothing more. He just watched with those burned-over eyes as Kakashi began patiently to explain the coin trick to Gaara.
It took longer than Ryouma’d expected for Gaara to begin getting the hang of it. Maybe learning emotional control had taken precedence over fine motor skills — or maybe this was just what kids were like when you didn’t put a kunai in their hand as soon as they could walk. But Kakashi was a good teacher, encouraging when the kid needed it and praising when he’d earned it, and eventually Gaara even relaxed enough to allow Smells-Like-Rotting-Things-Ryouma off the couch to chase a coin that had rolled away.
Ryouma brought the coin back and offered it on a flattened palm. Gaara was trying to pick it up from his hand, brow furrowed with focus, when Kakashi asked idly, “Gaara-kun, do you know anything about the other jinchuuriki?”
If he’d meant to catch Gaara in a distracted moment, it didn’t work. Gaara’s stubby little fingers abandoned the coin, but the furrow deepened on his forehead. “No other jin…jinchur…jinchuuriki. Just me.”
“Actually, most of the time, there are nine,” Kakashi said. “Have you heard of the Kyuubi?”
The name alone was a trigger.
Gaara’s mouth was still shaping the word ‘No’ when he lurched away from Ryouma, as if he’d been struck. His head snapped up. He met Kakashi’s gaze with an alert predator’s glare, while the child’s face around those lambent eyes crumpled from alarm to a vicious snarl.
For a single gut-wrenching moment, Ryouma saw the Ichibi, and their deaths, in that face.
Then it was Gaara, clutching his hair, crouched over in terror or agony. “Shukaku knows him. He’s. Oh he’s — he’s, he’s angry!” His voice rose to a shriek. “He’s angry!”
Wild chakra blazed through him, scouring Ryouma’s senses like a sandstorm. The chakra-limiters in the walls and ceiling flared a futile blue. Kakashi shoved his eyeband up, Sharingan already spinning.
And Yashamaru lunged forward, catching Gaara’s hands, wrapping him up in a reckless embrace. “I know he’s angry, Gaara, I know. You know what to do. Say the words.” He coaxed Gaara’s hands down, shaping the trembling fingers into counting form. “Calm as a tortoise, soft as a feather, quiet as a mouse. Say it with me, Gaara-kun. Calm as a tortoise, soft as a feather, quiet as a mouse.”
“C-calm as a t-tortoise—” Gaara was almost hiccuping in fear or fury, but he repeated the phrase with Yashamaru like a mantra, folding down a finger with each repetition. “Calm as a tortoise, soft as a feather, quiet as a mouse. Calm as a tortoise, soft as a feather, quiet as a mouse. Calm as a tortoise…”
Ten fingers. Ten times. Neither of them looked up or paused. The wild chakra ebbed and drained away; the glowing limiters faded back into the walls. Gaara’s voice steadied. So did Yashamaru’s.
Ryouma became aware of footsteps overhead, a presence on the stairs; Raidou, halfway down, with Genma behind him. He signaled them back.
It felt like one of the most foolhardy mistakes he’d ever made — rejecting Taichou and Fukuchou’s backup, now? But Yashamaru knew what he was doing. He’d kept the kid alive this long, kept him sane against all the odds. No wonder he’d never taught Gaara coin tricks, if he’d spent all his time teaching him this instead.
And Gaara, tiny and odd and terrified as he was, fought that monster down. Repeated the mantra until his voice was a dull, controlled whisper again; until his face was blank; until the tenth finger was folded down. Then he looked up, not quite to the level of Kakashi’s collarbones, and said: “He’s mean. He doesn’t like that name. It’s bad to make him angry.”
So it seemed.
With the chakra-limiters no longer overloaded, their iron bands returned to squeeze Kakashi’s temples again, filling the Sharingan’s viewpoint with painful starbursts. Regretfully, he pulled his eyeband back into place, and crouched down to put himself back on level with Gaara, carefully not looking him in the eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know that would make him angry.”
Gaara’s eyes widened just a little, the most emotion he’d shown outside of coin tricks and mild homicide. His narrow shoulders shrugged. “Lots of things make him angry.” He glanced at Yashamaru, then back at Kakashi’s collarbone and, clearly repeating a lesson, said, “It’s okay. You’ll do better next time.”
Kakashi’s mouth tipped crookedly. He couldn’t help himself. On the surface, Gaara was nothing like Naruto, but they shared a lot in desperate bravery and easy forgiveness.
“I’ll try,” Kakashi said, and sat down on the floor again. “Can you tell me what just happened?”
Gaara crouched down, resting on flat heels, with his stuffed bear back in his arms. No longer comfortable enough to sit like a kid; his posture was guarded now. He thought for a little while before speaking. “Shukaku was angry. When he’s angry, he gets really loud. He tries to come out. To break things.”
Kakashi said, “And your words helped make him quiet again?”
Gaara nodded. “Uncle taught me. Calm as a tortoise. Soft as a feather. Quiet as a mouse. I say the words ten times.” He tucked himself tighter, almost burying his face in Kuma-chan. “But sometimes Shukaku is too angry. He doesn’t listen.”
Very carefully, Kakashi asked, “Is it okay to talk about the last time Shukaku got loose?”
Gaara looked mutely at Yashamaru, who had settled down a little behind him, just within arm’s reach. Yashamaru rubbed both hands over his face, dragged them backwards through his bedraggled hair, looked at Kakashi, and began to explain. It took a while.
The pertinent details were these:
- Gaara’s control was weakest when he was asleep.
- Shukaku’s influence was weakest during the hottest parts of the day, when a nocturnal tanuki would naturally be asleep.
- Since Gaara would die without rest, they had arranged a system for him to sleep during the daytime, while Yashamaru kept watch. If Shukaku started to stir, Yashumaru woke Gaara up.
- Except this last time, Shukaku had broken through too quickly for Yashamaru to act.
“I was dreaming that I was outside,” Gaara said. “Then, when I woke up, I really was outside.” His mouth drew down, eyes flickering to the floor. “Father was angry. I’m not supposed to go outside.”
Not until Rasa could be sure that Gaara was a tame, controllable weapon. Something which seemed less and less likely with each breakthrough attack. Which begged the question — if Kakashi was able to fix the seal, what would Rasa do with his demon on a leash?
Minato had still sent Kakashi to try. Kakashi had to trust Minato knew what he was doing.
Kakashi said, “Your father’s kind of an asshole.”
Gaara’s mouth made a perfectly round little O. “That’s a bad word.” His expression flickered. “Shukaku is laughing again.”
“Yeah?” Kakashi considered his response. “Well, he’s an asshole too.”
Gaara didn’t react to this, which was disappointing — Naruto would have howled — but Yashamaru said repressively, “Do you have further questions, Kakashi-san?”
About a thousand, but only one that was really important right now.
“Yes,” Kakashi said. “Gaara-kun, would you let me look at your seal?”
Gaara hesitated for a long moment. “Shukaku might get angry again.”
“He might,” Kakashi agreed. “If he does, will you calm him again?”
Gaara’s hands twisted together, before he noticed what he was doing and made them still. “I’ll try, but he might not listen.”
Kakashi shrugged. “Then I’ll dodge.”
Gaara still looked deeply uncertain. He glanced at Yashamaru, who chewed his lower lip and nodded. Gaara’s face smoothed out into the mask of unnatural calm. “Okay.”
Moving slowly, Kakashi shifted until he was sitting within arm’s reach of Gaara. Gaara watched him warily. Kakashi said, indicating with a hand against his own sternum, “Can you lift your shirt up to here?”
Gaara did so, revealing a toddler’s rounded belly. His skin was pale with a buff, sandstone tint. Around his navel was a scrimshaw of faint, pin-scratch lines. Kakashi squinted, ducking in to get a closer look — and paused when Gaara made a noise very much like eep!
Yashamaru sat down next to Gaara, close enough that their sides touched, and began a calm recitation. “Calm as a tortoise. Soft as a feather. Quiet as a mouse. Calm as a tortoise. Soft as a feather…”
Gaara’s small voice picked up the chant.
Ryouma, who had been unnaturally quiet and still since Gaara had gotten Shukaku under control, sat down slowly next to Kakashi, and rested a hand on Kakashi’s knee. Yashamaru’s tired eyes flickered to the point of contact, then to Kakashi’s naked face — Kakashi was not thinking about that — and then away. The chant didn’t waver.
Ryouma’s chakra was flattened by the seals, just as Kakashi’s was, but the edge of it was still there. A faint, warm glimmer.
Kakashi put the awareness of it to the back of his mind and returned his full attention to Gaara. As he watched, the scratch lines thickened and darkened unevenly, like ink rushing through blood vessels. The shape of the underlying seal revealed itself in fragments, reacting as its prisoner bucked against the walls of containment.
Kakashi lifted his eyeband. The seals on the walls didn’t flare — Kakashi’s ghost of chakra was nothing compared to a jinchuuriki, even a fledgeling one — but the pressure of their resistance renewed his migraine, and the dampening effect ate holes in his vision. Still, he could see enough.
Very, very carefully, he brushed a fingertip against one of the bloated lines.
The instant snapback severed a fingernail’s worth of chakra and ate it.
Kakashi hissed and snatched his hand back. Gaara’s face stayed absolutely blank, but the black line around his eye was expanding, bleeding into the sclera. The left eye was still human, focused on the opposite wall. The chant was still steady and strong. But that right eye, an animal eye, black as a pit, swiveled independently to lock onto Kakashi like a predator, staring him down.
Ryouma’s fingers tightened around Kakashi’s knee.
Kakashi found himself oddly unmoored from any emotional response. His body was distantly frightened, pulse lifting, skin prickling, but his thoughts were present and clear.
“Shukaku,” he said evenly.
The right corner of Gaara’s mouth peeled back, skin rippling as sharp teeth melted down from the gumline — but almost as soon as the expression revealed itself, the rest of Gaara’s face closed off around it. Kakashi watched, fascinated, as the seal thrummed and Shukaku’s grin froze in place. Slowly, slowly, like a bear trap closing through honey, Gaara’s true face reclaimed itself, and Shukaku sank back into his cage.
A moment later, Gaara blinked rapidly, ending his chant, and both eyes were the same pale green again. One small hand crept up to rub the right side of his face. He looked at Kakashi’s ear and said, “Shukaku tried to come out again.”
The seal on Gaara’s belly was contracting back down, lines shrinking and vanishing under skin. Irrationally, Kakashi thought it looked smug, which was a hell of a thing for a wobbly construct that relied on the willpower of a three-year-old.
Kakashi said, “He did, but you stopped him. How do you feel?”
Gaara’s smooth brow creased. “Hungry,” he decided.
Ryouma levered up to one knee. “Bet the lieutenant could make something.”
Probably nothing the kid’s tastebuds were used to, unless he liked juiceboxes, but sure.
Kakashi tugged his eyeband back down, briefly digging a knuckle unto his throbbing temple. He had an urgent need for pen and paper — or a blank wall — and somewhere to think where the risk of death was slightly less arbitrary. But first, he boosted himself into a crouch and tipped his head at Gaara, letting the kid decide on the level of eye contact. Made his voice warm, sincere. “This was good. You helped me a lot, and I think I’ll be able to help you. I’ll be back, okay?”
Yashamaru was saying something to Ryouma about food in the fridge, but Kakashi’s entire attention caught on the tiniest upturn at the corners of Gaara’s mouth. An actual smile.
Gaara said, “When?”
“As soon as I can,” Kakashi said. It was the kind of non-answer that made Naruto crazy, but Gaara just nodded, as if he hadn’t expected anything better.
Kakashi didn’t pay much attention to the process of collecting Genma, Raidou, Minpei and his mother, or the collective questions that bubbled out of them. He didn’t notice actually leaving the house. He let Ryouma handle the people, and the direction-finding, and everything else. He was too busy thinking.