Warnings: Gore, this time of a death/decomposition related type; obviously, spoilers; language.
Summary: Because death is different when it happens to one of your own. Three perspectives on the Kazekage's death and resurrection.
A/N: I did research on stages of decomposition to make sure that the timeline made sense... and then, I realized that it's hard to tell exactly how long he was supposed to be dead for, anyway. :/
“Stiffs,” Temari had always said, offhand, smiling. (Because she was a jounin, a killer, someone who should be frank about death. –That? Oh, it’s no big deal for us.) She was one of those kunoichi who cracked jokes on assassination missions, as nonchalant as could be; she had never been the sort of person who worried herself with questions of respect for the dead.
But damn, was it ever different when it was Gaara. Somehow, it was easy to prepare herself for the worst; all the time she and Kankurou were running to find him, that word was echoing in her head, mocking her now: stiff, stiff, stiff, stiff...
And when she touched his face, she knew: he was already long gone. Kankurou questioned the Leaf nin in a low voice, and the blond shinobi in the orange practically bounced up and down with reassurance in response. But Temari knew better, and all she could do was keep looking down at her baby brother’s corpse.
Even though she was three years older, she had never thought of Gaara as little. She hadn’t ever bothered to take his size into consideration at all; some people just loomed in a way that had nothing to do with physical size. He still scared the hell out of her sometimes. (But poor Gaara, would they have to make a custom coffin especially for him? How small it would be....)
Yes, that’s what he was: the little one, the baby. I remember when you were born, she thought, and with a shock (why now, why over this when all the rest of the world was falling apart?) realized that she must be the only one left who remembered, since Kankurou was too young and everybody else was dead. Yeah, I remember when you were born, kid; even though I was crying because of okaa-san’s death, I remember that time when I cradled you and didn’t know you were a monster; I remember your fist, as little as a prickly pear fruit, clenched around my finger. (And sixteen years later, she still felt her hands squeeze into half-fists in remembrance.)
Still, it wasn’t until she learned about Chiyo, about what had and would happen that she knelt down in the sand and let her brother’s head rest in her lap. Nearby, Kankurou paced to and fro among the Leaf nin, all of them silent but the loud blond one– Naruto, his name was. He was smiling, congratulating the pink-haired girl– Sakura– for something or other, but Temari could barely understand his words. It was just too uncanny; all she could think was that there was some mistake, that all this was false hope, that the warmth she was starting to feel in Gaara’s scalp was only the sunlight working its way through his hair.
For hours– or at least, for what felt like hours– he struggled to breathe through muscles stiff (there was that word again) with rigor mortis, and there was little else she could do but tilt his head back and watch. But breathing, even as shallow and erratic as it was, was breathing; it was proof. It was also silly– actually breathing after lying dead in this stifling heat. That was absurd. She tilted his head to the side when he started coughing up blood so that he wouldn’t choke, the side of his face resting in her palm. That was where the real proof was: the clots of blood in her hand writhed with a translucent mass of maggots. (And two days later, when she followed a strange noise to find him bent over double, retching, she understood immediately.)
She yelled for everyone to get back, the Kazekage needed space to breathe in– that was the only way the underlings who were flooding in now were going to stop crowding close– and told Naruto to fetch some water, but not before the Leaf jounin with the pale gray hair had seen what was in her hand and raised an eyebrow in response.
It didn’t matter, of course. By the time Gaara’s eyelids were starting to flutter, she had composed herself. It wasn’t just him and Kankurou, after all; she was one of the yondaime’s children too; she also wore her own mask. So she was snide and catty, and she didn’t let the sympathy show through when Gaara’s unfocused eyes met her own. He was going to be okay now, or at least as okay as he ever was; life was nominally back to normal; the rest was just a show.
(Insult Kankurou and Naruto, stand with hands on hips, pretend like Gaara wasn’t just left with flies’ eggs hatching in his throat....) Somehow, the world had started to spin again.
But that night, she got clearance for the restricted areas and she walked through the morgue, back and forth again and again, just to look at the bodies, eyes wide with wonder.
Kankurou’s earliest memory of Gaara was of bringing some friend (he couldn’t remember the boy’s name; he couldn’t even remember what he had looked like) home to play only to see him killed when they were too loud and upset Gaara. That was so long ago now that all he had left was the memory unaccompanied by any sense that such a thing had ever actually happened, but he had never doubted its veracity. That was how Gaara was. That was family.
It wasn’t until he was in his second year at the Academy that he realized that he was strange. Other people talked with their siblings and even their parents on a daily basis; other people weren’t afraid of brothers so little they still wet their beds. His classmates hugged their parents or squabbled with them, but either way they seemed to be forgiven just like that; they didn’t have to prove themselves endlessly in order to even get an audience with their fathers. It was like the whole rest of the world bought into this strange, sugar-coated new definition of family that he could not quite grasp.
He promised himself that he would never be one of those soft, sympathetic fools. If a painful, suffocating death lurked within his own home, then he should never count on anybody else to protect him, not even Temari. He would not buy into that seductive idea of security; when it came right down to it, there was only himself and the rest of the world. Temari and Gaara were his allies, but that was all. They were not really connected to him.
In a world where everything else was chaos, puppetry was his life. Puppets did not need or demand, and he was not expected to love them. During the time he spent practicing his craft, his world was for once the paragon of order and control. Besides, the old puppet masters were like the parents he never had, and they taught him all that there really was to know: never believe in miracles, and always, always, look for who’s really pulling the strings.
And so it was, and so was he: never trusting, never believing, always glancing behind him to see whether Gaara was up to something, which he so often was. It may have put a knot in even his stomach when he realized the enormity of the fact it was his own father who had ordered his brother assassinated, but he still had to concede the point... How many times had he had other children blanch and run away from him once they figured out whose brother he was? Everyone he knew was terrified of that; those obnoxiously kind mothers of the rest of the students shook and held their children close whenever Kankurou and Temari and that walked to school together. (And in their minds, those women must have been seeing the beige wall of the Academy splattered red, their own contorted limbs dusted with the grit of sand.) Everyone said that Gaara was a monster, and when they thought that the kids weren’t listening, reassured each other that one of the assassins would be able to finish the job eventually, and then nobody more would have to die.
Maybe that was why he fought so hard to bring him back this time: because of all the blood and the way it had become so familiar.
(Because they had to really mean it if they said that killing was wrong; because it had to still be murder when his brother was the victim; because if human life was worth saving, then any life had to be worth saving; because somehow, Gaara was getting so much better now, and you couldn’t just throw somebody away when they really were trying....)
That was why he nearly throttled the village elder who suggested that they ought to just elect a new kazekage and not get themselves involved with this. There was no way you could call Gaara a “problem” for being what you made him (Yes, you; I know who you used to answer to, he had wanted to say, And by the way, did it make you feel powerful to order an A-rank assassination mission on a six-year-old? Did it?), then sweep his life under the rug.
Yes, he had never bought into that cozy ideal of family, but... Once they had gotten Gaara back, as he watched Temari kneeling, rubbing unconsciously at her eye, he wondered if maybe blood– which in this case could mean a lot of things, and to hell with it, he didn’t care– really was thicker after all.
(He had never bought into that ideal, but he thought of one certain type of family: the ones who mostly lived out on the steppe, not in town; who never told their children they loved them or showered them with gifts but did whip them as punishment; but who would kill without hesitation anyone who dared to hurt one of their own.
–If he had to, he would rather be the sort of family that fought back against the wall, knife in hand.)
And it was strange, but later he was the one who found himself lying face-down in his room, crying his eyes out without knowing quite why.
After the blur of color resolved itself into Temari and Naruto’s faces, after the roar of sound became recognizable conversation, after he realized that most of the surrounding crowd was from Sunagakure– the first thing that Gaara noticed was the unpleasant, oddly pungent taste in his mouth: blood. He had tasted it before, but this time it was different; this time it was his own. It wasn’t until he was on his way back to the village that he realized that the only times he had ever tasted his own blood before was when he was still a little kid losing his baby teeth.
(And there was something special about that: his own blood, just his own blood.... The sight of it used to terrify him; now the thought kept him mesmerized. It wasn’t the blood of somebody else; that he was used to. But this was part of his own wounded body.)
There could be no such thing as that unless there really was a him to bleed, a him to bring back. Chiyo and Naruto and Sakura, they were the ones who had believed in his existence, believed that a living Gaara and a dead Gaara really were two different things.
His whole body ached, even once the stiffness subsided; for days his joints hurt when he moved and all his flesh felt tender. And when he got back to his room to change clothes, he found that there were still dark, bruise-like marks from the blood that had pooled all along his back and the undersides of his thighs. (It was like he never saw before how much his own body meant to him until he saw it looking like this and felt its complaints.)
Or perhaps what was more significant was what was missing: for once, Shuukaku was no longer with him. That seemed almost impossible to even fathom; he had heard her voice whispering to him before anyone else’s. She was his constant friend and worse half, the one he loved but who he knew must not be allowed to have her way, the one he had to sate with the blood of strong shinobi so that she would not try to lure him into sleep. Oh yes, she was his mother; she loved him– but given the chance, she would devour him. Dear, beloved, terrifying mother....
As he sat at his desk that night and shuffled aimlessly through his paperwork (thinking how close he had come to never seeing any of this again), even with her gone he did not think of sleeping. Hell, he didn’t even own a bed. So it came as something of a surprise then when, after shutting his eyes for what seemed like only a moment, he found himself slumped over in his chair with his face pressed into his calender while bright yellow sunlight came through the window behind him and his aide knocked at the door, ready to deliver his morning report.
And then the memories surfaced of some time between now and then– was that what they called a dream?-- that was filled with a confused series of images (a woman– somehow he knew her to be his mother, even though his mother wasn’t a human like this person was–, receding into darkness; the brown fur of an animal surrounding a festering wound, crusted with blood; his own glazed, dead eyes) and other things he had no name for.
(That dream-mother had been drifting away from him into some abyss, and as he considered that, he knew: she– both of her– were gone; she was lost, forever; she was among the dead now.
And he was not.)
The morning sun danced across the far wall and crawled up the pale insides of his arms, and as he read the aide’s report, he sat and felt himself absorb the light and the warmth. Alone.