Title: The Little Graves
Characters: Sandsibs; also Yondaime Kazekage, Shuukaku, etc.
Genre: Angst, but with a happy-ish ending
Warnings: I'm just going to go with an all-inclusive violence and character death warning here.
Summary: There are some things you simply know, growing up as a child of the Kazekage. And there are others that you learn soon enough.
Temari is nine years old when she finds out what it means to be a child of the Kazekage. It means standing, as straight and tall as you can but still only a skinny little girl in spite of all your efforts, beside one of your brothers (the one who, despite all his talk, hasn’t actually killed anybody yet) while your father paces back and forth on the other side of his desk and explains in an oddly measured voice why he has ordered the assassination of your other brother.
It means not questioning this, or, at least, not questioning it within his earshot. It means not crying or doing any other sort of disgraceful thing, because you’ll be graduating from the Academy in three years, and if you cry now you might still be crying then— and what sort of pathetic excuse for a kunoichi lets herself get caught wasting her time weeping?
No, she learns that the only thing to do is to stay silent and listen, stand stiff as a statue, agree with the person who has the power. Three years from now, you won’t just be any kunoichi. You’ll be the Kazekage’s daughter. For that, it’s worth having to make do without feelings. To be that strong— it’s worth it.
(But she doesn’t feel strong, not really; the only really strong people in the house— in the whole world, even— are Gaara and their father. She and Kankurou are just like... like Kankurou’s puppets. They stand up straight only because someone who knows how to pull their strings is making them.)
Kankurou is a bully. Oh, so is Temari, and Gaara’s something else entirely, but of the three Kankurou has the most petty-minded malice. Left to himself he’s withdrawn and if given the choice he would prefer to be alone, but in company he puts on a great show of wanting to be the boss of everyone else— people he in actuality couldn’t care less about. He certainly makes the lives of the boys a few years younger than himself at school miserable, and when one of them talks back— it’s a bad break, the healers say. The boy’s arm takes months to heal.
No one is particularly surprised by this, but his teachers do occasionally remark on it. The one thing Kankurou truly enjoys is making and maintaining puppets, although they— the Academy teachers who for the most part don’t share his passion— have no way of understanding that. What they do see is that he’s of that particularly loathsome type of boy who mixes cowardice and a desire for power— why else would he prey only on those younger than himself?
—Except he’s not like that at all. He doesn’t want the younger boys to think he’s powerful; he doesn’t care what they think at all. And he has no fear whatsoever that someone his own age might best him. He doesn’t act out of power-hungriness or out of insecurity.
He does it for a much simpler reason than that. He hates them, these little boys. He does it because he really, truly hates them. And because the one he hates most is the only one he is afraid of.
Gaara is eight years old. Shuukaku is as old as the night.
Gaara doesn’t own a bed, but some nights he gathers some blankets and lies on the floor and pretends that he is sleeping, too, that he is like everybody else. He isn’t, of course. Sometimes he wonders what it’s like, sleep. He imagines it must be pleasant. Sometimes he slips into Temari or Kankurou’s rooms at night, and he always thinks they look so peaceful. He wishes he could be peaceful like that.
Since he can’t be peaceful, he contemplates killing them instead. Not because he wants to, not really, but because Shuukaku is the one who keeps him awake and she thinks it would be a good idea; she loves nothing more than fresh blood. Not even Gaara. My son, my good son, dearest son, a mother deserves some blood from time to time, in her honor—
—Temari turns over and sighs in her sleep. Gaara shakes his head and slips stealthily back down the hallway.
But the next morning, there is no breakfast to be had. All of the cooks are found lying face down in a pile, identifiable only by their uniforms: their faces have all been crushed beyond recognition. The Kazekage is furious.
Everyone makes mistakes, the Kazekage included. But some mistakes are more costly than others. He has himself begun to become rather like Gaara: the lamps in his office burn all through the night as he reads and rereads the reports of failed assassination missions. He is a relatively young man still, but he feels old. Ancient, even. Sometimes he goes to great library that holds manuscripts about all aspects of shinobi history; he’ll stay there for hours on end, scouring obscure texts in hopes of learning of some particularly clever method of assassination, something that would finally work—
He is always just a little bit surprised when he looks in the mirror and finds that he still has no gray hairs. No, not today.
Kankurou spends so much time with the puppet masters that their guild has become a second home to him. —Actually, a first home. It’s the other one that comes second. Partly it’s because of his training; he hopes to already be proficient with puppets by the time he graduates. He has talent, real talent; he owes it to himself to be above the rest of his class. But it’s also because he feels at home there in a way he never has in his real home, and he loves and admires the puppet masters more than he could ever love or admire his own family.
What does he admire about them?
—Everything. He admires them for being old and cunning, or rather, for being cunning enough to become old. He loves that they care about blueprints and diagrams and little delicate bits of engineering in the same way he does, and he loves that they don’t much care for discussing their feelings since he doesn’t want to talk about his own.
When the old puppet masters tell stories about all the things they’ve seen, Kankurou listens rapt with attention. They remember all sorts of things: times they won battles and times they lost them, old comrades who died young, times they met the first three Kazekage. Of course Kankurou’s favorites are the stories about Akasuna no Sasori, legendary both because of his skill as the finest puppet master Suna has ever known and because of his mysterious disappearance. (And there are a few portraits of him that Kankurou’s seen, a thin, pale boy with red hair— just like so many people in Kankurou’s own family! If only he could have had Akasuna no Sasori for a brother, instead of Sabaku no Gaara....) But in truth, he will gladly listen to anything they have to say: their stories are always dramatic, and callous, and insightful.
One day when Kankurou has only a few more years of schooling left, one of the puppet masters, an old man (blind in one eye now and half blind in the other, but in his day one of the most celebrated puppet engineers), begins to reminisce about his own days in the Academy. —Things were different back then, of course. These days, everyone’s gone “soft”. (Kankurou can’t help but feel a little uneasy about that, because he doesn’t want to be soft, he doesn’t.)
“It was called, ‘The Burial of the Heart,’” he says: some people made it through the graduation exams, which were much more deadly in those days, and some didn’t... But whether you did or not, it didn’t matter: you were dead all the same. There were those whose bodies died at the hands of their classmates; they were buried a few days later. And then there were those whose hearts were dead even while their bodies lived, and those were the ones who became shinobi.
“They don’t do that anymore, do they? Probably think it’s too intense, or it’s not right or something. And even if they did do it, they wouldn’t take it seriously, would they? But we did. When our teachers took us out into the desert and we all stood around the empty grave they’d dug and swore to uphold our duties as shinobi— it was serious. We knew what it meant. ...No, I suppose they don’t do that anymore at all....”
Kankurou has never heard of any such ceremony before, so he supposes they don’t do it these days. But it makes no difference, not as far as he’s concerned: he knows that his heart must have died a long time ago.
Temari’s father is a great shinobi. She knows that. Even the poisonous scandal caused by Gaara’s mere existence cannot entirely obscure that fact. People might whisper things about him behind his back— how could they not, given what Gaara has become?— but in person? Never. He has the type of steady, cool look that commands instant respect. It’s what the Sand nin expect of their leader; they wouldn’t stand for anything less. They want a leader they can fear; that’s the only way they can be sure that others will fear him too.
Temari certainly fears him: not because she believes he will harm her (and what a pathetic kunoichi she would be if that were her reason!) but because she knows she will never surpass him. That’s why she flinches every time under his cool gaze. He is stronger and more powerful than she could ever hope to be.
But she knows something special, she knows the one thing that he never will. This is when she finds Gaara standing over the body of another would-be assassin, just standing there, with no particular expression on his face and a mild, blank look in his eyes, almost is if he were bored.
She knows: when word of this gets back to her father, he’s going to sigh in that drawn-out way that he does and spend the night pacing back and forth in his office; he’s going to spend the night thinking that he’s lost again.
She knows: he doesn’t know that he has already won. Won in the way that really matters.
Gaara says nothing, and eventually saunters back to his room in indifference.
(And time passes like... Like sand in an hourglass.)
Kankurou pulls the starched sheet aside. It has to be done. He has to do it.
What is he to make of his father?
Orochimaru, selfish as he is and cruel as he is, left the body lying face down in the desert, where the merciless sun beat down on its back every day. Kankurou’s father has no eyes; what skin is left is thin and dry as paper. Kankurou steels himself, reaches down and touches bare teeth where lips should have been.
“When is the funeral going to be?” asks a voice from the other side of the mortuary. Kankurou looks over his shoulder and sees Temari leaning against one wall, trying to look casual, or— more likely— trying to look like she doesn’t really care. And next to her, Gaara. Looking like he’s trying to find the right words to say.
And Kankurou’s siblings, what is he to make of them?
Yondaime Kazekage never talked much about who he would have wanted to succeed him as Godaime Kazekage. The elders know only a few things for sure, and among them... They know who he would never have wanted to succeed. Never.
(“Still,” murmurs one of the elders, as they sit through yet another meeting and a warm draft comes through the open window, “There are other considerations...”)
The moon rises like a silver coin over the dune. Gaara watches as some sort of night bird hops along through the scrub. There’s something about the full moon that sets Shuukaku on edge; Gaara has known that since... since forever. He has only now realized that perhaps it would be for the best if he spent the night of the full moon out here in the desert— alone. He can do that much.
Shuukaku isn’t too happy. She wants what she wants, and she’s used to getting her way. Shuukaku really might be as old as the night, but Gaara—
Gaara is thirteen years old, and thirteen is young enough to change.
They have been sitting in the otherwise empty conference room for nigh on three hours now. A lady has come in with a teapot and three earthenware cups, and come back an hour later to take them back to the kitchens. Kankurou has fidgeted around and got up to go to the bathroom more times than Temari would have thought possible. Gaara has been looking, apparently absent-mindedly, at the painting of a tall, rocky mountain that hangs on one wall next to the window.
“They must be having trouble coming to a decision,” he mutters after a while, pretending not to notice that Temari has been trying— without success— to spy on the council in the room across the hall for the better part of an hour.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “We all know they’re going to pick you.”
“They don’t,” Gaara replies in an inscrutable tone.
“Hey, don’t worry,” says Kankurou slyly. “If they don’t come through, Temari and I will help you stage a coup, how ’bout that?”
“Ooh, in that case can I install myself as Gaara’s... his grand vizier or something?”
“No fucking way, sis. I’m definitely more grand vizier material than you are. I can’t— I can’t believe you don’t know that. Don’t you think, Gaara?”
Gaara smiles a little, which is very good for him. Kankurou laughs.
The traditional robes of the kazekage are made of fine, soft linen. The fabric rustles in an unfamiliar way around Gaara’s body.
Really? Shuukaku wonders.
Yes, says Gaara. Really. I. Me.
Temari shades her face with her hand. According to custom, these things must be done in the full heat of the midday sun; that’s what makes the mourning feel real. From a nearby window there is the delicate sound of wind chimes, but they chime only occasionally. For the most part the day is very still: the incense smoke hangs in the air for a long time before dispersing, and away from the smoke she thinks she sees small clouds of flies. So this is real, then. Just a year ago it wouldn’t have seemed possible.
She takes her grave gifts, wrapped in an elegant silk cloth, and with a small curtsy places them on top of the casket, then retreats back to her place on the far side of the grave as Kankurou leaves his gifts, and then Gaara his.
According to custom, one Kazekage must not be laid to rest until the next has taken his place. Gaara is Kazekage now— Gaara is Kazekage, and has been for a week.
Temari isn’t sure what she thinks of the funeral; it’s easy enough to consign someone’s— anyone’s— body to the earth with nice words. Most of the difficult things in life are the ones to do with the living. But she does know one thing: their father will never know that he has lost.
(And Gaara— Godaime Kazekage Sabaku no Gaara— goes to stand next to his siblings.)
You know, I read somewhere
That souls do not die.
...Okay, so writing this I was trying to figure out when the hell Gaara actually became Kazekage. It seems like it was a while after their father's death. But in that case... wtf, who was running Suna that whole time? Narutoverse, you baffle me sometimes.