Absolute Zero

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AN: Um. Random angst. It's probably not who you think it is, either. Any guesses?

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Sensei…when did you first…do this?

Kill a man?

Yes.

…A long time ago.

His hands are cracked and blistering, and his bare back aches in the summer heat. The sun is streaming through the trees at a precise angle, splashing across his own little slice of paradise, illuminating everything in the sepia-gold of twilight. So he wipes a hand across his brow, the sweat stings as it comes into contact with the unhealed gash over his right eye, and he sighs and continues working.

Sensei…

When did you first…?

The shovel is old and brown and beaten, like him after he's been too long in the sun, and the blade has been polished to a shine by being repeatedly jammed into the earth. Each rock, each grain of sand is just another obstacle that it has to get past before it can get to its goal.

…kill a man?

He's not sure why he does it. Why he stops, and why he digs, and why he buries the bodies. And then he remembers…

The dead don't bury themselves…

It's not a ninja thing to do. Ninjas are quick and clean and efficient, and when they strike, they strike fast and hard, and they leave everything far behind them as they wing back whence they came. They're the worst kind of predator, because they don't kill out of necessity. They don't eat their prey, they don't require their skins for warmth or their eyes to see or their hearts to bleed…they kill because they're told to kill, because someone, somewhere, decided that death should become a necessity…no, a commodity. And that it's something that should be bartered for. They come out alive because death is not an option, because in a fight where it's you or them, you make damned sure that you're the 'you'. And you don't think about what might happen if you ever become the 'them'.

Then…is that why?

She probably didn't even want to know, and was just making friendly conversation. Well, not so friendly. But she was a few months shy of her thirteenth birthday and she'd just killed a man, and she had no one else to ask, and so she'd come to him.

Sensei…?

…a long time ago.

The shovel hits a rock, and he stops a moment. Stops and sighs and looks around and realizes that his job is still so far from over. He could dig a mass grave. He could split the ground itself, create a sepulcher to hide his sins, but that would be cheating, and he…doesn't believe in cheating, because if he can't do things his way, then there is no other way.

He'd tried to kill a friend of mine. It's hard to believe in death when you're just a child. Some part of you…

…believes that they'll get back up.

Sensei, when did you…?

"Sensei!" she calls him by his title and never his name, but he supposes that's okay because names breed familiarity. She runs towards him and she's grinning widely as she offers him a glass of lemonade. He takes it and smiles at her, ruffles her short hair. She doesn't look like she's just killed a man. She doesn't look like she's a few months shy of thirteen and already having nightmares. She looks like a normal kid. She could be home playing with dolls, ragging on her older brothers, helping her mom bake cookies, for crying out loud, and yet she's out here with him, learning how to kill.

"Thanks, kiddo," he tells her, taking a deep drink of her proffered gift. It tastes good. Sweet and not too bitter, just the way he likes it. "Did you share with your teammates?"

She looks to the ground. "I tried, but…but he got mad at me and he told me he didn't have time for stupid things and he…" she trails off, sighs dejectedly and then brightens. "But it's okay, because I saved most of it!" Under her breath, she mutters 'That idiot…' and he knows just who she's talking about.

"You're still doing this, sensei?" she asks as she pokes the ground curiously with a toe. "Is it really necessary…? I mean…I know that…but it's hard, because…when you look at them after you've killed them, it's like…it makes it real."

He smiles. "Hah, yeah, it does that."

Her answering smile is tentative and just a little hollow. "Well…"

And the dead don't bury themselves.

"Besides," he tells her conspiratorially as he leans down, one hand still on the worn handle of his shovel. "It's not like they can do it themselves, right?"

Startled, she takes a step back. And then she's grinning again. "R-right!"

He takes the time to wonder why he does this, day after day. Why he takes on a team and he trains them up and then he turns them loose in the world to go get themselves killed. And then he remembers.

They're just kids…

He knows he can train them, if they're willing to listen. Knows he can teach them how to take a life, can show them sixteen different ways to kill a man using just their thumb, no special jutsu necessary. So he does it, because he knows it's something he can do well, and maybe…just maybe if he tries hard enough, he can save the ones he cannot spare. So he tries to teach them that it's not a game, that they're gambling with lives, real lives, and that the people they fight have families, too, and won't their mother miss them when they're gone? Won't their lover cry herself to sleep each night, clutching some treasured piece of the past? Won't their brother take an oath and hunt them down, screaming vengeance to the blood-soaked sky?

But no. To children, it's not war, it's a game. It's not death, it's winner-take-all. And they keep believing that until it's too late, and they wake up screaming one night, and all they remember is death, and they ask themselves where has my innocence gone! But it's not a question he nor anyone else can answer, because the answer is never twice the same.

So he pats the young genin on the head again, and she gives him a grateful look, and he shoos her off to make more lemonade (sweet, not bitter, just the way he likes it) and he keeps digging graves.

No one else is going to do it, after all.