Inherit the Meek
Spoilers for Gaara's birth. Rated for gore.
The problem with Karura is that she is too beautiful for her husband. Her silhouette bleeds gold around the edges when she strolls through sunbeams, drifting like a goddess among the cobble-pasto of Sand Village huts. Gauze and linen drape her limbs to keep them cool from desert heat. In Yashamaru's eyes, Karura is a fountain of grace; the Yondaime is not, particularly when he scowls at reheated stew for dinner.
Yashamaru loves to watch his sister. She walks from home to war with equal patience, treating the worst injuries without flinching. She is not trained in medical jutsu, but she can carry Yashamaru's supply kit, and she obeys his terse instructions when he's pinching wounds closed with his naked hands.
Karura is calm and sweet and endlessly kind, but what makes her the most beautiful to Yashamaru is the serenity she reserves for the dying.
She is happy when told of her third pregnancy. She hears the diagnosis from him first, after she knocks on his door complaining of mild nausea and he lays his gentle hands on her stomach; she discusses the child with him first too, sitting on the table of the private examination room attached to his office.
They had always been inseparable: she older, he younger, both with the same delicate features and supple laughter. The Village calls them twins. The Village knows them well. Two partners on the battlefield -- Karura with cold towels in her hands to ease away pain, her shadow close behind with the salve.
"What do you think it will be this time, Yashamaru?" Her heels dangle over the edge of the table, swinging loosely. It's high noon outside. Yashamaru can hear the cries of the water sellers as they trundle squeaking carts underneath wide umbrellas, extolling the virtues of lukewarm tea with honey. "Boy, or a girl?"
"I think it will be darling," he answers honestly. "Just like little Temari, and Kankuro. You have miraculous children, Karura."
"You!" His sister kicks out one foot, striking him lightly on the shoulder. "You always say that!"
"It's always true!"
They talk about ages and nutrients and growth charts, comparing Temari's infantile hiccups to Kankuro's fussiness over nursing. Yashamaru smiles with her. His pen moves over the evaluation sheet, marking off her current weight and blood pressure. Excitement helps them ignore the stiff, hot air of the afternoon that not even wicker-leaf fans can completely banish, and their conversation gallops onwards.
Together they travel down imaginary generations, counting off potential grandchildren, dreaming unbroken chains of inheritance. Karura has a kimono from her mother that she'd like to pass on to Temari; for Kankuro, an old wood-flute that still smells of her uncle's pipe-smoke.
The hours pass quickly. The water sellers go home for dinner. Evening crawls its slow way across the rooftops of the Village, and the two siblings tease out the conversation with longer and longer pauses, until finally it winds down to the one inescapable conclusion that neither can deny.
Karura turns her face to the window. All the enthusiasm drains away, leaving her skin as smooth as water at dawn, and just as precious.
"When do you think I should tell him, Yashamaru?"
He's puzzled. "Why not tonight?"
"I've heard my husband talking with the elders." She doesn't meet his eyes. Her hands stay in her lap, limp as two overworked dogs. "He's been worried about the reduced defenses of Suna. The council believes that if the Daimyo continues to restrict our forces, we will need to look into new means of protecting the Village."
A shake of his head. "Suna has been dwindling for years. What does that have to do with your child?"
She looks down. Her throat is a pale dove; it flutters when she swallows.
They agree to be silent for the first month. But during the second, when Karura begins to blanche at the mere scent of fire-pit roasts and is forced to stagger away nauseated, even the genin of Sunagakure take note.
Rumors fly for a week. Yashamaru doesn't expect theYondaime to break down the door, cheering wildly and extolling the virtues of his wife. Karura's first pregnancy was met with sparse celebration; the arrival of Kankuro garnered even less. When he remarks on this to Karura, she replies that Sand has forgotten the significance of new life long ago.
After the second week of whispers, Yashamaru is convinced that his brother-in-law is both blind and deaf.
But when Yashamaru shows up to his office one morning during the third week, there's a paper tacked onto his door. The penstrokes are crisp with authority. They order Yashamaru and Karura to attend the next Sunagakure council, which will meet at 09:00 hours tomorrow, and neither is allowed to go missing.
Being included at twenty-one years of age is expected to be an honor, but Yashamaru elects to sit out of the initial proceedings and stay with Karura instead. He is not needed for the opening stages of discussion. Apparently neither is his sister, for Karura spends the first hour napping on the couches of the circular waiting room, uncurling every few minutes to steal a bite of cold bread from his lap.
The building is quiet around them. A few errant officials show up late. Others leave early.
Sand's authorities are fond of arguing, and Yashamaru wonders how many days it will take before they finally wind around to the business of Karurua's pregnancy.
He's in the middle of swishing his teacup to stir up the sediment when a glut of elders marches through the waiting room. Yashamaru has a glimpse of Chiyo's stern frown, bobbing alongside her own brother as they both file into the meeting.
Leaning over to Karura, he finds her ear with his fingers. Tracing it, he whispers with mock-solemnity, "This must be important if they're getting the other Siblings in."
She relaxes a fraction at the old jest. "Maybe. Though you don't look nearly as ancient as the Honorable Ebizo yet."
"And you're still taller than Honored Chiyo."
"I hope I'll never live to bethat short," she parries, stretching her legs out on the couch and flexing her shoes. The canvas of the left is wearing thin, and Yashamaru makes a mental note to get her a fresh pair soon. "But if I do, you'd better shrink with me!"
Their laughter is broken by one of the ANBU. Yashamaru feels a heavy touch settling onto his shoulder; he glances up to see the stylized hunger of a beast staring back.
"It's your turn. Just him," the ANBU adds when Karura starts to sit up. "You may be called later."
She frowns, but flops back down obediently.
For once, the Kazekage is not sitting in his chair at the council table. Instead the man paces the floor, black boots on white-flecked tiles, black anger on his tanned face. The last time Yashamaru saw him was five nights ago at dinner, and it looks like the Yondaime hasn't changed at all since then -- as irritable and twitching as a shaved cat in the sand.
He snaps out a line before Yashamaru has even finished sitting down. "You are my wife's medic."
Yashamaru settles into his chair, spreading his vest flat with his hands. The formality is overboard, aggressively rude; he elects to let it slide over him without fighting back.
"She's with child, isn't she."
"Congratulations," Yashamaru informs his brother-in-law softly, wondering why it feels like a losing battle to try and hold the other man's gaze. "I think it will be a boy."
The Kazekage snorts and spins on his heel. His jacket whispers poisonous secrets to his ankles. "And you say this option has a high chance of success?"
Yashamaru tries to digest the outburst, but it's Chiyo who answers the question; planting both hands on the table, the wizened elder rises to her feet, glaring across the room. "We must make use of all available resources, Yondaime. Consider the risks against the benefits before you decide."
"So be it."
Familial defensiveness rumbles inside Yashamaru. He doesn't understand the Kage's tone of voice, but he knows he doesn't like it. "While I'm here, brother." The elders mutter at Yashamaru's audacity. The ninja continues anyway, pitching his voice to carry across the hushed meeting chamber. "How is your second child doing? I heard you were enrolling Kankuro in additional taijutsu classes."
The Kazekage snaps a hand in dismissal. His restless steps have taken him around the entire circumference of the meeting hall; the prowl never stops. "Kankuro is not meeting my expectations. Temari is too weak. You will evaluate Karura's chances of a successful pregnancy to full term and inform me of any potential complications. That's an order."
Yashamaru wets his lips with his tongue, but doesn't protest.
For hours, he answers truthfully about Karura's medical history. The elders interrogate him about her blood type and physical compatibility with various levels of chakra, examining each facet of the genealogy charts. They obsess over her allergy to certain types of flour. Her grades from the Academy are hauled out for review; through this, the Kazekage paces, refusing to look at the data presented while he scowls at the floor.
Yashamaru accepts the questions with an unruffled calm, tolerating the strangeness of the meeting. When it's over, he exits to the tepid air of the waiting room, and finds Karura asleep again, hands tucked against her chin.
The council delivers their verdict two weeks later.
Three ANBU push into his office one afternoon, looking hot and uncomfortable . The tallest drops an envelope on Yashamaru's desk, right on top of the scrolls he'd been browsing about the latest medical advances with certain types of snake poisons. Next to it, they set down a thick packet that bears thin letters across the brown-paper wrap, scrawled in an imperious hand that was too proud to be intelligible.
Surprised, he glances up at their impassive masks, and cracks the envelope open to read.
"You're not serious," is his first incredulous comment.
They say nothing.
Yashamaru's fingers make a tiny shudder. "The Kazekage can't have agreed to this. It isn't... this isn't right."
"There is no right or wrong when it comes to the defense of Sand," one of the ANBU finally replies, barking out the declarative. His voice is muffled behind the mask. "Karura is the best match that was found among the potential candidates. The first stages of the ritual will begin tomorrow. Please prepare her as soon as possible."
Yashamaru brings the news to his sister that evening, along with the crumpled letter. He'd balled the paper up and thrown it against the wall when the ANBU had left, wishing that the words could be torn up and reality along with them; only after several hours went by did he retrieve the message from the floor, averting his eyes as he did.
She absorbs the report in perfect silence, splaying the paper between her fingers to make the kanji lie flat. When she's done, she turns the page over and studies the back, as if she's looking for a postscript that does not exist and never will.
"You could run away," he suggests quietly, tasting the treason of the statement. "I could... I could take you somewhere."
Her lips press themselves together. "No."
"But... you can't possibly agree to this, Karura. I'll talk to Yondaime." The table rattles as he pushes his chair back. "I'm sure he'll also want to find a different way of using this Shukaku demon."
She shakes her head to hide the grimace; her fingers are iron bars as they latch around his wrist. "They're fools." Her voice is dispassionate. "The elders may think this will solve everything, but nothing will really change in Sunagakure. Nothing will fix Sand, and my husband doesn't care."
The paper crinkles as she picks it back up again.
"It says," she reads aloud, "that my appointment is tomorrow."
Yashamaru's muscles shiver. The protest crashes out of him like a jutsu gone bad, wild energy scrabbling at his lungs before it writhes out of his mouth. "You're going to let your life be thrown away so casually?" The smell of goat-milk bread from dinner sours his tongue. "I can't believe Yondaime is willing to treat his own wife like this. How can you accept it, Karura?"
She turns her head up towards him, and her smile is as bleak as the desert in winter. "I can't."
- - - - -
He is her sole escort to the hospital the next morning. The Kazekage has already left by the time Yashamaru stops by their house, shivering against the pre-dawn chill. He stamps his feet on the road as he walks; only a few guards are awake at this hour, and all the stores are dark.
Chiyo's packet of instructions includes lists of which medicines to drink beforehand, and Yashamaru mixes dose after dose of carefully measured powders into water. Karura swallows them all without protest. After a few minutes, she blanches and runs out of the room; Yashamaru prepares a second round of cups when he hears her retching from down the hall.
Karurais unconscious for a week after the procedure. Yashamaru shifts his work schedule to accommodate. He lives at the hospital, reading charts, checking notes. Snippets of the ritual are kept within her case file and he spends his time piecing the evidence together, scribbling copies ofthe evaluation sheets. There are no references to any other potential test subjects who might have been suitable for Shukaku; for all he knows, Karura might have been the only one they even considered to begin with.
No answers appear during in the first trimester. There are none in the second either. Yashamaru adjusts his goal, shifting it from staving off the demon infection to simply keeping Karura alive, and finds just as little hope.
He's not good enough at jutsu to undo what Chiyo's wrought, but he tries anyway.
His sister's stomach swells like a fruit. It gets between them both when he tries to hold her after she wakes up crying in the night. Nightmares drain her energy; insomnia kills his. The two of them are mirrors in their haggard conditions, but Yashamaru brushes out his sister's hair each morning and swears that she looks fine.
"So funny," she murmurs into his shoulder after one particularly bad dream. "I've always been the one who comforts the dying. Now I'm one of them."
"You're still alive, Karura." The words come out flat. "We can't give up."
Karura presses her forehead against his neck. The round curve of her belly feels like a cyst when his arm brushes against it, and Yashamaru struggles not to flinch.
- - - - -
Chiyo knows his intent as soon as he steps into the research lab. The Shukaku ritual has claimed the entire hospital with its ratty beds and dusty curtains, but the actual work is concentrated in one makeshift chamber on the third floor. Every medic who has been called in on Karura's case has spent at least one shift gathering notes there; for Yashamaru, it's become a second home.
Old teacups are scattered everywhere across the room. Reports are hung up on all four walls, taped in place and edited each day. One doctor is asleep at a table in the corner, his fingers sprawled across the data folders he'd been transcribing. Chiyo has ordered up lunch by the smell of it; the scent of meat broth and nut-flower bread lingers as Yashamaru pushes open the door and lets it swing closed behind him.
As he draws breath to speak, Chiyo cuts him off first.
"It's impossible to reverse the process without killing her." Sliding off her stool, the woman trundles it several feet down the line of diagrams before clambering back up to pencil tiny notes on the chart. "So stop wasting your time."
He pads over to join her, weaving between the countertops with their strangely-colored vials. "But she's going to die anyway at this rate."
Chiyo hums a sigh. She braces a ruler against the wall, counting off the lines until she reaches the appropriate mark and pencils a dot next to it. "And what do you want me to do about it?"
Yashmaru's mouth opens. Nothing comes out but a soft huff, too mild to be considered a protest.
When he doesn't leave, Chiyo glances up. Her thinning eyebrows twist in surprise. "It's too late to stop Shukaku now, pretty boy. You had plenty of time to speak up about it. I saw you at the council, didn't I?" Reaching out, she jabs her pencil at his forehead, poking him brusquely with the eraser until he steps back. "You helped provide information for the decision without even asking what it would be for. Hah!"
The harsh crow of her laughter echoes. Across the room, the doctor stirs before falling back to sleep.
"I didn't... " Yashamaru begins, fighting the urge to remain silent. His instincts yield to authority; it's another trait he and Karura have always shared. "I didn't know. But my sister doesn't want this to happen, Honored Chiyo. She never did."
A snort, and Chiyo is climbing down to push her chair further down the wall. "And I didn't want my son to die either. But look where we both are now." Flipping her ruler ninety degrees, she marks off another line from Karura's life. "If you want to resent something, then hate the other Villages for putting us in this situation. I had my share of hopeless struggles in theThird War. Leave this old woman alone."
- - - - -
Karura looks at him with pity when he comes back to her, feet heavy, shoulders bowed.
"You are such a sweet brother, Yashamaru," she says, putting her pretty hands on either side of his face, cradling him with fingers that are too cold. The temperature of her extremities have been dropping ever since her first trimester, but her belly is hot as a kunai left out in the desert-noon sun. "I will miss your kindness most of all."
He frowns, stubborn in his denial. "How can they do this to you and your child?"
"The thing in my stomach is not a baby, Yara," she chides, slipping into their old cant, childhood rhymes whispered in secret babble that only the two of them understand. "It is an evil seed. What a Village we have become, to bid our hopes on a murder like this because they think it will make us stronger. How contemptible. But this creature will not be controlled by them. I promise that. It will have my revenge for me once I am gone."
"You do not mean it, Karu," Yashamaru parries gently, pulling her fingers away from his eyes, speaking with the same quiet patience that he uses for detox patients. "When you recover, you'll think differently. Your son is still human, and you will be strong enough to see him born whole."
His sister recoils. She shakes her head in sharp, violent jerks. "Could you love this creature, Yara? Knowing how they had killed me with a clean conscience in exchange for this?" Tears begin to leak out her eyes; Yashamaru, watching the way her cheeks curve underneath the crescents of her lashes, makes a little sound in his throat and reaches out to brush them away.
She catches his palms and kisses them, left to right.
"Stay with me tonight?"
Yashamaru frowns, his wrists locked in front of him. "We are not children anymore, sister."
"My husband sleeps in his office. He refuses to speak to me, except to come and ask the doctors how big my stomach is getting, if my health beginning to decline yet. He does not even notice me otherwise. I am no longer his wife -- I am only a carrier." Karura's face contorts. She yanks Yashamaru's hands forward, pressing them to her chest; one of his pinkies bends against her breast and he tries to move away, uncomfortable. "I am going to die alone, alone except for this thing inside me. I want to cut it out and throw it away, and at least while I lie there bleeding to death I will be able to say that my life was ended by my choice."
"Karura," he whispers, tasting each syllable, drawing the kanji of her name with his breath. "Don't say things like that. There's still time."
She laughs breathily, and tries to lean against him. The bulge of her stomach stops her halfway, forcing her arms to reach out to bridge the distance. "Silly Yara. You are my reflection, my twin, myself. You should know how doomed we are."
- - - - -
It ends too quickly.
Demons are born when their host runs out of life -- not from labor -- so when Chiyo leaves a memo on Yashamaru's desk to stock supplies for a C-section, he understands why. All the same, he shoves the paper to the bottom of his reports, covering it with a file like a guilty secret.
He sees his face in the reflection of a metal sample dish later that day, and is unsurprised to see how weary and pinched it has become from tension.
The charts say that Karura has four weeks before her estimated due date. Projections coat the walls in the research lab; Chiyo lines her teacups underneath the huge bar graph that plots out Karura's chakra spikes for duration of her pregnancy, adding a new one for each day.
Karura's hospital room is a cruel mirror of the research center. Instead of data, every inch of the walls is painted with wards: ugly ritual characters spelled out with red ink. The bed looks like a laboratory cradle, complete with sterile white sheets tucked around his sister's body. Thick leather bands circle her arms just above the wrist and around her elbows, forcing her arms to remain extended for full access to the veins. IVs stud her skin in a rainbow coils, pumping fluids down their translucent length and into her bloodstream.
She tries to move one of her hands as he approaches her bed. Failing, she smiles wistfully.
"Why are there restraints on me, Yashamaru?"
"It's..." He can't finish the lie. His sister's question was matter-of-fact -- she's too intelligent for honest confusion. So he offers the truth up effortlessly, knowing as well as she does that there is nothing that can be done to change it. "They're afraid... you'll hurt yourself."
She tries to laugh. Her skin is as yellow as candlewax. Twin hollows ring her eyes, a dark bruising that's begun to purple with no sign that the trapped blood will ebb. "There isn't much left to hurt." Her voice is wry. "I can feel the monster killing me. It whispers to me even when I'm not asleep. It tells me how much it wants to be freed."
"Not yet," he reminds her. "Not yet."
Her fingers scrabble at his leg, catching a fold of his vest. When he reaches down to clutch her hand, his first impression is that he is touching a bundle of cold sticks.
"Why didn't we fight this, Karu?" Her skin doesn't warm even when he presses it between both his palms. "If only we'd worked harder, maybe..." His voice trails out, wavers, and then wanders in a hopeless circle. "Maybe. Maybe."
"No," comes her quiet refusal. "We did exactly what we're capable of."
She begs for painkillers when there's three weeks to go. But Chiyo's dictates are very clear: nothing extraneous can be risked if it might affect the development of the demon-child. The only chemicals that are tolerable are nutrients and antibiotics, keeping Karura's flesh alive despite any wishes to the contrary.
Yashamaru nods obediently each time the elder lectures him. But at night, when it's just him on duty, Yashamaru pulls his chair down the hall and sits outside his sister's room to listen to her weep.
- - - - -
"He looks weak."
"He's only a baby, Kazekage. All children seem fragile when they're born."
The answer does not appease the man's disdain. "If your sister had been stronger, she could have lived a few more weeks," he grouses. "Now we're stuck with this."
Yashamaru has nothing to say. Blood coats him from fingertip to elbow. His surgical gloves are slipping down on their own accord, plastic second-skin bunching up on his arms. He is running on two hours of sleep. He has just finished cutting open his sister.
Karura had started screaming that morning at 06:34. The entire hospital staff had been alerted within five minutes, messages rung down the halls and emergency contacts sent out to call in the specialists. Yashamaru had been at home. He stumbled in at half a run, bleary and unwashed, uncertain of the date and panicking for a calendar.
They'd tried to tighten the restraints on her limbs, but the leather bands had snapped out of their bracings. Without the option of sedation, four of the strongest ANBU had been forced to pin her down bodily, throwing their weight against her wild thrashings. All too soon, the number was cut down to three; one of the ANBU had bolted from the chamber, crashing against Yashamaru in panicked flight.
Yashamaru took only one step inside before he saw what drove the man away.
The sheets had been pushed down past his sister's stomach, exposing a pale mound that seemed to pulse from within. It bulged at odd angles, flexing with muscles that should not exist, turning the surface of her belly into a caramel sheet that was being stretched obscenely tight.
Whatever was inside Karura was attempting to claw its way out by force.
At 08:56, Chiyo came puffing through the doors. Her hair was scattered from its tidy bun; the woman looked as disheveled as Yashamaru, both of them panting faintly with exhaustion. Unlike him, she took a cursory glance at the room before giving a solemn nod. "Begin the procedure immediately. The child must be extracted."
Yashamaru's eyes skirted to the side in disbelief. He drew in a shallow breath, just enough to manage three careful words:
"She's still alive."
"Not for long. There's no time to waste. Hesitate and they'll both die," Chiyo ordered, and Yashamaru had whispered a plea to half-forgotten gods of mercy while he reached for the scalpels.
Now he's standing in the operating room with a child -- a child -- in his hands, and the fluids of his sister halfway up his arms. The baby is crying. Chiyo's voice hovers in the background as she orders the remaining ANBU to pour sand over Karura's body, more sand, cover her up entirely with it, hurry before it's too late.
For his part, Yashamaru keeps his attention on the Kazekage and tries very hard to ignore the lingering, familiar whimper behind him that's dwindling steadily away.
If the Kazekage hears it as well, he does not even glance in Karura's direction. Instead, his gaze condemns his newborn son.
"He's only a few minutes old, Yondaime," Yashamaru tries again. "He'll grow up to be a capable shinobi."
"Make that a guarantee." The man folds his arms impassively. "You will be responsible for him, Yashamaru. Teach him to hate our enemies. Teach him to kill for us. This boy, this... did his mother give him a name yet?"
A bitter jolt laces through Yashamaru at the Kazekage's rejection of his own wife. "Gaara," he informs the other man, turning his face away in passive rebellion, though he does not step back. "She wanted his name to be Gaara."
"A cheap name." The Kazekage shrugs. "Your sister did her part. Now it's your turn, Yashamaru. I order you to show him no kindness. Make him into a loyal warrior for Sand."
Yashamaru takes his time before answering his brother-in-law. Instead, he begins to meticulously wipe the baby's face, drying the creature's skin with a corner of the swaddling blanket. "I will take care of him," he responds softly, skirting around the edges of promise. "I will carry out my sister's wishes."
He stands in the operating room for hours after the Yondaime leaves. The ANBU finish their task eventually underneath Chiyo's supervision, collecting ruddy clots of sand into plastic bags and labeling each with a number. When they are done scooping out handfuls of gore from Karura's open stomach, one of them pulls a sheet over the woman's contorted body, and leaves her in peace.
Chiyo takes her leave last of all. She offers no words to Yashamaru as she passes, her chin perfectly level, eyes straight ahead.
In the aftermath of the birth, the hospital slowly begins to remember its purpose again. Yashamaru can hear the sound of carts wheeled up and down the halls. Doctors prepare their schedules for normality again, common colds and infections rather than forbidden ritual. They want to leave the ordeal behind; the workroom and operation table and corpse are up to him to clean up now, since there is no one else.
He absently pats the bundle in his arms.
Eventually, it stops crying.