To Cease to Exist
Description: Can wounds really be healed? Can love be gained or offered in a world of hate? A look at different phases of Gaara's life, before, during, and after the Konoha Invasion. A Gaara and Kankuro-centric fic. Angst/family/brotherly bonding (bromance).
Disclaimer: Gaara, Kankuro, Temari, and the Naruto-verse are copyrighted by Masashi Kishimoto and Weekly Shonen Jump. I am making no profit; this is just for fun.
Warnings: Graphic violence, coarse language, mentions of child abuse. Rated M.
A/N: This story is an expanded and amplified version of "To Cease to Exist," which was written for my 15,000 page view kiriban on DA, Jan. 2009. I always wished I'd been able to fill it out more, so I decided to take this opportunity to do so.
Part of chapter 1 (and the new sub-arc) is inspired by Storymaster Caith's fic "Poison." It's a fascinating fic; please give it a read.
Translations, jic: Kaa-san means "mother," nii-san means "older brother," and ototo means "younger brother."
"Two roads diverged . . . [One] bent in the undergrowth"
— "The Road Not Taken," Robert Frost
Chapter One — Bent Road, Age 10
A monster lived in the Kazekage's house. A monster that killed so it could remain alive. A monster that defined its existence through death, feared being voided, and hated being unwanted and unneeded.
In the darkness, Gaara sat on the rooftop, glaring at the nearly-full moon. These were the three worst nights of the month for him: the full moon and the nights before and after it. Shukaku always clawed inside his head, scratching and whining like a dog, hissing and growling like a cat. His ears would ring from the pressure of it; his head would ache until his eyes felt as though they'd bulge out and explode from his skull. Occasionally, even still, he found himself wishing someone cared that he suffered. That someone would hold him and comfort him during these long, painful, sleepless hours.
No one ever came.
If ten years of life had taught him anything, they had taught him he was utterly alone and could trust no one. They had taught him that people lied with a smile, hated without thought, and killed without remorse — and so Gaara had become a killer of killers. However, tonight no assassins should come. Even Yondaime Kazekage knew better than to tempt Gaara's control on nights like these.
Gaara pitched forward, doubling over and clutching his head in his hands. The screaming intensified: "Bring me blood! More blood. I thought you were a good boy. Can't we kill? Can't we? If we don't, you'll cease to exist. I don't want that."
Groaning in pain, Gaara tried to fight back the murderous impulses. If he gave in, he would lose another piece of his personality. It presented paradoxes that Gaara couldn't resolve:
Mother is in the sand. The sand is Shukaku.
Mother said I must kill others in order to exist. If I give in completely to the impulse, Shukaku will eat me, and I'll be erased.
I need to kill because I'm a monster. I don't want to be a monster.
I must survive. I wish I were dead.
The tension pressed on his lungs like an inflated balloon, as though he were being suffocated from the inside — agony, anguish, despair. Sometimes he wished he could cut himself. He'd tried once. Tried and failed and then been lied to about love. Sometimes, though, he wished he could slit his wrists open. He wished the sand wouldn't protect him, that he could bleed all the blood from his veins, watching it flow crimson and hot down his arms, down his face, down his legs. He wondered what the pain would feel like, but it hardly mattered. He hurt on the inside, all the time, everywhere, no matter who he was with or what he was doing.
He wanted it to stop.
No one would care if he died, anyway. No one. They really all wanted him dead. Assassin after assassin came, and he wondered, just wondered, what it would be like if he didn't fight back. The sand automatically protected him, but he wasn't arrogant enough to think he was all-powerful or infallible. His own father could kill him if he wanted to. He was the Kazekage; he had enough power to. Gaara knew his father was a coward, though. He hid behind screens and smoke, giving orders from the safety of his rooms, surrounded by his personal guards. He would never attack outright, never take his son's life with his own hands. He wouldn't risk the political backlash of personally committing a child murder, and he wouldn't risk releasing Shukaku upon himself directly. Instead he ordered others to do it, like Uncle Yashamaru.
So what would it matter if Gaara killed himself? He knew he couldn't stab himself; no physical attack would work. But there was poison. He could stir up a mixture like a cocktail, sip it like a fine wine — all the things he wouldn't experience because he'd be dead at age ten. In fact, he even knew where he could get the poison: his brother's room. Kankuro had been studying poisons at least since age eight, when Gaara had been officially brought "home" to the Kazekage's Complex after Yashamaru's death. So he knew about Kankuro's poisons, knew about the way he applied them to his puppet's weapons, knew about all those reference books Kankuro read. Gaara had even twice caught him dosing himself with them, clearly trying to build immunity so he could never be killed by his own weapons. Yes, the older boy sported an impressive array of poisons.
And so the thought teased Gaara's mind that he could steal into Kankuro's room, perhaps while he was off on a training mission. He could pick a vial, any vial, and gulp down the contents. Then he could bury himself in the sand and disappear, taking Shukaku with him. Boy and beast alike gone forever. And then perhaps, just perhaps, he could be free of the pain, that pain which burned in his chest, scorching his heart, pounding in his skull, and liquefying his brain one cell at a time as Shukaku battered him and abused him from the inside.
"Make it stop," he hissed, doubling over and smashing his face into his knees. "Make it stop!" He panted, gasping as the pain intensified. "I don't wanna be alone. Why is it always me? I'm tired of being alone."
"Just kill them all," the Other whispered. "Release me. Let me avenge you. I'll rip their arms off and dash their brains out on the floor. I'll paint the walls with their blood. Their screams will be a beautiful chorus, a song of their deaths. They'll gurgle in their throats, pink foam frothing on their lips, and we can laugh. We can make them pay. We can make them hurt."
Half of Gaara's soul reached out, trying to embrace that darkness. He didn't understand what sex was, but still his soul bloomed outward, trying to make love to that velvety blackness, so hot and yet so cold. He wanted to lose himself in it, release himself into that unconsciousness, let Shukaku possess him, use his body, make use of him.
The other half of Gaara's soul rebelled. No, he didn't want to cause that death. He wanted to be inside that death. He wanted kill the hurt and stop this endless parade of abusive consciousness. Instead of feeding it with his own violence, murdering all those who tried to assassinate him, he wanted to receive that death, take it into his body, possess it, be possessed by it. Be no more.
"Live for me, Self-Loving Demon. Kill for me, avenge me, and fight for your existence."
"Kaa-san," Gaara gasped, clutching his head in his hands and squeezing brutally. His mother's voice always came to him in these moments, making impossible demands.
"Love yourself; live only for yourself."
"But I want to die," he argued, fighting against 'her' voice. He didn't love himself. Not truly. He didn't love anyone or anything. He'd tried. Tried to comprehend injuries, tried to comprehend pain. Tried to understand what love was and believe he had it.
But he didn't. Love was a kanji burned into his forehead.
Distantly, a dog howled, sounding sad and alone. Gaara understood that agony. He was always alone, even in a crowd. A flicker of movement registered in the corner of his vision. A flick of a wrist; a flash of steel in the moonlight. An assassin who didn't understand to stay away during the moon's fullest phase. Fool. Gaara didn't try to defend himself, but the sand encircled him, protecting him. Angry that he couldn't just let the bastard kill him or at least fling himself from the roof and make himself splat on the hard-packed sand below, Gaara shrieked in rage and whirled toward the assassin, wrapping him in sand and squeezing slowly, so slowly. Bones creaked, snapping one by one; the man's screams were muffled by the sand.
Subaku kyu, Gaara mentally recited, squeezing his hand and pulverizing what remained of the man. A spray of blood flew outward, raining upon him, and he lifted his face, letting the hot drops splash upon his cheeks and forehead. Suddenly, he wanted to bathe himself in the blood, and he licked his lips, tasting the salty tang and grinning, a laugh pushing up his throat from his sternum.
Yes, a monster lived inside the Kazekage's house. Gaara knew that monster was him.
A monster lived in Kankuro's house. Not the kind that hid under your bed or in your closet. Not the kind that visited in dreams or showed up in movies. A real monster. The kind that could kill you.
Kankuro walked behind Gaara, staring at his younger brother's red hair. It wasn't often that all three of the Kazekage's children went anywhere together, but Chiyo-basama and Ebizo-jiisama had both retired, prompting a huge party. The Kazekage had required his children to attend, and Gaara's inclusion seemed to be related to his slow stabilization. The brat was cold and hateful, but he at least no longer lost control of his sand all the time. After four years in the academy, Gaara had learned to manage and restrain his ninjutsu, sometimes going as long as six months between Shukaku's appearances. When unbothered and unprovoked, he even acted like a model of politeness and decorum.
And so — lucky me — I got to spend the entire night "babysitting" him at the party, Kankuro thought, frowning. Or, rather, both Temari and he had been charged with watching over Gaara and making sure he stayed calm. Of course, once Gaara showed signs of irritation, Kankuro had been ordered to escort him home. Gaara didn't like crowds. Gaara didn't like parties. Gaara didn't like people.
"Stop staring," the boy growled without turning around.
Kankuro glanced away, not even bothering to ask how his brother knew. The sun had set, casting the village into shadows that blackened the streets and billowed in the alleys. Kankuro felt relieved that the full moon had passed, otherwise he would've automatically feared for his life. He often wondered why he couldn't have had a normal brother, but he had learned it was his father's fault.
Gaara glanced over his shoulder, frowning at his older brother as though he could somehow read his thoughts. "The party was stupid. Those old freaks are just washing their hands of the village. It's not worth celebrating." He faced forward again.
"You're right, jan." Kankuro stared at his brother's back, his gaze catching on the crimson obi that secured Gaara's black kimono. He'd been aware for years that Gaara was more insightful than a typical child. He wasn't sure why, but his brother was far more perceptive and articulate than a ten-year-old. He just seemed to see things others couldn't, even if his understanding seemed twisted at times.
Gaara didn't speak again until they reached home. He slid open the door and slipped out of his wooden geta, pausing before he stepped up onto the hardwood floor. "You didn't wear your face paint."
"Nope." Kankuro kicked off his own geta, wondering what his brother was getting at.
"Put it back on." Gaara glanced over his shoulder again, his eyes narrowed. "You look exactly like Father, so looking at you like this makes me sick."
The entire world stood still. For a moment, Kankuro couldn't breathe, move, or even think. From down the hall, he could hear the indistinct voice of a man talking over the radio — probably from the cook listening to the news while he washed the supper dishes. Kankuro felt so surreal that it seemed more like overhearing a conversation from another world. Then the pain crashed into his chest like a sand storm, and he felt a burning sensation expand from his heart, down the undersides of his arms, and out into his fingers. "Whatever, jan." The performer inside took over, leveling out his voice and keeping his face expressionless. He stepped up into the mansion and headed upstairs.
No reply followed him. Gaara had fallen into silence again.
Although he meant to retreat to his bedroom, Kankuro ended up in the bathroom instead, staring into the mirror. In truth he wanted to cry. He hated his father deeply; he hated that he looked like the bastard. Puppeteers who'd been officially inducted into the Puppet Corps could choose to wear face paint. After passing the initial induction exam at age nine, Kankuro had gained two advantages: a personal tutor and the paint. The Corps had suggested purple for him because it symbolized nobility and he was the Kazekage's son. He'd accepted that rite of passage gratefully.
Kankuro turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on his face, enabling himself to pretend like there hadn't been tears in his eyes. With slow movements, he dried his face and opened the vanity drawer, pulling out a tin of paint. He dipped his fingertip inside. His fingers felt numb; his heart felt like it would explode all over his lungs. To a certain extent, Gaara couldn't have handed him a worse insult.
Even though it was night and Gaara would never know the difference, Kankuro touched his finger to his face, drawing the familiar lines.
Despite Gaara's insult, the following morning found Kankuro sticking to his usual routine. He awakened thinking his usual thoughts and preparing for his usual plots: I wonder what kinds of poisons they'll use on Gaara today.
Kankuro stretched slowly, glancing toward his footboard to make sure he wouldn't accidentally kick his cat, Akako. Akako, though, had already sensed that he was awake, and she stood, her body trembling as she stretched mightily, arching her back high and yawning. Kankuro watched with a certain jealousy, wishing humans could stretch that well. He pulled his arm out from under his covers and held out his hand. Akako meowed, although it sounded more like a squeak, and trotted across the mattress, her tail held high, the tip curled over like a candy cane.
"What do you think?" he whispered to his longtime friend. "Prussian blue, cyanide, arsenic, or foxglove? Or maybe even lye?" He'd lost count of the number of poisons they'd tried to murder Gaara with.
Akako butted his hand with her head and then rubbed against him, demanding attention. He petted her soft fur absently, her purrs nearly lulling him back to sleep. Still, he'd already overslept badly as it was. He should get dressed and head downstairs. Akako, though, plopped down right beside his hip, pushing her head under his hand and tempting him to stay put.
"Demanding, aren't we?" Kankuro smiled at her. She was a brindle, cinnamon in color, and had the softest fur of any cat he'd ever seen. He couldn't notpet her. She would follow him room to room in the mansion, climb into his lap, or lie beside him on the couch, and no matter what he was doing he ended up automatically petting her. Then again, he loved cats. He was considering designing his puppeteer's costume to include cat ears. Puppeteers were expected to be creative with their designs, after all, and when he graduated from the academy, he'd be expected to have finished his outfit.
Finally, Kankuro forced himself out of bed. It was nearly noon. On Sundays, he always overslept — the only day he could — and he had to take advantage of sleeping late while he still could. In two weeks, he'd both turn twelve and become a genin, and then he'd begin officially taking missions, including on Sundays.
Akako followed him around as he dressed, rubbing against his legs, then followed him downstairs. She dashed ahead of him on the staircase, trying to take the corner into the kitchen at a dead run. Of course, she slid on the hardwood floor, plopping down on her butt and flying down the hallway several feet. Kankuro had to laugh, especially when she stood up and flicked her tail as though to say, I meant to do that.
"Cats are so funny," Kankuro told her fondly. Yeah, he thought, watching her trot through the kitchen doorway, I definitely have to give my hood cat ears.He reached up, pushing aside the curtain and stepping into the room. Although he'd smelled grilled chicken from the stairwell, he somehow didn't expect to find what he did: Gaara, sitting by himself at the table, a grilled chicken salad in front of him.
Stopping in his tracks, Kankuro stared at the food. Shit, he's already eating lunch? Gaara never ate breakfast, so even if Kankuro overslept, it wasn't an issue. Lunch and supper, though . . . He always needed to check both meals for poison.
Gaara glanced at the cat, then up at him, frowning. "Noon? You're so lazy."
As though he didn't hear him, Kankuro stared down at Gaara, fighting off a sense of panic. "You fixed yourself lunch?" He had to ask, even if he already knew the answer. Gaara couldn't cook much, and he certainly wouldn't fix himself a salad.
Gaara stared back at him, unblinking. "No."
Without pause, Kankuro nabbed a finger-full of food and popped it in his mouth. He adopted his punk persona as he did, smirking faintly as though daring Gaara to say anything. He hesitated, tasting the salad, really concentrating, and making it look like he thought it simply tasted bad. And it did, but only to him. It was poisoned with foxglove, which was almost undetectable in a salad. Nearly. Just a trace bitter, metallic sheen buried under the flavor, almost like sour spinach greens. The kind of thing anyone else would ignore.
Kankuro felt all the blood drain from his face. Even he would have to take an anecdote if he ate the entire meal. Fortunately, it looked like Gaara had only taken a few bites. He'd probably be okay if he didn't eat any more. At worst, he would vomit or have diarrhea and maybe get a bad headache. It could be passed off as ordinary food poisoning.
If Kankuro could stop him. And he had to stop him without telling him the truth. Truth was not an option. At best, Gaara would fly into a rage, and Shukaku would appear. At worst, he would confront their father, who would figure out that Kankuro had been protecting his ototo, and the punishment for sabotaging an A-rank mission daily for two years was something Kankuro didn't even want to contemplate. It wasn't like being the Kazekage's son would save him from the punishment, after all.
For a suspended second their gazes met, Gaara's a glare and Kankuro's a badly-covered fear. He hated what his brother had become. Hated and feared it. But he blamed his father for it, not Gaara, and above all else, he wanted to be a nii-san. He wanted someone to protect and care for, fight beside and train with — a kindred spirit. More than that, he considered it blatantly wrong for a father to attempt to kill his own children. He could remember a time when his father was almost kind, or at the least hadn't been cruel. Life had been normal then. Sane. It had made sense. Then Kankuro had learned about the standing assassination orders; he'd learned about his mother's murder. And his father's mask had fallen off.
After that, Kankuro had learned a reason to wear a mask of his own. Maybe that mask could help him now.
"Get your own food," Gaara finally hissed, apparently irritated that Kankuro had not cowered and run away under his glare. "Don't steal mine. No wonder you're fat."
Kankuro froze where he stood, the words cutting deeper than Gaara could have guessed. He'd hit puberty early, the youngest boy in his class to do so, if looks were a measure. He was taller and broader-shouldered than all the others. Bigger. At first it'd been a point of pride; he'd waited impatiently for his beard to begin to appear, although it hadn't yet. Then, suddenly, it had been turned on him by the class bullies, and although he could beat them up, he couldn't erase the pain of their hateful words.
For a brief, brief moment, Kankuro considered letting his insane brother eat the poisoned food. It was a black thought, making him feel sick and defiled, and he dismissed it immediately. But he couldn't quite feel guilty for it, either. From that hesitation, however, came a plan: Kankuro had technically been provoked. He could take action and have it make sense. "I'm not fat, jackass." He hit Gaara's plate, swinging wide to be sure to knock over his glass as well. Likely it'd all been poisoned.
The plate hit the hardwood floor with a crash, shattering and sending the food flying. The glass thumped over, splashing juice on the tabletop. In the silence that followed, the sounds seemed by contrast to be deafening.
Kankuro glowered at Gaara, faking anger. In truth, he felt terror. Terror that his brother had nearly been poisoned and terror over his own potential fate.
Gaara stood slowly, straightening with such a sense of purpose that Kankuro thought he could hear his joints creak. He faced his older brother with a look of intense loathing, and Kankuro couldn't breathe. His lungs felt heavy and constricted, iced over. Cold sweat trickled down his back, tickling his spine, and beaded on his temples. Still, he held his ground, determined to face death bravely. It was strange how he found courage in these moments. If he enraged Gaara by accident, he tripped over himself apologizing. If he enraged him on purpose — especially in a case when it involved protecting him — he didn't say a word.
"Worthless piece of shit," Gaara growled, his eyes suddenly bloodshot.
I'm gonna die. Strangely, the flat factualism of the realization bled away some of Kankuro's fear. Weird, but it didn't seem to be as great of a tragedy as he used to think. Had he somehow grown apathetic toward his own life? He found he only hoped that Gaara maintained enough compassion or composure to crush him instantly. No, he chastised himself. I have to stay alive for Temari.
And so went the supposedly final thoughts of an 11-year-old boy.
Gaara turned abruptly, his face blank and stoic again. "It's not worth it. You're worthless." Cold words, emotionless. He exited the kitchen silently, leaving the mess for Kankuro to clean.
It worked, Kankuro thought, his shoulders slumping in relief. He tried not to think about Gaara's parting insult. Gonna have to find a way to kill our cook without raising Father's suspicions, though. He sighed to himself, wondering how he'd become so tainted that he could matter-of-factly ponder killing a civilian. Still, it was obvious to him that the cook was behind the repeated poisonings.
Kankuro cleaned up the mess and cooked his own breakfast. Unsurprisingly, Gaara returned in a quarter-hour and stole his food. He sat quiet and motionless at the table while Gaara grabbed the plate and left. No problem. There was more on the stove. Besides, mission accomplished.
He was almost to the point of congratulating himself when he stepped out into the garden and found the corpse.
At first, he thought it was a crumpled, bloody shirt. Confused, he headed toward it. Who would leave such a thing outside? As he neared it, though, he collapsed to the ground, his body abruptly limp and heavy. He didn't even feel the hot sand burning his legs and hands.
It wasn't a shirt.
It was his cat.
"No!" His scream filled the entire courtyard and bounced off the sides of the mansion. He reached toward the mangled body; she was misshapen with sand matted in her blood. When his shaking fingers touched her soft fur, he found she was still warm to the touch. He wanted to pick her up and cradle her to his chest, but he couldn't bring himself to move the body.
Gaara had killed her.
She had died in his place, unknowingly sacrificing her life for his.
"Why?" Normally, Kankuro never allowed himself to cry. At the death of his friend of nine years — the loving companion who'd been by his side every day since he was a toddler — he was instantly overcome. He burst into tears, his wail echoing in the garden.
Distantly, he registered the sound of a door sliding open. The thump of running footsteps on wooden floors reached his ears, followed by a pattering across raked sand. "Kankuro?" Temari's worried voice, then a horrified gasp. Thin, warm arms encompassed him, and he accepted the embrace without resistance.
"Why?" he repeated, sobbing into Temari's shoulder. He stared beyond his sister to his little friend's limp body, reaching toward her, gesturing at her. "Why?" His voice escalated sharply. "She was innocent. She didn't do anything wrong. She couldn't hurt him even if she tried! She's just a cat." He knew he was hysterical, but he couldn't stop crying. "She was — she never — she wasn't tainted like me." He wasn't making sense. He didn't care. "But she didn't know, so she loved me anyway, and he crushed her to death!"
"I'm sorry." Temari wasn't a crier, either, but he could hear the tears in her voice. She hugged him more tightly. How long had it been since they'd hugged each other? "I'm so sorry, ototo." She rocked him back and forth gently.
Kankuro clung to her, unable to stop sobbing. Was this what love brought him? He tried to care, tried to do the right thing, tried to protect his family, and it won him punishment and death?
"What the hell is all this blubbering about?"
The cold, angry voice evaporated Kankuro's tears like nothing else could. He stiffened in his sister's arms and felt her tense as well. Their father had arrived unheard and unnoticed, like the topnotch shinobi he was.
"Gaara killed Kankuro's cat," Temari said quietly and calmly.
Kankuro already knew her attempts to save him would be in vain. As of late, his father was increasingly disappointed in him. He wasn't stoic enough. Not soulless enough.
"All that wailing over a cat?" Hands grabbed him and yanked him from his sister's arms. "You're crying like a little girl over a cat?"
Kankuro knew from experience not to fight back, not to even block. The more he resisted, the worse the beating was. His gaze fell on the stone pathway, which suddenly angled sharply in his field of vision. Pain exploded through his skull, but internally, he was already numb. He could hear his sister begging and pleading, trying to reason with their father while he yelled. His ears rang between the hits and the words like "You'd better toughen up" and "You call yourself a man, must less a shinobi?"
Yes, there was a monster in the Kazekage's house. A real monster, the kind that could kill you.
Kankuro had known for years that the monster wasn't Gaara.
A/N: I love cats, I promise. I own cats. Sorry for the animal trauma.
Thank you to Chi for betareading this and to all who review!