Author's Note: This story utilizes Ariel D's version of Yondaime Kazekage, Hirohiko. Hirohiko is used here with permission.

All of His Children

All of his children are different. Karura had told him once that he would celebrate that fact, learn to love them for themselves and none other. Know their smiles and their tears of pain, their joy and their innermost thoughts. That he would cherish them.

(She thought that fatherhood would suit him. He wanted her very much to be right, because he never wanted to let her down, never wanted to know her tears of pain.)

So Hirohiko tried and for the first few years it was fine, not what he expected but definitely not anything to be horrified of, to shy away from. And then Gaara came and Karura left and he wondered what to do, because suddenly everything was hard and nothing was right and she wasn't there when he went to sleep, wasn't there when he woke up in the morning. She was somewhere else, she was gone, he was alone…

And there were these children, these beautiful children, and they needed him, and they loved him, and they expected him to be able to be three people at once. Not just two, not just Mother and Father, but Mother and Father and Kazekage. He had to parent and go to work, too, and there was no one to watch the kids but Yashamaru. Yashamaru had his hands full with just one. Temari and Kankuro had to be left with a nursemaid, and they hated it, and they cried every time he left.

The sight of those tears and tiny clutching hands as his two toddlers reached out for him from their play pen every morning made him feel like needles were being stabbed through his heart, it hurt so much. But he could reach the door, he could wave good-bye and say, "I'll be home later, I love you."

It was when he stuck his foot outside the door that Temari and Kankuro's distress grew unbearable. It was when he was in danger of disappearing from sight that they wailed, "Daddy, no! No, Daddy, Daddy, come back!"

And he'd turn right around, the maid standing right by their crib awkward and ignored, and cross the room in a heartbeat, picking up a child in each arm and clutching them to his chest. He'd spend another twenty minutes murmuring sweet promises and pressing kisses to the tops of their heads, tears seeping into their downy hair, still floral from last night's bath.

Finally, when everyone's tears had been exhausted, Hirohiko handed them off to their nursemaid, and went in to work, and no one was happy with him because he was thoroughly late. It was as if they didn't understand he was a single parent with traumatized children, children who could and did remember losing their mother recently.

But he kept his head down and worked, because otherwise he might not have a job at all, and then what would happen to his precious children? He worked through the morning, until two in the afternoon, and he felt completely choked, suffocated and buried under paperwork. He fled the office and ran back to his home, kissed Kankuro and Temari on the head, fed them their snack and put them down for their afternoon nap.

Then, he went to Yashamaru's to visit Gaara, to lean over the crib and let Gaara curl tiny hands around his finger, hold on and look up at him with wide, wide eyes. Eyes the same color as Karura's. He talked to Yashamaru about feeding schedules and diaper changes and showed Yashamaru what Karura had taken pains to learn and show to him, so that he could be a good parent.

Once he felt utterly exhausted, he walked back home, ate dinner with his two small children while trying not to nod off at the table, and retreated to his bedroom to collapse.

In the morning, he did it again.

Sometimes, during the night, he had to get up and soothe his children's nightmares. Usually 'mommy-mares', as he'd come to call them. It would be Temari or Kankuro sniffling out a story along the lines of, "Mommy was here but now she's gone," or, "Mommy fell down and got hurt," or "Mommy jumped off a cliff and disappeared!" Horrifying things that he couldn't imagine bearing at their age.

When it was bad, he'd gather them together and take them to bed with him, instead of leaving them in the nursery next door to his room. Baby monitor or not, one wall was too much space between them after a really bad 'mommy-mare'.

He found himself hoping, rocking them to sleep, that they would never have a 'daddy-mare'.

Temari and Kankuro's nightmares faded, and they grew taller and older and braver. Kankuro became obsessed with cats, and Temari with karate. He reacted accordingly, adopting three cats with Kankuro's assistance and hiring a karate instructor for Temari, a middle-aged man who came to the mansion's dojo three times a week and called his daughter Mari-san. She liked it.

When his children became old enough, he took them over to visit their little brother. Gaara was a timid, but intelligent toddler, and seemed more than willing to spend time with his older siblings.

Hirohiko was beginning to hope that his family was mending, could finally find time to stop and breathe…until Shukaku awakened on Gaara's fifth birthday. Ten years early. At a local park, no less.

No one had been seriously injured, but Hirohiko had been called before the council and verbally whipped for allowing this to happen (somehow it was his fault, somehow he ought to have known this would happen, even though the specialists who had sealed Shukaku into Gaara had assured him that they would make sure the demon didn't awake until his son was fifteen years old and ready to handle such a responsibility).

He found himself pleading for his son's freedom.

All he did was slow down the inevitable. A year. A year of digging his heels in, of pleading and reasoning and cajoling, and a month after Gaara's sixth birthday, the dam finally broke.

"Gaara is a threat, Yondaime," one of the councilmen said.

"With due respect, I believe you are wrong about Gaara," Yashamaru said.

"Let's test that theory, shall we?" someone suggested.

Hirohiko wanted to die.

"How do you propose we test Gaara?" Yashamaru asked.

"We test his control," another man said.

Hirohiko began, "Then you are all invited to witness the next training session I conduct with my son…" He trailed off at the room full of shaking heads.

"We are not interested in training sessions," a councilman said. "We are interested in real-life situations."

"A test," another said. "I call for a test. A pop quiz, if you will. See if Gaara can handle the sudden stress of an unforeseen situation."

"That's a terrible idea!" Hirohiko blurted. He immediately wished he'd shut his hand in a waffle iron instead.

"It's like taking away a child's toy," a councilman said contemptuously. "A child may cry, but he shouldn't cry and scream and destroy everything around him in a one-mile radius."

"Why should a parent take away a child's toy?" Yashamaru countered.

"I have raised three sons," the man said. "One of whom is now an ANBU captain. I trust my judgment and experience over the judgment and experience of a man who hasn't even married."

Yashamaru took the stinging insult without reacting. "Marriage is not the same as parenthood."

"Neither is being ordered to take care of a child," the man said.

He waited a long time after that council meeting, sitting in his chair after everyone was gone. Yashamaru stood and waited for him. Waited for him to make the right decision. But he couldn't, because he was a failure (wasn't he born that way?) and the council was the council, and if he didn't do this they would surely ask him to do something worse, like kill his own child. How could he kill one of Karura's children?

She would be furious with him, she was furious with him already, probably, probably yelling from the afterlife at his thick head and his weak spine. (Though she had never yelled at him once in life. She had always been the kindest person he had ever known.)

"Take his mother away from him," he said to Yashamaru.

And Yashamaru, being Yashamaru, still said (even after all the discussion that went on in this chamber), "Are you sure that's wise?"

No, I'm not sure! He wanted to yell. Who do you think I am? Of course I'm not sure! I'm a wreck! I'm not sure of anything, least of all this, oh, God, please forgive me!

But because he was Kazekage he gave his brother-in-law an icy stare and said quietly, "My orders are final."

Because God knows if they weren't, he would be changing his mind every ten seconds, and what kind of Kazekage would that be?

But Karura was not a toy, and Gaara was not just any child, and Shukaku rampaged through the city until Hirohiko could catch up with the beast and stop him. Gaara almost died of suffocation inside his own sand, and Yashamaru did die, had died, and Hirohiko wasn't sure how or why Yashamaru was burned beyond recognition.

All Hirohiko could do was retreat into his house, carrying his unconscious child, and spend the night waiting for Gaara to wake up. He was stunned at the bizarre cut on Gaara's forehead, which under the blood was in the shape of the kanji for love. Nevertheless, he treated it like any other wound and put ointment on it, then covered it with a bandage.

In the morning, everything was different. Gaara hated him, seemed to hardly recognize him, and rambled on about being alone. Kankuro and Temari were worried about their little brother and scared of Gaara's anger.

Hirohiko scrambled to find some specialist, some psychologist or medical ninja who could tell him what was wrong with his child, but no one could, no one could even stay in the same room as Gaara due to the child's violent magnetism release, and he was forced to try to reason with Gaara alone.

The result was pandemonium. Gaara accused him of sending Yashamaru to kill him, before attacking with all the strength he had. Hirohiko sustained scrapes and bruises out of sheer shock, unable to counter the first few attacks quickly enough to avoid being scored. Kankuro and Temari were hysterical, and Hirohiko ended up using a jutsu to knock his own son unconscious.

He promptly stumbled to the bathroom and threw up.

When he was done shaking and hyperventilating, he stumbled back out, gathered up Temari and Kankuro, and took them to the living room. They clung to him, their cheeks still tearstained.

He sat down with them on the sofa and tried to get his bearings. This was going to be the most difficult discussion of his life. Harder than the 'Mommy is dead' talk. He was so numb he could hardly think.

"I love all of my children equally," he began.

The explanation unfolded itself as he went along. Gaara would stay with them, Gaara was not well and needed to be treated very considerately, since he was sensitive. No one was going to get hurt because Hirohiko would make sure that everyone was always safe.

"Please don't approach Gaara on your own," Hirohiko finished. "He is easily upset right now. I have no doubt that when he is feeling better, things can go back to the way they have always been. But for now, please respect his privacy."

"Okay, Otousan," Kankuro said obediently. He was always the obedient one.

"Yes, I will," Temari said, and for now, she was being honest. Her expression was still a little wide-eyed from what had happened.

Hirohiko knew it would affect all of his children for a long time.

But he hoped, someday, they could be a family.

Gaara calmed down over time, though it took six months to see glimpses of the timid son Hirohiko was familiar with instead of the angry Shukaku-posessed psychopath. (A child psychopath? One of his children? Karura would be devastated.) And Hirohiko sent him to school, and he did well there, even if he was shunned by most of the children.

Kankuro entered the Puppet Corps and Temari learned the fan. When both graduated the Academy and then started sparring together, Hirohiko thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. A young girl with the beauty and grace of Karura, weaving a dance of war with an iron fan, against a boy who greatly resembled himself, wielding Suna's most traditional weaponry with the theatrical flare of the finest bunraku actors.

When Gaara graduated the Academy, he joined the team, stoically adding his sand to Temari's fan and Kankuro's puppets. Gaara had withdrawn a great deal over the years, and still hated Hirohiko, despite his best efforts to bridge the gap between them. What worried him more was Gaara's love/hate relationship with Temari and Kankuro. His youngest son acted very much like a part of the family, trading reprimands with Temari and Kankuro and acting in accordance with his siblings' wishes, only to suddenly lose his temper and abandon everyone, returning when he saw fit.

Hirohiko had to hope for the best and believe that everything would work itself out with time, because that was all he could do.

The day came to see them off to the Chunin Exam. Baki thought it best, and he agreed that Temari and Kankuro were certainly overdue for promotion. The day was hot and crisp, windless and dry. It was morning still, the temperature still bearable and the morning shadows making it possible to stand in front of the Kazekage Complex without squinting against the sun.

His children all looked so grown up, wearing their best uniforms, scrolls filled with belongings for the trip tied to their backs. Baki towered over them protectively, and he knew he could trust the man. Though they'd grown apart over the years, Baki was one of his students from those treasured golden days before the post of Kazekage.

"You are going to embark on a three day trip to Konoha, the village of our allies the Leaf," Hirohiko said.

His children nodded.

"There, you will be taking the Chunin Exam." Hirohiko ventured a small smile, although Gaara hardly looked like he was listening. "I know you will all do your best."

Kankuro grinned. "Hell yeah we will. We'll rock those puny Leaf genin."

"There'll be more than Leaf genin there," Temari reminded him. "We might have to face some pretty tough challengers." She allowed herself a smirk. "But I bet we can handle it."

Gaara said nothing.

"I'm sure you can," Hirohiko agreed. He paused. A lump came to his throat. This was the first time he was going to part with his children for longer than a day. He wasn't sure how he would cope. "I will be delayed by one day, but I will set forth with my bodyguards for the land of the Leaf myself. You will see me in Konoha." He hated that their trips had to be staggered, but that was what had happened due to a last minute meeting he had to attend tomorrow.

Baki bowed. "We surely will."

Hirohiko took a deep breath, and put on a smile. "I love you all equally. You are all my children, and you all make me proud."

Temari wavered, but she couldn't stand in formation any longer than a few seconds. She tackled him with a hug. "Dad…"

He hugged her in return.

Kankuro silently inched his way over to collect his own hug, his resolve to look cool and mature weakened by Temari's display of emotion. Hirohiko hugged his eldest son tightly.

Gaara remained aloof, looking away.

"Time to go," Baki said after a few moments, not unsympathetically. He gave his new team a half-smile. "You'll really hate it if you let the sun get too high. It's a three hour trip across the desert."

"Hai!" Kankuro said immediately. He let go and gave his father a salute. "See you soon, Tousan."

Temari nodded and retreated as well, wiping her eyes furtively. "We'll see you in Konoha in four days. Don't be late, Dad. It's bad taste." She gave him one of her broad, disconcertingly Karura-like grins.

Hirohiko gave her a shadow of a grin back.

They departed, flickering out of sight. Hirohiko waited until he couldn't feel their chakras anymore, the distance was so great, and only then retreated into his office to work.

Soon enough, though, Hirohiko found his attention wandering, his gaze drifting to the window that gave him a view of his village, the cliffs, and a tantalizing peek at the desert through the canyon pass, golden and glittering. The sky was pale blue, cloudless and still.

He sighed in the silence of his office; it was so beautiful, and out there somewhere were his children.

It had been a lifetime since Karura had molded his hand to her stomach and declared that he would like being a father.

"What is it like?" he's asked her. Naively, because she had never been a father. How could she tell him?

But she had told him, a warm smile growing in her eyes and on her lips. "It's wonderful. You'll learn to treasure them. These children will be your best friends, and your most precious possessions. You'll know everything about them, and some things they won't even know. Because you'll be their father. Absorbing every move, watching every step. You'll learn to love them, Hirohiko, love them for themselves and know they are like no one else. You'll learn to know the laughter, the tears, and you'll rejoice at everything they do." Then she'd kissed him. "Being a father will suit you."

Now, with the echo of that memory in Hirohiko's mind, he knew: He did love being a father. And he loved all of his children.