Author's Note: Ariel D's version of Yondaime Kazekage, Hirohiko, is used with permission.
An End to Searching
It felt strange to have a funeral without a body. A mockery, actually. Hirohiko kept waiting for someone to tell him this was actually a scene from a play, and everything was okay, and Sandaime had been found. Instead, the priest kept waving incense, people kept their heads down, and Hirohiko started wondering if he should think of something to pray after all. He snuck a glance at Karura. She stood beside him with her head bowed and her eyes closed, pale and lips moving faintly. Hirohiko felt disheartened. His wife was clearly taking this seriously. They'd been married a month and a half. Sandaime had done the wedding in conjunction with a Shinto priest.
Hirohiko exhaled slowly and closed his eyes, reluctantly turning his thoughts towards the possibility that Sandaime was not merely missing in action. Uncle…thank you for marrying me with Karura. She is the best thing that ever happened to me. Um…Are you alright? Are you alive somewhere? You're coming back, aren't you?
He couldn't help himself. He just couldn't believe his uncle, the man who had taught him how to use magnetism release, the man who had radiated such strength and calm surety all throughout this difficult war, the man who had once declared in confidence that he saw himself becoming an old man like the Sandaime of Fire Country…that man just couldn't be dead.
Without a body, it wasn't a real funeral, was it?
"Keep up the search," Baki ordered. He didn't have to say, We're not going home until we find the body.
The other three jonin nodded, and they continued sweeping the desert, looking for any signs. Baki used his wind jutsu to disturb the top layer of sand, sifting through it. The sand could bury things in less than a day after a strong sand storm. He didn't want to find Hirohiko mummified in hot sand, but if Hirohiko was there to find, at least he would know. He would know instead of this damned waiting.
If Orochimaru was Hirohiko, where is Hirohiko-sensei? Baki wasn't sure he wanted to know the answers, but he needed them. Suna needed the answers.
His team wasn't the only search team scouring the desert for Hirohiko, but he felt that if fate had any justice in it at all, he'd be the one to find his teacher if the man was out here to find. Baki needed it to be that way. He needed to be the one.
He kept a cool head throughout this backbreaking search with one way only. His thoughts kept repeating mantra: It's not real without a body, it's not real without a body, it's not real without a body…
If it wasn't real, he didn't have to panic, did he? If it wasn't real, then he hadn't lost his teacher, then there was no reason to fret, then Hirohiko would come back. And a tiny part of Baki that would always be the child who had looked up to his sensei still believed that Hirohiko would come back, Hirohiko would have to come back, his sensei was magic. Nothing could hurt Hirohiko-sensei. That was what his gold dust was for.
When they were kids, one of his teammates had asked, "Hirohiko-sensei, have you ever gotten hurt in a battle? Like really hurt? Cause my cousin broke an arm once, and he still had to fight his way to safety."
Baki had jumped in before their sensei could answer. "Stupid! Hirohiko-sensei doesn't get injured. That's what his gold dust is for."
Hirohiko had chuckled and broken up the impending argument with some answer Baki no longer remembered. He just remembered that in the end, Hirohiko had patted him on the head, and his love and loyalty in that moment had burned at an all-time high.
Baki snapped back to the present, his chest tight and the hot desert air threatening to steal his breath. It's not real! He snapped at himself. This isn't happening! Hirohiko-sensei is fine. We might even rescue him or something.
If Hirohiko-sensei was fine, he wouldn't need rescuing, a place in the back of his mind whispered.
Baki knew he was sliding into desperation without any ability to stop himself. It was like a slow slide down the bank of a sand dune when one tried to stay still. Not happening.
Hirohiko had just pulled all of the drawers out of the Kazekage desk and scattered them around him, looking in dismay at the way they were filled to the brim with papers and scrolls, when he felt a surge of chakra.
He looked up to find an ANBU agent staring impassively down at him.
Hirohiko self-consciously got to his feet, the Kazekage robe settling against his skin at the movement in an unfamiliar way. He shifted slightly, trying to get used to it. "Yes? Report."
"Sandaime Kazekage has been declared lost, sir. We are stopping the search and reallocating our resources to the war effort," the ANBU agent said, bowing deeply.
"What do you mean, you're stopping the search?" Hirohiko asked. He couldn't absorb the words. This can't be right.
"Sir, we no longer have the time or resources to continue looking for Sandaime, sir," the ANBU agent said, bowing. "The orders to cease searching come directly from the Council, sir."
Hirohiko wanted to cry. He'd known that the Council was treacherous, that they had as much power as he did and more time to think about how to exercise it now that he was stuck trying to organize his uncle's office, but he still felt betrayed. "But I –" He stopped, suddenly loathe to show his emotions in front of the ANBU agent.
"I'm sorry," the man said, his voice as impassive as his mask.
But the apology still counted for something, Hirohiko supposed. "It's not your fault. You're doing what you're supposed to do." He forced a smile. "I suppose I'm the one that's behind, trying to organize my uncle's affairs and all. Doubtless I merely missed the Council's notification of their meeting and the subsequent decision."
"Certainly, sir." The ANBU agent straightened. This time, his voice held a note of obvious sympathy.
Hirohiko realized he'd rationalized a major loss of face to a man whose specialty was seeing underneath the underneath. He chuckled weakly. "Or, they just didn't bother to contact me, is that it?"
The man inclined his head.
Hirohiko sighed. "Thank you for at least reporting to me instead of them."
"It's procedure, sir."
Hirohiko sighed. "Of course it is. Thank you. You may go."
The ANBU agent disappeared in a flicker, leaving Hirohiko to his uncle's office. He looked around at the mess and felt more disheartened than ever. After a funeral and a cease search, his uncle's death sat heavily in Hirohiko's chest. It was getting realer all the time.
"Baki, we've found something!" one of the men ahead of him called, his voice taut and shocked.
Baki's head snapped up. He caught sight of the man's face. Oh, no. No. No! He burst over to the man's side and found the other two members of their search party standing on either side of a cluster of three bodies on the ground.
"The Kazekage, sir," the man on the right said softly.
Baki realized he was staring, staring at the ravaged bodies with incomprehension. His mouth opened, but no words formed.
"He's been dead a long time," the man on the left said. "Since before the start of the Chunin Exam."
That was too much for Baki to handle. His mind flashed back to every instance leading up to the Chunin Exam when he'd talked to Hirohiko, every instance he'd felt…something. A nameless foreboding, a twinge of cold uncertainty.
Denial was ripped away from him in a flash, and he knelt, no longer able to stay upright. His legs wouldn't support him. "Damn him…Damn Orochimaru…Damn him! He made fools of us all!" Baki clenched his hands tightly, trying to erase the way that they shook.
No one commented on his outburst.
The rest of the search team wrapped up the bodies and sealed them into a scroll, following procedure. Baki led the way back to the village, numb, unable to say or do anything but the most basic functions. Run, walk. Breathe. Watch out for pedestrians. Don't bump into anyone.
They made it back to the Kazekage Complex. It suddenly looked strange to Baki. It was no longer the same place he'd left. The Complex wasn't the same place at all if Hirohiko didn't live in it. Without Hirohiko…
Without Hirohiko…oh god. Oh, god!
Baki suppressed the urge to cry. It wouldn't do anyone any good. He couldn't cry Hirohiko-sensei back to life. He couldn't comfort anyone by crying. He couldn't help the others save face, stay stoic in the face of this crisis.
Suddenly, he was angry. Why did this have to be real? If we couldn't find you, this wouldn't be real!
Finding the body made all the difference. All the difference in the world.
In the following months, throughout the funeral and the process of guiding his three students through their grief for their father, Baki found himself growing glad that Hirohiko's body had been found. He remembered the way Hirohiko had grieved for his uncle, Sandaime. He'd watched Hirohiko stop and look across the expanse of the desert a dozen times, during missions or ordinary activities. Suddenly stopping, and waiting. Scanning the specks on the horizon, feeling the wind, just…searching. Hirohiko had kept up a private search, a silent ritual of looking through the desert for his uncle, for all the years leading up to Gaara's birth and Karura's death. Baki had been the only one allowed in on this secret ritual, accompanying Hirohiko into the desert many times.
"Let's go for a trek," Hirohiko would say, and Baki knew exactly what he meant.
Let's search for Sandaime.
Baki had always agreed. It didn't make a difference to him that he knew Sandaime was dead. Hirohiko didn't, and would always need to keep searching.
Now, after Kankuro, Temari, and Gaara had all gotten up the nerve to see the bones that had belonged to their father, had gotten to realize it was true and cry and yell and scream…they were all the better for it. Baki could see the understanding in their eyes. There would be no desert searches for these children, no painful sense of emptiness and loss to haunt them whenever they had a free moment to think. Hirohiko had come home, albeit not in the way anyone had wanted.
And though he didn't like to think about it, Baki knew that there would be no desert searches for him. Hirohiko had come to rest. If he wanted to see his sensei, he visited the graveyard where he was buried alongside Karura.
Instead of going into the desert, losing himself for a while in the roaring of wind and the swirling of sand, he walked the back path to the Kazekage Cemetery tucked behind the massive Complex. He searched for the familiar marker. He knelt beside his sensei and prayed, touching the name engraved into the stone with gentle fingertips, tracing its shape. This was where Hirohiko was. Home.
Baki could be home. Thanks to you, Sensei, I can be at rest, too. He knew somehow it had been Hirohiko's determination that led to finding his sensei in the desert. Without watching his sensei grieve for his uncle, the unstoppable passion to search would never have passed onto him. He would never have searched, without that experience to mold his perceptions. You taught me that everything you want can be found, if you look hard enough.
And ironically, once he moved into the Kazekage Complex to take care of Hirohiko's children, he realized he'd found a family. Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara were like his own children. Precious to him. As precious as they had been to Hirohiko. One of the things he'd most wanted in the world – to be a father – was now fulfilled, because of the lessons about perseverance and caring that Hirohiko had instilled in him.
"Thank you for giving me so much," Baki whispered. Then he rose and went inside for dinner.