Portrait of the Kazekage


Kankuro watched his father work for a few moments in silence, waiting with his arms crossed. Outwardly, he was stoic.

He'd been an adult in the shinobi world for two years. Suna was a traditional village, and in a traditional ninja village, a shinobi was an adult when they graduated the Academy. He was aware that the Hidden Leaf Village had changed the rules so that one of their ninjas was considered an adult when they became a chunin. That didn't change the fact that in his own village, he was a grown up and acted like it. He hated that he'd become a 'child' again just by crossing some boundaries when he went to the Chunin Exam in a month. Kankuro was not looking forward to visiting Konoha.

But that wasn't why he was here. He was standing in his father's office because if he didn't stand here and visibly remind his father there was somewhere else to go, his father would work all the way through the night. Kankuro was fed up with waking up to see his father munching last night's leftovers. It was not normal to eat leftovers from last night's dinner at the breakfast table, nor was it normal to have dark circles under one's eyes, magnetism release or not. He was sick of those jokes.

His father had meekly relented when Kankuro said he'd come around at the office every day by six o'clock. All his father had said was, "That would be fine, son."

So now Kankuro was glancing at the clock, listening to the scratch of his father's pen, and watching the way the desk lamp illuminated his father's face, emphasizing the frown of concentration.

Even frowning, his father's face was beautiful. Kankuro couldn't help but notice; he was an artist. He learned the traditional theatrical arts, he could sculpt puppets out of wood, sketch things from life with pencil and paper and a little concentration. He was teaching himself how to paint, too. It was slow going, but he was getting the hang of it between missions, and then he would paint a portrait of his father.

That was a secret, of course. Kankuro was self-conscious about letting anyone watch his learning curve, and he didn't want to demand studio time from his father until he was absolutely sure that he could get it right. He wanted the painting to come out right and prove that his father hadn't wasted the time. Although Kankuro knew his father would never tell him so, he knew his father was very time-conscious. One had to be as Kazekage.

So even though Kankuro was outwardly stoic, on the inside, he was tracing the lines of his father's face with his eyes, mentally preparing himself for his goal. An artist had to observe before doing. Without careful observation, the subtle characteristics that made each object and each person unique would be lost in the attempt to immortalize it. And Kankuro wanted to make sure his father never died. That was what artistry was all about.

Yondaime glanced up from the document he was preparing. "I'm sorry, son. It'll just be five more minutes. I'll finish this up, and then we can go home."

"You said that five minutes ago," Kankuro drawled. "I'm about ready to take that piece of paper out of your hands and make you put it away."

"I know, I know…" His father distractedly scanned what he'd written so far, pressing the butt of the pen against his bottom lip.

Kankuro couldn't help but smile at that. His father had that habit for as long as Kankuro could remember; when scanning something he'd written, he would tap the pen against his bottom lip or press it there. "It'll be here in the morning."

"I know," Yondaime said. "That's not the point. So will a dozen other things, so I have to finish this now. I can't afford to get behind in what I'm doing…"

Kankuro knew that if his mother were alive, this would be her job. But she wasn't, so here he was. It was that way all over; everyone had always pitched in extra to get done what needed to be done, in terms of the household and each other. As far as Kankuro knew, single parent households were like that.

The only person not helping out was Gaara, and that was just because Gaara was convinced everyone hated him and was determined to hate everyone back.

"Dad, can someone else do that?" Kankuro asked patiently.

"Someone could…" Yondaime admitted reluctantly. He stopped and glanced up at Kankuro in alarm. "But I have no idea if they would do it right, and I don't want to have this reappear on my desk at some point because someone else couldn't fill it out properly. I should do it myself and save someone else the trouble anyway, since it's my responsibility."

Kankuro was amused. "It's called trust, Dad. Trust the people that work for you. Go home."

Yondaime was startled. "Work for me? I'm the person that works for them. A Kazekage is a civil servant. I have to answer to everyone around me, all the time."

That was the oddest sounding interpretation of a Kazekage Kankuro had ever heard. Wait, what? Does he really think of it that way? No wonder he's so miserable all the time!

"Dad, people respect you," Kankuro said. "They'll do the work if you tell them to." He crossed the office and pulled on his father's sleeve. "Come on. Let's go home."

Yondaime sighed and gave his son a weary smile. "'Home' is five minutes away on the other side of the Complex."

"But it may as well be the moon if you're not willing to go there," Kankuro pointed out.

Yondaime chuckled. "Alright, son." He rose from his chair, his back popping audibly as he stretched. "I'm coming." He slipped the document into his desk, the pen into a cup on his desk with a few other writing utensils in it. "We're going home."

Kankuro stuck his hands in his pockets and walked to the door, his father following a step behind. He entered the hall and turned, watched his father.

His father flicked the light switch, plunging the office into darkness. For a moment, Kankuro caught a glimpse of mingled relief and sadness on his father's face. Then his father turned to him and gave him a small smile. "Alright, take me home, Chakunan. Your father's been bad enough for one day. I'll stop resisting."

Kankuro snorted and shook his head. "You'll do the same thing tomorrow. That's why I have to come hound you every day."

"True," Yondaime said lightly, stuffing his hands into his pockets in imitation of Kankuro. "Very true." He followed Kankuro down the hall to the stairs that would lead them down to the ground floor of the Complex.

xXx

When they got home, Temari was waiting for them at the dinner table, but Gaara's seat was empty. Dinner had already been set out on the table by the kitchen staff, a cook and two serving maids that also did the dishes.

"Where's Gaara?" Kankuro asked.

Temari shrugged.

"It's for the best, anyway," Yondaime said. "I doubt that I would be a match for him tonight."

Kankuro looked at his father in concern. That must mean he's had a really hard day. Usually he wants Gaara to be at dinner no matter what. "Are you sure?"

Yondaime sighed. "I shouldn't push him. He's a part of this family whether he likes to admit it or not. If he wishes to run away and not come to dinner, it doesn't reflect that he's not welcome. I have made that clear. I am not sure what else I can do, Kankuro."

Kankuro was disheartened. So you're just going to give up?

His father and Gaara had a rocky relationship at best. Sometimes it seemed like Gaara thought they were mortal enemies or something. He couldn't understand it; his father always spoke softly to Gaara, and in fact, seemed to give Gaara whatever Gaara wanted. Kankuro had never seen his father even attempt to discipline Gaara. His father hesitated to voice an objection to anything Gaara said or did unless it had to do with Gaara picking on Kankuro or Temari.

"Well, I want him to be here," Kankuro told Temari. "So you better tell me where he is."

"He's on the roof," Temari said, giving in to Kankuro with exasperation. "Where else do you think he would be? He practically lives there. He's like a bird."

"If you know where he is, why did you shrug when I asked you where he was?" Kankuro asked.

"Because Dad's right," Temari said. "It doesn't matter. He's not going to come down. He told me so before he went up there. He's not going to have dinner."

"Well, that's just not acceptable," Kankuro said patiently. Then he wondered why he sounded like the mom in this situation. Temari was the girl, after all.

Yondaime squeezed Kankuro's shoulder. "Let it go, son. I'll make sure there is food waiting in his room and in the refrigerator when he comes down."

Kankuro looked from Temari to their father. "Okay." But only because my stomach's growling and this conversation is stupid.

He sat down when his father did, and they began dinner without his little brother.

"Now tell me about your day," Yondaime said. He ate a bite of chicken and waited patiently. Unlike Gaara thought, it wasn't an order; not the do or die kind.

Kankuro gave his father a weak smile. "Nothing much, right, Temari? Just a D-ranked mission with Baki."

Temari sighed. "It was stupid. Dad…when do we get to kill people?"

Yondaime choked on his next bite of chicken. "Um…well…soon." He looked disconcerted and vaguely unhappy. Then he grinned and allowed himself a chuckle. "You are so much like your mother. You would wish that we were at war simply for the chance to exercise your talents, wouldn't you?"

Temari shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't make a war, but if one were on, I'd kind of feel more comfortable, yeah. I mean, is this what being a ninja is about? Hanging up other people's laundry and finding lost pets?"

"The first missions are always the hardest," Yondaime said gently.

"But I've been through this before," Temari complained. "It's like going back to the beginning."

"It's only to give Gaara time to acclimate to a team environment," Yondaime said. Visible sadness washed over the other emotions in his eyes, and he ate in silence.

Kankuro was concerned. "What about your day?"

Their father didn't seem to hear him. Yondaime ate his chicken and vegetables unhappily, staring at his plate.

Kankuro hated days like these. But he'd never hate his father. It wasn't his dad's fault. It was a lot of things. Being Kazekage seemed like being slowly crushed underneath a boulder. He hated his dad's job. He hated his mom's death. He hated the way Gaara to clung to pain inflicted in the past, even though he could understand it. What happened to his little brother was horrible. It was. It just didn't do any good to hurt people in retaliation because of it. If Kankuro tried to go around hurting everyone because of stuff that had happened to him, he'd never find time to do anything else.

After dinner, the serving maids cleared the dishes away and disappeared into the kitchen. In half an hour, they would be off duty in their quarters for the day. The Kazekage mansion had a servant's wing, like all traditional mansions. Though there weren't many people in it compared to in the First Kazekage's time.

Everyone went upstairs, their father carrying a plate of food to Gaara's room before retreating. Kankuro considered going up to the roof to try to coax Gaara down, but decided to let his little brother have his space. Gaara didn't go to the roof and refuse to come down unless Shukaku was cranky. Kankuro was more aware of the demon's moods than Gaara thought he was.

Kankuro took a shower, scrubbed his face paint off, and changed into a black t-shirt and loose pajama pants. He went down the hall to tell his father good night – a ritual he observed from his childhood, even if Temari and Gaara didn't usually bother with the courtesy – and stopped in his tracks when he realized his father's chakra signature wasn't in his father's bedroom.

Instead, his father was downstairs. Alone.

Kankuro walked down the stairs and crept through the darkened house to the living room. A couple lamps were on, casting the room in a subdued golden glow. His father sat on the sofa, reclined with a glass of plum wine. Kankuro had never seen his father drink before; he knew his father probably did, like most adults in Suna, but witnessing it had been another thing.

He watched as his father took a slow, long sip of plum wine, much the way people took drags from a cigarette. A lazy release of tension, self-absorbed in one's own thoughts.

Kankuro knew that his father had to be aware he was standing here. His father was always aware of surroundings. He convinced himself that the awkward silence was only on his part.

"Dad…what's up?" Kankuro asked quietly.

His father shrugged one shoulder and took another sip of plum wine, then swirled the remainder in his glass, a reflexive little motion that seemed like a habit. "You should go to bed. Been a long day. For everyone."

"Why?" Kankuro asked. "So you can get drunk where I don't see you?"

Yondaime gave him a look. "Son…"

"Since when do you solve your problems with alcohol?" Kankuro asked, resisting his ingrained urge to do exactly what his father told him. No way was he going to leave when his father looked like this.

"Solve –" Yondaime looked startled, then snorted. A smile spread across his face. "I don't solve my problems with alcohol. Nothing can solve my problems."

Kankuro hid a wince. His father's words struck him like a blow to the gut.

"Coping," Yondaime said. "It's called coping, Kankuro. No more." He studied the deep maroon liquid in his glass.

"Fine," Kankuro said, outwardly patient and calm. "When did you start coping with alcohol?"

"I started drinking when I was twelve," Yondaime said. "A sensei introduced me to the stuff. After a tough mission, he said, plum wine is the best cure. Takes the edge off."

"How is that possible?" Kankuro asked. "I thought people weren't allowed to drink until they were sixteen years old. Your sensei broke the law?"

"You're not legally allowed to drink on your own until you're sixteen years of age," Yondaime said. "That's the distinction. It's the purchase and solo consumption of alcohol that's prohibited."

"Right, because after you're sixteen it's magically safe," Kankuro said.

His father gave him a look. "No…it's merely allowed. When you are sixteen I will no longer judge what you wish to do when you are alone and have had a bad day."

"I heard it's a bad idea to drink alone at any age," Kankuro retorted.

Yondaime wavered. "True."

"So let me join you," Kankuro said. "Then I'm not drinking alone, and neither are you. It's safe and legal."

Yondaime snorted. "At times like this, I appreciate the distinction."

Kankuro tilted his head, confused.

"Between 'safe' and 'legal'," his father explained.

Kankuro shook his head. He crossed over to the sofa and sat down.

"Well, if you want to join me, you need to bring a glass," Yondaime said. He looked amused. "The cupboard on the right side of the sink, top shelf. You should find wine glasses in there. Unless they've magically moved since I looked at them last. Wouldn't be the first time something changed…without my permission." He took another sip of plum wine.

Kankuro rose, uneasily absorbing his father's words. The Council undermined you about something. That's why you're upset. He walked into the kitchen and retrieved a wine glass. They sat where his father said they did. He came back and sat on the sofa beside his father again, the bottle of plum wine between them half empty.

"They were still there," Kankuro said.

"What?" His father was startled. He looked up from his now-empty glass.

"The wine glasses," Kankuro said.

"Oh." Yondaime considered that. He frowned and muttered, "At least something is where I left it." He took the cork out of the bottle and poured Kankuro a glass of plum wine, coordinated and graceful in spite of the signs of intoxication Kankuro could see growing in his father's demeanor. Yondaime refilled his own glass and stared at it. "This is a bad idea. I'm going to do it anyway."

Kankuro was tempted to ask why, and also tempted to take the rest of the plum wine away from his father. But he didn't want his father to be angry with him.

Yondaime took a first sip of his new glass and confided in Kankuro, "You know, I've said that about so many things. I wonder why I bother. Why don't I just run away? I used to ask myself that. I stick around. That's what my problem is."

Kankuro considered whether or not he'd be able to help if he drank himself into the state his father was in. But, he couldn't just sit here without drinking anything. His father would notice. And he was a little curious. So he took a tiny sip. Sweetness and rich plum taste exploded in his mouth. Then his mouth burned, tingling. The feeling followed down his throat and made his chest and stomach warm from the inside out. "This is like hot chocolate on steroids," he blurted.

His father burst out laughing. "It is! It is indeed. I never thought of it that way." He looked at his glass, seeming enormously cheered up by Kankuro's observation. "I love plum wine. Don't you? It makes the world so much easier. If I ever have a really bad day, I can just have a glass of plum wine, and everything's okay. Again…"

Kankuro was worried. 'A' glass? What does it mean when you need two? Or however many it's been? He didn't know when his father started drinking, or how much had been in the bottle of plum wine at the start of the evening.

"How come you're drinking tonight?" Kankuro asked gently. He took another sip of plum wine. It burned less this time. He was getting used to it, or his mouth was already coated. "What happened today at the Council meeting that's got you so upset?"

"We're going to war," his father answered automatically. Then he sucked in his breath and looked at Kankuro with wide eyes. "Don't tell anyone I said that. It's not public news yet. It's not – not supposed to be – " He sucked in his breath again. Kankuro realized with a start his father was trying to avoid crying. " –public knowledge."

"I won't," Kankuro said. He put together his father's comment to Temari with alarm. "But how come we're going to war?"

"I can't fathom that myself," Yondaime said, sounding both bitter and close to tears. He swallowed and visibly reined himself in. "They think it's the way to solve the economy."

"Oh." Kankuro considered that, disheartened. "I learned about that at the Academy in history class. War kicks production into high gear, and generates more missions. Some people think war is good for the economy, and if we stayed in a state of war for a long time, we'd be a prosperous nation."

Yondaime nodded, moaned, and drank a sip of his plum wine. "It's awful." He looked at Kankuro with pain in his eyes. "I worked so hard. And they've thrown it all away."

"It wasn't your decision?" Kankuro was surprised. Why do you feel guilty, then?

"The Council is the one who can declare war, not me," Yondaime said. "I can't – can't do anything." His voice tightened, and he squeezed his eyes shut. His hand trembled, and Kankuro plucked the wine glass from it, shifting forward and setting it on the kotatsu table. His father didn't seem to mind – or even notice.

Kankuro discarded his own wine glass and pulled his father into his arms, hugging his father and trying to help, even though they hadn't hugged more than a few times in the past two years. His father had largely stopped after his graduation from the Academy. That had hurt; even though Kankuro knew it was normal for their culture.

Yondaime burst out crying; loudly, like a child. "I promised her I wouldn't do it! I said I would never let our nation be at war again! I promised."

Kankuro rocked his father, alarmed. Mom?

"I told her I would never let it happen, never let us go to war. I didn't know. I didn't know then what I know now. How…How the Council makes the decisions. I didn't think I'd –" Yondaime hugged Kankuro tightly, clutching Kankuro to his chest. "Kankuro, I'm so sorry!" He wept, overcome.

Kankuro felt tears in his own eyes. He rubbed his father's back, doing what he could from this position, unable to move much when his father held onto him so tightly. "It's alright. I forgive you. I'm not upset…"

"They didn't even ask me." His father sounded like a hurt child. "They just decided it last week and came to tell me. We're – We're at war."

Kankuro wondered how he was ever going to keep this from Temari, Gaara, and Baki. He was terrible at keeping secrets from them.

"She would be so upset at me," Yondaime said. The lost unhappiness of that statement stuck Kankuro between the ribs like a kunai.

"No, she would not," Kankuro said firmly. "She would understand like I do. None of this is your fault."

"But I should have stopped them…" Yondaime trailed off in confusion, uncertainty tingeing his statement. He straightened and looked at Kankuro in apprehension. "If I'd just known they were considering war. I thought they'd never think of such a thing. I mean…how could they? We just got out of a war. What about making the world safe for our children? We…made so many speeches…" He looked pale and sick. "What about the children?"

Kankuro winced, knowing that alcohol could not have been worse for his father right now. He was hard pressed to keep up with his father's twisted logic and self-recriminations. "What about the children? What do you mean?"

His father sniffled, and almost hiccupped. His breath hitched dangerously. "I –In…" He squeezed his eyes shut. "In the Chunin Exam."

"What do you mean?" Kankuro pressed. He couldn't help but be horrified. He felt like he was uncovering an assassination plot or something, not an official government decision.

"In the Chunin Exam," his father said, his voice breaking. Tears escaped his control and dripped down his cheeks. "In the Chunin Exam." He sucked in his breath. "Is when we're supposed to attack them."

"Wait, what?" Kankuro protested. "I thought you were talking about going to war with Iwagakure!" This doesn't make any sense. He can't be talking about attacking Konoha. They're our allies! Iwa is barely our ally even on paper!

Yondaime burst out crying.

"That's insane," Kankuro said desperately, instinctively trying to argue even though the men he wanted to argue with weren't here. "The Leaf outnumber us three to one. We're smaller than them!"

"I know," his father moaned, shaking his head. "I know."

"What a bunch of old bastards!" Kankuro exclaimed.

Yondaime nodded, tears running down his cheeks. "I know…I know…I…Oh, Kankuro. Karura. Will she ever forgive me? What do you think? Do you think so?"

"Dad, Mom could never be mad at you for this kind of thing." Kankuro instantly went back to rubbing his dad's back. Regardless of the fact that he felt like it was true, he would have said it even if his mother was the kind of person who would get mad. You didn't tell a drunk, grieving person their dead spouse was angry with them.

His father clung to him. "Karura, why do you forgive me? Why do you always forgive me? I am trash. My father was right. I'm no good…no good…"

Kankuro was so horrified he felt hot pressure in his stomach. What? No way…What kind of father…? "I'm sure that he…ah…didn't mean it."

He hated himself for not being able to inject his voice with any confidence. His paternal grandfather had been a harsh, frightening man, all hard angles and cold patriarch attitude. The old man died last summer, and it was like a weight lifting off the family. Whenever Kankuro had seen his father and grandfather together, his father always had a look on his face like his arm had been twisted off.

Still, Kankuro had thought that was just the face his father made after talking about politics. His grandfather's favorite subject.

"He did!" Yondaime laughed through his tears. His voice grew soft. "He hit me. He called me a bastard. He told me I'd never amount to anything. I'd be a failure." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Just like he predicted." He shook his head. "Just like he predicted. Father's right. I'm a failure. I failed…failed to do anything right. I'm no better than he predicted."

"Oh my god," Kankuro blurted. He looked at his father with new eyes, seeing every detail of his father's face as another piece of proof in this history of abuse. It was easy, with his father's masks ripped off by alcohol. "Dad…you know this is wrong. Did you ever tell anybody what he did to you?"

Yondaime nodded, suddenly looking tired. "I told Karura. She said…yes. Anyway." Tears welled up in his eyes again. "I don't know why."

Kankuro hugged his father as if by hugging with all of his strength could protect his father from what had already happened. He rubbed his father's back. "She loved you."

"Shame of shames," Yondaime murmured. "I can't rise above…I'm better off…" He shook his head. "No, she wouldn't let me do that either. How –" He stopped. "I'm sorry. Sorry…" He gripped Kankuro's arms, making Kankuro straighten, and stood up unsteadily. "I'm going to bed…" He took a step back.

Kankuro leapt up from the couch and grabbed him. "Don't run away. You don't have to run away."

His father looked shocked.

"I'm fourteen," Kankuro said, as if that explained everything. It did to him. I'm a man. I can handle it.

His father blinked, confused, his brow furrowing. "Kankuro…"

"I love you," Kankuro said, wondering if he really had to spell it out.

Yondaime inhaled sharply and hugged Kankuro, collapsing against him and clinging. "I'm sorry. I love you, too. Kankuro…always love you. I should have…"

"No," Kankuro said gently. "Everything is alright. You did what you had to do. You've been through a lot. Don't judge yourself." He had no idea what his father was trying to talk about, but that didn't matter. He knew he was right to say what he did, no matter what the circumstances were.

"It's too late," Yondaime said. "Isn't it?"

"No," Kankuro said. "It's never too late." He tugged on his father gently. "Let's go to bed. I'll go with you. We'll go together."

Yondaime obediently let Kankuro lead him from the room.

Kankuro was relieved. He didn't know what he'd do if his father decided to fight him. He wouldn't stand a chance, for one thing. His father was several levels stronger than him, a Kage-level jonin versus a genin who might have the stuff to become a chunin.

Wait. Does this mean I'm not going to take the Chunin Exam after all? The idea made Kankuro's head spin. We're going to attack…? In the middle of the exam? He shoved that thought aside. He had several more important things to think about at the moment. One of them being his drunk father.