Kazekage, Chapter 2: Mother
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Notes: Shout-out to Amaya and her beautiful RPs that breathe life into a character most of us sadly overlook.
Akasuna no Sasori got his moniker in honor of the blood that trailed him across the sloping sand dunes of Wind Country. It followed him like a line of school children, their little hands tugging at his clothes and whimpering for attention. But when he looked back, they were nothing but echoing voices and a long trail of red as far as the eye could see. Better not to look back at all.
The Third Shinobi World War was a brutal affair. Contrary to the dry history texts Academy children read in school these days, it wasn't the noble crusade for Truth and Humanity, Et cetera Et cetera the Elders liked to recount. Younger veterans remembered the sound of their shallow breathing, the sand that made them want to cough though even a single grunt could alert the enemy to their presence. For them, it was all about seeing and not being seen, a guerrilla war in which silent and stealthy won the race. Most of the time. The recipe for survival was equal parts selfishness and ruthlessness, and white knights were the first targets to fall with their shining armor and quixotic ideals of the very Truth and Humanity that made the best bedtime fairy tales.
If war was a dirty business of duplicity and secrets, Sasori had found his trade early on. As deputy commander of the Sunagakure Puppet Brigade under his grandmother, Sasori was the highest ranking member of his former Academy class. Only a handful of the other eleven-year-olds had already achieved Chuunin rank let alone commanded their own garrison in the war effort.
"Change of plans. Konoha's Hokage is fighting a half mile northeast of here. Sasori, did you get that?"
Sasori raced after the Third Kazekage, his mentor, Kurogane. Sand from an incoming storm pelted his goggles and fought to push through the folds of a tan headscarf, but he wasn't deterred, mind racing with a possible strategy. "Yes, sensei."
The pair raced over the sand with chakra-enhanced precision, and Sasori scanned the surroundings for the best route. Bodies—moving and unmoving—lay forgotten as far as the eye could see. Despite this, there wasn't much fighting happening in viewing distance. Even out in the open like this, the Leaf's forces had learned to wait for the Sand shinobi to come to them as they did their best to hide anywhere the wasteland would permit if only to prolong the illusion of life a little longer. Even so, the fallen seemed about equal in terms of alliance.
Some of the corpses dissolved and revealed healthy ninja ready to stop the Kazekage's flight, but Sasori was ready for this. Even though all his wooden puppets had been long smashed to pieces, there was no shortage of willing bodies to enact his will. A Leaf kunoichi came at the Kazekage with a fire technique that forced him to swerve. Sasori fluttered his fingers and sent a nearby corpse hurtling into the mouth of the flame tornado and out the other side. It caught the enemy by surprise (since when did flaming corpses have the ability to fight back?), and it got the job done with a meaty grab to the neck that snapped it instantly. Threat mitigated. Sasori left the fallen kunoichi to burn along with her killer—more blood to leave in his wake.
What happened next always felt like a memory snapshot rather than a connected series of events. White masks, demon masks with sunken eyes and wormy lips stand out against the backdrop of gyrating sand plumes. ANBU Black-Ops, Sasori knows from the intelligence shared with all fighting soldiers. These are Konoha's best, the Hokage's personal guards, and most of them grown men and women with years of experience. Sasori remembers not having the time to be afraid as he blocks the first slash from a katana with a nearby corpse that's been dead for some days and is starting to bloat. He even recalls the jaundiced pallor of that particular corpse, mouth frozen open from its final death rattle, the black wounds gritty with wet sand. And the smell is putrid even after so many years of spending most of his time among the dead. If death has a figure, he imagines this would be it. Ugly.
The memories blank at this point until the Kazekage engages the Hokage, the ANBU guards thinned enough to be manageable for Sasori and the few others accompanying the Suna leader. Corpse puppets fan out. He is controlling maybe six or seven (he can never remember how many, and this bothers him). No sleep in two days and a constant state of hyper awareness contributed to the lapses in memory, he thinks after the fact. What is clear is the shah shah shah of the Kazekage's iron sand scraping against the Hokage's sword once it slithers past thick, mud wall defenses. Even now, the sound of the iron sand shah shah shahing makes Sasori sick.
His memory stutters here a bit, although he believes he was putting distance between himself and one of the few ANBU still standing. He recalls a sand clone he made dissolving under the roar of a fire technique, but it's possible he dreamed this up. So many little details, and he wonders why he remembers them and not the part that was important. Details. The next thing he knows, Kurogane, Third Kazekage of Sunagakure, is on his knees with a sword through his gut.
"What happened next?" the interrogators ask. This is the best part, after all. The climax, the turning point, the part that makes the story worth telling. Sasori feels like he's here to dazzle the psychologists and interrogators questioning him on What Really Happened. (He had the urge to ask for face paint and a gold baton to better look the part of a circus performer. When he laughed out loud at this thought, the psychologist made a note on her clipboard about it. Another med to add to the growing list, perhaps.) In his head, the ring master riles the crowd of onlookers:
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth!"
Contrary to his now infamous moniker, Sasori hates blood. He doesn't tell the interrogators this, but he suspects the shrink is probably scribbling something about a deep-seated fear of blood on her clipboard (He's not afraid, he just doesn't like it. There's a difference.). The snapshot cuts to Sasori applying pressure to the jagged hole in his mentor's stomach. His grandmother has only taught him rudimentary medical ninjutsu, enough to get by in rough waters but not when the tide rushes in. The blood gushing from the Kazekage's wound is a tide too high to block for Sasori's small hands. Blood sneaks past his soiled fingers (how dare you), raw from chakra overuse and drowning out the feeble green glow of worthless medical ninjutsu.
"Save your energy," the Kazekage says.
Sasori makes the mistake next of looking into his eyes, golden and bloodshot. His hands shake. "I have to fix this," he says, like this is another broken puppet in need of a spare part or a quick oiling. He's good with his hands when they don't shake.
A weathered hand closes around Sasori's wrist. "Not like this."
"You're dying, sensei."
The Kazekage sounds like he's breathing through heavy cloth and fighting for every gulp. Shloop shloop shloop to go with the shah shah shah of the iron sand spilling from a discarded gourde nearby. Contrary to what they say in books and movies, this happens very fast.
"Use your technique."
Sasori knows what he's talking about and his thought is, It's not ready, rather than, It's not right. (He doesn't tell the interrogators this, but the psychologist is sharp, and he hopes she's getting paid well for this.) "I can't. You'll die."
"I'm already dead."
At those words, Sasori's chakra output stops. His mentor's blood washes over his hands like warm bath water.
"You can bring me back," the Kazekage continues, although speaking seems like a struggle for him now. "Sasori—"
The hand on his wrist tightens with surprising strength for man on his deathbed (another detail he relays to the interrogators and which the psychologist makes a note of on her clipboard, scratch scratch scratch).
"I'm not done protecting Suna. I'm not asking."
The lapses in his memory end there. The rest of the ordeal he relayed with a smooth fluidity possessed of a master recounting his craft. It was almost pleasant insofar as the mechanics of it distracted from the subject under his knife. The other guards were either dead or finishing off the rest of the Leaf ANBU, so no one paid him any mind as he worked. He had to transport the body in as good condition as possible. As far as the others were concerned, he was simply bringing their fallen leader's body back for the burial ceremony Suna would be expecting.
In the sanctity of a military tent reserved for the Puppet Brigade's exclusive use, Sasori worked all night to bring his mentor back to life. He drained the blood first, before a standard procedure and now a personal necessity (there was enough of his mentor's blood under his fingernails and staining his headscarf, anyway). The organs were the next to go. It was a bit like emptying a treasure chest, but in reverse: the real treasure would be locked away inside much later.
Upon tanned skin Sasori rubbed a formaldehyde cocktail that would preserve and harden it enough to withstand the edge of a blade after enough time drying out. The heart he kept in place. As long as one part of the corpse remained, it would act as a chakra conductor. Kurogane had wanted to protect the village even after his death, and if nothing else Sasori had resolved to make that possible. This much, he could do. This one would not turn out like the others—grotesque experiments missing one vital component or another. Failure was not an option here.
The war ended in a stalemate for the southern countries, Leaf and Sand having suffered too many casualties to call victory in any capacity. The ceasefire was hastily negotiated and welcomed on both sides. With their Kazekage down, the Suna shinobi had lost much of their will to continue. It wasn't long before a trail of eyewitnesses and a couple educated guesses lead Sasori's grandmother to figure out where the late Kazekage's body was.
"Chiyo-baa," Sasori said.
Chiyo had never been softhearted and she preferred to work alone on most days. Sasori had grown up in the quiet solitude of his workshop, his only companions the creations he carved into life with talented hands and a sharp knife. A part of him hated Chiyo, but the psychologists told him he was just looking for someone to blame. It was Natural, Understandable, and Not-Your-Fault. The first psychologist Sasori had seen just after his brutal fight against Hatake Kakashi during the Chuunin exams recited this very mantra, and Sasori had laughed in the man's face.
Dead was dead (usually), and revenge was a fool's errand for whining children too stupid to face reality. Sasori had better things to do than worry about what was Natural and Understandable. But those thoughts, as most other personal motivations, were better left unsaid.
Let them think what they wanted if it helped them sleep at night.
"Sasori," Chiyo said.
She reached out for him, hesitating a moment before settling a hand on his shoulder. It had been Chiyo that vouched for him. She saw what he'd done to the Kazekage's corpse, and she had defended him. It occurred to Sasori that her intervention was all that prevented the Jounin council from sanctioning his immediate execution for whatever this was.
"We can't even charge him with anything."
"It's evil, that's what it is."
"It's not murder."
"It's proof of murder."
"We have nothing on him."
Round and round and round. Did these people ever get tired of hearing their own voices? Perhaps Chiyo had a point in sequestering herself from the rest of society. And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, no matter how rotten.
"Just tell them the truth," Chiyo had told him as she walked him to the interrogation offices. "You did nothing wrong..."
Sasori didn't have to say anything to that; they both knew she didn't believe it. But there was a difference between "illegal" and "wrong." Details. They say the devil is in the details, and Sasori supposed that over the years, people looked at him and believed it to be true.
The interrogations ended without too much trouble. Everyone was too busy worrying about the aftermath of the war and the inflated threat of anarchy without a leader. A few members of the council had wanted to confiscate the Third Kazekage's puppet corpse, claiming defilement and insisting on a proper burial. Most wanted to let Sasori wield this new weapon, if only because the only thing Suna valued more than tradition was power.
"Sasori," Chiyo said once he was released and they were walking home.
At eleven years old, he had to look up to meet her eyes. A child who'd lost the closest thing he had to a father since the last one died.
"Would you like some candy?"
A child with a new toy.
"I just want to go home," he said.
Sasori clenched the scroll housing his newest puppet tight against his chest.
Sasori sometimes wondered why his teammates were still together when it had been at Kurogane's insistence that they work together in the first place. It would have been natural for Sasori to go his own way when their mentor died, but three years later here they were. The first time Sasori showed Pakura and Baki his newest puppet, he'd been expecting the same horror he'd seen in everyone else, that inner disgust that begged to shun the unknown, to blame the Third Kazekage's death on Sasori.
"Can I touch him?" Pakura had asked.
Sasori was not sure how to respond to that, but Pakura had never been the type to wait around for him or anyone else. Sasori watched, fascinated, as she ran her fingers over the puppet's hardened skin.
"It's amazing," she'd said.
"You don't think..." Sasori didn't know what to ask, how to put it into words. And why not? Everyone else had already given him enough material to work with.
"I think I'm glad we all made it through the war in one piece."
"So this way, sensei'll always be fighting with us, right?" Baki had asked.
Sasori smiled that day, a real smile with no strings attached. Somehow, even now, he wasn't alone. Perhaps this was what Kurogane had wanted for him. How could Sasori ever abandon the only people who didn't want to put him in a cage?
The postwar was almost peaceful. The war had not touched Suna proper, so once the new peace treaties were ratified and shoved into drawers somewhere to collect dust until the next war (and there would be a next war, always), the city picked itself up and life went on. Kaname succeeded his uncle as Kazekage and inherited a war-bolstered economy. Production was up and demand was high. There was no business like the killing business.
Business was booming even some years after the war. As Jounin, Sasori, Pakura, and Baki had perfected their teamwork and spent most of their time outside Suna on missions these days. Fourteen was an old age in their profession, but somehow they found opportunities to let it all go.
"There's no way you can fit that many marshmallows in your mouth," Baki said, leaning across the table.
Pakura grinned. "I'll have you know I've had years of practice."
Sasori examined a marshmallow, rotating it in his fingers. Nothing special about it at all, though it was very squishy. He popped it in his mouth and chewed slowly. Baki and Pakura watched him, expectant.
"This is disgusting," Sasori said after he'd swallowed.
Pakura threw her hands up dramatically. "You're not human if you don't like marshmallows."
"Not all of us run on sugar, you know," Baki said, pushing the bag of fluffy sweets away.
"No wonder you're always so sour~"
They always chose Sasori's house whenever they spent time together outside of missions. Pakura lived alone in a cramped studio apartment, an orphan since infancy. Baki's parents were civilians and wanted nothing to do with his shinobi lifestyle. Chiyo was never home, so Sasori's place was theirs for the taking whenever they wanted.
A knock on the door interrupted the trio just as Pakura had managed to stuff eight giant marshmallows in her mouth. Sasori answered it.
A kunoichi outfitted in typical Jounin attire stood outside. Sasori did not recognize her—she wore a grotesque demon mask.
"Who is it?" Baki asked as he drew up behind Sasori. "...Oh."
Somewhere in the background, Pakura attempted to speak through her mouthful of sweets.
"The Kazekage has requested your presence for a Jounin Council meeting," the ANBU said.
"Huh? There wasn't supposed to be a meeting today," Baki said.
"Please report to the Kazekage's tower immediately."
The ANBU excused herself and Sasori closed the door. Pakura had finally managed to consume all her marshmallows.
"What's going on? There's a meeting?" she asked.
"Yeah. Must be something big if it's last minute like this." Baki pulled his long sleeve down and wiped Pakura's mouth where a bit of marshmallow matter had stuck to her chin.
"Let's go. I don't want to be late," Sasori said, shrugging on his flak vest.
"Kazekage-sama, the risk is too great."
"Yes, we don't know if we can control it."
"Nonsense. It's been done before."
When Sasori, Pakura, and Baki arrived at the meeting hall, the council was all in a clamor over something. Kaname, the Fourth Kazekage, sat at the head of a round table in full Kazekage regalia. The three teammates took their assigned seats, and Sasori noticed Ebizo and Chiyo seated to Kaname's left, silent.
Kaname stood and slammed his hands on the table. "Enough!"
The squabbling hushed almost instantly. Baki leaned toward Sasori and whispered, "What d'you think's going on?"
Sasori stared at his grandmother, but she was unflinching. It was suspicious. "Something big."
Kaname cleared his throat. "My fellow councilmen, this is a step we should have taken years ago. Our Third Kazekage, rest his soul, forbid the use of Shukaku out of fear. The time has come to face our fears and control them. We cannot afford another war with Konoha."
The squabbling picked up again, conspiratorial whispers and the smell of sweat. Sasori leaned forward on his elbows and steepled his fingers, thinking.
"How do you propose we control that monster?" a Jounin asked.
"The same way the other villages control theirs: we imprison it within one of our own," Kaname said, his green eyes stony.
"Who'd be crazy enough to become a monster?"
"It's too dangerous."
Ebizo rose from his chair and waited for the talking to die down. An esteemed Elder, the Council had great respect for him. "What the Kazekage says is correct. For generations, the people of Suna have submitted to the might of others. The Third Shinobi World War claimed over half our forces. We stand upon precarious legs now, and the last vestiges of the wartime economy will not last forever."
Everyone was silent as Ebizo spoke, his sunken eyes seeing everything and nothing. Sasori's great uncle never spoke too much, even to him, but when he did he commanded attention.
"We must deter the other villages from taking advantage of our weakened position. The postwar calm is not here to stay."
Already, there had been numerous clashes with enemy shinobi. Sasori and his team had encountered a number of hostile foreigners in their missions, and it never ended well. The war was over and the villages had had time to lick their wounds. Ebizo was right: it was only a matter of time before the eye of the storm yielded to maelstrom. It was the way of the world.
"Thank you, Ebizo-sama," Kaname said, dipping his head.
The Suna Elder reclaimed his seat, and Kaname addressed the small crowd.
"As your Kazekage, it is my duty to protect Suna with my life. So I'll be the one to shoulder Shukaku's burden."
"He's gotta be shitting us," Pakura whispered.
Sasori was equally alarmed. There was no way...
"My wife is pregnant with our third child. She's not due for some months. Chiyo-sama has already confirmed my unborn son's compatibility with Shukaku. With his birth, we'll have our Jinchuuriki."
The meeting ended soon after this announcement, and Sasori remained seated as the other Jounin began to file out. He hadn't expected this kind of behavior from Kaname, although it was natural. If anyone had to make this kind of sacrifice for the village, it should be the Kazekage. Chiyo's involvement was no surprise. Outwardly the concerned grandmother, her true nature was ruthless and solely concerned with the might of this village. Sasori had learned that at a young age.
Of course, it wasn't actually the Kazekage shouldering this burden, but his unborn son. A son who would be born a monster, never knowing anything else. Interesting. Sasori wondered how this would pan out.
"Can you believe it? We'll finally have our own Jinchuuriki, just like those Leaf scum," Baki whispered to his teammates as they rose to leave once the crowd had thinned.
"He's not even born yet," Pakura said, frowning. "That doesn't sound totally fucked up to you?"
"Sasori," Kaname called. "Wait."
Sasori obeyed and lingered behind until the rest of the Council had exited. Pakura and Baki looked puzzled, but he waved them out. There would be time to catch up with them later. Soon, Sasori was alone with Kaname, Chiyo, and Ebizo.
"I have a special mission for you," Kaname said. "My wife is a civilian and weak. Until my son is born, I want you to watch over her. Pakura and Baki can handle your missions in the meantime without you."
Sasori studied his leader, curious. Kaname had helped him learn to control the Third Kazekage's iron sand techniques when Sasori was still getting used to his new puppet. For someone who'd lost family, Kaname had never seemed bothered by the fact that Sasori was using Kurogane's corpse as a weapon.
Then again, this was a man who'd just sanctioned turning his own unborn child into a weapon of mass destruction.
"Keep her safe. Am I understood?"
Sasori bowed and acknowledged his understanding. Chiyo had said nothing at all during the exchange, and Sasori wondered if she was proud of him. Knowing her, the whole thing had been her idea in the first place. The village came first; its citizens were secondary.
"This blows," Pakura said when Sasori rejoined his teammates outside. "Why can't he just get his ANBU to do this?"
"'Cause the ANBU have better things to do than follow around pregnant women all day," Baki said.
"Whatever. How much trouble could one pregnant lady get into, anyway?"
Sasori let them talk as he thought about how his life would slow down over the next few months confined to the village and the company of a civilian woman. Not something he'd ever envisioned for himself, but orders were orders. Perhaps he should have been proud; Kaname trusted him enough to give him this task. But Sasori could not care less.
"You two," Sasori said, interrupting his teammates. "Try not to die out there without me."
"Aw, you do care." Pakura slung an arm around Sasori's shoulders. She didn't let go when Sasori tried to shrug her off.
"No, idiot, he just doesn't want to have to replace you with new people," Baki said, grinning. The gesture stretched the old scars on his face. "Can't expect him to take the time to talk to anyone else, you know."
Baki slung an arm around Sasori's other shoulder and held fast. Sasori sighed, but resigned himself to these two parasites he'd picked up somewhere when he was young and stupid. Like ticks, the both of them. If not for them, Sasori would not have bothered with people at all.
Defeated, Sasori let them drag him out for dinner.
Her name was Karura, and she was barely even a presence on Sasori's radar. A civilian and too kind-hearted for her own good, Sasori wondered how someone like Kaname could have ended up with her. They were the village's most powerful shinobi and the village's weakest woman. It was almost funny in the way horror movies can be funny: we laugh at the apex of terror to reassure ourselves that everything will be okay.
"Everything will be okay," she said.
Sasori watched her from his spot at her kitchen table as she prepared them a midday snack. It had only been a week since Sasori began spending time with Karura. She lived a boring life with boring hobbies and hardly anyone to talk to. Her two children were barely there. Temari, four, had begun training at the Academy, so she was gone most of the day. Kankuro was only two and practically not human, as far as Sasori was concerned. If they could not speak at a level below screaming or keep food in their mouths, they were not human. Of course, this never stopped little Kankuro from lighting up and following Sasori around whenever the redhead visited Karura's home.
"Maybe," Sasori said, thoughtful.
He'd asked her what she thought about her unborn son becoming Shukaku's Jinchuuriki out of curiosity. Surely even a simple civilian must have some idea what that meant. The last Jinchuuriki couldn't handle the beast and it consumed him from the inside out, in nightmares. He'd gone mad, lost forever in his own rotted mind. Useless.
"Or maybe not."
Karura served him tea and took her seat across from him. "Call it a feeling, then."
"Feelings mean nothing in my world. Your son will be shinobi if he survives. They'll mean nothing to him, either."
Silence ensued a moment as Sasori sipped his hot tea. When he thought she wouldn't respond, he looked up. Her eyes were sad.
"Is that really what you think, Sasori-kun?"
"It's what everyone thinks."
It was the truth, after all.
Karura placed a hand over her swollen belly, eyes downcast. "I think that's very sad."
Sasori set down his tea. Of course a civilian would never understand. All this woman had to armor herself with were her feelings. Objectively, Sasori could not blame her. She was weak.
"I know I'm just a simple woman," Karura went on. "You probably think me naive, don't you?"
"It doesn't matter what I think."
Sasori frowned. "Stop what?"
"The facade. Just stop." She would not look at him. "You're in my home now. This is my world, and I don't want you to be an outsider here."
Sasori wasn't sure what to say to that. Pregnant women tended to act strangely, he knew. Perhaps that was it. She looked up and smiled.
"Forget about being shinobi. Just...be yourself. For a little while."
Sasori was sure she was a little crazy. He didn't have the faintest clue what she was getting at. "...Myself?"
"Do you like sweets?"
Before he could respond, she rose and fiddled with a knife in the kitchen. A few moments later, she returned with a slice of cake. Sasori eyed the pastry before with a scrutinizing eye. It had pink frosting. Probably very sweet.
"I don't normally eat them."
"Oh, you must try this. I made it myself."
Sasori hesitated. He rarely had the chance to eat such frivolous food. It wasn't that he was particularly upset about it (one could not miss what what did not know), but he did feel out of place.
"Just one bite, hm?"
Sasori sighed and took a bite. It was sweet, but not offensive. It had been ages since he'd had cake, of all the silly things.
"It's sweet," Sasori said.
Karura blinked, and after a moment she laughed. Sasori did not appreciate being the butt of whatever joke she'd conjured up in that silly head of hers, but he said nothing. This was better than that sad look she'd had earlier.
"You remind me of Kaname a little," she said once she'd calmed down. "You try so hard not to laugh."
"I didn't think there was anything funny."
She was still smiling, and Sasori had a feeling the joke was still on him. A tug at his pants drew his attention. Kankuro gazed up at him with wide, brown eyes. The boy was sucking on a pacifier as he fisted Sasori's pants with chubby little hands. Sasori made no move to acknowledge him, wondering how long it would take for Kankuro to lose interest.
"Oh boy," Karura said. "Looks like he wants some cake, too."
Sasori frowned at the boy-child. "You can't have this one. It's mine."
Kankuro continued to suck on his pacifier, and to Sasori's horror Kankuro began to climb up his leg. Sasori stood up abruptly, knocking Kankuro down on his rear. A thick diaper broke the toddler's fall, but the damage was done. Pacifier forgotten, Kankuro let out a wail that could have woken the dead.
"Now you've done it," Karura said, resting her chin in her hands.
"Do something," Sasori said, paralyzed as though Kankuro's crying had robbed him of all movement.
"Me? I'm not the one who made him cry."
Sasori was beginning to panic. "You're his mother. It's your job."
"If he wants to cry, he can cry. But maybe you can calm him down?"
Sasori gritted his teeth and returned his attention to Kankuro, who was still blubbering on the floor. His face was warped in anguish, as though his entire world had come to an end when Sasori pushed him away. This was ridiculous. Sasori did not know the first thing about children, let alone how to silence them. He supposed he could kill the boy, but the Kazekage would not approve of this method. Unable to hear himself think over the baby's wailing, Sasori did what came naturally: he latched onto Kankuro with his chakra strings and pulled.
Infused with a power not his own, Kankuro rose on wobbly legs and marched in place. The crying ceased, and Kankuro marvelled at the way his tiny body moved like magic. Wide eyes followed his own feet as they stepped in perfect rhythm.
Sasori kneeled down to get a better angle. With a flutter of his nimble fingers, Sasori coaxed Kankuro's stubby hands to clap twice. The room was silent while this happened, and Sasori did not take his eyes off the small child. Kankuro weaved his hands together in the shape of a bird, and he laughed, but not because he recognized the pantomime; his eyes followed Sasori's fingers and the shimmering chakra threads that looped around them. Tears still shone on Kankuro's cheeks, but he was all smiles.
Curious, Sasori used his free hand to wave detached chakra threads in Kankuro's line of sight. Like a cat with string, the boy followed Sasori's every move.
"...You like this?" Sasori asked.
Kankuro smiled, wide and toothy, like he was watching a spectacular magic trick.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth!"
Sasori let his eyes fall. Kankuro was just a child, unlike him. He didn't know there was no such thing as magic, that in this circus the lions chomped down on those who dared face their dripping maws. He didn't know, but he would.
A hand on Sasori's shoulder brought him back to reality.
"He likes it," Karura said. "Play with him."
This was how Sasori found himself sitting across from Kankuro, who was wearing nothing but a diaper. Sasori did his best to entertain the toddler, dangling all manner of dishware in front of Kankuro's face with his strings, or making Kankuro jump up and down on borrowed strength. Children were quick to forgive, it seemed. There were no more tears.
Karura gave Sasori another piece of cake, and this time he ate it without complaint. It was good.
It was a game. Akasuna no Sasori, war hero (or criminal), assassin, genius, shinobi extraordinaire—no one would guess how he began to look forward to Karura's company when he visited her during the day while the Kazekage was otherwise occupied. He followed her on her errands in town, mostly grocery shopping and the occasional impromptu chat with her friends or acquaintances. There weren't many. To the world, she was "the Kazekage's wife." Not even her own person. Civilians, by definition, were less than people in Suna. They contributed little to the village's welfare. At least, this had been Sasori's impression before he met her.
"Did you know the majority of people in Suna are not shinobi?" Karura asked him once when he was accompanying her to the market.
"I've never thought about it." He hadn't. He'd never cared.
Karura didn't let his lack of enthusiasm bring her down, though. She was busy choosing apples for a pie she wanted to make later. "Well, how do you think we can get apples in the middle of the desert? Civilian merchants trade and transport every day. It's really quite something!"
She was always saying things like this, as if Sasori actually cared. His world was puppetry and the occasional mission, usually to assassinate a potential threat. It was an efficient life, a quiet one. The dead don't speak.
"Everyone has a part to play," she went on. "And we must play them as best we can, or the village will suffer."
Sasori said nothing to that. She handed him a shiny, red apple and smiled.
Sasori accepted the fruit and took a bite. It was juicy and sweet, unexpected in the middle of the desert. Juice ran down his chin, and he wiped it away with a sleeve.
Sasori nodded, and she looked pleased. If he was being honest, he hated it when she was happy. She had no idea what was going to happen to her, and yet she could continue to live life like nothing was wrong. It wasn't Sasori's place, but he had to wonder why the Kazekage would subject his own wife and unborn child to a fate worse than death. Even more baffling was Karura's seeming complacency about the whole thing.
He shouldn't care, and he didn't. She wasn't his problem. But something about the situation did not sit well with him. A feeling.
Feelings mean nothing.
Ever since he'd begun spending time with her, Karura seemed to make him wonder about the whys and the what ifs. When they'd returned to her home and she'd put away her purchases, Sasori voiced his feeling.
"What if your part is to die? Do you still want to play it?"
Karura watched him with those deep, green eyes that made her seem far older than her years. She probably thought him a child, though she was a child herself. Twenty-one and mother of two, she'd had to grow up fast, too.
He didn't expect her to smile.
"Death doesn't scare me, especially if it's for my children."
Sasori's surprise morphed into anger. "If you die, they won't have a mother."
"They'll always have a mother. Even when I'm gone, I'll always love them. Not even a monster can kill love."
Sasori was stunned silent, the anger thick in his throat. He thought of his own mother, how she'd left one day and never returned. He thought of Chiyo and how she'd barely ever tried to make that right. Karura was wrong; love dies with the lover. That was how monsters were made.
"You don't know what it means to die. You wouldn't be so complacent if you did."
She got that sad look she got sometimes when they spoke, like she was watching a flower wither and there was nothing she could do for it but to stay and watch so it wouldn't be alone. "Well, that's why you're here to watch over me, right? To make sure it doesn't come to that."
Every time Sasori convinced himself that Karura was a silly, sheltered woman, she transformed into something different. The proverbial metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, as beautiful as it is fragile, in construct and vitality.
But he said nothing. He'd never been the type to lie.
Something was wrong. Karura was about eight months pregnant when Chiyo deemed her ready to undergo the Bijuu sealing. Kaname didn't want to waste any time, so he ordered Chiyo to go ahead and seal Shukaku within his unborn son. Sasori had not been around to witness the sealing, but he was outside waiting to take her home when it was over. For a woman who'd been screaming bloody murder during the entire ordeal, she still managed to smile at him when she saw him.
"Oh, Sasori, I hope you weren't waiting long."
She looked terrible against bleached hospital walls. Sweat stained her shirt, and she held her swollen belly as though it might drop at any moment. Brittle hair obscured her eyes, and she was shivering despite the warm cloak around her shoulders—Kaname's Kazekage jacket. Her husband held her elbow for support.
"Sir," Sasori greeted, eyes blank.
"Take her home for me. She needs to rest."
Behind Kaname, Sasori could see Chiyo speaking to the hospital's head of surgery in hushed tones. Shukaku's iron teapot prison sat at the foot of a bed, its sheets blotched with blood. Sasori said nothing of this. He offered Karura his arm, and she took it.
"And Sasori," Kaname said. "Stay the night. I have urgent matters to attend to, and I won't be back until late."
Sasori nodded, wondering what could be so urgent that Kaname would stay away from a newly infused Jinchuuriki.
"Kazekage-sama, he's waiting in your office," an ANBU guard said as Sasori and Karura walked away.
"Good, I'll be right there..."
Sasori lost track of the conversation as he and Karura made their way around a corner leading to the front doors. He noticed that she walked with a slight limp and panted. Her breath was hot on his shoulder. Sighing, he summoned chakra threads and latched onto her for extra support. The limp disappeared.
"Thank you," she said.
They made it back to her home in relative silence, and Sasori walked her to her bathroom.
"I'll just change into something dry."
Sasori hesitated a moment before retreating to her bedroom. A nightgown lay on the bed, which he retrieved and brought back to her. "Here."
Karura studied him a moment as she accepted the garment, and Sasori had to force himself not to look away from those haunted, green eyes. It reminded him of the times she was sad. Sad but silent. He'd never once heard her complain about anything at all. The feeling was gone in a flash, and she smiled.
"You've been a big help tonight. I really appreciate it."
"It's fine." He bowed his head and made to leave.
He paused, waiting.
"...Thank you for staying."
She clutched the Kazekage's jacket tightly around herself. For a fleeting moment, Sasori felt angry. He clenched his fists to keep them from shaking.
"I'll be just outside."
Karura nodded, and he excused himself.
Closing her bedroom door on his way out, Sasori took stock of the dark house. He decided to secure the perimeter first, which took only minutes. Karura moved around in her room when he returned, probably getting ready for bed. Sasori decided to camp out on the couch instead of helping himself to the guest room. This was not a sleep over.
But before he settled into his post for the night, he checked on Kankuro and Temari. They slept peacefully, not a care in the world. Satisfied, he returned to the living room couch and relaxed his breathing.
Minutes turned to hours, and Sasori sat in the darkness alone. Somewhere around two in the morning, sounds jostled him from his meditative state. They were soft at first, but soon Sasori could make out whimpering. The sounds came from Karura's room, so he got up to investigate. Quietly, so as not to alarm her, he opened the door.
Karura lay in bed in a cold sweat. What had started out as whimpers escalated to solid cries. Sasori approached her, curious. She appeared to be having a nightmare, and a bad one at that.
Then she screamed. Sasori stumbled backwards, not having expected such a piercing wail from this proximity. She began to thrash hard enough to rock the bed, and Sasori had to restrain her with his strings. Still, she did not rouse. He'd watched over Karura as she slept before, but never had things turned out like this. The only explanation he could think of was something to do with the Bijuu sealing. Shukaku was nightmares given life. Whatever was happening to her, Sasori was sure it was the beast's doing.
Keeping her restrained with his strings, Sasori jogged to the bathroom and rummaged around the medicine cabinet. When he found was he was looking for, he grabbed two pills and returned to Karura's room. Forcing her to sit up, he fed her the pills and coaxed them down her throat. All of a sudden, her eyes opened, unseeing, and she tried to bite him.
"Damnit," Sasori swore.
With the help of his strings, he forced the medication down her throat and restrained her against the bed once more. Outside, the shah shah shah of sand scraping the windows made Sasori repress a cringe. A sandstorm kicked up, and he had a feeling it wasn't natural.
"Yield," he said, releasing more chakra into his strings.
Karura continued to thrash and wail. The medication hadn't kicked in yet.
Sniffles drews Sasori's attention over his shoulder. Temari stood in the open doorway holding Kankuro by the hand. He was sobbing, but she looked oddly calm. Petrified. Sasori knew he had to get this under control now.
"Stay back," he said, focusing once more on Karura. "Your mother's having a bad dream."
"Is she okay?" Temari's voice shook, and she stepped forward.
Sasori really did not have time for this. "Temari, stay back. I'll handle it."
Temari seemed to hesitate, but Kankuro's sobs intensified.
"Take care of your brother," Sasori said.
Karura screamed again, and Sasori noticed the eerie, yellow glow in her vacant eyes. He gritted his teeth. Unable to wait any longer, he dissipated the strings on his right hand and executed a few hand seals. Karura struggled against him, those yellow eyes darting left and right, like they couldn't focus on Sasori.
"I said, yield."
Sasori raised a glowing, green hand to Karura's head and willed her blood to move faster.
"Sasori-san," Temari said somewhere behind him.
Sasori ignored her and pushed Karura down. Finally, after nearly a minute of continual treatment, she began to calm. Her eyes lost their jaundiced sheen and fell closed again. After a moment, he felt secure enough to recall his strings. Sasori didn't realize he was panting until he felt a hand tug on his pants and he turned to find Temari looking up at him.
"Is my mommy gonna die?"
Sasori did not know how to respond to that for the longest time. Temari looked up at him with those same eyes Karura had. Those sad, haunted eyes beautiful in their despair. Temari didn't cry, but he could see the child's fear in her. No amount of Academy training could flush it out completely at such a young age. Kankuro had stopped crying, though he looked like he might start again at any moment. He sat on the floor next to Temari, teary eyes looking up at Sasori. Waiting.
Sasori kneeled down to eye-level with the little girl. "Not tonight."
It wasn't a lie.
In the bed, Karura slept soundly. Dreams would not visit her again tonight with the medication coursing through her veins. He wondered vaguely about the baby inside her. Shukaku was a part of it, technically, not Karura herself. Even if she could get blessed relief, what of him?
"I don't wanna go back to sleep," Temari said in her most serious four-year-old voice.
Sasori rubbed his eyes, and Kankuro's stubby hand tugged on his sleeve. He watched the two children through his fingers, wanting to ask, 'Now what?' Instead, he slowly scooped up Kankuro, who was suddenly overjoyed to receive this kind of rare attention from Sasori, and stood up. To Temari he said, "Come on."
He walked them to the living room and sat down on the couch. Kankuro settled among the pillows at Sasori's hip, his fat fingers fisting Sasori's shirt as he pressed his face to it. For a moment Sasori wanted to push kid away, but then he remembered how Kankuro liked to cry. Best not.
Temari stood across from Sasori, those eyes unreadable and hard despite her shaking frame.
"A kunoichi should never show fear in front of her enemies," he said, watching her.
"I'm not scared."
"...And I'm not your enemy."
Temari blinked, and Sasori could see the unshed tears lighting up her eyes. Four years old and already able to hold back so much. He wondered if her father was proud of her.
"Come here." He held out a hand.
Temari immediately complied and settled on the couch next to Sasori. He supposed he'd been spared the horror, in a roundabout way. Kankuro was too young to know better, but Temari could understand. She knew she was watching her mother die, and it would stay with her forever.
So he let her lay her head on his lap and put a hand over her head. Safe. They were safe with him tonight. From Shukaku, from the world, from nightmares. Who better to protect children from monsters in the dark than a monster himself?
It lasted six days. For six days and nights, Karura suffered horrific nightmares to the point that she did not want to sleep. Chiyo fed her an array of dream-eliminating drugs to help, but even in waking Karura could not forget her night terrors. Sasori began spending more and more time with Temari and Kankuro, the only thing standing between them and their dying mother.
She was dying. He'd always known it would come to this, and to watch Temari realize it was as fascinating as it was heartbreaking. At least, he assumed it would be heartbreaking. He couldn't quite relate.
He'd been with Temari when Karura went into premature labor. Kankuro was still in daycare at the time. She'd withered over the past few days, like someone sucked all the color out of her. It was hardly a surprise when the baby wanted to come early to escape its dying mother.
"I'm coming too," Temari insisted when ANBU arrived to carry Karura to the hospital.
"You're not going to like what'll happen," Sasori warned Temari as they made their way to the hospital. He carried her on his back for faster transport.
"I don't care."
Sasori dropped it. There was no sense arguing with a child. At the hospital, Sasori followed the ANBU as they carried Karura to a room in the OR. Chiyo, Kaname, and Ebizo were already there along with a staff of nurses. Kaname rushed to Karura's side and took her from the ANBU.
"Kaname?" she said, her voice strained.
"I'm here," he said.
The gentleness in his voice struck Sasori. He was sure he'd never heard Kaname speak in any manner that wasn't meant to cut deeply. Temari peered over his shoulders.
"Daddy!" she called out.
Kaname noticed Sasori and Temari standing in the doorway. "Keep her away from this."
In a matter of minutes, Karura was on a hospital cot and Chiyo sat in front of her, preparing to deliver her son. Sasori set Temari down but kept her small hand firmly in his.
"Don't move," he warned her.
If something went wrong, Sasori would have to ensure that no harm came to the little girl. With Chiyo and the Kazekage here it was unlikely, but then again, Sasori had never witnessed the birth of a Jinchuuriki.
Temari's lower lip trembled, but she didn't cry.
"She's bleeding," Chiyo said.
Nurses bustled around with bowls of liquid and towels. Ebizo stood back with the ANBU guards, silent.
Then the screams began. They were worse than any Sasori had heard over the past week. Inhuman. She was about to birth a monster, and no amount of imagination could grasp that acute horror.
"Mommy," Temari said, wincing as her mother shrieked.
Sasori pulled back on the girl's hand. "Remember what I told you."
Temari squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth, but she obeyed.
"Chiyo-sama," Kaname said from his spot next to Karura.
"It's crowning. It won't be long," Chiyo said. "I need more sponges!"
The nurses hustled to obey. In their movement, Sasori caught a glimpse of a sheet upon which Karura lay. It was dripping blood onto the floor. Temari saw it, too, and she squeezed his hand hard enough to hurt.
"It's coming! You, get over here," Chiyo barked at a nurse.
Karura let out one last ear-splitting scream. Sasori didn't know much about childbirth, but he was certain it wasn't supposed to be like this.
"Oh god," Kaname said. "Is that...?"
"He's not stable. Give me some space."
"He's not crying," Temari said. She tugged on Sasori's hand, drawing his attention. "Why isn't he crying?"
Sasori had no words for her. What did a fourteen-year-old boy know about children, anyway? All Sasori knew was death. He could tell her how long a person could stay alive without certain body parts. He could tell her how to cut open a man and sew him back up. He could tell her a hundred ways to kill, fast or slow, painless or excruciating.
He could tell her how long until Karura was finally dead (not long, maybe minutes at most), but Sasori said none of this.
Karura's screaming had died down, free of her demon, and a weak cry began to fill the room. It grew louder, and Sasori recognized a sound he absolutely abhorred in normal circumstances, but now it was almost a relief.
"He'll live," Chiyo said.
"Are you certain? He doesn't look healthy," Kaname said, straight-backed and stiff while Chiyo wiped down the newborn and handed him to Karura.
"Yes. But there are some complications we should discuss."
Kaname hesitated and looked down at his spent wife and their new son lying together. Sasori watched as he brushed Karura's bangs from her face and kissed her lightly on the forehead. Perhaps he whispered something to her, but Sasori couldn't tell from his position.
"We'll reconvene down the hall," Kaname said.
Chiyo nodded and headed for the exit. On her way, she passed by Sasori and Temari, and she spared her grandson a glance. Hard and unwavering. Her job was done, and it was done well. There was nothing more to expect from her. Sasori wouldn't even try.
Nearby, Ebizo sighed and made to follow Chiyo and Kaname out. Unlike his sister, Ebizo acknowledged Sasori.
"Stay with her, Sasori," he said. "She shouldn't be alone."
Ebizo left and Sasori watched him go. Temari yanked her hand free and rushed to her mother's bedside, her little ponytail bouncing all the way.
"Shh, my love. You'll disturb your brother," Karura said, smiling tiredly.
Sasori made his way closer, gingerly, as though one wrong move would bring the sky down upon them. Karura was on her side holding her baby close. Sasori was surprised to see how tiny the boy was. He was perhaps half the size of a normal baby. His shock of red hair was brighter than Kaname's, almost bloody. Dark rings lined his eyes, as though he hadn't slept in years.
Shukaku, Sasori thought. How terrible to be born into the world never having known sleep's release. This boy would be strong. He hadn't given into the nightmares yet, and he was barely breathing.
Temari reached out a small hand to pet the boy's head, awed. Sasori let his gaze roam over Karura's battered body. Her sheets were bloodied, and the dripping had not let up. He wondered how much blood she'd lost, and decided it didn't matter—she would be dead soon, anyway. The nurses working to stabilize her were wasting their time.
"Sasori-kun, is that you?"
Karura smiled and held her baby close. "Thank you for keeping Temari safe."
Sasori blinked. Even now, Karura's primary concern was for her children. It made him angry that she valued her own life so little. Didn't she understand that soon her precious children would have no mother?
"Don't you think you should worry a little more about yourself?"
She didn't seem to mind the bite in his words. In fact, she didn't seem to notice at all. "Isn't he perfect? My beautiful little Gaara."
"Is that his name, Mommy?" Temari poked Gaara's cheek and he made a face.
"Yes, because he's so loved." She laughed. "I love you, Gaara."
"...severe internal hemorrhaging..."
"It's like he ripped her apart..."
Sasori glanced at the nurses talking softly amongst themselves as they worked. Karura didn't have long, and they finally understood that. Temari, however, did not.
"Take care of your brothers, Temari," Karura said, reaching a hand out for her only daughter. "They'll be useless without you."
Temari frowned, not understanding. "But I'm not their mommy, you are."
Sasori didn't have to be looking at Karura to know she was crying.
"We're losing her," a nurse said. "Someone get the Kazekage."
Temari heard that and fear took root. "Mommy? You're gonna be okay, right?"
A part of Sasori wondered if he should take Temari away from here so she wouldn't have to witness her own mother's death. But his body would not move. All he could do was watch this unfold like a child watching a horror flick through his fingers.
"It's okay. Just don't ever forget...that I love you."
Temari began to cry, perhaps finally realizing what was happening. And then, she did the strangest thing.
"Help her!" she cried at Sasori. "You're s'posed to protect her, right?"
Karura coughed up blood then, and Gaara began to cry. Some of her blood had spilled onto his pale cheek.
"Please," Temari begged him. "You're strong, so help her."
Sasori opened his mouth to say something.
I'm not a medical ninja.
There's no helping her.
She was dead the day she conceived your brother.
Words had never been Sasori's forte, and they abandoned him now. None of the nurses seemed to notice this change in Karura, and Kaname had not returned yet. With no further options, Sasori latched onto Gaara with his strings and pulled the small boy up into his arms. He used his sleeve to wipe the blood from Gaara's cheek. Gaara cried and cried.
"It's okay, Temari," Karura said. "He is helping."
Karura panted, her half-lidded eyes unfocused. Kaname took that time to return, and he picked up Temari so that he could better access his wife.
"Karura," he said in that too-gentle voice Sasori had thought he'd dreamed up before. "I'm..."
"It's all right," she said. Blood dripped from the corner of her lips onto the pillow.
Sasori tried to back away to give them time and hopefully pass off Gaara to a more capable nurse, but Karura's hand in his shirt stopped him. She didn't look at him. At this point, she was blind to the world and, if there was any mercy at all, the pain.
"Watch over him...please."
"I will," Kaname said, smoothing her hair.
Karura's hand was still fisted in Sasori's shirt, and he knew those words were meant for him, not her husband. Not the living parent whose duty it was to raise his own son.
Not a son; a weapon.
Sasori looked down at Gaara. His tears were beginning to soak through Sasori's shirt, so he wiped them away with a thumb. It was almost unbelievable that this child was a Jinchuuriki, a shinobi of colossal power. Sasori could have snapped him in two right then and there.
Perhaps Karura had a point. Only a monster could guide another monster.
"I will," Sasori whispered.
As Karura finally drew her last breaths and Temari cried into her father's robes, Sasori wondered if Gaara could feel her love.
Yashamaru will be in the next chapter in case you were wondering about him here.