Chapter Three: To Be Human

Gaara stared up at Kankuro's hat as he followed him down the Suna's dusty streets. For the past three days, Kankuro had stayed off his injured leg, and Gaara had honored his promise to his brother by not training. However, in order to prevent Taro from discovering he was sleeping, Gaara had refused to sleep for the past three nights. As a result, he had begun to feel fuzzy-headed and found himself wondering why his brother's hat had cat ears. Did cats ever notice this? Had a cat ever accidentally pounced on his head?

Gaara shook his head, trying to clear his mind. This evening he and his siblings had been invited to Councilman Daisuke's home for dinner, and Gaara had done his best to act normally throughout the meal. Fortunately, he had never been one to talk much, and Kankuro and Temari had handled his part of the conversation as usual. Now Gaara, who was practically falling asleep on his feet, was following Kankuro back to their mansion while Temari stayed behind to play shogi with Daisuke's wife.

This is too strange, Gaara thought, he eyelids drooping. I never would have guessed normal people would find it so hard to forego sleep. For a second, he thought he saw a cat moving along the dusty street beside them, but once he turned his dazed attention toward the figure, he realized it was just the shadow of his brother's hat. Even my perceptions are warping . . .

Kankuro glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "Stay with me, man. It wouldn't look good if I carried you the rest of the way home."

Gaara started to formulate a comeback, but his mind was waylaid by the thought of stealing Kankuro's bed to sleep in.

Suddenly, a piercing yell cut through the quiet evening: "I told you to pay up!"

Gaara halted, shocked into wakefulness, and Kankuro stopped as well, turning toward a tavern on their right. The sandy beige exterior of the building looked mundane and peaceful enough, but the sound of a punch echoed out into the street, followed by several screams.

"You worthless scum!" continued the angry voice. "I don't care if your wife was killed on a mission. That don't give you no right to drink all my beer and never pay!"

Kankuro frowned and started toward the tavern's entrance just as the sound of further punches and falling tables pierced the walls. Gaara immediately followed, thinking that whatever the problem was, violence was not the solution.

When he stepped into the tavern behind Kankuro, Gaara realized the situation was already severely out-of-hand. All the tables in the center of the room were toppled over, and the patrons were lining the walls to stay out of the way. In the middle of the commotion were two men, one obviously the enraged barkeep and the other a drunken shinobi. The shinobi had pulled out two kunai and was aiming them at the barkeep, who was holding a serving platter before him like a shield.

Gaara tensed, realizing he might have to use his sand to protect the barkeep and equally aware of the fact he might not be able to. "Enough!" he said, the sharpness of his tone cutting through tavern.

Everyone froze, but the drunken shinobi and the barkeep didn't look away from each other.

Gaara walked between them and crossed his arms. "Is your dispute really so severe that it warrants death?"

At Gaara's words, the men's staring contest was broken. The drunken shinobi slumped, letting his kunai fall to the floor. "No, Kazekage-sama." Tears collected in his eyes. "I just — I . . . since my wife died . . . I just want to drink. I'll pay my tab when I get paid next week. Sugawara knows that."

The barkeep, who was apparently named Sugawara, growled. "You used to pay your tab. Since your wife died, you haven't paid anything."

Gaara turned his stare upon the barkeep. "There are proper channels for handling debtors. Beating them is not one of them."

Sugawara visibly swallowed and then blushed. "Yes, Kazekage-sama."

Gaara turned to the shinobi. "You have one week to pay back your debt to this man. You will also report to the ninja academy tomorrow and begin helping to train students. You will choose three especially talented girls and train them in your wife's name so that they can help you honor her memory. I never want to see you drunk again. Do you understand?"

The shinobi's eyes widened, and the tears in his eyes escaped down his cheeks. "Yes, sir!"

Gaara turned to the barkeep. "You will give him one week to pay back his debt, and if he doesn't, you will use proper legal channels to pursue the matter. I never want to hear of you attacking a customer again. Do you understand?"

Sugawara nodded emphatically.

"Very well." Gaara turned and headed toward the door, but a mass of villagers had clogged the doorway, all of them reaching out toward him and talking at once.

"That was so wise, Kazekage-sama!"

"You always know just what to do, Kazekage-sama!"

"Oh, Kazekage-sama! You do such an excellent job protecting the village!"

Gaara had never been comfortable with crowds, but their praise cut him to the core. If they only knew how unprotected they really were at the moment. Gaara squeezed past them and slipped out the door, wanting nothing more than to be back in the quiet of his room. Behind him, Gaara could hear Kankuro thanking the villagers for him.

Despite his exhaustion, Gaara's frustration gave him the strength to run back to the mansion. Kankuro was close behind him and entered Gaara's quarters only a few seconds after he himself did.

"What is it?" Kankuro immediately asked.

"Nothing," Gaara snapped, jerking off his Kazekage robes.

"Something," Kankuro replied. "You're angry. But why? You did great handling that dispute. In fact, I'm really proud of you."

Gaara flinched and threw his robes onto his bed. Kankuro had no idea how his kind words made it sting worse. "What if I'd had to stop the fight?"

His brother paused.

Gaara glared at him. "Well? What if I had? Everyone would have learned my dirty little secret, and then they'd know — they'd know I'm not really protecting the village."

Kankuro held up both hands in a calming fashion, but Gaara was too frustrated with himself to be comforted. "Just leave," he said.

Kankuro blinked. "But I —"

"Leave!" Gaara commanded, and he realized he sounded just as venomous as he had as the boy who'd attended the chuunin exams.

His brother's gaze fell, and he turned without a word and left.

Gaara sat in the floor right where he stood and wrapped his arms around his knees. He'd done it again — he'd hurt Kankuro. Now that Shukaku was gone, he was beginning to act more like a monster than he had in three years. Gaara growled, even angrier at himself than he had been. However, he couldn't apologize just now; he couldn't call Kankuro back. He was too enraged to be around anyone.

Kankuro sat at the small workbench in his bedroom, where he occasionally fine-tuned his puppets, and picked up the wolf he was close to completing. All he needed to do was sharpen the blades serving as the puppet's fangs, and he'd be done. He set to work, trying not to think about the fact that his brother was already pushing him away. Becoming unneeded by or useless to Gaara was something that had been bothering him since he'd failed to rescue his brother from Akatsuki. Now it was worse because — oddly enough — his brother had turned to him for help. Kankuro had experienced actually acting on that care and had seen how it felt. Therefore, the fear that he'd become unneeded or useless to Gaara was now confounded by the fear that Gaara would push him away . . .

Kankuro's stomach cramped at his thoughts, but he ignored his pain and kept working, hoping the methodical task would clear his mind.

A half hour passed, then a faint knock sounded on his door. Kankuro turned toward the sound and responded without thinking. "Come in!"

When Gaara opened the door and entered, Kankuro frowned for a moment, not sure he really wanted to see his brother. However, Gaara looked so exhausted that Kankuro abandoned the thought. The black circles around his eyes seemed more pronounced than usual, and when he closed the door, he slumped against it like he was so tired he could barely stand up. Kankuro remembered belatedly that his brother had skipped three nights' worth of sleep on top of rigorous and frustrating training.

"You calmer now?" Kankuro asked, keeping his tone neutral.

Gaara stared at the bed and didn't reply. His face was completely impassive, but his eyes seemed glazed.

Kankuro felt a flash of irritation. "Don't come up here if you're just going to sleep in my bed. I'm not leaving to accommodate your need to be 'left alone.' This is my room, after all."

Gaara flinched. "It's not that," he said in a quiet voice. "It's just . . . I'm just . . . still a monster."

"What?" Kankuro set down the wolf and stood up. Only then did he notice Gaara's hands: the skin on his knuckles was busted, and blood covered his fingers.

Gaara continued to stare at the bed.

Disturbed by the sight of Gaara's self-inflicted injuries, Kankuro took a step closer. "What do you mean you're 'still a monster?'"

"I mean I'm still a monster!" Gaara yelled suddenly, the impassiveness shattered. The sand that was scattered across Kankuro's bedroom floor — a permanent feature of every Suna home — rose up and began slowly circling through the air.

Kankuro immediately backed up a step. "Gaara . . ."

"Ever since I came back from death," Gaara continued, his eyes bright with rage, "I haven't been able to control my emotions like I used to. I try. Frustration . . . anger . . . even fear." The circling sand raised another few inches and increased its rotation. "But they seep out of me and make me hurt people again. I'm still a monster!"

Kankuro watched half in dread and half in awe as the sand began wrapping around Gaara's body. He had to talk, and fast. "You're not a monster. Frustration, anger, and fear are normal human emotions. I suspect that you spent so much time suppressing Shukaku's emotions that you didn't allow yourself to have any. Or, at least, not many. But your emotions, like your chakra, are now yours alone. You'll adjust to both."

Gaara clenched his bloody fists and squeezed his eyes shut. "Impossible! This can't be what it means to be human." The sand pulled into a ball in front of Gaara's chest and then suddenly exploded outward.

Kankuro reacted instantly, shooting his chakra out of his fingertips, grabbing the wolf puppet, and jerking it in front of his body like a shield. The sand collided with the puppet and shattered it, sending pieces of wood flying all over the room. Kankuro threw his arms up, but one fragment still cut his cheek as it flew past.

Dead silence descended upon the room. Kankuro felt a moment's pang over the lost puppet, but his disappointment was swept aside when he lowered his arms and found a wide-eyed Gaara staring at him in horror. The boy raised one shaking, bloody hand to his mouth as though he'd be sick.

"I've hurt you," he choked out. "Again. I hurt you again!"

It took Kankuro half a second to realize his sleep-deprived, frustrated brother was getting ready to have a meltdown. He ran across the room and took Gaara's small, bloody hands into his own. "I'm fine," he told the boy calmly. "See? Just a scratch."

Impossibly wide aqua eyes stared up at Kankuro, but Gaara didn't respond.

"You're not a monster," Kankuro said quietly, slowly. "All humans lose their tempers sometimes and hurt others. What you did today was an accident. What you did three days ago was an accident. You weren't trying to injure me on purpose."

"I hurt you earlier, too," Gaara replied in a small voice.

"When you ordered me out of your room?" Kankuro didn't want to admit how that had stung, but he didn't see that he had a choice. "Yes, you did. But humans learn, too. Just don't do it again, okay?"

Gaara continued to stare at him. "Are you sure I'm not a monster? Just a monster without power?" He pulled his hands free and grasped his head. "I'm not getting any stronger. I'm useless again — my existence is unneeded." He stopped suddenly and looked up at Kankuro with an expression of pure fear. He pressed his back against the door as though he were trying to break through and escape.

Kankuro stared at Gaara, rendered speechless by this outburst. He started to step forward, paused when his body didn't seem to want to move, then finished the motion. He grabbed Gaara's shoulders. "You're not useless!"

"You won't —" Gaara paused. "You won't . . .?"

Kankuro wasn't sure what his brother was trying to say. "What more can you demand of yourself?" he asked, desperately trying to appeal to Gaara's rational side. "You train yourself until you can't stand up any longer; you take care of every single piece of paperwork that crosses your desk. You hear out every problem that surfaces in the village from the most serious to the most petty. You sit through the endless babbling and self-aggrandizing of the council members, and you check on the progress of the academy students. And you never once complain or show impatience about anything or anyone except yourself."

Gaara frowned. "But I —"

"But you what?" Kankuro asked. "There is more to being a great leader than being powerful; there is more to being Kazekage than the ability to defeat any enemy. Being a great leader has to do with patience and wisdom, compassion and justice. You have to weigh the needs of individuals and groups, look at every side of a problem, and consider how the choices you make today will affect the future. You have always done these things. You worked hard to become the person you are in here." Kankuro poked Gaara in the chest, right over his heart. "And here." He tapped his skull. "None of this has changed about you, Shukaku or not. Why would we suddenly not need that?"

Gaara stared at him for a moment, his mouth hanging slightly open in shock, and then he did the last thing Kankuro expected. He stepped forward and leaned against his older brother's chest. Kankuro froze for a moment, shocked senseless, then wrapped his arms around him.

"It's not enough." His words were muffled by Kankuro's chest. "The village finally looks up to me, and now I'm going to get everyone killed."

Kankuro tightened his arms around Gaara's thin shoulders and rested his cheek against his head. "You're overreacting. We will never stop training until you are back to normal. Besides, it's not just about what people need. It's about what they want. And they want you — they respect you now. You proved to them first that you care about them, and in return they love you for it. They'll wait for you to recover."

Gaara didn't respond, and Kankuro sighed silently. He turned both him and his brother around and then slid down the door, forcing them both to sit. Gaara, who had remained silent during the process, clutched at his own stomach and seemed to be trying his best to curl into a ball. Seeing this, Kankuro made him sit between his knees so he could hold him against his chest. He blushed a bit, feeling overly much like a father, and wondered if Gaara would shove him away again. However, the boy leaned against him without protest.

Kankuro ran one hand up and down Gaara's back, trying to calm him. "You do realize that sleep deprivation makes people irritable and irrational, right?"

The ball curled against his chest still didn't respond.

"Do you at least recognize that your accidental attack against me just now is a clear sign you're getting stronger?"

Gaara shifted slightly, tucking his head under Kankuro's chin. "It is?"

Kankuro's lips twitched as the soft, spiky hair tickled his neck. "Yes. You unconsciously pulled normal sand to yourself, balled it up, and launched it without even thinking."

A long silence met this observation, then Gaara relaxed against him. "Hn."

Kankuro wrapped both arms tightly around the boy resting on him and smiled. "You're so stubborn."

One skinny arm snaked around Kankuro's waist, but the red-head didn't reply at first. Finally, he spoke. "Do you still have your first aid kit?"

Kankuro thought of Gaara's bloody hands and grimaced. "Yeah, and we —"

"Give it to me. Please."

Kankuro reached for the utility pack on his belt and pulled out the little kit. Gaara sat up and took it, fumbling through it with shaky fingers. Kankuro started to offer his help, but Gaara managed to open the ointment tube and squeeze some onto a piece of gauze.

"You'll need more than that," Kankuro said, looking that Gaara's busted knuckles. "In fact, we should wash your hands first."

"Hmm?" Gaara looked up at him with surprise, then reached out and cleaned the blood from Kankuro's cheek. "It's not for me."

Kankuro was rendered speechless again. He watched Gaara treat his wound with quiet determination and realized this was the first time his little brother had ever taken care of him directly and personally.

Gaara gazed up at him with eyes full of remorse. "Is that better?"

"Y-yes." Kankuro couldn't begin to tell him that any residual pain had been banished by his sheer act of caring.

Gaara nodded and closed the kit.

"Hey, we still need to treat your hands," Kankuro said.

"Later." Gaara leaned against his brother's chest once more and yawned. One small arm snaked around his waist again.

Kankuro gazed down at the red mop of hair on his shoulder and decided he had to be the only brother in the world who was also a best friend and father. Somehow, although that fact made him blush with embarrassment, it also made him proud.

"Look," he said softly, unable to stop himself from teasing Gaara, "the little kid has shown up again."

"Shut up," Gaara said in a tone that completely lacked anger, "or I'll make you buy me a teddy bear."

Kankuro laughed and hugged his brother once more, but after a moment his smile faded as he remembered the angry and confused child who had been introduced to him as his younger brother — a total stranger who had been left in his uncle's care. That little boy had desperately clutched a brown teddy bear to his chest as he'd stared at his siblings with wonder and fear of rejection. That was the boy Gaara had been shortly before Uncle Yashmaru had tried to kill him . . .

Kankuro's heart ached, and he ran one hand through Gaara's hair. "I was serious when I said I was going to protect you for the rest of your life."

If anything, Gaara seemed to relax more. "Good," he mumbled, and within moments he was asleep.

"Thank you," Kankuro whispered, then picked up his brother and carried him over to the bed. He laid him down and tucked him in, then sat beside him. Gaara curled onto his side, and Kankuro reflected that his brother really was getting stronger: he was figuring out life without Shukaku and rebuilding his chakra. Kankuro didn't think his brother had yet realized just how significant his accidental attack had been. Chief of Security or not, Taro couldn't begin to understand how fast Gaara was recovering. If the creep really was going to make some type of move against the Kazekage, he'd be quick to learn his confidence was misplaced.

Not to mention Kankuro would be there to help protect Gaara. Forever.

Gaara shifted slightly in his sleep, and Kankuro reached out and smoothed down his hair. "Sleep well. I'll always watch over you."

A/N: As you can tell, there will be a third story in this series — one dealing with Taro directly.

Thank you to Darkhelmetj for betareading, and thank you to everyone who read and reviewed! Several more Gaara & Kankuro brotherly h/c fics are headed your way.