Reaching Out to You

By Ariel D

Description: SANDSIBS fic. Kankuro is hurt during a mission, and Gaara finds himself in the place to offer comfort for the first time in his life. Post Chunin Exams, pre Sasuke Retrieval.

Disclaimer: Gaara and the Naruto-verse are copyrighted by Masashi Kishimoto and Weekly Shonen Jump. I am making no profit; this is just for fun.

A/N: Set one month after the chunin exams and shortly before the rescue Sasuke arc.

Carrying a tray in one hand, Gaara padded silently through the mansion's hallways to Kankuro's room. Even with their father dead, the siblings had been allowed to remain in the Kazekage's mansion while the council discussed who would be the Godaime Kazekage. This small mercy, nearly the council's afterthought, had proven fortunate since Kankuro was currently injured.

Pausing outside Kankuro's door, Gaara reached up and grasped the knob, only to hesitate. The small redhead frowned, wondering if his presence would be welcome. Temari had asked him to take Kankuro his supper, but in the month since the chunin exams, his siblings still hadn't adjusted to his new attitude. Gaara suspected that they feared he'd revert to his previous ways and resume threatening to kill them; however, he'd taken the lesson he learned in Konoha utterly seriously. He was determined to change his destiny, and with it, the way others viewed him.

Gaara swallowed a sigh and slid open the door; he understood enough to know it would take months — maybe even years — for his siblings to relax around him. After all the violence he'd shown them, it was only natural.

"Kankuro?" he called as he entered. The room was dark; heavy curtains hung across the window, muting the light from the setting sun.

Kankuro, who was covered in bandages, stirred in his sleep but didn't awaken. Gaara closed the door behind him and paused. The older boy had been severely injured during their latest A-rank mission. Their job had been information gathering at Wind's northeastern border, but they'd been ambushed by two teams from Kirigakure. The battle had not gone well; Gaara suspected the teams had been comprised mostly of chunin. Although Kankuro had reaped two opponents with his new puppet, Kuroari, he'd lost to his third and final foe.

Gaara crossed the room and set the food tray on Kankuro's nightstand. He paused, considering the little table. Except for his worktable where he refined his puppets, Kankuro's room was always tidy, something that surprised Gaara. However, of the few times Gaara had been in his brother's room, he'd never noticed any knickknacks. He now realized that the nightstand held a lamp and a photograph — a photograph of himself and his siblings right before they'd left for the chunin exams.

Astonished, Gaara picked up the photo. He wants a picture that includes me?

Kankuro groaned in his sleep, tossing his head and shifting one arm. Gaara set down the photo as though he'd been caught stealing, watching his brother carefully as he did. Kankuro didn't awaken, though.

Gaara frowned at his brother's still form. He'd knocked off most of his covers, leaving the sheets bunched around his legs. He wore nothing more than black PJ pants; bandages covered most of his torso, left arm, and neck. Gaara noted two contradictory things: the bandages showed blood in a few places, and his brother's arms were more muscular than he'd imagined. When he wasn't in battle, Kankuro's personality was so easygoing that Gaara generally forgot how committed he was to his training.

What jarred Gaara, though, was his brother's missing face paint; he was far too used to seeing Kankuro with it. He supposed the older boy only washed it off right before sleeping. However, being currently bedridden from a devastating barrage of chakra-infused water arrows, Kankuro had no need for the paint. Gaara frowned again, looking over the smooth planes of his brother's face and noting the cuts on his brow and cheeks.

Shifting, Kankuro groaned faintly, then seemed to snap awake. "Who —?" His gaze immediately landed upon his younger brother, and Gaara suspected his trained senses had alerted him to his presence even through his drugged state.

"Temari sent you supper," Gaara said simply.

Kankuro watched him carefully for a moment, much like an animal sizing up the sudden presence of a larger animal in its territory. Apparently satisfied with what he found, he sighed and then struggled to sit up. By the time he'd managed to settle himself against his headboard, he had broken a sweat.

Gaara watched this process, his brow furrowing as he felt a twinge of an emotion long lost: guilt. Now that he understood bonds had value, he had promised himself he'd protect his siblings on their missions. Yet the first time one of his siblings had actually needed him, he had been too busy with his own opponents to be useful.

"Smells like miso soup," Kankuro mumbled, casting a tired glance at the tray.

"And rice, stir fry, and hamburgers. Temari said hamburgers are your favorite." Up until that point, Gaara hadn't bothered to pay attention to what his siblings did or didn't like.

Kankuro nodded, but he looked too exhausted and in pain to enjoy his food. "Like I can eat all that."

Gaara frowned, feeling out of his element, then picked up the soup bowl and handed it to Kankuro. "Here." He sat on the bed and watched his older brother drink the broth. When Kankuro glanced toward the chopsticks, Gaara handed them to him as well.

"Thanks, man," Kankuro said quietly, then used the chopsticks to eat the remaining negi, tofu, wakame, and potatoes.

Gaara remained on the bed's edge, his stomach tensed, and wondered at his own feelings. He realized he was perched as though he expected to be ordered off — as though he expected to need to flee. But what was he afraid of? Kankuro couldn't hurt him when he was well, much less when he was injured. Gaara frowned to himself and wrapped his thin arms across his abdomen.

Kankuro lowered the empty bowl to his lap and looked at his brother, apparently noticing his short-sleeved black shirt. "What? Are you cold?" He paused. "Well, I guess it's a bit cool in here since I left the curtains shut all day." He gestured with his chopsticks at the tray. "Eat some rice or something. That'll warm you up."

Gaara gazed at his brother with wide eyes. Kankuro was . . . concerned? No, maybe he was just acting civil. Gaara blinked. Either was shocking given his brother's normal brash attitude. "I'm fine." He took the empty bowl and chopsticks, then handed his brother the hamburger. As he did, his gaze fell on the photo again; his own frowning face stared back at him.

Kankuro glanced at the picture and blushed faintly, but he didn't say anything. Gaara watched this reaction and wondered if he'd completely overlooked half his brother's personality. Was there more to Kankuro than just a smart-mouthed punk who enjoyed fighting? He had never given much thought to Kankuro unless he was annoyed with him, but this tiny yet significant detail caught his attention. If he kept a picture of him, then perhaps Kankuro could see him as something more than a weapon. Perhaps, just maybe, he would listen if he . . .

"I meant to protect you," Gaara said quietly but bluntly, acting on the theory before he could change his mind.

Kankuro stopped mid-chew, his eyes growing wide. "Hm?"

Although he hesitated, Gaara drove himself to keep talking; staying silent just caused more pain. "It occurred to me that a team is more than just people with complementary strengths or a set of people needed in a complex situation." He paused, considering the words of Uzamaki Naruto and the way he protected his companions. "A team . . . looks out for one another. But I failed to."

Although his mouth hadn't fallen open, Kankuro's jaw had gone lax; he looked like he'd lost the ability to chew. He seemed to recover himself then swallowed rather hard. "Gaara . . ."

He hadn't laughed or said something smart aleck. This was a good sign. Gaara glanced away. "When Baki isn't with us, I'm team leader. As such, I should have protected you." He steeled himself to continue. "I'm sorry."

"It's . . . okay." Kankuro set down the plate, his hamburger half-eaten. "You were fighting four opponents yourself. Temari had two, and I had two. We were all too thick to consider there was a hidden ninth guy. He was hailing me with his ninjustu before we knew what was happening."

Gaara glanced back at him. "You've been bedridden for three days."

"But I'll get over it." Kankuro frowned. "I'm not happy about it, but it's not your fault." He paused, reached one hand toward Gaara's arm, then halted. "Thanks, though." A faint smile bent his lips. "You'll pass the next set of chunin exams with that attitude."

Gaara nodded and wondered if he could reveal to Kankuro that he had a new goal: to become Kazekage. His older brother had listened to his words and taken them seriously despite his initial shock. Maybe . . . maybe there really was someone to whom Gaara could tell his dreams. Someone who would recognize his determination and honor it.

The thought made his entire soul ache with need.

When Kankuro awakened the following morning, his neck and back hurt from lying in bed too long, and he felt groggy from all the pain medication and muscle relaxers. With a groan, he forced himself to sit up and swing his legs off the bed. He had to stretch his muscles even if it killed him, he decided, so he glared at the dressing table. If he could reach the chair . . .

Kankuro took a deep breath and forced himself to stand. He focused on his goal: the antique table his maternal grandfather had given him when he'd chosen to learn the puppet jutsu. Kankuro clenched his jaw and stumbled toward it, grabbing the chair back when he was close enough and guiding himself down with a sigh. "Made it."

He stared into the mirror, which was old enough to be marred by back spots. The table itself still shone with lacquer, although a few scratches revealed wear. Kankuro held secret affection for the piece, which he used to store his smaller tools, because it was all that remained of the kind man who had died when Kankuro was eight. When his grandfather had passed away, Kankuro had been left with only a cold father, an insane brother, and an equally lonely sister. It was a world without love.

Kankuro sighed again and opened the top right drawer — the only drawer that didn't hold tools. A brush, a comb, and several jars of face paint presented themselves. He picked up one jar, frowned at it, then looked into the mirror. The bare face that met his gaze reminded him too much of his father's face . . . the face of a man who had disdained or even hated his children. No one ever mentioned this fact to Kankuro anymore. The last time Temari had insulted him over it, they'd beaten each other black and blue in the resulting fight. That had been seven years ago; even as a child, Temari had realized it was too great an offense and had never mentioned it again.

"Enough of that," Kankuro muttered to himself, dismissing the thoughts and the memories they resurrected. He opened the jar and prepared to don the puppeteer's mask.

A knock sounded at his door. "Kankuro?" called Gaara's voice.

He paused, using the mirror's reflection to glance at the door. "Come in." For the first time in his life, he realized he wasn't afraid to spend time utterly alone with his brother. Something about their conversation the day before had eased his tension; Gaara's new attitude didn't seem to be a temporary phase.

The door slid open, and Gaara entered carrying another tray. "Temari sent you breakfast." The younger boy hesitated as he saw Kankuro sitting at the table. "It's too soon for you to move around."

A statement of fact, not concern. However, Kankuro frowned, realizing that it was significant that Gaara had bothered to even make the observation. "Maybe. But my back hurts from lying around too long."

Gaara nodded and set the tray on the nightstand. "Fair enough." He walked over to the dressing table and gazed at the paint jar. "Your face is too scratched up to put that stuff on."

Kankuro set down the jar and grimaced, wondering if Gaara saw their father when he looked at him this way. "I'd feel more like myself if I wore it." He smirked. "Good for morale."

Gaara's slight permanent frown deepened. "Don't be that way."

Kankuro blinked, glancing at his brother in surprise. "What way?"

But he ignored the question and pointed to the tin of ointment on the table. "If you're going to put something on, use that stuff."

Kankuro suffered a moment's severe confusion. Why was his little brother being so . . . nice? Granted, the kindness was coated with gruffness, but there was no doubt: Gaara was looking out for him. "But . . ."

Gaara picked up the tin and opened the lid. "Don't be so stubborn." He dipped one finger in and then applied the ointment to a cut on his older brother's cheek.

Kankuro gazed up at him, transfixed. The younger boy's brow furrowed in concentration as he applied medicine to each cut and scrape, his soft finger tracing over the wounds. Until that moment, Kankuro hadn't been able to imagine Gaara as gentle, but he found himself rendered speechless by the unspoken care.

"There," Gaara said, wiping his finger on his pants and closing the tin. "That's more reasonable."

Kankuro glanced back at the mirror, blushing faintly and turning his face to check the cuts. Each spot shone with ointment. "Thank you," he said softly, stunned. How had this happened? What had occurred during Gaara's fight with that Uzamaki kid to cause such a profound difference? For a moment, the rush of hope he felt was so painful that he couldn't breathe. Please don't change back, he thought but wouldn't say. Stay like this.

Gaara simply nodded and walked over to the tray, fetching the soup bowl and chopsticks. Kankuro continued to stare into the mirror, wondering once again if Gaara saw their father in him. Maybe not if he could bear to look at him this way. Kankuro frowned, disturbed by the question.

"What is it?" Gaara asked, setting the bowl of miso on the dressing table and laying the chopsticks across it. "Is your paint so important to you? You're not on duty, and not all the members of the puppeteer unit wear paint even when they are on duty."

Kankuro started to reply, even started to ask his question, but couldn't bring himself to. "It's just . . ."

Gaara picked up the paint jar and took off the lid. "It's just what?" He dipped his finger into the paint and reached out, drawing the line down Kankuro's nose.

The older boy was rendered speechless again and merely watched as Gaara slowly traced a line down his chin and ran a line from the corner of each of his eyes to his temples.

"That's all," Gaara said, putting the lid back on the jar. "I can't put the rest of the lines on your face without getting the stuff in your cuts."

Kankuro accepted the jar from Gaara and found he was oddly moved. "I . . . Thanks." He put the jar back in the drawer and closed it. "It . . . does help." He glanced back at his younger brother and gave him a tentative smile.

Gaara's frown relaxed, and for a moment, his eyes seemed to lighten. Then the frown returned. "You didn't answer my question. Why does that paint mean so much to you?"

Kankuro glanced away and picked up his soup bowl, setting aside the chopsticks. "It's just . . . part of my style." He sipped the broth from the bowl.

"Liar." Gaara turned and walked toward the door. "I'll be back for your tray later."

Realizing he'd managed to insult his brother, Kankuro set down the bowl and swiveled on the chair. "Wait!" He paused, a pang shooting through his chest. Gaara had been reaching out to him — had even opened up to him a bit the previous day — but he'd returned that care by brushing him off.

Gaara halted, his hand on the knob. "What?"

Kankuro stared at the floor. "Isn't it . . . obvious? When you . . . look at me?"

The younger boy paused, then crossed the floor again and took hold of Kankuro's chin, forcing him to look up at him. For a moment, Kankuro felt a tingling of nervousness and wondered if he'd be snapped at. However, he met his younger brother's gaze — a somber gaze that radiated his seriousness.

"Is that it?" Gaara's voice was quiet. "Because you look like him?" He shook his head. "Who cares? You're not him." He hesitated, then continued. "Besides . . . you don't have the same eyes. His were dead and cold. Flat and filled with hate. Yours aren't."

"G-Gaara . . ."

The younger boy released him, then walked to the bed and perched on the corner. "Eat your breakfast then lie down again before you push yourself too far."

Kankuro turned back to his bowl of miso and grinned. "Okay." He blushed with happiness, stunned that such a few kind words could have such an impact — especially kind words from someone who had always treated him cruelly. Some small voice inside of him, one he hadn't even realized had been screaming, suddenly stilled and grew silent.

He ate his breakfast, then returned to bed as Gaara had suggested. He gazed up at his younger brother and gave him a genuine smile. "Thanks."

Gaara nodded, silent as always, and yet Kankuro sensed the human soul behind the veil. With the smile still on his lips, he slipped back into sleep. Maybe he would end up with a younger brother after all . . .

A/N: Methinks this needs a sequel. In fact, methinks this may end up with a chapter 2. We'll see. Thank you to Darkhelmetj for betareading and to anyone who reads and reviews! I really appreciate the comments, reviews, and favs on my other stories.

Update on the "Blood of Brothers and "Requiem for Atlas" series of stories: chapter 1 of the third story is completed and waiting to be betaed. Things are looking good on that front.