The Star Gazing Festival

By Ariel D

Description: SANDSIBS fic. The Sibs have made chunin, and Kankuro thinks Gaara should celebrate by attending the summer star gazing festival. Brotherly love. Set post-Sasuke Retrieval and pre-Shippuuden.

Disclaimer: Gaara, Kankuro, 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: Not Sandcest. Brotherly love and vaguely hurt/comfort. Written for the Summer Fun contest on Club-KGT.

Translations (jic): "Konbanwa" means "good evening." A "yukata" is a cotton, summer kimono, and an "obi" is its belt. "Geta" are wooden flip-flop-like shoes (think Jiraiya).

Kankuro hovered in the doorway of the living room, watching his younger brother as he sat at the kotatsu table and read through team listings. Since the failed Sasuke Retrieval mission, Gaara had petitioned the jonin council repeatedly until they'd assigned him to work with different teams; now that he'd made chunin, he served almost exclusively as team leader for genin. His goal, Kankuro knew, was to become Godaime Kazekage.

"What is it?" Gaara asked without looking up. He flipped to a new page, scanning the names.

Kankuro smiled. Even though Gaara sat with his back to the doorway and Kankuro's footsteps had been silent on the straw tatami floor, his younger brother still sensed his presence without fail. "The Star Gazing Festival is tomorrow night."

Gaara glanced over his shoulder. "I know." Under the impassiveness, Kankuro sensed the unspoken question: "And why are you telling me?"

"I just thought . . ." He paused and entered the room, joining Gaara at the table. "Well, when we returned home, you refused to celebrate with Temari, me, and the other new chunin."

The younger boy looked back at the listings. "My efforts to be accepted — tolerated, I should say — by others are working slowly. I would have ruined your party with my presence."

Kankuro stared at the table top. "Hey, man, I know. That's why I thought . . . well, I think you should go to the festival tomorrow night. It can be your own little celebration."

A long silence pervaded the room, and from the corner of his eye, Kankuro saw Gaara lift his gaze and watch him. "Do you really think I would be tolerated there?"

Blunt as usual, but Kankuro matched his stare. "Isn't it time to find out? You've worked hard, and the new genin like you. Even the council can't deny that you've been a good team captain."

The faintest of sighs escaped the younger boy. "I suppose. But it's likely that the villagers would freeze and stare." His gaze wandered to the window, and he seemed to lose himself in the view. His voice grew quiet, a trace of sadness coloring his tone. "Besides, I don't even know what one does at a festival. I've only ever watched them from the roof, so it just looks like random wandering to me."

"I would be taking you!" Kankuro glanced away, wanting to smack himself for sounding so adamant. Something odd was happening — something he couldn't entirely explain. The harder Gaara worked, the more he learned about human interaction and bonds, the more Kankuro wanted to help him, as though his long-buried wish to have a younger brother was resurrecting itself.

Another silence filled the room, and Kankuro checked Gaara's reaction. The boy's eyes had widened slightly, making him look younger than he was.

"You . . . would?"

Faint but detectable shock in his voice. It was all Kankuro needed to hear; he stood abruptly. "Yeah, man. Of course." He grinned. "Temari has a date with this guy who looks suspiciously like that Shikamaru kid from Konoha, so it'll just be you and me." He walked back to the doorway and glanced over his shoulder. "Let's leave at 8:00, okay? Oh — and be sure to wear a yukata. It is a festival after all."

Gaara turned and stared after him. "Kankuro . . .?"

He winked at him. "Don't worry about it. It'll be fine!" He turned and raced upstairs, not giving Gaara a chance to refuse.

The following evening at ten minutes to 8:00, Kankuro descended the stairs, hoping beyond hope that Gaara wouldn't back out. He'd traded his bunraku uniform for a black yukata imprinted with white "prosperity" kanji and a white obi. However, because he hated the fact he looked too much like his father — a man he still despised — he wore his face paint.

To Kankuro's utter relief, when he padded into the living room, he found Gaara sitting at the kotatsu table and wearing a maroon yukata with a silver bamboo design. He stood as Kankuro entered and seemed hesitant.

"Will this suffice?" Gaara spread his arms, indicating the yukata and its silver-grey obi.

Kankuro's grin widened until it nearly hurt his face. "Sure!" He gestured toward the foyer. "Let's go."

Gaara gave him a small nod and followed him into the entryway, where they slipped on their geta and then made their way outside. Immediately they could hear music and laughter — beating drums, children's shrieks. The sun sat low in the sky, casting a crimson glow over the village, and as the brothers entered the street, they saw paper lanterns strung between the booths. The smell of frying meat and cooking candy permeated the air.

Kankuro glanced at Gaara, who had his arms crossed and an impassive expression pinned on his face. To anyone else, the boy seemed not to care, but to his older brother, his nervousness and anticipation were obvious: Gaara walked almost shoulder-to-shoulder with him, and his gaze darted from booth to booth. Kankuro smiled at him, hoping he'd manage to relax.

"So, since we skipped the parade, we're just looking at booths between now and the fireworks." Kankuro pointed at different booths as he spoke. "Some sell food, like dango, yakitori, or ice cream. Others sell toys, theater masks, or paper charms. And several booths have games, like dart-throwing, archery, or catching goldfish. What do you want to do?"

Gaara stared up at him with slightly widened eyes; he seemed overwhelmed. "Don't care. You choose."

"Let's start with food, then. We can ponder the games while we eat." Kankuro steered him toward a booth selling yakitori, knowing Gaara preferred salty food over sweets. He stepped up to the counter, but Gaara stayed back a step.

Kankuro glanced over the grilled chicken on sticks and inhaled the spicy barbeque scent. "Two," he told the vender.

The merchant stared past his shoulder, no doubt startled by Gaara's presence, but then he seemed to recover. "Sure." He accepted Kankuro's money and then handed over two fat pieces of yakitori.

Kankuro handed one stick to Gaara and gestured to an empty bench along the street side. "Let's sit over there."

Gaara still watched him with wide eyes. "Thanks."

"No problem, man." He sat on the bench and smiled as Gaara sat uncharacteristically close beside him. They ate their grilled chicken in peaceful silence until Kankuro began to notice the way passerby stared at them and whispered behind their hands before quickly moving past.

Kankuro glared back with hooded eyes. "Jerks."

Gaara made a small, unidentifiable noise. "You, of all people, can't blame them. I've terrorized this village in the past."

"Or maybe I'm the best person to get mad at them." Kankuro frowned at his yakitori and let his hand fall to his lap. "I'm the one who watches how hard you try every day."

Gaara slanted him a startled look. "Kankuro . . ."

He smiled, trying to cover his embarrassment at showing his honest emotions so openly. He was too used to wearing a mask, pretending to be nothing more than a punk. "Forget about 'em," he advised his younger brother, trying to dismiss the topic. "We're here to have fun and celebrate becoming chunin."

Gaara nodded, although he watched the older boy carefully, as though he were analyzing his initial, honest reaction. Still, he said nothing further, and they finished their snack in silence. Then Kankuro led them back into the crowd and surveyed the booths.

"What do you say? Games?" Kankuro pointed to the dart-throwing booth.

Again with the quiet nod. Gaara seemed ill-at-ease in the crowd, and the older boy understood why: Gaara wasn't used to much social interaction. Kankuro stayed at his side as though he were a bulwark, wishing he could help his little brother adjust to being a member of humanity.

When they reached the dart booth, the vender froze momentarily. "C-can I help you, Kankuro-sama?"

Kankuro held out his money. "A round for two people."

The vender accepted the money and handed over the darts with shaking hands, his gaze more on Gaara than Kankuro.

Kankuro ignored him and took the darts, giving a set to his brother. "You go first."

Gaara accepted the darts and took aim. The game required hitting balloons on a spinning wheel, and he frowned with concentration. He always relied on ninjutsu in battle, so his shuriken- and kunai-throwing skills were average and maintained only by Baki's insistence. His mental aim was impeccable since he used sand shuriken in battle, but his physical aim still needed work.

Kankuro smiled faintly when Gaara only hit three out of five. "Not bad for someone who usually refuses to train with common weapons."

"Hn." Gaara stepped back, making room for his brother. "I suppose I should refine those skills just in case I have to fight after being chakra-drained."

"Definitely." Kankuro took careful aim. He was adult enough to admit he was a sore loser unless his opponent was powerful. With games of skill, though, he refused to lose; he'd been brushing up his kunai-throwing for a week. With several flicks of his wrist, he popped all five balloons. "Heh! Got 'em."

The vender grinned and bowed. "Well done, Kankuro-sama. Please choose a prize."

Kankuro paused and considered the wall of prizes: candy, cheap jewelry, and stuffed animals. "Uh…" Usually he took candy prizes, having no use for the other two, but he suddenly remembered that Gaara had loved teddy bears as a young child. He eyed the bears, noticing one that was crimson with bright green eyes. Kankuro wondered how Gaara would react if he got him a teddy bear. Would he think it was silly?

Kankuro glanced at his brother. "What do you think? Anything stand out to you?"

"It's your prize." Gaara's expression remained impassive, but his gaze had settled on the bears.

Kankuro wasn't sure if that indicated faint interest or sadness at past memories. "I'm giving the prize to you. Today's your celebration, after all."

This won him a slightly wide-eyed look again. "Oh. I —" Gaara paused. "I don't like candy much."

Turning back, Kankuro asked the vender for the crimson bear, which he then stuffed under one arm and carried, figuring Gaara would refuse to. He felt embarrassed hauling around a stuffed animal, but he forced himself not to care. "So, where to next?"

Gaara stared at the ground as he walked, staying close to his brother's side. "Whatever you want."

"Come on. Isn't there anything you'd like to try?" Kankuro wanted to make sure he had a good time.

Gaara paused, his gaze falling on a stand ten feet to their left. "Ice cream. Temari and you rarely buy it."

"I should've known." Kankuro grinned; ice cream was basically the only sweet thing Gaara would eat. "Okay, let's get some."

The younger boy nodded, his expression easing into something close to pleased. Kankuro followed him over to the busy booth, where a group of teens around Temari's age was clustered around the vender.

The elderly man was trying to calm them. "One at a time. I have plenty of ice cream, I promise."

"Double scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough," one girl demanded.

"I was first," a boy cut in, "and I want a triple scoop of strawberry sherbet."

The vender sighed, then looked up and caught sight of Gaara approaching. He blanched and dropped the cone he held. "Sa—sa—sabaku no . . . Gaara . . ."

Gaara halted dead in his tracks four feet away. The teens turned and gasped.

"It's him. . ."

"What does he want?"

"We should get outta here!"

The teens scurried away, fear evident on their faces. Gaara's gaze dropped to the ground, his brow furrowing with obvious pain.

Kankuro frowned and approached the booth. "Hey, old man."

The vender trembled. "Y-yes?"

"We want ice cream." Kankuro's tone was brusque, his irritation making his request sound like a command. "I'll take a double scoop of mint chocolate chip." He glanced over his shoulder. "And Gaara wants . . ."

For a moment, Gaara didn't speak, then he mumbled, "Two scoops of green tea."

Kankuro glanced back at the merchant. "You heard him."

He nodded, and with shaking hands, he prepared their orders. Kankuro paid him and took the ice cream, handing Gaara's cone to him.

"Let's find a good vantage point for the fireworks," the older boy said, pretending nothing untold had happened.

"A rooftop," Gaara replied, frowning at his ice cream as they walked.

Kankuro sighed. "Don't let it get to you, man. You've made excellent progress so far."

"It's nothing." Gaara's expression eased into its usual impassiveness. "I got used to it years ago."

It was Kankuro's turn to frown. Everything about it struck him as wrong: that Gaara pretended not to care; that Gaara was subjected to it at all; that he himself, as a young child, had run from Gaara in the same way. "I'm sorry."

The younger boy glanced at him, but his tone was as emotionless as always. "For what?"

"For failing to be your brother until now." Not giving him a chance to respond, Kankuro ran ahead of Gaara, then turned back and pointed at a water tower. "How about there? That's one of the highest points in the village, and no one can force us to share it, either."

Gaara was staring after him. "Hn?" He followed the direction of his brother's finger. "Sure."

Kankuro turned back around just in time to avoid running into a group of new genin. "Hey! Sorry."

The group — two girls and a boy — grinned at him.

"It's okay, Kankuro-dono," the first girl said.

Kankuro stared at them, stunned by how young twelve-year-olds seemed to him now that he'd turned sixteen. "Hey . . . don't I know you guys from somewhere?"

The boy nodded, but the two girls were staring past him at Gaara.

"Gaara-sensei!" the first one squealed, blushing.

"Konbanwa, Gaara-sensei!" the second one yelled, clasping her hands and hopping up and down.

Kankuro felt an instant headache coming on. He's first seen this behavior from the younger girls only three months earlier, but it seemed to be becoming more commonplace.

"Konbanwa," Gaara replied in a soft, low voice.

The girls squealed and raced up to him, almost into his face. They spoke to him so quickly they almost interrupted each other and tumbled over each other's sentences:

"It's nice to see you at the festival!"

"Are you having a good time?"

"Is that green tea ice cream? That's my favorite!"

"Are you looking forward to the fireworks? They should start any minute now!"

"I love your yukata! It looks so nice on you!"

"Do you think we'll get a mission tomorrow?"

"Do you think we could get a C-rank mission? D-ranks are so boring!"

Kankuro watched with some amusement as Gaara backed up a step, trying to re-secure his personal space. Still, he patiently replied to one in three of their questions — whichever ones he got the opportunity to answer.

"They're making such fools out of themselves," the boy whispered to Kankuro.

Kankuro shared a small smile with him. "Yeah, totally. How does Gaara put up with that?"

The boy shrugged. "I dunno. But he's never gotten mad at them."

Kankuro took a bite of his ice cream and pondered that revelation. His younger brother really had come a long way and in a fairly short amount of time. "That's gotta take patience."

"You said it," the boy replied, then he walked up to the two girls. "Hey, you guys, we need to catch up with my parents, or we won't get free dango before the fireworks."

The girls looked torn between the promise of free food and the chance to talk to (or at) their sensei. However, Gaara used the opportunity to extract himself from the girls and reach his brother. "Let's go."

Kankuro nodded and hopped up to the nearest balcony, then vaulted from that to a low roof, then a higher roof, and finally up to the water tower. Gaara followed close behind.

The older boy took a seat and waited until his brother did the same before speaking. "Heh. See, I told you things were changing. You're getting mobbed by hormonal twelve-year-olds."

Gaara raised both hairless brows but otherwise didn't respond. He took a bite of his ice cream and turned his attention to the sky.

Kankuro laughed but didn't goad him any further. They finished their ice cream in peaceable silence, then Kankuro handed the teddy bear to his brother. "Here ya go. An odd gift, I guess, but congratulations on making chunin."

He accepted the bear, holding it at arm's length and frowning at it. A hint of sadness ghosted across his features. "Teddy bears were . . ."

"Were?" Kankuro prompted, concerned.

". . . You're better." Gaara set the bear in his lap and watched as the first series of fireworks painted the sky. Golden starbursts, crimson pinwheels, and indigo flowers arched overhead and showered downward, preceded by echoing pops.

"I'm better?" Kankuro mumbled to himself, turning his attention to the fireworks as well. Better than what?He pondered the problem for a minute, and in his mind, he recalled his brother as a young child, standing all alone with a teddy bear as his only friend.

Shocked, the older boy glanced at Gaara, who observed with the faintest smile the cascading sparks. For a moment, he hurt for the child from whom everyone had fled, including himself. But he wasn't running away now. He scooted closer to his younger brother, letting their shoulders touch, and watched the show with him. Gaara jerked faintly at the move, then settled back into place, leaving their shoulders touching. A year ago such a gesture would have been impossible: Kankuro wouldn't have offered it, and even if he had, Gaara would have rejected it. Now, though . . . now Kankuro was beginning to believe he might get to have a little brother after all.

To him, the fireworks seemed to be the perfect celebration.

A/N: Thank you to Darkhelmetj for betareading and to everyone who reads and reviews. To be very blunt, I've been depressed, and all my efforts at writing ceased. I'll resume "The Great of These is Love" as soon as my energy will allow.

Further explanation, jic: A "kotatsu" is a type of low wooden table with a heat source underneath and with a futon under the top to trap heat; in the summer the futon is removed (think of scenes from Fruba).