A/N: Back to Gaara's POV!
Chapter Four: Do You Still Love Me?
In the moonlight, I walked the hallways. Like hundreds of previous nights, I passed silently through the darkness, any sound my bare feet could have made hidden under the dull roar of Suna's winds. Foreigners often believed the desert was lifeless, especially at night, but as one awake continually, I knew it was a fallacy. The wind whistling in the eaves masked more than my footsteps; it cloaked the scuttling of beetles, the calling of hawks, and the growling of hyenas.
I knew these hallways well enough to transverse them in pitch blackness; my feet knew the feel of the cool wood. Each corner, each door, each window . . . I knew them all. I had stared at them, paced through them — crept, run, raced. Even as the family outcast, this mansion had become my home, too, so I'd spent my sleepless nights here. Now I was the lord of it. Godaime Kazekage. As long as I lived, my siblings and I had the right to dwell here, our occupancy unbroken between my father's death and my ascension.
Yes, I could have walked these hallways backwards in my sleep . . . and sleep was the problem. I hadn't recovered enough from my illness to work, and I'd passed out shortly after nightfall. But the chiming clock — a wooden monolith in my bedroom corner — marked midnight when I awakened from my first nightmare. Sleep was not my friend, especially right now. Especially since I'd hurt Kankuro that morning.
So it was to Kankuro whom I retreated — the first person in my life to tell me that he loved me. My uncle, Yashamaru, had once claimed my mother had loved me, only to retract the statement and say she'd cursed me. Kankuro, though . . .
I hesitated at his bedroom door. No matter what he said, I believed I was burdening him. Yet I had the sensation he'd be further hurt if I didn't seek his advice. Wanting to be a brother — a good brother — I ignored the contradictory nature of depriving him of sleep so he could feel useful. I raised my fist and tapped on the door. "Kankuro?"
Uncomfortable with my intrusion, I paused a moment further, but no reply came. Concerned, I reached out with my senses, but his chakra's soft buzz wasn't warming the room beyond. Where had he gone? At the supper table, it'd been obvious he'd been as exhausted as I was.
I heard a gasp to my left, followed by a noise I'd hoped not to hear again for many years: retching. Suspicious, I turned toward the bathroom, quickly closing the distance between the two doors. "Kankuro?" I called through the bathroom door. More retching sounds. This time I did feel his chakra; it was weak and distressed.
Without preamble, I threw open the door. Kankuro slapped the toilet handle and glanced over his shoulder at me. He was collapsed on the floor, one arm propped on the toilet rim, his face pale and sweaty.
I felt lanced with guilt. "I passed my illness to you." As if he hadn't suffered enough over me!
Kankuro snorted. "I'm not usually so susceptible. I've never caught anything from Temari no matter how sick she got. Since I was poisoned and nearly died, though . . ." He shrugged. "I guess my immune system is as shot as yours is."
My mind scrambled, trying to recall everything he'd done for me the night before. I grabbed a washcloth and wetted it, then knelt by him, wiping the sweat from his face.
Kankuro grinned weakly. "Heh. You'll find that I'm a terrible patient." He slumped against the wall. "And, really, it's not as bad as it seems."
I crawled after him as he moved and crouched by him again, wiping the sweat off his neck. "'Not as bad?' You were vomiting."
He leaned back his head and stared at the ceiling. "Fair enough. I actually hate to vomit. I'm a big wimp about it." He smirked. "No one likes it, I guess. It feels unnatural or something. But I really hate it. I'll go out of my way to try to avoid it."
"That's understandable." I frowned at him, worried. "I have some medicine left in my room. Could you make it to my bedroom? You could rest on my bed, and my toilet would be closer."
Kankuro's brow furrowed, drawing his eyebrows close together. "I — I think I can make it. I've already puked four times, so I doubt there's anything left in my stomach, anyway."
Shocked, I opened my mouth to speak, but the words died in my throat. How long had he been here suffering alone? "Okay," I said instead, standing and setting the washcloth on the sink. I turned back and offered him my hand.
He grasped it without complaint and let me pull him to his feet. I could feel a tremor in his arm, and I could tell his legs were weak as well. Not giving him the chance to decline, I pulled his arm over my shoulders with one hand and then wrapped my other arm around his waist. "Let's go," I told him.
Kankuro sighed softly, and it sounded like a mix of irritation and resignation. "Okay."
I helped him to my room, and he immediately took position by the toilet because, as he explained, "my stomach might decide to pull more stupid stunts, jan."
I left him hovering in the bathroom and walked to my desk, where I'd left my medicine. Several packets were in the box, and some water remained in the pitcher. I frowned at the glass as I fixed a dose for Kankuro. He had raised his mask again — his punk attitude and off-hand style of speech. He was hiding his suffering behind a show of strength. It wasn't so much a bluff, because he was genuinely strong, as an over-extension of the truth. I recognized this performance and wondered how much I was to blame for it. Two nights in a row, he'd tossed aside his mask, spoken to me in a kind voice I barely recognized. And this morning, I had . . .
Retching sounds interrupted my thoughts. I picked up the medicine cup and carried it into the bathroom, setting it on the sink. A weird form of déjà vu struck me, a perfect mirror image of role reversal. Suddenly I understood how he felt when he'd returned with medicine only to find me vomiting already. I jerked up a washcloth, wetted it, and knelt by him as he flushed the toilet.
He gave me a crooked smile. "I'm puking stuff I don't remember eating." His brow furrowed. "Plus stuff I should have digested days ago. I don't get it."
The mask. I sighed and ran the cool cloth over his forehead, feeling his body heat through the rag and leaving his bangs damp. His fever must have gotten high. "It is strange," I admitted, but even to myself, I sounded distracted. "Kankuro . . ." How did I tell him it was safe? I knew better than anyone the agony of watching everyone run away and abandon me; I had accidentally dealt him a severe blow that morning. In the process, I'd seen a side of him I doubted few others had seen — an openly passionate, caring streak. Now, though . . .
Kankuro was watching me with a raised eyebrow. "Hm?"
I shook my head and grabbed the cup from the sink. "Drink this. It's that really strong medicine you brought me last night."
"Thanks." Kankuro accepted the glass and downed its contents in one gulp.
I wondered how wise it was for him to drink it so fast, but after several moments he sighed deeply and his shoulders relaxed.
"Better," he murmured, handing the cup back to me. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes.
I returned the glass to the sink, but I found myself feeling deeply frustrated. I wanted to take care of Kankuro, to assist him the way he had me. I wanted him to drop the mask again, to understand I wasn't going to reject him, and yet I knew I wasn't an overly demonstrative person to begin with. With his mask in the way, I wondered if I could dare trying to show affection.
"Because you're mine."
The words shot through my mind. I glanced at Kankuro, knowing he counted me as his brother, as someone worthy of love, despite our past. He wasn't counting my previous aggression against me; he had stopped seeing me as a monster long ago. I wanted nothing more than to reach out to him, but past hugging him this morning in a fit of desperation, I had no idea how. To get beyond his mask again, though, perhaps my only choice was to explain myself.
"Can you make it to my bed?" I asked quietly.
Kankuro opened his eyes, which seemed a bit bleary. "Sure, man."
I held out my hand again, and he allowed me to pull him to his feet once more. I helped him to the bed, where he collapsed immediately. I pulled the covers up, tucking him in, then sat on the edge of the bed. "Kankuro?"
His eyes had started to drift closed, but he opened them and focused on me. "What's up?"
Although I felt wrong disturbing him, the issue wouldn't let me rest. "I . . . want to explain."
He cocked one eyebrow.
I glanced toward the circular window, through which faint moonlight poured. "I wasn't actually —" I paused, unsure how much I should reveal. "I didn't want to run away from you. I had the urge to, yes, but it had nothing to do with you. Or . . . that's not true. I didn't want to burden you. But I just didn't know how to respond."
"Respond?" He sounded confused.
"It's —" Where did I begin? With the nightmares? But the nightmares were based on real life experiences. "What did our father say when Yashamaru died?"
Kankuro frowned. "He just said you killed him. That's all. He never explained the circumstances, if that's what you mean."
I sighed. "I figured as much." That was me, the monster. "The truth is that Father sent Yashamaru to assassinate me. When I crushed him, I didn't even know who was attacking me." I paused, suddenly nauseated at the memory. Or perhaps my stomach still wasn't handling food well.
Kankuro stared at the ceiling. "Somehow I'm not surprised. It sounds like something Father would do." He grimaced. "Did he even give Uncle Yashamaru a choice?"
For a moment, the memory of that dark night eclipsed my mind: the smell of hot sand mixed with blood; the burn as I vomited and cried; the numbing horror as my small world shattered . . . then reformed itself in hatred and rage. "Yes, he had the choice." My voice sounded fainter than I'd intended.
Kankuro frowned and reached up, squeezing my forearm.
I jumped faintly, then realized my brother was trying to comfort me in the midst of his illness. Wasn't I supposed to be comforting him? I shook my head. "Yashamaru had told me that . . . that our mother loved me. That her love was in the sand that protected me." I paused. The memory hurt more than I thought it would. "After I pulled away the cloth covering his face and discovered it was him, he said he'd tried to love me, but he couldn't. He couldn't forgive me for killing the sister he loved so much." I stopped, trapped in the crushing pain of a ghost's hate.
Kankuro took my hand in his. "I'm sorry. I don't remember much about Uncle Yashamaru. Since he was your 'keeper,' I barely ever saw him. Father kept Temari and me away from both of you."
"I . . . know that now." I gathered my thoughts. "But as he died, Yashamaru also said our mother never loved me. She didn't want me, cursed me and the village, and named me 'Gaara' because she hoped I would avenge her."
Kankuro listened silently. Intensely. He always had, even the first time I'd confided in him. He didn't interrupt or turn away. Somehow, he'd always cared. It was a great mystery.
"The reason I'm telling you this story . . ." I paused, uncomfortable. " . . . is to explain what happened this morning." Unable to hold Kankuro's gaze, I turned to stare out the window, where a crescent moon hung offset with a bright star — perhaps a planet. "Every time I sleep, I have nightmares based on those memories." I couldn't look back to Kankuro, couldn't meet his eyes. "Sometimes, Yashamaru is replaced by you in some fashion or another."
Kankuro squeezed my hand again.
"When I woke up this morning, I thought over everything that happened between the day Yashamaru betrayed me and now. About the person I used to be. And about the fact I still understand so little." I stopped, unsure how to explain my fears or the pain that burned in my stomach when I imagined Kankuro betraying me or discarding me — someone who had little to offer on a personal level and was, perhaps, more a burden than anything.
"Gaara . . ."
Kankuro's voice was soft again, the punk veneer gone. The special voice had returned. I wondered if he really only used that voice with me, and for a painful moment, I was jealous with the need to be the only one. It was wrong of me, I knew, but it hit me so suddenly how very much I needed — wanted — his love.
"Gaara, I may not remember Uncle Yashamaru well, but the mere fact he tried to kill his six-year-old nephew for something that wasn't your fault . . ." He shook his head. "Or Mom, who I don't remember at all . . ." He sighed. "It has nothing to do with you. If that's true about Mom, then she died raging in anger. She never had the chance to feel anything more. And apparently Uncle Yashamaru couldn't see you as yourself because he let his grief eat him alive."
I frowned, hurt by the memory.
"But their failings are their own, not yours and not mine." Kankuro lifted his other hand and clasped my hand between both of his. "I am not them. What I wanted was an ototo. What I wanted to see all this time . . . is you."
Although I started to reply, no words came forth. No reply could be made. The circle of his love . . .
"I have no one to avenge," Kankuro continued. "Not my sister and not myself. You chose to become someone new, to reclaim your life and walk a different path. The person I'm looking at is you, and I'm proud of you."
My face felt warm. "Kankuro . . ." The circle of his love began and ended with me. "Why? How?" How had I earned his love? "Isn't there a saying, 'you reap what you sow'? What have I sown in you to deserve this?"
"About three years of hard work to overcome yourself." Kankuro smiled — a crooked one. "But that's not the point. The point is what I am sowing in you. You said earlier you didn't know how to be a brother, but if I show you how, won't I reap what I sow?"
Turning my stare to my lap, I realized he had, indeed, beaten me at my own logical analysis. He was right. As clueless as I was, I had immediately begun taking care of him when I found him vomiting, just like he'd taken care of me. I hadn't even thought about it — I'd just done it automatically based on his example.
Kankuro tugged me down onto the bed. "Sleep, ototo. We're both still sick, and we both need rest. I'll still be here in the morning — in every sense."
Feeling my face flush further, I settled onto the mattress and wrapped my arm around him this time, holding him close. I realized why he never showed this face to anyone — apparently, except, his siblings when they were ill or badly injured. He was precious. To feel this much care for others, he had no choice but to hide his true self behind a mask, a tough performance, or people would try to take advantage of him. More to the point, anything perceived as "softness" or "weakness" by Suna shinobi would get one killed.
Since I was still new to physical touch, I readjusted my position several times before willing myself to relax. At least Kankuro seemed to understand my explanation, and more importantly, he didn't seem put off by it. He had a gift I didn't have — yet. He understood things I didn't, but as a result, he possessed a mercy I didn't understand.
Pondering that mystery and the blessing it contained, I drifted to sleep.
I awakened abruptly, jolted from sleep as though I'd been stabbed. My body remained frozen, my heartbeat racing for several long moments until I realized I wasn't actually in danger. Then I exhaled, willing myself to relax.
A nightmare. Again.
Shadows bunched and bulged in the ceiling corners, unaffected by the pale moonlight filtering through my window. I frowned. Something was wrong. What —
I bolted upright. Kankuro was gone.
"Don't assume," I whispered to myself. I felt the sheets beside me. Cold. "Don't assume." I glanced around the room but saw nothing.
No, I couldn't bow to this fear. I had to trust my brother. He had been at my side for years, and his behavior over the last few days had been extraordinary. At some point, I had to push beyond old wounds and build myself a future. So where had Kankuro gone this time? There had to be a rational explanation.
Retching sounds floated out of the bathroom.
"Of course," I muttered, feeling silly. I climbed from the bed and made another cup of medicine, which I carried into the bathroom.
Kankuro flushed the toilet as I entered the room and then gave me a wan smile. "Just when I thought I was done, jan." He sighed. "Where is my stomach even getting this stuff?"
I knelt by him and gave him the cup. "You could have vomited up the medicine you took earlier."
He stared at the cup. "Right." He sipped slowly this time.
Standing, I grabbed the washcloth and wetted it again. See? I told myself. He didn't leave you. He's not lying to you. I glanced at him as he leaned against the bathroom wall and sipped more medicine. No, he wasn't lying. But he'd already erected his mask again. I'd explained myself, but he still defaulted to his punk persona. "How long have you been in here?" I asked, kneeling by him again and wiping his forehead. "The bed was cold."
He nodded faintly. "Awhile. I'm not sure. Feels like forever."
"I didn't even feel you move," I said quietly. "That's rather disturbing. You moved me while I was asleep, and I didn't even register it."
Kankuro's brow furrowed. "Yeah, well, last night you slept that soundly, too. It may be just the way you sleep when you're ill. Then again, it could be the way you sleep, period. We don't know yet." He frowned. "If so, we'll have to assign a guard to your bedroom door at night. Since Temari and I were both trained to sleep lightly, we wake up easily at any sound. But you . . ."
"Yes. It presents a problem." I took the empty glass from him and set it, along with the washcloth, on the sink.
"So what did wake you up? The sound of me puking my guts out again?"
I glanced at him, then hesitated. "No." Might as well be honest. "I had another nightmare."
Kankuro's frown deepened. "About Yashamaru?"
"In a way." I stared upward at the small, circular window that allowed moonlight to cast the room into a soft glow. "It was . . . more like the nightmare I had the first night." Could I tell him? If I couldn't, why should I expect him to drop his mask for me? "You and Temari couldn't figure out why I was alive and wished I'd leave or let myself be buried."
He snorted, then patted the floor beside him. "Temari's like me. She sees you for you. In fact, I think she understands you better than I do. Always has." He sighed. "When we were kids, she'd clamp her hand over my mouth because she'd figure out you were on the homicidal path before I did. Now she says that in essence you're both rational thinkers who don't grasp the nuances of emotion well."
Sitting by him, I watched his face as he talked. A certain sorrow glazed his eyes. "I suppose she's right," I replied. "Emotions don't always make sense to me. I don't intuit them well." I thought back to the day I'd died and the way Temari had leaned over me, looking so concerned after I'd awakened. She'd checked on me multiple times the rest of the day until she seemed satisfied that I really was fine. Kankuro was right. She cared for me equally.
Kankuro laughed weakly. "Well, that's our sister, jan. Analytical, strategic, and willing to kick the ass of anyone who crosses her." A small, sad smile bent his lips. "But for someone who claims not to have ready empathy, she sure is insightful."
Ready empathy. I reached up, touched my fingers to Kankuro's cheek. That was his strength — emotion and empathy. He did understand them. He probably grasped and understood my emotions better than I did. Although he was one of the most brutal, merciless shinobi I knew, when it came to his village, his family . . . under all the layers of punk attitude, he cared. He cared, I realized, so much it hurt. And it was the power of his care I wanted.
He glanced at me when I touched him. "Hm?"
I ran my fingertips over his face, tracing his cheek, his nose, his chin — the places he drew his paint. "No mask," I whispered.
Kankuro raised an eyebrow. "What?"
I didn't know any other way to tell him except to be blunt. "The mask. You don't need it with me." My throat constricted with my need to explain, for him to see. "I may not understand emotion well, but when I look at you, I don't want to watch your performance. I want to see you for you."
His gaze locked with mine — a shocked stare. "G-Gaara?" He captured my hand, although he didn't bother to lower it from his face. "I'm not pretending to be anyone but myself when I'm around you."
"That's not what I mean," I whispered, desperate for him to understand. "The punk attitude you always have — you don't need it around me." Emotions were hard to grasp and harder to voice. "If you love me because I'm yours, then you must accept that I will love you because you're mine. If you are my keeper, then I am yours, too. The person you are . . ." Wanting to underscore my point, I pulled my hand from his and touched his chest over his heart. "I admire."
Scared to see his reaction to my admission, I stared at my hand. I couldn't explain it any better than that. His strength came from a place I didn't understand, but it had been behind me, protecting me, for years. Even before I cared, he had been the one to carry me if I were chakra-exhausted. The barrier of fear that had once separated us was gone, but even when it had existed, he had shown concern. The weight of that fear had not broken the bond he had with me — or rather the bond he wanted.
Long moments of painful silence hung between us, then Kankuro wrapped his arm around me. This time, I took the initiative, and mirroring all he'd done for me, hugged him tightly. It didn't feel as odd as I feared it would, and I realized that with the truth of his feelings laid bare for me, I was adjusting quickly to physical affection. The stiffness I'd experienced earlier that day had faded away.
At first, he said nothing, simply rubbing one hand up and down my back until I felt warm and drowsy. "Don't bother to have nightmares about me abandoning you," he finally whispered. "It was never gonna happen before, but it definitely won't now."
"You're mine?" I mumbled, my hazy brain still nagging me for clarification.
A pause. "Of course. It goes both ways."
I could tell he was still struggling against his mask, but it didn't bother me. He knew he was safe with me now. We leaned into each other, and I closed my eyes, listening to his heartbeat — a slow, steady rhythm. "Good." I knew I was going to fall asleep again, but this time I didn't care. I felt safe, almost as though my brother's strength could pervade my dreams and hold the nightmares at bay. I hoped he felt the same.
It's strange, I thought as I drifted to sleep, that dying can actually turn out to be a good thing.
A/N: Thank you to everyone who has supported this story with reviews, favs, and/or alerts. I would have never made it 4 chapters without that, especially since this was supposed to be a one-shot.
Thank you to Darkhelmetj for beta-reading.
I think this story has drawn to a close now, so I'll consider it complete. If I did decide to add on to it, it would probably be in the form of a sequel. But let's just wait and see what happens to my muse over Christmas Break.
"Dances with Shinobi" chapter 3 will be posted next.