Part 6, Final Act: As The Curtain Falls

He hadn't been standing on the balcony for more than ten minutes before Kankuro appeared. Normally his brother moved on silent feet, a shadow within a shadow; but he made the slightest scuff with the edge of his well worn sandal, a warning. I am coming, he was saying, and if you don't want me here, then show me. But Gaara didn't twitch. Kankuro came up behind him and the Kazekage noted with surprise that Karasu was draped over his shoulders.

"He didn't want to be left out." Was the only explanation Kankuro offered.

"How did you know where to look?" Gaara asked, hating how dull- how pre-chunin exam- his voice sounded.

"Highest point in Sunakagure. You can feel the wind, see the sand and the village, and you don't have to warn the ANBU that you're headed to the Wall." Kankuro leaned against the railing. "You're a creature of habit, little brother."

"Why?" Gaara turned, glaring at Kankuro, who looked calmly back at him.

"Why what?" the puppeteer responded patiently. "Remember Baki's rules, Gaara. You won't get the right answer..."

"Unless you ask the right question." Gaara finished the saying that had been drilled into them time and time again. "Fine, then. Why did you refuse the mission?"

Kankuro straightened up; Gaara almost flinched as two long fingers slid under his chin, forcing him to look up the five or so inches that separated him from his much taller brother. The look on Kankuro's face wasn't one Gaara recognized; it was amusement and love and perhaps guilt all rolled into one.

"It wasn't just one reason, bro." Kankuro said quietly. "There were a few."

"Then tell me." Gaara demanded. "Write me a book if you have to, Kankuro."

The puppet-nin smiled. "I don't think it'll take quite that long." He said, releasing Gaara and leaning against the railing. Karasu settled between them, leaning against his master's leg as Kankuro tilted his head back. "Stars are pretty tonight." He said absently.

"Kankuro."

"I was afraid." Kankuro said bluntly. "You know it and I know it so it's pointless to try and hide it." His eyes hardened. "But I was NEVER afraid of you, Gaara." He continued. "But then.. it wasn't you. It was Him. I was a kid. I knew I couldn't handle something like Shukaku and I'd die trying. You'd made it perfectly clear by then that I wasn't anything to you and neither was Temari."

At Gaara's look Kankuro caught his eyes and held them, expression serious. "That was a long time ago, Gaara." He said. "You've changed. But this was then." He sat up a little straighter.

"You said there was more than one reason." Gaara replied. Kankuro nodded.

"So I did." He said, and suddenly he seemed weary. "Gaara...he was asking me to kill you. It might have been a mission assigned by the Kazekage but he was still telling me to end the life of someone I-" he bit his lip.

"Someone you what?" Gaara asked, suddenly urgent; he needed this answer, more than he needed anything else.

"Someone I love."

The words were almost snatched away by the harsh desert wind, but Gaara heard them; and he stared with wide eyed wonder as Kankuro's hands tightened on the railing.

"I was a shitty older brother." Kankuro sounded harsher now, as though he was forcing out something he'd been holding inside for years. "I know I was, but damn it, he was telling me to murder my sibling! And even though you didn't think I was...was worthy of your time you were still a member of my TEAM! Everything Baki ever taught us- everything this village holds dear, honor to a teammate, strength, truth- he was throwing them all back in my face for the rule of 'always taking the mission'!"

Gaara blinked in surprise and alarm as Karasu began clicking rapidly. Temari had explained it, after their mission to rescue Konoha's genin. Kankuro had been disturbed by the state he had found his rescuee in, and when Temari had attempted to place a hand on his shoulder- a gesture Gaara later recognized as one that was meant to comfort- Karasu's bundle had begun making that same noise.

'it's something a puppet will do, Gaara, especially a puppeteer's main weapon. Karasu's so chock full of Kankuro's chakra that when something happens- when Kankuro's angry, or sad, or even sick- he will react. It's a little like throwing a rock into a sand dune and the grains going all over. The clicking noise, it's a warning that puppeteers use for one another, like a snake's rattle.'

Gaara remembered being vaguely ashamed that he'd never realized how close Kankuro and his puppet were, though throughout his life he could pinpoint many instances of his brother treating the weapon better than he did most people.

Thank you, he uttered silently to the wooden monstrosity and quickly closed the gap between them, stepping carefully over Karasu's arms to enfold his brother in some semblance of a hug. Physical contact was something that Gaara had only recently become aquainted with- and only then because Temari had tentatively begun to hug him more.

It was awkward, it was scratchy, and it made Gaara feel more than a little claustrophobic but none of that mattered. Kankuro's arms wrapped around him, and his older brother's head rested with a soft thud on his collarbone as the Sand rose up, assessing the threat and then settling back down.

"I couldn't do it." Kankuro whispered into his coat. "Even if I wasn't your brother you were still mine."

He caught Gaara's gaze. "My heart's not big enough." He whispered dully. "Miyagi..those villagers..Genji's Players...none of them mattered. I couldn't care about them. I didn't have it in me to care." He brushed a stray hair out of Gaara's face, away from the dark red 'ai' scar over his eye. "You are worth more than all of them." Kankuro whispered into Gaara's ear. "And I'd do it a hundred times over again if it meant I could turn that mission down."

My most precious people...

"Am I..?" Gaara whispered, digging his fingernails into Kankuro's shoulders. "Am I a precious person?"

Despite himself, Kankuro had to smile, and his mind wandered back- over the sand that he'd taken for the Miyagi assassination, fearing for his life the entire time; over the listening he'd done while fighting the faceworm, moving his body in time to an imaginary Gaara in the middle of a sabaku-formed sandstorm; to the color of Naraku and Kaede's scarves, and his idle thought that they reminded him so much of his siblings.

A soft rustle of coarse fabric heralded Karasu loosely wrapping his four arms around Gaara's back, as Kankuro's own limbs draped over his shoulder. The sand rasped harshly, an automatic reaction reigned in as Gaara stared at Kankuro.

A thin string stretched between them; ties of blood and brotherhood that neither really understood but didn't want to let go of. The older brother's painted forehead hit his Kazekage's with a soft thud, and even through the paint, Gaara knew that the smile wasn't one that could be acted.

He must have smiled that way every time he came back alive. Every time he turned the mission down again.

"Yes." Kankuro said softly. "You are."

Behind Gaara, Karasu chirped in agreement.

oOo

The paths were long, masterfully done; a powerful opponent had done this.

Kankuro glared at the many different trails, thin chakra strings lifting from his fingertips, searching, searching- THERE!

The barest glimmer of his brother's chakra. That all-consuming power crammed into tiny grains, scattered on the ground as his sand armor began to wear off- tracks as clear as if Gaara had drawn a line in the sand.

"Am I a precious person?"

Kankuro readjusted the straps on his shoulders.

"Mission: Rescue-the-Kazekage-and-then-kick-his-ass-for-letting-himself-get-caught-in-the-first-place," He said to himself, khol-lined eyes narrowed grimly at the horizon. "Accepted."

Locked within their scrolls, his puppets clicked.

oOo

A/N: -falls over- It's done! God I never thought I'd do it. I can't say I'm entirely thrilled with this last chapter, but I hope it is warm-fuzzy enough for all of you, twas' my intention. Quick note on Karasu's clicking: I just thought it was an awesome idea. Someday I'll do something with just those puppets, who might as well be characters in their own right. You'd think by now I'd stop making stuff up about the puppeteers in Caithworld but I'm just having waayyy too much fun.